Qualitative Approaches to Communication Research Paper

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Chi Omega, Alpha Phi, Delta Zeta, Kappa Alpha Theta, Pi Beta Phi. You probably know that these are names of sororities, even if you aren’t a member of the Greek world.You may have seen the Greek “letters” adorning sweatshirts on campus. But you may have little understanding of their colors, their secret practices, their risqué songs. Do you know about “bump-and-float groups”?

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Researchers of a particular ilk use the terms of the title, qualitative, ethnographic, and performative, to study people and the communication that takes place in various contexts. There are significant areas where the approaches overlap with one another; and there are some differences as well. This research paper uses published studies about sororities to interweave a discussion of the substances of the “qualitative,” “ethnographic,” and “performative” approaches. This is appropriate in that one of the defining characteristics of the three approaches is to draw insights by closely interweaving the researcher’s choice of theories and methods with the phenomena being studied, rather than presenting insights in a removed and distantly abstracted way.

All three of these research approaches embody things that we do every day: participating in relationships, organizations, and the world; making observations while we are engaged in activities, talking with people to find out information; and interpreting what people say and do to make sense of what’s going on. By approaching how we do these activities with more reflexive thought, we may become proficient and more adaptive at what we already do to survive. And all this will, in turn, make our lives more interesting and more meaningful. These approaches, are, as theorist Kenneth Burke says, equipment for living. Furthermore, you—yes, you—probably already enjoy these activities: meeting and talking with new people, learning new things, and being surprised. Sorry to tell you this, but there is a real possibility that you could be having some fun while you are doing research.

“Faking Identity in Clubland” and the Qualitative Approach

There is a long line of young women standing outside Edcel’s Attic, a club in downtown Tempe, Arizona. The researcher recognizes many of the young women from the class he is teaching at Arizona State University. He knows that the young women are members of various sororities and are often the audience for a rock band named Ritual, which is comprised of four young men who are all members of fraternities. Observing the line of women attempting to enter the club, the researcher jots down notes on a pad, at first standing at a distance but later standing much closer, after making friends with the doormen whose job it is to examine the identification cards the women presented—typically a driver’s license—to see if the ID card is real or fake. Sometimes the doormen quiz a woman about the information on the card, hoping to catch her in a lie. Gradually, the researcher understands that when a doorman starts flirting with a woman, this is usually a signal that the doorman will ultimately let the young woman into the club (Scheibel, 1992). However, sometimes a woman gets caught “faking” her identity. In such cases, the ID card will be confiscated, and the woman will be denied entrance into the club. Such occasions are often accompanied by embarrassment, indignation, even outrage.

The researcher followed up the observations and taking field notes by conducting interviews with the doormen and a number of the young women who were in various sororities. The reason behind using a second technique for gathering data is because making observations and taking field notes are generally not sufficient to interpret the multifaceted and nuanced way individuals and groups do the things they do. Each technique has its own strengths and limitations. Consider the following narrative, in which a sorority woman discusses how she communicates with the doorman, as well as the inner conversation she holds with herself:

“You just try to remain calm. You watch your actions a lot, I think. You talk about other subjects . . . You keep talking, that’s what I do. I keep talking. I talk about it [the club] if I’ve been there before. ‘Oh, remember last time we were here.’ Usually in the . . . earshot of the person. I’ve noticed myself doing that . . . You try to remain focused on something other than what’s gonna happen right there. The conversation taking place. You initiate conversation, I think. And you get really nervous. I’m getting nervous right now, just talking about it . . . And you just tell yourself to remain calm. That you’ll get in. It’s not a problem. You’ve been here before. It’s hard. It’s so emotional just trying to go to a bar.” (Transcript 71, Lines 249–284; Scheibel, 1992, p. 168)

We might conclude from the transcript above that the qualitative approach adheres to some “basic assumptions” with which many scholars who use this approach would agree (see Van Maanen, Dabbs, & Faulkner, 1982).

First, the qualitative approach is interested in ordinary, everyday behaviors and communication phenomena, such as how underage sorority women strategically communicate to enter a bar. Most generically, qualitative approaches to the study of communication seek to describe, interpret, and understand what’s going on and how people are doing what they are doing.

