Honey and Saline: The Importance of Thick Descriptions

Thick description speaks to me. From the first time I took a cultural anthropology class in high school, ethnographic methods have captured my imagination. Instead of trying to superimpose rigid structure on something to measure it (structure that often strips a thing of it’s context), scholars work to understand a thing in situ. Although Thick Descriptions can only access, describe, and interpret outward projections of culture, there isn’t much that can be done to capture internal representations of culture while working with a culture’s embedded context.

In contrast, so much work that comes out of Western science seem to be concerned with projecting dominance over the world. This methodology exerts control over a situation until the situation fits within extremely rigid parameters (parameters that often line up with deductive and inductive logic—a space from which emotion has been all but banished). From these parameters, a very specific, narrow form of truth can be ascertained. If the “truth” of culture were to be sought out within the tradition of Western Science, it would have to be placed inside a sterile lab, and pared down until there was a small factor that could be tested in some classically logical capacity. Like asking the question, “How does the length of a cane impact the presence of a group leader?” And then subjecting a series of near-identical group leaders into a near identical situation, where the only real change is the length of said cane. Then some statistical measures of factors x, y, or, z will be called upon to extract meaning. However, there number of factors that go unquestioned and unobserved to create such a situation blow my mind. These types of environment will have a hard time understanding why the leaders are always men, or always old, or if there is something about the cane outside of it’s length that is important. Thick description is a good response to positivist science because it doesn’t try to assert understanding before experiencing, it situates them together with an awareness that interpretation is necessary to understand the experience.

I’ve always wondered if positivist science mistakes the forest for the trees. Its not to say that there isn’t value in the canon of traditional Western science (I am certainly grateful for my vaccines). It is just to say, maybe the missed a lot of insights along the way.



[1]      C. Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, vol. 31, New York, New York, USA: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 3–33.

2 thoughts on “Honey and Saline: The Importance of Thick Descriptions

  1. I’m curious, though: where do you see this “pare it down in a sterile lab” approach to culture as occurring in sciences or fields which study culture, which are part of “Western science”? It seems the “pare it down in sterile lab” approach works very well for, say, physics, but where do you believe it is being applied, or misapplied, to culture? I’ll admit though that I’m not an expert on anthropology, but I would be curious as to where you see such a thing as happening, as if it’s not happening, then I am not sure as to why you are bringing it up in that context — why are you, then?

    1. You bring up a really good question, rather a series of questions.

      To your first question, you see some of this “pare it down” research in Human-Computer Interaction Research, in the learning sciences, in some quantitate social-science approaches to gender studies (If I have time later, I’ll come back with some citations). These are just the first disciplines that come to mind, its certainly not an exhaustive list.

      To your second question, the sentiment is what are we missing within the Western tradition of the natural sciences by “removing all context.” This virtue seems to conveniently gloss over the idea that a “sterile lab” is, in and of itself, a context (see Latour and Woolgar’s article “An Anthropologist Visits the Laboratory”).

      I’m bringing these ideas up because I want to know what happens when we try to explore “hard” sciences in a more embedded, contextual process. Particularly a process that is concerned with how gender, race, socio-economic status, ability, and more play into the construction, validation, and distribution of what we know. Posed as a thought experiment: Taking context into account, how would our representational or metaphysical understanding of math/physics/the world change?

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