Critique of Clifford Geertz's Research Methods in Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cock-fight,
Clifford Geertz is an interpretative anthropologist who believes “Cultures are symbolic systems consisting of practices which create shared cultural meanings” (Morgan, 2011). Using direct observation of cockfighting and its functions within Balinese society, Geertz makes assertions of its symbolic meaning, and relation to Balinese culture, focusing largely on its social implications and masculine symbolism. Geertz uses a mixture of research methods in his ethnography, predominantly employing long-term participant observation (a method developed by Polish Anthropologist Bronilow Malinowski) and supports this participant observation method with the inclusion of historical and literary research, and cross-cultural comparison.
The introduction of Geertz’s ethnography describes the difficulty he encounters in connecting with the Balinese people, and then demonstrates how he inadvertently establishes rapport with the community by running away during a police raid of an illegal cockfight. Geertz portrays this incident as the juncture of his subsequent acceptance into the community. By including this story, Geertz attempts to lend credence and validity to his research in the mind of the reader. Establishing rapport and acceptance with research subjects is an essential element of participant observation, enabling an anthropologist to effectively observe behaviour and record information (Bernard, 2006:344). Furthermore, participant observation is a strategic method Geertz employs to ascertain in-depth understanding, and accurate interpretation of cultural symbols and practices of Balinese culture, in this case the cock and cockfighting.
Effective use of participant observation is supported by prior historical and literary research of Balinese cultural concepts. Geertz uses knowledge of historical elements such as Balinese association of animals with demons, to understand the significance of cocks and cock fighting in Balinese culture, and to interpret the nature of symbolism the Balinese apply to cocks and cockfighting. Moreover he draws on cross-cultural comparison to explain his interpretations.
Cross-cultural comparison is used to explain perceptions of the Balinese attitude towards cocks and cockfighting to his intended American audience. For example, Geertz states “cocks are symbolic expressions of manifestations of their owners self, the narcissistic male ego writ out in Aesopian terms” (Geertz, 1993:419). This interpretation casts a simplistic Western perspective on a concept which is likely far more complex, and may be argued as being an ethnocentric perspective. Geertz further describes cock fighting as having similar inherent masculine qualities as American cultural practices such as baseball and poker. With a primary focus on the masculine element and social implications involved in the subject, an absence of a feminine perspective on cockfighting becomes evident.
Geertz methods, though comprehensive in addressing the masculine context of cockfighting, fails to gain a holistic representation of the subject by neglecting to research the symbolism women apply to cockfighting and the implications cockfighting has for women. Although women apparently play little part in the ritual practice and fundamental elements of cockfighting, by failing to include women in his research, Geertz consequently fails to culminatively analyse the symbolistic nature of cockfighting. For example: What does cockfighting symbolize for Balinese women? How does cockfighting affect the lives and attitudes of women? And conversely, how do women directly or indirectly affect the nature of cockfighting? Such information is difficult to gather through direct observation due to the lack of direct involvement of women in the practice. However, information relating to how women are involved in the practice of cock-fighting may have been gathered effectively through the use of structured or informal interviews.
Geertz effectively uses a combination of research methods to analyse Balinese cockfighting, however, his interpretation is bias towards its masculine element. Consequently, the exclusion of feminine implications and understanding of cockfighting, results in an incomplete assessment of the true nature of cockfighting, demonstrating the need for adaptive and varied research methods within the field of anthropology.
Bernard, H. R. (2006). Research methods in Anthropology (4th Ed.). Oxford: Altimira press.
Geertz, C. (1993). Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontama Press.
Morgan, R. (2011). AN1001: Culture: From nation to cyberspace. Week 3 (Lecture notes). Retrieved from http://learnjcu.edu.au