Geertzian moments (or, ‘when ethnographers lose their shit’)


Fieldwork photo (2008)

Returning home from hunting on our Husband’s country, fieldwork (2008)


There are certain moments during fieldwork that anthropologists refer to as ‘Geertzian moments’ or sometimes ‘Geertzian cockfight moments’. These are pivotal moments when something in one’s disposition and social relations shifts dramatically. Often it’s a moment of losing oneself and behaving in a way that one wouldn’t have expected or couldn’t anticipate, and it’s not until afterwards when you pause and reflect that you realise what has just occurred. It is in that moment of reflection that the ethnographer realises they’ve reached some tipping point of enculturation. This tipping point, in turn, changes the way that the ethnographer is perceived and treated. You become less of an outsider and start to be considered and treated more like ‘one of us.’ In this sense, there’s an element of intimacy and trust involved and I suspect this is because so-called ‘Geertzian moments’ are often triggered by some stressor and the ethnographer’s response often leaves them vulnerable or exposed in some way.

To give you a sense of Geertz’s now classic ‘moment’, the following is an excerpt from ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight‘. It begins with Geertz and his wife accompanying their extended family to a cockfight in Bali. Cockfights are illegal in Bali, the police stage a raid, and so it begins . . .


‘On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves . . . .


The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and, most especially, amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had fled like everyone else. They asked us about it again and again (I must have told the story, small detail by small detail, fifty times by the end of the day), gently, affectionately, but quite insistently teasing us: “Why didn’t you just stand there and tell the police who you were?” “Why didn’t you just say you were only watching and not betting?” “Were you really afraid of those little guns?” As always, kinesthetically minded and, even when fleeing for their lives (or, as happened eight years later, surrendering them), the world’s most poised people, they gleefully mimicked, also over and over again, our graceless style of running and what they claimed were our panic-stricken facial expressions.


But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.’


While most Geertzian moments seem to involve some kind of drama I suspect not many of them are as flattering or heroic as Geertz’s. I can identify two such moments, both of which took place around the 5-7 month mark of my eighteen months of PhD fieldwork, both of which involve what one may well describe as ‘Bree throwing a tantrum.’ The first involves thongs and a spear, the second a sustained display of public outrage. I don’t have time to recount the second just now, but I will say that my two close waku (sons [WC WZC]) still tease me about it to this day!


“YaaaaAAaaa, wiripu buku, maḏakarritj-nha mirithirri ŋäṉḏi!!!

([Expression of affection or sympathy], your face was so different, [it was] ferocious/dangerous Mum!!!)


So to recount my first: It was the onset of the wet season when social space rapidly contracts. The rivers are too high to drive out of the community for visitations, hunting or shopping, the ground is soggy, there is very little fresh food, supplies (including tobacco) are running low and everyone is stepping on each other’s toes just a little. I was stopping at Red House up at Top Camp with my two close sisters, my old late Mummy, my two grandson’s and a number of other close kin. (There was generally between four and ten of us.)

I had been ill a number of times in the months preceding, so I was being extra-cautious with Everything come the onset of the rain. The nurses had stressed the importance of wearing footwear – and by footwear I mean thongs because no-one wears anything else – at all times to avoid diseases like Melioidosis caused by bacteria in surface water and mud after heavy rains. So, cautious I was trying to be! The only thing is, it is rather difficult to keep thongs on your feet in a community where not many people have them, where you don’t shut doors, where girri’ (‘stuff’, personal effects) is generally shared between close kin and it’s considered cruel to deny children items that they explicitly request. But I didn’t want to get sick! They were my thongs! I needed them! I didn’t want to walk bare foot through the warm, squishy mud. I didn’t want to catch Melioidosis and die!

I was clearly stressed, stressed by the lack of social space, the onset of the rains and the thought of getting sick again. Enter the first of two trigger points: My gutharra and gaminyarr found my very last secret stash of canned vegetables, wrapped in blankets under a pile of bedding in one of the corners of the room. It sounds ridiculous now, but I was sure that these canned vegetables were going to save me when there was nothing left but flour and water and tea, they were going to be my secret saviour and everything would be okay.


“Manymak walal’ yurru luka, yapa? Ŋilimurru yurru bathan?”

(Is it okay if they eat [these] sister? We will cook [them]?)


“Yoo, manymak yapa! Lukiya marrkap-mirri!”

(Yes [of course] it’s okay! Eat, beloved!”)


