What is Thick Description in Qualitative Research? (Answered)

March 10, 2023

thick description

Ryle (1949) and Geertz (1973) are scientific figures you won’t read a lot about in your research studies, but the two are famous for having been the first researchers to use thick description to achieve external validity in ethnography. 

From their points of view, a researcher can easily evaluate the extent to which you can transfer conclusions drawn from research.

From a practical standpoint, thick description requires a researcher to write a detailed narrative, also called vignettes, which not only highlights a situation but also highlights the background context of the issue under investigation.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you should know about Thick description, from what it is and how it compares with thin description to features and strength and weaknesses. At the end of this lesson, you should be able to work on a thick description without hesitation. 

Let’s get started:

What is Thick Description in Qualitative Research?

First introduced by Gilbert Ryle in the 20th-century and further developed by Clifford Geertz, thick description in qualitative research focuses on making explicit patterns of cultural and social relationships and giving detailed descriptions and interpretations of the observations made.

Since it adds subjective information and meaning from people engaged in different behavior, the data collected through thick description tends to be of great value for students and social scientists.

There’s more to thick description than just the surface appearance. The approach takes in account emotion, voice, social relationship, details, feelings, actions, and context to interpret the significance of event, behavior, and observation.

Often, thick description tends to capture five significant details about cultural and social relationships based on events, behavior, and observation.

The details are biographical, historical, interactional, situational, and relational. Given how researchers use this information to describe their qualitative research and analysis, a reader can easily get a clear picture of the lives of the respondents. 

Bloom’s taxonomy is a term that appears quite frequently when researchers talk about thick description. Used to describe thickly in qualitative research and writing, the taxonomy focuses on not only giving readers knowledge but also explaining that knowledge so that readers can understand.

With the Bloom’s taxonomy, you:

  • Start by giving your readers an example to see the application of the information provided
  • Second, you pull the information apart and analyze it bit by bit for the reader.
  • Then, you put the information back together, this time making sure you give new knowledge and insight by means of synthesis.
  • Finally, you take a step back and evaluate your interpretation

Thick Description vs Thin Description: What’s the Difference?

Thin description is common in quantitative studies and qualitative research. According to Gilbert Ryle, thin description only focuses on observation, which means it provides a surface level explanation.

Thick description, which focuses solely on qualitative research, focuses on interpreting observations to provide meaning from the cultural and social interactions. So beyond observation, one has to describe, interpret, and analyze the situation in question.

Characteristics of Thick Description

In 2006, Joseph Ponterotto suggested 5 important characteristics of an excellent thick description.

It’s important to learn and understand each characteristic so that you can write a more comprehensive thick description in qualitative research when asked to do so.

1. It Describes Emotions and Thoughts

Thin description only looks a situation on a surface level and doesn’t do much to capture emotions and thoughts.

For example, it’s hard to understand what someone means if they wink at you without content. It can mean just about anything, which can even result in an inaccurate interpretation of the behavior.

Thick description takes emotions and thoughts and adds an explanation to it. With clear context that explains behavior patterns, it becomes easier for readers to understand your message.

In his book, Ponterotto states that this type of description captures emotions, thoughts, and multiple social interactions and a clear description of their operating context.

2. It Gives Sufficient Account of Details

With thick description, you can provide the most important details that interpret social and cultural relationships so that your account becomes more credible.

In his work, Ponterotto uses the words verisimilitude, which means the appearance of truthfulness that stretches to an extent that enables a reader to feel like they’ve had an experience with your account.

3. It Includes Explanation in Context

The primary drawback of a thin description is that while it explains something, it fails to give it social and cultural significance, which is a problem that thick description helps to solve.

According to Ponterotto, the description examines, interprets, and describes social actions within the context in which the actions happened.

As such, readers not only know the actions but their significance in the qualitative research.  

4. It Demonstrate Intention and Motivation

How do you describe an argument between two people? If you state that an argument took place, you merely give a thin description that doesn’t specify intention and motivation.

Clearly, people don’t argue without a reason; there will always be a motive behind every argument.

As such, it’s not enough to conclude that an argument took place. You have to look at the issue at hand and figure out why the argument occurred and even state its likely implications.

From Ponterotto’s point of view, authors have to interpret cultural and social actions by determining the motivations and intentions behind the actions in question.

5. It Describes the Value of a Situation in Great Details

From a research point of view, your thick description must leave readers with something to think about.

As such, you need to make sure that the information you provide gives a clear and conclusive statement about the meaning of the social and cultural interactions. 

Some of the most important questions that you may have to address include:

  • What does the qualitative research tell us about the people the researcher chose to investigate?
  • Does the research put new insights forward or add anything new to the already existing knowledge on the subject?
  • What are some of the past beliefs that the qualitative research challenge? 

About the author 

Antony W is a professional writer and coach at Help for Assessment. He spends countless hours every day researching and writing great content filled with expert advice on how to write engaging essays, research papers, and assignments.

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