Thick description toward an interpretive theory of culture

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THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES SELECTED ESSAYS BY Clifford Geertz Basic Books, Inc., Puhlishers NEW YORK Contents Preface vii PART I 4 Chapter 1 Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive 1 Theory of Culture 3 PART II Chapter 21 The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man 33 Chapter 3 The Growth of Culture and the Evolution 1 55 of Mind PART III Chapter 4 Religion As a Cultural System 87 1 Chapter 51 Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols 126 Chapter 6 Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese 1 Example 142 Chapter 71 "Internal Conversion" in Contemporary Bali 170 Preface When an anthropologist, urged on by an attentive publisher, begins to gather together certain of his essays for a kind of retrospective exhibi­ tion of what he has been doing, or trying to do, over the fifteen -year pe­ riod since his release from graduate school, he is faced by two tearing decisions: what to include, and how reverently to treat what is included. All of us who write social science journal pieces have a nonbook in us, and more and more of us are publishing them; all of us imagine that anything our past self has done our present self could do better, and stand ready to perpetrate improvements upon our own work we would never stand for from any editor. To try to find the figure in the carpet of one's writings can be as chilling as trying to fin d it in one's life; to weave, post facto, a figure in-"th is is what I meant to say" -is an in­ tense temptation. I have faced up to the first of these decisions by including in this collection only those of my essays which bear, directly and explicitly, on the concept of culture. The majority of the essays are, in fact, empir­ ical studies rather than theoretical disquisitions, for I grow uncomfort­ able when I get too far away from the immediacies of social life. But all of them are basically concerned with pushing forward, instant case by instant case, a particular, some would say peculiar, view of what culture is, what role it plays in social life, and how it ought properly to be stud­ ied. Though this redefi nition of culture has perhaps been my most per­ sistent interest as an anthropologist, I have also worked with some ex­ tensiveness in the areas of economic development, social organization, comparative history, and cultural ecology-concerns which are, save tangentially, not reflected here. Thus, what is ostensibly a set of essays PREFACE viii emerges, so I hope, somewhat as a treatise-a treatise in cultural theory as developed through a series of concrete analyses. Not just an "and then I wrote . . . " review of a somewhat vagrant professional career, this book has an argument to make. The second decision has been a bit trickier to deal with. In general, I hold to a stare decisis view of published pieces, if only because if they need very much revision they probably ought not to be reprinted at all, but should be replaced with a wholly new article getting the damn thing right. Further, correcting one's misjudgments by writing changed views back into earlier works seems to me not wholly cricket, and it obscures the development of ideas that one is supposedly trying to demonstrate in collecting the essays in the first place. However, for all that, there does seem justification for a certain amount of retroactive editing in cases where the substance of the argu­ ment is not seriously affected but to leave things exactly as originally written is either to purvey out-of -date information or undercut a still valid discussion by tying it too closely to a particular set of now faded events. There are two places in the essays below where these considerations seemed to me relevant, and where I have therefore made some changes in what I originally wrote. The fir st is in the two essays of Part II on culture and biological evolution, where the fossil datings given in the original essays have been defin itely supe rseded. The dates have, in gen­ eral, been moved back in time, and as this change leaves my central ar­ guments essentially intact, I see no harm in introducing the newer esti­ mations. There seems little point in continuin g to tell the world that Australopithecines go back a million years when archeologists are now findin g fossils datable to four or five million years. The second is in connection with Chap ter 10, in Part IV, "The Integrative Revolution," where the flo w-if that is what it should be called- of new state his­ tory since the article was written in the early 1960s makes some of the passages read oddly. As Nasser is dead, Pakistan has split, Nigeria has been defederalized, and the Com munist Party has disappeared from the Indonesian scene, to write as though these things had not occurred is to give a sense of unreality to the discussion, a discussion which, again, I regard as still valid, even if it is Nehru's daughter rather than Nehru who now leads India and the Republic of Malaya has expanded into the Federation of Malaysia. Thus, I have in that essay made two sorts of changes. First, I have changed tenses, introduced clauses, added a foot­ note or two, and so on, in the body of the text to make it read a little Preface ix less as though the last ten years had not occurred. I have not, however, changed anything of substance so as to improve my argument. Second, I have added to each of the case histories-a nd