Section September 16, 2012 Grasping Different Life Anthropologists are consistently trying to understand different cultures and the way people think, act, and feel. Some experience the different cultures through filed studies, living amongst the people allowing them to study and act like one of them. For others, this involves studying historical content and observing the people from a higher vantage point. This technique allows them to study their actions from a distance, but Clifford Geertz chooses a different method.
He argues that knowledge lies in between understanding of experimental-near and experimental-distant concepts, terms formulated by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. In other words, experimental-near means the way in which the subject, or in anthropological cases, the native, define what they experience every day. Experimental-distant refers to the understanding of the objector, or person looking from afar, the anthropologist. One solid example that Geertz utilizes in his article is love as the experimental-near concept and object catharsis as the experimental-distant approach.
It isn’t until the anthropologist can align these near and distant concepts that he or she can have a full understanding of their subject or culture. Geertz’s approach isn’t necessarily erratically different from other anthropologists; but rather it just verifies why he’s so successful. He states that if one is too close to one’s subject he is, “left awash in immediacies as well as entangled in vernacular,” but if one is too far away one is, “stranded in abstractions and smothered in jargon. ” (Geertz 29).
It is clear that you need to experience both sides of the spectrum, which authenticates Geertz’s idea of finding somewhat of a “happy medium”. He states that anthropologists can achieve this by clinging to a natives point of view rather than our own through a “sort of transcultural identification” (Geertz 28). Geertz further justifies his idea by saying, “Rather than attempt to place the experience of others within the framework of such a conception, we must, if we are to achieve understanding, set the conception aside and view their experiences within the framework of their own idea of what selfhood is” (Geertz 31).
Geertz dislikes the ideal method that other anthropologist use because he believes that embedding them selves completely in another’s culture hinders the full understanding of their subject. Geertz’s objective can be reinforced through the study of real life examples. The people of the Trobriand Islands were introduced to cricket in 1903. The British introduced the sport with the hopes of it easing some of the fighting and rivalry amongst the natives. For the British, cricket was a gentleman’s game that featured 11 men on each team dressed in some of their finest apparel.
Although, when it was introduced to the Trobriand Islands it took on an entirely new meaning. With a war sense almost embedded in their blood, the Trobriand people made it a game of battle. They covered their bodies with war paint and battle attire and 50 people or more per team set out for the game and entered to an organized tribal dance. The Trobriand Islands were a place that valued a great sense of community, thus making the game much of a spectator sport with as many community members competing as possible.
In the end cricket was much more than a sport or organized gathering, as it would seem from an experience-distant point of view. An experience-near perspective would show an event about exchanging or about performance and identity. Status didn’t come from winning; it came from the different communities being able to express themselves through dance and culture. Although anthropologists are supposed to be very open-minded and not ethnocentric, it was sometimes difficult to not assume that ideas in one culture aren’t reflected in another.
A great example comes from Bohannan’s Shakespeare in the Bush. Bohannan went into her field study with the implication that, “human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over” (Bohannan 1). When visiting the Tiv in Africa her perspective was seriously adjusted as she shared the “universal” story of Hamlet. Many of the themes of Hamlet the Tiv found to be completely absurd, for instance the word “ghost” doesn’t even have a translation into the language of the Tiv people because their view of the supernatural is completely different.
They believed that the ghost of Hamlet’s father must have been the work of witchcraft and they were in uproar. In an experience-near outlook the thought of a ghost was nonexistent, while from an experience-distant perspective Hamlet’s father was simply a ghost. But because every culture views and believes different things, something like the story of Hamlet can be interpreted in many different ways. Concepts used by anthropologists such as experience near and distant are so apparent in everyday life.
We are often found overlooking their mere existence and it isn’t until we look into the lives of others and try to figure out their thoughts and actions that they become more apparent. Geertz’s idea that knowledge lies, in a sense, in the middle is the best way to fully understand the world around us. In every day life you are constantly reminded to find the “happy medium” and that’s exactly what Geertz did. Allowing your self to experience things from all different angles is the best approach to truly being able to understand the meaning of whatever you are trying to comprehend.