Thick Description, Thinking, and Social Thought

Ryle wrote two papers taking a behaviour- and language-focused approach to describe what is happening when someone is trying to accomplish something, most importantly what is happening when someone is thinking and what state of affairs is reached by having thought successfully. He says that an external observer's bare description of a meaningful action is a "thin description": "the teacher stood in front of the class, said some words, and dragged a chalk across the board." A "thick description" captures the aim of that meaningful action. It includes the lower-level actions without which the higher-level action could not take place: "the teacher instructed by making a few statements about Canadian history, and by writing key phrases from those statements on the board, all the while glancing at his class to see if they were paying attention." Ryle progresses from making thin and thick descriptions of various activities, some involving language and some not, to build up his own thick description of what a thinker is doing when they are mulling over a problem.

I think some connections with what Sellars says about the relationship of language to building up a private, interior realm of thoughts and feelings by participating in social interaction could be made. But let's move on to anthropology.

Clifford Geertz used Ryle's understanding of meaningful action and his practice of thick description. He encouraged ethnographers — after they have made all the necessary empirical observations and made the detailed records of a group's activity — to accept that they were thick describers creating interpretations of acts that were themselves interpretations, for the benefit of readers who would be doing their own interpreting. (I think you can see why Geertz was taken up enthusiastically in post-modern cultural studies).

He pokes fun at the cutesy anecdotes written by Oxford philosophers (Ryle makes much of the distinction between an involuntary "blink" and an meaningful "wink"). He thinks that anthropology can work with empirical scenarios, "empirical" happenings and not "artificial" thought experiments. I wonder why philosophy can't use more empirical happenings and fewer thought experiments. A deductive enterprise can be made more relevant to readers by drawing upon real-world examples.

Real world examples of concrete social exchanges provide "piled-up structures of inference and implication" and the ethnographer weaves these inferences and implications into an ethnographic text. Here is where hard-core epistemology comes in. The ethnographer has studied the actions, with all the inferencing and negotiation of implications of the participants taken into account, and then built a thick description that itself relies on the ethnographer's inferences about semi-observable and unobservable activities by the participants, and their thoughtful parsing of the implications of successful and unsuccessful low-level/thinly-describable and high-level/thickly-describable actions. Geertz's ethnographers are doing all the low- and high- level activities that Ryle says Rodin's Thinker is doing.

So the Geertzian ethnographer is thinking. Thinking by doing methodical ethnography. But are the interpretations that result from that thinking count as science? Can the careful observation of interactions of small groups provide insight into the dynamics of large groups or the nature of social structures as such? Geertz says "no" and abandons the whole attempt to construct a social science of objective structures or common dynamics or law-like regularities. Ethnographers compile richly detailed texts out of their thick descriptions and those texts, like the societies they study, are unique and valuable in themselves.

Cross cultural theorizing and the imposition of schema developed from European examples or out of abstract systematizing are the enemies of this kind of ethnography. This approach has been condemned as subjectivistic, unscientific, politically irresponsible, and aesthetic indulgence.

But let's get back to epistemology. Sociologists, and non-positivist ones as that, have responded that without some set of axioms developed by social scientists thinking cross culturally and in terms of generally applicable models, social science is impossible. An endless series of disconnected impressionistic studies that cannot provide generalizable results does not a Wissenschaft make.

Sociologist J.I. Bakker wrote a long paper that accuses Geertz of: a) not really practicing the kind of thick description he found in Ryle; b) failing to understand the wider cultural systems encompassing the interesting but marginal activity (cockfighting) that was his focus. Bakker insists that the observer cannot really uncover how a society works out of the inferences made while observing small-group interaction, no matter how thickly you describe it.

And neither Geertz nor his critics seem capable of taking their empirical observations about behaviour and social structure and applying them to what Ryle's aim in developing his thick descriptions: understanding thinking as an individual, reflective, context-independent activity that subsumes a number of linguistic and other activities that are ineluctably social. If social science proceeds from naturalistic, behaviouristic, and anti-idealistic premises, one would think that it could engage more thoroughly with philosophers who work from those assumptions.

