The aim of this paper is to assess the concept of ‘thick description’. In order to do this, I will look at the way in which anthropological study was carried out prior to this relatively new concept. I will then discuss some of the sociologists such as Weber, Ryle and Geertz and their contributions that have influenced this topic. I aim to conclude by showing whether or not ‘thick description’ is a new method of anthropological study or simply a deeper analysis of action or text drawing on the work of Paul Rainbow.
This paper should give the reader a good understanding of the concept and the theorists that have influenced it. The term ‘thick description’ was coined by Clifford Geertz (1973) in response to the work of philosopher Gilbert Ryle. It can be briefly defined as, ‘Any description of human conduct can be defined as ‘thick’ in the sense that it depends on the multiple layers of meaning given by human beings to their actions.
Every description given an ethnographic account is actually based on descriptions given by other participants, which in turn are dependent on other descriptions.
All these descriptions are embedded in different and sometimes incompatible systems of meaning’ (The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. S. Hill, B. S. Turner, N. Abercrombe. 2000). The definition can be explained using Ryle’s example of a wink. A wink can be described as merely a twitch of the eye, this, Geertz would call a thin description. On the other hand, it could be described as a conspirational wink or a flirtatious gesture.
This later description of the action does not simply observe and state the action, but takes into account other phenomena such as the different meanings different cultures may attribute to a gesture.
This is what Geertz labled as a ‘thick description’. In his book, ‘The Interpretation of Cultures’ he discusses the need for thick description in discussing cultures and social phenomena. It is important to discuss things ‘thickly’ or in greater detail otherwise important factors may be left out and the point of an action may be missed. An example of this may be a wedding ring. In one culture, it may mean nothing other than a piece of jewellery, but to our culture it is a symbol of marriage or engagement.
In any observation, there are symbols or signs and it is by relating them to one another that we are able to understand the observation better (Saussure). Observation also relies on theories, for example, ‘the temperature is twenty eight degrees’ relies on the theory of thermometers. Saussure discusses the sign in relation to meaning. He says that the sign has two points, the signifier and the signified. This was the first dominating thought of science, and as social science was a science it should therefore be grounded in systematic observation.
This simple observation did not work though as social science cannot be described as physical facts but by meaning attributed to action. So it is these signs that show the difference between observation and meaning. Social life contains a number of signs, natural (black cloud = rain) or social (ring = marriage). The relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary though, as a ring may not actually mean that you are married and black clouds may not definitely result in rain. Also, sound to meaning is arbitrary, for example, letters relating to a sound or sounds relating to the concept of a thing.
An example of this may be found in the sentence, ‘dog bit man’. A welsh person may not be able to tell who bit who as they form their sentences differently to the English. It is therefore important to discuss briefly how meaning sticks to a word. Vicktenstein calls this ostensive definition and sites the example of pointing. He says that language is a commentary of life and that commentary is a kind of speech act, word to action. During the twentieth century, philosophers such as Austin and Searle became very interested in speech acts.
Austin named these speech acts locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary. He gave the example of saying, ‘I do’ at a wedding. The speaking part is locutionary, the consenting is illocutionary and your new marital status is the perlocutionary. Weber believed that when we grasp all three levels of speech act we fully understand something (therefore we can give a thick description of it). This is what Geertz discussed in his major work on thick description, ‘The Interpretation of Cultures’. In order to fully understand an action, we must immerse ourselves within the culture that the action takes place.
He somewhat famously uses the example of the Balinese calendar. It is remarkably different to the calendars that we may be used to in western society, and in fact would not make a lot of sense to us, but it is of fundamental importance to the agricultural life of the Balinese, as it represents the seasonal changes in terms of the best times to farm. Sue Greenwood in, ‘Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld’ (2000. Oxford, New York) has also discussed this immersion in to a culture in order to study it effectively.
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