clearly set off from them -a paragraph summary of relevant developments since the essay was written, so as to indicate that, if anything, those developments demon­ strate the continued relevance of the issues the essay treats in terms of earlier events, and again to dissipate the Rip Van Winkle effect. Except for minor typographical and grammatical corrections (and changes in referencing style for the sake of consistency), the remainder of the book is essentially unaltered. I have added, however, a new chapter, the fir st one, in an attempt to state my present position as generally as I can. As my views on the matters the chapters discuss have evolved over the fifteen years they span, there are indeed some differences in the way certain things are put in this introductory chapter and the way they are put in some of the reprinted ones. Some of my earlier concerns-w ith functionalism, for example-now are less prominent in my mind; some of my later ones -with semiotics, for example-are now more so. But the trend of thought in the essays-wh ich are arranged in a logical, not a chronolog­ ical, order-seems to me relatively consistent, and the introductory chapter represents an effort to state more explicitly and systematically what that trend of thought is: an attempt, in fine, to say what I have been saying. I have eliminated all the acknowledgments contained in the original essays. Those who have helped me know that they have and how very much they have. I can only hope that by now they know that I know it too. Rather than implicate them in my confusions once again, let me in­ stead take the rather peculiar tack of thanking three remarkable aca­ demic institutions that have provided me with the kind of setting for scholarly work I am convinced could not be surpassed right now any­ where in the world: The Department of Soc ial Relations of Harvard University, where I was trained ; the Dep artment of Anthropology of the University of Chi cago, where I taught for a decade; and The Insti­ tute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where I now work. At a time when the American university system is under attack as irrelevant or worse, I can only say that it has been for me a redemptive gift. C. G. Princeton 1973 Chapter 1 /Thick Description: Toward an Inter retive Theory of p Culture I In her book, Philosoph in a New Ke , Susanne Langer remarks that y y certain ideas burst upon the intellectual landscape with a tremendous force. They resolve so many fundamental problems at once that they seem also to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems, clarify all obscure issues. Everyone snaps them up as the open sesame of some new pos itive science, the conceptual center-point around which a comprehensive system of analysis can be built. The sudden vogue of such a grande idee, crowding out almost everything else for a while, is due, she says, "to the fact that all sensitive and active minds turn at once to exploiting it. We try it in every connection, for every purpose, experiment with possible stretches of its strict meaning, with generaliza­ tions and derivatives." After we have become familiar with the new idea, however, after it has become part of our general stock of theoretical concepts, our expec-THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES 4 tations are brought more into balance with its actual uses, and its exces­ sive popularity is ended. A few zealots persist in the old key-to-the-uni­ verse view of it; but less driven thinkers settle down after a while to the problems the idea has really generated. They try to apply it and extend it where it applies and where it is capable of extension; and they desist where it does not apply or cannot be extended. It becomes, if it was, in truth, a seminal idea in the fir st place, a permanent and enduring part of our intellectual armory. But it no longer has the grandiose, all-prom­ ising scope, the infinit e versatility of apparent application, it once had. The second law of thermodynamics, or the principle of natural selec­ tion, or the notion of unconscious motivation, or the organization of the means of production does not explain everything, not even everything human, but it still explains something; and our attention shifts to isolat­ ing just what that something is, to disentangling ourselves from a lot of pseudoscience to which, in the first flush of its celebrity, it has also given rise. Whether or not this is, in fact, the way all centrally important scien­ tific concepts develop, I don't know. But certainly this pattern fi ts the concept of culture, around which the whole discipline of anthropology arose, and whose domination that discipline has been increasingly con­ cerned to limit, specify, focus, and contain. It is to this cutting of the culture concept down to size, therefore actually insuring its continued impo rtance rather than undermining it, that the essays below are all, in their several ways and from their several directions, dedicated. They all argue, sometimes explicitly, more often merely through the particular analysis they develop, for a narrowed, specialized, and, so I imagine, theoretically more powerful concept of culture to replace E. B. Tylor's fa mous "most complex whole," which, its originative power not denied, seems to me to have reached the point where it obscures a good deal more than it reveals. The conceptual morass into which the Tylorean kind of pot-au-feu theorizing about culture can lead, is evident in what is still one of the better general