25 Ingredients to “Thicken” Description & Enrich Transparency in Ethnography

Transparency plays a pivotal role in the final product of any research study. It is by revealing the study’s intricacies and details in the final document that the ultimate consumers of the research gain the understanding they need to (a) fully comprehend chocolatethe people, phenomena, and context under investigation; (b) assign value to the interpretations and recommendations; and/or (c) transfer some aspect of the study to other contexts. Transparency, and its importance to the research process, has been discussed often in this blog, with articles in November 2009 and December 2012 devoted to the topic.

At the core of transparency is the notion of “thick description.” The use of the term here goes beyond its traditional meaning of

“describing and interpreting observed social action (or behavior) within its particular context…[along with] the thoughts and feelings of participants as well as the often complex web of relationships among them. Thick meaning of findings leads readers to a sense of verisimilitude, wherein they can cognitively and emotively ‘place’ themselves within the research context” (Ponterotto, 2006, p. 543).

to also include detailed information pertaining to data collection and analysis. Ethnography, for example, is greatly enriched (“thickened”) by the reporting of specifics in 25 areas related to the:
1. Research objectives, hypotheses, constructs, and an explanation as to why ethnography was the best approach.
2. Target population.
3. Sampling, e.g., determining sample size and participant/site selection.
4. Individuals or groups that were observed and their representativeness of the target population.
5. Rationale for opting for a nonparticipant or participant observer role and the mode.
6. Rationale for the choice of overt or covert observation.
7. Observation sites.
8. Rationale for the number of scheduled observations.
9. Status of scheduled observations, e.g., how many and which of those scheduled were actually completed.
10. Ethical considerations.
11. Other methods (such as in-depth interviews) that were used to augment the observations.
12. Decisions that were made in the field that had the effect of altering the research objectives and/or aspects of the research design.
13. Observer training that took place to mitigate observer effects.
14. Role of gatekeepers and key informants.
15. Observers’ reflexive journals.
16. Unanticipated events that took place during the observations, e.g., the revelation of a covert observer’s identity.
17. Use of extended or expanded observations for verification purposes.
18. Verification efforts beyond expanded observations.
19. Operational logistics, e.g., recordings, mapping.
20. Transcription processes.
21. Coding procedures.
22. Thematic and pattern-building analytical processes.
23. Specific observed events and related evidence that exemplify the final interpretations of the data.
24. Particular steps that were taken for an online ethnography.
25. Members of the research team.

Ponterotto, J. G. (2006). Brief note on the origins, evolution, and meaning of the qualitative research concept “thick description.” The Qualitative Report, 11(3), 538–549.

Image captured from: http://pragyabhagat.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html


  1. I’m sorry to say this, but these 25 items don’t really provide much in the way of extraordinary thickening of ethnographic descriptions. They’re just the plain basics of ethnography. Reflexive journals are a step in the right direction toward thickening, but there needs to be much more qualitative description of subjectivities from multiple directions to make it really thick.


    1. I couldn’t agree more in the need to describe in detail the “subjectivities from multiple directions.” Indeed, I think the list is encouraging just that. While some items amount to mere reporting, others are implicitly asking the researcher to divulge the clearly subjective decisions and perspectives that are woven into the final outcome. Maybe the idea that this is an attempt to look at subjectivity and from multiple angles should be more explicit. Thanks for the comment.


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