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Evans-Pritchard and Clifford Geertz: Social Studies

The methods and principles of anthropological research have always been a subject of heated debate among many scholars. Overall, it is quite possible for us to say that even now there is virtually no consensus as to this particular question. Our task in this essay is to compare various ethnological styles and the way in which different authors approach the study and description of a foreign society and culture. For instance, we may discuss such works as The Nuer, written by a distinguished British anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard, and the book by Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. We need to pay extra attention to such aspects as the research techniques employed by these scientists and the form of narration or description.

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Prior to analyzing the views, expressed by Evans-Pritchard and Clifford Geertz, it should be pointed out that both of them are representatives of social anthropology, which examines the group behavior of human beings. Yet, these scholars looked at this question from different standpoints. Evans-Pritchard is a supporter of historical approach, which means he attaches primary importance to the historic factors, which shape the interactions between people within a certain community.

Moreover, in his anthropological works, he often employs the method of cross-cultural comparison and observation, claiming that it ensures the highest level of accuracy and objectiveness. He places special emphasis on formal or institutionalized relations between people within a certain community, though it has to be admitted that such perspective is not always the most optimal one, because in this case, a researcher is not always to get deep insights into the lives of the subjects who tend to be more occlusive or reticent, presenting the anthropologist with serious difficulties.

In sharp contrast with him, Clifford Geertz holds a different view of the tasks which anthropological study should fulfill; subsequently, his methods and description style are not analogous to those of Evans-Pritchard. First and foremost, we should mention that he marks out three levels, which illustrate the behavior of any human being, namely, individual, social, and cultural. In his opinion, it is necessary to examine the semiotics or symbolic nature of peoples conduct. Only in this way, one can form an unbiased judgment of another community or ethnic group. On the whole, his most favorite method is active participation or field experiment as it is also known, which means that he wants the subjects (or the Balinese to be more exact) to accept him as a member of their group.

In his essay Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, he expresses an opinion that an anthropologist should follow the principle “Do at Rome as the Romans do” (Geertz, p 183). The essence of this tenet lies in the following: the researcher must not affect the conduct of his or her subjects. As a rule, this phenomenon is defined as an observers effect. Any person is inclined to change his attitude of behavior if he or she is aware of being observed or studied. In part, this is the reason why Geertz prefers the method of participant observation, it enables him to get more accurate picture of Balinese culture, social relations and priorities, established among these people. This anthropologist is quite satisfied with the role of mere onlooker, and he wants to take part in the activities of Balinese people.

In his turn, Evans-Pritchard gives preference to the sheer observation; he concentrates on more formal aspects of social relations among the Nuer people, such as for instance, political, lineage, or age-set systems. According to him, these are the most important components of social structure, especially if we are speaking anthropological research.

It should be borne in mind that such an approach may be motivated by some other reasons. At the moment, the author worked on this project, he was acting not only as a scientist but as the British governments official as well. His major goal was to provide a comprehensive analysis of political life in such ethnic group as the Nuer. We should not forget that in the thirties the United Kingdom was still a colonial superpower; therefore the government was extremely interested in the findings of this scholar because it might help British officials to establish more effective relations with these tribes (Evans-Pritchard, p 8).

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At this point, we may conclude that the methods of anthropological study greatly depend upon the objectives, set by the scientist, and it is hardly permissible for us to speak about some universal principles, applicable for any research. It is very unlikely that they have ever existed.

Nonetheless, we should say that the discrepancies in research methods may be caused by some other factor. In this respect, we should analyze their opinions on culture and social structure. In Geerts view, these notions are not always intertwined; in the most overwhelming majority of cases, it is possible to draw a distinct line between them. Probably, we need to elaborate this argument: the social structure comprises various forms of economic and political activities or relationships, whereas culture is “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate” (Geerts, p 88). In other words, culture helps people to express themselves; it reflects their worldviews, moral values. The scholar sets stress on the fact that it is highly ritualistic or even ceremonial.

He believes that an anthropologist should try to put oneself into the position of his subjects in order to form an unbiased and unprejudiced judgment of any foreign culture or community. The thing is that very often many scientists prefer not to interfere into the activities of the subjects. In point of fact, such method is called passive observation. To a certain degree, Evans-Pritchard is an adherent of this technique. Nevertheless, it should be noted that observation has some considerable drawbacks and they may often cast doubt on the validity of the data, obtained during research.

As it has been mentioned before, Evans-Pritchard wrote this book when Great Britain was a colonial power. This fact immensely influenced anthropological principles. The Nuer culture was often labeled as primitive especially in comparison with that one of the United Kingdom. In his book, the scholar argues that such interpretation is not appropriate. Of course, this tribal community was not similar to the Western-European society, but it was by no means inferior.

Evans-Pritchard attempted to break this deep-rooted stereotype. Yet, he still followed the principles of non-intervention, saying that only in such manner a researcher could obtain accurate results (Evans-Pritchard, p 77). He did not wish to disrupt the natural course of events. Yet, we should not forget that even the presence of the observer alters the behavior of the subjects. Subsequently, Evans-Pritchard makes his narrative style as objective as possible, he carefully avoids any possible bias or prejudice but such description is somewhat passive and probably not provocative enough.

Unlike him, Clifford Geertz is firmly convinced that the scientists should not only survey, and on the contrary he or she may even become a part of the experiment. Probably, we should remember his description of some rituals, established among the Balinese people, namely the famous, cockfights. He even takes part in this ritual, which is actually forbidden by the law. His goal is to collaborate with these people and make them less preserved. His narrative style is less formal, especially in comparison with Evans-Pritchard. He says that it is compulsory to “gain access“ into a culture in order to adequately interpret it (Geertz, 223).

Therefore, it is quite possible for us to arrive at the conclusion that such anthropologists as Evans-Pritchard and Clifford Geertz have distinctive ethnographic styles and select different research methods. The major dissimilarity between them lies in the following; according to Evans-Pritchard, such notions as social structure and culture are closely interconnected, whereas Clifford Geertz holds to a belief that these concept should not be regarded as a single entity, because culture is a set of symbols, reflecting the inner world of people, but it has no bearing upon the economic and social interaction.

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Furthermore, we should say that these scientists employ various techniques while conducting their research. Evans-Pritchard prefers cross-cultural comparison and observation, while Clifford Geertz uses mostly field experiments, participating in the activities of the subjects. We cannot say whose approach is more prudent because the effectiveness or ineffectiveness is mostly determined by the objectives set by the researcher.


Clifford Geertz. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. Basic Books, 1973.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Clarendon Press, 1940.

Paul Rabinow, William M. Sullivan. Interpretive Social Science: A Reader. University of California Press, 1979.

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