Thursday, May 4, 2023

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

One of the pivotal concepts in Clifford Geertz's anthropological theory is "Thick Description".

Geertz asserts that the function of anthropology is to elucidate cultures through thick description. This involves detailing many aspects, conceptual structures, and meanings, in contrast to "thin description," which is a factual account without interpretation. For Geertz, thin description is not only insufficient but also misleading. He argues that an ethnographer must provide a thick description, including facts, commentary, and interpretations. The goal is to extract the complex layers of meaning that constitute a culture, which cannot be achieved through a mere factual account.

In "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," Geertz outlines four criteria for an effective thick description and cultural study:

  1. Interpretative study: As anthropology is a semiotic endeavor, cultural analysis should trace how meaning is assigned. The raw data collected by an ethnographer is not sufficient for a thick description of a culture.
  2. The subject of interpretation is the flow of social discourse. According to Geertz, interpretative ethnography should generate the codes needed to decode social events.
  3. Interpretation deals with extrovert expressions. Data collection and interpretation are based on what local informants can convey, limiting thick descriptions to extrovert expressions of culture.
  4. Ethnographic description is microscopic. Geertz believes that ethnographic findings describe local behaviors and truths as ethnographical miniatures. We always view specific and contextualized occurrences, and these constitute the thick description.

For further reading, consider these summaries of other articles by Clifford Geertz: