Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | November 20, 2006

Geertz and Indonesian Anthropology

In my previous blog, I wrote a short note on Clifford Geertz’s influential contribution to anthropology. Geertz was no doubt a leading anthropologist and cultural theorist whose interests spanned over a wide range of issues. His work has influenced not only anthropology, but also other social science disciplines. Several books written by his colleagues in anthropology and other scholars attest to how Geertzian hermeneutics and interpretive method have shaped how social sciences perceive culture.

In the blog I wrote as a short obituary to Geertz, I touched a little bit upon the role he has played in shaping Indonesian studies as a field of study. Amid the various works on Geertz, however, only a few, if any, which devotes attention on the relationship between Geertz and the Indonesian studies. I argue there are two reasons for this lack of attention. Firstly, Geertz never referred to himself as an “area studies scholar.” His strong and long-time interest on Indonesia did not lead him to call himself a country specialist. Geertz’s early work on Islam shows that his interest lies more on a comparative angle, although most people will argue that he advocates a more relativistic approach. It is interesting to see that Geertz could have fitted perfectly among those whom Benedict Anderson categorizes as people haunted by the specter of comparison. Secondly, Geertz sought little to establish an institutional and collegial relationship with Indonesians and Indonesian institutions. He had no students from Indonesia, never worked with an Indonesian institution, and never became an avid commentator in the Indonesian public discourse. He located himself more as a “participant observer” whose task is to make a sense of what the “natives” are doing through the ways the natives tell about themselves.

I think it is now the time to shed more light on examining the relations between Geertz and the genealogy of Indonesian anthropology. The significance of this endeavor contributes not only to a more critical view on Geertz, but also to a critical perspective on the state-of-the-arts of the Indonesian anthropology. More work needs to be done on this matter, but suffice it to say at this moment that Geertz’s seminal work and his theoretical tour-de-force have minimally affected the development of Indonesian anthropology, which has produced more work on cultural typology than on interpretive ethnography.


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