Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 4


merely thinking in stale, collective terms, but rather as means for individuals rapidly to project and establish a secure personal belonging in a shifting, complicating world. Here is a cognitive resort (used in concert with possibly many other types of cognitive construction, affording very different types of environmental mapping) whose fixity and reductiveness may be a means simultaneously of conceptualizing great flux and multiplicity. Individual cognition runs to stereotypes because here is a shorthand way to order, and at the same time to juggle with, a vast array of diverse, possibly incompatible data, people, objects and events. See also: Classification, Cognition, Home and Homelessness, Movement

THICK DESCRIPTION Thick description is a concept introduced into anthropology by Clifford Geertz. It is theorized in his 1973 essay, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, and perhaps best exemplified in his 1972 essay, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (both appearing in The Interpretation of Cultures 1973). The essays remain two of the central texts of what became known as interpretive anthropology, and figure as part of a widespread (if controversial) refocusing of anthropological interest, since the 1970s, from social structure to meaning. The interpretation of meaning Geertzs starting-point is Max Webers: human beings live suspended in webs of significance which they themselves have spun and continue to spin; above all, human beings make sense, attribute meanings, of and for themselves. It is these webs of significance which are known, collectively, in anthropology, as culture, and whose sense is a matter of symbolism. Anthropology is, inter alia, the comparative study of culture, the analysis of the traffic in symbols. But then culture is the province of other academic disciplines besides: sociology, folklore, literary criticism. What distinguishes anthropological study, for Geertz, is the way that it is operationalized; what anthropologists do, first and foremost, is ethnography. And ethnography can be understood as a particular way of inscribing culture, as a special kind of thick writing. What anthropological analysis amounts to, in a word, is a venture in thick description.


The term, thick description, Geertz borrows from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and Ryles disquisition on appreciating the difference between twitching and winking. In terms of overt and observable behaviours, phenomenalistic observation and superficial (thin) description, there is no difference between a twitch and a wink; both involve contraction of the eyelid of one eye. And yet one is an involuntary movement and the other (possibly) a symbol of conspiracy to an ally; in terms of their social significance, the difference between them is vast. Nor does the matter rest there, because further complications (and significances) arise in the differences between a wink, a twitch, and the mimicking of a twitch, the parodying of a wink, the rehearsing of the parodying of a wink, the mimicking of the rehearsing of, and so on. To describe this stratification of layers of significance is to describe increasingly thickly. And this, Geertz advises, is the main objective of ethnography: to get beneath the surface of behaviour to the piled-up levels of inference and implication, the hierarchy of structures of meaning, in terms of which twitches, winks, burlesques and imitations are produced, perceived and interpreted. To make out winks from twitches, furthermore, to disinter intelligible frameworks of symbolic signification, calls for a particular kind of focus: one that is microscopic and particular. Thick description is characterized by a complex specificity and a circumstantiality; and this, in turn, must originate in largely qualitative research which is participatory and longterm, and carried out in small-scale, even confined, contexts. This is not to say that anthropological study does not extend to large-scale canvaseswhole villages or cities, whole societies or civilizationsbut that large conclusions are characteristically drawn from small, densely textured facts, and broad abstractions grounded in narrow particulars. And as study builds on study, so anthropological analysis delves more and more deeply and finely into the underlying conceptual structures which give meaning to the symbolic usage within a socio-cultural milieu. In explicating thick description, then, Geertz places particular and special emphasis on the notions, culture and symbol. Culture is to be understood as an accumulated totality of symbol-systems (religion, ideology, common sense, economics, sport, etc.) in terms of which people make sense of themselves and their world, and represent themselves to themselves and to others. Members of a culture use its symbols (winks, crucifixes, footballs, cats, collars, foods, photographs, words) as a language through which to read and interpret, to express and share meaning. And since the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence, this reading of culture (and traffic in significant symbols) is constant.


