Nov 24 2006

Thick Description

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:53 PM

Clifford Geertz’s death at the age of 80 late last month merited a major obit in the Times and served as a reminder to me of the influence this celebrated anthropologist had on both journalism and African studies. Geertz’s contribution to these fields arose almost incidentally out of his legendary field work in Indonesia. In 1973, Geertz published a collection of essays, “The Interpretation of Cultures” that established him as a public intellectual. Geertz argued that the task of an intelligent observer was to provide “thick description” of the web of human behavior he called culture– for the purpose of identifying “meaning.” To Geertz, cultures — both alien and familiar — were socially constructed as was significance itself.
Humans lived, Geertz argued, “in webs of signficance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs.” There was a related proposition that reinforced Geertz’s revolutionary approach: the centrality of what he called “local knowledge.” By emphasizing the diversity of human society and culture, Geertz addressed the challenge of relativism in a novel way, by insisting that there was no universal standing in opposition to the situational. There was only “local knowledge,” in the sense that the webs of significance could only be decoded one locale at a time. Geertz’s conclusion served to protect the anthropological project, of course, but also provided intellectual ballast to the “common-sense notion out of which journalists made sense out of the world. Not only was all politics local, everything was local: confirmation, for journalists, that their methods matched reality. The juxtaposition of local knowledge and culture is such a common place today that it is hard to recreate the intellectual excitement over the ascent of cultural explanations of human society. The influence of Geertz’s way of thinking on African studies was enormous, if indirect. Geertz’s influence on journalism was indirect and largely unrecognized but nonetheless real. At a time when journalism was being reinvented in the wake of the Watergate exposes, Geertz\’s provided a philosophy and a methd for journalists to engage in &quot;thick description&quot; of all manner of from welfare recipients to prisoners to pro football players. In my own journalism, especially on Africa, I have been inspired by Geertz’s willingness to concede the impossibility of absolute judgements while at the same time insisting that, even if all truths are partial, some truths are better endowed than others. Relativism, in short, was no concession that anything goes. For journalists, Geertz provided an immense intellectual service by elevating intelligent observation both as an empirical method and an epistemological pursuit. In my own work on Africa, he is a beacon. His death has prompted me to revisit his classic works, which I hope will re-animate my own description of African cultures. common-sense notion out of which journalists made sense out of the world. Not only was all politics local, everything was local: confirmation, for journalists, that their methods matched reality. The juxtaposition of local knowledge and culture is such a common place today that it is hard to recreate the intellectual excitement over the ascent of cultural explanations of human society. The influence of Geertz’s way of thinking on African studies was enormous, if indirect. Geertz’s influence on journalism was indirect and largely unrecognized but nonetheless real. At a time when journalism was being reinvented in the wake of the Watergate exposes, Geertz’s provided a philosophy and a methd for journalists to engage in “thick description” of all manner of “sub-cultures,” from welfare recipients to prisoners to pro football players. In my own journalism, especially on Africa, I have been inspired by Geertz’s willingness to concede the impossibility of absolute judgements while at the same time insisting that, even if all truths are partial, some truths are better endowed than others. Relativism, in short, was no concession that anything goes. For journalists, Geertz provided an immense intellectual service by elevating intelligent observation both as an empirical method and an epistemological pursuit. In my own work on Africa, he is a beacon. His death has prompted me to revisit his classic works, which I hope will re-animate my own “thick description” of African cultures.

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