Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

6. Conversation and discourse analysis

6.1 Introduction to discourse analysis
6.2 Conversation analysis
6.3 Genre analysis
6.4 Pragmatics
6.5 Discursive psychology
6.6 Interactional sociolinguistics
6.7 Ethnography of communication/speaking

6.7.1 Introduction and aims
6.7.2 Methodology
6.7.3 Concepts
6.7.4 Method for the ethnography of communication Participant observation Interviewing The role of quantitative approaches

6.8 Narrative analysis
6.9 Critical discourse analysis
6.10 Summary and conclusion

6.7 Ethnography of communication/speaking

6.7.1 Introduction and aims

The ethnography of communication aims to do two things. First, it explores communicative behaviour in specific contexts. It describes how communication takes place in a given cultural setting and then attempts to understand how this operates the way it does. It asks how is it possible to communicate, what knowledge do speakers need in order to be competent participants in speech events in a community, and how do people in the community learn to communicate in that setting?

(Note: ethnography of communication is also sometimes referred to as the 'ethnography of speaking'. There is a considerable overlap in these two approaches and the terms are frequently treated as interchangeable. Dell Hymes, a sociologist, is usually credited with initiating the approach to looking in detail at how groups use communication. Gerry Philipsen, a doctoral student of Hymes, developed Hymes' approach to look specifically at speech (the 'ethnography of speaking') and later applied also to silence and use of nonverbal communication, hence the broader name, the 'ethnography of communication'. The term 'linguistic anthropology', mainly North American usage, from which the ethnography of communication derives, also overlaps considerably with the ethnography of communication in its endeavour to contextualise language use in socio-cultural terms.)

To be able to communicate in a setting requires that one learns the linguistic and sociolinguistic rules for communication as well as rules or norms for interaction. In addition, communication is mediated by the cultural rules and knowledge that operate in a given context, which make the content of communicative events understandable.

Ethnography of communication focuses on the speech community. It examines the patterns of communication, the way systems of communicative events are organised and the ways in which these interact with all other cultural systems. In short, ethnography of communication allows researchers to connect linguistic forms with cultural practices.

Context is crucial. As Dell Hymes (undated) stated:

For understanding and predicting behavior, contexts have a cognitive significance that can be summarized in this way. The use of a linguistic form identifies a range of meanings. A context can support a range of meanings. When a form is used in a context, it eliminates the meanings possible to that context other than those that form can signal; the context eliminates from consideration the meanings possible to the form other than those that context can support. The effective meaning depends upon the interaction of the two.

The second aim of ethnography of communication is to try and formulate overarching (or meta-) theories of human communication. In this latter intention, ethnography of communication differs, for example, from conversation analysis, which has no macro or broader ambitions. The ethnography of communication seeks to generalise, viewing the observed event from both the perspective of the participants and from an external comparative perspective supported by cross-cultural knowledge.


6.7.2 Methodology

Not surprisingly, the methodology of ethnography of communication is heavily based around ethnographic principles, principally drawn from anthropology. Ethnographers of communication collect and analyse descriptive data about the ways in which social meaning is conveyed, how speech and other channels of communication are used in diverse communities.

Research in this field has examined different settings including industrial societies (Europe, Asia, North America), nomads and tribal groups (South America and Africa).

(See Section 3 for the general approach to doing ethnography)

Muriel Saville-Troike (2003, p. 4) argued that participant observation is basic for all ethnography, albeit augmented by other data collection procedures 'depending on the focus of investigation and the relation of the investigator to the speech community being studied'. She described the ethnographic process thus:

"Doing ethnography" in another culture involves first and foremost field work, including observing, asking questions, participating in group activities, and testing the validity of one's perceptions against the intuitions of natives. Research design must allow an openness to categories and modes of thought and behavior which may not have been anticipated by the investigator. The ethnographer of communication cannot even presuppose what a speech community other than his own may consider to be "language," or who or what may "speak" it: "language" for the Ojibwa includes thunder; dogs among the Navajo are said to understand Navajo; the Maori regard musical instruments as able to speak; and drums and shells are channels through which supernatural forces are believed to speak to members of the Afro-Cuban Lucumí religious cult. (Saville-Troike, 2003, p. 3)

Saville-Troike went on to suggest that ethnography of communication can also profitably be used to study ones own culture. This though, leads to more complex issues of 'objectivity', because the communicative behaviour is largely an unconscious act.

One of the best means by which to gain understanding of one's own "ways of speaking" is to compare and contrast these ways with others, a process that can reveal that many of the communicative practices assumed to be "natural" or "logical" are in fact as culturally unique and conventional as the language code itself. (Saville-Troike, 2003, p. 3)

Nonetheless, she claims that 'Complete escape from subjectivity is never possible because of our very nature as cultural animals; however, the constraints and guidelines of the methodology are intended to minimize our perceptual and analytical biases' (Saville-Troike, 2003, p. 4).

