Before we began our first day of this course we were charged with reading passages from Clifford Geertz’s, The Interpretation of Cultures and Bruce Lincoln’s, Theses on Method. These two texts laid the groundwork for us as a class in the context of exploring a society, a culture and a people, unique from our own. What Geertz and Lincoln both emphasize, is the importance of coming to understand and recognize the identifying factors which create “cultures” and the aspects of the human condition which “interpret” the raw data with which we come in contact.
Geertz refers in his writings to the “thick description” of cultures and asserts the essentially semiotic nature of their construction. He writes,
“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 interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical.” (5)
Geertz then adds, that in order to proceed in the interpretation of a culture’s semiotic web we must isolate its elements, specify the internal relationships among those elements, and characterize 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. (17) In this way a serious student of cultures is tasked with exploring a level of depth beyond the simplistic and surface aspects of the mechanism itself (age, gender, sex, religion) and “inscribing” social discourse, transforming an event into an “account” (19).
This method of interpretation requires a “thick description”. Geertz states that we must forever attempt to uncover,
“the degree to which (a gesture’s) 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” (14).
He uses the function of a “wink” to explain what he intends thick description to mean. He examines how, in order to distinguish the winking from a social gesture (maybe a twitch or a way of communication etc.), we must look beyond the action itself to the particular social consequences of the “winking” as a gesture, the thought processes of the winker, who the intended audience is, and how those in reception of the wink construe the meaning of the action itself. In this way, the “thin description” is simply the physical display of the gesture, and the “thick description” includes all intentions or possible meanings, as well as, its contextual symbolism in society or between communicators at that given moment.
Geertz is also sure to include in his deconstruction of the definition of culture, that it,
“is not a power, 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 (14).
Lincoln asserts a similar view of cultures in his Theses on Method. He notes in thesis seven that, “Beyond the question of motives and intentions, cultural relativism is predicated on the dubious – not to say, fetishistic – construction of ‘cultures’ as if they were stable and discrete groups of people defined by the stable and discrete values, symbols, and practices they share” (396). Like Geertz, Lincoln recognizes the limitations of the common definitions which construct a cultural identity. He continues,
“Those who sustain this idealized image of culture do so, inter alia, by mistaking the dominant faction (sex, age, group, class, an/or caste) of a given group for the group or ‘culture’ itself…Scholarly misrecognitions of this sort replicate the misrecognitions and misrepresentations of those the scholars privilege as their informants” (397).
Keeping this in mind, Lincoln points out next the malleable condition of the foreign student. He says in thesis eleven, “The ideological products and operations of other societies afford invaluable opportunities to the would-be student of ideology. Being initially unfamiliar, they do not need to be denaturalized before they can be examined. Rather, they invite and reward critical study, yielding lessons one can put to good use at home” (397). This was the academic gift to our class. By traveling abroad, we were afforded the opportunity to experience “critical inquiry” by way of “thick description”. These texts, thus, provided us with an opportunity to carefully examine ourselves, our own thought process and our prior notions of what defines a “culture”. In this way, if we were thoughtful in our study, we would know to look past surface demographics, acknowledge the hidden effects of our own culture’s operations, and attempt to discover the complex nuances and peculiarities that contribute to the construction of a culture on the other side of the world.