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What Is a “Thick Description”?

Margo Begun | December 22, 2021

Clifford Geertz (1926–2006), American anthropologist, stated that culture is a context. This idea prompted him to develop a method of “thick description” in ethnographic research. A thick description of human behavior can be used to explain not only conduct but also the context. That is when action acquires a meaning understandable to others. In my opinion, this method is interdisciplinary, and it can be applied not only to sociological disciplines, but also to art studies (for example, comparative literature), and even in computer sciences (for example, UX Design).

Imagine a scholar is going to make research on the culture of everyday life in a multicultural student’s city. The first stage of the field study will be an ordinary public place, for example, a grocery store. The scholar makes the first note: “a girl buys cheese” – in Geertz’s terms, this is a “thin description”. However, such a description is not enough for deep research. Since the thin description describes only the external manifestations of the phenomenon, the scholar will supplement his description: “a Russian girl buys French cheese in an Estonian store.” It looks better, but the scholar is still dissatisfied with the result of his work – obviously, the problem is lack of context. Then the “thick description” method comes to the rescue. It took more time and resources, but as a result, such an entry appeared in the researcher’s diary:

“A huge grocery store in the center of the Estonian city of Tartu on Ülikooli Street (the street name means “university” in Estonian). Prices in euros (geopolitical location detected). The store has a lot of products produced in various parts of the world (thanks to the victorious capitalism?). There are not many buyers (the city is also not very big), but they are all different (sex, gender, nationality, race, language, social status).

A Russian girl (fits into a multicultural social group of buyers: external signs allow her to be attributed to the student community) chooses cheese (the range of goods mentioned above). The girl chooses between Italian parmesan and French brie (she is not interested in the Argentine product, she is aimed at Europe). The girl puts both pieces in the basket, smiles, and raises her head (in the context of the theory of emotions, body movement is recognized as having a positive connotation: pleasure/enjoyment).

The girl comes to the boy (obviously, he is her companion) and says in Russian: “санкционочка.” The boy smiles back (obviously, it was a code word/password, that is, a symbol referring to a context that is well understood by both of them). The fact is that “санкционочка” can be translated as a playful name for sanctioned products (an economic instrument that prohibits the import of cheeses and other products from countries that do not support the policy of the Russian Federation and have applied economic sanctions against the Russian Federation as a performative act of disagreement with geopolitical actions/regime). This concept (modern neologism) is connected with the events of 2014 (Crimean spring) and is understandable to any Russian person. There is an opinion that 2014 can be considered the last frontier in the context of civil rights and freedoms in the country. Thus, the “санкционочка” (literally European cheese) is a cultural code and a sacred symbol of Russian liberal thought, identified with the pressure of the power structure and the unfreedom of an ordinary person in a totalitarian regime).

The Russian citizen is in Estonia in 2021 (when particularly compelling circumstances are needed to enter the country, and one of them is a student visa), and commenting on the process of action uses a powerful cultural code from the Russian context when communicating with his partner, then this social act (a Russian girl buys European cheese in an Estonian store) can be interpreted as performative. Thus, an ordinary action becomes a sign, symbol, and also a manifestation of liberation and expression of a civic position.”

Thus, the “thick description” method helps to study the phenomenon of culture in a network of contexts, to interpret it, and also to get a completely unexpected result. However, this method can also be difficult for the researcher, since it is practically unlimited, and the possibility for interpretation is infinite. Thus, the methodology will still have to be limited in order to avoid eclecticism and false results of scientific work.

Despite the paradoxical ambivalence of the method, which, as I have already mentioned, can lead to a methodological dilemma, it is also fair to say that this is still an excellent entry point into Her Majesty Semiotics, especially for beginners.

Imagine that thick description acts as some sort of “mental glasses”. Through this optic, the world becomes a multidimensional space (complex, incomprehensible at first, but fascinating). Now research turns into an opportunity, a journey through the matrix of signs. All that is required from the observer is to be genuinely inquisitive and as open as possible to any discoveries (glasses of your own cultural attitudes are allowed to wear only in the most necessary cases).

Such optic helps to be attentive to details, and tirelessly ask questions. A simple rule works here: the thicker the description, the more questions are implied. Any new question can help to discern a new path – any turn can lead to an incredible discovery. If you catch this idea, I promise the world will never be the same again! Have a nice journey! And don’t forget to grab a couple of maps for the road.


Geertz, Clifford (1973), “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books, pp. 3–30 ( )

Ponterotto, Joseph G. 2006. “Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept ‘Thick Description.’ The Qualitative Report 11(3): 538-549 ( ).

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