In his important essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” anthropologist Clifford Geertz aims to provide social science with and understanding and appreciation of “thick description.” While Geertz applies thick description in the direction of anthropological study (specifically his own ‘interpretive anthropology’), his theory that asserts the essentially semiotic nature of culture has implications for the social sciences in general and, in our case, political science (and comparative political science) in particular.
“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is… There are a number of ways of escaping this—turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it. But they are escapes. The fact is that to commit oneself to a semiotic concept of culture and an interpretive approach to the study of it is to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as… ‘essentially contestable.’ Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of the consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.” (29)
I. The idea of “culture”
From Clyde Kluckhohn’s Mirror of Man, Geertz lists the following potential meanings of “culture”:
1. "the total way of life of a people"
2. "the social legacy the individual acquires from his group"
3. "a way of thinking, feeling, and believing"
4. "an abstraction from behavior"
5. “a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behave”
6. "a storehouse of pooled learning"
7. "a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems"
8. "learned behavior"
9. “a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior”
10. “a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men"
11. "a precipitate of history"
12. a behavioral map, sieve, or matrix
Essentially, there is no standard and it will eventually be “necessary to choose.” (5) Geertz himself argues for a “semiotic” concept of culture: “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 interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical.” (5)
We must proceed interpreting a culture’s web of symbols by 1. isolating its elements 2. specifying the internal relationships among those elements 3. characterize the whole system in some general way—according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. (17) We must, however, be careful that such hermetical approaches might actually distance us from cultural analysis’s proper object, “the informal logic of actual life… Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems ‘in their own terms’ may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspecting events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns.” (17) Therefore, coherence cannot be a test for a cultural interpretation’s validity. While cultural systems must have a certain degree of coherence in order to be cultural systems, coherence is a loaded measurement as well as a limited one. “Tightness” of a culture, or at least its interpretation, makes for neither a valid or invalid interpretation. Rather, the ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse, turning a passing event into an account. Guessing at meanings is a given in the interpretations behind the inscriptions. “Tightness” is irrelevant for the most part.
In Geertz’s understanding, ethnography is by definition “thick description”—“an elaborate venture in.” Using the action of “winking,” Geertz examines how—in order to distinguish the winking from a social gesture, a twitch, etc.)—we must move beyond the action to both the particular social understanding of the “winking” as a gesture, the mens rea (or state of mind) of the winker, his/her audience, and how they construe the meaning of the winking action itself. “Thin description” is the winking. “Thick” is the meaning behind it and its symbolic import in society or between communicators.
Ethnographic description includes the following: 1. it’s interpretive 2. what it is interpretive of is the flow of social discourse 3. the interpreting involved consists in trying to rescue the ‘said’ of such discourse from its perishing occasions and fix it in perusable terms. (20) He compares the method of the “interpretive anthropologist” (who accepts a semiotic view of culture) with the method of the literary critique analyzing a text: “Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification—what Ryle called established codes—and determining their social ground or import… Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript.” Additionally we should treat human behavior as “symbolic action—action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies—the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask is what their import is.” (9-10) (my emphasis) Approaching culture as either subjective/objective, modern/traditional or designated by and supposed social dichotomy is dangerous and misleading. We should, rather, view human behavior as “symbolic action.”
Culture is public because “meaning is,” and systems of meanings are what produce culture, they are the collective property of a particular people. When “we,” either as researchers or simply as human beings, do not understand the beliefs or actions of persons from a foreign culture, we are acknowledging our “lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs.” (12-13) We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning when, as Wittgenstein noted, “We cannot find our feet with them.” (13)
Therefore, when faced with “a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit,” the ethnographer must attempt to grasp and interpret them, striving to understand how and why behavior is shaped in such and such a way (as opposed to another). Thick description is, thus, much more that mere data collection although this is an inherent part of anthropological work as well.
Mistaken views of “culture” as a concept:
- “to imagine that culture is a self-contained ‘superorganic’ reality with forces and purposes of its own; that is to say, to reify it.”—
- reductionist tendencies
- We must be wary of defining what a particular tribe “really” thinks and setting this in stone. Additionally, we must be aware that simply applying formal models to subjective realities; refined ethnographic algorithms make the reality no less subjective. “The cognitivist fallacy—that culture consists of ‘mental phenomena which can be analyzed by formal methods similar to those of mathematics and logic’—is as destructive of an effective use of the concept as are the behaviorist and idealist fallacies to which it is a misdrawn correction.” (12)
- mistaking the thick description for thin or vice versa
- taking anthropological interpretations as first order interpretations—when they are at best second and third order interpretations (first order refers to interpretations by a community member living within the particular community in question)
- careful not to fall into problematic models; for instance the “Jonesville-is-the-USA microcosmic model” or the “Easter Island-is-a-testing-case natural experiment model.”
As a semiotic concept, “culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can causally be attributed; it is a context, something within which [interworked systems of construable signs] can be intelligibly—that is, thickly—described.” We must ever be attempting to uncover “the degree to which [an action’s] meaning varies according to the pattern of life by which it is informed. Understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity.” (14)
In sum, Geertz wants us to appreciate that social actions are larger than themselves, they speak to larger issues, and vice versa, because “they are made to.” (23) “It is not against a body of uninterpreted data, radically thinned descriptions, that we must measure the cogency of our explications, but against the power of the scientific imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers.” (16) We seek to converse with subjects in foreign cultures, gain access to their conceptual world; this is the goal of the semiotic approach to culture. Cultural theory is not its own master. At the end of the day, we must appreciate that the generality thick description “contrives to achieve grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstractions… [T]he essential task of theory building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them.” (25-6) Cultural theory is not predictive; at best, it anticipates. Finally, “Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the ‘said’ of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in those terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinates of human behavior. In ethnography, the office of theory is to provide a vocabulary in which what symbolic action has to say about itself—that is, about the role of culture in human life—can be expressed.” (27)
Here you can find a shorter summary of "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture"
other summaries of articles by Clifford Geertz: