Clifford Geertz Deep Play: Notes On A Balinese Cockfight

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The job of an anthropologist is complex. It requires a very diverse arsenal of talents and abilities that few can use successfully. An anthropologist must be able to observe the in-depth content of human nature within a society, analyze it from all aspects, and perform cross-cultural comparisons.

The essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” is written by a well respected anthropologist by the name of Clifford Geertz, who details his observations of the Balinese culture.Geertz was a professor at Princeton and received his Ph. D. from Harvard, as well as publishing several successful books in the field of anthropology.

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Geertz’s essay presents a study and analysis on the Balinese culture through the male’s obsessive affiliation with cockfighting. The essay is divided into seven sections, each describing a different aspect of the Balinese cockfight. Through each section we can understand the work of an anthropologist’s through Geertz’s study of the Balinese culture.In the first section of the essay Geertz introduces his subject, “a small and remote village of about five hundred people,” and how the villagers see him as an anthropologist (272).

During Geertz’s first ten days of research he was watched by the villagers but treated as if he were invisible or non-existent. In order for Geertz to understand the Balinese culture he must adapt to it and become an active part of their society. As an anthropologist he does this by putting himself on the same level as the villagers.During a large public cockfight Geertz finally gets his chance to prove himself to the villagers when police came to break up the event.

Rather than staying at the cockfight as an observer, outside the boundaries of their law, he decided to run with the villagers. In doing so he suddenly became visible and respected by the villagers. In order for Geertz as an anthropologist to have a real understanding of the Balinese not only had to be an observer but at the same time a field researcher, who is experiencing what the life of a villager is really like.To many people a cockfight is a primitive form of entertainment but in Bali there is much more depth to it than what meets the eye.

In studying Bali it is easy for an anthropologist to overlook cockfighting and “aside from a few passing remarks, the cockfight has barely been noticed” (276). However through Geertz’s observation he believes that the cockfighting has much more depth to it and it is not the cocks that are fighting, “actually, it is men” (276). In Bali animals are not portrayed as beautiful creatures but detested as representing demons.Much of Balinese life is adjusted to prevent any association with animals so they will “file the child’s teeth” at a young age and eat “hurriedly and privately” because they believe it is beast-like (278).

The Balinese are “aversive to animals,” so why are they so involved with cockfights? Geertz believes the male Balinese identify with cocks as what they “most fear, hate, and are fascinated by – The Powers of Darkness” (278). Rather than treating the cocks cruelly like any other animal, they treat them with a tremendous amount of care and respect, even beyond that of fellow humans.Geertz as an anthropologist is capable of recognizing this relationship between the Balinese men and their fascination with cocks and how it has an affect on their culture. In the third section of the essay entitled “The Fight,” Geertz explains how a typical cockfight is to be held.

It begins with two men finding a fair opponent to match up against in a ring of seven to twelve men. While this take places many of the other men will “attempt to pretend somehow the whole thing is not really happening” (279).However primitive this sport may seem, it is actually very organized and honorable. The two cocks chosen to fight are fitted with spurs and then aggravated by their owners to get them ready to engage their opponent.

The cockfight is run very straightforward using a coconut as a timer for the two rounds of the match. Although this seems simple there are a “vast body of extraordinarily elaborate and precisely detailed rules” which is written down on “palm leaf manuscripts” (281). These rules, coming from cockfight lore, have been passed down several generations amongst the Balinese.At the fight there is an umpire, given respect equivalent to a king or priest, who is in charge of the fight.

The umpire is a much respected man and during Geertz’s entire study he never saw an “umpire’s judgment questioned on any subject” which shows the respect and honor the Bali have for the rules. The actual fighting itself is a very small part of the cockfight, what makes it so interesting is the gambling involved. In the section titled “Odds and Even Money,” Geertz writes about his study of the Balinese gambling that takes place during a cockfight.There are two different kinds of bets that take place.

“The center bet is the official one, made between two cock owners” which is usually a collective and large bet made not just by the owner of the cock but also his friends and family (282). The center bet ranges from “fifteen ringgits to five hundred,” and considering that an average day’s work in Bali is only three ringgits, this can be an extremely large bet when compared to their overall wealth (282). The second kind of bet that takes place is the side bet which is made by the observers wishing to bet for the underdog.They will shout out odds anywhere between “ten-to-nine at the short end and two-to-one at the long end” trying to find others to accept.

Once the fight takes place and a winner is announced “all bets are immediately paid” within five minutes (284). Through the fifty or more cockfights Geertz studied he was able recognize the pattern between the size of the center bet and how it is a “device for creating ‘interesting,’ ‘deep'” and evenly matched fights (286). Why would anyone want to gamble away so much money on a single cockfight?Geertz analyzes this idea of extreme betting in the fifth section of his essay entitled “Playing with Fire. ” Geertz uses the words “deep play” which means “playing in which the stakes are so high that it is irrational for men to engage in it at all” (286).

It is obvious that the Balinese are way in over their heads when it comes to money, but Geertz believes that there is much more at stake than just that. When taking place in a cockfight they are also risking their “esteem, honor, dignity, respect” which to the Bali men is worth losing everything for, including their land (287).As an anthropologist Geertz found several facts supporting his thesis that “the deep cockfight is fundamentally a dramatization of status” and made a list of facts supporting this idea. Geertz developed this list through his observation and recording which supports his idea that there is sophistication, loyalty, and emotion involved in a deep match and the cockfight is more than simply a primitive pass-time.

In the final two section of Geertz essay he states what he believes the cockfights truly represent by relating the cockfights to modern forms of art.According to Geertz the cockfight is a mirror of the Balinese culture but it does not serve as an absolute way to go up or down in status. In the section “Feathers, Blood, Crowds, and Money,” Geertz states “all you can do is enjoy and savor, or suffer and withstand, the moment” but it is all just a brief jump in status (293). After a cockfight they will return to their homes just as they had left.

They put their emotions and money on the line for those few moments of excitement which have no long-term effects on their real status, yet drastic affects on their material possessions.In Bali, status relationships are life or death and this prestige is apparent everywhere; in the village, the economy, and the state there is a “peculiar fusion of Polynesian title ranks and Hindu castes, the hierarchy of pride is the moral backbone of the society” (296). To see the real hierarchy in its “natural colors” one must look to the cockfight. This is the Balinese escape with only a “thin disguise of an animal mask” (296).

As an anthropologist Geertz knows that “every culture loves its form of violence” and the cockfight is the Balinese form of self expression (297). As one can see the work of an anthropologist is not an easy profession. From Geertz’s essay I have learned that it takes an array of skills in order to extract and understand the unique attributes each culture may possess. Throughout the essay one can see the various techniques Geertz uses to gather his data which include; observing, recording, writing, adaptation, field research, and analysis.

Each one of these skills must work together, if he can not manage to adapt to culture it will be near impossible to observe the true nature of that society. If one can not make proper analysis of his recordings then his job would be taken over by an encyclopedia. For one to possess all the aforementioned talents and even more, such as Geertz’s ability to do statistics, is a remarkable feat. Geertz is a true scholar and his essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” is an excellent example of the work of an anthropologist.

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Clifford Geertz Deep Play: Notes On A Balinese Cockfight. (2018, Feb 25). Retrieved from

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