Thick description is a social sciences qualitative research technique that gives detailed descriptions and interpretations of situations observed by a researcher. It is a ethnographic and qualitative research technique. The term was invented by social anthropologists Gilbert Ryle and Clifford Geertz.
Thick description involves writing detailed narratives or ‘vignettes’ explaining situations and their background ‘context’.
The goal is not just to describe a situation, but also add details so that readers understand the significant and complex cultural meanings underpinning any observable scenario.
While it originated in social anthropology, thick description is now used as a qualitative research technique in a range of fields of study, including sociology, history, cultural studies, media studies, education studies, and others.
What is Thick Description in Qualitative Research? (Definitions)
Thick description is defined as: the descriptive interpretation of complex cultural situations.
The term ‘interpretation’ is important here. Thick description involves more than just recording and describing something. It involves providing the background information necessary for understanding the relevance, meanings and intentions that underpin social interactions.
Here are some scholarly definitions of the term ‘thick description’ from within the social sciences that you might want to cite for your essay or dissertation:
- “Thick description refers to the researcher’s task of both describing and interpreting observed social action (or behavior) within its particular context. ” (Ponterotto, 2006, p. 543)
- “A thick description … does more than record what a person is doing. It goes beyond mere fact and surface appearances. It presents detail, context, emotion, and the webs of social relationships that join persons to one another.” (Denzin, 1989, p. 83)
- “Thick description is not simply a matter of amassing relevant detail. Rather to thickly describe social action is actually to begin to interpret it be recording the circumstances, meanings, intentions, strategies, motivations, and so on that characterize a particular episode. It is this interpretive characteristic of description rather than detail per se that makes it thick.” (Schwandt, 2001, p. 255)
- “Thick description builds up a clear picture of the individuals and groups in the context of their culture and the setting in which they live … Thick description can be contrasted with thin description, which is a superficial account and does not explore the underlying meanings of cultural members.” (Holloway, 1997, p. 154)
For more on scholarly definitions of thick description, see this journal article.
To cite the above sources in APA style, jump to the reference list at the end of this article where I have used APA style to list my sources.
Thick Description vs. Thin Description
Gilbert Ryle (1949) introduced the concept of thick description by comparing it to ‘thin description’.
According to Ryle, quantitative studies and some qualitative research only used descriptions of what was observed. This provided a surface level explanation. Instead, qualitative research needs to interpret what is observed to generate meaning from the interaction.
Thin Description: observation, description and outline of a situation.
Thick Description: observation, description, interpretation, and analysis of a situation.
5 Key Characteristics of Thick Description
Ponterotto (2006) outlines 5 characteristics that make up a thick description. Note that I have not used his exact headings here. I find my headings to be simpler for the average reader to understand:
1. Interpretation in Context
A thin description lacks context. It describes something without explaining its cultural significance. A thick description describes not only the action, but its significance.
Ponterotto (2006, p. 542) says: “Thick description involves accurately describing and interpreting social actions within the appropriate context in which the social action took place.”
2. Capturing Thoughts and Emotions
To describe thoughts and emotions, we need to interpret a situation rather than just describe the surface features. For example: a pause may mean many things. In the case of a pause due to shock, the researcher must explain that an interviewee’s pause was due to shock, or else the reader may not understand.
Ponterotto (2006, p. 542) says: “Thick description captures the thoughts, emotions, and web of social interaction among observed participants in their operating context.”
3. Assigning Motivations and Intentions
When observing an argument between two people, a researcher needs to explain the motivations behind the two people arguing. It’s not enough to just say an argument took place. There may be history between the two people or a power struggle within a group that needs to be explored to make the description “thick”.
Ponterotto (2006, p. 542) says: “A central feature to interpreting social actions entails assigning motivations and intentions for the said social actions.”
4. Rich Accounts of Details
Ponterotto calls this step ‘verisimilitude’, but I found this word a little complicated. Verisimilitude means ‘the appearance of truthfulness’ to the extent that the reader of your account feels like they were there.
In other words, by providing the finer details, your account gains credibility.
Ponterotto cites Denzin here in explaining verisimilitude in research: “truthlike statements that produce for readers the feeling that they have experienced, or could experience, the events being described.” (Denzin, 1989, pp. 83-84)
5. The Meaningfulness of the Situation is Detailed
The researcher must conclude with a statement about what is meaningful about the interaction. What does it tell us about the people who are being researched? What new insight does it put forward, or what past beliefs does it challenge?