introductions to anthropology, Clyde Kluckhohn's Mirror fo r Man. In some twenty-seven pages of his chapter on the concept, Kluckhohn managed to define cultur e in turn as: (1) "the total way of life of a people"; (2) "the social legacy the individual acquires from his group"; (3) "a way of thinking, feeling, and believing" ; (4) "an abstrac­ tion from behavior"; (5) a theory on the part of the anthropologist a bout the way in which a group of people in fact behave ; (6) a "store-Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Cult u re 5 house of pooled learning"; (7) "a set of standardized orientations to re­ current problems"; (8) "learned behavior"; (9 ) a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior; (1 0) "a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men"; (11 ) "a precipitate of history"; and turning, perhaps in desperation, to similes, as a map, as a sieve, and as a matrix. In the face of this sort of theoretical diffusion, even a somewhat constricted and not entirely standard concept of cul­ ture, which is at least internally coherent and, more impor tant, which has a definable argument to make is (as, to be fair, Kluckhohn himself keenly realized) an improvement. Eclecticism is self-def eating not be­ cause there is only one direction in which it is useful to move, but be­ cause there are so many: it is necessary to choose. The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an in­ terpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. But this pro­ nouncement, a doctrine in a clause, demands itself some explication. II Opera tionalism as a methodological dogma never made much sense so far as the social sciences are concerned, and except for a few rather too well-swept corners-Sk innerian behaviorism, intelligence testing, and so on-i t is largely dead now. But it had, for all that, an impor tant point to make, which, however we may feel about trying to define cha­ risma or alienation in terms of operations, retains a certain force: if you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first in­ stance not at its theories or its findi ngs, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do. In anthropology, or anyway social anthropology, what the practioners do is ethnography. And it is in understanding what ethnography is, or more exactly what doing ethnography is, that a start can be made to-THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES 6 ward grasping what anthropological analysis amounts to as a form of knowledge. This, it must immediately be said, is not a matter of meth­ od one point of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is s. From establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking ge­ nealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these things, techniques and received procedures, that define the enterprise. What defines it is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate ven­ ture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, "thick description." Ryle's discussion of "thick description" appears in two recent essays of his (now reprinted in the second volume of his Collected Papers) ad­ dressed to the general question of what, as he puts it, "Le Penseur" is doing: "Thinking and Reflect ing" and "The Thinking of Thoughts." Cons ider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an l-am-a-camera, "phenomenalistic" observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone un­ fortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (I) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company. As Ryle poi nts out, the winker has not done two things, contracted his eyelids and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eye­ lids. Contract ing your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking. That's all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and­ voila-a gesture. That, however, is just the beginning. Suppose, he continues, there is a third boy, who, "to give malicious amusement to his cronies," parodies the first boy's wink, as amateurish, clumsy, obvious, and so on. He, of course, does this in the same way the second boy winked and the fir st twitched: by contracting his right eyelids. Onl y this boy is neither wink­ ing nor twitching, he is parodying someone else's, as he takes it, laugh­ able, attempt at winking. Here, too, a socially established code exists (he will "wink" laboriously, overobviously, perhaps adding a grimace-the usual artifices of the clown); and so also does a message. Onl y now it is Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture 7 not conspiracy but ridicule that is in the air. If the others think he is ac­ tually winking, his whole project misfires as completely, though with somewhat different results, as if they think he is twitching. One can go further: uncertain of his mimicking abilities, the would-be satirist may practice at home before the mirror, in which case he is not twitching, winking, or parodying, but rehearsing; though so far as what a camera, a radical behaviorist, or a believer in protocol sentences would record he is just rapidly contracting his right eyelids like all the others. Com­ plexities are possible, if not practically without end, at least logically so. The original winker might, for example, actually have been fake-wink­ ing, say, to mislead outsiders into imagining there was a conspiracy afoot when there in fact was not, in which case our descriptions of what the parodist is parodying and the rehearser rehearsing of course