And Max Weber attempted to bring in interpretation to the study of social structures. He saw the necessity for having explicit axiomatic assumptions when undertaking an investigation of society, but the inescapable personal point of view that any investigator brought to the construction of models like "ideal types," and to their application. Essentially, he tried to merge Marx and Nietzsche. (Which put him into a mental collapse that lasted two years, during which he could not bring himself to read one book. The first book he picked up after his breakdown was a book of art history)

Ryle papers

  • "Thinking and Reflecting"

  • "The Thinking of Thoughts" (in his Collected Papers)

  • "What is l'Penseur Doing" (1968 address to the U of Saskatchewan, available online)

Clifford Geertz

  • "Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture" (anthologized everywhere)

  • "Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight"

  • The Interpretation of Cultures (1973)

  • "Blurred Genres: The Reconfiguration of Social Thought" (American Scholar 1980) (frequently cited in postmodern cultural studies)

Bakker, J.I. (a neo-Marxist and Weberian sociologist takes up thick description of the ritual activities of which cockfighting is a part, with the aim of showing the value but very real limits of Geertzian ethnography)

  • "Deeper Play: Geertz's 'Thick Description' and a Balinese Temple Ritual (the Odalan)." (available online)

Critics of Ethnomethodology

a) Anderson, Perry (Marxist historian very antagonistic to subjectivising and relativising intellectual movements in the Anglo-American world)

  • "Components of the National Culture" (New Left Review 1968)

  • "A Culture in Contraflow" (New Left Review 1990)

b) Gellner, Ernest (liberal antagonist to Wittgenstein and the consequences of aesthetic and hermeneutic approaches for the study of social structure and social conflict — "societies are as much about baking bread and killing as they are about interpretations," to paraphrase Gellner.)

On Interpretation, Objectivity, and Generalizability in Social Science

  • Max Weber, “Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntis” (where he introduces "ideal types")

Putting Theory to the Test

Smith, Laureen E. Audience (1999). Performance, and Meaning in the Gullah Sea Islands (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). George Washington University, Washington D.C.

Nice to see theory being tested in the field, and new concepts generated from that application.

Findings suggest that performance and culture are inextricably linked and that performance is a socially-coded communicative moment deeply imbedded in cultural norms. Although performance theory suggests this, few writers have tested it in actual field situations. This dissertation found that Gullah performers and audiences demonstrate a collaborative relationship built on shared cultural experiences, which include the audience/performer behavior of call-and-response. In a new interpretation on communication theory, this dissertation argues that call-and-response establishes within the performance itself, an Intersubjective Feedback Web whereby participants interact in a dynamic interrelationship.  In the Sea Islands, the experience of performance is one that incorporates all the activity of those gathered for performance as participants. Everyone is recognized as an integral and a functional part of performance. Therefore, this dissertation encourages researchers and practitioners alike to understand audience as always active and always central in the mutual interdependency which is performance.

Experience can Justify, Qualia can't

Sachs, Carl B. (2012, December). Phenomenology and the myth of the given: Sellars, Merleau-Ponty, and some myths the given. Address presented at the Inaugural Meeting of the Wilfrid Sellars Society, Eastern APA, Atlanta.

I am trying to link language with experience in a way that doesn't assume some intuitionist capacity to enter into the lifeworlds of the people I speak to. That relates concepts and language to ineluctably personal and private experiences in a way that also captures the situations in which those experience arose, and which can feed into practical, transformative actions of people in similar situations. I've come across a lot of practical advice about how to make that link, and read a number of stimulating interview-based dissertations that made that link, allowing me to understand some parts of the experiences of people leading very different lives from my own. They way the investigators handled the first-person accounts of their subjects communicated the ways I could think, feel, and act like their subjects and the very real ways I could NOT enter into their subjects' experience. I just need a clear conceptual framework for understanding how communication like this is possible. It's happening but I don't understand how.

Sachs' address has given me some clues for understanding the link between language, experience, incommunicable qualia, and public knowledge

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First Person Accounts of Experience in a 3rd Personal World

I am trying to first person accounts of experience to social action embedded in material contexts. And it's giving me a headache.

