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Deeper Play: Geertz’s “Thick Description” and a Balinese Temple Ritual (the Odalan)

Contributions from European Symbolic Interactionists: Reflections on Methods

ISBN: 978-1-78441-854-0, eISBN: 978-1-78441-853-3

Publication date: 9 March 2015


Geertz is well known for his methodology. Many Symbolic Interactionists refer to his notion of “thick description.” They may not know his work on Indonesia in general, but they often know his famous essay on the Balinese cockfight: “Deep Play” (Geertz, 1972, 1973). That essay is often held up as an exemplary “model” of ethnographic fieldwork. But we need to examine what he calls “thick description” more carefully. After the first few pages of the essay there is actually very little “idiographic description” per se. Much of the paper concerns general description and analysis. We do not get a blow-by-blow account of a cockfight as viewed by Geertz. Instead we get an analysis that is based on Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism (Parekh, 1998). There is a good deal missing from the broader analysis as well. Much of that can be found in other work (Geertz, 1959, 1966, 1980, 1995). Students who only read “Deep Play” often form a superficial impression of the method of “thick description” and a distorted sense of Balinese culture (Howe, 2001; Vickers, 1996 [1981]; Warren, 1993). This essay supplements Geertz’s essay with a discussion of a religious ceremony of far more importance than the largely secular cockfight. I touch on a central feature of Balinese society not emphasized by Geertz: the temple anniversary festival. It is called an odalan (Belo, 1966 [1953a]; Eiseman, 1990; Geertz, 2004). But the problem is not just restricted to the “Deep Play” essay. Geertz’s other work is often also not based primarily on ethnographic thick description. It concerns historical and sociological generalizations. Those are often based on archives and general fieldwork. Geertz also benefits from reading of Dutch research not available in English. The celebrations which take place at a temple are “deeper” than more immediate, largely secular games like a cockfight. Geertz’s oeuvre is well worth reading, but his notion of “thick description” needs to be seen in a broader, comparative historical sociological context. That involves Interpretive research paradigms that Geertz, as a symbolic anthropologist, distanced himself from, including Symbolic Interactionism and Weberian verstehende Soziologie.




I would like to thank Lonnie Athens, Ralph Brown, John Johnson, Thaddeus Mueller, and J. Heidi Gralinski-Bakker for useful comments on an earlier draft. The mistakes remain my own. My “Neo-Marxian–Neo-Weberian” Interpretive CHS perspective has been deeply influenced by Randall Collins, Norbert Wiley, and Irving Zeitlin. This essay is dedicated to John Smail, an external examiner who was a stickler for idiographic, historically specific, archival detail!


Bakker, J.I.(. (2015), "Deeper Play: Geertz’s “Thick Description” and a Balinese Temple Ritual (the Odalan)", Contributions from European Symbolic Interactionists: Reflections on Methods (Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 44), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 79-116.



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