(Geertz) “Thick Description,” The Interpretation of Cultures. p. 3-30 [Daniel]

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.”
Discussion Questions:

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?


20 thoughts on “(Geertz) “Thick Description,” The Interpretation of Cultures. p. 3-30 [Daniel]

  1. If there is sufficient depth to the data gathering, I think there needs to be some kind of analysis to contribute new thinking to the field studied. However if the observer is collecting only superficial information, the basis for constructing an opinion will be lacking the complexity that makes qualitative research so valuable. Stephen R. Barley, a researcher who collects data by fully participating in work environments over a one year time period, utilizes quantitative methods to analyze data he collects. His work has resulted in greater innovation in the companies he has studied. In an educational setting, Barley’s methods of counting the number of occurrences of behaviors, speech acts, and interactions between individuals with specific roles by observing for at least one year could provide a much deeper knowledge of the impact of teacher student and student to student interactions on the overall learning process.

    • I immediately flashed back to a quote from Barley that quantitative analysis was done to “substantiate their claims about differences and distributions of beliefs and behaviors in the setting they are studying” (8:52-9:05). Even “pure” quantitative research is using qualitative measures as Mike wrote about in his post on Trochim.

    • Nan,
      I am very intrigued with the idea of a study in which one observes and records student/teacher interaction over time in order to gain a deeper understanding of the learning process. In thinking about the fact that most educational research is conducted over a short period of time, what are we missing that a longitudinal study could reveal? It is very intriguing to consider.

  2. Quantitative methodologies are always important and have their place in research… while analyzing cultural phenomena, researchers can get detailed responses and observations to give deep insight into problems, but quantitative approaches will help illustrate patterns of problems that can better be generalized to the rest of the population.
    I often view cataloging various human experiences as an important 1st step into developing a problem. Too often researchers’ own opinions and expertise becomes the body of the work, and some research attempts to prove or disprove an idea/theory instead of attempting to improve a social problem. By cataloging these experiences the social issues which exist can be extracted from the noted experiences.

  3. 1. Both methods are necessary to posses. Our own thougts and attitudes may be biased to sway the research in favor to our standards thus not attaining the “thick decription” according to Geertz. I do lean towards Bailey’s method but ultimately would match my methodology with the type of research to be conducted.
    2. Quanttitative data is need for cultural phenomina as it pertains to data points in time that are relative to the reflixivity of the researcher.
    3. A semiotic approach towards education allows researchers to use salient data. In this respect, it is highly useful for reform.

  4. 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?

    We historically do a poor job of this in any organized or in depth way in education. When educators visit other schools or districts, there would be a great deal of value in utilizing this approach when examining schools who have been successful rather than just looking for systems and structures that have been implemented which is often the case. Imagine a study that catalogued the experiences of the students as they utilize the Khan academy or students who enroll and stay in on line learning courses. A study that catalogued the experiences of teachers as they implemented Professional Learning Communities could be invaluable for principals as they entered this work.

  5. 1. In general, I think it is impossible to experience anything, including cultural phenomena, without reflexively interpreting it subconsciously or consciously. Here I agree with Geertz that pure objectivity is an unattainable ideal; our experiences, biases, and viewpoints are an essential part of who were are that cannot be switched on and off. However, we can experience and analyze while being cognizant of our own innate biases and views.

    2. The difficulty with using quantitative analysis when looking at cultures is that many cultural data is difficult to quantify. Where it can be quantified, quantitative analysis can be useful to find differences, but it seems that its use would be somewhat limited.

    3. The experience students, teachers, and parents have in the education system is of utmost importance and highlights just one avenue that qualitative field research is used to build knowledge regarding the educational system. Interpreting human experiences can help us improve the educational system by discovering unknown patterns of negative experiences abd discovering programs that improve the educational experience.

  6. While I do agree that there are many potential benefits of using interpretive anthropological methodologies, specifically ethnographic thick description, I hesitate to recommend widespread use by educational researchers with little to no ethnographic theoretical background. Thick description can too easily be reduced to a collection of anecdotal stories presented with literary flare. Which, ultimately devalues the interpretation of the practices, symbolism, and value system observed by the researcher within the educational setting, be it at the classroom, school, or district level, and the utility of the research findings.

