A Geertzian Cockfight: Symbolic Interpretism, Marxist Materialism or Synthesis?

Balinese Cockfight 1949 by Alred Palmer

Balinese Cockfight 1949 by Alred Palmer

This paper compares and contrasts a Marxian materialist approach with a symbolic interpretive approach to describing Geertz’s cockfight from “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures (pages 412-453) from the vantage of its participants and its spectators.  By doing so I hope to show the limitations of each of these often-times oppositional theoretical perspectives. However, using these perspectives together, in synthesis, can create a more situated and complete ethnographic record of a culture (Behar 1997:28; Ortner 2006:453). First I will present the foundations of each theoretical model and then I will compare and contrast each as applied to Geertz’s cockfight essay.

Symbolic Interpretive Anthropology

Symbolic interpretive anthropology is a theoretical perspective hold that the symbolic meanings of public symbols shapes people’s perceptions, values and behavior. An anthropologist employing the symbolic interpretive perspective interprets the symbolic meanings of public events within a culture to find out the culture’s ethos (beliefs, values that drive behavior) (Erickson 2006:162). Influential anthropologists of symbolic interpretive anthropology of the Twentieth century include Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Clifford Geertz (Gordon 2011:273).

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Clifford Geertz stands apart for his richly descriptive ethnographies that make even mundane details seem interesting and symbolically significant. He “changed the way we study culture” according to Ann Swidler of University of Berkeley in her review of his legacy as the “founder of interpretive anthropology” (Erickson 2008:162; Swidler 1975). Geertz’s interpretive approach has been called “particularistic” and “relativistic” for his ethnographic “cultural portraits” which considered each society as an integrated symbolic system, historically produced that should be interpreted in a manner akin to literary criticism (Gordon 2011:73).

According to Geertz, the meanings and native perspectives of a culture could be interpreted by a skilled cultural outsider by writing down a detailed description of a public event, which Geertz called a “thick description,” and then interpreting the description as a one would interpret a work of literature or art (Erickson 2009:163; Geertz 1973:8). Geertz believed that each society had it’s own logic that was communicated through its material culture of public spaces. “Culture is the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action,” Geertz said (Geertz 1973:145). A culture’s publicly available symbols, especially the “sacred symbols” of ritual actions both reveal and reproduce a culture’s “ethos” and in turns, a culture’s “experiential realities [behaviors] that in turn make the symbols real (Swidler 1975).”

Clifford Geertz, influenced by sociologist Max Weber, writes “the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence” (Geertz 1973:434). Geertz’s emphasis on each individual’s agency in creating shared cultural meanings and rituals led him to interpret public events as if they were windows into culture’s ethos–how people in the culture think (Swidler 1996). According to Geertz, social change was promoted by ideologies created from the symbolic forms of local people rather than changing economic or political forces in the material world (Geertz 1973:243).

Marxist materialist Anthropology (also known as Political Economy)

Marxist theory as applied to anthropological theory, is known as Marxist materialism, ”“dialectical materialism,”  “Marxian anthropology,” or Political Economy. These theoretical approaches believe that competing class interests and the asymetrical political relationships both based on a group’s control of resources create the values and affect the behavior of individuals and their groups (Wolf 1982:21). A Marxist materialist seeks to explain why people do what they do based on their relationship to the modes of production (e.g. the resources needed to produce products in a capitalist economy including labor) (Gordon 2011:265).

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The anthropological theoretical models called Political economy or Marxist Materialism come from the Nineteenth century economic and political theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Erickson 2008:43; Wolf 1997:xi). Marx and Engels are called materialists because they believed that the material world (one’s subsistence practices and control of resources including one’s labor) motivated their behavior and “determines human consciousness” (Erickson 2008:43). Materialists are primarily concerned with subsistence practices and political power, and in Marxist materialism, that means the control of labor in a capitalist economy, through social, technological, economic and political forces.

Prominent Marxian materialist anthropologists include the self-described “Marxian” Eric Wolf, political economy anthropologist Sidney Mintz, and feminist anthropologists such as Sherry Ortner (Erickson 2008:43; Margolis 2003; Ortner 2006; Wolf 1997:xi).

As Nineteenth century evolutionists, the theories of Marx and Engels reflected the political and economic realities of their time. Their theories about economic and social evolution were influenced by the radical changes going on in Europe in the Eighteen and Nineteenth centuries as the Continent’s economy became industrialized and dominated by a trans-national capitalist economy. It was these changes as well as the political outcomes of American and French revolutions.

