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© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 16 June, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY An exploration of power relations in conversation. Adapted from Muirhead (2000, pp. 43–44)

In The Awakening, (Chopin 1981) the subject position of women as wives and mothers is part of the dominant ideology and is taken for granted. For an upper- or middle-class woman to work is a threat to her husband's social status and self-esteem. For a woman of Edna's social status to work would imply that her husband is not successful. Thus, Edna's desire to paint is a point of conflict in her marriage to Léonce. Edna is denied freedom of choice and is not allowed to take painting as her main activity, nor does she have access to the type of discourse that would give her kind a position of power against the dominant ideology that defines her social position.

When Edna begins to question her subject position as wife and mother, conflict ensues between Edna and her husband. Both characters, having accepted the dominant ideology, find they are unable to resolve the situation. Part of the problem, at least, is their lack of a discourse to communicate their perceptions of the situation. A discourse for the redefinition of female roles does not exist in the traditional Creole society her husband inhabits. Both characters reiterate their confusion in conversations with others, and the other characters also lack a helpful discourse for clarifying the issues of Edna's repositioning.

An early attempt at repositioning occurs when Edna first becomes disobedient to her husband. Léonce returns home late at night to find Edna outside in the hammock instead of in bed, as he expected. He begins questioning her. ... His requests for information are, more accurately, implied criticisms or directives. He begins by asking, "What are you doing out here, Edna? I thought I should find you in bed," implying that she should be in bed at that hour. He follows with, "Do you know it is past one o'clock? Come on," another more direct question followed by a directive. His question, "What folly is this?" represents a more obvious criticism posed as a question, followed by, "Why don't you come in?". By this time, Léonce has become obviously irritated and is no longer making his commands as politely, but all along he makes his self-asserted authority clear and expects obedience. By resisting his directives, Edna attempts to assert her will and position herself as an autonomous subject.

Toolan's conversational analysis, designed to explicate power struggles within discourse, suggests that Edna's silences in this passage are 'challenging moves', turns intended to block the topic of conversation introduced by her husband. Edna resists Léonce's directives and implied criticisms by not responding to his commands. Then, she denies that it is cold and that there are mosquitoes, challenging his reasons for her to come in. When Léonce overcomes his irritation to some extent, he reinstates politeness and attempts a more intimate approach with his use of the word "dear". He softens his tone from command to request, but this approach is short-lived, for his next turn, after Edna's refusal, includes a direct command: "You must come in the house instantly."


Return to Analysing power relations (Section 6.2.7)