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