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- Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books. [+] "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," pp. 3-30.
In this essay, he explains that he adopted the term "thick description" from philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle pointed out that if someone winks at us without a context, we don't know what it means. It might mean the person is attracted to us, that they are trying to communicate secretly, that they understand what you mean, or anything. As the context changes, the meaning of the wink changes.
Geertz argues that all human behaviour is like this. He therefore distinguishes between a thin description, which (to extend our example) describes only the wink itself, and a thick description, which explains the context of the practices and discourse within a society. According to Geertz, the task of the anthropologist is to give thick descriptions.
In anthropology and other fields, a thick description of a human behaviour is one that explains not just the behaviour, but its context as well, such that the behaviour becomes meaningful to an outsider.