Monthly Archives: February 2020

Unit 4: Kinship and Religious Law

The texts for week four all discuss the issue of reproductive technology for Jews, and more specifically Israeli Jews. “Ethnography Exegesis and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel ” by Don Seeman describes and analyzes the differing ways of interpretation that cause different perspectives on reproductive technology between Jews and Catholics, with France used as a secular comparison. “Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law” by Michael Broyde gives an outline of legal issues that may exist regarding cloning in Judaism, while Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel by Susan Kahn is an ethnographic study done in Israel on women who use reproductive technology. These three sources offer different analyses on the general topic of reproductive technology in Israel, and, when read together, offer a holistic view of the issue.

“Ethnography Exegesis and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel” aims to reveal the importance of how different cultures interpret things within the reproductive technology debate. France, which is used as a secular comparison in this text, makes decisions that align with what is considered “natural;” as a result, they limit IVF to heterosexual, steril married couples, as historically, and traditonally, this would be representative of a natural family. In contrast, Israel relies heavily on religious texts, which is similar to Catholics. There is a difference between where Jews and Catholics find their answers in religious texts; Catholics tend to find answers in the beginning of Genesis and use narrative to find answers, while Jews often look for legal prohibitions. Furthermore, in the debate around reproductive technology, Jews rely more on Leviticus than Genesis. This difference, in part, can explain how these two religions have very different answers for the question of when and how to use reproductive technology, despite using the same source. Donum Vitae, the accepted doctrine on reproductive technology for Catholics, states that IVF should really only be used if doing IVF with the husband’s sperm. In Israel reproductive technology is used for many different reasons and in multiple different forms; Israel, in fact, is the leading country for IVF. There is a cultural history in Israel that also helps account for this difference in perspective in addition to the legal readings of religious texts. Israel is a pronatalist country and has a large focus on the idea of reproducing its culture due to the history of Jewish persecution. As a result, in order to understand these contrasting viewpoints, it is important to also consider the experiences of different people within different cultures; simply examining how they interpret different texts will not provide the perspective necessary to understand.

“Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law” by Michael Broyde focuses specifically on the legal issues of cloning within Israel, and within Jewish law. He notes a point of contrast in Jewish belief that dictates this argument: the conflict between wanting to help people, and the belief that everything may not be proper, particularly when related to intercourse. In Israel, decisions about the use of reproductive technology are handled case by case. Therefore, it is logical to assume that if human cloning were to take place, it too would be handled in this way. The specifics of cloning lead to many questions, particularly in relation to kinship. Because a clone would be the exact genetic copy of another person, there is much debate over who the parents of such a child would be. Because Judaism is matrilineal, this becomes increasingly complex because there are debates on who would be considered the mother: the gestational mother, or genetic mother. If the genetic material came from a man, this is simplified, because he would be the father, though there are debates if this would be the case since the child was produced without intercourse. This, of course, points to inequalities between men and women, as in the case of cloning it would be much easier to claim parental rights as a man than as a woman. Furthermore, due to the matrilineal aspect of Judaism, if one mother (gestational or genetic) was not Jewish, this would create many issues in determining the child’s identity. There is also the question of whether a clone would be considered human, and if they may be used in immoral ways; Broyde, by analyzing Jewish law, determines that this individual would be considered fully human. Finally, the issue of cloning opens up a new ethical debate over who has access to someone’s DNA, and the issues of “stealing” someone’s DNA. Because an individual’s DNA could be easily accessed and used for cloning, there would have to be strong legislation in place to protect people and their genetic material, though the extent of this would likely be heavily debated.

