You are on page 1of 11

Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology It might sound a little unusual at first, but the different approaches to anthropological study

are very similar to the nightly news. Each day, countless events take place that are covered by various news stations. The events are then compiled, interpreted, and framed in particular ways that tell one aspect of the story. Thus, it is plain to see that in broadcasting news stories to the world, the various stations will use different methods of telling the story. This analogy coincides with the range of theories associated with anthropology. Anthropology strives to retell the stories of cultural events. In order to do so, anthropologists employ a variety of techniques to best convey a concrete understanding. Therefore, anthropologists develop methodologies that are not all alike. This is not to say that one view is necessarily better than another, but rather, these different methods add to the richness and diversity of anthropological study. It would be very interesting to therefore explore differing methods that go into unearthing the true interpretation of a cultural event. In order to illustrate anthropological styles working differently, the writings of Clifford Geertz and Marshall Sahlins will be used. Geertz provides a Balinese cockfight, while Sahlins explores the adventures of Captain James Cook. Though these are very different examples, anthropological theory and interpretation are central to both accounts. However, in order to truly appreciate the various styles used by these anthropologists, it would be wise to gain an advanced comprehension of what Geertz meant by “culture as an ensemble of text.” Furthermore, it is also important to unveil some limitations that result from this viewpoint. Ultimately, while Geertz and Sahlins are both intent on finding a deeper understanding of culture, the way they each get there is unique.


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology First, let us explore Geertz’s metaphor. In The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz provides the following quotation to summarize his thoughts, “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (Geertz 1973: 452). Though the quotation appears to be dense, it is really quite straightforward and makes it very apparent as to how Geertz feels about culture. Geertz suggests that a culture itself forms a text that is written by the natives in a given studied region. The emphasis here is not whether the natives know they are creating culture or not, but rather as event after event is acted out, it adds to and evolves the meaning and understanding of culture. Geertz believes that the task of the anthropologist is therefore to dig up these events that culture left behind and work on interpreting them. Geertz has a special method that he employs in doing so. It is referred to as “thick description,” and we will investigate this anthropological technique a little later. However, it is imperative to make the distinction that culture is the keystone in the relationship between the anthropologist and his work. The anthropologist is fueled by the underlying idea that culture is the force behind scripting and dictating events that transpire in a group. To expand upon this further, it ought to be noted that this metaphor given by Geertz reveals his stance on the irreducibility of culture. Geertz wants to attack culture as it is, peeling away at the many levels that exist. In this sense, if we were to compare the physical properties of an onion, which has the inherent ability for multiple layers to be torn away, it would be consistent with Geertz’s conceptualization of culture. To gain better understanding of the Geertz’s view of culture, let us look at how Geertz feels about anthropological interpretation.


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology Geertz considers the way that he looks at a cultural event in relation to a native from a given cultural group. Initially, Geertz displays apprehension about anthropological accounts when he says, “In short, anthropological writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third order ones to boot. (By definition only a ‘native’ makes first order ones: it’s his culture)” (Geertz 1973, 15). Geertz reveals that it is almost impossible for an outsider to interpret culture, because he or she is viewing all the activities as an outsider. Therefore, an incorrect interpretation can be made which can be a huge detriment to true understanding (Geertz 1973: 16). The process of verifying an outsider’s ethnographic account also becomes very tenuous (Geertz 1973: 16). Geertz argues that it becomes almost impossible to tell which accounts are better or worse than others, and the time spent debating this detracts from the overall goal of anthropology (Geertz 1973: 16). This is a justified argument, and something that scholars ought to be aware of when engaging in interpretation of cultural events. Yet, an even stronger case for interpretation is the fact that Geertz himself is doing it. Although there are some issues that arise in performing cultural interpretation, Geertz sees something inherently valuable to this exercise, so long as it is done properly. Geertz is a huge proponent of an interpretive method called “thick description.” Geertz suggests that so long as anthropologists follow this method, interpretation is done most accurately. To elaborate further on the “thick description” and its relation to interpretation, Geertz provides an example by Gilbert Ryle who used “thick description” in his interpretations (Geertz 1973: 6). Ryle provides the example of winking (Geertz 1973: 6). At its most basic level, winking is a twitching of the eye, along with a deliberate message or gesture directed to someone else. However, there are so many different styles and


