Origins and Scope of Thick Ethnography

Within a historical context, ethnography attempts to be holistic in nature based in part on emic views. It is written, observational science that provides an account of a particular culture, community or society. Typically, it involves fieldwork or spending a year or more in another society, living among its people, and trying to understand them as much as possible. Further, it is a meeting ground for many disciplines that focus on human and social sciences. Principle among these are sociology, economics, education, religious studies, geography, history, linguistics, psychology and political science. Over time, ethnographic methods have developed other research frameworks such as anthropometry, cross-cultural comparisons, thick description, cultural relativism, emic-etic approaches, and holism.

Ethnographic research methodology produced some of the most prolific, groundbreaking contributions to the scholarship of cultural and social anthropology. Classic examples are found in the work of pioneers such as Müller and Schöpperlin, Boas, Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown and others. As ethnography developed, anthropologists became interested in incorporating other techniques such as phenomenological and communicative approaches in their work. Later, sub-genres such as bio-confessional, reflexive, literary, deconstructive, interpretive, postmodernists and experimental approaches began to influence the manner in which ethnography was conducted. These various forms helped to encourage the evolution of ethnographic research methodology. Moreover, they succeeded in focusing attention on the importance of the relationship between the ethnographer, audience and subject which is one of the central paradigms of contemporary anthropology and ethnographic practice.

Further, it is well known that Geertz borrowed the term “thick description” from Gilbert Ryle, and here the term is appropriated in its application to ethnography – that is, thick ethnography. Actually, Geertz asserted that ethnography is a form of thick description (1973), or as he put it, “an investigation into the multiplicity of complex conceptual structures many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another whose task it is for the ethnographer to sort out their import and signification.” In his seminal essay, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture (1973), Geertz provides an extensive review of what it is to do ethnography along with Ryle’s discussion of thick description, specifically the wink example. In his analysis, Geertz distinguishes between a thin explanation of, for example, an isolated physical action and a thick description which includes the context of the action such as when, where, who performed it and their intentions. But there is more to this fascinating example. What Geertz really elucidates is that human actions and behavior are more than simply relating a particular event – that all human action is obscured by ritual, custom, idea or other forms of underlying, background influence. And in so doing, Geertz is alluding that ethnography is more than establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, or keeping diaries. What defines it is the amount of time and effort that is dedicated to the task of identifying, specifying and interpreting cultural agency.

Geertz’s insight into the purpose of anthropology and the methodological problems of ethnography takes a long hard look at the importance of cultural findings and their complexity. He believes that through “long-term, mainly qualitative, highly participant, almost obsessively fine-comb” field work the questions of legitimacy, integration, and meaning can be realistically addressed. Whether or not this is, in fact, the way all ethnographic fieldwork should proceed, I’m not quite certain. But certainly the advantage of long-term research over short-term provides an opportunity for more in-depth inquiry. It is not difficult to see that this method of ethnographic research has some specific advantages.

It would seem evident that long-term, ethnographic research has certain advantages over short-term, intermittent research. On the one hand, a long-term approach has the ability to be more descriptive, while the other tends to be more explanatory in nature. Both are valid approaches that serve distinctive purposes for ethnographic research. But what really distinguishes them is the purpose of the research and the amount of time and effort that is put forth. Geertz once called it “thick description ethnography” and stated that “the point for now is only that ethnography is thick description. What the ethnographer is in fact faced with – except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pursuing the more automatized routines of data collection – is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render.”

Clearly, the stature of the ethnographic method continues to be important for anthropological investigation and marks a more modern approach than found in earlier methods. In the early days of anthropology, much of the emphasis was on the intricacies of quantification and data manipulation and not on different approaches to examining or interpreting data generated. The Torres Straits Expedition, for instance, was exemplary in establishing anthropology as a specialized discipline. Not only did Rivers, Seligman and Haddon place British anthropology firmly into a sound empirical basis by improving methods of inquiry but Rivers was particularly focused on stressing the importance of long-term, intensive fieldwork. Armed with empiricism and ethnology, Boas was able to combine archaeology, culture, history, human anatomy, customs and descriptive linguistics to create the four-field subdivisions of American anthropology emphasizing the importance of comparative approaches. Malinowski’s contribution not only elevated ethnographic practice in terms of providing a more coherent basis for object, theory and method but ushered in a more pluralistic conception of ethnographic research. Although Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard differed in their conceptual expressions from Malinowski, ethnographic methodology continued to maintain an integral role in their mandates.

The essential question behind all these approaches should be which methodology better serves the highest values of our research and our discipline. In other words, what we should be seeking in the widened sense of the term is an appreciation that both approaches are equally important, that one is not essentially better than the other, and that all efforts should be in fact directed toward that purpose. Perhaps, it could be said that the future of the discipline depends on our ability to utilize both approaches equally, justifiably, ethically, and on their own terms.

For the complete research paper: See

Lattimore, Mark J. and Sara Eigen. 2006. The German Invention of Race. Albany: State University of New York Press; Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelogoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge & Sons; Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald. 1922. The Andaman islanders; a study in social anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books; Müeller-Wille, Ludger, ed. 1998. Franz Boas among the Inuit of Baffin Island, 1883-1884: Journal and Letters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Vermeulen, Han F. 2008. Early History of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. , University of Leiden.

4 thoughts on “Origins and Scope of Thick Ethnography

  1. worth reading…even if it were for no more than the these lines: … all human action is obscured by ritual, custom, idea or other forms of underlying, background influence. Thank you for the insights.


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