Counting Cats in Zanzibar

In his famous essay on “thick description” ( The Interpretation Of Cultures (Basic Books Classics) ), Clifford Geertz argues that anthropology is not about becoming native but learning “to converse with them, a matter a great deal more difficult, and not only with strangers, than is commonly recognized” (13). Its aim is “the enlargement of the universe of human discourse.”

This is why anthropologists tend toward the exotic: “Looking at the ordinary in places where it takes unaccustomed forms brings out not, as has so often been claimed the arbitrariness of human beahvior . . . , but the degree to which its meaning varies according to the pattern of life by which it is informed.” Anthropology makes others accessible because by “setting them in the frame of their own banalities, it dissolves their opacity” (14-15).

Anthropologists don’t aim to bring home facts but “to clarify what goes on in such places, to reduce the puzzlement – what manner of man are these? – to which unfamiliar acts emerging out of unknown backgrounds naturally give rise.” He acknowledges that this raises problems of “verification” or appraisal, but he insists that there is no “body of uninterpreted data, radically thinned descriptions” against which to measure interpretations. The data is already thick with meaning. Anthropology in short, ought not “go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar” (16). When successful, the ethnographer can say “another country heard from” (23).

Geertz, in short, has a clear grasp of the missionary – we might almost say Pentecostal – aim of anthropological research.

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