Thick description

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In anthropology and other fields, a thick description of a human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider.

The term was used by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to describe his own method of doing ethnography (Geertz 1973:5-6, 9-10). Since then, the term and the methodology it represents has gained currency in the social sciences and beyond. Today, "thick description" is used in a variety of fields, including the type of literary criticism known as New Historicism.

In his essay "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture" (1973), Geertz explains that he adopted the term from philosopher Gilbert Ryle, specifically his lecture "What is le Penseur doing?"


Geertz's "thick description" approach was adopted by the sociologist Allen Scarboro, psychologist Nancy Campbell and literary critic Shirley Stave in their book Living Witchcraft: A Contemporary American Coven (1994). In Living Witchcraft, the trio examined a Wiccan coven known as Ravenswood which met in the city of Atlanta, Georgia during the early 1990s. Highlighting Geertz's influence in the opening introduction to the book, they noted their intention of not only presenting the Wiccans in a manner that they themselves would recognize, but also in a manner that would allow a "non-Witch, specifically a thinking, reflective, non-Witch" to understand what they "would experience were she or he to participate in rituals and classes at Ravenwood."[1]

Cultural historians have used Geertz's technique. Examples include Michael G. Vann's study of rats and sewers in French government colonial Hanoi. [2]

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  1. ^ Scarboro, Campbell and Stave 1994. p. xi.
  2. ^ Michael G. Vann, "Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History," French Colonial History Society, May, 2003


  • Scarboro, Allen; Campbell, Nancy; Stave, Shirley (1994). Living Witchcraft: A Contemporary American Coven. Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger. ISBN 978-0275946883. 
  • Geertz, Clifford. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture". In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 3-30.
  • McCloskey, Deirdre. "Thick and Thin Methodologies in the History of Economic Thought". In The Popperian Legacy in Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 245-57.

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