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.