The traffic in symbols is public, but it is not thereby transparent. For symbols are inherently ambiguous, and the meanings they carry must always be interpreted before they can be read off. These readings, moreover, are not necessarily fixed or made explicit. The task of the anthropologist in inscribing a culture, therefore, is to interpret the interpretations of that culture which, at a particular moment, its members are making. It is rather like deciphering an ancient ensemble of texts at the same time as it is being read and interpreted by its current owners. An ensemble, moreover, which is often in a foreign language, incomplete in any single manifestation, scr ibbled over with contradictory commentaries, and written in transient behaviours, not words. Hence, Geertzs pithy conclusion: the anthropological analysis of culture is not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning (1973:5). Interpretation as science and fiction Writing thick description, interpreting cultural meaning as symbolized by members behaviour, is a complex process; nevertheless, it remains a scientific one, embodying objectivity and capable of being refuted. It is complex, we have seen, because the structures of meaning underlying any one social situation are multiple, partial and tangled together. Moreover, it is not only the anthropologist who is engaged in their inter pretation but the members of a culture themselves; the anthropologists inscriptions are interpretations of interpretations: constructions of members constructions of what they and their fellowmembers are engaged in doing. Notwithstanding, the enterprise is a scientific one and suited to theoretic generalization (relating to previous cases and studies), Geertz avers (drawing on the later work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), because meaning is inherently something public. The symbolic logic in use may be foreign to the anthropologist, and the conceptual structuring inexplicit, but these are socially established, sustained and legitimized. Moreover, they are publicly enacted; they are tied to concrete social events and occasions, and expressive of a common social world. In short, giving meaning to behaviour is not something which happens in private, in insular individual heads, but rather something dependent on an exchange of common symbols whose natural habitat is public spaces. Entering these, the anthropologist can hope to share in the symbolic traffic and so gain access to cultural meaning. And yet, as the thick description of culture entails interpreting the momentary interpretations of systems of symbols made by a cultures


members, this inscribing by the anthropologist remains an imaginative act and a fiction: something made out (even if not made up) through the inscribing process: something he or she fashions into words and fixes on the page from the flow of talk and transient behaviours. And this means that it remains incomplete and contestable. It can be refuted by events, past and future. It can always be superseded by interpretations more deeply grounded, more complexly conceptualized. The most commonly cited exemplification of thick description remains Geertzs Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Much of Balinese culture surfaces in a cock ring, Geertz contends, and cockfighting, a popular (if sometimes illegal) obsession, can be read as providing significant insights into what being a Balinese is really about. First, Geertz explicates how Balinese fighting cocks are locally viewed as symbolizing the ambulant genitals of their male owners. Then, he goes on to show how the ramifications of this symbolic usage touch further and further features of Balinese life; so that cocks and cockfights come to be symbolically informed by a multiplicity of Balinese structures of signification. Precisely, here is the narcissistic male ego concretized and magnified; also, a momentary letting loose of archetypal animality; also, an oblatory blood sacrifice to cannibalistic demons and threatening powers of darkness; also, a representation of the social matrix and tensions constituting village and locale (kingroups, irrigation societies, temple congregations and castes); also, a celebration of status rivalry, of gaining and losing esteem, honour, dignity and respect; also, an expression of leadership and loyalty; also, an opportunity to partake of the pleasures of gambling; also an art-form which renders ordinary ever yday exper ience comprehensible, imaginable and meaningful to its own protagonists: an encompassing and displaying of the cultural themes of masculinity, pride, death, loss, rage, beneficence and chance. Here, in short, is an inscription, a fiction, a model, a metaphor, a meta-social commentary, which the Balinese construct about themselves. Spelled out publicly in a collective text, in a vocabulary of sentiment, Geertz would have read in the Balinese cockfight one expression at least of how that society is built and its individual members put together. And since to express publicly is also to realize culturally, here is Balinese temper and individual temperament being constituted and reconstituted with each performance. For Geertz, the double task of an interpretive anthropology is to uncover the conceptual structures which inform peoples acts and also to demonstrate the role that these structures play in determining human behaviour. In this venture, thick description is the sine qua non.