Finally, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel by Susan Kahn offers an ethnographic account of the experience of using reproductive technology in Israel. Kahn’s research spanned two years, and she conducted interviews, attended support groups, conducted participant observation at fertility centers, and interviewed rabbis. She analyzed the decision making process that women go through before using reproductive technology, and found that there were many unmarried women who used reproductive technology in order to have a child. Because reproductive tech is subsidized by the government, Kahn found that all potential mothers have to go through a screening process, which did create some opportunity for discriminiation for lesbian couples. She also examined the relationship between rabbanic law and the secular democracy of Israel in relation to reproductive technology. The Aloni commission, which was a report created by rabbis, legislatures, and fertility experts, stated that unmarried women do have the right to have children, and that these children would exist without that stigma of being “mamzer,” or a bastard child. Furthermore, she expands on the idea that in Israel decisions made about reproductive tech are done on a case by case basis by examining how paternity works in these cases, as it is often up to a rabbi to decide these matters. She also examines how important “purity” is in fertility clinics in order to maintain Jewish identity. Surrogacy is also dealt with, which reveals the complexities involved in Jewish kinship; because it is matrilineal, deciding who the mother is in surrogacy affects the identity of the child. Overall, I thought Kahn was effective in outlying the process of seeking reproductive technology in Israel, and the complex social factors that cause each individual’s decision. Because Israel is a pronatalist, and one of the crux ideas is to “be fruitful and multiply,” many single women seek out this technology to reproduce without stigma.

I found that these three sources really complimented each other, and helped to fill in the gaps apparent in each source. For instance, I thought that while Kahn’s book gave a great description of current reproductive technologies in Israel, Broyde’s analysis on the potential of cloning added a perspective on what could develop in the future. Furthermore, I thought that the framing provided in Seeman’s piece provided context for the interpretations seen both in Broyde and Kahn’s work, while Kahn’s work in particular provided examples of the “lived experiences” that Seeman states is needed to understand this issue. What I found most interesting in these issues was the complicated area of kinship that was discussed. Particularly, the fact that Judaism is matrilineal is especially interesting because this does add complications in terms of reproductive technology because women give birth; in paternal societies, while these issues are still incredibly complex, you do not need to consider the passing down of identity when you assign the label of mother either to the genetic or gestational mother. One critique I have of Broyde and Kahn’s work is there is no cross cultural comparison; while Seeman’s article contributes this, on their own these pieces do not offer these nuanced views. I believe that a comparison would help to create greater understanding of why the decisions around reproductive technology in Israel are unique, and also deepen the explanations of their origins, as you could see the differences that exist in other societies. Finally, I found all three texts to be well organized and easy to read. In particular, I enjoyed how Kahn outlined her book as I thought it gave a logical, sequential description of the process of using reproductive technology in Israel. Furthermore, I enjoyed how each source outlined key questions that related to the issues discussed. This, I thought, was particularly important because it is essential to recognize that not all questions can be answered when dealing with such a complex issue.

Discussion Questions:

  • There are clear issues regarding gender in the debate around reproductive technology. How might changing ideas of gender (i.e. increased gender fluidity) play out in this debate?
  • Why are ideas of kinship so essential in the debate of reproductive technology in Israel? 
  • How does Israel’s pronatalism influence the use of reproductive technology? How is its specific history related, and how (and why) does this contrast with views on reproductive tech seen in Catholicism? Do you think this will change over time?
  • Do you think that human cloning will ever become a viable option? Broyde mentions that the Republican debate around cloning revolves around questions of morality. Could cloning ever become a morally accepted practice?

Unit Five: Cultures of Testing Written by Anna Wachspress

The reading and viewing materials for this week delve into discourse surrounding prenatal testing but through a lens broadened to include much more than just religious influences. Exploring multiple identity characteristics, we learn how various elements of a person’s life experience affect their ethical and moral considerations related to pregnancy. Note: This blog post reviews the book Testing Women, Testing the Fetus and the film The Burden of Knowledge: Moral Dilemmas in Prenatal Testing; I could not locate “Outsourcing Moral Responsibility: The Division of Labor among Religious Experts.”

Rayna Rapp’s Testing Women, Testing the Fetus is a compelling ethnographic study which explores the social impact and cultural meaning of prenatal diagnosis, specifically focusing on the ways that different identity characteristics (race, class, citizenship, education level, family background, among others) affect decisions about amniocentesis. Published in 2000, the book presents a highly comprehensive review and analysis of perspectives on prenatal testing among women, male partners, genetic counselors, lab technicians, and other medical professionals who Rapp engaged with over the course of 15 years. Rapp began her research after a personal experience with prenatal testing which involved a difficult and transformative decision-making process.