The philosophical influences of Marx and Engels included German Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant; French social reformer Jean Jacques Rousseau who believed that humans in pre-industrial and pre-capitalistic societies were better off; and German philosopher Friedrich Hegel who described the modern man as alienated from his true self because he was not free. It was Hegel’s dialectic which described a three-step mystical process social evolution called  “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” whereby societies may return to an egalitarian utopia (Gottfried 1980). Marx reinterpreted Hegel’s mystical dialectic of social change as a process possible only through revolutionary conflict between the property-less and exploited workers (proletariat) and the industrial capitalists (bourgeois) who controlled the resources and objectified their proletarian laborers as commodities in the marketplace (Gottfriend 1980). “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Marx wrote in Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marx 1975).

Marxist materialism in anthropology is different from symbolic interpretivism in the following ways:

  1. Marxist materialists believe that since one’s mind is a material thing and all “ideologies, religions, philosophies rest upon a material basis,” one’s subsistence, class position and relationship to the modes of production –m.o.p.–drive one’s values, beliefs and behaviors) (Rytna 1970).Symbolic Interprevists believe that symbolic meanings shared by a community through public events and rituals as cultural norms, shapes one’s beliefs, values and behaviors.
  2. The world can be understood objectively and scientific knowledge must be useful to be valid (Rytna 1970).Symbolic interpretive anthropologists do not believe that the world can be understood objectively. They believe that each of us perceives the world from a unique perspective based on our culture, social status and personality and, at best, we can only make an interpretation of a culture. Anthropology, as a science, is an interpretive one. The formulation of universal rules of human behavior is not possible since all behavior is contextual.
  3. Subsistence– how people live and their “relationship to production,” or, in other words, who controls economic resources– is the key to understanding how a social system works (Rytna 1970).A Symbolic Interprevist believes that the key to understanding how a social system works is to be able to accurately interpret the culture’s symbolic meanings by analyzing public symbols, behaviors and rituals.

Marxian materialists describe the forces of social change as based on opposing class interests (in Hegelian terms the “thesis” and “antithesis”) that evolve to become a new society, or in Hegelian terms, a “synthesis” (Rytna 1970). The aim of a Marxist materialist such as Eric Wolf or Sidney Mintz was to not just describe the differentiating features of a culture but to also explain why these features exist and the social and economic processes, based on class conflict and who controls the “modes of production,” that created them (Wolf 1997:21).

Eric R. Wolf (1923-1999)

Eric R. Wolf (1923-1999)

According to Wolf’s theoretical perspective of Marxist Materialism, the Geertz’s Balinese cockfights are not so much an expression the the culture’s ethos but a direct outcome of the marginalized status of peasants and their relative lack of control of their resources within their society. As peasants, the only things that they could control were their chickens and money won (or lost) through their illegal gambling on cockfights. Cockfighting was not only a status event but it was a defiance of the hegemony of the elites who controlled the peasants in every other way.

Interpretations of “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”

Clifford Geertz begins his essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in the classic fashion of the “anthropologist as hero” by playing up the difficulties he encountered when he first arrived. He plays up the differences between him and his informants, essentializing them as stereotypical Balinese who are “always precisely controlled” (Borofsky 2005:42; Geertz 1973: 413).

His Balinese study subjects shared a “peasant mentality” according to Geertz (Geertz 1973:416). Initially, the Balinese villagers–except for his host family, politely ignored Geertz and his attempts to interview them with a studied indifference (Geertz 1973: 413).  This ethnographically difficult situation changed when Geertz proved his solidarity with his peasant hosts by refusing to turn them in to the Javanese police during a raid on their illegal cockfight. After this incident everything changed according to Geertz, he was treated warmly as one of the “covillagers” and gained access to what he termed as “The Balinese Way of Life” (Geertz 1973: 414;416).  A Marxist materialist would of interpreted Geertz’s newfound solidarity with his peasant informants as a proof of their oppressed status and their class opposition to elite power represented by the police.

