Culture is the context in which our actions have meaning. To be a cultural anthropologist is to study those actions and interpret them - to weave the overt and covert behaviors of a people into an intelligible whole. A cockfight may be just an exercise in cruelty to some, but to the Balinese it is as as revealing of their shared cultural assumptions as baseball is for Americans.
Clifford Geertz wrote a lengthy essay, ''Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cock-ight,'' which first appeared in Daedalus and was reprinted in ''The Interpretation of Cultures'' (1973), the author's influential first collection of essays. Now, 10 years later, Geertz has issued this new collection, ''Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology.''
Many of the essays in ''Local Knowledge'' were first conceived as talks to organizations as diverse as the Yale Law School, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They later appeared in such quarterlies as The American Scholar, and The Antioch Review.
The titles are imposing - ''Found in Translation: On the Social History of the Moral Imagination,'' and ''Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power,'' - and the essays themselves are imposing as well. Geertz's formulations are complex, and he draws ideas, metaphors, or examples from all disciplines. On one page he may quote Faulkner, on another Wittgenstein, on still another Lionel Trilling. Heady stuff.
Geertz favors the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods approach in developing his essays. He also constructs long, convoluted sentences that often demand rereading. Despite the number of intellectual demands made, Geertz is still a rewarding writer and one of our most original and active social thinkers.
Who else, I wonder, would try to demonstrate that common sense is a cultural system? To do so, says Geertz, ''One has to proceed . . . by the peculiar detour of evoking its generally recognized tone and temper, the untraveled side road that leads through constructing metaphorical predicates - near-notions like 'thinness' - to remind people of what they already know.''
This is Geertz in his element: showing us that there is more to the obvious than meets the eye. In ''Local Knowledge,'' he also demonstrates how philosophical, literary, historical, and other views can illumine issues in the social sciences.
''The local is the only universal,'' William Carlos Williams once said, and it is anthropologists like Geertz who illustrate the truth of this remark. Small cultural phenomena like Azande witchcraft or Balinese cockfights grow infinitely more telling under Geertz's watchful eyes.
The essays in ''Local Knowledge'' represent ''an attempt to come to terms with the diversity of the ways human beings construct their lives in the act of leading them,'' says Geertz, who, finally, is after nothing more (and nothing less) than to understand human understanding.