Scheper-Hughes (2000, p. 132) goes further and says that the question 'of 'losing one's objectivity' in the field is really quite beside the point. Our task requires of us only a highly disciplined subjectivity'. Duranti (1997, p. 8) argued that:

to be an ethnographer of language means to have the instruments to first hear and then listen carefully to what people are saying when they get together. It means to learn to understand what the participants in the interactions we study are up to, what counts as meaningful for them, what they are paying attention to, and for what purposes.


6.7.3 Concepts

To help develop a systematic approach to ethnography of communication, various concepts have been developed, mainly based on the early work of Dell Hymes. The University of Gent (2010) provides an overview of core notions, these include:

  • 'Ways of speaking' a general term based on the idea that communicative conduct within a community entails determinate patterns of speech activity. The communicative competence of persons comprises knowledge with regard to such patterns.
  • 'Fluent speaker' draws attention to differences in ability, as well as the need to describe normative notions of ability. Different communities can be expected to hold differing ideals of speaking for different statuses, roles and situations (e.g., they may be based on memorisation, improvisation or quality of voice).
  • 'Speech community' is a primary concept that postulates the unit of description as a social, rather than a linguistic entity. Rather than start with a 'language', one starts with a social group and then begin to consider the entire organisation of linguistic means within it. A speech community is defined tautologically (but radically!) as a community that shares knowledge of rules for the conduct and interpretation of speech.
  • 'Speech situation' represents activities that are, in some recognisable way, bounded or integral. They may have verbal and non-verbal components. They may enter as contexts into statements of rules of speaking (e.g., as an aspect of setting) but they are not, in themselves, governed by such rules throughout.
  • 'Speech event' is restricted to (an aspects of) activities that are directly governed by rules or norms for the use of speech, with the speech act as the minimal term in the set. For instance, a party (speech situation), a conversation during the party (speech event), a joke within the conversation (speech act).
  • 'Rules of speaking' refers to the observation that shifts in any of the components of speaking may mark the presence of a rule, a structured relation (e.g., from normal tone to whisper, from formal English to slang, correction, praise, embarrassment, withdrawal, evaluative responses). Differences in the hierarchy of components are also an important part of the taxonomy of sociolinguistic systems.
  • 'Functions of speech' may be stated as relationships among components (e.g., in a given period or society, poetic function may require a particular relationship between choice of code, choice of topic and message form).


6.7.4 Method for the ethnography of communication

As noted above, a key aspect of ethnography of communication is that it stresses a careful treatment of context, insisting that it is impossible to separate speech data from the history under which it was obtained. It encourages a participant-oriented rather than a more narrowly text-oriented approach to meaning.

This provides a major point of discontinuity with many European traditions in discourse analysis that tend to isolate and reify textual material as 'objects' for analysis.

The following are suggested stages in undertaking a study in the ethnography of communication.

First, make at least a tentative definition of the speech community to be studied.

Second, explore and make initial attempts to understand the social organisation of the community: identify recurrent communicative events, note their salient components, examine the relationship among components and between the event and other aspects of society. The ultimate criterion for descriptive adequacy is whether someone not acquainted with the speech community might understand how to communicate appropriately in a particular situation.

Third, examine other salient aspects of the culture.

Fourth, formulate possible hypotheses about how these sociocultural phenomena might relate to patterns of communication.

The assumption is that observed behaviour is indicative of a deeper set of rules and codes that enable communication. The ethnographer seeks to discover and explain the appropriate behaviour in a given community or group context; what it is an individual would need to know to be a functioning member of that community.

There is no single way of undertaking an ethnographic study. The intention is to collect information on the patterns of language use within a speech community. The method depends on several things including: the relationship of the ethnographer to the speech community; the type of data being collected; and the situation in which fieldwork is being conducted. The ethnographic approach should collect data on communication in natural settings and ensure that the researcher's biases are circumvented.

Top Participant observation
Saville-Troike (2003, p. 95), although saying that 'Ethnographers should thus command a repertoire of field methods from which to select according to the occasion', firmly prioritises participant observation. This is because, she thinks it 'is likely that only a researcher who shares, or comes to share, the intuitions of the speech community under study will be able to accurately describe the socially shared base which accounts in large part for the dynamics of communicative interaction' (Saville-Troike, 2003, p. 90).

Saville-Troike reckons that the most common method of collecting ethnographic data is participant observation.

The researcher who is a member of the speech community was born into that role, and anthropologists have found it possible to perceive and understand patterned cultural behaviors in another society if they are immersed in the community for a year or more. The key to successful participant-observation is freeing oneself as much as humanly possible from the filter of one's own cultural experience. This requires cultural relativism, knowledge about possible cultural differences, and sensitivity and objectivity in perceiving others.

