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Close Reading and Thin Description

Heather Love

Clifford Geertz, in his 1973 essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” writes, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he has himself spun” (1973b: 5). Specifically textual forms of analysis, Geertz argues, are best suited for untangling these webs. Geertz compares the practice of ethnography to “trying to read (in the sense of 'construct a reading of') a manuscript — foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior” (ibid.: 10). Although ethnography focuses on behavior, not on language specifically, Geertz suggests that anthropologists use methods developed in literary studies to decode dense, opaque, and unreliable texts. Such textual metaphors appear throughout Geertz’s essay “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight,” in which he provides an exemplary instance of thick description. He exhaustively analyzes everyday practices of gaming and betting in order to construct an account of status hierarchies and masculinity in Bali. Geertz claims that the culture of a people is “an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong” (1973a: 452). Furthermore, he compares this practice to “more familiar exercises in close reading” (ibid.: 453).

It is not surprising that Geertz’s account of thick description was taken up with great enthusiasm by literary critics, who saw in it a reflection of their own concerns and techniques. As Stephen Greenblatt describes in “The Touch of the Real,” “Geertz’s account of the project of social science rebounded with force upon literary critics like me in the mid-1970s”: his project “made sense of what I was already doing” (1997: 14). The positive-feedback loop that Greenblatt describes between literary studies and interpretive anthropology is no longer a given; these days, the image of Geertz reading over the shoulders of his informants has a somewhat unfamiliar, even an unlikely, air. The assumed familiarity and centrality of close reading as a method recalls a different era (now remembered as the linguistic turn), when what Greenblatt describes as the tools in his “disciplinary kit” (ibid.) had greater obvious value. Geertz’s writing of the early 1970s can be understood in the context of a broad shift toward semiotics, self-reflexivity, subjectivity, narrative, and aesthetics across the social sciences. That movement has now arguably run its course, both in the sense of transforming interpretive practice and normative epistemology across the disciplines and in the sense of appearing, to many observers, to have “run out of steam.”1 Movements like new realism, new empiricism, and cognitivism have pushed back against the antifoundationalist claims and textual orientation of poststructuralism. If the legend of the 1970s and 1980s was Jacques Derrida’s (1976: 158) claim that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (there is nothing outside the text), we might take as representative of a more recent past Bruno Latour’s (2005: 117) call to go “from metaphysics to ontology” in order to “show what the real world is really like.”2

The materialist and realist character of research over the past couple of decades is visible not only in the social sciences but also in literary studies. Some literary critics have responded to the declining fortunes of textuality by renewing their commitment to the discipline.3 Alongside such responses, however, critics have also responded by displacing the text from the center of literary studies. Literary critics have long drawn on methods from history, sociology, and anthropology to expand reading practices developed within the discipline. But in recent work, critics are turning to more distant fields such as the natural sciences, economics, quantitative and digital methods, and cognitive psychology. The field of material text studies has increasingly considered books as objects, setting aside traditional forms of semiotic analysis. In addition, in recent debates on method, critics have elaborated arguments for modes of reading that seem polemically aimed against the disciplinary core of the field (as in Franco Moretti’s account of “distant reading” [2000: 57]). It seems that those dense webs of significance are not as significant as they used to be.

In this context, Geertz’s embrace of “thick description” can seem like a gift to literary critics, as well as a dispatch from an alien world. In elaborating this method, Geertz drew on a distinction between thin and thick description originally made by ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle in the late 1960s. For Ryle, thin description was an unadorned, first-order account of behavior, one that could be recorded just as well by a camera as by a human agent. Thick description, by contrast, added many layers of human significance, including attributions of intention, emotion, cognition, and depth, as well as cultural context and display — all those affective and aesthetic qualities that literary critics look for in texts. In borrowing thick description from Ryle and tying it closely to the practice of ethnography, Geertz made semiotics central to the social sciences and suggested literary analysis as a model for reading culture. Critics who have taken up Geertz’s concept of thick description over the past several decades have tended to overlook the importance — for both Geertz and Ryle — of thin description. The association of thin description with the legacies of behaviorism and functionalism has meant that it has not been taken up by humanities scholars, who reject the concept of observable behavior altogether. Although some scholars in economics, sociology, and anthropology have recently argued for the value of thin description, there is, with only a few exceptions, far less interest on the part of literary critics and cultural historians.4 In the following essay I argue for the significance of thin description to literary studies. The field of literary studies is weakened by its refusal to engage with empirical methods; by focusing exclusively on meaning, intention, language, and culture, critics have not attended fully to the behavioral components of experience and representation.

