Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | November 3, 2006

Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz Clifford Geertz passed away on October 31, 2006 in Philadelphia. No doubt Indonesia owes much to this respected anthropologist. His book, “The Religion of Java,” is a pathbreaking ethnographic study of Islam in Indonesia, calling for observers to devote more attention on the reality of everyday Islam which is replete with categorical mixture of the ideal Islam and the practiced Islam. When Indonesian scholars were fascinated by structuralist and functionalist perspectives, Geertz introduced interpretive social science. His dictum of “looking over the native’s shoulder” has become a hallmark of ethnographic research that attempts to endow interpretive privilege on the local people. However, it is ironic that Indonesian anthropology has learned little from the Geertzian interpretive perspective, and hermeneutics, the key tool in interpretation, remains less favored in anthropological research in Indonesia. This perhaps owes to the fact that Geertz never took students from Indonesia, a reason that he never explained and that remained mysterious.

Geertz’s influential role in anthropology has been a subject of numerous studies. Sherry Ortner’s and Byron Good and Richard Schweder’s edited books discuss how various disciplines taught in US universities have borrowed from Geertz. In Indonesia, Ignas Kleden’s Ph.D. dissertation is the only comprehensive study on Geertz’s thoughts on economic and culture. Despite the abundant resources on Geertz, assessing how he helps shape the field of Indonesian studies and Indonesian anthropology remains an unfulfilled endeavor. Geertz’s life, which stayed aloft, detached from the passionate dynamics of Indonesian academic world and Indonesian scholars, unlike other Indonesianists, itself invites interpretive understanding. This, I think, is the task we must begin.



  1. How could you say “Religion of Java” is about Islam and Islam only? The three variants Geertz distuinguishes are Abangan, Santri, Priyayi. The first is a syncretist mix of Ancestral worship, Animism, and Islam. The third is described as a Hindu/Buddhist/Sufi mysticism. Only the second variant is Islam as it is practised. (Ideal Islam does not and cannot exist, being practised by fallible humans)

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