• John Ryan

Day 53: Cock fights, participant observation

Updated: Jun 15, 2018

I am thinking about going to a cock fight today. I do not want to go to see them fight. I am more thinking of going to better know the culture and the people and their lives.



One of the most famous writings in all of anthropology is on the subject of visiting a cock fight. It has been a while, and I cannot pull it up with the internet here, but I will try to remember: A man named Geertz in the 1950s (though he wrote about it in the 1970s) was trying to get integrated into a Balinese village. But, the people would not open up to him and he felt a chasm between them. That is, until he went to a cock fight. Unlike here in Haiti, these events were very illegal and heavily enforced. A researcher could get deported for going, a local could be put in jail. Well, the cops came, and Geertz found himself running from the police with the local people by his side. He hopped fences and ended up in a random stranger’s yard with a few other attendees. Seeing what was happening, the stranger brought them chairs and a tea set and they all pretended they were there the whole time. Everything changed for Geertz after that.


While I do not want to run from the cops or put myself in terrible danger, I did learn a lot from Geertz’ humorous account. He was a major contributor to “participant observation,” which is to do as the local people do and to learn alongside them. I have conducted my participant observation in other ways: I have helped in people’s gardens, laughed with Vodou priests over a cold beverage, rode rickety moto taxis instead of private cars, participated in traditional ceremonies, ate everything in front of me, and even (though reluctantly) danced when the time called.


I am not a local. I am not fully accepted, and I do not believe I can ever be. I will, however, seek little by little, to understand and to be understood.


As the Haitian proverb goes: “Piti piti, zwazo fe nich li”… “little by little the bird makes her nest.”