Some clarity has been provided by this article: "Interactionist Qualitative Research as a Semiotic Mediation Activity"

From the abstract: 

We specifically explore qualitative research itself as a semiotic process with associated actions. This enables researchers to make sense of human interactions in the world rather than solely focusing on semiotic analysis of qualitative data. We introduce Peirce’s semiotics and Vygotsky’s mediated action as tools for conceptualizing qualitative research in a semiotic mediation process. Understanding qualitative research as a semiotic mediation can help social scientists better understand their own role in research, while vicariously gaining experiences about human interactions that they later present to others.
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Learning from "Overturning Topsy's Legacy"; or Political Theatre for Children in the age of Reaction

Scott, Jacqueline Marie (2012). Overturning “Topsy's” legacy: Black Theatre for Youth and the Black Arts Movement (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

I've never given much thought to children's theatre. Despite having been involved in theatre since childhood. I also have no organic connection to any exploited communities. But I am becoming convinced that the future will see economic and political upheavals that disrupt the way of life of millions of people. And creative people and educators will have to participate in resistance to the reactionary movements that will take advantage of austerity, drastic climate change, and mass migration. I am starting to think about how to prepare children to confront this situation. What resources are available to people who want to prepare young people for the part they will have to play in creating a better world than the one I grew up in, and in the middle of catastrophes my generation failed to prevent? What models of transformational performance and pedagogy could be used to assist whatever socialist movements – if any – grow out of contemporary left political tendencies?

Jack Zipes looked at the subversive theatre of Berlin theatre company Grips [1] and issued this call for change to theatre-makers in America: “we need an alternative, not just to lily-white, run-of-the-mill, middle-class children's theater but also to a youth entertainment industry whose spectacles make even the productions of middle-class children's theater seem radical at times” (Zipes 3)

Jacqueline Marie Scott's remarkable dissertation discusses in precise detail the ideologies and practices of theatre for young people created by prominent figures in the Black Arts Movement. These artists created structures that allowed African-Americans to create their own performance genres in creative resistance to exploitation, white supremacy, and state repression. Scott's interviews with the artists involved in this movement are especially illuminating.

Any movement trying to resist political oppression and economic exploitation could learn as much from the artists in Scott's book as they could from Boal and Friere. The spiritual and religious aspects of the Black Arts Movement were integral to their nationalistic and revolutionary projects. But the strictest materialist could still learn how the BAM could help young people come to grips with their social situations. And link that pedagogy to social movements. Linking children's expanding self-awareness to solidarity will be a necessary part of cultural resistance in the age of global reaction.

Barbra Ann Teer established five standards for her National Black Theatre (NBT) and established culturally-specific means for her community to meet those standards. A socialist youth theatre with a broad audience would not appropriate those means but would strive to meet those standards:

  1. raise consciousness
  2. address political issues,
  3. educate with knowledge and truth
  4. explain the reasons for negative community realities in order to eradicate them
  5. must entertain. (adapted from Scott 139)

Here are some of my takeaways from Scott.

Draw on Local Performance Traditions, not Canonized Methods.  Teer critiqued “the Stanislavsky Method” she was taught was “irrelevant” to youth who “came out of the streets” (139). She built a performance practice on “African American characteristics of speech, movement, and music” (139).

Incorporate Historical Awareness via Those Traditions. Teer saw historically transmitted traditions as key to the politically-relevant theatre she was constructing. “Africanisms” were expressive modes “like speech, music, and dance that survived the infamous middle passage” (139). Her theatre had to address the historical legacy of slavery and she drew on expressive modes that had survived that catastrophe can provided Black Americans with means of resistance to that legacy. Any group that comes together to make political theatre for youth in a political way needs to engage its members in recovering what Raymond Williams called “residual” elements from their heritages and employ those in the creation of an “emergent” and anti-hegemonic performance culture.

Make Representations out of Inquiry and Make Youth into Investigators. Enquiry into the way things are and how people reproduce their everyday life is part of Brecht's legacy. The NBT provides an model of how to conduct that enquiry and, most significantly, how to incorporate  the products of that investigation as both form and content.  

NBT members used questionnaires initially to “survey the predispositions of their prospective audience, to find out everything they could about their adopted community”; members first conducted research at churches of varying denominations, then at bars, next at revivals ... Not only did they want to learn about the Harlem community members, but also they desired to learn the community’s aesthetics by studying the singing at churches and the performers at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. (144)

Youth are engaged in a variety of ways to perform on digital media such as Instagram, Vine, TikTok, and the live streaming platform Twitch. These new performance genres, as well as local speech genres need to be incorporated into play creation, rehearsal, and performance techniques. The transmission of locally-produced performances via these media could assist in building networks of affinity and, hopefully, solidarity. Learning from local practices rather than appropriating gestures and images second hand could develop children's cultural sensitivity and get them out of the habit of adopting whatever mass media has appropriated from particular cultures.

