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Society as drama vs culture as text

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 6 months ago

Turner and Geertz introduced new ideas into anthropological theory. Both of them focus on performance. Yet Turner approaches society as drama, and Geertz approaches culture as text. Whats the difference?

Chelsey Megli

I think a key difference between Turner and Geertz lies in their definition of what culture is in relation to the individual. They both, indeed focus on performance, but what they view as causitory of that performance is different. Turner, bordering on psychological analysis is very much interested in the paradigms that shape and are shaped by ritual. To him, performance is rooted in and defining of the societal values and mentalities of a culture. Moreover, Turner is very interested to see how these performances (often unintentionally) result in projections of individual emotional reactions to such mentalities. Geertz views culture as a more expressive, not determanistic force. He sees culture as text, in that culture is the manifestation of a series of agreements/understandings between people. Culture is defined by social actions, which accumulate from individual performances. Geertz views these performances as being expressive of cultural beliefs, rather than creating the beliefs themselves. In short, Turner is much more oriented to the relativist, Whorfian approach in which ritual defines thought, whereas Geertz subscribes to a more liberal arts based paradigm in which ritual and culture, much like literature or art, are recreations of previous events or ideas that are subsequently built off on.


Lauren Deal


Geertz closes The Interpretation of Cultures with the sentence: “The culture of people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which an anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (Geertz, 1973, 452). I think that this quote highlights the difference between Geertz’s culture as text and Turner’s society as drama. For Geertz, the goal is interpretation. He attempts to look at a culture in motion and read it along with those living it. That is not say that the text is already completed but that he is not directly talking about how it is written down or inscribed, though in his book he does talk about this. He focuses instead on the symbols that he can perceive and understanding their meaning in the larger cultural context. Turner, I believe, from Geertz’s perspective, is looking at the way in which symbols are performatively given meaning. In terms of Geertz’s culture as text approach, this would be the process of inscription. Turner argues that through performance culture and its symbols are created and given meaning. Geertz is trying to understand that meaning once it has been given.


Savannah Fetterolf


While I agree with Chelsey’s interpretation of the differences between Turner and Geertz, I would have to say that in my understanding of Geertz, one of the most significant facets of his outlook on culture is his focus on symbols and thick description. To Geertz, culture functioned in order to ascribe meaning to the world around us. Therefore, anthropologists were not meant to interpret culture as a whole, but to interpret the significance of the symbols to which that culture assigned importance. In order to write ethnography, then, Geertz emphasized the need for thick description. By using thick description when writing about performance rituals, ethnographers must describe both the behavior and the context in which the behavior occurred. Therefore, like Lauren asserts, Geertz understood culture as something that could not be assayed simply by looking at symbols and ascribing them meanings, but by understanding them in the context of their culturally prescribed meanings.


Tyson Johnson

I agree with Savannah that Geertz did not support the efforts of some anthropologists to interpret culture as a whole. He argued that ethnographic research was "microscopic" and that it was description of a culture as a whole was an inductive process. It was only once the anthropologist understood the minutiae of a culture that he or she could make judgments about the culture as a whole. Turner, on the other hand, argued that ethnography and anthropology were deductive in nature. He explained that the anthropologist's position as an observer allowed him or her to see the cultural performance as a whole and to identify the significant symbols it contained. He argued that there were symbolic elements to the performance that even participants in the culture were unaware of.


Heddy Waters


I would have to agree with Lauren in that the crux of the difference lies with the interpretation of meaning.  “Culture as text” refers to Geertz’s thick description.  He believed culture was a people’s way of projecting meaning on the world; through thick description one could ‘read’ that meaning.  Thus, symbols, rituals, and processes in the culture could be analyzed and used to deduce meaning.  


In Turner’s analysis of the Ndembu, he came across various symbols that seemed contradictory in nature or that had multiple meanings.  Some of them could not even be explained by the Ndembu themselves.  Thus, he concluded that symbols could have different meanings based on the context and also that some symbols and/or rituals were a form of release or catharsis for tension within the culture.  These conflicts within symbolic meanings, society, and people are what he refers to when he describes society as a drama.  Meaning can only be deduced by viewing the interplays between people within the society.    


Thus, the difference in the two approaches refers to the authors’ interpretations of what a society’s performance actually reflects.   


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