Rapp presents her analysis as contributions to three different discussions. The first topic concerns technological transformation of pregnancy, or how the advancement of technology affects pregnancy and reproduction. Secondly, she discusses the intersection of disability rights and reproductive rights and questions the best way to approach prenatal testing so that the two can both be supported. Her final topic concerns scientific literacy in America and the impact of differential understanding of diseases, genetics, and diagnoses in affecting decision-making. In summary, Rapp argues that “the very objects of [biomedical] knowledge—chromosomes, health risks, fetuses—and its technologies of intervention—sonography, chromosome studies, maternal and fetal health—are culturally constituted” (Rapp 13).

The film The Burden of Knowledge: Moral Dilemmas in Prenatal Testing examines the way ethical considerations affect the degree to which individuals support advances in prenatal testing technology. The 54-minute documentary consists of interviews with seven couples who have experience with prenatal testing as well as doctors, counselors, and medical scholars. The film breaks down prenatal testing into the chronological stages of the pregnancy process and relies solely on interviews to communicate information.

Both of these pieces approach understanding the social and cultural impact of prenatal genetic testing holistically and through story-telling. I found this to be a compelling strategy since pregnancy is widely considered to be a private topic in America. Unless an individual has close relatives or friends who are willing to share their experience, little personal information about the experience is readily available. Further, this style encourages readers and viewers to understand that the combination of identity characteristics and the degree to which certain elements of a person’s identity contribute to their morals is so incredibly specific and personal. While trends arise among women of the same race, education level, class, religion, etc., understanding a woman’s viewpoint is highly personal to her specific life experience. I appreciated the holistic approach supported by narratives since it communicates the nuances of prenatal testing and the overwhelming complexity of its reception.

At the end of Rapp’s book, she points out a key limitation which I also considered while reading: the subjects of her research all come from the New York City area. On one hand, this melting-pot city has a vast degree of diversity among its inhabitants, and Rapp successfully incorporates anecdotes from a very diverse group of individuals. On the other hand, the ethnography lacks the perspective of rural America. This may seem scrupulous, but considering the political power that rural America has in controlling reproductive rights, I think their perspective is a vital piece of the full picture. That all said, I find that the discussion of morals and ethics in relation to prenatal testing (as well as pregnancy issues as a whole) are often too simply boiled down to the impact of religion on values. I imagine that if this ethnography explored rural America, the effects of other social and cultural identity elements that this book powerfully explores would have once again been clouded by the effects of religion. I appreciate that this book highlights all of the many other social and cultural factors which affect women’s ethics and morals, so while I think the experience of rural America is important, I think it is meaningful that Rapp excluded it.

As for the film, I found the interview style palatable but doubted the reliability of the participants’ answers. The directors of the film ask couples to discuss a very personal aspect of their lives, and I think it would be very rare for a person to truthfully open up to a camera about such a raw and private experience. Further, the interviewees’ descriptions of their opinions regarding prenatal testing were all told in retrospect, and as Rapp brings up in her book, a person’s ethical and moral considerations at the time of a positive diagnosis versus when they have a child to love and hold are incredibly different. While the film was mind-opening and discussion-provoking, I think observation of couples currently going through testing and diagnosis would provide a more genuine understanding of a woman and her partner’s experience.  

One concept from the film that I found particularly thought-provoking was the idea that pregnancy is a terrible time to begin to learn about disability because women are forced to try to understand their values and ethics during a time when they are physically and emotionally drained. While it would be nice to walk through life with a completely solid understanding of one’s morals, I think this is rare, and for most women trying to conceive a baby (let alone women who conceive accidentally), I doubt this is a consideration on their mind. This left me wondering what non-religious, non-familial outlets are available to women seeking to gain ethical coaching during this difficult time? Since genetic counselors are taught to counsel through a non-directive approach, where can women turn for guidance? Is this why so many people rely on religious teachings since it’s such a concrete and obvious direction to turn to for advice?

Finally, I would like to know how the rest of the class digested Rapp’s assertion that “contemporary pregnant women have become our moral philosophers of the private” (Rapp 306). While on one hand, I think the claim empowers women and underscores the heavy weight that they are under to make moral choices, I also think this evaluation unfairly disregards the impact that male partners and other family members have on pregnant women’s decisions.

