Thick description

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In the social science fields of anthropology, sociology, history, religious studies, human-centered design and organizational development, a thick description results from a scientific observation of any particular human behavior that describes not just the behavior, but its context as well, so that the behavior can be better understood by an outsider. A thick description typically adds a record of subjective explanations and meanings provided by the people engaged in the behaviors, making the collected data of greater value for studies by other social scientists.

The term was introduced by the 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz later developed the concept in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to characterise 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.


Thick description was first introduced by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?” and “Thinking and Reflecting.” Originally, Ryle introduced two types of descriptions: thin and thick. Thin description included surface-level observations of behavior while "thick description" added context. To explain this context required grasping why individuals did what they did and how these behaviors were understood by observers of the community as well. This method emerged at a time when the ethnographic school was pushing for an ethnographic approach that paid particular attention to everyday events. The school of ethnography thought seemingly arbitrary events could convey important notions of understanding that could be lost at first glance.[1]

Although introduced by Ryle in 1949, Clifford Geertz was instrumental in the popularization of the term. Clifford Geertz was an American cultural anthropologist known for his symbolic and interpretative anthropological methods. His methods were in response to his critique of existing anthropological methods that searched for universal truths and theories. Because of his beliefs, he was against comprehensive theories of human behavior. While establishing new theoretical methods, he pushed for interpretive methodologies that highlighted culture as a result of how people looked at and experienced life. His book, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture synthesizes his approach.

Thick description differed from past anthropological methodologies in that it emphasized a more analytical approach whereas previously observation alone was the primary mode of practice. To Geertz, analysis separated observation from interpretative methodologies. An analysis is meant to pick out the critical structures and established codes. This analysis begins with distinguishing all individuals present and coming to an integrative synthesis that accounts for the actions produced.

“Mélange of descriptors” was a term used to describe thick descriptions ability to showcase the totality of a situation to aid in the overall understanding of findings. As Lincoln and Guba indicate, findings are not the result of thick description; rather they are the result of taking meaning to the materials, concepts, or persons being “thickly described”.[2] This practice is Interpretation.

Overall, 'Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture' is part of a larger body of work called 'In the Interpretation of Culture: Selective Essays.' This essay aims to change the direction of anthropological methods from one of observation to one of interpretation. It is situated in Geertz's symbolic approach of using observations as signs of larger meanings. Thick description along with other symbolic methodologies at the time advanced the discipline of anthropology.

The Geertz article, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture"[edit]

In Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,  Geertz takes issue with the state of anthropological practices in understanding culture. By highlighting the reductive nature of ethnography, to reduce culture to "menial observations," Geertz hoped to reintroduce ideas of culture as semiotic. By this he intended to add signs and deeper meaning to the collection of observations. These ideas would challenge Edward Burnett Tylor's concepts of culture as a  "most complex whole” that is able to be understood; instead culture, to Geertz, could never be fully understood or observed. Because of this, ethnographic observations must rely on the context of the population being studied by understanding how the participants come to recognize actions in relation to one another and to the overall structure of the society in a specific place and time. Today, various disciplines have implemented thick description in their work.[3]

The article is divided into eight numbered sections:

I: Citing its semiotic characteristics, Geertz pushes for culture to be cut down into size. By doing so, those who study culture, can search for a “web of meaning”. In one of the more popular quotes of the book; Geertz defines 'web of meaning':

“Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an in­terpretive one in search of meaning." (Geertz 1973:5)

These ideas were incompatible with textbook definitions of ethnography of the times that described ethnography as systematic observations.[4]Pre-Geertz ethnographies were systematic observations of different populations under the guise of Race categorization and categorizing the "other".

ll: Thin description vs. Thick description:

Geertz asks how can one come to understand a culture without understanding the meanings and symbols of said culture? The answer, to Geertz, lies with descriptive writing. For this, Geertz reiterates Ryle’s example to demonstrate the practical implication of symbolic interpretation.

Imagine, says Ryle, two boys “rapidly contracting their right eyelids”. For one of the boys the contractions are involuntary, for the other it is being used as signal to a friend (a wink). To simple observation, the eye movements appear identical. Ryle adds a third boy to his example to further prove his point. The actions of the third boy are done in mimicry of the others. According to Ryle, the complexity of these observations (blinking vs winking, vs mimicking) would be lost in thin description.

It is not until one understands the rituals, customs, and ideas of who they are observing that they can come to begin to comprehend the events they witness. Geertz points out that ethnographical data is obscure. Data is simply ethnographers' ideas, interpretations, or constructs of other people’s ideas, interpretations or constructs. Because of the way data is collected Geertz says anthropology is more observational than interpretative. To Geertz, analysis separates observation from interpretative methodologies. An analysis is meant to pick out the critical structures and established codes. This analysis begins with distinguishing all individuals present and coming to an integrative synthesis that accounts for the actions produced.

