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"Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down."
Thick Description


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In anthropology and philosophy, a thick description is an account that describes an action within its context. The concept was first used by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his essay, “The thinking of thoughts”, and imported to anthropology by Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).

Thick description is frequently employed in qualitative fields to give greater meaning to a report; it more fully situates the author and reader in the field of study (Ponterotto: 6). For Geertz, the concept does more nuanced work: any ethnography is by its very nature thick description: an account is layered with levels of cultural value and significance. The data of anthropological writing is entirely wound up with its context; the work of ethnographers lies in explaining this context; thick description is integral to anthropology.

Ryle: The difference between a twitch and a wink


Ryle's original characterization (like many characterizations of thick description) sets thick description against thin description. Thin description is an action robbed from its context, a naked slice of behavior cut from the rich social world in which it took place and laid out without meaning. Describing an act thickly means piling on layers of meaning, slathering context onto thin description in order to make sense of it. Thick description assembles a sandwich of significance that, with each additional layer, comes closer to an accurate account of an action or object.

He uses the example of a boy winking: the thinnest possible description of this act would state that the boy tenses the muscles of his right eyelid quickly and relaxes them. This description is accurate, but it misses out on the meaning of the act. Within this photographic image of a closing eye, there is no way to differentiate between a wink and a twitch. By adding on layers of description, the observer may establish context: the eyelid-tensing was deliberate, it was directed at someone, it signaled complicity, etc. With these layered-on levels of description, the account paints a clearer picture; the maybe-twitch becomes a definite wink.

Furthermore, these layers are not separate acts, they are all layers that must be heaped upon an act for it to be called a wink. “Unlike a person who both coughs and sneezes, or both greets his aunt and pats her dog, he had not both contracted his eyelids and also done a piece of synchronous signaling to his accomplice” (Ryle). A thick description gives multiple layers to a single complex act.

Ryle uses the concept of thick description as a Wittgensteinian crowbar for opening up the language we use to describe thought, to unpack the mental actions of Le Penseur by thickening their description. The concept has since been imported to social science, where it is important for theories of contextual analysis.

Geertz: Thick description and the work of anthropologists


Anthropologist Clifford Geertz picks up Ryle's thick description for use in his own field. The focus on context works particularly nicely with Geertz's own understanding of culture:

As interworked systems of construable signs…culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly – that is, thickly – described. (14)

If we view culture as context, thick description is a means of taking account not only of an act but of the culture that informs it. This kind of description is integral to anthropology, in which culturally situated acts are the primary data. The work of the ethnographer is understanding this cultural situatedness.

The point…is only that ethnography is thick description. What the ethnographer is in fact faced with…is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render. (10)

Thick description contains the meat of anthropology; it's within thick description that an anthropologist can get at culture. Because of this, Ryle and Geertz are coming at the topic from two different angles: while Ryle can imagine layers being added to thin description like a sandwich, Geertz finds himself trying to make sense of a pile of linguine. The descriptions that anthropologists face are already thick; their work lies in extracting information about culture from the necessarily thick descriptions that ethnographic data offers.

The thing to ask is what their import is: what it is, ridicule or challenge, irony or anger, snobbery or pride, that in their occurrence and through their agency, is getting said. (10)

With thick description, Geertz shifts the focus of ethnography from organizing and cataloging actions to understanding their meanings. “Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape” (20).

For Gilbert Ryle, a description can get to the point where it is thick enough and has been fully contextualized. Geertz, however, argues that context is not something that can be defined in its entirety. Culture is a complex and protean beast, and the context it provides for action is difficult to pin down. “Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is” (29). Description can be infinitely thickened, there are always further levels of explanation:

There is an Indian story – at least I heard it as an Indian story – about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle ? "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down." (28)

By this count, the interpretive task of ethnography is infinite, and a true knowledge of culture is impossible. But Geertz is not willing to let the infinite regress of turtles lead the study of culture into subjectivism or into an appeal to some greater power that can explain human action. By keeping anthropology trained on the “hard surfaces of life” – that is, on the realities that contain humankind, anthropologists can maintain a grounding in the real world.

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