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Clifford Geertz on “Ideology” as an Analytical Term, Pt. 2 April 11, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences, Ideology of Science.
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This post continues Pt. 1 of a look at Clifford Geertz’s “Ideology as a Cultural System,” first published in Ideology and Its Discontents, ed. David E. Apter (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 47-76.

But, before returning to Geertz, I’d like to detour for a quick look at Erik Erikson (1902-1994).  In addition to being a psychologist, Erikson was part of an illustrious club of postwar intellectuals.  His Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958) was cited in a particularly broad literature in the ’60s and ’70s (here’s the Google ngram for “Young Man Luther”), and he was particularly important in establishing “identity” as a term of analysis.  Here’s his take on “ideology” and its relationship to “identity” from the introduction to that book (22):

In depicting the identity struggle of a young great man I am not as concerned with the validity of the dogmas which laid claim to him, or of the philosophies which influenced his systematic thought, as I am with the spiritual and intellectual milieu which the isms of his time — and these isms had to be religious — offered to his passionate search.

My focus, then, is on the ‘ideological.’  In modern history, this word has assumed a specifically political connotation, referring to totalitarian systems of thought which distort historical truth by methods ranging from fanatic self-deception to shrewd falsification and cold propaganda.  Karl Mannheim has analyzed this word and the process for which it stands from the sociological point of view.  In this book, ideology will mean an unconscious tendency underlying religious and scientific as well as political thought: the tendency at a given time to make facts amenable to ideas, and ideas to facts, in order to create a world image convincing enough to support the collective and the individual sense of identity.  Far from being arbitrary or consciously manageable (although it is as exploitable as all of man’s unconscious strivings), the total perspective created by ideological simplification reveals its strength by the dominance it exerts on the seeming logic of historical events, and by its influence on the identity formation of individuals (and thus on their ‘ego-strength’).  In this sense, this is a book on identity and ideology.

Frankly, I was expecting something like this from Geertz’s “effort to defuse” the term “ideology”, and to make it useful for social scientific analysis (“Ideology”, 52).  I thought ideology would connote for him something like a Weltanschauung, an anthropological “cosmos”, or a Kuhnian “paradigm” — a prototypical post-Marxist expression that “we are all ideological” and that the important thing is to be aware of our ideologies.

Actually, though, that was the essence of what Geertz called Mannheim’s Paradox, which he was trying to move beyond.  Geertz had a much more specific idea of ideology in mind, and, like Mannheim’s followers, he distinguished the study of ideology from the sociology of knowledge, albeit not in the same way that they did.

As noted in Pt. 1, Geertz advocated an analysis of ideologies as something other than weapons different interests use in an ongoing struggle for power, or as something individuals embrace to salve the tensions they feel arising from the “chronic malintegration” of society.  He suggested treating the actual content of ideology as holding specific meanings, as part of “an independent science of what [literary theorist] Kenneth Burke [1897-1993] has called* ‘symbolic action'” (57).  Here Geertz pulled together a range of interpretive projects into a general trend, including the philosophers Charles Peirce, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Ernst Cassirer; as well as linguists Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Geertz’s prospective science would develop a systematic knowledge of “how metaphor, analogy, irony, ambiguity, pun, paradox, hyperbole, rhythm, and all the other elements of what we lamely call ‘style’ operate” (57).  He argued that “concepts developed for the analysis of the more elevated aspects of culture — poetry, for example — are applicable to the more lowly ones without in any way blurring the enormous qualitative distinctions between the two” (60).

To make his point about what should be contained in such an analysis, he marshalled a “thoroughly trivial” example from Sutton et al‘s The American Business Creed (1956), which marked as an ideological distortion the description of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 as a “slave labor law”.  The label of “ideology” was merited, according to the authors, because it intentionally evaded any attempt to offer a properly nuanced appreciation of the law and its consequences.  According to Sutton and his co-authors (58):

By no dispassionate examination does the Act merit this label.  Any detached assessment of the Act would have to consider its many provisions individually.  On any set of values, even those of trade unions themselves, such an assessment would yield a mixed verdict.  But mixed verdicts are not the stuff of ideology.  They are too complicated, too fuzzy.  Ideology must categorize the Act as a whole with a symbol to rally workers, voters and legislators to action.

For Geertz, since it was apparent that the description “slave labor law” was neither intended nor understood as a literal description, simply labeling it ideological circumvented any inquiry into what meanings were actually being conveyed.  It was in these meanings that one could find what made audiences interpret (or not interpret) metaphors as apt, and thus studying what exactly might render (or fail to render) language effective in instigating action.

