To start form the bottom line, Clifford Geertz's essential notion expressed in "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" (1972) is that a people's culture is an ensemble of rituals which are in themselves ensembles, and these texts are what the anthropologist is trying to decipher.
"Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" is one of Clifford Geertz's most influential articles which illustrates not only the meaning of a given cultural phenomenon, the Balinese cockfight, but also Geertz's interpretative approach that sees a culture as a set of texts to be read by the anthropologist. Geertz shows how the Balinese cockfight serves as a cultural text which embodies, at least a portion of, what the real meaning of being Balinese is.
Despite being illegal, cockfighting is a widespread and highly popular phenomenon in Bali, at least at the time "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" was written (1972). Geertz reports that the Balinese people deeply detest animals and more specifically expressions of animal-like behavior. However, they have a deep identification with their cocks (yes, with their cocks) and "in identifying with his cock, the Balinese man is identifying not only with his ideal self, or even his penis, but also, and at the same time, with what he most fears, hates, and ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by- the powers of darkness".
Risking more than just money
Although gambling is a major and central part of the Balinese cockfight, Geertz argues that what is at stake is much more fundamental than just money, namely, prestige and status. Geertz distinguishes "deep fights", with high wages, and "shallow fights", usually with low wages of both gambling and prestige. Following Bentham, Geertz defines a "deep fight" is one in which the stakes are so high the people lose their rationality. In the case of the Balinese cockfight, a deep fight is one in which results are unpredictable, the odds are more even and the bets are more balanced. With bets fairly even in the case of a deep fights, financial gain is not the center of the event, but rather everything which is expressed in the concept of "status". Cockfighting is a fight for statues, with bets serving only to symbolize the risk. But it is a momentary gain or lost, the statues is only gained or lost momentarily following the fight but is maintained in the long run, with cockfights assisting in making sure of that.
Participants of the "deep fights" are usually dominant members of society. However the fight, according to Geertz, is not between individuals but is rather a simulation of the social structure of kinship and social groups. People never bet against a cock from their own reference group. Fighting always takes place between people (and cocks) from opposing social groups (family, clan, village etc.) and is therefore the most overt manifestation of social rivalry, and a way of addressing these rivalries. The Balinese cockfight is, as Geertz puts it, a way of playing with fire without getting burned. Social tensions are represented through the cockfight, but after all, it's just a cockfight.
Cockfights and status
Geertz also notes that the higher the status of the participants in the cockfight, the deeper the cockfight is, and the deeper it the more a person identifies with his cock and the more the financial aspect of gambling associated with the fight is marginal in comparison with the symbolic aspects of it.
The "deep play" of the Balinese cockfight, says Geertz, is like artworks which illustrate an essential insight into our very existence. It is a symbolic manufactured representation of something very real in our social life. It channels aggression and rivalry into an indirect symbolic sphere of engagement. The fights both represent and take part in forming the social and cultural structure of the Balinese people which are dramatized through the cockfight.
Rituals such as the Balinese cockfight, Geertz concludes, are a form of text which can be read. It is a society's manner of speaking to itself about itself, and is therefore of prime interest for the anthropologist.
other summaries of articles by Clifford Geertz:
Clifford Geertz: Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture – Summary, Review and analysis