Second, qualitative approaches typically conduct research as it occurs in natural settings—such as bars—in which the people are engaged in the activities that are important to the people being studied. The researcher enters the setting to directly observe and even participate in what he or she seeks to understand. Of course, the presence of the researcher may be dependent on negotiating access to the scene. In the setting above, the researcher was able to observe sorority women in a public place; thus, “getting permission” was not a particularly problematic issue. Even here, however, the researcher needed permission to achieve even greater proximity to the scene. Thus, the researcher needed to get along with the doormen in order to observe the communication more closely. However, many places are not open but might be closed. For example, it is unlikely that the researcher—a middle-aged male—would be allowed to observe the sorority women in their cars as they “rehearsed” what they would say before going into the bar. The degree that a researcher is an “observer” or a “participant” may vary tremendously. If you are a 19-year-old member of a sorority and are doing a research project on sorority “rush,” you will be an observer but you will also be very much a participant, experiencing the very things you are researching and trying to understand.

Third, despite the use of specific techniques, it is the human researcher who is guiding this research, and it is through the interaction between the researcher and those the research seeks to understand that the data gathered are cocreated and negotiated. In other words, you are the research instrument.

Fourth, such research is based on inductive analysis, in which the researcher’s identification of patterns is based on the up-close-and-personal observations and the local understandings of individuals engaged in the scene. Thus, the researcher would not assume that what he found out about how sorority women did things in Tempe, Arizona, at a club called Edcel’s Attic would hold true for how women in Los Angeles did things at the Temple Bar. That is, research generalizations would only be tentatively offered.

Fifth, qualitative approaches make use of specific techniques such as participant observation and interviewing. Numerous discussions of the methodological issues inherent in the techniques attest to the complexities of doing such research and the often problematic things a researcher encounters when observing, interacting with, and interviewing people. Here are some considerations, questions, and issues related to the researcher making observations on the scene:

  1. What are field notes? Are there different types? When might each type be used?
  2. What should the researcher be trying to write down?
  3. How are field notes written? How much detail should be written down?
  4. How does the researcher know if the field notes are accurate?
  5. For what duration (hours, days, weeks, months) should the researcher take field notes?
  6. What happens if people observe the researcher taking field notes and get upset?
  7. How is it possible for the researcher to write down conversations?
  8. Is eavesdropping on conversations ethical?
  9. Should the researcher write down his or her emotions to what is observed?
  10. What does the researcher do with the field notes once they have been written?

These sorts of questions—and there are many more—are the types of questions about which a researcher may be concerned. Much has also been written on observation and also on interviewing.

  1. Who should the researcher interview?
  2. What types of interview questions are there?
  3. How long should the interview last?
  4. Should the interviewer take notes during the interview?
  5. How many interviews should be conducted for the research project?
  6. What kinds of information does the researcher want to get in the interview?
  7. How does the researcher know if the interviewee is telling the truth?
  8. What kinds of problems arise during interviews?
  9. What sorts of problems are encountered when transcribing the interview?
  10. What does the researcher do with the finished transcript?

All these questions are important, will concern the researcher, and may even be a source of some initial anxiety. However, such concerns typically fade away rather quickly, particularly when confronted with interesting— even cool—data. It is worth revisiting the piece of interview transcript presented above. The sorority woman elegantly discusses her outer strategies for dealing with the doorman while also pointing out her inner talk to control her nervousness and to present a calm exterior. The content of such data could not be directly observed, but it could be gathered through interviews.

However, there really isn’t much about sororities in the study. In fact, sororities are largely absent. While the study focuses on sorority women, it does not deeply examine the things that go on within sororities. Rather, sororities serve largely as a context for studying the face-to-face behaviors of underage sorority women confronting the doormen while trying to enter the bar. There’s nothing wrong with that; it is important in research to acknowledge the contextual factors that frame the central interest.

A qualitative approach to communication views phenomena as texts, apprehended through qualitative methods and ripe for interpretation. We are able to discover and isolate discrete communicative interactions, which we can study. Embedded in well-established gendered contexts, phenomena such as the construction and performance of alternate identities become problems of interest. Teasing and flirting are strategies for establishing temporary identities that simultaneously reproduce the contexts in which such performances are embedded.

Despite commonalities, there are some differences between the qualitative and ethnographic approaches. One difference is that qualitative approaches often focus on a very small phenomenon in a particular setting, and they often do not even use participant observation. In contrast, ethnographic approaches are often concerned with interpreting the more comprehensive culture of a people, a group, or an organization (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Participant observation is a defining characteristic of the ethnographic approach. The emphasis on culture in the ethnographic approach comes from its disciplinary origins in anthropology. Conversely, the qualitative approach draws strongly from the discipline of sociology. In our discipline, a consistent area for research using the ethnographic approach is found in the area of organizational culture, which examines all sorts of symbolic activity, including rituals, storytelling, metaphors, and all manner of cultural practices (Pacanowsky & O’DonnellTrujillo, 1982).

