Thick Description, I presume?

Just like every week, doing the readings for class this time involved a voyage of discovery. First I was reading about cats being slaughtered by jovial eighteenth century printers; next it was cockfights in 1950s Bali. By the time I got to Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” I had a decent handle on the theme for the week. Lo and behold, it was exactly as the syllabus proclaimed: cultural history/historical anthropology. I had also decided that Geertz was not good to read aloud; his sentences are as long and tangled as a post-kitten ball of yarn.

The idea of “thick description” is interesting. I enjoyed the article on cockfighting until I got to the section on gambling. The precise, quantitative description of exactly how the bets worked and the odds people looked for completely lost me. It was too thick for my taste, I guess. But the article overall, the “cultural readings of very densely textured, concrete faces” (thanks Tosh!), was still really interesting (Tosh 266). I liked Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” even better—in part thanks to his very engaging literary style. I would not have seen Darnton’s essay as thick description before I finished the rest of this week’s readings; compared to Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” the description of the massacre seemed less thick, somehow. Perhaps that was just because I could clearly understand everything he was talking about and didn’t get bogged down in even and odd bets, etc., etc.

But after reading Tosh’s chapter “Cultural Evidence and the cultural turn” and Roger Chartier’s “Texts, Symbols, and Frenchness,” it was more clear to me that thick description did not merely involve a muddlingly complex number of facts. More important is how the author of a thick description piece can draw larger conclusions on the culture they are studying from whatever small event they are discussing. This brings anthropology into the mix, since that is the field where this technique is mostly applied (or so it seems). How can anthropology inform our study of history?

“The Great Cat Massacre” shows us how. Darnton is writing not only about a particular event in 1730s Paris, but also about the French Ancien Regime in its entirety. He lays it out for us early on, when he writes that “anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realise that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it” (Darnton 3).

So anthropologists and historians are in the same business. Since we have decided that “the past is a foreign country,” it really is the job of historians to hack through the jungles of time in order to observe, catalogue, and explain the native culture of that most exotic land known as Long Ago.


In other news, Virginia Tech’s own Virginia Center for Civil War Studies posted the following link on their Facebook page with the heading, “The fascinating story of a slave forced to support the Confederate war effort.” I thought it would be neat to put this here in light of our discussion several weeks ago on “black confederates.” Bonus round: how would applying “thick description,” if possible, help interpret this story?

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