“Ideology” and After: Reinscribing the Aesthetics of Symbolic Structure in Geertz


  • Jeffrey C. Alexander Department of Sociology, Yale University https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3600-8023
  • Anne Taylor Department of Sociology, Yale University https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4891-7187




Clifford Geertz, cultural sociology, thick description, interpretation


This essay explores the transformational effects that Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures had on the development of a meaning-centered cultural sociology. Though “Deep Play” and “Thick Description” were his most popular essays, we argue that it was “Ideology as a Cultural System” that marked Geertz’s most significant contribution. In response to Parsonian functionalism and conflict theory, Geertz’s emphasis on interpretation — inspired by cutting-edge work in the humanities in the mid-20th century — brought the relative autonomy of culture back into focus in the human sciences. While considering how “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” and “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” also helped pave the way for a systematic theory of culture, we argue that they also represented a dangerous new tendency in Geertz’s work, namely his refusal to move beyond empirical description. The late resistance to theorizing undercut the purchase of Geertz’s breakthrough ideas for contemporary efforts at socio-cultural explanation.


Alexander, J.C. (1982). Theoretical Logic in Sociology, Vols. 1–4. London: Routledge.

Alexander, J.C. (1983). The Classical Attempt at Theoretical Synthesis: Max Weber. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Alexander, J.C. (2004). Cultural Pragmatics: Social Performance Between Ritual and Strategy. Sociological Theory, 22(4), 527–573. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0735-2751.2004.00233.x

Alexander, J.C. (2010) Iconic Consciousness: The Material Feeling of Meaning. Thesis Eleven, 103(1), 10–25. https://doi.org/10.1177/0725513610381369

Alexander, J.C. (2020). The Performativity of Objects. Sociologisk Forskning, 57(3–4), 381–409. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27132158

Alexander, J.C., & Smith, P. (1993). The Discourse of American Civil Society: A New Approach for Cultural Studies. Theory and Society, 22(2), 151–207. https://www.jstor.org/stable/657770

Alexander, J.C., Smith, P., & Norton, M. (Eds.). (2011). Interpreting Clifford Geertz: Cultural Investigation in the Social Sciences. Camden: Palgrave MacMillan

Asad, T. (1993). Genealogies of Religion. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Austen, J. (2000). Pride and Prejudice. New York, NY: The Modern Library. (Original work published 1813).

Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies (A. Lavers, Trans.). New York, NY: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1957)

Birnbaum, N. (1955). Monarchs and Sociologists: A Reply to Professor Shils and Mr. Young. The Sociological Review, 3(1), 5–23. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1955.tb01042.x

Bittner, V. (2023). Dialectic Icons: Controversial Public Figures as Emotional Catalysts in Contentious Political Discourse. Emotions and society, 5(3), 257–276. https://doi.org/10.1332/263169021X16824558710337

Bittner, V. (2024). Iconic Extensions and Memetic Audiences: The MAGA Hat as a Site of Conflict in the US Public Sphere. Cultural Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1177/17499755231225690

Bortolini, M. (2021). A Joyfully Serious Man: The life of Robert Bellah. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Braithwaite, K., Ford, T.C. & Willis, D. (2019). Kwame Braithwaite: Black is Beautiful. New York, NY: Aperture.

Dilthey, W. (1990). The Human Studies. In J.C. Alexander & S. Seidman (Eds.), Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates (pp. 31–38). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1976)

Douglas, M. (2003). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Abingdon: Routledge (Original work published 1966)

Durkheim, E. (1995). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (K.E. Fields, Trans.). New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work published 1912)

Geertz, C. (1973a). Ideology as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (pp. 193–233). New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1964)

Geertz, C. (1973b). Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (pp. 412–454). New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1972)

Geertz, C. (1973c). Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (pp. 3–32). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Geertz, C. (1973d). Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (pp. 87–125). New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1966)

Geertz, C. (1983). Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe & P. Willis (Eds.), Culture, Media, language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972–79 (pp. 128–138). Birmingham: Hutchinson.

Hochschild, A.R. (2016). Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York, NY: The New Press.

Isaac, J. (2018). The Intensification of Social Forms: Economy and Culture in the Thought of Clifford Geertz. Critical Historical Studies, 5(2), 237–266. https://doi.org/10.1086/699685

Karakaya, Y (2018). The Conquest of Hearts: The Central Role of Ottoman Nostalgia Within Contemporary Turkish Populism. American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 8, 125–157. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-018-0065-y

Malacarne, T. (2021). Connected Audiences in Social Performance. Sociological Theory, 39(1), 19–37. https://doi.org/10.1177/0735275120984824

Mast, J. (2013). The Performative Presidency. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

McCormick, L. (2015). Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Merton, R.K. (1967). On the “History” and “Systematics” of Sociological Theory. In On Theoretical Sociology (pp. 1–37). New York, NY: Free Press.

Paidipaty, P. (2020). “Tortoises All the Way Down”: Geertz, Cybernetics and “Culture” at the End of the Cold War. Anthropological Theory, 20(1), 97–129. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499619899747

Parsons, T., & Shils, E. (1951). Values and Social Systems. In J.C. Alexander & S. Seidman (Eds.), Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates (pp. 39–46). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reed, I.A. (2013). Charismatic Performance: A Study of Bacon’s Rebellion. American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 1(2), 254–287. https://doi.org/10.1057/ajcs.2013.2

Ricoeur, P. (1971). The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text. Social Research 38(3), 529–562. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40970072

Sahlins, M. (1976). Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Said, E.W. (1994). Culture and Imperialism. New York, NY: Knopf.

de Saussure, F. (1990). Signs and Language. In J.C. Alexander & S. Seidman (Eds.), Culture and Society: Contemporary debates (pp. 55–63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schechner, R. (1976). From Ritual to Theatre and Back. In R. Schechner & M. Schuman (Eds.), Ritual, Play, and Performance: Readings in the Social Sciences/Theatre (pp. 196–230). New York, NY: Seabury Press.

Taylor, A. (2022). Audience Agency in Social Performance. Cultural Sociology, 16(1), 68–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/17499755211029604

Taylor, A. (2024). Harry Potter and the “Death-of-the-Actor”: Reimagining Fusion in Cultural Pragmatics. American Journal of Cultural Sociology, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-024-00216-w

Turnage, W. (2023). Ansel Adams, Photographer — Bio. The Ansel Adams Gallery. https://www.anseladams.com/ansel-adams-bio/.

Turner, Victor. (1982). Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, NY: PAJ Publications.

Vance, J.D. (2016). Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York, NY: Harper Press.

Villegas, C.M. (2020). Performing Rituals of Affliction: How a Governor’s Press Conferences Provided Mediatized Sanctuary in Ohio. American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 8, 352–383. https://doi.org/10/1057/s41290-020-00116-9




How to Cite

Alexander, J. C., & Taylor, A. (2024). “Ideology” and After: Reinscribing the Aesthetics of Symbolic Structure in Geertz. Sociologica, 18(1), 7–23. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/17767