- Jan 2019
Like them, all frames basically define parts of our perceptual environment as irrelevant, thus separating that which we attend in a focused manner from all the out-of-frame experience44 that we leave "in the background" and ignore.
Evokes Geertz' advice in ethnographic thick description to focus on the details in order to make sense of the situational context and place people/events in an interpretative frame.
- Dec 2018
A repertoire of very general, made-in-the-academy concepts and systems of concepts-"integration," "rationalization," "symbol," "ideology," "ethos," "revolution," "identity," "metaphor," "structure," "ritual," "world view," "actor," "function," "sacred," and, of course, "culture" itself-is woven into the body of thick-description ethnography in the hope of rendering mere occurrences scientifically eloquent
Concepts that communicate thick description.
Such a view of how theory functions in an interpretive science suggests that the distinction, relative in any case, that appears in the experimental or observational sciences between "description" and "explanation" appears here as one, even more relative, between "inscription" ("thick description") and "specification" ("diagnosis")-between setting down the meaning 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. Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects' acts, the "said" of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinants of human behavior. 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.
The nut of Geertz' argument: Ethnographic theory building is about developing conceptual structures applicable to other settings in order to understand and analyze culture (human life, symbolic action, and beliefs). Thick description and its interpretation provides the framework for making theoretical distinctions.
conceptualization is directed toward the task of generating interpretations of matters already in hand, not toward projecting outcomes of experimental manipulations or deducing future states of a determined system. But that does not mean that theory has only to fit (or, more carefully, to generate cogent interpretations of) realities past; it has also to survive-intellectually survive-realities to come. Although we formulate our interpretation of an outburst of winking or an instance of sheepraiding after its occurrence, sometimes long after, the theoretical framework in terms of which such an interpretation is made must be capable of continuing to yield defensible interpretations as new social phenomena swim into view
Cultural theory is not predictive but interpretative. Thick description helps to determine whether a theory can be further elaborated or is no longer useful for describing/interpreting behavior.
The first is the need for theory to stay rather closer to the ground than tends to be the case in sciences more able to give themselves over to imaginative abstraction. Only short flights of ratiocination tend to be effective in anthropology; longer ones tend to drift off into logical dreams, academic bemusements with formal symmetry. The whole point of a semiotic approach to culture is, as I have said, to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them. The tension between the pull of this need to penetrate an unfamiliar universe of symbolic action and the requirements of technical advance in the theory of culture, between the need to grasp and the need to analyze, is, as a result, both necessarily great and essentially irremovable.
Challenges of theory development about cultural understandings. The tension between semiotic/symbolic approaches that require interpretation (grasp) versus methods that are grounded in analysis.
"...the essential task of theory building here is not to codify abstract regularities but to make thick description possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them."
Ethnographic findings are not privileged, just particular: another country heard from. To regard them as anything more (or anything less) than that distorts both them and their implications, which are far profounder than mere primitivity, for social theory.
This tension exists in HCI as well.
Interpreted data vs empirical data and how each is systematically analyzed.
Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape. So, there are three characteristics of ethnographic description: it is interpretive; what it is interpretive of is the flow of social discourse; and the interpreting involved consists in trying to rescue the "said" of such discourse from its perishing occasions and fix it in perusable terms ... But there is, in addition, a fourth characteristic of such description, at least as I practice it: it is microscopic.
• Interpretation/sensemaking/meaning/explanation • Interpret the flow of social discourse • Contextualize the discourse • Focus on details
But as the standard answer to our question has been, "He observes, he records, he analyzes"-a kind of veni, vidi, vici conception of the matter-it may have more deep-going consequences than are at first apparent, not the least of which is that distinguishing these three phases of knowledgeseeking may not, as a matter of fact, normally be possible; and, indeed, as autonomous "operations" they may not in fact exist
Thick description as knowledge seeking, not simply recorded observation.
But it is an aim to which a semiotic concept of culture is peculiarly well adapted. As interworked systems of construable signs (what, ignoring provincial usages, I would call symbols), culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, some-· thing within which they can be intelligibly-that is, thickly-described ....
The primary point of the thick description -- to describe culture as a context in a systematized interpretation of human behavior.
rom this view of what culture is follows a view equally assured, of what describing it is-the writing out of systematic rules, an ethnographic algorithm, which, if followed, would make it possible so to operate, to pass (physical appearance aside) for a native. In such a way, extreme subjectivism is married to extreme formalism, with the expected result: an explosion of debate as to whether particular analyses (which come in the form of taxonomies, paradigms, tables, trees, and other ingenuities) reflect what the natives "really" think or are merely clever simulations, logically equivalent but substantively different, of what they think. ...
Geertz critique of the behaviorist fallacy also seems to touch on Bowker and Star's argument that meaningful classification comes from within a group not an external observer.
One is to imagine that culture is a self-contained "super-organic" reality with forces and purposes of its own; that is, to reify it. Another is to claim that it consists in the brute pattern of behavioral events we observe in fact to occur in some identifiable community or other; that is, to reduce it.
Geertz warns about the danger of reducing or reifying culture. While this may have been a debate in anthropology in 1973 (hopefully resolved), it still seems to resonate in HCI today between the factions of technological determinism and social constructionism
Once human behavior is seen as (most of the time; there are true twitches) symbolic action-action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies-the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense
Action/human behavior as a symbol to illuminate "what's important" not just what exists or can be observed.
Here, in our text, such sorting would begin with distinguishing the three unlike frames of interpretation ingredient in the situation, Jewish, Berber, and French, and would then move on to show how (and why) at that time, in that place, their copresence produced a situation in which systematic misunderstanding reduced traditional form to social farce.
Example of what needs to be considered to produce a thick description.
Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification-what Ryle called established codes, a somewhat misleading expression, for it makes the enterprise sound too much like that of the cipher clerk when it is much more like that of the literary critic-and determining their social ground and import.
"sorting out the structures of signification ... and determining their social ground and import" seems akin to Bowker and Star's discussion about the social, ethical, and moral aspects of classification.
Quoted raw, a note in a bottle, this passage conveys, as any similar one similarly presented would do, a fair sense of how much goes into ethnographic description of even the most elemental sort-how extraordinarily "thick" it is. In finished anthropological writings, including those collected here, this fact-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-is obscured because most of what we need to comprehend a particular event, ritual, custom, idea, or whatever is insinuated as background information before the thing itself is directly examined.
Deeper exploration of just how "thick" these descriptions (interpretations of interpretations) can be versus observation.
But the point is that between what Ryle calls the "thin description" of what the rehearser (parodist, winker, twitcher ... ) is doing ("rapidly contracting his right eyelids") and the "thick description" of what he is doing ("practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion") lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures 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 nontwiches) in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn't do with his eyelids
Definition of thick vs thin description in ethnography.
For HCI, ethnographic description (and ethnomethodology) help to generate the necessary symbols, sensemaking, and motivations to better interpret and understand human behavior with a specific cultural context. Helps to put a much finer point on simple observation.
- thick description
- data analysis
- social constructionism
- technological determinism
- theory development