Interpretive anthropology

Interpretive anthropology is a line of research based on the idea that cultures are essentially made up of meanings and that, therefore, the primary task of the anthropologist who intends to understand the meaning of the existence of people in a specific social and cultural context is a task of a pre-eminently hermeneutic nature.

This way of understanding cultures and cultural analysis contrasts sharply with the way in which, conversely, they were understood in classical cultural or social anthropology: for interpretive anthropology, anthropological research cannot be ascribed to a field of knowledge that conforms to a positivist epistemology, in which therefore the watchwords are observation, description, explanation and formulation of laws or models of human behavior and action in general, but, on the contrary, it is configured as an eminently subjective activity, in which participation, identification, understanding, interpretation and evocative representation dominate, since what most characterizes human existence in its different forms is, however, the symbolic dimension in which it is immersed.

The analysis of the symbolic dimension can only be conducted through the interpretation and identification of the “point of view of the native”. The metaphor that best expresses the character of culture for interpretive anthropologists is that of culture as a text, which the researcher must, in fact, “read” just as the very members of the culture in question do in their daily lives. The main exponent and major theoretician of this current of studies is the American anthropologist C. Geertz, who also outlined a method by which the anthropologist can attempt the extremely complex enterprise to which anthropology aspires.

This enterprise is carried out in two phases, the first is that of field research – a phase that cannot be ignored in anthropology – in order to achieve an understanding of the society and culture examined, such as to be able to “see things from the point of view of the natives”; the second is that of writing down the results of the research, in order to make a very special experience, to which the anthropologist has submitted, understandable to other scholars and to a more general public. Through a continuous negotiation between the first phase – strictly related to local concepts and notions – and the second – strictly related to general theoretical concepts – the interpretative anthropologist can build a knowledge adapted to the ambitions of interpretative anthropology.

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