Thick Description: The Interpretation of Our Culture

In Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, Clifford Geertz argues that the best way to conduct a culture analysis is through the interpretation of the symbolic meaning of individual actions. Thick Description is, in practice, creating ethnography: a narrative of culture through participant observation. By inscribing as much details as possible, Thick Description aims to capture a snapshot of a culture caught within a specific cultural and historical milieu. The ultimate purpose is for an outsider to be able to, through ethnography, understand the culture being observed as though he or she was a first-order participant within that culture.

Clifford Geertz’s theory primarily applies to the field of anthropology, which is the comparative study of human cultures and their development. Culture analysis is achieved through “isolating its elements” and “characterizing the whole system” around core symbols that make up the culture of the society (p. 17). Symbolic meaning lies in the centre of Geertz’s theory.  Taking a broader perspective, symbolism also applies as a method of social inquiry in the general scope of social sciences.

My presentation will be set up around the framework of qualitative research within social sciences (with a sociological spin as that is my field of study). I will begin first by examining two different perspectives of research methods. One may be tempted to view this dichotomy as an arts vs. science argument. However, the point I hope to illustrate here is that qualitative (often associated with humanities) and quantitative (often associated with sciences) are scientific methodologies that view relationship between variables in fundamentally different ways (though our arts/science debates have concluded that the two fields are not entirely different). Then I will briefly touch on the history of ethnography, especially its ethnocentric focus.

Thick Description, as almost all theories do, take on some assumptions that are theoretically impossible to prove. The theory also has some difficulties in practice – two of them are stated in Geertz’s essay, I will raise a third problem as the theory applies today. Rooted upon the basis of culture and symbolic meaning, Thick Description in its purest form is improbable due to the changing nature of culture and symbolic system in modern society.

Geertz makes reference to some important sociological (or social sciences in general) theorists and ideas in his essay. The presentation allows little time to delve into the details of how all the theories and concepts connect. Here I want to make some important points of theorists and concepts I may refer to in the presentation and the class discussion:

Charles Darwin has a heavy influence on social sciences because his evolution theory gives a new possibility as to where human history may lead. On the other hand, it also highlighted ethnocentrism with the implication of the more evolved human being. The Lamarckian thought of acquired traits rejuvenates society with the belief that cultural ills may be cured in time with discipline.

Max Weber is a classical sociological theorist often credited with founding symbolic interactionism (one of the three fundamental paradigms of sociology). Weber sees human beings as animals oriented toward meaning and understand each other through values. He is a microscopic theorist in the sense that he views the elementary level of analysis as the social action of individuals. The focus on the individual sets Weber apart from other classical sociologists of the early 1800s and serves as the foundation for much of modern sociological, anthropological and psychological thought.

One of Weber’s influences is Wilhelm Windelband. He is credited with coining the terms nomothetic  and idiographic. His belief that the humanities are best stood through a different methodology from that of natural sciences places him as an opponent of positivism.

Positivism, derived from Auguste Comte’s theory of knowledge (I brought this up during our arts/science discussion), is the idea that all phenomena can be understood in a causal relationship.

Geertz disregards the subjective vs. objective culture argument (p. 10) by saying that symbolic meaning displaces the need of characterizing culture in this dichotomy. Georg Simmel created this typology. In essence, there are two types of culture. Subjective culture is when behaviour closely aligns with your inner beliefs. Objective culture is when elements of culture become reified as separate objects that do little to represent the individuals that possess them.

Some questions to ponder about: What kind of interpretation does Thick Description actually produce? Is the nature of interpretation inherently biased? Can we apply Thick Description to assessing our own culture?

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