Instances or Sequences? Improving the State of the Art of Qualitative Research

David Silverman


Numbers apparently talk. With few numbers, qualitative researchers appear to rely on examples or instances to support their analysis. Hence research reports routinely display data extracts which serve as telling instances of some claimed phenomenon. However, the use of such an evidential base rightly provokes the charge of (possible) anecdotalism, i.e. choosing just those extracts which support your argument. I suggest that this methodological problem is best addressed by returning to those features of our theoretical roots which tend to distinguish what we do from the work of quantitative social scientists. Although SAUSSURE is most cited in linguistics and structural anthropology, he provides a simple rule that applies to us all. In a rebuke to our reli­ance on instances, SAUSSURE tells us "no mean­ing exists in a single item". Everything depends upon how single items (elements) are articulated. One everyday activity in which the social world is articulated is through the construction of se­quences. Just as participants attend to the se­quential placing of interactional "events", so should social scientists. Using examples drawn from focus groups, fieldnotes and audiotapes, I argue that the identification of such sequences rather than the citing of instances should constitute a prime test for the adequacy of any claim about qualitative data.
URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0503301


methodology; ethnography; focus groups; language; conversation analysis

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Copyright (c) 2005 David Silverman

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