Self Reflexivity and Anthropology

Understanding Clifford Greetz’s Interpretive Anthropology

“On the established anthropological principle, “When in Rome.” My wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About halfway down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound -his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, Without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea and sought to compose ourselves.” (Greetz 1973)

In anthropology, a common fact that umbrellas both, fictive knowledge and a systematic form of knowledge is the process of understanding the language of another, with the help of our own language. Borrowing from Wittgenstein’s quote, both kinds of anthropologists, on some “factual base” (Greetz, Thick Description : Toward An Interpretive Theory of Culture 1973) travel to strange countries (already perceived as “strange”) with incomprehensible customs and they even attempt to master the country’s language, in order to make sense of what they perceive. Yet, Clifford Greetz suggests that we fail in doing so, as we suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the “factual base” is in itself.

Considering the study of culture as the “factual base” of anthropologists, or the concept “around which the whole discipline of anthropology arose” — it can either be seen as an “abstraction of behaviour” without the element of self-reflexivity or the systematic form of knowledge; or as the culture that had to be consciously clarified with a per-intended motive, as seen in Ryle’s example of thick description or “fictive knowledge”. Although both forms differ in their techniques, their purpose brings us back to the shared process of understanding another’s language in one’s own language. Subsequently, it can be said that both forms of anthropology fail to “find their feet” due to the unfortunate misconception of the “factual base” with which language also shares its roots.

In this context, Clifford Greetz’s idea of an interpretive approach to culture attempts to remove the misconceptions of the “factual base” by associating it with a study of semiotic behaviour, something “ideational” and “unphysical” that can perhaps characterise the language of culture itself. That said, Greetz shared Ward Goodendough’s idea of culture that suggested it to be something that was “located in the minds and hearts of men.” While the generalized usage of men should be taken in the sense that this culture is shared by ALL men, we can see how an interpretive approach might require the inclusion and consideration of the anthropologist’s cultural language as well. This would subsequently mean that in order to remove the misconceptions that fictive and systematic form of anthropologists carried in their fundamental knowledge of culture, one must practise the study of behaviour with an asserted usage of self-reflexivity while allowing the pre-suppositional nature of anthropological studies to be a constant but not a dominant topic of focus.

The inclusion of self-reflection in the process of understanding culture, Greetz says will help anthropology move forward not only as a specialized academic category but also as a critical contribution to the entire “human discourse” by creating a space to re-approach culture in a non-isolated, non-artificial manner.

The excerpt mentioned at the beginning of this paper includes an instance that perfectly demonstrates this non-isolated, non-artificial manner when Greetz describes his wife’s and his “less than instantaneous” reaction to follow the actions of the locals and run, to do as the Romans do — “when in Rome”, to allow the anthropological practitioner to reflect on the self (even if momentarily) before acting on or interpreting the situation. Greetz later mentions how this very act of running with the locals of Bali earned him a unique rapport with the community as they were impressed by the fact that he didn’t alienate and identify himself primarily as a foreign anthropologist in a “strange country”, rather he almost instinctively behaved like the locals, found his feet with them and therefore established his anthropological principle.


Greetz, Clifford. 1973. “Deep Play : Notes on Balinese Cockfight.” In The Interpretation of Cultures : Selected Essays, by Clifford Greetz, 415. New York: Basic Books.

Greetz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description : Toward An Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures : Selected Essays, by Clifford Greetz, 3–33. New York: Basic Books.