Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

The Tangled Webs We Weave

Two problems with Geertz’s classic “web” metaphor of culture.

I’ve been thinking about Clifford Geertz’s oft cited web metaphor:
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973)

In teaching anthropology, I use that as one of the key concept of culture in the modern anthropological tradition (along with Tylors from 1871 and a few others)

Today I am reading Aiwah Ong’s article on cultural citizenship (Current Anthropology, 1996), in which she refers to “webs of power”; wondering to what extent that is a riff on Geertz (who, in turn, credits Weber)?

Two thoughts:
1. Culture and ideology generally refer to the same thing – ideation, and what Geertz is calling “webs of significance” (or webs of signification). The difference between the terms culture and ideology are not in the thing(s) to which they refer (their referent; denotation) but rather in their connotation. Culture hides or downplays power whereas ideology foregrounds it. Culture connotes the sort of taken-for-grantedness of the ways in which we think about the world; ideology makes explicit a sort of struggle over ideas (e.g. think of the difference between “advertising” – a form of culture and “propaganda” – a form of ideology). The problem is that neither of these ways of talking about ideation/webs of meaning is more or less correct. Both have some truth (value) to them, much of the struggle of “ideology” is in fact very hidden from view (“culture”); much of “culture” is actively struggled over (“ideological”).

2. One of the most important problems with the “web” metaphor is that when we think about a spider’s web (I take that to be the prototypical image) such a web has a master intelligence behind it – the spider. Spiders are singular entities, weaving their webs with specific intention and self-interest (to catch flies and eat them). But “webs” of culture, ideology and power are not spun by individuals alone by rather are complex-adaptive networks, spun by multiple agents not governed by a master intelligence or plan (unless one assumes a Diety or some such entity; but even then that is always cast as an unknowable, so for practical purposes there is not a master plan even if one believes in the existence of such in some ultimate sense). Bottom line – the “web” metaphor is a very engaging one; but misleading insofar as it implies a sort of singular agency. I do think that a lot of people (students; perhaps also scholars) project themselves into Geertz’s “web” as a singular agent – a liberal individual (spider!) who can ultimately control the web-spinning; or alternatively, the web image is taken as disempowering… we are flies caught in webs over which we have no control and from which we gain nothing. Neither of these implications of the web metaphor are correct or particularly useful.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , , , , | Leave a comment