Reproduction and Cosmology

“Thick Description: Towards an Interpretative Theory of Culture” – Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz, one of the most influential cultural anthropologists in the U.S., applies his knowledge and anthropological foundation  to science and the nature of evidence. I found this reading quite challenging to follow as it was dense, detailed and used relatively complex language. Ultimately, there were two main points I got from this reading:

First, Geertz emphasizes ethnography as the crucial method of anthropological analysis, allowing for the development of theories and large-scale ideologies. From one point of view, ethnography is “establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, etc”. From Geertz’s point of view, ethnography lies in “thick description”. Borrowed from Gilbert Ryle, Geertz defines thick description as the meaningful structures behind what is being observed. Anthropological research also heavily relies on the interpretations of the ethnographer and how they perceive the culture of others, because “understanding a people’s culture exposes their normlessness without reducing their particularity” (pg. 14). Essentially, anthropological writings are interpretations and Geertz believes the best ethnographies are those full of “thick descriptions” that “take us into the heart of that of which it is the interpretation” (pg.18).

Ethnographic studies are typically conducted on very small scale – focusing on a single group of people in a small village or neighborhood. This is the problem that surrounds Geertz’s second point. There exists a methodological issue involving the microscopic nature of ethnographic research. Geertz denounces the “Jonesville-Is-America writ small” and the “natural laboratory” and instead believes that the important part of ethnographic findings is their complex specificness and realness. This allows for previously discovered facts to be mobilized, previously developed concepts to be used, and previously formulated hypotheses to be tried. In other words, the material produced by long-term, qualitative, highly participative studies allow anthropologists to build upon previous research and develop larger-scale theories about human nature. With this, “the aim is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics” (pg. 28).


“Does Submission to God’s Will Prevent Biotechnological Intervention?” – Sherine F. Hamdy

Hamdy’s ethnographic account delves into the ethics and and opinions surrounding organ transplantation in Egypt among religious leaders, physicians, and patients. Kidney transplants have been conducted for over thirty years in Egypt, even in the absence of any legal framework or a national organ donation program. Because of this, patients resort to purchasing organs on the black market or receiving live donations from friends or family. Despite the fact that almost all religious scholars, Muslim and Coptic Christian, have declared that organ donation is permissible, many patients with religious convictions struggle with the ethics behind the practice. Hamdy primarily reveals this struggle through interviews with two dialysis patients, Muhammad and Ali,  both of whom would benefit greatly from a kidney transplant but refuse to undergo the procedure. These patients did not believe that their religion prevents them from seeking beneficial treatment. Alternatively, they would rather die, ultimately meeting God, than be responsible for causing a family member harm (from the donation procedure) or be responsible for putting their family in debt (from purchasing an organ).

Hamdy’s primary argument is that “religious sentiments, should not be seen as passive, as anti-science, or as constraints to medical treatment” (pg. 156). Patients around the world learn to balance how to achieve the greatest benefit for themselves and their families, while simultaneously conforming to God’s will. This opposes the common perception that religious fatalism, or the notion that humans can exert little or no control over their own destinies, obstructs people from pursuing biotechnological intervention. In response to this, Hamdy says:

“To assume that religious practitioners refuse particular technologies or medical interventions because of their fatalism carries the dangers of missing the contingencies that inform when and under what conditions patients work to achieve this disposition.” (pg. 156)

It is important to understand all of the factors that play into a patient’s decisions on whether or not to undergo medical intervention. This can be extremely complex and highly variable, depending on the patient’s changing circumstances. Before a decision is made, patients must calculate their ethical disposition towards a particular treatment and assess its benefit and harms, while incorporating their understanding of the disease etiology and their specific experiences of the illness. The key idea here is that these conditions are not separate form, nor do they determine, the patient’s disposition towards divine will.

About the Author: Sherine F. Hamdy is an anthropologist who focuses on medical anthropology and science and technology in the Middle East. This paper seems to be written for an academic audience, but I think it could easily be read and understood by the general public.

My Thoughts

As an anthropology major, I have read a number of ethnographies on various topics, but I have never considered regarding them in the way that Clifford Geertz suggests. I often get lost in the specifics of the ethnographer’s research, losing the connection to the bigger picture. With Geertz’s ideas in mind, I read Hamdy’s article with a totally new perspective. The dichotomy between religious beliefs and modern medicine extends way beyond organ transplantation in Egypt but without Hamdy’s research on the specific troubles of Muslims in kidney failure, I would miss insights on how religion plays a positive role in medicine for some patients. Ultimately, understanding how religious tradition fits into a patient’s life can help our comprehension of ethical formations in devout patients’ lives (Hamdy, 157). Without small-scale ethnographies that are full of “thick description”, we would not gain the essential insight necessary to better this understanding.