    • That is a great incite Mary Estelle.
      I can see the value in trained researchers using a combination of approaches to conduct ethnographic research in education. With training and the use of a mixed methods approach, the information gleaned from descriptive analysis could shed new incites into our practices within the educational setting.

    • I think this is a strong caution Mary Estelle. Thick description is very longitudinal and in my experience, education is usually concerned with quick fixes and rarely provides for long term reflection or analysis.

      • Which is probably why we continuously recycle ideas and programs. I do see a new trend in my district where we are finally looking at our essential practices, limiting them to just a few and concentrating on doing them well! This could be the beginning of a great longitudinal study!

  7. From Geertz’s perspective, and as you summarized, the analysis of culture from an outsider’s perspective should proceed by sorting out “structures of signification.” During this process, I believe that layers that provide contextual meaning to cultural practices are defined to a certain degree. A fundamental understanding of the significance of the cultural constructs are not, however, clearly defined until an analysis by practice of the entire network of cultural constructs—occurring as an ensemble—takes place.

    This, I believe, will eventually—and to some degree—lead to what Bailey describes as field research, which she defines as “the systematic study of ordinary activities in the settings in which they occur” (Bailey, 2007, p. 7). In essence, I believe that there is some overlap depending on the degree of analysis performed.

  8. Bailey and Geertz both present strong perspectives. I’m hesitant to choose one of the perspectives. I agree that experience is the primary gateway to accessing and understanding culture. I would not have learned so much about various cultures by simply reading a book. It has been essential in my field of work to live through the experiences of other cultures. I’ve witnessed misinterpretations when an “analytical leap of faith” is taken. How do we avoid this?

    I believe quantitative methodologies are relevant when analyzing cultural phenomena. I’m thinking of surveys. The issue is that many measures of cultural factors use ambiguous scales. Conclusions about cultural phenomena are unwarranted at times. It’s a sensitive issue, especially when a researcher feels they are well in tune to the cultural phenomena being studied but lack a great level of expertise. If quantitate methodologies are not at all relevant, what would you suggest is the best methodology when analyzing cultural phenomena?

  9. Are quantitative methodologies even relevant when analyzing cultural phenomena?

    Because qualitative research is a holistic approach that involves discovery of the social phenomenon being investigated from the participant’s viewpoint, it would seem that quantitative methodologies would lack the necessary framework to formulate and build new theories that develop over time through inductive, rather than deductive reasoning.

    • Lurena,
      I think that quantitative methodologies have their place when analyzing cultural phenomena. Researchers can quantify the data that they are collecting from a qualitative perspective. I just can’t envision a research study that does not have a basis in both methodologies.

  10. 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? I don’t know if I truly favor one perspective over the other – but I do like Geertz’s argument “potential ethnographers…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.” I find it incredibly disrespectful when outside observers conclude an understanding of a group’s experience because it has been observed.

    • Stephanie, I agree that I’m also not sure I want to favor one perspective over the other. Perhaps there is room for both depending on what the question is.

  11. 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?
    I think a way this cataloging of human experiences could be used in educational research would be to observe and catalog the signs, symbols, etc that are part of the culture of the community college system, the university system and the high school system. One of the human experiences that I observe is the lack of understanding that incoming freshmen have of the culture of college. Perhaps there would be a way to catalogue the culture and integrate it with high school. The high school culture has so many significant symbols and codes for that particular system and yet students come to my college campus completely unaware of the symbols, codes and expectations that our culture has. This lack of awareness of the culture is one reason students don’t succeed at the college level. This seems like an open area to conduct research on. Hmmm……..

  12. You make an interesting proposal Donna, but I’m not sure it is possible. All subcultures have their own rules, which defines them as a subculture. No matter how hard some will try to standardize systems, systems will differ naturally.
    If you and a neighbor have identical house designs, your houses will end up looking unique after a few years. So go all systems.
    But, if we could arm HS grads with the skills to find answers to their questions, they may be better off.

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