  • Thin description: "Rapidly contracting his right eyelid (Geertz, 1973: 7)"
  • Thick description: "Practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion (Geertz, 1973: 7)"

III: In Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture Geertz addresses culture and concludes that it is more than the habits, skills, and knowledge one possesses; it stems from the meaning individuals give to these things. For example, as Geertz says, one cannot perform a sheep raid without knowing what it means to steal sheep.

IV: Geertz emphasizes the importance of speaking to rather than speaking for natives (The word native has origins from the beginnings of anthropology. Originating with the idea of the “other”, natives were deemed to be of lower mental capacity than their European counterparts.  Thick description is an expansion of Bronisław Malinowski’s  “native point of view” where In his work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific Malinsokwi states “the goal of the anthropologist, or ethnographer, is "to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world" (1961:25)). This method is essential to approach the actual context of a culture. Geertz notes that it is not the job of the ethnographer to become native or to collect facts about the natives to bring them home. Instead, their job is to clarify what is going on in these places.

V: Culture should be treated as symbolic. In treating culture as symbolic, observations are connected with greater meanings. This connection lays out the structure of system (or society) and centers it around core values. These values, which include a multitude of factors aid in the organization of the system and a better understanding (although not the complete understanding) of a culture.

VI: Because culture has to be taken into context, there will always be discrepancies when studying communities via large scale anthropological interpretations.

VII: Geertz discusses the difficulty of theorizing interpretive works because of culture's dynamic nature. Again, Geertz points out that interpretive works provide ethnographers the ability to have conversations with the people they study.

VIII: Geertz sums up his theory with a final point: cultural analysis can never be complete. He goes on to add that the more in-depth the analysis, the more inherently incomplete it is. He ends stating, “Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate (Geertz, 1973: 29).”


Interpretive methodologies were needed to understand “culture as a system of meaning.” Because of this, Geertz’s influence is connected with  “a massive cultural shift” in the social sciences referred to as the interpretive turn. The interpretive turn in the social sciences had strong foundations in cultural anthropological methodology. In doing so, there was a shift from structural approaches as an interpretive lens, towards meaning. With the interpretive turn,  contextual and textual information took the lead in understanding reality, language, and culture. This was all under the assumption that a better anthropology included understanding the particular behaviors of the communities being studied.[5][6]

Thick description along with the theories of Levi-Strauss were widely used methodologies for interpreting culture and societies.[4][7]. However, despite its dissemination among the disciplines, some theorists pushed back on thick description. They were skeptical about Thick discription's ability to somehow interpret meaning by complying large amounts of data. They also questioned how this data was supposed to provide the totality of a society naturally.[8]

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 Schütz, 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 (For critique, see e.g. Munson 1986).

Geertz is revered for his pioneering field methods and clear, accessible prose writing style (compare Robinson's [1983] critique). He was considered "for three decades...the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States."[9]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Yon, Daniel A. (October 2003). "Highlights and Overview of the History of Educational Ethnography". Annual Review of Anthropology. 32 (1): 411–429. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093449. ISSN 0084-6570.
  2. ^ Lincoln, Yvonna S.; Guba, Egon G. (April 1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. SAGE. ISBN 9780803924314.
  3. ^ Thompson, W. B. (2001). "Policy Making through Thick and Thin: Thick Description as a Methodology for Communications and Democracy". Policy Sciences. 34 (1): 63–77. doi:10.1023/A:1010353113519. ISSN 0032-2687. JSTOR 4532522.
  4. ^ a b Barth, Fredrik (2007-09-01). "Overview: Sixty Years in Anthropology". Annual Review of Anthropology. 36 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.36.081406.094407. ISSN 0084-6570.
  5. ^ Bachmann-Medick, Doris (2016-01-15). Cultural Turns: New Orientations in the Study of Culture. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 9783110403077.
  6. ^ Hodder, Ian; Shanks, Michael (1997). Interpreting Archaeology: Finding Meaning in the Past. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415157445.
  7. ^ Yon, Daniel A. (October 2003). "Highlights and Overview of the History of Educational Ethnography". Annual Review of Anthropology. 32 (1): 411–429. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093449. ISSN 0084-6570.
  8. ^ Barth, Fredrik (2007-09-01). "Overview: Sixty Years in Anthropology". Annual Review of Anthropology. 36 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.36.081406.094407. ISSN 0084-6570.
  9. ^ McCloskey, Deirdre. "Thick and Thin Methodologies in the History of Economic Thought," in The Popperian Legacy in Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 245-57.


  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture". In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books. 3-30.
  • McCloskey, Deirdre. 1988. "Thick and Thin Methodologies in the History of Economic Thought". In The Popperian Legacy in Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 245-57.
  • Munson, Henry. 1986. "Geertz on Religion: The Theory and the Practice". Religion 16: 19-32.
  • Robinson, Paul. 1983. "From Suttee to Baseball to Cockfighting". The New York Times September 25, 1983.

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