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.

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