Any public or charitable giving will come with strings attached. The Scottish and English agit-prop group 7:84 was able to present popular political theatre for decades before being defunded. The Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School “received start-up funds of $40,000 from the United States government Office of Economic Opportunity” (61). Baraka's controversial plays and his refusal to admit whites into the theatre led to the withdrawal of government funding and the closure of the theatre after seven months. Baraka's Spirit House offers an example of a more autonomous institution, one more integrated to its context and therefore less reliant on the good graces of elite gatekeepers.

Don't talk down to your audiences, child or adult. The plays of the Harlem Children's Theatre Company (HCTC) “crossed over into adult concepts” while “the use of spectacle made the plays appealing to children as young as five years old” (74).

Out Disney Disney: Hook the Adults as Well. HCTC's aim was “for parents to have as much fun as their children had” (73).

Let the children do the acting. As the HCTC did: “Where HCTC’s path seems to veer from that of mainstream TYA of the time is that rather than using adult actors only, HCTC always used child actors to perform in front of child and family audiences. Scores of children acted in each of the company’s productions; the cast numbers vary in the reviews from 46 children all the way up to 85, depending on the play” (77). An age of atomization and screens needs experiences of group co-operation. I've seen the way dance schools gather a community of adults around the creative activity of children and have wished that just a fraction of that festival atmosphere were present at regular school functions.

Freedom, Color, and Flair”: The founders of the HCTC drew inspiration from West African and Caribbean aesthetics. Their conviction that children deserve “freedom, color, and flair” should be shared by socialist artists, while avoiding exoticisms and offensive appropriation (78).

Build Associations with Educational Institutions. The HCTC began in a public school and offered free training classes in music, art, dance, drama, voice, and the technical aspects of theatre” (82). That school gave them free classroom and rehearsal spaces.  

Build Associations with a Local Community: Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre and Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House both embedded themselves in communities with very particular needs by providing services to those communities beyond providing entertainment. The NBT provided preschool and daycare and offered afterschool programs, extensive summer programming, and adult workshops.

Both Teer and Baraka established schools (DIG and Afrikan Free School [2]) designed to meet the needs of their communities (136-137). Baraka's Spirit House was a place where Black residents of Newark could meet to discuss politics and was attached to the Committee for a Unified Newark.

Emphasize the Power to Make Change: Messages are fine. Giving youth the capacity to make change is better. Here's Scott's characterization of the conclusion of Aduke Aremu's Babylon II. “ In some ways the ending reads like a didactic political message, yet concurrently it can be seen as the child performers telling the children (and their parents) in the audience that they have the agency to make their own choices and improve their society should they choose to do so” (95). A Brechtian like myself cannot but agree.

Show them The World and the World to Them: Sixty percent of the children in the HCTC “came from poor, inner-city neighbourhoods” and the company's ambitious touring plans – through New York state, to the Apollo Theatre, and to African and European festival – gave them experiences of travel and attention from the adult world normally limited to children of privilege and to youth participating in elite sports and arts competitions (96-101). Where Aremu wanted children to “see that another lifestyle was possible for them,” a socialist cultural program should allow young people to see how other youth like them are engaged in transforming their worlds.

Model Respect by Respecting Youth Performers: Keep stage-parent pressure to a minimum and artistic aspirations of the leadership to the side.  

Professionalism was valued highly in HCTC, it did not come at the expense of the children’s enjoyment or happiness. In order to create theatre successfully with youth, Aremu believed that children needed to love, respect, and trust the adults they worked with and know that the adults were not invested in them to “make some money”; making theatre together was fun for the children and for Aremu, who said that neither she nor the youth viewed it as work ....To Aremu, it was very important that the children she worked with be happy and gave the example that if a child disliked his or her costume, she would buy him or her another one; her explanation of this behavior was that after a child has worked hundreds of hours in rehearsals, as a responsible director it was her duty to provide the child with what he or she needed to be happy onstage and that the children deserved to be in high-quality costumes. (102) 

[and by way of conclusion]

Creative Power of Youth: Committing to the avant-garde and the angry has blinded me to the popular and the capacities of young people. HCTC founder Aremu has reminded me of what I've ignored, and in the kind of enthusiastic languge it's hard for an old pessimist like me to muster.