“Practicing Sorority Rush” and the Ethnographic Approach

Sorority rush—the process by which sororities recruit new members (aka “rushees”) to replace those who have graduated—is arguably the single most important cultural event for sororities. A sorority’s status is largely dependent on how well the sorority recruits potential new members. So important is “rush” considered that officers are appointed and subcommittees are formed to regulate the learning of songs, for decorating rooms, and for escorting the rushees in and out of the parties. And weeks of rush rehearsal are conducted, during which sorority members are trained and retrained on things such as how to talk with rushees.

The researcher and roughly 135 sorority women sat in a large room in the campus. Sorority rush was still a week away, but the researcher was allowed to go “backstage” to observe and collect data at eight “rush rehearsals.” As many as 10 of the sorority women were carrying small audiotape recorders that the researcher had provided, so that the sorority women could record what was being said in different points of the room and also record the conversations they would soon be practicing.

Unlike the previous study, in which access was not very difficult, managing to get access to the backstage of sorority rush took, literally, years. Prior to the time this research project started, the researcher had served as a sorority’s campus advisor for almost 8 years, during which time he had received a number of Greek awards. He had also supervised roughly 200 undergraduate thesis projects dealing with various aspects of sorority life, most often sorority rush. Because the researcher had established some credibility and had developed good relationships, a number of sorority women in leadership positions were more than willing to allow the researcher access to the scene.

Here are some central ideas of the ethnographic approach:

  • It incorporates qualitative research techniques, particularly participant observation and interviewing.
  • It interprets how the meanings of things are socially constructed.
  • It focuses not only on symbolic processes such as storytelling, metaphors, practices, rituals, as well as things such as values, ideology, power, but also on artifacts such as food, art, and dress.
  • It situates research studies within contexts (e.g., historical, economic, political, legal) that are relevant to the research being undertaken.
  • It expands and acknowledges the diversity of conceptual frameworks that might guide studies: interpretive, critical, feminist, postmodern.
  • It provides greater reflexivity on the part of researchers in terms of their own ethical conduct while on the scene.
  • It develops other areas for ethnographic research in addition to interpretive studies of organization and culture.
  • It establishes the recent merging of ethnographic and performative approaches.
  • It helps the growth of autoethnographic approaches that are literary, poetic, and artistic and shows the importance of the narrative “voices” created by researchers.

Rehearsing for the “Bad Rushee”

Sorority members know that during “rush” they will encounter “rushees” who, for any number of reasons, may not be interested in their particular sorority. Perhaps, the rushee has friends in a different sorority. Or the rushee, being aware of the preexisting reputations of the various sororities, wants to be a member of a “higherstatus” sorority. What sororities dislike most is being confronted at rush party by a “bad rushee,” who is rude and disrespects the sorority. But sorority etiquette prohibits sorority members from responding in kind; rather, sorority members must maintain civility, which requires restraint, which is a form of mortification in the sense that the sorority is “punishing [it]self” (Brummett, 1981, p. 258). Thus, sororities develop strategies for addressing such situations.

In the large room, 135 sorority women are gathered to watch a demonstration or “skit” presented by two prominent Alpha Chi Theta sorority leaders, which mockingly depicts an encounter between a sorority member and a bad rushee. The researcher decided to focus on the rehearsing of organizational conversations as an important symbolic process as something of interest. In the skit, the sorority women use “mockery,” a form of not serious impersonation of another person, to address a situation they know that they will confront during sorority rush:

Nicole: Krissy, you start with [being] the [rushee]. She’s [i.e., the rushee] not happy to be at an Alpha Chi Theta party, which does happen, and she says to you—I’ll be the rushee—and, say something. You pick me up.
Krissy: Hi, thanks for coming. Um, so good to see you. What year are you?
Nicole: (sullenly) I’m a freshman.
Krissy: So how did your first semester go? Did you like [our university]?
Nicole: (rolls eyes) Yeah. Whatever. Audience laughs.
Nicole: (impatiently) So, um, how long does this party [go] for?
Krissy: I think this party is 30, 45 minutes.
Nicole: Okay.
Krissy: So, um, did you live in Desmond [a dormitory] or did you get a coed dorm?
Nicole: No. I live in Desmond and it’s a shithole. Audience laughs.