Geertz analyzes the various elements of the cockfights as meaningful symbols that are interpreted according to his elite “Distinguished Visitor” status and Western frame of reference without much self-consciousness of his own biases limited access due to his identity as an outsider and as an adult male (Geertz 1973: 416). Under the heading “Of Cocks and Men” he uses an unmistakably Freudian interpretation of the fighting roosters, as metaphorical penises and symbols Balinese male honor and unconscious male animal-like violence. According to Geertz, the Balinese word for “cock” sabung connotes an unconscious “detachable, self-operating penises, ambulant genitals with a life of their own” which according to his linguistic analysis also means “hero,” “warrior,” and “bachelor” (Geertz 1973: 418). He extrapolates this to mean that the fighting rooters, symbolically, are a direct inversion, of what Balinese abhor: animal-like behavior. The cockfights, by being a solely an adult male past-time, are symbolically battles between male rivals which reinforce their primacy over women and children in the village.  “In identifying with his cock, the Balinese man is identifying not just with his ideal self, or even his penis, but also, and at the same time, with what he most fears, hates, and ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by –“The Powers of Darkness” (Geertz 1973: 420). A Marxist materialist would consider Geertz’s Freudian interpretation of the symbolism of the fighting chickens and behavior of the men as a fiction based on Western symbolic meanings.

Under the passage of the essay headed “The Fight” Geertz vividly describes what he calls the “melodrama” of a Balinese cockfight by contrasting the animalistic fury of the fighting cocks trying to kill each other with the “near silence” of the crowd wordlessly supporting their favorites with subtle hand gestures and body movements (Geertz 1973: 423). According to Geertz, the cockfight is an example of a “focused gathering” that celebrates the status rivalry between Balinese men that is enacted through their fighting cocks (Geertz 1973: 424). A Marxist Materialist would argue that the “focused gathering” of the male-only cockfight was a show of class and gender solidarity created by their economic and social circumstances.

In the “Odds and Even Money” section of the essay, Geertz notes that the cocks are as evenly matched as possible with the size of center bets on each side’s favorite symbolizing the extent of a rivalry between respected males in the community. Geertz dwells on the role of the cockfight as symbolic and socially safe outlet for male rivalries (Johnson 2000:16). A Marxist Materialist would argue that the cockfights are a means of re-distributing wealth and maintaining social relations and prestige typical for peasant societies all over the world. Economies are normally embedded in peasant societies through reciprocity among individuals and groups of equal standing through festivals (and cockfights) in addition to monetized commerce (Johnson 2000:17).

What is noteworthy is the national government’s opposition to the cockfights, a traditional form way the peasants have redistributed resources and reinforced their social structure. Unfortunately, Geertz isn’t interested in the underlying political or economic reasons for cockfighting being banned by the national government. Nor is he interested in why his peasant informants risk arrest and fines by putting on a cockfight –in defiance of the government authority–to raise funds for a village school. These things are seem clear examples of peasant class solidarity in opposition to elite interests. A Marxist materialist model would give insight into the political asymmetry between government power and the peasants (Wolf 1997). The national government employs Javanese police and regulations against cockfighting to maintain its power by its symbolic domination and appropriation of symbols of prestige.

In “Playing with Fire” Geertz explains that only respected males are allowed to participate in cockfights and the wagering. He believes that the cockfights are symbolic status fights between near equals in the villages who, according to Geertz, are normally “shy to the point of obsessiveness of open conflict” and “rarely face what they can turn away from, rarely resist what they can evade” (Geertz 1973: 446). Per Geertz’s hermeneutic decoding of his field notes, the Balinese men are cowards. According to Geertz, it is only through their cockfights can they safely enact how they would like to portray themselves in conflicts: “wild and murderous, with manic explosions of instinctual cruelty” (Geertz 1973: 446).  Geertz appears to ignore his own cultural bias and symbolic perspectives as a male elite outsider to Balinese culture.

Geertz’s “cultural portrait” of the Balinese character through his interpretation of their cockfighting, seems, retrospectively, demeaning to the Balinese –a Westernized essentialization of Balinese character (Gordon 2011:73). James Clifford describes how many ethnographies by Western anthropologists describe non-Westerners as romanticized “clearly defined others”  (Clifford 1987:23). Clifford’s description would apply to “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.”


The symbolic interpretive method called “thick description” used by Clifford Geertz creates interesting and highly detailed particularistic ethnographic portraits. However, Geertz’s description of the Balinese cockfight essentializes the Balinese and their symbolic systems. He also does not give much insight in the environmental forces or political asymmetries that produces the Balinese cockfights. His research does not add generalizing or scientific principles about peasant village life or the relationship between peasants and governmental authority in a globalizing economy that aids understanding. The interpretive perspective of Geertz ignores his biases and his only partial accessibility as a Westerner to Balinese culture. By using both a symbolic interpretive and a Marxian materialist theoretical model in synthesis, these short-comings could of been addressed. There would of been a more accurate explanation of why people do what they do–in this case it was both the symbolic meanings as well as the political and economic processes that produced the Balinese cockfights.

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