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Fahim Zaman Social Studies 40 Paper 2 Q #4 Don Tontiplaphol

Making Sense of the Ways of Others: Hybridizing Relativism and Value Imposition To begin a discussion on useful ways to make sense of an action, it helps to delineate what would make mere explanation more useful for complete understanding: A key purpose of understanding comes from being able to relate to another’s actions, creating a foundation for effective interaction and exchange. If we hold this as a standard of usefulness, it follows that perhaps the best way to establish such understanding is to construct explanations such that the subjects being observed feel understood, and that observers are satisfied that the explanation makes sense to the whole of their person, not exclusively to a morally dissociated fragment of themselves. To achieve the requirements of understanding, an explanation of an action would have to strike true (the facts it refers to and the predictions it establishes must play out in society), and must be verifiable by the subjects (written in the context of their societies, in their systems of meaning, in ways that they can appreciate). It must also be normatively accessible to observers and readers of the explanation; actions of the other, explained in the context of the other’s systems of meaning, must engage the observer’s own systems). In the context of moral relativism, explanations may go into the extreme of being completely devoid of moral evaluation, or to its opposite: the subjection of observed behavior to the observer’s foreign moral lens. Avoiding these extremes does not come by from merely situating our method in the middle of the gradient, but by combining or hybridizing the extremes into a single method. By sequentially applying Taylor’s discussion on determining beliefs through the context of systems of meaning, a Weberian rational explanation that clarifies those meanings, and Winch’s qualification that utilizing relativism need not mean that we apply no judgments of our own, we become Archilochus’s foxes and can construct an explanation that reaches a full circle of understanding.


By reading Clifford Geertz’s description of the Balinese as an example of such methods being used, we can see how “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” comes close to full understanding. Whereas Dr. Chris Winship, as a fox, may utilize entirely different fields of social science to come to large conclusions, this method of making sense combines the methods and precautions of related authors to form smaller conclusions about foreign phenomena. Theoretical Shortfalls of Relativism or Value Imposition Imposing our own standards and values on other cultures can blind us to the meanings that their actions hold. As Winch writes, our evaluation “is complicated by the fact that the nature of people’s actions is itself affected, not to say permeated, by the context of moral evaluation surrounding the performance of actions of that sort.”1 Thus, when we see a person in another culture taking a loan, our value system may not determine the action very significant, whereas the culture’s value system may have an intricate view of loans and debt as indications of social status. Value imposition can miss many intricacies, and misunderstand the real values behind actions. Needless to say, an explanation based on value imposition risks alienating the subject of study. Relativism overcomes these problems but introduces a new one. When we recognize that the actions of another culture cannot be understood unless they are explained in terms of the other’s value systems (i.e, recognizing what the debt system means to society in the aforementioned example), it may seem that we’ve reached the goal. The explanation resulting from this method would qualify and make sense to the subjects of the study, and to a certain extent, to the observer. However, a relativist explanation only makes sense to the observer who lets go of his own value system, which is an integral part of the self. Through the lens of our own value systems, to our complete selves, the details in a relativist explanation might cause us to say, ‘I see how they act, what they supposedly to care about, but it doesn’t make sense that they would think like that. Why would                                                                                                                         1

 Peter  Winch,  Trying  to  Make  Sense  (Basil  Blackwell,  1987),  pp.  192–93.  


