Project (2018)

Islam through American Eyes: The Life and Culture of Clifford Geertz

In the twentieth century, Western anthropologists studied the social practices of Arab and Muslim communities to an unprecedented extent. In the process, they reformulated not only what scholars, scientists, and citizens knew, but how they went about knowing unfamiliar ways of life both in their present day and in the distant past.

"Islam through American Eyes," will consolidate global sites of science to examine the history of one of the most iconic conceptions of “culture” in the human sciences today: the notion of culture as a “web of meaning.” American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926–2006) developed this culture concept in the course of his field work with Muslim communities in Indonesia and Morocco, countries that wrapped together wide-ranging groups under new national flags, stitched from the tatters of colonial rule. Geertz proposed that the social world could be read as a text and that “culture” was the background knowledge that let people read between the lines of social life. His method of “thick description” and the culture concept it implied spread during the postwar period from anthropology to a range of academic fields, including to the history of science.  

Today, scholars continue to debate whether “cultures” with different knowledge systems do, nonetheless, point at a fundamental, natural reality onto which social life is projected. These debates anchor efforts to “translate” across knowledge systems and to attend to present-day inequalities in our fields that affect how knowledge is shared, appropriated, or overlooked. "Islam through American Eyes" seeks to understand how Geertz and his contemporaries crafted new methods for understanding cultural difference and reinvented conventional notions of difference through their studies of the Islamic world in the context of anticolonial movements. Rather than give a history of culture and difference through a new lens, the goal of the project is to give a history of the lens itself.