The thick and thin of it

May 26, 2011

Clifford Geertz, the cultural anthropologist who influenced the practice of symbolic anthropology, wrote “analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification…and determining their social ground and import.” (Geertz, 1973, p. 9) Geertz was concerned that anthropological research was more interpretive than anthropologists admitted. To paraphrase, they were explicating other’s explications of explications. What Geertz was saying is that anthropological writing is fiction in the sense that they are made and fashioned but they are not false.

Geertz described the practice of thick description as a way of providing cultural context and meaning that people place on actions, words, things, etc. Thick descriptions provide enough context so that a person outside the culture can make meaning of the behavior. Thin description by contrast, is stating facts without such meaning or significance. Surveys provide thin descriptions at best. We are suggesting that thick descriptions can be useful to people within an organization in order to better understand themselves and the complexity of organizational life. They can then see their own culture in the subtle ways that cannot be exposed by surveys and sound bites alone.

Like Geertz, we see our role as exposing the social ground and import of social structures yet we tend to do it in a different way than was available to Geertz. Rather than the researcher being the only one who sniffs out the trail of signification, we engage the people themselves in making sense of their own sensemaking by indicating the significance of the stories they tell. But this second layer of data (signifiers) alone does not create a thick enough description. It is through sorting the stories by what they mean and seeing groups, patterns and even holes in groups (the things we can do with SenseMaker) that we are able to provide another layer of interpretation and thicken the description of what a culture is doing. We help turn participants in the system to self-anthropologists, sorting our their own signification, social ground, and import.

We are exploring ways in which we can make the description even thicker. One idea my colleague Joan Goppelt came up with is to create stories from the stories. We are beginning to write semi-fictional accounts of actions and interactions that describe the patterns emerging from the data. The stories are “fictional” because no exact series of events described in these stories would have actually happened. But they are “semi-“ because they are in a sense true. They mirror cultural patterns and should be seen as plausible and probable events to those in the culture. These stories will be more than merely changing the names to protect the innocent but less than pure creative fantasy. Fiction writers (those that write for our entertainment) create plausible and often improbable stories. They are out of the ordinary, which makes them interesting. We’re looking at recreating the “ordinary drama” of everyday existence in an organization – not to entertain but to explain, expose, and enrich.

There are examples of fictional accounts that describe organizational patterns such as Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, but these are accounts abstracted from multiple teams, organizations and cultures. Lencioni wants a story that is applicable to many (and to create a best-seller). We want to create something that only makes sense in a certain cultural context and so shows not just the typical but also the unusual. By starting and ending with the stories told within a cultural setting, we are attempting to, as Geertz put it, expose “their normalness without reducing their particularity” (p. 14). Has anyone else tried this approach in organizations and if so, what was your experience?

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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