Unit Three: Natural Law and Reproductive Ethics

In many countries, there is supposed to be a separation of Church and State. However, many societal norms, bioethical views, and, as a result, laws today are still intertwined with religion. It is difficult to separate the two since religion is used to guide people about what is morally acceptable.

Donum Vitae is a clear example of using religion to dictate what is morally acceptable. Shannon and Cahill have extreme views about what is moral and immoral. For example, children must be “the fruit of marriage,” so heterologous artificial fertilization and surrogate motherhood are not allowed because it goes against the unity of marriage (Shannon and Cahill 157). Homologous in vitro fertilization (IVF) is wrong because it separates procreation and the conjugal act. Homologous artificial insemination does not replace the conjugal act and can only be used to facilitate “the act [to attain] its natural purpose” (Shannon and Cahill 166). For those who are sterile and cannot use artificial fertilization, they recommend adoption or assisting other families and children.

Shannon and Cahill did present their arguments in a logical manner, and I understand their logic given their beliefs. However, I honestly disagree with most of this article because I do not agree with their beliefs. First, I do not agree that children must be a result of marriage or that procreation and the conjugal act must be connected. Additionally, I do not like some of their wording. For example, they discussed that researchers should work to find causes of sterility so that we can prevent it. I agree with this; however, I do not like that they then said that it will help sterile couples so that they can procreate “for their own personal dignity” (Shannon and Cahill 169). I do not think that one’s dignity should be equated to whether or not someone can or wants to have kids. However, if we need to have children for our own personal dignity, why would we not support using artificial fertilization to help people? If we are supposed to reproduce and we were given the knowledge and ability to create artificial reproductive technologies (ART) to help people reproduce, why should we not use it?

Unlike Donum Vitae, the role of religion is not as clear in regards to the laws and bioethical views towards ART in France, which Ball discusses in “The Reemergence of Enlightenment Ideas in the 1994 French Bioethics Debates.” Overall, I thought the timeline of the legality and morality of ART in France was intriguing because they kept shifting their stance. In most of the 19th and 20th centuries, ART was seen as “repugnant to natural law” (Ball 548). It was banned in hospitals until the first government-sponsored sperm bank was established in 1973. Then in 1978, ART became completely covered by the national health insurance system with an infertility diagnosis, whereas other medical procedures are normally reimbursed up to 80%. However, the motives behind this were to increase births after decreasing birthrates during the 1970s. However, in the 1980s public attention went to controversial cases, such as if a woman was allowed to use her deceased husband’s sperm to have a child. Finally, the French National Assembly passed laws in 1994 that only sterile, heterosexual couples of procreative age can use artificial insemination and IVF procedures.

This decision had clear political motives: to protect the traditional family structure. They saw this imminent disruption of the typical family structure via the use of ART as bad for two reasons. First, they viewed a nation as a combination of several families, so each individual family was the foundation of their society. As a result, they wanted to maintain the traditional family structure to keep a strong foundation of individual families to keep the nation stable. Second, they thought providing ART to those who were not heterosexual or not of reproductive age was unnatural because they cannot “naturally” have children. Ball presents Rosseau’s argument to counter this idea of what is natural. Using ART for those who are not heterosexual or of reproductive age is only unnatural if the concept of natural is static instead of dynamic. Rosseau argues that these static, “natural laws” may actually be subjective laws “developed from observations of their own society” (Ball 579). Therefore, we should not be keeping ART from most people who may benefit from it. This idea of what is natural being dynamic also may cause problems in Shannon and Cahill’s arguments of when ART should be used.

A question I had when reading the Ball article was how much of an influence did religion have in the formation of the traditional family structure? Although the Church and State separated in France before 1994, I would expect religion still influenced societal norms, like it does today, which can then influence the laws put in place. Was France still a relatively Catholic country during this time or did this idea of the traditional family structure persist even though France was no longer very religious? Or is the traditional family structure independent of religion altogether? Additionally, what were the stances in other countries about ART during this time?

