The performative power of thick description

by evagheysen

bad collage

In critically rethinking the traditional framing of economy, Katherine Gibson follows J.K. Gibson-Graham’s approach of analysis that resists static and dominant theories of economy and instead argues for a “diverse economy”. In opposition to economy as an abstract and autonomous object, diverse economy represents economy as complex, dynamic processes of social and ecological relations and actors.

Gibson propagates the use of thick description and weak theory in order to make the hidden dynamics of economical relations visible. Hence, thick description and weak theory can be seen as ‘tactics’ to construct a particular model of understanding and communication. The quality of these tactics is their perforative power; as Gibson states: “how we represent the world contributes to enacting that world”.

The tactic of thick description, introduced by Gilbert Ryle in the seventies, is a way of describing events or things in an inclusive way, capturing details, context, emotions, relationships, characters et cetera. More than an objective recording, a thick description interprets the circumstances, meanings, intentions, strategies, motivations…that are at play.

In my own design work I am using a similar tactic as a way of investigation that I call extensive description. An extensive description is a very elaborated description that can be executed in words, images, sounds and other media. An extensive description reveals the descriptive extent of a thing by the creation of referential collections. Through extensively describing a subject in an unrestricted, associative flow, referential collections illustrate the referential extent or space that the subject covers or affects, and reversely, the referential elements that affect the understanding of the subject. In that sense, the descriptive extent provides insight in meaning making processes. The descriptive extent has a highly associative character and contains no filter: emotional, cognitive, experiential…references can collide in a referential collection. An important value of the descriptive extent is the fact that it includes properties that are usually dismissed as irrelevant in general definitions.

The performative power of thick description and weak theory lies in their representational character. How the world is described determines how we perceive and experience reality. Representations of reality are always translations of this reality, in most cases even exact copies. But in representation, various translations are possible and parallel models of reality can be generated based on alternative frames of references. This gives the opportunity to present several modes of experiencing the world and to use the frame of reference that is most appropriate for understanding a situation. Gibson uses the performative effect of ethnography for the making of a story, “a framing which allows for a different imaginary in which economic possibility proliferates”. The representations provide new dimensions for perceiving and understanding our surroundings. In my own work I use representation techniques as a conception device to create and recognise parallel versions of reality. In that case, the representation is not just a copy of dominant thought patterns or an affirmation of the status quo, but achieves a performative power and contributes to processes of world-making and differentiation in ways of belonging.

Eva Gheysen