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Using Exemplar Quotes

Besides displaying models, one of the most important methods in text analysis is the presentation of direct quotes from respondents—quotes that lead the reader to understand quickly what it took you months or years to figure out. You choose segments of text—verbatim quotes from respondents—as exemplars of concepts and theories or as exemplars of exceptions to your theories (those superimportant negative cases).

This technique looks easy, but it’s not. You have to choose the exemplars very carefully because your choices constitute your analysis, as far as the reader is concerned, and you have to avoid what Lofland (1971) called the two great sins of qualitative analysis to use the exemplar quote technique effectively.

The first sin, excessive analysis, involves the all-too-familiar practice of jargony writing and the avoidance of plain English to say plain things. If you analyze a batch of data and conclude that something simple is going on, don’t be afraid to say so. There is absolutely nothing of scientific value to be gained from making straightforward things complicated.

Compare these two sentences: (1) ‘‘The more generations that people from various ethnic groups are in the United States, the less likely they are to speak anything but English.’’ (2) ‘‘Over an expanding number of generations, people of ethnic heritage in the United States become, probabilistically, less likely to adhere to their traditional linguistic symbol systems.’’ The best word to describe the second sentence is ‘‘yucky.’’

The second sin consists of avoiding doing any analysis on your own—being so gun- shy of theory and jargon that you simply fill up your papers and books with lengthy quotes from people and offer no analysis at all. Data do not speak for themselves. I’ve been in rooms full of data and never heard a sound. You have to develop your ideas (your analysis) about what’s going on, state those ideas clearly, and illustrate them with selected quotes from your respondents.

Katherine Newman (1986), for example, collected life history material from 30 white, middle-class American women, ages 26-57, who had suffered severe losses of income as a result of divorce. Newman discovered and labeled two groups of women, according to her informants’ own accounts of which period in their lives had the greatest effect on how they viewed the world. Women whose adolescent and early married years were in the 1960s and early 1970s seemed to be very different from ‘‘women of the Depression’’ who were born between 1930 and 1940.

These women had grown up in two very different socioeconomic and political environments; the differences in those environments had a profound effect on the shaping of people’s subjective, interpretive, and symbolic views of the world, and, according to Newman’s analysis, this accounted for differences in how her informants responded to the economic loss of divorce. Newman illustrated her analytic finding with quotes from her informants.

One woman said:

I grew up in the ’30s on a farm in Minnesota, but my family lost the farm during the Depression. Dad became a mechanic for the WPA, after that, but we moved around a lot. I remember that we never had any fresh fruits or vegetables during that whole time.

At school there were soup lines and food handouts. . . . You know, I’ve been there. I’ve seen some hard times and it wasn’t pleasant. Sometimes when I get low on money now,

I get very nervous remembering those times.

By contrast, ‘‘women of the ’60s’’ felt the economic loss of divorce but tended to stress the value of having to be more self-reliant and the importance of friends, education, and personal autonomy over dependence on material things. Newman illustrated this sentiment with quotes like the following:

Money destroyed my marriage. All my husband wanted was to accumulate more real estate. We had no emotional relationship. Everything was bent toward things. Money to me now is this ugly thing.

Newman found differences in the way women in the two age cohorts dealt with kin support after divorce, the way they related to men in general, and a number of other things that emerged as patterns in her data. For each observation of a patterned difference in response to life after divorce, Newman used selected quotes from her informants to make the point.

Here’s another example, from the study I did with Ashton-Vouyoucalos (1976) on Greek labor migrants. Everyone in the population we were studying had spent 5 years or more in West Germany and had returned to Greece to reestablish their lives. We were interested in how these returned migrants felt about the Greece they returned to, compared with the Germany they left.

Before doing a survey, however, we collected life histories from 15 people, selected because of their range of experiences. Those 15 returned migrants were certainly no random sample, but the consistency of their volunteered observations of differences between the two cultures was striking. Once we noticed the pattern emerging, we laid out the data in tabular form, as shown in table 19.4. The survey instrument that we eventually built reflected the concerns of our informants.

In reporting our findings, Ashton-Vouyoucalos and I referred to the summary table and illustrated each component with selected quotes from our informants. The issue of gossip, for example (under ‘‘negative aspects of Greece’’ in table 19.4), was addressed by Despina, a 28-year-old woman from Thrace. Despina was happy to be back in Greece, but she said:

Look, here you have a friend you visit. Sooner or later you’ll wear or do something she doesn’t like. We have this habit of gossiping. She’ll gossip behind your back. Even if it’s your sister. In Germany, they don’t have that, at least. Not about what you wear or what you eat. Nothing like that. That’s what I liked.

By the way, the translation of Despina’s comment has been doctored to make it sound a bit more seamless than it did in the original. I’ve seen thousands of really interesting quotes in ethnographic reports, and common sense says that most of them were fixed up a bit. I don’t see anything wrong with this. In fact, I’m grateful to writers who do it. Unexpurgated speech is terrible to read. It’s full of false starts, run-ons, fragments, pauses, filler syllables (like ‘‘uh’’ and ‘‘y’know’’), and whole sentences whose sole purpose is to give speakers a second or two while they think of what to say next. Of course, if you are doing conversation analysis, you need all the detail. But if you’re doing whole text analysis and you don’t edit that stuff, you’ll bore your readers to death.

We turn next to schema analysis—the discovery of cultural models.

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