Thick description is a method for analyzing behavior that employs techniques originally developed for analyzing literature. In making an argument for thin description, I elaborate a method for reading texts that employs techniques developed originally to analyze behavior. Drawing on Ryle’s work as well as on postwar research in the humanistic social sciences, in particular the detailed accounts of social interaction developed in microsociology, I suggest that these projects offer a model of reading that jettisons many traditional features of the literary.5 In a disciplinary culture in which the value of the text and aesthetics cannot be taken for granted, I argue that literary studies might forge an expanded defense of reading by considering practices of exhaustive, thin description undertaken in proximate disciplines. I consider forms of analysis that describe patterns of behavior and visible activity but that do not traffic in speculation about interiority, meaning, or depth. Through its exhaustive, fine-grained attention to phenomena, thin description offers a model for close reading after the decline of the linguistic turn.

Twitches and Winks

Ryle’s essays “Thinking and Reflecting” (1971a) and “The Thinking of Thoughts: What Is ‘Le Penseur’ Doing?” (1971b) are concerned with the relation between observable behavior and the activity of thought. Across these two essays Ryle attempts to build a thick description of thinking, which, thinly described, might simply be understood as a person muttering to himself under his breath; he ultimately argues that we need a more capacious definition of the activity of thought. Ryle returns repeatedly to the example of Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker), which except for its title might be seen simply as an image of a man sitting on a rock resting his head on his hand. Ryle’s interest in the dilemma of the unspectacular spectacle of thinking can be understood as part of his attack on what in The Concept of Mind he identifies as the “Official Doctrine” (1949: 11 – 24), the Cartesian view of the self that sees the mind as an immaterial force behind the actions of the body. Ryle’s refusal of what he called “‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’ ” (15 – 16 in Concept of Mind) was at the heart of his critique of psychology and philosophy, and it has led some to see him as a behaviorist. However, Ryle was as opposed to the reductionist error as he was to the duplicationist error. For Ryle, the attribution of an ultimate cause outside of or behind behavior — whether to a ghostly, hidden mind or to a hardwired biological system — was a category mistake.

At the end of The Concept of Mind, Ryle takes up the charge of behaviorism directly: “The general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly be stigmatised as ‘behaviourist’ ” (1949: 327). In his account of this attempt to forge a scientific, verifiable psychology, Ryle focuses on the problem posed by thinking in this context, arguing that accounts of consciousness, unlike overt behavior, cannot be “based upon repeatable and publicly checkable observations and experiments” (ibid.). In response to this fundamental research problem, early behaviorists refuse to speculate about the unverifiable inner states behind activities of response and output — although, as Ryle argues, behaviorists themselves remained “in two minds about whether to assert that the data of consciousness and introspection were myths, or to assert merely that they were insusceptible of scientific examination” (ibid.). Nonetheless, despite this uncertainty, and despite the fact that purely mechanistic accounts of behavior tended to reproduce the problems of Cartesian attributions of consciousness, Ryle thinks that the overall effect of behaviorism on psychology was salutary. He writes: The important thing is that the practice of describing specifically human doings according to the recommended methodology quickly made it apparent to psychologists how shadowy were the supposed “inner-life” occurrences which the Behaviourists were at first reproached for ignoring or denying. Psychological theories which made no mention of the deliverances of “inner perception” were at first likened to “Hamlet” without the Prince of Denmark. But the extruded hero soon came to seem so bloodless and spineless a being that even the opponents of these theories began to feel shy of imposing heavy theoretical burdens upon his spectral shoulders. (Ibid.: 328) Although behaviorism in its mechanistic approach to human existence is guilty of a category error, it can be usefully deployed to correct a graver error: insisting on the bloodless reality of consciousness. While early behaviorists tended to purge the character of Hamlet as a shadowy unknown, literary critics have taken his part, overcoming any scruples about “imposing heavy theoretical burdens upon his spectral shoulders.”