Aremu said that working with youth interested her for several reasons; in particular because of their vitality onstage, absence of their “talking back,” and feeling that “children are the purest form of creative energy on the planet” ... Aremu’s reasoning for working with youth runs contrary to that of many theatre professionals: in her estimation, “It’s easier working with children…They’re wide open to new ideas and concepts. Adults have a lot more hangups. It’s much harder working with them” ... She also admired how children were great risk takers. (78)

The HCTC demonstrated high standards and a reviewer saw a “future of poise, articulation and self-awareness” for its performers. A successful socialist theatre for you would give its participants and audiences a promise of such a future, a future that they could create, despite the crises my generation has saddled them with. You who will rise to the surface, look back on us with indulgence.


[1] I had a technical role in a production of the Grips play Line One at the University of Toronto, directed by Herbert Olschok.

[2] I would be happy with any school system that could teach the skills that the Afrikan Free School sought to teach its students: "1) machine operation (such as mimeograph and photocopy), 2) office skills, 3) typing and stenography, 4) book/record keeping and accounting, 5) auto mechanics, 6) carpentry, 7) electronics, 8) plumbing, 9) sewing, 10) cooking, and 11) journalism" (Scott  159). A well-run theatre program will familiarize students with eight out of those eleven.



Scott, Jacqueline Marie (2012). Overturning “Topsy's” legacy: Black Theatre for Youth and the Black Arts Movement (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

Zipes, Jack (2003). “Political children's theater in the age of globalization.” Theater 33(2), 3-25.  

Willis Richardson: African-American Dramatist

Gray, Christine Rauchfuss . "So now I'm called the father of Black drama": Willis Richardson and the development of African-American drama before 1930. University of Maryland, College Park. Dissertation/thesis # 9539657 

Again, the depth of my ignorance reveals itself. I have never heard of this writer before. This dissertation is interesting for its two appendices: a list of some 350 non-musical plays by African-Americans and a survey of White plays treating Black characters.

Here's the full abstract:

This study explores the contributions Willis Richardson (1889-1977) made to African American drama in the early years of the twentieth century. Richardson is most often known for having written the first play by an African American to appear on Broadway, The Chip Woman's Fortune (1923). This dissertation extends beyond this detail by placing his works in a historical context and considering them in relation to plays by his contemporaries.
Recent revival of "The Chip Woman's Fortune"
Recent revival of "The Chip Woman's Fortune"
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Justify Yourself

What role can accounts of first-person experience play in contemporary theories of performance? Over 500 dissertations written in the last 40 years have employed interviews to reach their conclusions. Over 350 articles have been written addressing first-person experience through various methods and theories, from informal interviews to formal mixed-methods research projects. A comparable variety of approaches has been employed in 70-plus monographs. These inquiries represent a significant body of evidence relating to first person-experience of the production and reception of performance. The varieties of first person-experiences they recount provide a necessary complement to the generic models offered by cognitive theories. These accounts also complement historical-cultural theories of performance: they point to situations and concrete practices in which experiences occurred. They can, therefore, complement cultural-historical theories of performance as well as cognitive ones.

Two conjectures structures this project

One is that some varieties of phenomenology -- particularly sub-fields concerned with skilled practice, habituation, technology, and perception -- can illuminate the practical means and structured social situations of performance, not only first-perceptions and experiences.

The second is that some varieties of pragmatist philosophy of experience -- particularly Wilfrid Sellars' scepticism about the "Myth of the Given," and his insistence that publicly-shared language and activity make first-person experience possible -- provides the conceptual clarity necessary for theorizing about how the work of performance shapes the experiential world of those who produce and who consume it.

New Play Contract: an Idea Whose Time Should Come

Stafford, Richard D. "Play Ownership and the Struggle for Creative Control in Theatrical Productions," Texas Tech University, Ann Arbor, 1991. 

Another perceptive dissertation based on interviews with the aim of addressing important problems.

"Possible solutions to the problem of play ownership conflicts include the development of a New Play Contract between playwrights and directors, more open communications between those involved with play production and a system that might be developed by publishers which could provide directors more information about interpretation limits."