One question I had throughout both of these readings is why do we tend to view things as static and resist change, especially regarding bioethical issues? It seems reasonable to me that our understanding of what is natural and moral would evolve as our understanding of the world develops over time. I think it may come back to the role of religion. In Genesis 2, God made the tree of life that has knowledge of good and evil. But does this mean that things are either good or evil or is it a spectrum of good to evil? If we view good and evil as two distinct categories, that could contribute to viewing things in a more static mindset. However, I think it is more realistic that good and evil is a spectrum and that many of these bioethical issues fall somewhere in between good and evil. If we consider it a spectrum, then it may be easier to adjust our view on an issue as we learn more about it and learn more about the world in general. This view that good and evil is more of a spectrum instead of a dichotomy could help remind us that what is natural is dynamic, not static.

Furthermore, I think these discussions about bioethical issues are important to have, especially in today’s society which is so polarized. However, I find it difficult when there are things that I simply do not agree with, such as the fact that a child needs to be born via “natural” measures to married man and woman. Is there a way for Shannon, Cahill and me to come to an agreement on what circumstances reproductive technology is moral even though we disagree that a child is the fruit of marriage?

Unit Two: Reproduction and Cosmology February 10

1. Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description” from The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973).

Geertz’s “Thick Description” opens by introducing the concept of the “new idea” as though the reader should have a firm grip on what concept he is referencing (Geertz 310). While a bit mysterious, this somewhat surprising introduction hooks the reader by appealing to a sense of curiosity. I wonder if this sense of mystery would have been absent had I read an associated prior work or chapter.

The first page declares that the “new idea” mentioned inevitably transitions from a thing of infinite potential to an importance that lacks the potential it once held (Geertz 310). Gertz argues that the anthropological works he will reference work to transition anthropological findings in this way to ensure long-held importance.

          The text reads as a critique of a good portion of anthropological thought. Some blatant examples of this critical tone include a critique of a work by describing the author’s similes as a result of «desperation” and framing “little stories” by Oxford scholars as things they “like to make up for themselves” (Geertz 311-312).

          He defines various terms through his own perspective, such as anthropology as the study of culture as “semiotic” or the study of symbols. He also labels ethnography as “an elaborate venture into”, or “thick description” (Geertz 312). In this instance, “thick” refers to the detailed why and what of an action, while “thin” refers to the more obvious facts of an action. This definition leads into extensive commentary on the purpose and means of cultural study. The commentary functions by citing schools of anthropological practice- for instance, the way that ethnoscience, cognitive anthropology, or componential analysis argues that culture is a symptom of psychological structure.

The text concludes with the author’s opinion of what anthropology should be used for. Geertz writes that anthropology, at least interpretive anthropology, does not exist to answer questions correctly per se but to find the way that others have answered.

2. Sherine F. Hamdy, “Does Submission to God’s Will Prevent Biotechnological Intervention?” In Jeremy Stolow editor, Deus In Machina: Religion, Technology and the Things In-between (Fordham University Press, 2013), 143-57.

Hamdy’s text asks the reader to consider the ties between religion and technology. She pushes against the notion that the two domains are separate and by addressing examples of their intertwining. The text opens with an anecdote, the story of an instance within a hospital in Egypt.  The anecdote describes a man refusing a kidney transplant for religious reasons. Within the second paragraph, the moralizing of individuals’ decisions based upon religious influence is brought into the conversation.

The author blatantly states her argument “against the dominant narrative: that religious fatalism obstructs people from pursuing biotechnological intervention. … people’s understandings of religion and biomedical efficacy are often inextricably enmeshed and together factor into their cost-benefit calculations about medical intervention,” (Hamdy 144). This clear thesis statement aided immensely in my understanding of the text as a whole. It is a powerful writing tactic.

The remainder of the text supports this argument through the employment of first-hand examples and other means of substantiated factual claims. Hamdy works to display the way in which an individual’s decision to receive a transplant is deeply complex. The text’s structure operates by following one narrative throughout. I found this somewhat narrative approach to be both extremely convincing and interesting.

3. Carol Delaney, “Father, State, Motherhood and the Birth of Modern Turkey.” In Sylvia Yanigasako and Carol Delaney editors, Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis (New York: Routledge, 1995), 177-200.

