Friday, May 4, 2012

Clifford Geertz's "Thick Description" explained (summary)

One of the key terms in Clifford Geertz's anthropological theory is that of "Thick Description". 

Following Ryle, Geertz holds that anthropology's task is that of explaining cultures through thick description which specifies many details, conceptual structures and meanings, and which is opposed to "thin description" which is a factual account without any interpretation. Thin description for Geertz is not only an insufficient account of an aspect of a culture; it is also a misleading one. According to Geertz an ethnographer must present a thick description which is composed not only of facts but also of commentary, interpretation and interpretations of those comments and interpretations. His task is to extract meaning structures that make up a culture, and for this Geertz believes that a factual account will not suffice for these meaning structures are complexly layered one on top and into each other so that each fact might be subjected to intercrossing interpretations which ethnography should study.  

In "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture" Geertz outlines four parameters for an adequate "thick description" and a study of culture:
1.       Interpretative study:  since anthropology is a semiotic endeavor, cultural analysis should be an interpretative practice which traces the manner in which meaning is ascribed. The raw observational material collected by an ethnographer is not sufficient if we are to achieve a thick description of a culture.
2.       The subject of interpretation is the flow of social discourse. Interperative ethnography according to Geertz should produce the codes required for decoding social events.
3.       Interpretation deals with extrovert expressions. Data collection and interpretation are limited to what local informants can tell us. Therefore the thickest of descriptions can only be based on extrovert expressions of culture.
4.       Ethnographic description is microscopic. According to Geertz ethnographic findings describe local behaviors and truths as serve as an ethnographical miniature. We always view specific and contextualized happenings, and these make up the thick description.

other summaries of articles by Clifford Geertz:

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  1. "Thick", as in "thick as pea soup"-- i.e., a fog of balderdash.

    1. Apparently you find it hard to admit when you don't understand something, and resort to calling it balderdash.

      A nimble mind understands complex, thick things.

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