Why linguistic ethnography?

One of the appeals of the linguistic ethnographic approach is its scope for embracing the complexity of social life - specifically to explore the interface between the detailed nuance of evolving social interaction and the broader institutional and socio-political context within which interactions are situated. These are analytic lenses which are often kept distinct and it is not difficult to see why this is the case. For the researcher it is a considerable challenge to take on the paradox that Erickson so eloquently describes as two parallel assertions in his book Talk and Social Theory:

  • 1. The conduct of talk in local social interaction as it occurs in real time is unique, crafted by local social actors for the specific situation of its use in the moment of its uttering, and
  • 2. The conduct of talk in local social interaction is profoundly influenced by processes that occur beyond the temporal and spatial horizon of the immediate occasion of interaction.
  • (Erickson 2004: viii)

As I embarked on my study of the EPR I sought an approach which would allow me to explore its influence on the personal work of providing clinical care in the consultation, but which was also sensitive to the wider institutional picture which was beginning to unsettle me. A core assumption of linguistic ethnography is this profound interlinking of persons, encounters and institutions, the onus being on the researcher to explore the nature and dynamics of these linkages (Rampton 2007). In principle this is an attractive proposition, but for the novice it is also a daunting prospect, since linguistic ethnography does not encompass any specific, clearly defined method, but a number of 'sensitising concepts' (Blumer 1969). Unlike definitive concepts which 'provide prescriptions of what to see’, sensitising concepts 'merely suggest directions along which to look (Blumer 1969: 148). In addition it involves gathering, and analysing different types of data, which is challenging.

In the absence of any pre-existing linguistic ethnographic work on the EPR, I built my own approach to the data from the 'bottom up' through repeated viewing of videos and a combination of fine-grained micro-analysis of interactions with broader analysis of ethnographic fieldnotes, as well as maintaining an appreciation of wider institutional and political priorities. By a deliberate process of 'slowing down' the analysis and consciously 'keeping open' possibilities I came to see (and see again - in repeated rounds of analysis) different ways of conceptualising the EPR. I drew eclectically on a range of analytic concepts to help me explore the data. In particular I built on the works of social theorist Erving Goffman (Goffman 1959; Goffman 1966; Goffman 1967; Goffman 1981; Goffman 1983) and linguistic philosopher Mikhael Bakhtin (Bakhtin 1981; Bakhtin 1986), the former offering particularly useful concepts for understanding where the EPR fits with the 'here and now' of the interaction, the latter helping me to deal more satisfactorily with the 'distributed' nature of the EPR and its role in bringing voices from 'out there' into the interaction.

 
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