Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept “Thick Description” Joseph G. Ponterotto
Fordham University, New York, New York
The origins, cross-disciplinary evolution, and definition of “thick description” are reviewed. Despite its frequent use in the qualitative literature, the concept of “thick description” is often confusing to researchers at all levels. The roots of this confusion are explored and examples of “thick description” are provided. The article closes with guidelines for presenting “thick description” in written reports. Key Words: Thick Description, Ethnography, Grounded Theory, Phenomenology, Thick Interpretation, Thick Meaning, and Qualitative Writing
One of the most important concepts in the lexicon of qualitative researchers is “thick description.” In fact, the Subject Index of virtually every major textbook on qualitative methods published during the last three decades includes one or more entries under either “thick description,” or “description, thick” (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003; Creswell, 1998; Denzin, 1989; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Marshall & Rossman, 1999; Patton, 1990, to name but a few). Despite the widespread use and acceptance of the term “thick description,” in qualitative research, there appears to be some confusion over precisely what the concept means (Holloway, 1997; Schwandt, 2001). Personally, I can relate to this confusion on two levels. First, in my own qualitative research and writing over the years, I have at times struggled to fully understand the concept of “thick description.” Second, in my experience teaching and supervising qualitative research, I find that students and colleagues struggle in their attempts to understand and practice “thick description” in their work. It was this set of struggles that led me to study the concept of “thick description” more closely, and to share my findings with the readership of The Qualitative Report (TQR). The goals of this Brief Note are to (a) clarify the origins of the concept of “thick description”; (b) trace its evolution across various disciplines; (c) define the concept comprehensively; (d) provide exemplars of “thick description” in the published literature; and (e) offer guidelines for presenting “thick description” in non-ethnographic studies. In meeting these goals, I hope to bring some clarity and consensus to our understanding and usage of the concept “thick description.” Origins of “Thick Description” Though many researchers cite North American anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, when they introduce “thick description,” the term and concept originate, as Geertz himself notes, with Gilbert Ryle, a British metaphysical philosopher at the University of Oxford. The root of the concept can be found in Ryle’s
The Qualitative Report September 2006
(1949) Concept of the Mind where he discussed in great detail “the description of intellectual work” (p. 305). The first presentation of the actual term, “thick” description, appears to come from two of Ryle’s lectures published in the mid 1960s titled Thinking and Reflecting and The Thinking of Thoughts: [colon added] What is ”La Penseur” Doing? Both lectures were published in Ryle’s (1971) Collected Papers, Volume II, Collected Essays 1929-1968, and can be easily located by the interested qualitative researcher. For Ryle (1971) “thick” description involved ascribing intentionality to one’s behavior. He used the following example, A single golfer, with six golf balls in front of him [sic], hitting each of them, one after another, towards one and the same green. He [sic] then goes and collects the balls, comes back to where he [sic] was before, and does it again. What is he doing? (p. 474) The “thin” description of this behavior is that the golfer is repeatedly...