Thick Description

In a class on research methods, our instructor quoted Clifford Geertz, who said the goal of qualitative research was to product a “thick description.” So I decided to find the Geertz text, with the hope it would help me draw boundaries around my thesis—a rhetorical analysis of a speech made by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey in 1862—in which I want to present a “thick description” of the historical context.

In the preface to The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz says he is borrowing the notion of thick description from Gilbert Ryle. According to Geertz, Ryle illustrated this concept by comparing a wink to a twitch. Both would appear to be the same—a contracting of the eyelid—but the meaning is quite different. Even after you determine the wink is actually a wink (and not a twitch), there are many possible meanings. It may indicate a conspiracy. An exaggerated wink may be a parody. A wink can even be made to fake a conspiracy where there is none…and there are many more possibilities. In fact, Geertz devotes almost two full pages to the topic, so we can learn just how complicated the interpretation of a wink can be.

Geertz writes, “That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and—voilà!—a gesture.”  But in the end, he says, the important thing to ask about winks (and presumably historical speeches) is “what their import is: what it is, ridicule or challenge, irony or anger, snobbery or pride, that, in their occurrence and through their agency, is getting said.”

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