shift accordingly. But the poin t is that between what Ryle calls the "thin de­ scription" of what the rehearser (parodist, winker, twitcher ... ) is doing ("rapidly contracting his right eyelids") and the "thick descrip­ tion" of what he is doing ("practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion") lies the object of ethnography: a stratifie d hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, re­ hearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not (not even the zero-form twitches, which, as a cultural category, are as much nonwinks as winks are nontwitches) in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn't do with his eyelids. Like so many of the little stories Oxf ord philosophers like to make up for themselves, all this winking, fake-winking, burlesque-fake-wink­ ing, rehearsed-burlesque-fake-winking, may seem a bit artificia l. In way of adding a more empirica l note, let me give, deliberately unpreceded by any prior explanatory comment at all, a not untypical excerpt from my own field journal to demonstrate that, however evened off for didac­ tic purposes, 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: The French the informant said had only just arrived. They set up twenty or so small forts between here, the town, and the Marmusha area up in the middle of the mountains, placing them on promontories so they could sur­ vey the countryside. But for all this they couldn't guarantee safety, espe­ cially at night, so although the mezra , trade-pact, system was supposed to g be legally abolished it in fact continued as before. THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES 8 One night, when Cohen (who speaks fluent Berber), was up there, at Mar­ musha, two other Jews who we re traders to a neighboring tribe came by to purchase some goods from him. Some Berbers, from yet another neighbor­ ing tribe, tried to break into Cohen's place, but he fir ed his rifl e in the air. (Traditionally, Jews were not allowed to carry weapons; but at this period things were so unsettled many did so anyway.) This attracted the attention of the French and the marauders fled . The next night, however, they came back, one of them disguised as a woman who knocked on the door with some sort of a story. Cohen was sus­ picious and didn't want to let "her" in, but the other Jews said, "oh, it's all right, it's only a woman." So they opened the door and the whole lot came pouring in. They killed the two visiting Jews, but Cohen managed to barri­ cade himself in an adjoining room. He heard the robbers planning to burn him alive in the shop after they removed his goods, and so he opened the door and, laying about him wildly with a club, managed to escape through a window. He went up to the fort, then, to have his wounds dressed, and complained to the local commandant, one Captain Dumari, saying he wanted his 'ar­ i.e., four or five times the value of the merchandise stolen from him. The robbers were from a tribe which had not yet submitted to French authority and were in open rebellion against it, and he wanted authorization to go with his mezrag-holder, the Marmusha tribal sheikh, to collect the indemnity that, under traditional rules, he had coming to him. Captain Dumari couldn't offic ially give him permission to do this, because of the French pro­ hibition of the mezrag relationship, but he gave him verbal authorization, saying, "If you get killed, it's your problem." So the sheikh, the Jew, and a small company of armed Marmushans went off ten or fifteen kilometers up into the rebellious area, where there were of course no French, and, sneaking up, captured the thief-tribe's shepher d and stole its herds. The other tribe soon came riding out on horses after them, armed with rifles and ready to attack. But when they saw who the "sheep thieves" were, they thought better of it and said, "all right, we'll talk." They couldn't really deny what had happened-tha t some of their men had robbed Cohen and killed the two visitors-and they weren't prepared to start the serious feud with the Marmusha a scuffle with the invading party would bring on. So the two groups talked, and talked, and talked, there on the plain amid the thousands of sheep. and decided finally on fiv e-hundred­ sheep damages. The two armed Berber groups then lined up on their horses at opposite ends of the plain, with the sheep herded between them, and Cohen, in his black gown, pillbox hat, and flapping slippers, went out alone among the sheep, picking out, one by one and at his own good speed, the best ones for his payment. So Cohen got his sheep and drove them back to Marmusha. The French, up in their fort, heard them coming from some distance ("Ba, ba, ba" said Cohen, happily, recalling the image) and said, "What the hell is that?" And Cohen said, "That is my 'ar. " The French couldn't believe he had actually Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Cultur e 9 done what he said he had done, and accused him of being a spy for the re­ bellious Berbers, put him in prison, and took his sheep. In the town, his family, not having heard from him in so long a time, thought he was dead. But after a while the French released him and he came back home, but without his sheep. He then went to the Colonel in the town, the Frenchman in charge of the whole region, to complain. But the Colonel said, "I can't do anything about the matter. It's not my problem." Quoted raw, a note in a bottle, this passage conveys, as any similar one similarly presented would do, a fair sense