mercoledì 1 novembre 2017
Anthropology of Globalization for Global Governance #08 & #09
30 and 31 October 2017. Time to begin to read with this class, presented in two parts (part one, part two). So far, we have discussed three main dimensions of culture, its being acquired, shared and symbolic, but we didn’t touch yet the methodological question. How do we investigate this strange thing we name culture? We don’t have time to read a real methodological essay, so we subsume method from a theoretical reading, namely one of the most important essays of cultural anthropology of XX century, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture (1973), by Clifford Geertz.
We insisted a lot on the difference between thin and thick description, with the twitch/wink example (by Gilbert Ryle) and other fictive case studies (the alien ethnographer rematerialized in a Church during a Baptism ceremony). We came up to the point that a true thin description is impossible, and we humans wander among unintended descriptions void of their meaning for we are (culturally, not cognitively) unable to understand it because of a lack of interpretive work.
Another way to put it is that description is the wrong term for this type of game. Description should be replaced with interpretation, which is the real activity for an anthropologist on the field. If culture is a web of signs, we have no other tool than interpretation to understand it. This is what Geertz explains to us in his essay, the interpretive necessity. Pay attention now. He wants to explain us the necessity of using interpretation for understanding cultural reality (since culture is semiotic in its essence) and in order for us to achieve that point, he does practice in the essay and asks us to practice as readers the interpretive approach. If we want to understand what interpretation means according to Geertz, we have to follow him while he practises interpretation in understanding what his informant (an old Jewish merchant named Cohen) tells him. But “to follow him” means that we have to interpret his interpretations of what Cohen tells him, which indeed is a collection of interpretations of what Cohen remembers of the way he has experienced some strange events in his young life, some fifty years before recollecting those facts for the anthropologists. Yet, “if we want to understand” means in its turn that we have to interpret all this stuff for our didactic purposes (after all, we want to learn how to do ethnography, the real goal of this class). To sum it up, to learn what interpretation is, we have to interpret what an anthropologist writing an essay has interpreted of his own fieldnotes, taken while interpreting an old Jewish merchant who was interpreting the recollections of a strange sequence of good and bad interpretations by himself, some Berbers and some French soldiers. Bottom line? If we want to learn interpretation, we have to practise it.
Now, think of the further paradox, which is a university professor who wants to teach all this stuff. I have to add a further layer of interpretation, hoping you can grasp all that it entails (the interpretations of interpretations of interpretations…). Needless to say, “you can grasp” means that you can interpret my interpretation in the correct way…
This is the reason why most of class was devoted to interpret just a couple of pages, where Geertz reports his fieldnotes from the conversation with Cohen. If we read them as a thin description (without a real meaning), those pages are boring and useless, but if we spend the necessary time and study to interpret them in the right way, they are incredibly rich a source of information. Not only about a young Jewish merchant, but also about what it was to be a minority those years in that area, what was French colonialism, what was violence and honour and feud and oppression and irony and cultural sharing and cultural misunderstanding and lots of other Ochobo-like cultural things.
If you have understood why the French put the poor Cohen in prison when he came back with his ’ar I am the happiest professor in the world, because it means you have properly applied the interpretive method. And if you applied it, that means you know how to use it, and that means you know what it means. You have understood the ethnographic interpretive method because you have understood what an old Jewish merchant almost half a century ago told to an American anthropologist. Good point, you are on the verge of becoming a real ethnographer. Now you can apply the same method to other realities. Study carefully what Geertz explains about the interpretive method and its consequences and then come back here to answer this question.
Q1. Bring me a relevant example when you had to apply with care the interpretive method to escape from a thorny situation (as did Cohen with the French Captain, or the Berber rebels with the Marmushans, or the anthropologist with the merchant).