Clifford Geertz and the Thick Description of the Balinese Cockfight

Clifford Geertz conceives culture as semiotic, a system of interlinked and interdependent meanings and symbols specific to a particular society at a specific point in time. In his essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in the book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz (1973, pp. 412-453) explains that the role of the ethnographer is not only to provide a “thin description” by recording and describing the raw facts, but also to interpret the meaning of what he describes. “Thick description” is, therefore, the intellectual analysis and interpretation of the meaning of these actions and symbols in a specific culture at a particular point in time, layered upon the factual, thin description of the actual symbols and events.

“He observes, he records, he analyses.”

(Geertz 1973)

Geertz compares the interpretation of culture to reading an old manuscript, trying to decipher the language, working around faded parts of the text or modifications made to the original by third parties, while also taking into consideration the possible motivations of the writer and the impact of the passage of time since the document was written. The aim of the anthropologist is thus the translation or interpretation of the semiotics of a society, through the lens of their culture, which is “a context, something within which they can be intelligibly- that is, thickly -described.”

“Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” – a Masterpiece of Thick Description

The essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in the book The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz 1973, pp. 3-30) is an excellent example of how an ethnographer can use thick description to bring the vibrancy and significance of a social activity to life. Geertz does not restrict himself to describing the minutiae of how the cockfights are organized and what happens during the actual event. He adds layer upon layer of thick detail regarding the actual meaning and the context of the cockfights, resulting in a colourful narrative that illustrates the importance and meaning of these events and what they symbolize for Balinese society.

Geertz uses the Balinese cockfight as a fulcrum around which he builds a multi-faceted description of Balinese culture.  Starting with the humorous story about how he and his wife ended up chased by police after attending an illegal cockfight, he weaves an insightful explanation of how the Balinese initially treat foreigners, and the total change of behaviour once the newcomers are accepted as part of Balinese society.

In the process, the reader also learns about tensions between the social classes, with the “elite” leveraging their superior political power to try to stamp out any customs of the “peasants,” which they find to be inconvenient or “embarrassing.” This information is crucial for the reader to understand the potentially seditious undertones of the cockfights, representing a society fighting against forced modernisation and change.

Thick Description – Discourse and Language

Once he has set the scene and the political background is understood, Geertz turns his attention to Balinese men, whose “deep psychological identification” . . . with their roosters is unmistakable. 

We learn that this close bond is so important that it even permeates the day-to-day discourse, with the Balinese language having a complex set of cockerel-related descriptions commonly used to describe the characteristics of different types of men, as well as cockfight-terminology used to refer to institutions such as the law courts or the police.

Geertz mentions many examples, ranging from the boastful man who is compared to a tailless cockerel “who struts about as though he had a large, spectacular one,” to the man whose word is worthless being compared to a cockerel “which, held by the tail, leaps at another without in fact engaging him.”

Thick Description – Daily life

From here, Geertz proceeds to build a picture of the day-to-day life of Balinese men seen through the lens of the cockfight. He paints a vivid picture of “Balinese men squatting idly in the council shed or along the road in their hips down, shoulders forward, knees up fashion” exercising and grooming their roosters.

The cockerel obsession is also illustrated through descriptions of how often they are bathed, the number of times their cages are moved from one place to another so the cock can enjoy optimal atmospheric conditions, and the food they are given, which is usually maize “sifted for impurities with far more care than it is when mere humans are going to eat it.

Thick Description – The Spiritual and The Venal

Geertz pivots to explain that the love lavished on roosters is the exception that proves the rule that the Balinese hate everything that is animalistic. He explains that this aversion is so strong that any behaviour that is associated with animals is repressed or done in secret. “Babies are not allowed to crawl,” and even eating and defecating is seen animalistic and therefore perceived to be disgusting. This forms the backdrop against which Geertz delves into the ritualistic, explaining that “any cockfight, is in the first instance a blood sacrifice offered, with the appropriate chants and oblations, to the demons in order to pacify their ravenous, cannibal hunger. No temple festival should be conducted until one is made.”

Having described the spiritual, Geertz turns to the venal, describing in great detail the gambling that occurs around the cockfights, effectively transmitting to the reader a sense of the frenzy that takes over the crowd as the betting gets under way. “As the moment for the release of the cockerels by the handlers approaches, the screaming, at least in a match where the center bet is large, reaches almost frenzied proportions as the remaining unfulfilled bettors try desperately to find a last-minute partner at a price they can live with.”

In conclusion, in his essay Geertz paints a colourful and nuanced picture of what it meant to be a Balinese villager in the 1950s. The essay is ostensibly about cockfights, and of course he describes the matches and the associated behaviours of the roosters, their owners, the umpires and the crowd. However, more importantly he then layers on top of that thick information about politics, class strife, language, male behaviour, spiritual beliefs, and ritual. One could say that this detail is ancillary to the description of the cockfight, but in truth the thick description is crucial for the reader to understand how important and significant cockfights are in Balinese society, as well as to have an inkling of what is going through the minds of the actors at these events.

Bibliography

Geertz, C., (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, NY: New York, NY: Basic Books

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