of how much goes into ethnographic description of even the most elemental sort-how extraor­ dinarily "thick" it is. In fini shed anthropological writings, including those collected here, this fact-that what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people's constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to-is obscured because most of what we need to comprehend a particular event, ritual, custom, idea, or whatever is in­ sinuated as background information before the thing itself is directly ex­ amined. (Even to reveal that this little drama took place in the high­ lands of central Morocco in 19 12 -and was recounted there in 196 8-is to determine much of our understanding of it.) There is noth­ ing particularly wrong with this, and it is in any case inevitable. But it does lead to a view of anthropological research as rather more of an ob­ servational and rather less of an interpretive activity than it really is. Right down at the factual base, the hard rock, insofar as there is any, of the whole enterprise, we are already explicating: and worse, explicating explications. Winks upon winks upon winks. Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification -what Ryle called established codes, a somewhat misleading expression, for it makes the enterprise sound too much like that of the cipher clerk when it is much more like that of the literary critic-and determining their social ground and import. Here, in our text, such sorting would begin with distinguishing the three unlike frames of interpretation ingredient in the situation, Jewish, Berber, and French, and would then move on to show how (and why) at that time, in that place, their copresence pro­ duced a situation in which systematic misunderstanding reduced tradi­ tional form to social farce. What tripped Cohen up, and with him the whole, ancient pattern of social and economic relationships within which he functioned, was a confusion of tongues. I shall come back to this too-compacted aphorism later, as well as to the details of the text itself. The poin t for now is only that ethnography THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES 10 is thick description. What the ethnographer is in fact faced with­ except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pursuing the more auto­ matized routines of data collection-is a multiplicity of complex con­ ceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render. And this is true at the most down-to-earth, jungle field work levels of his ac­ tivity: interviewing informants, observing rituals, eliciting kin terms, tracing property lines, censusing households . . . writing his journal. Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of "construct a reading of') a manuscript-f oreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoher­ encies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior. III Culture, this acted document, thus is public, like a burlesqued wink or a mock sheep raid. Though ideational, it does not exist in someone's head; though unphysical, it is not an occult entity. The interminable, because unterminable, debate within anthropology as to whether culture is "subjective" or "objective," together with the mutual exchange of in­ tellectual insults ("idealist" -" materialist"; "mentalist" -"behav­ iorist"; "impressionist" -"p ositivist") which accompanies it, is wholly misconceived. Once human behavior is seen as (most of the time; there are true twitches) symbolic action-a ction which, like pho­ nation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies-the question as to whether culture is patterned con­ duct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask about a burlesqued wink or a mock sheep raid is not what their ontological status is. It is the same as that of rocks on the one hand and dreams on the other-they are things of this world. The thing to ask is what their import is: what it is, ridicule or challenge, irony or anger, snobbery or pride, that, in their occu rrence and through their agency, is getting said. This may seem like an obvious truth, but there are a number of ways Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Cul ture 11 to obscure it. One is to imagine that culture is a self-contained "super­ organic" reality with forces and purposes of its own; that is, to reify it. Another is to claim that it consists in the brute pattern of behavioral events we observe in fact to occur in some identifiable community or other; that is, to reduce it. But though both these confusions still exist, and doubtless will be always with us, the main source of theoretical muddlement in contemporary anthropology is a view which developed in reaction to them and is right now very widely held-namely, that, to quote Ward Goodenough, ·perhaps its leading proponent, "culture is located in the minds and hearts of men." Variously called ethnoscience, componential analysis, or cognitive anthropo logy (a terminological wavering which reflects a deeper uncer­ tainty), this school of thought holds that culture is composed of psycho­ logical structures by means of which individuals or groups of individu­ als guide their behavior. "A society's culture," to quote Goodenough again, this time in a passage which has become the locus classicus of the whole movement, "consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members." And from this view of what culture is follows a view, equally assured, of what de­ scribing it is- the writing out of systematic rules, an ethnographic