Thick description


Thick description is a way of writing that includes not only describing and observation (usually of human behaviour) but also the context in which that behaviour occurs. The term ‘thick description’ was made famous by anthropologist Clifford Geertz who wrote in this style as a way of capturing his brand of ethnography in the 1970s. Since then, ‘thick description’ has gradually taken hold in the social sciences, and today, it has become the way of writing qualitatively.

Geertz borrowed the term from philosopher Gilbert Ryle and added meaning to it. In “Thick description”: Towards and interpretive theory of culture (1973) Geertz stated:

“From one point of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these things, techniques and received procedures that define the enterprise. What defines it is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, ‘thick description’”(Geertz, 1973:6; Ponterotto, 2006: 539).

Geertz believed that the reader of anthropological writing needed to interpret the credibility of the author’s interpretation and he/she could only do this if the observations and context were fully described.

How can we describe thickly?

‘Thick description’ goes beyond surface appearances to include the context, detail, emotion, and webs of social relationships. It presents the significance of an observation, event or behaviour. Thick description includes voices, feelings, actions and meanings (Ponterotto, 2006).

The example most commonly used to explain ‘Thick description’ comes from Ryle. He argued that if someone winks at us without a context, we don’t know what it means. We can report on the wink (thin description). But if we provide a context we will know if the person is attracted to us, or that s/he is trying to communicate secretly, or that s/he has something in his/her eye. As the context changes, the meaning of the wink changes. ‘Thick description’ explains the context of practices and discourses in a society.

What goes into ‘thick description’?

Denzin (1989) outlines the features of ‘thick description’. For each observation, event or behaviour, ‘thick description’ captures the following details:

  • Biographical (who?)
  • Historical (what led to this?)
  • Situational (context)
  • Relational (what’s happening?)
  • Interactional (what are the meanings and relationships?)

‘Thick description’ allows the reader to ‘see’ the lives of respondents because of the way the text is written.

Another way of describing thickly

Bloom’s taxonomy is another way of describing thickly in qualitative writing.

Provide information which gives the reader knowledge, and then explain so that the reader can comprehend. Give examples so that the reader can she how this information has been applied. Then pull it all apart to analyse it for the reader, put it back together with interpretation, insight and new knowledge through synthesis. Finally, step back and evaluate your interpretation.

In short: describe, explain, give examples, interpret, make sense of your interpretation and then explain to the reader why this is (or isn’t) a worthy interpretation.


Denzin, N.K. (1989) Interpretive interactionism. Newbury Park: Sage

Geertz, C. (1973) The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Ponterotto, J.G. (2006) Brief note on the origins, evolution and meaning of the qualitative research concept ‘thick description’, The Qualitative Report 11(3), 538-54

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