Video footage and the grain of practice

Charles H. P. Zuckerman


In his essay on the cockfight, Clifford Geertz charted a now familiar course in anthropological argument. He showed how the minute details of a practice can dramatize cultural ideas about it. Many anthropologists since have been persuaded that “practice” matters, that carefully examining the conduct of events is bound to reveal something about the status of such events in cultural life. This article reflects on the role of video footage in this equation, arguing that footage is useful for, among other things, tempering assumptions that all practice is thick with reflexive meaning relevant to its overarching type. Through an extended example drawn from my research on gambling in Laos, I suggest that, when squinted at in the right way while writing and thinking, video footage can be a heuristic for countering the urge to reduce practice into a cultural gestalt, in which all interactional details carry the same meaningful architecture.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/725027