algo­ rithm, which, if followed, would make it possible so to operate, to pass (physical appearance aside) for a native. In such a way, extreme subjec­ tivism is married to extreme formalism, with the expected result: an ex­ plosion of debate as to whether particular analyses (which come in the form of taxonomies, paradigms, tables, trees, and other ingenuities) re­ flect what the natives "really" think or are merely clever simulations, logi­ cally equivalent but substantively different, of what they think. As, on first glance, this approach may look close enough to the one being developed here to be mistaken for it, it is useful to be explicit as to what divides them. If, leaving our winks and sheep behind for the moment, we take, say, a Beethoven quartet as an, admittedly rather spe­ cial but, for these purpo ses, nicely illustrative, sample of culture, no one would, I think, identify it with its score, with the skills and knowledge needed to play it, with the understanding of it possessed by its perform­ ers or auditors, nor, to take care, en passant, of the reductionists and reifiers, with a particular performance of it or with some mysterious en­ tity transcending material existence. The "no one" is perhaps too strong here, for there are always incorrigibles. But that a Beethoven quartet is a temporally developed tonal structure, a coherent sequence of modeled THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTU RES 12 sound-in a word, music-and not anybody's knowledge of or belief about anything, including how to play it, is a proposition to which most people are, upon reflec tion, likely to assent. To play the violin it is necessary to possess certain habits, skills, knowledge, and talents, to be in the mood to play, and (as the old joke goes) to have a violin. But violin playing is neither the habits, skills, knowledge, and so on, nor the mood, nor (the notion believers in "ma­ terial culture" apparently embrace) the violin. To make a trade pact in Morocco, you have to do certain things in certain ways (among others, cut, while chanting Quranic Arabic, the throat of a lamb before the as­ sembled, undeformed, adult male members of your tribe) and to be pos­ sessed of certain psychological characteristics (among others, a desire for distant things). But a trade pact is neither the throat cutting nor the desire, though it is real enough, as seven kinsmen of our Marmusha sheikh discovered when, on an earlier occasion, they were executed by him following the theft of one mangy, essentially valueless sheepskin from Co hen. Culture is public because meaning is. You can't wink (or burlesque one) without knowing what counts as winking or how, physically, to contract your eyelids, and you can't conduct a sheep raid (or mimic one) without knowing what it is to steal a sheep and how practically to go about it. But to draw from such truths the conclusion that knowing how to wink is winking and knowing how to steal a sheep is sheep raid­ ing is to betray as deep a confusion as, taking thin descriptions for thick, to identify winking with eyelid contractions or sheep raiding with chasing woolly animals out of pastures. The cognitivist fallacy-that culture consists (to quote another spokesman for the movement, Stephen Tyler) of "mental phenomena which can he means "should" be ana­ lyzed by formal methods similar to those of mathematics and logic" -is as destructive of an effecttve use of the concept as are the behaviorist and idealist fallacies to which it is a misdrawn correction. Perhaps, as its errors are more sophistica ted and its distortions subtler, it is even more so. The generalized attack on privacy theories of meaning is, since early Husserl and late Wittgenstein, so much a part of modern thought that it need not be developed once more here. What is necessary is to see to it that the news of it reaches anthropology; and in particular that it is made clear that to say that culture consists of socially established struc­ tures of meaning in terms of which people do such things as signal con-Thick Description: Toward an Interpr etive Theory of Culture 13 spiracies and join them or perceive insults and answer them, is no more to say that it is a psychological phenomenon, a characteristic of some­ one's mind, personality, cognitive structure, or whatever, than to say that Tantrism, genetics, the progressive form of the verb, the classifica­ tion of wines, the Com mon Law, or the notion of "a conditional curse" (as Westermarck defined the concept of 'ar in terms of which Cohen pressed his claim to damages) is. What, in a place like Morocco, most prevents those of us who grew up winking other winks or attending other sheep from grasping what people are up to is not ignorance as to how cognition works (though, especially as, one assumes, it works the same among them as it does among us, it would greatly help to have less of that too) as a lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs. As Wittgenstein has been invoked, he may as well be quoted: We . . . say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a com­ plete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country's language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them. IV Finding our feet, an unnerving business which never more than distantly succeeds, is what ethnographic research consists of as a personal experi­ ence; trying to formulate the basis on which one imagines, always ex­ cessively, one has found them is what anthropological writing consists of as a scientific