Example Of Term Paper On Weber AND Geertz
When it comes to defining and constructing a theory of culture, Max Weber and Clifford Geertz agree that culture is constructed by man, who is “an animal suspended in the webs of significance he himself has spun” (Geertz, 5). In other words, culture is a human creation, and in order to understand any one particular culture, one has to look at how it has been built. While any theory of culture, is of course, biased in part by the culture of the theorist in question, each of these authors provides us with tools for deconstructing culture and finding meaning in it. Weber focuses on what he calls essential elements of society, while Geertz looks at how meaning is ascribed to objects and behaviors.
In his discussion on capitalism, Weber argues that as a practice, capitalistic enterprises are not exclusive to the modern West; exchanging goods and resources for profit is present in all societies. However, each society constructs a different reality of capitalism based on their values and beliefs. In order to understand the modern West as a unique culture, one must look at those characteristics of modern Western capitalism that are essential to it. He observes that contemporary capitalism in Europe and America possesses a feature that set it aside from any other sociohistorical period, specifically that the “every-day, wordly activity” of capitalism is infused with “a religious significance” (40). The meaning behind this phenomenon is what he is in search of when he attempts to find the “spirit of capitalism.”
Weber attributes this essential characteristic of capitalism to the rise of Protestant theology, which focuses on moral duty in one’s daily life. Prior to the Reformation, Christian beliefs encouraged adherents to turn away from worldly concerns. But under Luther’s interpretation, conducting yourself according to your calling in the material world was the key to earning favor with God. This was a dramatic paradigm shift which allowed for the rise of the particular brand of capitalism that Weber was investigating. Therefore, the tenets of Protestant religion are what justify the elevation of modern Western capitalism to an almost sacred institution in Weber’s view.
Geertz begins his search for a theory of culture with the same assumption as Weber: that culture is a man-made institution. However, rather than identifying essential characteristics, he investigates the realm semiotics, or how meaning is created in culture. He examines symbols and actions present in a culture in search of what they communicate to others within that culture. This communication is dependent on each symbol or action having a particular meaning that can be deciphered by the intended observer; these meanings are determined, of course, by the values and beliefs of the culture itself. According to Geertz, cultural theory is applied by identifying these symbols and the meaning behind them.
In his application of cultural theory, Geertz attempts to deconstruct the messages communicated in the complex culture of Balinese cock-fighting. More so than Weber, he views culture as something that is acted out and not just perceived in the mind. In fact, Geertz refers to culture as an “acted document” which can be translated and interpreted by anthropologists the same they would with ancient manuscripts (10). This process of translating actions and other symbols, which he refers to as ‘thick description,’ is his method of finding meaning in culture. He provides an interesting example of it his introduction to the culture in the section titles “Of Cocks and Men.” He explains that just as the word ‘cock’ is a symbol for both a rooster and a male sexual organ, the Balinese (and English) language, each of these objects are synonyms for male power (417). The possession of a virile rooster was just as much a communication of this idea as the possession of a virile member. This was, in his interpretation, the meaning of Balinese cock-fights, to compete for and display male power in a social acceptable manner.
Geertz differs from Weber in his application of cultural theory in that instead of using it to analyze his own culture, he employs it to examine one that he sees as very different from his own. In doing so, he moves himself a step further from the interpretation of the messages he seeks to identify. In a way, this is a strength and a weakness; it offers more objectivity while decreasing context. Because Geertz was not Balinese, he was able to view the cultural practices he was observing with a potentially more critical eye. On the other hand, because he was embedded in Western capitalism, Weber may have had a more complete understanding of the idiosyncrasies of his own culture.
However, if the goal of sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural theorists is to identify tools by which one can objectively study the various aspects of a culture, than Geertz’s method seems more reliable. In general, he seems more aware of the biases inherent in his own investigation of culture which are influenced, of course, by the culture to which he belongs. One way he expresses this in The Interpretation of Cultures is by clarifying that he is not actually attempting to find meaning in other cultures, but to construct it. This makes his methodology seem more cautious and critical than Weber’s. I also felt that he had a more clearly defined approach than Weber’s, which is not explicitly stated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.