Geertz and the Value of Thick Discription

written July 9, 2009


Unsatisfied with the usual, surface manner of anthropological study and interpretation, Clifford Geertz, in Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, suggests a new vantage of study, in which he borrows the term “thick description.” The value of thick description, in comparison to the “thin description” of simply defining a singular action (such as winking), thick description attempts to ethnographically find the multiple underlying meanings and cultural systems at play which prompt such action. Further, thick description values broad themes built upon conclusions drawn from “small, but very densely textured facts” and culture’s role in its creation and sustention (28). In this way Geertz shows a sensitivity for “the multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed or knotted into one another” (10).

Geertz arrives at thick description, among other routes, for an appreciation of culture not as a whole, but as varied compound comprised from public society. To take this deeper concept of culture into account- to not mistakenly think of action equals intention- is to look at culture as “context” of the webs humanity has spun for and about itself (5). Among the steps he suggests to achieve this, is a lesser reliance on texts (a recording of the “event of the event” and not the meaning) and instead return to the “ground” (19). Discussing the characteristics of ethnographic description, Geertz denotes the difference between the misnomer of studying a village and the proper task of accurately studying a village society.

The fault of Cohen underscores the problem of anthropologists that remain detached from the culture they study; rather than hovering academically above and to contemplate “realistically and concretely about them”, it is much more beneficial to observe “creatively and imaginatively with them (23).” This second approach allows for a better understanding, rather than confusion, of tongues. Geertz also states that past methods may still be applicable, but more importantly, past methodology must be criticized and challenged; new “systems” can be better, more durable alternatives to be used in tandem with established yet still redeemable methodology. To “find footing” may be tempting and natural to an anthropologist, but the richest findings may be found by a “plunge into the midst” of a culture (30).

Geertz opens a discussion of Balinese cockfighting with such a lucky dive into culture not of his own making; the acceptance he “earned” amid the shake down was more right-place-at-the-right-time than anything Geertz could have artificially set up himself. Of the fight itself Geertz does well to describe every detail, from the rules, to gambling procedures, to the role of maleness and status. The way in which Geertz sets up a “single” aspect of Balinese culture to investigate multiple threads of the society is by means of clinical inference, to delineate the symbols at play.

The cockfight itself takes on several “religious” aspects similar to Geertz’s study of the sacred. First, the men around the ring tend to mass as a single entity, as a congregation or other worshipers would, and the rising “mob scene mentality ” (429) as the clamor of betting mimics the fervor of being part of holy event larger than themselves. The fight then comes to take on the larger human struggle than each man is perhaps unconsciously aware of, (such as class or societal rank), yet unable to fully conceptualize his worth individually, just as religious symbols function to synthesize and focus a people’s ethos (89). The fight is thus a tool to understand the society and its relative power structure; for even to be on at the bottom of a hierarchy is better than the “chaos” of an undefined, apart role, which “make men chronically uneasy” (102).  Geertz draws a particularly strong line between the judges of the cockfight and the crowd’s reverence for the position, just as worshipers innately assign authority to a priest or shaman. Geertz explains this as the event itself–whether a fight or a Mass–providing the appropriate setting and ingredients for authority a religious symbol or leader is bestowed with.

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