What is Thick Description in Qualitative Research?

A brief introduction to Thick Description

For more best practices see our method overview

Definition of Thick Description in Qualitative Research

Thick description is a term coined by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who defined it as "the detailed account of field experiences in which the researcher makes explicit the patterns of cultural and social relationships and puts them in context" (Geertz, 1973, p. 6). Thick description goes beyond mere description of facts or events, and provides a deeper interpretation of the meanings, contexts, and implications of the phenomenon.
Thick description is not only a way of writing, but also a way of thinking and analyzing qualitative data. It involves a careful and systematic observation of the phenomenon, a reflexive and critical examination of the researcher's own assumptions and biases, and a creative and empathetic engagement with the participants' perspectives and experiences.

Motivation for Thick Description

One of the key challenges of qualitative research is how to present and communicate the findings in a way that is faithful to the data and the participants' voices, while also being rigorous, transparent, and convincing to the readers. This is where thick description comes in.

Thick description can enhance the quality and Credibility of qualitative research in several ways. First, it can provide a rich and nuanced understanding of the phenomenon that captures its diversity and complexity. Second, it can demonstrate the rigor and validity of the research process by showing how the data was collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Third, it can increase the Transferability and applicability of the findings by providing enough contextual information for the readers to judge their relevance and usefulness. Fourth, it can foster a dialogue and collaboration between the researcher and the participants, as well as between the researcher and the readers, by inviting them to share their own interpretations and insights.

Strategies to improve Thick Description

How to achieve thick description in qualitative research? There is no definitive answer or formula for this question, as different types of qualitative research may require different approaches and strategies. However, we can suggest you some general guidelines:
  • Use multiple sources (Data Triangulation) and methods (Method Triangulation) of data collection to obtain a comprehensive and triangulated view of the phenomenon.
  • Use direct quotations from the participants to illustrate their views and experiences in their own words.
  • Provide detailed descriptions of the settings, events, actions, interactions, and emotions that occurred during the data collection.
  • Explain the meanings and significance of the observed phenomena from both the researcher's and the participants' perspectives.
  • Situate the findings within the broader social, cultural, historical, and theoretical contexts that inform and shape them.
  • Reflect on the researcher's own role, positionality, assumptions, biases, and influences on the research process and outcomes (Reflexivity).
  • Use vivid and engaging language that conveys the richness and complexity of the phenomenon without compromising its accuracy and clarity.

Conclusion on Thick Description

Thick Description provides rich and detailed accounts of the meanings, contexts, and interpretations of human behavior and culture. Thick description goes beyond mere factual descriptions and attempts to capture the nuances, complexities, and contradictions of social phenomena. By doing so, thick description can enhance the validity, Credibility, and Transferability of qualitative research findings.

Thick Description is not an easy task to accomplish, but it is a rewarding one. It can help qualitative researchers to produce high-quality and impactful research that contributes to the advancement of knowledge and practice in their fields.

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