Key Terms

From Cyborg Anthropology
Jump to: navigation, search

Thick Description

In anthropology and other fields, a thick description of a human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider.

The term was used by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to describe his own method of doing ethnography (Geertz 1973:5-6, 9-10). Since then, the term and the methodology it represents have 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.

In Geertz's essay, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture", (Geertz 1973:3-30) he explains that he adopted the term from philosopher Gilbert Ryle:

Ryle's discussion of “thick description” appears in two essays (now reprinted in the second volume of his Collected Papers) addressed to the general question of what, as he puts it, “Le Penseur” is doing: “Thinking and Reflecting” and “The Thinking of Thoughts”. Consider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an l-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company.
As Ryle points out, the winker has done two things, contracted his eyelids and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eyelids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking.

Geertz, Clifford. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture". In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. (New York: Basic Books, 1973) 3-30.



Clifford Geertz argues that for any research to be termed anthropological it should conform to two essential criteria. It should entail interpersonal relationships requiring intensive, 'deep' interaction. Such interaction should produce some form of deep cultural understanding. Clifford notes a shift away from fieldwork as essentially one of co-residence, such as planting oneself in the midst of the Trobriand Islands, à la Malinowski, to one that entails encounter. The field is seen here as habitus, rather than a place (Clifford 1997: 69). The field may be closer to home or it may require shorter, repeat, visits. Nevertheless fieldwork is characterized as intensive and interactive. Secondly, it should entail some form of displacement, some kind of recognition of travel to the field and out of the field again. Such movement out of the field is regarded as essential in order to provide the kind of analytical distance associated with a detached outside perspective (Clifford 1997: 89).
Time spent in the academic environment may well provide the distance required to analyse fieldwork material. I shall try to illustrate some of the complexities involved in this shift of focus away from co-residence to one that entails encounter by reference to the notion of habitus.
Bourdieu describes 'habitus' in terms of shared pre-dispositions to act in a certain manner under certain circumstances. Habitus is 'understood as a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks' (Bourdieu 1977: 82-83).

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clifford, J. 1997. Routes, travel and translation in the late twentieth century. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.

Source: Anthropology Matters, Vol 6, No 2 (2004)[]=96&path[]=188


A vignette is a short description of an event or interaction that has occurred between subjects the anthropologist is researching.

Deep Hanging Out

It is often difficult to meet someone, take a survey and get accurate data about their life and experiences. Especially if you are from another field, the person you are studying might simply tell you what he thinks you might want to hear. Instead of this, anthropologists often utilize the practice of "hanging out" to allow their subjects, and the anthropologists themselves, to feel comfortable and be themselves. It is often during these sessions of "hanging out" that the most relevant data and breakthroughs occur. "Deep hanging out" could be considered a more involved form of hanging out, where the anthropologist is simply in relaxed conversation with those being observed.

“Fieldwork is all about serendipity and seizing unexpected opportunities,” she said. One of her colleagues, she remarked, refers to the method anthropologists use for gathering information as “deep hanging out.” Lederman is not doing formal interviews with her colleagues — rather, following the same approach she took in her earlier fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, she tells them about her interests whenever she can and does her best to follow their lead in the ensuing conversation".
"Jesse Davie-Kessler, a member of the class of 2006, said she has learned from Lederman that “the smallest gestures and the most casual interactions hold cultural meaning. I have begun to see my everyday life in a new way — it has become a sort of text for my anthropological research".

Source: Anthropologist observes native academics in their natural habitat Posted March 23, 2006; by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann From the March 13, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Participant Observation

"Think anthropologists spend their days hanging out in Pago Pago studying the local culture? Think again. Like everyone else, anthropologists and ethnographers increasingly are finding jobs with high-tech companies, using their highly developed skills as observers to study how people live, work and use technology."
"This is not Raiders of the Lost Ark," says Susan Squires, incoming president of the 1,000-member National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, which has a Web site at"
"Anthropology developed methods to understand people who were so different from Europeans that you couldn't just go up and ask questions, so we came up with methods such as participant observation and fieldwork," says Squires, who also works at GVO Inc., a product development company in Palo Alto, Calif."

Anthropologists adapt technology to world's cultures By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY 05/25/99.

Ethnographic Studies

"One of the most common methods for collecting data in an ethnographic study is direct, first-hand observation of daily participation. This can include participant observation. Another common method is interviewing, which may include conversation with different levels of form and can involve small talk to long interviews".
"Traditionally, the ethnographer focuses attention on a community, selecting knowledgeable informants who know well the activities of the community.8 These informants are typically asked to identify other informants who represent the community, often using chain sampling.9 This process is often effective in revealing common cultural common denominators connected to the topic being studied.10 Ethnography relies greatly on up-close, personal experience. Participation, rather than just observation, is one of the keys to this process". 11