Geertz recognized that this led him “very quickly into quite deep water indeed”: it implied “a somewhat untraditional and apparently paradoxical theory of the nature of human thought as a public and not or at least not fundamentally, a private activity” (60).  He related this to what Eugene Galanter and the mathematician Murray Gerstenhaber called the “extrinsic theory” of human cognition.†

Geertz reckoned, “The sociology of knowledge ought to be called the sociology of meaning, for what is socially determined is not the nature of conception, but the vehicles of conception” (59).  The concern was not so much what made an expression correct with respect to reality.  Rather, “so-called ‘expressive’ symbols or symbol-systems” are the (62):

extrinsic sources of information in terms of which human life can be patterned — extrapersonal mechanisms for the perception, understanding, judgment, and manipulation of the world.  Culture patterns — religious, philosophical, aesthetic, scientific, ideological — are ‘programs’: they provide a template or blueprint for the organization of social and psychological processes, much as genetic systems provide such a template for the organization of organic processes.

For example, a poem about premature death provides a “symbolic model” of its “emotional impact,” which “transforms physical sensations into sentiments and attitudes and enables us to react to such a tragedy not ‘blindly’ but ‘intelligently'” (62).

Getting back to ideology, then, Geertz supposed that it was a template for understanding and action at times when existing templates had failed, “where institutionalized guides for behavior, thought, or feeling are weak or absent” (63).  It could certainly be negative and pathological, but it might also be inevitable, and, indeed, positive in times of social and political uncertainty.

Ideology was definitively not the same as a world-view, because it only arose in situations where stable patterns and “unexamined prejudices” (63) were disrupted.  But once these patterns were disrupted, it might be impossible to return to a non-ideological state, except through a long period of adjustment.  Thus, in the wake of the French Revolution — “at least up to its time, the greatest incubator of extremist ideologies, ‘progressive and ‘reactionary’ alike” (64) — Edmund Burke’s appeal to “ancient opinions and rules of life” was an ideology, simply because it was no longer an unarticulated assumption.  Ideology, then, was a response to “strain”, but the strain was cultural (when the meaning of words and concepts is threatened), at least as much as it was social and psychological.

Geertz then goes off into a long discussion of the peculiarities of the history of political regimes and disruptions, and the emergence of ideological factions in Indonesia (the location of his anthropological field work), which speaks to the particularity of Geertz’s notion of ideology as a well-defined analytical term.  However, that discussion will not detain us further here.

In the end, though, Geertz does define a space for “science” vis-à-vis “ideology”.  According to him,

By shunning the semantic devices that most effectively formulate moral sentiment, [science] seeks to maximize intellectual clarity.  But ideology names the structure of situations in such a way that the attitude contained toward them is one of commitment.  Its style is ornate, vivid, deliberately suggestive: By objectifying moral sentiment through the same devices that science shuns, it seeks to motivate action.  Both are concerned with the definition of a problematic situation and are responses to a felt lack of needed information.  But the information needed is quite different, even in cases where the situation is the same.  An ideologist is no more a poor social scientist than a social scientist is a poor ideologist [71].

But though science and ideology are different enterprises, they are not unrelated ones.  Ideologies do make empirical claims about the condition and direction of society, which it is the business of science (and, where scientific knowledge is lacking, common sense) to assess.  The social function of science vis-à-vis ideologies is first to understand them — what they are, how they work, what gives rise to them — and second to criticize them, to force them to come to terms with (but not necessarily to surrender to) reality.  The existence of a vital tradition of scientific analysis of social issues is one of the most effective guarantees against ideological extremism, for it proves an incomparably reliable source of positive knowledge for the political imagination to work with and to honor [72].

In Geertz’s conception, science is mainly defined by its postures, which distinguish it, albeit not firmly, from alternative activities.  His objective here was to contribute to the long project of rendering cultural anthropology a scientific enterprise, and his criticism was a means of doing so.  A scientific anthropology could not replace ideology, but it might complement it in useful ways.

I feel that historians of science as cultural analysts have perhaps half-adopted Geertz’s position in a peculiar way.  We are indeed keen to analyze things like metaphors in historical science, but mainly as a kind of a presupposition underlying scientific knowledge, but which is probably hidden beneath the authority of science, as bolstered by the existence of a prevalent ideology of science (which is both built out of scientists’ self-interest, and a product of the “strain” of their relationship with a turbulent society).  I would urge a deeper engagement with the uses and thus the meanings of metaphors, rather than a fascination with the mere fact of their existence.

I would also say, that in the aftermath of demarcationism, we have not been as keen as Geertz to distinguish scientific thought from other activities, though such distinctions are evident (if fluid).  The trouble here, I think, is primarily one of labels.  It is, of course, problematic and confusing to conduct “social science” to study “science” as a particular form of social and intellectual relations, even as historical actors scrambled to apply the terms “science” and “scientific” to their work and thought.  That doesn’t, however, mean the task, or a more sophisticated version of it, is not worthwhile, provided more satisfactory labels could be found.

*The reference here is to Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941).

†Eugene Galanter and Murray Gerstenhaber, “On Thought: The Extrinsic Theory,” Psychological Review 63 (1956): 218-227.  This connection is among a few points in this article where it is clear that in the early 1960s, the program of cultural interpretation of people like Geertz and formalized psychological theories were not so disparate in method and program as one might suppose (a battle of “thick” versus “thin” concepts of mind, for instance).  I’ll probably write more on this later, since it’s very pertinent to my main professional interests.  For the moment, though, it’s too much of a tangent.


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