Thick data is a term coined by Tricia Wang, a tech ethnographer, to describe the qualitative, harder-to-measure information about consumers that big data often miss. While big data relies on machine learning to decipher and analyze given data sets, thick data gather ethnographic data that reveals the emotions and contexts of consumers.

Thick data complements big data by providing context and insights into the “why” behind consumer habits. It reveals the depth of meaning and stories behind customers’ experiences and preferences, and it can help organizations understand their customers’ social and cultural contexts.

As we seek to understand intricate human issues like culture, identity, and social dynamics, thick data is becoming increasingly vital. By integrating big data with thick data, we can comprehensively understand the world around us. This blog explores the concept of thick data, how it relates to big data, and how to use the two together.

Exploring Thick Data

Thick data delves into the qualitative aspects of context and emotions related to data. This information is obtained through ethnography, interviews, and observation, further comprehending people’s behaviors and motivations.

Thick data examples span various industries. In healthcare, for instance, patients may offer thick data by sharing their experiences and emotions regarding their treatment. This information enables healthcare providers to enhance their services better and address patients’ needs.

Big data, which emphasizes the quantitative analysis of large datasets, is often compared to thick data. While big data is valuable for identifying patterns and trends, it might overlook the human aspect of a situation. Thick data bridges this gap by supplying the necessary context and emotions.

To understand a situation, utilizing both big and thick data is crucial. Combining these methodologies allows us to gain a holistic view of the world and make well-informed decisions considering the intricacies of human behavior and emotions.

Advantages of Thick Data

Thick data is essential for organizations to make people-centric, informed decisions. Unlike big data, which offers a wide-ranging overview of information, thick data presents in-depth, qualitative data that enables a deeper understanding of human behavior and context. This information can be sourced from various channels, such as ethnographic research, interviews, or surveys, and can assist organizations in discovering hidden insights about their target audience.

Thick data can enhance decision-making in several ways. Firstly, it can aid companies in designing products and services that better cater to their customers’ needs. By grasping customers’ cultural and social context, companies can customize their products and services according to their target audience’s specific demands. Thick data can also help organizations spot new market opportunities they may have missed. By gaining a deeper understanding of their customers, companies can identify market gaps and develop new products and services catering to their customer’s unique needs.

Companies like Claro Partners and Xerox have successfully utilized thick data. Claro Partners has collaborated with clients to shift their focus from data-centric to human-centered. In contrast, Xerox employs ethnographic research alongside analytics to create products and services that align with people’s thought processes about their activities.

Thick Data in Action

Thick data has numerous practical applications across various sectors. For example, thick data can be employed in healthcare to comprehend patients’ behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes toward their health. This information allows healthcare providers to develop more effective treatment plans that consider patients’ unique circumstances.

In social network analysis, thick data can help researchers understand information dissemination on social media platforms. This knowledge can be utilized to pinpoint key influencers and devise effective marketing strategies that resonate with target audiences.

Collaboration between big data and thick data is vital for unlocking the full potential of both methodologies. While big data offers a high-level overview of information, thick data provides an in-depth understanding of context and culture. Merging the two approaches allows organizations to understand their customers better and create superior products and services that fulfill their needs.

Moreover, the role of qualitative researchers in thick data projects is invaluable. These experts possess the skills and knowledge to help organizations delve deeper into their customers’ understanding and create effective strategies considering their target audience’s unique cultural and social context. They can collaborate with business leaders to comprehend the impact and context of changes from a cultural standpoint and determine which alterations are advisable and how to navigate the process. In essence, they are crucial in ensuring organizations maintain a human-centered focus in the era of big data.

The Future of Thick Data

As companies persist in collecting vast amounts of data, the significance of thick data will only grow. Several challenges and opportunities lie ahead for using thick data in the future.

One challenge involves integrating thick data into organizations. There is a need for enhanced training and education on effectively using thick data in tandem with big data. This creates more opportunities for ethnographers and other qualitative researchers to play a critical role in this integration process.

Another challenge is the demand for ethnographers in thick data research. More opportunities exist for ethnographers as suppliers/providers than employees within organizations. Insufficient ethnographers are working inside companies to internalize ethnographic research and explore ways to extend the insights of big and thick data. However, the future of ethnography is promising, as an increasing number of companies recognize the value of human-centered insights.

Numerous opportunities for thick data also lie ahead. The emergence of new technologies, such as the Internet of Things, means that organizations will have access to even more data. This allows ethnographers to partner with companies to decipher this data and offer valuable insights. Additionally, as more companies invest in big data, thick data will be needed to complement these efforts.

Thick Data and Anthropology

Thick data relates to anthropology in several ways, as anthropology is a discipline that focuses on understanding human societies, cultures, and behaviors. Anthropologists often use qualitative research methods, such as participant observation, interviews, and ethnography, to gather rich, contextual information about their study subjects. This qualitative information is essentially what is referred to as thick data.

  1. Ethnographic research: Ethnography is a core method in anthropology that involves immersive, long-term fieldwork to understand the complexities of human behavior, culture, and social structures within a specific context. Thick data is often derived from ethnographic research, providing detailed insights into people’s lived experiences, emotions, and beliefs.
  2. Holistic approach: Anthropology emphasizes a holistic approach to understanding human societies, acknowledging that every aspect of human life is interconnected. Thick data complements this approach by providing the necessary context and understanding of human behavior and experiences that cannot be captured through quantitative data alone.
  3. Cultural sensitivity: Anthropologists strive to understand and interpret human behavior within the cultural context in which it occurs. Thick data helps in this endeavor by providing insights into the cultural and social factors that shape people’s actions, beliefs, and values. Researchers can develop a more nuanced understanding of cultural dynamics by incorporating thick data.
  4. Emphasis on narratives and storytelling: Anthropologists are interested in people’s stories and their meanings. Thick data often includes narratives, stories, and accounts of personal experiences that reveal the complexities of human life, making it an essential aspect of anthropological research.
  5. Human-centered perspective: Anthropology is inherently focused on understanding the human experience from the perspective of the people being studied. Thick data contributes to this human-centered approach by providing in-depth, qualitative insights into people’s lives, emotions, and motivations.


The integration of thick data and big data is essential for organizations seeking a comprehensive understanding of their customers and the world around them. While big data offers valuable quantitative insights, it is important to recognize that thick data fills in the gaps by providing the context, emotions, and human perspectives that numbers alone cannot convey. Anthropology and ethnographic research methods play a crucial role in collecting and analyzing thick data, as they emphasize a human-centered approach to understanding cultures, behaviors, and social dynamics. By combining the strengths of big and thick data, organizations can make better-informed decisions, create more effective products and services, and foster deeper connections with their customers, ultimately leading to more successful outcomes in an increasingly data-driven world.