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology intents that come from winking that if you are not directly involved in the situation it becomes increasingly hard to interpret. This is Geertz’s point when it comes to “thick description” and interpreting culture. Geertz reveals that this is true purpose of ethnography; the journey from mere observance, as he calls it “think description,” to a substantiated, detailed, and precise account of what truly is going on, in other words, “thick description” (Geertz 1973: 7). In order to get to the heart of cultural actions, the anthropologists has to work hard on infiltrating himself or herself into the culture so that these “thick descriptions” can become readily available. Geertz provides the examples of, “establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, [and] keeping a diary” as some basic techniques in performing ethnography well (Geertz 1973: 6). All of this is done to sift away obscuring details that keep the anthropologist from attaining the cultural truth. Then again, there are also some limitations that the anthropologist needs to be aware of in seeking out “thick description.” Geertz suggests that in making interpretations of cultural cues, such as winking, there are mental configurations and boundaries that are constructed that do not necessarily have to exist in the first place (Geertz 1973: 7). Furthermore, it is so much harder to extract the true meaning, because it is told from an outsider’s perspective (Geertz 1973: 22). To further elaborate on this fact, Geertz reminds us that “Theoretical ideas are not created wholly anew in each study […] they are adopted from one another” (Geertz 1973: 27). This suggests that prevailing preconceived notions are added to and applied in various interpretive activities by anthropologists. However, if the anthropologist is conscious of these potential limits, then it will benefit their study.


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology To best summarize Geertz’s take on anthropological interpretation, consider the following quotation, “Ryle’s example presents an image only too exact of the sort of piled-up structures of inference and implication through which an ethnographer is continually trying to pick his way” (Geertz 1973: 7). In trying to peel away the layers of a culture, there are so many obstacles that have the potential to veer an anthropologist off track. Yet, this process is unbelievably important to Geertz. Being challenged by one’s material and working to dig deeper to find the true meaning is the noble and essential component of anthropology. It is about shaving away the layers in order to arrive at the core of a particular issue. In order for this to occur, Geertz employs a tactic of “complex specificness,” which is the result of a long, first hand experience that uncovers the true concepts of culture (Geertz 1973: 23). Geertz displays his approach to accumulating knowledge about culture in his stories of Balinese cockfights. In order to extract meaningful interpretations of this event, Geertz looks at the event not as a singular activity, but rather a tangible interpretation of the culture (Geertz 1973: 23). He does this in a number of ways and separates them easily for the reader. In particular, Geertz looks at four aspects of the cockfight and its relation to Balinese culture at large: The Raid, Of Cocks and Men, The Fight, and Odds and Even Money. Each component of Geertz’s account is like an allegory that gets the reader one step closer to fully understanding Balinese culture. It is done in a methodical and precise way, in which Geertz only presents what he knows, rather than making superficial guesses. This is seen very well in The Raid section. The Raid section discusses an event regarding the cockfights in which policemen came and scared everyone off, because cockfights are prohibited in Bali (Geertz 1973: 414). As a result, the crowds cleared away


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology and from this Geertz was able to derive an interesting and fundamental lesson of Balinese culture. Geertz explains that following the panic, “everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply ‘pulled out our papers’ […] [we] instead demonstrated out solidarity with what were no our covillagers” (Geertz 1973: 416). Without directly saying it, Geertz demonstrates an action that seems to resonate deeply within the culture of the Balinese. The Balinese were pleased with Geertz’s decision to stick with them, and this sign of solidarity helped forge a relationship between the two parties. Therefore, a great deal of understanding about the culture in Bali and what truly matters to them is acquired through Geertz’s account. It is critical to remember that the interpretation of solidarity stems from a description of an event that Geertz provides. By retelling this event fully and accurately, reasonable deductions can be made about Balinese culture. This is at the heart of Geertz’s “ensemble of texts.” The ability to be able to take away meaning from allegorical stories that fundamentally relate to culture. There are some significant differences to how Marshall Sahlins goes about the process of anthropology in relation to Geertz. To begin, the most obvious difference would be the fact that Geertz’s account was made first hand, whereas, Sahlins’ discussion of Captain James Cook is obviously interpreted from historical documents and records. Sahlins is therefore forced into developing and discussing interpretations of what this event means to the Hawaiian people. For instance, Sahlins suggests about the incident with Captain Cook, “I take this incident as a condensed paradigm of the subsequent course of Hawaiian history: of changing relations between chiefs and common people” (Sahlins 1985: 138). At first, Sahlins presents the story of the death of Captain Cook, but


