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Clifford Geertz - Thick Description


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Clifford Geertz (1926-present) began his academic career at Antioch College in Ohio as an English major and went on to study anthropology at Harvard. After being given the opportunity to do research in Indonesia, Geertz wrote Agricultural Involution which surveyed two types of Indonesian agriculture, their geographic location, and their historical development. His most influential work has been in the area of ethnographic studies, specifically research conducted on Javanese culture (an Indonesian island). Geertz is best known for his attention to systems of meaning—the symbolic—in anthropological analysis of culture, how cultures change, and the study of culture at large. He contends that he is not interested in perpetuating a specific methodology, but rather “setting a tone or mood or agenda that people could react toward or against.†Geertz is presently a professor at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study.


Geertz aims to provide social science with and understanding and appreciation of “thick description.†While Geertz applies thick description in the direction of anthropological study (specifically his own ‘interpretive anthropology’), his theory that asserts the essentially semiotic nature of culture has implications for the social sciences in general and, in our case, political science (and comparative political science) in particular.

“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is… There are a number of ways of escaping this—turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it. But they are escapes. The fact is that to commit oneself to a semiotic concept of culture and an interpretive approach to the study of it is to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as… ‘essentially contestable.’ Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of the consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.†(29)

I. The idea of “cultureâ€

From Clyde Kluckhohn’s Mirror of Man, Geertz lists the following potential meanings of “cultureâ€:

1. "the total way of life of a people"

2. "the social legacy the individual acquires from his group"

3. "a way of thinking, feeling, and believing"

4. "an abstraction from behavior"

5. “a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behaveâ€

6. "a storehouse of pooled learning"

7. "a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems"

8. "learned behavior"

9. “a mechanism for the normative regulation of behaviorâ€

10. “a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men"

11. "a precipitate of history"

12. a behavioral map, sieve, or matrix

Essentially, there is no standard and it will eventually be “necessary to choose.†(5) Geertz himself argues for a “semiotic†concept of culture: “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical.†(5)

We must proceed interpreting a culture’s web of symbols by 1. isolating its elements 2. specifying the internal relationships among those elements 3. characterize the whole system in some general way—according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based. (17) We must, however, be careful that such hermetical approaches might actually distance us from cultural analysis’s proper object, “the informal logic of actual life… Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems ‘in their own terms’ may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspecting events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns.†(17) Therefore, coherence cannot be a test for a cultural interpretation’s validity. While cultural systems must have a certain degree of coherence in order to be cultural systems, coherence is a loaded measurement as well as a limited one. “Tightness†of a culture, or at least its interpretation, makes for neither a valid or invalid interpretation. Rather, the ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse, turning a passing event into an account. Guessing at meanings is a given in the interpretations behind the inscriptions. “Tightness†is irrelevant for the most part.

In Geertz’s understanding, ethnography is by definition “thick descriptionâ€â€”“an elaborate venture in.†Using the action of “winking,†Geertz examines how—in order to distinguish the winking from a social gesture, a twitch, etc.)—we must move beyond the action to both the particular social understanding of the “winking†as a gesture, the mens rea (or state of mind) of the winker, his/her audience, and how they construe the meaning of the winking action itself. “Thin description†is the winking. “Thick†is the meaning behind it and its symbolic import in society or between communicators.

Ethnographic description includes the following: 1. it’s interpretive 2. what it is interpretive of is the flow of social discourse 3. the interpreting involved consists in trying to rescue the ‘said’ of such discourse from its perishing occasions and fix it in perusable terms. (20) He compares the method of the “interpretive anthropologist†(who accepts a semiotic view of culture) with the method of the literary critique analyzing a text: “Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification—what Ryle called established codes—and determining their social ground or import… Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript.†Additionally we should treat human behavior as “symbolic action—action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies—the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask is what their import is.†(9-10) (my emphasis) Approaching culture as either subjective/objective, modern/traditional or designated by and supposed social dichotomy is dangerous and misleading. We should, rather, view human behavior as “symbolic action.â€

Culture is public because “meaning is,†and systems of meanings are what produce culture, they are the collective property of a particular people. When “we,†either as researchers or simply as human beings, do not understand the beliefs or actions of persons from a foreign culture, we are acknowledging our “lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs.†(12-13) We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning when, as Wittgenstein noted, “We cannot find our feet with them.†(13)

Therefore, when faced with “a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit,†the ethnographer must attempt to grasp and interpret them, striving to understand how and why behavior is shaped in such and such a way (as opposed to another). Thick description is, thus, much more that mere data collection although this is an inherent part of anthropological work as well.

