In the thick of it: how the anthropological methodology of 'thick description' can offer a new way of making meaning with counselling research

Salma Siddique

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


May 2010: BACP's 16th Annual Research conference was entitled 'Research impacts': London. Methodological Innovation Paper: In the thick of it: how the anthropological methodology of 'thick description' can offer a new way of making meaning with counselling research

Background and Introduction: As a medical anthropologist and a therapist I experience research in terms of bearing witness to the lives of ‘other(s)'. Geertz (1995) argues, "Anthropology is the most fascinating, bizarre, disturbing, and necessary form of witnessing ..." ‘Thick description' Geertz (1973) is one approach that encourages the researcher to journey with the subject/client to explore the lived experience as webs of meaning and ethnography as interpretations of these webs. The researcher is bearing witness to the subject/client's journey through the cultural perceptions of reality through the engendered inequality of difference and the voice of the oppressed within the therapeutic relationship.

Nature of the methodological innovation/critique being proposed: The anthropological methodological approach to fieldwork provides the researcher the opportunity to see the tension between and within the subjects' beliefs and practices and that of the context within which it is experienced Geertz (1984) ie, the process of the content. This differs from the interview-based qualitative method; essentially an analysis of data grouped into categories and evaluation ie, the content of the process. During fieldwork in a respite mental health service, staff were confident about their holistic assessment approach, based on a systemic therapy approach. A number of clients however, had a different perspective. They engaged with the assessment by sharing information creatively to help them negotiate their entry to a contained familiar environment during a psychological crisis. Both subject groups' contradictory explanations appeared to create a successful outcome for all. The ‘thick description' approach allows for contradictions to be witnessed as being held within the webs of meaning.

Conclusion and relevance to counselling and psychotherapy research practice: The experience of collecting qualitative data can never be a disengaged, purely objective process: rather, the transparency of the gaze must be understood as a crucial aspect of research observations, interpretations and political critique of the mental health system. The power dynamic between the observer and the observed is one of the definer and the defined. I would suggest that this anthropological approach encourages a dialogue for the participation of the observed to share their narratives of unstable, shifting and alienating social identities alongsi
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2010
EventBACP's 16th Annual Research conference - London, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 May 201015 May 2010


ConferenceBACP's 16th Annual Research conference
CountryUnited Kingdom


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