Geertz: “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”

\n

Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” The Interpetation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Basic Books, 1973. 3-30. Print.

\n
\n
\n

I.

\n

Argues that the concept of culture is semiotic; takes cultures to be (using Weber''s definition of man) the "webs of significance that [man] himself has spun" (5). Not an experimental science but an interpretive one.

\n

II.

\n

Differentiates between the textbook definition of ''doing'' ethnography (transcription, mapping fields, etc.) and "thick description" (6). Uses the wink as a metaphor: an involuntary movement, a coded (cultural) statement, a parody, a rehearsal. Uses this to set the

\n

"object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful strucures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, rehearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not (not even the zero-form twitches, which, as a cultural category, are as much nonwinks as winks are nontwitches) in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn''t do with his eyelids." (7)

\n

Argues that "what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people''s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to" (9); we need to comprehend the rituals/customs, ideas etc. as background before directly examining.

\n

"Analysis, then, is sorting out structures of signification...and determining their social ground and import" (9).

\n

Final cool quote of section:

\n

"Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ''construct a reading of'') a manuscript--foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior" (10)

\n

III.

\n

Culture is a publicly acted document. What is the import of the action? (Intentionality and interpretation within the culture.) Argues that "ethnoscience, compenential analysis, or cognitive anthropology...holds that culture is composed of  psychological structures by means of which individuals or groups of individuals guide their behavior" (11).

\n

Argues culture not psychological, not habits, skills, not in ''hearts and minds.'' Interesting claim: when difficulty understanding culture, b/c we have a "lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs" (13).

\n

IV.

\n

Anthro goal is not to either become natives or mimic them (13). Concept of conversation. Culture is a context (14). In a sense, understanding the logic of their worldview from their worldview (tie in Blomberg et al.). Must make this clear that the analysis/framing is an interpretation based on trying to see through another''s eyes. Interpretation = fiction. Culture ≠ anthropology. Through thick description, begin to comprehend the nuances/ significances (winks from twitches) (16).

\n

V.

\n

Some claim that culture is a symbolic system. This separates culture from context, messiness; it''s not always as formal as assumed. Argues that the story of Cohen, the sheikh, and the sheep ''traces the curve of social discourse'' (19). Ethnographers do not necessarily observe, then record, then analyze (20); more recursive. Cultural analyses is a series of guesses. Not the "Continent of Meaning" (20).

\n

VI.

\n

Identifies three characteristics of ethnographic description: it is interpretative; it interprets social discourse; the interpretation lies in fixing significance to ''perishable'' situations (20). Adds to this that it is microscopic (21). (One small place does not = the entirety). Demonstrates the errors of "the Jonesville-is-the-USA ''microcosmic'' model" and "the Easter-Island-is-a-testing-case ''natural experiment'' model" (21). Natural laboratory misleading-- cannot manipulate perameters; assumption that it''s more "scientific" than other modes of inquiry. Anthropologists can create these grand-scale relationships/assumptions from :"small facts" (23).

\n

VII.

\n

Theory. Ethnocentrism = "severest term of moral abuse" (24).

\n

Theory needs to be more pragmatic in anthro. Avoid the flights of interpretive fancy. Calls for more systematic research. No general theory of cultural interpretation. Opts for clinical inferences (looks at signifiers, places within intelligible frame [26]).

\n

Cultural theory is not predictive as diagnostician does not predic measles.

\n

"the distinction...between ''inscription'' (''thick description'') and ''specification'' (''diagnosis'')--between setting down the meadning particular social actions have for the actors whose actions they are, and stating, as explicitly as we can manage, what the knowledge thus attained demonstrates about the society in which it is found and, beyond that, about social life as such...in ethnography, the office of theory is to provide a vocabulary in which what symbolic action has to say about itself--that is, about the role of culture in human life--can be expressed" (27).

\n

Theory is a cultural construct (?)

\n

VIII.

\n

''Turtles all the way down'' (28-29). "Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete" (29). Deeper it is less complete. Not "perfection of consensus" but "refinement of debate" (29). Trying to avoid subjectivism or cabbalism: can attempt objectivity, don''t assume the ''hard science'' quantitative way introduces us to culture.

\n

Great last line:

\n

"The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said" (30).