Ponterotto (2006, p. 543) says: “Thick description of social actions promotes thick interpretation of these actions, which lead to thick meaning of the findings that resonate with readers.”
Strengths and Weaknesses of Thick Description
- Thick descriptions help us to understand the meaning underpinning a situation. Without a detailed description, the finer details that explain human life are lost.
- It helps readers with their understanding of a situation. A quantitative analysis often fails to pick up finer nuances, while many ‘thin’ qualitative analyses still lack interpretation. A thick qualitative analysis both picks up finer details (nuances) and interprets what meaning they have for a situation.
Weaknesses and Criticisms
- Thick descriptions can be easily fabricated. We often have to take the researcher’s word for it. In quantitative analysis, people can return to the field and re-do the study. In qualitative thick description analyses, we have to believe what the researcher said.
- There is potential for researcher bias. One researcher would see and describe completely different details than another researcher, leading to very different findings.
Key Scholar: Clifford Geertz
***NOTE: The following section is for advanced readers. You’ve got the main idea from above. This section summarizes a famous and difficult-to-read text about rich description (for those who have to read it!)***
While it was Gilbert Ryle who first used the term ‘thick description’, it was Clifford Geertz is the person who made thick description famous.
Geertz wrote about it in his texts Thick Description: Towards an Interprative theory of culture and The Interpretation of Cultures.
You can read that article for free here, but it’s pretty hard to read … so I’ve provided a summary of this seminal text below.
1. Culture is a complicated ‘web of significance’
- Geertz argues that cultures are very complex man-made concepts. He calls culture a ‘web of significance’ that ‘man has spun’.
- Because culture is so complex, cultural analysis researchers shouldn’t try to look for patterns and laws that explain cultures.
- Instead, cultural analysis researchers should try to explore and explain the ways people make meaning of their lives.
2. Culture must be explained in detail
- The job of ethnographers is not just to take notes, keep a diary, and report what they see. Instead, the core goal of ethnographers is to describe very complex and intricate details that can only be understood through “thick descriptions”.
- He uses the example of a wink. A ‘thin’ description of a wink might be: “The boy winked.” A ‘thick’ description might explain its cultural significance: The wink might be done in parody, conspiracy or ridicule, depending on the context. The ethnographer must explore these possibilities and explain how the wink is more than a wink: it is a gesture that takes place within a very complex cultural moment.
- Thus, there is no way to do research that is detailed and deep except to provide “thick descriptions” of the situation that is being observed.
3. Ethnography is more than observation; it is interpretation
- In the third section, Geertz argues that researchers are not and cannot be objective in their research. The act of collecting field data requires interpretation. Different observers might write different notes, because the observer is simply reconstructing a scene in their notes based on their own observations. In his own words: “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to.”
- Furthermore, in trying to understand what they see, ethnographers need to use their background knowledge of a culture. To make it ‘meaningful’, they must ‘interpret’ it. Here is this point in Geertz’s (1973, p. 318) own words: “most of what we need to comprehend a particular event, ritual, custom, idea, or whatever, is insinuated as background information before the thing itself is directly examined.”
- While historically researchers might think interpretation is a bad thing (as it is subjective), Geertz (1973, p. 320) argues “there is nothing particularly wrong with this, and it is in any case innevitable.” He is right, of course: we should not pretend to be objective when explaining things. We all explain things differently, especially if what we are explaining (like culture) is very complex.
4. Ethnography is case study of the mundane and everyday
- Lastly, Geertz argues that ethnographers should not make broad generalizations based on their observations.
- He argues: “The notion that one can find the esense of national societies, civilizations, great religions, or whatever summed up in so-called “typical” small towns and villages is palpable nonsense. What one finds in small towns and villages is (alas) small-town and village life” (1973, p. 320).
References for your Essay
Denzin, N. K. (1989). Interpretive interactionism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.
Geertz, C. (1973). Thick Description: Towards an Interprative theory of culture. The Interpretation of Cultures, 3-31.
Geertz, C. (1983). Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics ofPower. In: Geertz, C. (ed.s) Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. (pp. 121–46). New York: Basic Books.
Holloway, I. (1997). Basic concepts for qualitative research. New York: Basic Books.
Ponterotto, J. G. (2006). Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept Thick Description. The Qualitative Report, 11(3), 538-549.
Ryle, G. (1949). Concept of the mind. New York: Hutchinson and Company.
Schwandt, T. A. (2001). Dictionary of qualitative inquiry (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.