A Summary of Thick Description – The Interpretation of Cultures

In The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz outlines in broader sense the job of an ethnographer. The ethnographer’s role is to observe and analyse a culture by interpreting signs to understand deeper meanings within the context of that culture. He asserts that the essentially semiotic nature of culture has implications for the social sciences in general and political science in particular.  His idea of culture is taken from Kluckhohn, where he feels culture is

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 behaviour”;

5) “a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way in which a group of people in fact behave”;

6) “a storehouse of pooled learning”;

7) “a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems”;

8) “learned behaviour”;

9) “a mechanism for the normative regulation of behaviour”;

10) “a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men”;

11) “a precipitate of history”;

12) a behavioural map, sieve, or matrix.

Geertz prescribes interpreting a culture’s web of symbols by

1. Isolating its elements,

2. Specifying the internal relationships among those elements and,

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.

According to Geertz’s, ethnography is by definition “thick description”—“an elaborate venture in.” By example of “winking,” Geertz observes how—in order to differentiate the winking from a social gesture, a twitch, etc.—we must carefully analyse the action in terms of both the particular social understanding of the “winking” as a gesture, the  real intention of the winker, and how the the meaning of the winking action itself is interpreted.


10 thoughts on “A Summary of Thick Description – The Interpretation of Cultures

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  1. Very nice thoughts and words throughout your postings. I plan to stay tuned more often as there are some great words of wisdom here. But I have to ask (so that I get it right going forward) – can you tell me how you pronounce your name, or, I don’t wish to sound impolite, do you have a nickname? And finally, thank you so much for liking my site as I take it you also must have liked some of the posts.

    1. Hey Laurie, you can call me Imran. Thanks so much for liking my post. I found your posts simply mesmerizing!!

      I am just a humble student of geniuses like Geertz, and undeserving of such huge compliments. I make efforts to share with people whatever I find interesting and worth sharing. I am glad you liked my efforts. Keep in touch. Warm regards, Imran

  2. thanks for helping to come to a full understanding of the theory of thick description in the study of culture. however in my case am using the theory to study the religious phenomena of rituals, pre-burial rituals. l agree that you are real genius who deserve a lot of commendation. l love to be a fun of your site

  3. I have been studying culture this year and you do not have any idea how much you have helped me, I did not get from the reading what Geertz wanted to express but now I do. I think you can notice I am not an english native speaker, that is why It has been a little bit difficult to me understanding from the reading but now I think i will do a better dialectical journal!

    thank you so much!
    From CRC +506! blessings!

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