Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (2019). Thick description. In P. Atkinson, S. Delamont, M.A. Hardy, & M. Williams (Eds.), SAGE research methods foundations [Online]. doi: 10.4135/9781526421036765746
Several years ago I was asked to write about “thick description,” a concept used mostly by ethnographers. Briefly, thick description recognizes complexity and the role of context. It is often contrasted with “thin description,” understood to be limited and superficial.
Thick description typically takes a semiotic approach, emphasizing how people construct and convey meaning through signs and symbols, both for themselves and others.
The volume has just been published, which leads me to think about ways in which thick description might be useful to understanding and encouraging intercultural dialogue. The essay describes some research by Jeff Todd Titon which points in a useful direction. Titon is an ethnomusicologist who “proposes a move to multivoiced interpretive accounts, that is, ensuring that multiple voices be heard—not only that of the ethnographer but also those of multiple informants from different positions, exploring potential gaps or disagreements. He emphasizes dialogue (including study participants speaking back to the ethnographer), questioning the analysis, as well as ethnomusicology in the public interest.”
“Ensuring that multiple voices be heard” – now that seems useful to intercultural dialogue! So a thick description will typically involve multiple layers of meanings, supplied by different participants, gathered over time, which together permit a better understanding of human behavior by interweaving separate descriptions into a single, complex whole.