any society have such absurd values?’ Thus the observer is left in the dark, for his personality taken as a whole is still unable to make sense of the actions of the other. A Stepwise Procedure The method of explanation begins with Charles Taylor’s idea of determining people’s beliefs through knowledge of their systems of meaning. We may see subjects labeling their action with a familiar word, but that action may mean something different to them than the word they use for it means to us. Taylor confirms that, “putting a cross beside some one's name on a slip of paper and putting this in a box counts in the right context as voting for that person; leaving the room, saying or writing a certain form of words, counts as breaking off the negotiations; writing one's name on a piece of paper counts as signing the petition, etc.”2 These actions have certain words assigned to them. But he reminds us “what is worth looking at is what underlies this set of identifications. These identifications are the application of a language of social life, a language which marks distinctions among different possible social acts, relations, structures.”3 People may be filling forms to choose a candidate and believe they are voting, but to see whether this really means the same as our concept of voting would require an examination of where that paper goes, whether it is counted, and whether the citizens are concerned about this. Voting, betting, debating, and the gamut of social interactions can vary greatly in meaning depending on the society’s system of meaning, thus the observer must clear his slate of non-contextual definitions as a first step. The abandonment of our own preconceived definitions of actions and beliefs about certain interactions indicates that we enter the stage of moral relativism when trying to map the contextual meaning of foreign action. Geertz can be seen conducting such an examination of meaning systems when he delineates what gambling and betting actually mean in context of the cockfights in Balinese culture. Betting here is not so simple, and should not so readily be equated to betting elsewhere. Geertz describes:                                                                                                                         2 3

 Charles  Taylor,  Interpretation  of  the  Sciences  of  Man  (1972),  pp.  22    Ibid.  


“The center bet is the official one, hedged in again with a webwork of rules, and is made between the two cock owners, with the umpire as overseer and public witness. This bet, which, as I say, is always relatively and sometimes very large, is never raised simply by the owner in whose name it is made, but by him together with four or five, sometimes seven or eight, allies – kin, village mates, neighbors, close friends.”4 This indicates the deeply social nature of the center bet involved in the fight. In a related section, Geertz distinguishes the meaning of the money in the cockfight phenomenon from money in general. Risking a month of one’s income on a bet may remind one of unhinged gambling behavior in Las Vegas, but in the Balinese system of meaning the money amount means much more than the mere sum, however large. Geertz detects that the more money one risks, “the more of a lot of other things, such as one's pride, one's poise, one's dispassion, one's masculinity, one also risks, again only momentarily but again very publicly as well.” The sum is a language of how much of one’s reputation is at stake, for “to engage in such betting is to lay one's public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one's cock, on the line.”5 Yet, one may question the extent to which systems of meaning can make sense of actions. As Hollis points out, meaning comes in different forms and can often be unclear. There is the sense of meaning in our “conscious stock of conventions and symbols.”6 Furthermore there is a subtle difference between “what words mean and what people mean by them.”7 With ambiguities such as this, one may wonder how a system of meaning can provide a clear answer to why things happen. This leads Hollis to the Weberian idea that the better concept to use is rationality, which is “easier to analyze and serves better to focus disputes … between explaining and understanding.”8

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 Clifford  Geertz,  Notes  on  a  Balinese  Cockfight,  pp.  426    Ibid,  pp.  434   6  Martin  Hollis,  "The  Philosophy  of  Social  Science."  Chapter  7,  Understanding  social  action  (1994),  pp.  144   7  Ibid.   8  Ibid,  pp.  147   5


This occurred to Max Weber as well, who separated actions into four ideal types: instrumentally rational, value-rational, traditional, and affective (originating from desire and emotional arousal), which together constituted human social actions, often combinations of the different types. To clarify people’s reasons behind actions, consider the social structures of reacting to someone’s sneeze. When someone sneezes, nearby acquaintances are likely to say “Bless You.” Is this a rational action? We might assume that it is purely traditional, but on a higher level it is often a rational decision that could originate from ‘She just sneezed and she’s rather pretty. If I say bless you she might think I’m polite, and if I don’t she might think I’m a jerk. Saying bless you is the easiest instrument to use to gain her favor here.’ Technically, this is a combination of rational, traditional, and affective (desire for the favor of an attractive person) action at once. The rational map of the action allows us to see, from within, the subject’s reasons for his actions. Geertz exemplifies the analysis of rationality behind seemingly irrational action through the discussion of the Benthamite “Deep Play” involved in a cockfight. Bentham’s idea was that as the stakes of a game increase past a certain utilitarian threshold, it becomes “irrational for men to engage in it at all.”9 Yet Geertz uses the previously taken steps of clearing our slates of non-contextual definitions of gambling and re-assigned Balinese meanings, to show that the apparent irrationality in a high-stake fight is actually a rational choice for those involved. He points out that while “to a Benthamite this” incredibly high stake betting “might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that much further, to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness of it all.”10 Geertz here is appealing to the Weberian ideal that “the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence, that access of significance more than compensates for the economic costs involved.”11                                                                                                                         9