Mistaken views of “culture†as a concept:

“to imagine that culture is a self-contained ‘superorganic’ reality with forces and purposes of its own; that is to say, to reify it.â€â€”

reductionist tendencies

We must be wary of defining what a particular tribe “really†thinks and setting this in stone. Additionally, we must be aware that simply applying formal models to subjective realities; refined ethnographic algorithms make the reality no less subjective. “The cognitivist fallacy—that culture consists of ‘mental phenomena which can be analyzed by formal methods similar to those of mathematics and logic’—is as destructive of an effective use of the concept as are the behaviorist and idealist fallacies to which it is a misdrawn correction.†(12)

mistaking the thick description for thin or vice versa

taking anthropological interpretations as first order interpretations—when they are at best second and third order interpretations (first order refers to interpretations by a community member living within the particular community in question)

careful not to fall into problematic models; for instance the “Jonesville-is-the-USA microcosmic model†or the “Easter Island-is-a-testing-case natural experiment model.â€

As a semiotic concept, “culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can causally be attributed; it is a context, something within which [interworked systems of construable signs] can be intelligibly—that is, thickly—described.†We must ever be attempting to uncover “the degree to which [an action’s] meaning varies according to the pattern of life by which it is informed. Understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity.†(14)

In sum, Geertz wants us to appreciate that social actions are larger than themselves, they speak to larger issues, and vice versa, because “they are made to.†(23) “It is not against a body of uninterpreted data, radically thinned descriptions, that we must measure the cogency of our explications, but against the power of the scientific imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers.†(16) We seek to converse with subjects in foreign cultures, gain access to their conceptual world; this is the goal of the semiotic approach to culture. Cultural theory is not its own master. At the end of the day, we must appreciate that the generality thick description “contrives to achieve grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstractions… [T]he essential task of theory building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them.†(25-6) Cultural theory is not predictive; at best, it anticipates. Finally, “Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the ‘said’ of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in those terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinates of human behavior. In ethnography, the office of theory is to provide a vocabulary in which what symbolic action has to say about itself—that is, about the role of culture in human life—can be expressed.†(27)

What is Geertz’s argument’s ‘import’ for political science?

How can thick description inform comparative politics? Our aims are not merely description or even explanation but include tracing causal variables across events and trying to determine if they have predictive value. How might Geertz respond?

Additionally, what units of analysis are we using? Since the number of variables even in one of Geertz’s case studies are infinite, how large a number of cases are we humanly able to examine? Can states and institutions gain from such “thick description†and, if so, how might it be applied? What “interpretation†might be necessary in political science that we do not find necessary in anthropology? For the comparativist, “thick description†must be, at some level, generalizable over multiple unit analysis—such analysis will essentially include not simply an individual level analysis, but institutional, state levels.

What does “meaning†do for Geertz’s analysis that is helpful to comparative politics? At which point does it become meaningless to interpret the meaning behind an action? Personally, I feel that meanings behind an action are essential even to RCT; what we must be willing to do, even though it does not appear that Geertz is interested, is in selecting which “meanings†are especially relevant to a given context, interaction or study. Even Geertz appreciates that we have no choice but to sift through relevant meanings, although he seems uncomfortable giving preference or modeling any sort of hierarchy from them.

Do we aim to understand culture, acts and beliefs as “normal?†“Normality†has certainly been a loaded normative term, for instance, in Orientalism.

Do we wish to treat thick and thin description as Michael Walzer treats “thick and thin morality�

Through Geertz’s thick description, how might we examine the idea of the “apology†across cultures? For instance, the demand for apology by China after the spy plane went down and landed on Chinese soil. How did the notion of “apology†differ culturally for the US and the Chinese?

Prediction vs. anticipation? What is the difference? Is there one for political scientists?


Clifford Geertz

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Nice overview of Geertz. I've always been lukewarm on him. My own background is in Ethnomethodology , which is steeped in inductive approaches like Grounded Theory , which means you have to not only keep the data alive and coming, but you have to always be reaching for the broader contexts that those data are set in. That much is also Weber through and through. Where Geertz is often accused of going off his own rails is in where he opts to draw the interpretive line, settling for what is normative and excluding what he considers no longer relevant to the discussion.

One case that's brought out is his reading of Islam in a Foreign Affairs a few years back, where, after going to some length to talk about the varieties within Islam - from the folk-tradition-soaked type of villages to the sophisticated, urbane sort of big cosmopolitan centres - he then opts to describe the only one worth really thinking about being the latter. That, imo, does nothing to advance the richness of the tradition, in dialogue either with other Western academics or with Muslims themselves.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Here's what I've been toying with for a while - presumably Dr. Mouse you might read this. It's contrasting Malcolm Gladwell's notion of 'thin slicing'(Blink) with Geertz's 'thick description'. I've tried to use both effects more as style than anything but it strikes me as an interesting response to hyper saturated cultures.

In Geertz’s understanding, ethnography is by definition “thick descriptionâ€â€”“an elaborate venture in.†Using the action of “winking,†Geertz examines how—in order to distinguish the winking from a social gesture, a twitch, etc.)—we must move beyond the action to both the particular social understanding of the “winking†as a gesture, the mens rea (or state of mind) of the winker, his/her audience, and how they construe the meaning of the winking action itself. “Thin description†is the winking. “Thick†is the meaning behind it and its symbolic import in society or between communicators.

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Thanks, zero - I'll have to follow that up. It's funny to think of how thick a description can have to get to accommodate why an observer picks up on something like a wink in the first place. Reminds me of Laing's "your perception of my perception of your perception of your perception of your perception of your perception of your perception of your perception of your perception of (etc.)" descriptions of human interaction.

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