Saville-Troike refers to the pioneering work of Baroness Malinowski (1922), who revolutionised fieldwork in the 1920s. Prior to this time, anthropologists either used travellers' reports as a basis of their study or visited the subject group in order to observe and take notes, rather than live amongst them. She adds:

One of the most important benefits of participation is being able to test hypotheses about rules for communication, sometimes by breaking them and observing or eliciting reactions. Participation in group activities over a period of time is often necessary for much important information to emerge, and for necessary trusting relationships to develop. The role of the outside ethnographer in a community remains problematic, but if at all possible it should be one which contributes to the welfare of the host group in a way they recognize and desire. Whether this is as teacher or construction worker cannot be determined out of context, but the ethnographer should not be "taking" data without returning something of immediate usefulness to the community.

Potential problems for "outsider" ethnographers include not only what role to assume, but what information to provide about themselves before knowing the meaning of such information in the community. Furthermore, it is very difficult to behave "appropriately" (even when one knows what to do) when one is ill, or when appropriate behaviors violate one's own values and mores. Ethnographers must first of all understand their own culture, and the effects it has on their own behavior, if they are to succeed in participant-observation in another.

It should be clear that for a participant-observation approach, a high level of linguistic as well as cultural competence is a sine qua non for successful fieldwork, particularly if it is to take place within a delimited time frame. The investigator, to be able to enter into various speech events relatively unobtrusively as a participant-observer, and one with whom other participants can feel comfortable, should share as closely as possible the same linguistic background and competence as the members of the community under observation. Nevertheless, some naturalistic experimental variation of conditions or interaction will be desirable in order to evoke or test for the occurrence of different response patterns.

Collecting data in situations in which they themselves are taking part requires ethnographers to include data on their own behaviors in relation to others, and an analysis of their role in the interaction as well as those of others. (Saville-Troike, 2003, pp. 97–98)

Saville-Troike (2003, p. 98) is thus of the view that 'observation without participation is seldom adequate' but concedes that it can be useful in some settings such as in unobtrusive settings such as laboratories with one-way mirrors. Further, if the researcher is only marginally accepted as part of a group meeting, for example, it is preferable if the observer refrains from an active role in the meeting. Similarly, 'Observation from a balcony or porch is usually less disruptive to the patterns of children's interaction when their play is under observation than any attempt at participation' (Saville-Troike, 2003, p. 98). The primary purpose of the research should determine the setting for observation. 'If the focus is on children in an educational situation, for instance, these include most obviously school itself, but also the playground, home, and the social environs most frequented by the child .... It would not be limit observation to the classroom setting without taking into account the larger social context of communication' (Saville-Troike, 2003, p. 99).

Videotaped communicative behaviour is also useful, although Saville-Troike (2003, p. 98) sees it as an 'adjunct to the participant-observation and interview, particularly because of the convenience of replaying for microanalysis, but it is always limited in focus and scope to the camera's perception, and can only be adequately understood in a more holistic context'. (See also Section

Kristine Fitch (undated) summarised and commented on a study by Shoshana Blum-Kulka (1997) as an example of the ethnography of communication (See CASE STUDY Dinner table conversations).

Top Interviewing
Interviewing may augment, and in some cases, may replace participant observation as the date collection process. Saville-Troike (2003, p. 98) argued that although interview settings are often formal and contrived they don't need to be and can be a useful supplement to observation. While generalisations are difficult, Saville-Troike (2003, p. 102) suggested that critical issues include:

(a) Selecting reliable informants. Often the people who make themselves most readily available to an outsider are those who are marginal to the community, and may thus convey inaccurate or incomplete information and interfere with the acceptance of the researcher by other members of the group.

(b) Formulating culturally appropriate questions. This includes knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate to ask about, why, and in what way.

(c) Developing sensitivity to signs of acceptance, discomfort, resentment, or sarcasm. Such sensitivity relates to the first two issues by contributing information on informant reliability and the appropriateness of questions, and on when an interview should be terminated.

(d) Procedures for data transcription, arrangement, and analysis. These will differ to some extent with the kind of information that is being collected and often with the theoretical orientation of the researcher; whenever the interview is conducted in a language not native to the researcher, however, transcription requires skill in using another orthographic system or a phonetic alphabet (even if a tape recorder is in use).

Top The role of quantitative approaches
There is, arguably, a limited support role for quantitative approaches within the ethnography of communication. Saville-Troike (2003, p. 95–6) suggested:

Although an ethnographic approach is quite different from an experimental one, quantitative methods may prove useful (even essential) in some aspects of data collection, especially when variable features of language use are being explored. Quantitative methods are essentially techniques for measuring degree of consistency in behavior, and the amount and nature of variation under different circumstances. The ethnographer may profitably collaborate with the sociologist, psychologist, or sociolinguist interested in quantitative analysis, but if quantitative methods are to be used, they must first be developed and validated by qualitative procedures. Quantitative procedures may in turn serve to determine the reliability of qualitative observation, which is apt to be casual and uncontrolled, and to further test the validity of generalizations which may be made on the basis of a very limited sample.

The criterion for descriptive adequacy which will be kept in mind is that enough information should be provided to enable someone from outside the speech community under investigation to fully understand the event, and to participate appropriately in it.


Next 6.8 Critical Discourse Analysis