 Clifford  Geertz,  Notes  on  a  Balinese  Cockfight,  pp.  432    Ibid,  pp.  434   11  Ibid.   10


The economically extreme factor of the cockfight becomes a rational moot point through the combination of the Balinese attraction to a perfectly balanced fight, the symbolism and the selfrepresentation that is embedded for them within their side of the fight, and the social significance of these fights in expressing who is important in society. In the Balinese system of values, the deeply and perfectly balanced matches deserve higher bets, and the most important members of society belong at the center of these bets.12 These bets are the way one proves loyalty and expresses anger; one must bet with one’s kin, and will bet against one’s enemy or kin’s enemy. With so many values imbued within the cockfight tradition, it is safe to assign much of the Balinese behavior to Weber’s category of value-rational action. Through this, initially mapping the systems of meaning in a moral relativist atmosphere makes it possible to explain the embedded rationality in the actions of other cultures. The integrity of the understanding process up to this point depends on the accuracy of the information that leads to the rational explanation, and can be verified by the agreement and appreciation of the observed. The last step of understanding then is to bring the explanation full circle, back to context and meaning systems of the observer. Once the observed have been understood on their terms, it is possible to leave the realm of moral relativity and explain the action through the moral lens of the observer’s culture. Turning to Winch, we see that although he cautions against trying to apply our own values in understanding others, he believes that “to understand all need not be to forgive all: it may lead to an increase in indignation. But if we do not understand, we are in no position to know what we are getting indignant about or, as the case may be, what forgiving.”13 The prerequisite for Winch is that there is understanding before judgment is made, similar to this essay’s suggestion that the observed should feel adequately understood. At this point, again adopting Geertz’s study, we can think of our own moral systems and relate them to the Balinese. We can relate our values of loyalty and kinship to the                                                                                                                         12

 (Referring  to  Geertz’s  explanation  of  social  hierarchy  in  cockfighting)  Ibid,  435.    Peter  Winch,  Trying  to  Make  Sense  (Basil  Blackwell,  1987),  pp.  192–93.  

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Balinese expressions of the same values through cockfighting. Thus, the “betting” of the cockfight does not mistakenly engage our value system’s judgments about gambling addictions, but instead engages our values of kinship and our rationality of competition and desire to defeat common enemies. By connecting Balinese reasons for doing things to our own culture’s reasons, we find that their actions can make sense to us on the terms of our own values and rational systems. This completes the full circle of understanding. Conclusion It is helpful to avoid viewing understanding, or sense-making, of a particular activity in a black and white manner, as either valid or invalid. Rather, the integrity of understanding should be seen as a gradient, the quality and depth of which increases as the minds of the understood are further revealed to the minds of those attempting to understand. Merely observing actions can reveal patterns and surface level explanations, but to increase the level of understanding we must ask why those things are being done. This requires a relativist slate-wiping of definitions, and a Taylor-esque examination of contextual systems of meaning. The answer to “why” often reaches beyond mere systems of meaning and belief to rational calculations that derive from meaning. If these steps are verified by the observed, then the gradient of understanding is near its highest limit, because we have brought the feelings and thoughts of the understood to the forefront of examination. Once that examination allows our own feelings and thoughts to become involved (to use our own value systems), and our values overlap in our minds with those of the other, then we have reached the most complete of the gradient.


Making Sense of the Ways of Others