Thick description…

The job of an academic and a cultural historian is to worry about things: what stuff means. I have been influenced by two writers – one a cultural historian and the other an anthropologist.

Here I want to talk about the latter (more about the former in another post). Clifford Geertz was an anthropologist who once almost got caught in a police raid on an illegal cock-fight he was watching on the island of Bali in the 1950s. (Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 3-30.) It’s a great piece of writing: a gripping adventure yarn as well as an eloquent exposition of a method. By getting involved in the rush to get away from the police, Clifford Geertz managed to endear himself to the locals on the Indonesian island and so open the way to being able to do deeper fieldwork. Having a friendly relationship with your interviewees is so important – in academic research just as it is in journalism.

As an anthropologist he became immersed in the objects of his enquiry and thus was able to give added insight into what was going on around him. Geertz argued that it’s the symbols that make up the meanings around us, and to understand them we need to describe, explain and put into context the behaviours going on around these symbols – so that an outsider can appreciate and understand what’s going on.

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My thinking is that somehow the radio – and the act of listening to it – helps to add to that soup of symbols in society. Therefore, to understand society perhaps we can ask about radio. In one way or another what we do when we listen to the radio is important; and what we might think, make, and write after hearing a radio show is itself a symbol. Take all that together and there is, I hope, a way of seeing a meaning in radio. One that an outsider might be able to understand.

“Radio” can be everything from the studio, the presenter, the guests, the transmitter, the station, its logo, its format, the programmes, the receiver, the person listening, and everything in between and beyond. Perhaps that means the radio can be thought of as a complex technology connected to its component parts and wider society by webs of significance, in a similar way to Clifford Geertz’s view that ‘…man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’ (The Interpretation of Cultures, (2nd edn., New York, NY, 2000), p.5). Geertz continues by saying, ‘I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of a law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’ (Ibid). Time to join the dots and make connections.

In a similar way, I take “the radio” to be a large cultural-physical item which spreads across the cultural, social and physical geography of the country: it is both technical in nature, and also creates a web, or system, of significances and meanings that range from the way listeners engage with the programming schedules, the shows, and the presenters, to the manner in which artists write, sing, and act in response to this system.

I used this way of thinking when I was carrying out research for my doctoral thesis on Brazilian railway culture, where I analysed how railway heritage and history was represented in novels, poetry, popular music, films, TV novelas, and museums across the country.

My fieldwork involved weeks of long distance journeys, carrying out research in archives and interviewing people. In 2001 we were taking an overnight bus from the capital Brasília to Vitória in Espírito Santo on the Atlantic coast – a voyage of 1,250 kilometres. As we swung around a roundabout in a town one hour into our trip, two men in masks stepped into the road holding guns. Our driver took the option of putting his foot down and aiming the coach directly at the bandits; if he’d slowed down the robbers would’ve got on board and taken everything from the passengers. It was a very brave decision and when we finally stopped at a roadside diner an hour later – miles away from the attempted hijack – there were prayers of thanks given up. The whole coach applauded as the driver switched the engine off. That moment cemented our community of coach passengers and transcended our backgrounds, faiths and nationalities (I seem to recall that I was the only non-Brazilian on board). When you’re in a dangerous situation in a foreign country the fear you face can help you to understand the culture: by watching how locals deal with unfolding events. What struck me was that hardly anyone remarked on the cracked bus windscreen where a bullet had struck just half a metre above the driver’s head. It was one o’clock in the morning. We were all glad to be alive.

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