Thick description

In the social science fields of anthropology, sociology, history, religious studies, human-centered design and organizational development, a thick description results from a scientific observation of any particular human behavior that describes not just the behavior, but its context as well, so that the behavior can be better understood by an outsider. A thick description typically adds a record of subjective explanations and meanings provided by the people engaged in the behaviors, making the collected data of greater value for studies by other social scientists.

The term was introduced by the 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz later developed the concept in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to characterise his own method of doing ethnography.[1]. Since then, the term and the methodology it represents has gained currency in the social sciences and beyond. Today, thick description is used in a variety of fields, including the type of literary criticism known as New Historicism.


Thick description was first introduced by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in 1949 in "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" and "Thinking and Reflecting". Originally, Ryle introduced two types of descriptions: thin and thick. Thin description included surface-level observations of behavior while thick description added context. To explain this context required grasping individuals' motivations for their behaviors and how these behaviors were understood by other observers of the community as well. This method emerged at a time when the ethnographic school was pushing for an ethnographic approach that paid particular attention to everyday events. The school of ethnography thought seemingly arbitrary events could convey important notions of understanding that could be lost at a first glance.[2] Similarly Bronisław Malinowski put forth the concept of a "native point of view" in his 1922 work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Malinowski felt an anthropologist should try to understand the perspectives of ethnographic subjects in relation to their own world.

Following Ryle's work, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz re-popularized the concept. Known for his symbolic and interpretative anthropological methods, Geertz's methods were in response to his critique of existing anthropological methods that searched for universal truths and theories. He was against comprehensive theories of human behavior; rather, he advocated methodologies highlighting culture from the perspective of how people looked at and experienced life. His 1973 article, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture", synthesizes his approach.

Thick description emphasized a more analytical approach, whereas previously observation alone was the primary approach. To Geertz, analysis separated observation from interpretative methodologies. An analysis is meant to pick out the critical structures and established codes. This analysis begins with distinguishing all individuals present and coming to an integrative synthesis that accounts for the actions produced.

The ability of thick descriptions to showcase the totality of a situation to aid in the overall understanding of findings was called Mélange of descriptors. As Lincoln & Guba (1985) indicate, findings are not the result of thick description; rather they result analyzing the materials, concepts, or persons that are "thickly described".