Geertz, in his reading of Ryle, focuses less on his account of the activity of thinking and more on the question of how to interpret visible behavior. In particular, Geertz builds his account of thick description as a model for ethnography out of a passage in “The Thinking of Thoughts” about winking. Geertz is interested, that is to say, less in the invisible activity of thinking than in drawing out what is not self-evident in observed behavior. According to Ryle, a thick description of a wink might see it as a form of communication, collusion, mimicry, or some other kind of meaningful interaction; a thin description would merely account for the physical act of the contraction of the eyelid. He writes: Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From a cinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, was a mere twitch. Yet there remains the immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink. For to wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code. It has very complex success-versus-failure conditions. The wink is a failure if its intended recipient does not see it; or sees it but does not know or forgets the code; or misconstrues it; or disobeys or disbelieves it; or if anyone else spots it. A mere twitch, on the other hand, is neither a failure nor a success; it has no intended recipient; it is not meant to be unwitnessed by anybody; it carries no message. It may be a symptom but it is not a signal. The winker could not not know that he was winking; but the victim of the twitch might be quite unaware of his twitch. The winker can tell what he was trying to do; the twitcher will deny that he was trying to do anything. (Ryle 1971b: 480) Ryle’s example of the two boys emphasizes the “unphotographable difference” between a twitch and a wink (thick description) as well as the photographable lack of difference between the two (thin description). Both the camera and the “cinematograph-film” play an important role in this passage in establishing what Ryle means by thin description (later in the essay, he alludes to the gramophone and the tape recorder as well). Thin description means, in effect, taking up the position of the device; by turning oneself into a camera, one could — at least ideally — pay equal attention to every aspect of a scene that is available to the senses and record it faithfully. Ryle’s emphasis on the technicity of the observer is marked, and it links his account of thin description to practices of observation and description in postwar social science. Martha Davis, in her article “Film Projectors as Microscopes,” identifies this period as “the golden era of ‘naturalistic observation’ of films and tapes” (2001 – 2: 46). She describes the way that new technologies — for instance the use of slow-motion analyzing techniques and improved sound-film synchronization — transformed analytic methods in the 1950s and 1960s.

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For their incisive feedback and substantial recommendations on earlier drafts of this essay, my thanks to James English, Rita Felski, David Kurnick, Sharon Marcus, and Mara Mills. Also, thanks to audiences at the Centre for Modernist Studies at the University of Sussex, the NYNJ Modernism Seminar (Rutgers), and the University of Virginia.

  1. I draw this phrase from the title of Bruno Latour’s article “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (2004). Although Latour’s argument is directed against critical hermeneutics and not the linguistic turn per se, I see it as relevant because of his call for a renewed realism.
  2. Latour’s name might be understood as representative of a turn toward materiality, ontology, and practice in science and technology studies (STS) and beyond; this new set of concerns is legible across a broad range of practices and fields of inquiry including the biological turn in feminism, object-oriented ontology (OOO), new realism of the body (disability studies), the history of material texts, critiques of social construction theory, and work on the materiality of digital media. Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain (2010) brings together many of these concerns in an argument about the broad significance of cybernetics in the postwar period that is relevant to my own work on the 1960s and 1970s. Pickering argues that cybernetics represents an alternative tradition alongside the linguistic turn in the late twentieth century and that cybernetic thought was marked by a concern with performance and ontology rather than with representation and epistemology.
  3. I argue in this essay for the continuing value of textuality and close reading in the context of expanding interdisciplinary practice. At the same time, I suggest that retrenchment around disciplinary commitments to the literary is not an effective response to the crisis in the humanities. Humanist arguments that depend on assumptions about the singularity of literature or the ethical value of close reading assume rather than argue for values that are losing their legitimacy in the current climate. By following such lines of argument, literary critics will continue to claim the high ground of humanistic inquiry, while the funding migrates elsewhere.
  4. For examples of arguments for thin description in a range of disciplines, see McCloskey 2008; Brekhus, Galliher, and Gubrium 2005. Recent work in sociology that argues for the continuing importance of exhaustive microsociological description perhaps comes closest in its arguments to mine here. See for instance Hirschauer 2006; Savage 2009. One exception to the strong preference for thick description in literary studies is Douglas Bruster’s Shakespeare and the Question of Culture. Bruster critiques New Historicism for its overreliance on thick description; he argues that thin description — which he compares to “deep focus” cinematography — can make better sense of the relation between literature and its contexts by allowing readers to “keep multiple planes of a culture in view” (2003: xvii).
  5. I made a brief argument for the importance of microsociology and the observational social sciences to literary studies in Love 2010. This article extends that argument by looking in more detail at thin description and some exemplary practices of microanalysis.


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