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Societies Theories: Geertz and Asad Point of Views Essay

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Updated: Feb 13th, 2022

Introduction

Anthropologists aim at understanding the reasons for human behaviors and explaining the functioning of societies and individuals within them. This paper will discuss two anthropologists’ articles, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz and “Anthropological Texts and Ideological Problems: An Analysis of Cohen on Arab Villages in Israel” by Talal Asad. The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast the thinkers’ views of society, social change. Knowledge, and individuals. The analysis of the articles shows that their theories are different, with Geertz focusing on culture while explaining society, and Asad paying attention to economic activity and the role of working classes.

The Nature of Society

Geertz believes that society emerges from culture consisting of a set of rituals that are recognized and respected by every member of society. He bases his view on analyzing cockfighting, an illegal activity popular among Balinese people, from an anthropological perspective. Geertz shows that, by following the rules and traditions elaborated by the community and adhering to the accepted behavioral patterns, individuals identify themselves with a particular group that starts functioning as society. For example, Geertz narrates that if the Balinese man refuses to support his group during cockfighting, his behavior will be considered unacceptable. At the same time, Geertz and his wife managed to fit into the Balinese society only after they took part in the indigenous ritual and acted just like the locals. Asad’s view of the nature of society is quite different. His view resembles the Marxist anthropological theory, in which society is based on modes of production. Unlike Geertz’ symbolic anthropology emphasizing the role of kinship in social organization, Asad’ viewpoint focuses on the division of society into classes.

Theories about Social Change

Geertz seems to assert that, despite social changes, culture remains invariable. Thus, rituals and traditions form the backbone of society, which adds to its continuity. However, Geertz article under consideration lacks the explanation of the causes and the process of social change. From Asad’s point of view, social change occurs when the peasant population generates surplus, which is then extracted from them by landowners. His view aligns with the Marxist theory, according to which, social change stems from the class struggle toward social equity.

Theories about Knowledge

Since Geertz is a symbolic anthropologist, he considers the process of acquiring knowledge to be related to a person’s interpretation of real-life objects and phenomena, as well as culture. In the reviewed article, the thinker reflects on how people perceive things that they do not feel, such as paintings, sculptures, books, or cockfighting. Geertz views the cognitive process as an internalized creation of associative arrays that attaches some meaning to a real-life object or event. Geertz explains that people interpret reality by ascribing familiar qualities to objects or phenomena that they want to understand, so that these items also become familiar to them. While Geertz emphasizes the influence of culture on individuals’ process of interpreting reality, Asad pays attention to the role of ideology in obtaining knowledge. In Asad’s opinion, ideology leads to the distortion of objective knowledge, but it is necessary for the functioning of society.

Theories about Individuals

From Asad’s point of view, individuals have an active role in society. As a rule, individuals’ roles are closely related to economic and political activity. For example, peasants are engaged in generating surplus, and landowners are involved in the extraction of this surplus. At the same time, peasants may be engaged in politics, voting for the representations of their communities, thus preventing foreigners from entering their society. Although individuals are believed to possess certain roles in society, they are regarded as functions rather than actors. It means that a particular individual means little to society, but a large number of individuals constituting a social class possess a significant power and will. Asad’s view aligns with the Marxist anthropological theory, in which the working class is regarded as the driver of social change. This viewpoint also has some similarities with functionalism, which considers an individual as a replaceable part of the societal system.

However, Geertz has a different view of the place of an individual in society. Geertz, as a symbolic anthropologist, believes in the central role of humans. An individual is responsible for interpreting real-life objects and phenomena to develop an appropriate course of action. Thus, in symbolic anthropological theory, there is much room for individual agency in choosing the way of interpreting situations and the way of acting in response to them.

Conclusion

To sum up, Geertz’ and Asad’s points of view are entirely different. Since Geertz is a symbolic anthropologist, his theories about society, social change, knowledge, and individuals are based on culture and interpretation. Asad’s views are close to the Marxist anthropological theory focusing on the role of modes of production and working classes in society. The thinkers also have different views on the individual agency. Asad believes that individuals matter only as part of society or working classes, while Geertz follows an actor-centric approach, in which an individual is free to choose the interpretation of events and the response to them.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Societies Theories: Geertz and Asad Point of Views'. 13 February.

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