          From the paper’s very opening, Delaney critiques the work of anthropologists. She argues that the way in which “kinship” is used in Turkey is overlooked by many anthropologists because of the nature by which “kinship” is widely used in anthropology (Delaney 177). Having been a student in many Women’s Studies courses, it is my strong opinion that works of feminist theory often use language that is very difficult to understand. Unfortunately, this piece further supports that opinion of mine.

          The piece rests on the argument that that nationalism should be viewed through the lens that, in defining nationalism, it is most logical to define the term through ideas of cultural concepts. She emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the intersections of concepts such as family, religion, and nation. Like the prior work, Delaney explicitly states the purpose of her work. She writes that her goal is not merely to “highlight the differential placement of man and women in and to the nation” but to “show the role that symbolism of mother and father play in the conceptualization of the nation,” (Delaney 178).

          Delaney discusses the differences between “Father State” and “Motherland” in Turkey (Delaney 179). These differences are discussed through historical evidence. This historically-evidence based work provides abundant context to the work’s argument. Linguistic examination is used as evidence as well. Within the text, Delaney intertwines the position of women and the structure of language. This addressing of symbolic function is integral to the argument.

          The piece goes on to discuss the ways in which procreation and birth are used to discuss the nation of Turkey. Delaney argues that this use of language contributes to the way in which procreation and birth are framed as natural.

She discusses the notion of paternal role in citizenship and general identity. As she writes, “citizenship is not gender neutral” (Delaney 188). Gender in legality is added to prior evidence of the nation’s enactment of gender. The text closes in a summary of these ideas. Its argument points are weaved together in the conclusion.

Prospective Discussion Questions

-In what ways do the works employ evidence to very effectively drive their points home?

-Was there an argument tactic that really stood out to you? Was there one that really convinced you?

-Did anything about these articles really stand out to you as surprising?

2/10 Unit Two: Reproduction and Cosmology by Mackenzie Westen: What is Culture, and How Can We Best Understand It?

We hear the word all the time: culture. We ‘learn’ culture in the language classes we take. We are ‘taught’ our culture, whether that be by our parents, by our religious leaders, by our friends, by ourselves, but what is the definition of culture, and what constitutes culture? These are questions Clifford Geertz attempts to begin to examine in his first chapter, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in his book, The Interpretation of Cultures.

Geertz begins by scrutinizing definitions offered for words such as ethnography and anthropology and moves on to claim that anthropology, ethnography, and understanding culture all require what he describes as ‘thick description.’ To Geertz, thick description equates to analyzing, examining, and describing situations and observations in immense detail. He goes on to offer some definitions of culture from other sources; however, he arguably does not offer his own clear definition of the word culture, besides comparing it to “webs of significance” that man is suspended in (Geertz 5). Instead, Geertz visits and revisits example after example in an attempt to prove his theory regarding thick description and validate the ideas of others in terms of how one can measure culture.

As I read his work, I found myself questioning many of his main points, especially when it came to his idea of ‘thick description.’ While one may observe the actions of people within a cultural or religious context, I believe that in order to truly understand a culture, and what culture is, one must first immerse oneself in the culture. It is not enough to simply ‘thickly describe’ a culture, or even to live in a village and observe. To me, truly and fully understanding a culture requires becoming a part of that culture, and only then can one begin to ‘thickly describe’ it. Therefore, I do not believe that anthropology should be solely an observable science; it should be an immersive science. ‘Thick description’ and observation cannot begin to compare to physical, mental, and social immersion, but the two combined can create a much better understanding of the culture one is attempting to describe.

This brings me to the following reading by Sherine Hamdy, “Does Submission to God’s Will Preclude Biotechnological Intervention? Lessons from Muslim Dialysis Patients in Contemporary Egypt.” In her work, Hamdy argues against the idea that “religious fatalism obstructs people from pursuing biotechnological interventions;” however, I do not believe that she could have come to this conclusion without first immersing herself in the culture (144). Throughout the first portion of the work, Hamdy examines the laws and regulations in Egypt surrounding organ donation and transplantation, with the most surprising aspect, in my opinion, being that “brain-death is not recognized as legal death, hence all organ donors are living” (144). She then goes on to describe her experiences working with dialysis patients who have refused to undergo kidney transplants and how their religious beliefs affected their decisions.

