Clifford J. Geertz 1926 – 2006

The news is flashing around that Dr. Clifford Geertz has passed on, for his biography and information on recent research, please click on his name to go to the Institute for Advanced Study website.

As with many of my peers, I went to graduate school during a time when you rarely handed in an essay that did not make some reference to Geertz and/or the Balinese Cockfight and deep play. I have always been interested in deep play. “Deep Play” was originated by Jeremy Bentham and essentially refers to activities where the stakes are such that, rationally, the risks outweigh the benefit, yet for those participating, the activity is an important part of the social fabric and one of the ways people help to make meaning of their lives. Take the “extreme sports” phenomena. I flew hang gliders for a time, and the risk (injury and deaths each year are expected in the hang gliding world) certainly seems to outweigh the rewards, so why are people driven to do that?

In looking at product development from a cultural stand point, you can use the idea of deep play as an inspirational launching point to map out the seemingly irrational buying habits of people. The reason is say an inspirational launching point is that it is hard to think of an event like buying a house as “deep play”. But is does lead down a past to ask why certain things happen. For example, there is a rapid raise in home foreclosures in formerly hot real estate markets. Why? Because when the house prices were shooting up like a rocket and interest rates favorable, banks offered people very very risky loan programs that let them buy much more expensive houses than they could truly afford. Now it is two or three years later and those interest-only-for-36-months-no-money-down-because-we-add-it-to-your-principle loans are now getting the principle tacked on sometimes doubling and tripling the payment.

The risk there was pretty huge of those that could not afford a home: You get into a home or bigger home now than you can afford and then betting you income will increase significantly in three years to cover the massive mortgage looming out there. A damned irrational risk, so why take it. Lots of reasons, in the states to own your own home is a major symbol of accomplishment. It and your car are the two most overt ways to advertise and increase status. There is also a feeling of opportunity passing you by. Its almost a given in most people’s minds that purchasing a home is a major investment that is expected to accrue in value, help you get into a larger home later if needed, and eventually where you will live out your old age, or sold to finance your old age.

Think of all the other “deep play” like purchases people make: cars, clothes, etc. In some ways, I wonder if many of the people that pitched a steady corporate job and salary to join a struggling start up could be said to be engaged in deep play?

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.