Geertz, C. (1973). “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.”
Geertz’s opening reference to Susanne Langer’s (1942) Philosophy in a New Key
Fundamentally functions as an acknowledgement of the intellectual predecessor of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which the term “paradigm shift” was coined. As was mentioned in class, the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric conception of the solar system, or from a universe operating according to Newtonian to quantum laws, are classic historical examples of such a shift. This is the background for Geertz’s essential argument that the analysis of culture, the bread and butter of ethnography, is essentially semiotic —
borrowing in large part the kinds of analysis found in late 19th and 20th century Continental and Analytic philosophy.
Geertz argues that sustained analysis of cultural phenomena, and the means of symbolic manipulation on the part of the participants within a culture, produce patterns for understanding that culture. In this way, the observer/ethnographer can, in the process of producing a “thick description,” hit a point of data saturation. Only when themes are continually hit upon does the ethnographer know that he has been successful in identifying a pattern (at least as is consistent with his culturally bound mode of analysis). Geertz indirectly uses the analogy of studying a previously unencountered language. Reducing a language to its phonemic groupings, forming the basis of a functional grammar, and developing an understanding of the underlying patterns and syntactic processes through complete immersion in the unknown language is the only way to grasp it.
Geertz’s essential argument is that the analysis of culture undertaken by a detached observer should proceed by sorting out “structures of signification” — the layers of embedded meaning that result in a chain of signifiers that are linked together. As a result, ethnography must confront not just chunks of meaning, but also the entire network of meaning and what it, as a whole, represents. In this way, empiricism must proceed inductively as well as deductively.
For the ethnographer, the implication is not that one should be completely immersed in their own subjectivity, but to recognize that in a context where the very notion of objectivity is pure idealism, it would be non-sensical to not strive for that standard using the basis for human perceptual engagement in the co-creation of meaning. This intersubjective consensus formed through the limitations of human perception, from both the observer and the members of the culture, must be directly engaged with in order to gain an authentic grasp of a culture under study.
Geertz issues a warning to potential ethnographers to not interpret the biological similarities and necessities of human beings as an indication that there is an underlying, unifying type of human experience which informs all culture. In other words, the similar actions of two separate cultures may not hold any similarities of meaning or be indicative of a cohesive picture of what it means to be human. Therefore, the purpose of interpretive anthropology, according to Geertz, “is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said.”
1. Bailey’s perspective is that experience is the primary gateway to accessing/understanding culture, and that the act of interpretation is itself an analytical leap of faith. In order to develop a “thick description” as defined by Geertz, interpretation is necessary in semiotic analysis. Which of these two perspectives do you favor?
2. Are quantitative methodologies even relevant when analyzing cultural phenomena?
3. If the purpose of interpretive anthropology is to catalogue the variety of human experiences, how can this methodological approach be used to expand knowledge in educational research?