There’s an interesting article that takes a look at the Michael Vick dog fighting case with an eye toward sociological/anthropological theory. I’ve heard many people ask some version of the question, “How could he be so stupid?” While it is certainly the case that all of us do dumb things from time to time, sociologically we need to be attuned to the possibility that the motivations for choices are most often rooted in our cultural sensibilities of what is appropriate or rational. That doesn’t absolve an individual from personal responsibility for their actions, but it does help us to understand why some paths seem more likely than others.

In the article at popmatters.com, “From the Cheap Seats: Who’s Doggin’ Who?,” Tobias Peterson provides some historical context for the rise of dog fighting. But to me the most interesting piece is his connection to Clifford Geertz’s famous article “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese cock fight.” Based on Geertz’s work Peterson argues that there is a power dimension to dog fighting that is tied to both social class and race. He writes:

In the work, Geertz discusses Balinese society, but anticipates its cultural relevance to the US, writing, “As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring.” Geertz goes on to discuss the meaning of the cockfight for its practitioners, as well as the problem such behavior poses for other members of Balinese society: “The elite, which is not itself so very puritan, worries about the poor, ignorant peasant gambling all his money away, about what foreigners will think, about the waste of time better devoted to building up the country. It sees cockfighting as ‘primitive,’ ‘backward,’ ‘unprogressive,’ and generally unbecoming an ambitious nation.”

After considering the role race plays in the U.S., he goes on to hazard a guess as to what is going on:

I’d like to know what someone could possibly get out of such a horrific practice and, conversely, to know why such a practice causes the rest of recoil in such public horror. One answer might lie in Geertz’s assertion that Balinese cockfighters occupy the underclass of their society; their participation represents both an evasion of controlling authority and, perhaps more importantly, serves as a source of empowerment. Undeniably, such a dynamic has striking counterpoints in African American culture.

And a bit further down:

Reading Geertz’s assessment of cockfighting, it’s not hard to imagine that the same goes for dogfighting. The pit bulls in these contests, like Balinese chickens, cease to be animals and instead are surrogate expressions of their owners’ strength, courage, and power. Even if you never enter your pit bull in a fight, simply owning one of them is equivalent for many to displaying the same kind of attributes. Experts agree that a pit bull is one dog that’s not to be fucked with. So what might we surmise about their owners?

I think this article would make for an interesting discussion in a class. And I suspect the backgrounds from which people come might shape their response to Peterson’s analysis…

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