In the fields of anthropology, sociology, religious studies, and human and organizational development, 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 introduced by the 20th century philosopher Gilbert Ryle and later developed by 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 has become increasingly recognized as a method of symbolic anthropology, enlisted as a working antidote to overly technocratic, mechanistic means of understanding cultures, organizations, and historical settings.
Influenced by Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Weber, Paul Ricoeur, and Alfred Schutz, the method of descriptive ethnography that came to be associated with Geertz is credited with resuscitating field research from an endeavor of ongoing objectification—the focus of research being "out there"—to a more immediate undertaking, where participant observation embeds the researcher in the enactment of the settings being reported.
Geertz is revered for his pioneering field methods and clear, accessible prose writing style. He was considered "for three decades...the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States." He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.
- 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.
- Ryle, Gilbert. What is le Penseur doing? — lecture by Ryle (1971), and later published in his collected papers.
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