A Thick Description of the (Prospective) Next First Family

Nothing against Barbara Bush or anything, but I’m practically beside myself that I can use the occasion of an article on a presidential candidate’s mother to refer in context to Clifford Geertz.

Via Language Log, there’s a must-read profile in Time Magazine about Obama’s mother by Amanda Ripley:

Each of us lives a life of contradictory truths. We are not one thing or another. Barack Obama’s mother was at least a dozen things. S. Ann Soetoro was a teen mother who later got a Ph.D. in anthropology; a white woman from the Midwest who was more comfortable in Indonesia; a natural-born mother obsessed with her work; a romantic pragmatist, if such a thing is possible.

As Benjamin Zimmer writes in Language Log, after he gets the principal issue of pronouncing Obama’s sister’s name out of the way:

So Barack Obama has a half-sister versed in Indonesian figures of speech (regardless of Barack’s own proficiency in Indonesian). Not only that, he has another half-sister, on his father’s side, who is trained in Germanic languages and linguistics. According to Spiegel Online, Auma Obama studied at University of Heidelberg’s Neuphilologische Fakultät before continuing her graduate work at University of Bayreuth in the Interkulturelle Germanistik program. Her dissertation was on literary reflections of the concept of labor. It’s a fascinating extended clan, though you’d never know it watching the Democratic Convention’s genericized depiction of the Obamas as an “all-American family.”

Ripley’s piece, neatly staged in three acts, is broadly sympathetic but expertly done and full of insightful detail; a thick description, to use Geertz’s felicitous phrase.  And an appropriate one, too,  given that Obama’s mother was — like Geertz — an anthropologist of Indonesia who wrote a thousand page disseratation on ‘peasant blacksmithing,’ a classic thick description if there ever was one.