One such patient, Muhammad, would often speak of the uncertainty regarding the outcome of such a surgery. He often claimed his decision to continue dialysis instead of receiving a transplant was due to his trust in God. As a psychology major, as well as someone who has not immersed myself in Muslim Egyptian culture, I would argue that his reluctance to undergo surgery is not solely due to his trust in God, but also his innate, biological fear of death, and that if he trusted God to give him the option of surgery and ensure that he would live, he would accept the transplant. However, Hamdy views the situation differently and argues that the act of receiving dialysis treatment falsifies the claim that “religious fatalism obstructs people from pursuing biotechnological intervention” (144).

While she does describe how she initially spent a long period of time arguing with another patient, Ali, over his decision not to receive a transplant, despite the fact that he would not have to bear the cost, Hamdy ultimately displays her understanding of his culture and beliefs towards the end of the piece. Although she does not agree with his decision and urges him to consider every option, she eventually accepts that “patients like Ali embody a religious tradition in which they struggle to cultivate within themselves the disposition of… contentment with God’s will” (154). Such acceptance displays, in my opinion, a true understanding of the culture, followed by what I believe Geertz would describe as thick description.

In the last reading, however, “Father State, Motherland, and the Birth of Modern Turkey” by Carol Delaney, the author arguably does not achieve such understanding of culture. While Delaney captures the overall history of Turkey, she does not, in my opinion, capture the culture of Turkey. She effectively summarizes a large portion of Turkey’s history and some of the aspects of the patriarchal society that exist within Turkey, but she seems to under-analyze the actual culture that exists within Turkey because she focuses excessively on the rhetoric used in the culture and how it portrays women as being inferior to men. For example, Delaney highlights how “the system… construes nature as created by God, who is figured symbolically as masculine”  while “nature, which is created by God, is both inferior to and dependent upon God and is symbolically construed as female” (182). While I definitely see her point, this extensive analysis of rhetoric detracts from her main ideas within the piece, specifically the inequalities between men and women within Muslim Turkish culture.

However, despite this weakness, Delaney points out key aspects of Turkish-Muslim culture that support her overall argument. For example, she examines the focus on procreation and how it creates unfair expectations of women as opposed to men, as well as an imbalanced narrative regarding the roles of men and women in procreation. As described by Delaney, Muslim women in Turkey are expected to produce children for their husbands, but the “men, in their procreative function, are associated with divine creativity” and given credit as “the one who bestows life as well as essential identity via the soul” (184). This analysis provides clear evidence as to the inequalities and lack of credit given to the women, as even though the woman is the one who carries the child inside her body, feeding it, keeping it alive, and housing it for nine months, the man ultimately receives all of the credit for creating the child. (184). If Delaney had led with this point, it could have aided her in proving her point and capturing the reader’s attention.

I also believe that this key factor also displays Delaney’s failure to immerse herself in the culture prior to making judgements. I believe that her examination of Turkish-Muslim culture does not fully account for the culture itself, only the aspects that Delaney disagrees with. In ignoring much of the culture, Delaney’s argument, in my opinion, does not provide enough understanding of the true culture and the proposed reasoning behind such ideology and rhetoric. In this situation, her ‘thick description’ simply is not enough; it requires a more immersive understanding of the culture itself. It seems to me as though she entered into the culture with a hypothesis and solely gathered evidence to prove her theory, ultimately leaving out the rest of the culture in the process.

Essentially, in my opinion, understanding culture requires immersing yourself in it, which, to me, means living in the culture, putting oneself in others’ shoes, and examining the situations with an insider’s perspective. While anyone can judge a situation from afar, no one can truly understand the situation if one does not experience it. Therefore, while anyone can provide ‘thick description’ of a culture or circumstance, unless you do not first immerse yourself in it, I do not believe you can ever truly understand it. You cannot understand a person’s motives solely by observing them; you have to put yourself in their shoes to be able to comprehend why they do what they do.

Possible Questions to Examine:

  1. What do you think of the idea of thick description? Do you believe you can describe a culture without immersion?
  2. What does immersion look like to you?
  3. Do you think Delaney proved her point well in her piece, or would you have written the piece differently if you were her?
  4. What is your definition of culture? Do you think any of the readings offered a clear definition of culture?