“Once human behavior is seen as…symbolic action—action which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music…– the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together loses sense…The thing to ask is what their import is…” (Geertz, “Thick Description,” 1973, 10)
As I read Geertz’ work on “thick description,” our discussions regarding history and historiography shadowed my thoughts. It seemed a natural extension of materials related to cultural historiography and I found myself trying to find a clearer connection between the essay and my perspective on historical methods. With that aim in mind, I found two points from Geertz’ essay particularly compelling as a basis for developing a sensibility about historical methodology that could prove to be more nuanced in relation to the issue of culture.
First was the idea that it is necessary to look at actual behavior—events—rather than “abstracted entities” made to fit into “unified patterns” when considering a cultural system (Geertz, “Thick Description” 1973, 17). This practice can help to avoid many of the pitfalls of ‘thin description’, as well as of the abstracted analysis that attempts to fit behaviors into a(n) (over)generalized understanding of culture.
The second concept that I found particularly compelling was the idea that cultural coherence as a basis for ethnography or anthropology (and, I think, for historiography as well) is overrated (Geertz, TD, 17-18). First of all, Geertz says that an element of systems (including cultural ones) is coherence. Geertz’ contention that coherence is overrated (“…there is nothing so coherent as a paranoid’s delusion or a swindler’s story,” p. 18) appears meant to emphasize important elements the nature of the act of interpretation itself.
His position seems to be that interpretation is a natural part of constructing understandings of culture and that the quality of the interpretation can allow the basis for the interpretation to shine through, or be further obscured allowing cultural significances to remain obscured (18). Coherence, while a seemingly logical and appealing means of interpreting culture, may distort interpretations of culture. Such a reliance on coherence may be another way of confusing ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ descriptions in a manner similar to Geertz’ thought that one might confuse “knowing how to wink as winking” (12).