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology he takes it a step further and interprets the event based on what he believes to be true about cultural groups. Drawing on some of the critiques and limitations that exist in interpreting cultural events, one can make the case that this outlook frames the event with a narrowed scope (Geertz 1973: 7). This is unfair and limiting to the vast array of possibilities that may really be true of the Hawaiian people. By presenting his own interpretation, he is establishing a framework in which to view and understand this aspect of history. Geertz would contend that it is far more important for the actions and words of the people involved in the culture to speak for themselves, rather than an unnecessary and perhaps skewed interpretation by an anthropologist to take the forefront. However, one must also consider the complexities of assigning a frame to view this cultural event. Sahlins most definitely accumulated sufficient materials and must have studied and reflected on them for quite some time. Ultimately, one has to be aware of the frame that the anthropologist chooses, but must also be willing to trust that they are conveying the message to the best of their abilities. Another point that Sahlins makes that runs counter to the thoughts of Geertz is his understanding of culture as a constantly changing element. Geertz supposed that a culture was irreducible and for the most part consistent, whereas Sahlins proposes culture as a shifting and representative object of its times. Sahlins states, “Every reproduction of culture is an alteration […] the categories by which a present world is orchestrated pick up some novel empirical content” (Sahlins 1985: 144). Sahlins sees culture as a “synthesis of stability and change,” which makes it far more relative to its time (Sahlins 1985: 144). Sahlins takes the stance that anthropology views cultures in terms of the contributions by and players of other cultures. This then suggests that culture is merely a


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology function of time, and is not as Geertz suggests, something irreducible, because layers have to be peeled away in order to truly get a sense. This provides a platform for one of the first limitations of Geertz’s perspective on culture. Knowing that Geertz looks at culture in a “thick” way, and reports it as he sees it, does not take into account historical matters that have occurred in a culture. This is imperative, because history surely does matter. To illustrate this point, consider the symbol of the Western Wall in Judaism. In the year 2007, millions of tourists with a shared ancestry will come to this focal point of religious history. People will stand in front of a tall wall and pray to it, and it is collectively considered the most holy spot in all of Judaism today. However, it is just a wall. An anthropologist utilizing “thick description” on this matter will incorrectly transmit the true meaning and significance of the wall, because history is not accounted for. It is important in anthropological pursuits to remember to incorporate relevant pieces of history. The case that Geertz makes about cockfights in Bali is substantiated but lacks a historical context. This places unnecessary limitations on his exploration into this cultural aspect. Another limitation that is intrinsic to Geertz’s method is the equal portrayal of involved parties. All cultures are made up of many people who fit differing roles; men, women, children, the elderly, etc. In order to tell an accurate ethnography nobody should be left out, but as is the case with cockfighting, some groups just are. In order to truly achieve a precise anthropological report it is important to include both the accounts of men and women. In particular, Geertz’s discussion of the Balinese cockfights does not include women at all. The reason that Geertz does not explore the role of women in cockfights is due to the fact that they do not participate. The event includes and is solely


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology about men. By forgetting to include women as a piece of the cultural puzzle, a huge disservice is done to the academic community. To combat this, Geertz could explore what women do while the cockfights go on. This way, at least both genders are accounted for in some way. The reason that it is important is because anthropological accounts become documents that describe more than just occurrences but rather, “inscriptions that can be consulted” (Geertz 1973: 19). The way in which anthropologists tell their story is critical to the future understanding of culture, and therefore, more emphasis needs to be placed on studying all the groups that combine to form a culture without forgetting about a few of them. Even with these limitations, there is a tremendous amount to gain from both the writings of Clifford Geertz and Marshall Sahlins. Their works display just two of the many faces that belong to anthropology. Anthropology is an academic art form that can be told in a number of different ways. The various ways in which it is told contributes to the lessons that can be derived from it. Even though Geertz’s method has some limitations embedded in his style, it plays an important role in revealing what is necessary in order to create a successful anthropological account. Geertz looked at culture as an ensemble of texts. What this essentially means is that people, or natives, would have the opportunity to tell their own story in the way they choose to tell it. This story ultimately becomes their culture. Geertz did this through the lens of Balinese cockfights. There must have been thousands of other rituals that he could have studied in Bali, but he chose this one to represent and thus become representative of their culture.


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology In a similar manner, Marshall Sahlins looked at the death of Captain James Cook in order to tell the historical significance and story about the Hawaiian people. It cannot be disputed that Sahlins is an anthropologist, yet he uses methods to tell his story in a much different way than Geertz. Sahlins is interpreting something historical, and attributes events as forces that shape culture, as opposed to the other way round which Geertz would suggest. These different takes on anthropology are what make the study great. There is diversity in style and explanation which make it a constantly changing and adaptive field. In the future, it will be interesting to see what new styles of anthropology will arise. It would be fascinating to see a hybrid of Geertz and Sahlins, where “thick description” is used in combination with some sort of historical context. This would make for an extremely comprehensive account. Ultimately, it is most beneficial if people studying anthropology become aware of the varying styles that exist. This cognition will help contribute to and further an overall understanding of culture, due to the fact that several perspectives will help establish a holistic view of the culture being studied. With this in mind, it is plain to see that anthropology will continue to be an appealing field, in which the participants work to excavate, learn, and grow with their material.


Tyrone Schiff Cultural Anthropology References: Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Descriptions: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973, pp.3-30; 412-453 Sahlins, Marshall. “Structure and History,” in Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp.104-156