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Zhuštěný popis

Thick description (or perhaps "thickened," as this Czech translation implies) - an approach to ethnography advocated by anthropological icon Clifford Geertz, most famously in an essay titled "Thick Description" (published as the first chapter to his 1973 book The Interpretation of Cultures). One of his best and most well-known quotes comes from this essay; here is the Czech version:
Člověk je zvíře zavěšené do pavučiny významů, kterou si samo upředlo.*

(Anyone worth their anthropological salt out there probably knows, just from the title of the essay and that this is Geertz's "most quoted" line, the English equivalent. Geertz borrowed the concept of "thick description" from philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and the above line is said to be akin Max Weber's ideas.)

As I was looking back into Geertz this morning, I found another passage that was inspiration to a dissertating wannabe academic. With the caveat that he only titled the essay "thick description" when pressured by his editor, Geertz recalled, "this backward order of things—first you write and then you figure out what you are writing about—may seem odd, or even perverse, but it is, I think, at least most of the time, standard procedure in cultural anthropology" (page v of the 2000 edition).

Geertz was perhaps the most influential American anthropologist of the twentieth century, and he also wrote wonderfully, which distinguishes him from a lot of other anthropologists. I don't know if it comes across in Czech. My advisor, who was at least a "colleague," as they say in Czech, of Geertz, recalled him telling to her once that he sometimes drafted his essays over fifty times! I'm not sure if that's encouraging or not. That is, if those of us who aren't gifted with flowing prose on the second or third try will have fifty more times to go through, then my dissertation is going to take a lot longer than I have time for. But that's another issue.

Geertz has other advice for the anthropologically inclined among us (read insecure) writing partly-ethnographic texts:
Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. It is a strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based, in which to get somewhere with the matter at hand is to intensify the suspicion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting it right. But that, along with plaguing subtle people with obtuse questions, is what being an ethnographer is like. ("Thick Description," p. 29)

Thanks to bobotic for posting the Czech version on his blog, which was pointed out to me by Adamm.

* "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun." Geertz continued, "I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (p. 5).

** The Czech translation could also be hustý popis.

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Blogger Karla said . . .

Well, I've been meaning to read Geertz for years and can see this still seems like a good idea.

I will not, however, be reading him in Czech. (But I've concluded that the beginning of Nezval's Řetěz štěstí is no harder and is much more interesting than the tedious narratives my class has about foreign students in Prague.)    

10:20 PM, March 16, 2007

Anonymous jana said . . .

Nice post.I might say czech translation being accurate and efficient can indeed not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.    

11:55 AM, July 19, 2012

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