Defining Thick Value in a Boost Economy

by cv harquail on November 20, 2012

If there are many and different types of value that can be created, exchanged and maximized, how do these different kinds of value exist together?

Understanding that value is “thick” helps us recognize that diverse types of value exist together and are entwined with each other.

Rather than being created in single strands that can be kept separate, thick value is comprised of several types of value that are created simultaneously. The different types of value are stacked, nested, embedded, and fused with each other into layers that are weighty with meaning.

639643762_8020bb68b6_b.jpgWhat is “thick value”?

“Thick” is a simple way to describe the quality of having multiple, related meanings at the same time.

Polysemous Meaning. If you were a linguist, you’d use the more precise term – “polysemous” -to explain that:

  • These meanings are attached to the same thing,
  • These meanings are connected with each other, and that
  • Understanding one meaning helps you helps you understand something about the other meanings.

Don’t let the fancy word put you off. Recognizing that something is valuable precisely because it has many meanings helps to prevent us from dismissing these other meanings. It also helps us pay attention to the other people or businesses to whom these meanings matter.

Thick Value has more meaning.

The idea that value is thick when something has many meanings is a concept that’s been around since Socrates.

Thick Value in Anthropology

More recently, anthropologist Clifford Geertz described how thick value is created when an object or a behavior has not only functional value or material value but also has symbolic value, emotional value, social value and more. Geertz noted that thick value is created as something is used, as a behavior is executed, or as something is exchanged. Thick value passes between us.

Geertz’s idea of thick value helps us see that any particular item or behavior can carry with it many kinds of value. These many types of value are layered one on top of the other– the functional value on top of the financial value on top of the emotional value on top of the aesthetic value on top of the social value, and so on.

Thick Value in Philosophy

In philosophy, ethicists describe “thick value” as a judgment of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that has more content than an either/or binary (Massin, 2012).

For example, a thin value is something we know to be “bad”, while a thick value is something we know to be “unjust”. We understand more about a situation when we consider its thick value – when we call it “unjust” – than when we consider its thin value, by saying it’s just “bad”.

Similarly, when we know that we “like” something, we understand less about it than when we “admire” it. The word “admire” tells us more than that the object is good. It tells us why it’s good.

Thick value has more “why”.

Thick Value in Capitalism

Blogger/author Umair Haque used the term “thick value”, back in 2009 in blog posts and then later in his book The New Capitalist Manifesto. Haque offers various explanations of the idea of thick value, describing it as being authentic, and sustainable, and not based on someone else losing so that you can gain. Although he uses the term somewhat casually and without connecting it to previous uses, he also emphasizes that  “thick value” means  “more value than we think”.

Constant in Haque’s use of the term is that thick value is meaningful.

More than the immediate, isolated monetary value of a thing to shareholders, managers, the tuned-out market or consumers; thick value is the deep, enduring, human worth of a thing to everyone. (Haque, The Meaning Organization, DesignMind, 2010).

Thick value is “awesome stuff that makes people meaningfully better off”.

Thick Value => Value with many simultaneous meanings

Consider the interactions in the Etsy community.

The exchange of items between an Etsy seller and an Etsy customer is laden with thick value.

  • When people buy and sell things on Etsy, they are exchanging more than just the financial value of the cash and functional usefulness.
  • Sellers and buyers are creating and exchanging aesthetic value, where the item has valuable beauty because both the buyer and the seller see that beauty.
  • They are also creating and exchanging symbolic value. The item being sold and bought represents the seller’s creativity and the buyer’s affirmation of that creativity.
  • And, their exchange has social value because their ‘independence’ from the big business of conventional retail may allow the buyer to support the seller in having a business that allows her to be authentic.

(It turns out that it’s the thick value that drives most Etsy users to sell, buy or both on the Etsy platform.)

All of these values flow together, on top of the same act of exchange, making the value of that exchange not thin but thick.

Thick value has more layers.

Another way to understand thick value is to imagine that each of the different kinds of meaning, emotion, experience, expression, or assistance that an exchange might represent has its own layer. With thick value, these layers are enfolded, one on top of the other, like the phyllo dough in baklava.

Each layer represents a different kind of value that might be exchanged or shared or moved across a network.

Conventionally, we recognize the material and economic layers of value, the goods and money that are exchanged throughout a network.  Thick value reminds us to recognize the symbolic value, the experiential value, the emotional value, and any other type of value that is exchanged at the same time, in the same moment, through our interactions with each other.

Just like we can’t eat baklava one layer at a time, or eat independent layers of phyllo and nuts and try to say that what we’ve eaten was baklava, we can’t exchange one layer of value without exchanging other layers, because value is thick.  This means that despite all our efforts to reduce ‘value’ to price or profit, we can never fully financialize thick value.*

However, when we don’t pay attention to the thick value of an interaction, we can dismiss or even damage the other types of value that are also trying to flow within this interaction.  If we do that, we reduce the quality of the interaction, and diminish the overall value that is shared.

Thick value doesn’t mean indestructible value. 

The Value of Thinking About Thick Value

When we recognize that value is thick, we understand that our behaviors and exchanges convey and create more than one type of value at a time. So, we can consider how to craft our actions and exchanges to maximize more than one strand of value at a time. We can instead work to craft our actions and exchanges, as well as our expectations, to maximize the full breadth of thick value.

Organizations and individuals that build their businesses while boosting others can create boost economies that generate, sustain and maximize  layers of thick value – creating more than just financial success for each member and its partners.


See Also:

5 Ways to Expand How We Think About Value in a Boost Economy
Don’t Tell Esty That Authenticity Is Getting “Old” — The Social Dynamic Between Crafters & Buyers is Timeless
Communities of Commerce: Where the Marketplace is also the Meaning Place
Sharing Success in Etsy’s Community of Commerce
Is there a Business Model behind that Values Statement?

* (It’s not just that we can’t financialize thick value, we don’t want to. But that’s another post.)

Images: of tangled fishing line, from Flickr AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by sevensixfive
Petals like phyllo dough, from Flickr AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by quinn.anya



Jas Bains November 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Thick value reminds us to recognize the symbolic value, the experiential value, the emotional value, and any other type of value that is exchanged at the same time, in the same moment, through our interactions with each other.
Human Resources Services Vancouver

cv harquail December 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Yes, all of those things! Most of the time, they add to each other too.

Au Pairs February 7, 2013 at 3:05 am

In the vast majority of boardrooms I’ve been in this year, decision-makers are asking fundamental questions about profitability. And they’re not the only ones. Here’s an exchange between Stephen L Carter, an eminent law professor, and James Kwak, one of his students — debating the merits of megaprofits. Their exchange mirrors the very first question I’m often asked: when should we strive to profit — and when shouldn’t we? Is profit a “good” thing — or isn’t it?

Paul Carlile May 21, 2013 at 11:14 am


I enjoyed reading this post in November, but even more so now because I have been trying to get people to see what “thinkness” offers us, but also that they are also seeing it themselves in the world and are trying to describe it to me. The line in your post that I “value” the most was toward the end: “that our behaviors and exchanges convey and create more than one type of value at a time.” This is an expression of the many meanings and multiple layers outlined in the rest of your post. We need to recognize and allow for this opening up to occur and resists the narrowing and squeezing of value that happens when our interests are not reflected upon let alone when a large company is trying to get to the next quarterly deadline.

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