Of course it was okay!? What was I, some kind of stingy white person hiding food and fixating on keeping in my possession the last few items that I could call my own!? (Oh yes, I was so that person at that very moment.) The last of my food-stash gone, I was more than determined to keep my gosh-darn thongs on my feet. My entire sense of control – over my self, my person and my ‘things’ – was now entirely focused on my thongs.

Given the muddy, wet conditions it was impractical and unhygienic to wear one’s thongs inside, so the few people actually had them would kick them off just outside the door. A few times I awoke from a sleep or a nap to find my thongs at the entrance to another door of the Red House, which was fine, but each time I made a point of hollering out so everyone could hear:


“Wanhaka ŋarraku luku-puy-ndja!? Ahhh yo, dhuwala ŋayi!”

(Where is my footwear!? Ahhh yes, here it is!”)


Just to, you know, let everyone know that I was keeping tabs on them (?) (*cringe-blush*). But then, of course, the afternoon came when my footwear was nowhere to be seen.


“Wanhaka ŋarraku luku-puy-ndja!? Wanhaaaa!?”

(Where is my footwear!? Wheeereee [is it]!”)


It is important to note here that my close adoptive family have always, for as long as I’ve known them, been acutely aware of the fact that balanda (white people, Europeans) have very different attitudes toward girri‘ (‘stuff’, personal effects) and, while under no obligation to do so, have always been mindful and thoughtful in accommodating such difference – such white person sensitivities (*cringe – blush*). On this particular occasion, however, we had extended kin stopping with us who probably hadn’t been briefed on the ins and outs of one white woman’s peculiar sensitivities with regard to girri’, and footwear in particular.


“Wanhhaaaaka ŋarraku luku-puy-ndja!? Yol-thu marraŋala!?”

(Wheeere is my footwear!?! Who has taken [it]!?)


I started pacing up and down the verandah and then up and down outside the Red House, shouting to everybody and nobody, as one does at such times. Not a ripple. Everyone went about their business as usual as if the angry white women wasn’t about to lose her shit. And then something gave. I really did lose it. I marched back onto the verandah and, hollering my intentions and grievances, pulled one of the men’s hunting spears from the roof rafters and stood on the edge of the verandah waving it wildly:


Nhä dhuwala ŋarra!? Wakiŋu!? Gäna ŋarra nhina-ndja!!? Gurrutu-mirriw ŋarra!? Rakun-thirri ŋarra yukurra! Bäythi-ndja! Rakun-thirri ŋarra yurru, gurrutu-miriw!

(What am I here!!? Am I wild, without kin!? Am I standing here alone!? Without kin!?! I am becoming dead! But whatever! I will become dead here, without kin!)


The angry white woman had lost it. I can’t remember how long I stood on the edge of that verandah waving that spear wildly, shouting to the wind, but I must have exhausted myself because the next thing I remember, as if in one gentle collective wave or motion, was my gutharra and yapa – all my close female kin – disarming, embracing and carrying me. A familiar mattress where I fell asleep almost immediately surrounded by kin. I awoke hours later to find my stupid pair of thongs neatly placed outside my door. I was a little more than embarrassed.


But where my attitude toward girri’ may have been typically balanda, my appeal for compassion and reparation was not. It was, as my Yolŋu family would later describe it – and still recount –  a true sign that I had started to become ‘Yolŋu-ised’.










† (Red House, is a three-room corrugated iron ‘house’ with three rooms and an undercover wooden verandah. There’s no internal kitchen or laundry, ‘living’ or dining areas etc. Everyone sleeps together on foam mattress on the floor and food is prepared and shared around the fire which is situated under near the mango tree out the front of the house.)

†† Thanks to my housemate and fellow anthro, Charlotte van Tongeren, for reading over the draft, esp given I’m out of practice, and also for the initial conversation that prompted this post. You are many kinds of awesome and thank you xo



Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

5 responses to “Geertzian moments (or, ‘when ethnographers lose their shit’)

  1. I’m an anthro undergrad-thank you so much for the belly laugh and the amazing take on your own geertzian moment! I was hooked from start to finish.

  2. Mr Neil

    Geertzian moments. Thanks for this addition to my lexicon. Geertzian moments in the field are what it’s all about. 

    Sent from Yahoo7 Mail on Android

  3. wamut

    This is wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing. ❤

  4. Pingback: A reply to Antze | Social drinking

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