endeavor. We are not, or at least I am not, seeking ei­ ther to become natives (a compromised word in any case) or to mimic them. Only romantics or spies would seem to find point in that. We are seeking, in the widened sense of the term in which it encompasses very much more than talk, to converse with them, a matter a great deal more difficult, and not only with strangers, than is commonly recognized. "If speaking someone else seems to be a mysterious process," Stanley or f Cave ll has remarked, "that may be because speaking t someone does o not seem mysterious enough." THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES 1 4 Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse. That is not, of course, its only aim­ instruction, amusement, practical counsel, moral advance, and the dis­ covery of natural order in human behavior are others; nor is anthropo l­ ogy the only discipline which pursues it. But it is an aim to which a semiotic concept of culture is peculiarly well adapted. As interworked systems of construable signs (what, ignoring provincial usages, I would call symbols), culture is not a po wer, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly-that is, thickly-described . The famous anthropol ogical absorption with the (to us) exotic­ Berber horsemen, Jewish peddlers, French Legionnaires-is, thus, es­ sentially a device for displacing the dulling sense of familiarity with which the mysteriousne ss of our own ability to relate perceptively to one another is concealed from us. Looking at the ordinary in places where it takes unaccustomed forms brings out not, as has so often been claimed, the arbitrarine ss of human behavior (there is nothing especially arbitrary about taking sheep theft for insolence in Morocco), but the de­ gree to which its meaning varies according to the pattern of life by which it is informed. Understanding a people's culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity. (The more I manage to follow what the Moroccans are up to, the more logical, and the more singular, they seem.) It renders them accessible: setting them in the frame of their own banalities, it dissolves their opacity. It is this maneuver, usually too casually referred to as "seeing things from the actor's point of view," too bookishly as "the verstehen ap­ proach," or too technically as "ernie analysis," that so often leads to the notion that anthropo logy is a variety of either long- distance mind read­ ing or cannibal-i sle fantasizing, and which, for someone anxious to navi­ gate past the wrecks of a dozen sunken philosophies, must therefore be executed with a great deal of care. Nothing is more necessary to comprehending what anthropological interpretation is, and the degree to which it is interpretation, than an exact understanding of what it means -and what it does not mean-to say that our formulations of other peoples' symbol systems must be actor- oriented.• 1 Not only other peoples': anthropology can be trained on the cultur e of which it is itself a part, and it increas ingly is; a fact of profound impor tance, but which, as it raises a few tricky and rather special second order problems, I shall put to the side for the moment. Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Cultur e 1 5 What it means is that descriptions of Berber, Jewish, or French cul­ ture must be cast in terms of the constructions we imagine Berbers, Jews, or Frenchmen to place upon what they live through, the formulae they use to defin e what happens to them. What it does not mean is that such descriptions are themselve s Berber, Jewish, or French-that is, part of the reality they are ostensibly describing; they are anthropolo gical-that is, part of a developing system of scientific anal­ ysis. They must be cast in terms of the interpretations to which persons of a particular denomination subject their experience, because that is what they profess to be descriptions of ; they are anthropological be­ cause it is, in fact, anthropologists who profess them. Normally, it is not necessary to point out quite so laboriously that the object of study is one thing and the study of it another. It is clear enough that the physi­ cal world is not physics and A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake not Finnegan's Wake. But, as, in the study of culture, analysis penetrates into the very body of the object-that is, we begin with our own inter­ pretations of what our informants are up to, or think they are up to, and then systematize those -the line between (Morocca n) culture as a natural fact and (Moroccan) culture as a theoretical entity tends to get blurred. All the more so, as the latter is presente d in the form of an ac­ tor's-eye description of (Moroccan) conceptions of everything from vio­ lence, honor, divinity, and justice, to tribe, property, patronage, and chiefship. In short, anthropological writings are themselv es interpretations ; and second and third order ones to boot. (By definition, only a "native" makes first order ones: it's his culture.) 