Geertz’s “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight” (1972) is justly famous and yet its central argument, that the Balinese, sometimes, play “deeply’ in such a way as possibly to endanger their status, has had surprisingly little impact. Maybe it is because it is set in a mysterious island far, far away. Maybe it is because “we” do not bet on cockfights. Maybe it is because, though quite a few of “us” play more or less deeply in Las Vegas and other such venues, “our” institutions, dominant ideologies, etc., do not play much and frown on any play dangerous enough to risk our health or well-being. Quite the reverse indeed as “we” pride ourselves on ever more detailed protective regulation of what must be done while “at play” (in play grounds, riding cycles, etc.). But, of course, we, personally and as implicated by more or less enlightened leaders do “deep play”–though not necessarily in ways so labeled.
Sherry Ortner is one of the few who worked at expanding what Geertz must have meant. She presented a study (1999) of Sherpas helping people climb the Everest and other Himalayan mountains as a study of, precisely, deep play given the well-known dangers involved in such endeavors. But Sherpas, and the rich people who hire them to make it possible for them to reach the summit, may still be dismissed as exotic people living at the edge of our safety nets and of only passing interest. And yet we, social scientists, should pay attention.
A few years ago, I got interested in deep play as something potentially central to culture theory in anthropology. I was working with Mary Cotter analyzing a moment in a woman’s hospital labor when she tells as a joke about an earlier labor when she, a physician herself, had lied to an anesthesiologist about pain she was not feeling to get more pain killers, thereby endangering her and her child (Cotter 1996; Varenne and Cotter 2007). Everyone present, anesthesiologist, husband, nurse, researcher, laughed. The joke was certainly “play” in the usual sense. Was her earlier lie also a gamble, deep play?
In a forthcoming paper in the Educational Researcher, Jill Koyama and I propose we answer this question positively and expand the relevance of “(deep) play” to include all acts, by an individual or a polity through its leaders, that threaten their status or the status of some of the people the act involves. In our perspective, it does not matter what the motivation of the actor (gambler) may be, or the type of rewards the act might produce, or its initial cost. What would matter is the level of uncertainty about the act producing what it is supposed to produce and the severity of the effects, should the act not produce what was hoped for. It has made sense to think about the activity of traders of Wall Street as, also, gambling. What about the activity of politicians and other regulators when act to, in what would be their term most probably, “generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways” (from the introductory paragraph of the report A Nation at Risk, National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983)?
In this perspective, the decision by the New York City Department of Education to publish the names of individual teachers and their score, is a prime example of very deep play by policy makers and the politicians who accepted their recommendations. Who made the decision is actually unclear, but it was forcefully defended by Mayor Bloomberg. There is no evidence, “data based” or otherwise, that such a publication will achieve what reformers wish to achieve. There is much debate about the validity of the figures. But, somewhere, a decision in uncertainty was taken. It involved ten of thousands who, willy nilly, are caught in its consequences and for whom the act might transform status in what Garfinkel once referred to, chillingly, as “successful degradation ceremonies” (1956).
And now, unsurprisingly, a slow motion drama is unfolding. This drama, like the Balinese cockfight, is taking place in the public square, and so will many of the status changes that will result as the main bet, as well as many of the side bets that are also being made, is followed by its consequences. Political careers will be made and lost. Administrators will be fired while others will move up. Unions might be reinvigorated, or not. One can hope that the shame as much as half of the teachers of New York City are experiencing this month as they are publicly labeled “below average” will be short lived (though one can imagine the psychological scars some will bear as journalists and parents berate them).
It may seem insensitive for social scientists to watch the unfolding of the drama as evidence for refining our understanding of social processes. And yet it is our duty to do such. Publishing individual scores, whatever good might come of it, is, also a full scale experiment which would probably never have been allowed to proceed if it had been proposed as “research.” University review boards are very vigilant about the extent to which individuals might be harmed by research, even unwittingly or in indirect ways. But, of course, policy acts are not systematically reviewed for the harm they might cause. Perhaps they could not be or political decisions could not be taken in a timely fashion. But the issue remains and as social scientists who advise policy makers, we must pay attention and play our analytic role. The publishing of the scores is a research boon as it allows us to test various analytic methods (as Koyama and I are doing) that will allow for understanding more systematically the networks of authority and power in which we are all caught, and particularly the relationship of motivation to act to social consequences. In this effort we might do worse than facing the extent to which social life is, also, (deep) play, and then making suggestions to policy makers about what is most probably a fundamental feature of humanity.