Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture by Clifford Geertz

Monday 11th March – text chosen by Fiona McGowan.

Clifford Geertz was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology, a framework which gives prime attention to the role of symbols in constructing public meaning.

For Monday’s reading group I’ve chosen a chapter from Clifford Geertz book of essays – The Interpretation of Cultures. The first chapter ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’ outlines the concept of ‘thick description’ in qualitative research, and serves as an introduction and overview to the other essays, all of which explore Geertz view of what culture is, what role it plays in social life, and how it should be studied.

My research is exploring the relationship between local food producers and consumers, and I am interested in using design ethnography to do this. Geertz perspective on culture is of interest because it focuses on understanding meaning within actions – the essence of ethnographic enquiry.

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1 Response to Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture by Clifford Geertz

  1. Notes from yesterday…

    Geertz responding to Levi-Struass and UK anthropologists / structuralism – anthropology as science.

    Thick and thin description – the difference between mere description (the events as they occurred) and interpretation (motivations, meaning, narrative). It’s not about abstracting experience, but going deeply into experience – knowledge into a subject rather than from outside a subject.

    Design ethnography – depth of study: ‘true’ ethnography versus the ‘quick and dirty’. Visiting South American tribes or looking for new potential products. Nils example of the child’s toothbrush.

    Difficulty of valuing the complex and nuanced – in a world where figures, tables and ‘real’ data reigns supreme. Anne’s example of research into woodland and greenspaces, where (for policy makers) the rich, moving invocation to the forest is passed over in favour of a count of the number of dog walkers in a park – what does this actually tell us? Effect on community and participatory art projects – where funding is dependent on meeting certain conditions (perhaps working in area of multiple deprivation). How do you measure value and success of art work / intervention? Subjectivity / intersubjectivity. Acknowledging the effect of the researcher. Often a tendency in art to want to remove oneself as the artist

    Lively discussion regarding the difference between community art and socially engaged art – how are these defined? Is it a question of aesthetics, quality of work, motivation?

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