I’m a big beliver in the ways to know something, to really know something, is through observation, talking and reflection. This is as important for my professional practice as it is for my engagements with landscpaes and their people, as it is for my slow travels through landcapes.
There are many concepts, ideas and definitions associated with the practice of this emphasis on qualitative understanding. Some are straightforward, some are complex, all are essential to good qualitative analysis in one way or another, one context or another.
To my mind, ‘thick’ and ‘rich’ form the foundation of applied qualitative research. Thick descriptions of behaviour explain both the behavior and its contexts. It’s this context which moves analyses beyond what are often called ‘thin’ descriptions which tend to focus only on describing something. We move from ‘thin’ to ‘thick’ when we no longer say ‘This is what’s happening’ (description of what can be seen) to saying ‘This is what’s happening and this is why it’s happening’ (description of behaviour and context). Along with the ‘why’ addition to the observation, we also consider analysis based on ‘how’ (how do things happen the way they do) and ‘what implications’ (which is where the thick description is very specifically focused on the needs of the organisations I do the analysis for).
The rich part of thick-rich analysis relates to the context itself. Our actions are influenced by all kinds of contexts – as human beings we are always interacting with other people (for example, peer groups, work groups, family members, friends etc) and with our institutions/structures (for example, education systems and institutions, policies, economies etc). By adding the context to the behaviour, we develop rich detail as to the ways these interactions shape behaviours/beliefs/ideas and also the ways individuals shape institutions, workplaces, policies etc. Good qualitative research provides a richness of understanding that isn’t possible through statistical analysis (no matter how complex the numbers may look). The richness is developed through those ‘why?’, ‘how?’, ‘what implications?’ types of questions.
That move from observation (thin) to analysis (thick-rich) is the point of good qualitative research and understanding. We can observe, and generate thin descriptions, in a variety of ways. For example, we might observe the dynamics at a community meeting, we might see statistics showing a particular trend, we might ‘hear’ that some employees are concerned about something, agency staff on the ground might be told of significant problems with a new approach.
These on their own are important in that they give us indications of something. But they don’t tell us, and they can’t tell us, the ‘why?’, ‘how?’, ‘implications?’ parts of the equation. We have to move our understanding from the thin to the thick-rich for that. And once we get to focus on the thick-rich, we are using highly-developed qualitative research techniques, concepts and theories.
This is one of the main reasons why my professional practice is focussed on developing research solutions which are focused on your needs rather than taking ‘an approach’. Thick-rich analysis is highly contextual – and each context is different, so each approach has to be different.
All the best,