Geertz, C. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.”

Geertz, C. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Comments on S. Langer’s notion of the “grand idée”, which emerges into being and dominates other philosophies, but it familiarizes, and becomes taken for granted, and regulates the use of the idea to key applications, instead of a breadth of them. Noting this tendency, Geertz remarks, is not attempting to undermine these ideas, but to insure its continued importance. Broad, but multiple abstractions may not help to illuminate concepts – it becomes necessary to whittle eclectic definitions and examples down. Operationalization as “methodological dogma” (5) – only fringe sciences practice it – however, “if you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do” (5) – here, it is ethnography – not the tools of ethnography, but the purpose – “thick description” a la Gilbert Ryle.  Attributing cultural meaning to behaviors à gestures.  Not merely descriptions (“explicating: and worse, explicating explications” (9)) – but the analysis of signification and the structures to which they are related. Culture is not: purely in the mind, purely artifactual, merely patterns of behaviors in a community, a sense of sui generis reality that (re)constructs itself, not a set of rules or norms. “Culture is public because meaning is” (12) – culture as a context to be described, as a symbolic system? Do not seek to become or mimic ‘natives’- “only romantics or spies would seem to find point in that” (13) – but more so the greater sense of conversations.  Anthropological writings as interpretations on many levels – the informants, the context, and that of the author. “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). Anthropological interpretation as: “tracing the curve of a social discourse; fixing it into an inspectable form” (19). “Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guess, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape” (20). Theory development should stay closer to the ground, rather than abstract – not to generalize across cases, but to generalize within them. Measures are not conditions or symptoms, but clusters of symbolic acts.  We cannot predict, merely diagnose and refine. “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 whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinants of human behavior” (27). Warns against the clinicalism of objectivity, but also notes that there is an impersonality and barricade of knowledge offered by being too-far-removed.


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