2 They are, thus, fictio ns; fic­ tions, in the sense that they are "something made," "something fashioned" -the origina l meaning of fi ctio-not that they are false, un­ factual, or merely "as if" thought experiments. To construct actor-o ri­ ented descriptions of the involvements of a Berber chieftain, a Jewish merchant, and a French soldier with one another in 1912 Morocco is clearly an imaginative act, not all that different from constructing simi­ lar descriptions of, say, the involvements with one another of a provin­ cial French doctor, his silly, adulterous wife, and her feckless lover in 2 The order problem is, again, co mplex. Anthropological works based on other anthropological works (Levi-Strauss', for example) may, of course, be fourth order or higher, and inf ormants frequently, even habitually, make second order interpretations-what have come to be known as "native models." In literate cul­ tures, where "native" interpretation can proceed to higher levels- in connect ion with the Maghreb, one has only to think of Ibn Khaldun; with the United States, Margaret Mead-these matters become intricate indeed. THE INTER PRETATION OF CULTU RES 16 nineteenth century France. In the latter case, the actors are represented as not having existed and the events as not having happened, while in the former they are represented as actual, or as having been so. This is a difference of no mean importance; indeed, precisely the one Madame Bovary had difficu lty grasping. But the importance does not lie in the fact that her story was created while Cohen's was only noted. The con­ ditions of their creation, and the point of it (to say nothing of the man­ ner and the quality) differ. But the one is as much a fict io-"a mak­ ing"-as the other. Anthropologists have not always been as aware as they might be of this fact: that although culture exists in the trading post, the hill fort, or the sheep run, anthropol ogy exists in the book , the article , the lecture, the museum display, or, sometimes nowadays, the film. To become aware of it is to realize that the line between mode of representation and substantive content is as undrawable in cultural analysis as it is in painting; and that fact in turn seems to threaten the objective status of anthropol ogical knowledge by sugge sting that its source is not social reality but scholarly artifice . It does threaten it, but the threat is hollow. The claim to attention of an ethnographic account does not rest on its author's ability to capture primitive facts in faraway places and carry them home like a mask or a carving, but on the degree to which he is able to clarify what goes on in such places, to reduce the puzzlement-what manner of men are these? -to which unfamilia r acts emerging out of unknown backgrounds natu­ rally give rise. This raises some serious problems of verifi cation, all right-or, if "verificat ion" is too strong a word for so soft a science (I, myself, would prefer "appraisal") , of how you can tell a better account from a worse one. But that is precisely the virtue of it. If ethnography is thick description and ethnographers those who are doing the describ­ ing, then the determining question for any given example of it, whether a fiel d journal squib or a Malinowski-si zed monograph, is whether it sorts winks from twitches and real winks from mimicked ones. It is not against a body of uninterpreted data, radically thinned descriptions, that we must measure the cogency of our explications, but against the power of the scientifi c imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers. It is not worth it, as Thoreau said, to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Thick Description : Toward an Interpretiv e Theory of Cultur e 17 v Now, this proposition, that it is not in our interest to bleach human be­ havior of the very properties that interest us before we begin to exam­ ine it, has sometimes been escalated into a larger claim: namely, that as it is only those properties that interest us, we need not attend, save cur­ sorily, to behavior at all. Culture is most effectively treated, the argu­ ment goes, purely as a symbolic system (the catch phrase is, "in its own terms"), by isolating its elements, specifying the internal relationships among those elements, and then characterizing the whole system in some general way-according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. Though a distinct improvement over "learned behavior" and "mental phenomena" notions of what culture is, and the source of some of the most powerful theoret­ ical ideas in contemporary anthropol ogy, this hermetical approach to things seems to me to run the danger (and increasingly to have been overtaken by it) of locking cultural analysis away from its proper object, the informal logic of actual life. There is little profit in extricating a concept from the defects of psychologism only to plunge it immediately into those of schematic ism. Behavior must be attended to, and with some exactness, because it is through the flow of behavioror, more precisely, social action-that cultural forms find articulation. They find it as well, of course, in var­ ious sorts of artifacts, and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their "use") in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic rela­ tionships they bear to one another. It is what Cohen, the sheikh, and "Captain Dumari" were doing when they tripped over one another's purposes-pursuing trade, defending honor, establishing dominance­ that created our pastoral drama, and that is what the drama is, there­ fore, "about." Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems "in their own terms" may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspecting events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns. A further implication of this is that coherence cannot be the major test of validity for a cultural description. Cultural systems must have a minima l degree of coherence, else we would not call them systems; and,