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

  • David Silverman King’s College London
Keywords: methodology, ethnography, focus groups, language, conversation analysis


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


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Author Biography

David Silverman, King’s College London
David SILVERMAN is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths' College and Visiting Professor in the Management Department, King's College, University of London. His interests are in qualitative methodology, medical sociology and language. He is the author, co-author or editor of 14 books including: Interpreting Qualitative Data (Second Edition, 2001), Doing Qualitative Research (Second Edition, 2005) and with Clive SEALE, Giampietro GOBO and Jaber GUBRIUM, co-editor of Qualitative Research Practice (2004).
How to Cite
Silverman, D. (2005). Instances or Sequences? Improving the State of the Art of Qualitative Research. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(3).
General Methodological Trends in Qualitative Research