Krissy:  (quickly) Well I live in Doheny so I wouldn’t know anything about that. What’s your major?

Audience laughs. (Tape 21B, Counter 313–326; Scheibel, Gibson, & Anderson, 2002, p. 223)

The reasons the sorority performs the skit is twofold. First, the sorority understands that rush rehearsals should be fun in order to keep the entire sorority in an upbeat and positive frame of mind before they enter the intensity and frenzy of actually conducting rush, during a time when members are pulled between the demands of their courses as students while simultaneously conducting the work of sorority rush. Thus, the mockery of the rushee in the skit is consistent with the sorority’s ideology of fun, in the sense that the bad rushee is portrayed to be much worse than the sorority might expect to encounter. In an interview later, Krissy stated that “we were kind of making fun of a really bad rushee. And we knew that we would never have someone that horrible, but we do have really, obnoxious and annoying [rushees]” (Scheibel et al., 2002, p. 224). Less obviously, the skit is a cultural practice that lets the sorority acknowledge the situation while also allowing the sorority to think that they might be able to overcome the situation. Thus, an ethnographic approach to the sorority’s organizational culture looked at symbolic processes such as rehearsing rush conversations and the use of mockery as ways that create and maintain the sorority’s meanings of rush rehearsals and rushees.

In presenting the transcript of the skit, the researcher allowed you, the reader, to “hear” the two sorority women’s performance of the skit. And you may have felt some small glow of recognition, some sense of warmth that you were able to imagine yourself in the situation, listening in on the private backstage culture of sorority rush rehearsals. And yet, following the transcript of the skit and a bit of interview text, the researcher theoretically dissected the texts. Here is a segment of that dissection:

The “making fun of” is mockery that is also scapegoating, reflecting the various hierarchic divisions between sorority member and rushee. Thus, the guilt over judging those who, if accepted, would be their “sisters,” is put onto the rushee, who, by virtue of being “that horrible,” is deemed unworthy and may be dramatistically denigrated. On two instances, Nicole’s conversation responses (“Whatever” and “shithole”) are outrageously inappropriate, and both are recognized as such and are met with audience laughter. The latter response (“shithole”) is particularly interesting, suggesting a “consubstantial” relationship between the rushee and her residence: the rushee is a “shithole” (Burke, 1969). For Burke, bodily analogies of pollution are necessary for catharsis and redemption; that is, “transcendence is not complete until the fecal motive has in some way been expressed and ‘redeemed’” (Burke, 1969, p. 309). Redemption occurs in the reestablishment of civility, the “still moment following the fusion and release of a symbolinduced catharsis” (Rueckert, 1982, p. 137; Scheibel et al., 2002, p. 224).

The dissection of the skit is part of a somewhat more traditional ethnographic approach, in which the interweaving of “data” with explanations using “theory” is guiding the research, and demonstrates not only the researcher’s interpretive skills but also his or her ability to apply and, it is hoped, generate theory. One of the most important assumptions about research is that it is being done to further the development of theory. One of the unfortunate byproducts of this assumption is that the actual thing being studied is of marginal consequence. There is a sense that it is not sororities that are important but, rather, the theory, and the researcher’s ability to apply and generate more theory, which is the “really” important objective. The sorority could just as well have been an accountant’s office or an ice cream parlor. But the odd thing is that many researchers are as interested in the context as they are in the theory; and it is the real world to which we bring our theories.

An ethnographic approach to communication provides a lens for glimpsing the performance of culture. The production and performance of dramatic “skits” create and maintain cultural meanings and expectations that guide sorority members’ interactions with “rushees.” Organizational phenomena, including rehearsing and mockery, allow organizational members to acknowledge and transcend the social tensions that are understood as potential problems for the sorority. Thus, an ethnographic approach to the study of the performance of culture serves to extend our understanding of organizational maintenance.

The qualitative and ethnographic approaches are both increasingly identified as interpretive. Both are consistently— although not exclusively—identified with a theoretical orientation that believes that reality is a social construction. However, the limitations of the social construction orientation have led many to turn to a performative approach (see also Chapter 17, “Performance and Storytelling,” and Chapter 41, “Gender”). Again, the approaches not only have differences but also have many things in common.

“Sorority Rush as Lust” and the Performative Approach

In both of the studies previously discussed, performance has been a central feature. In the study “Faking Identity in Clubland,” sorority women’s identities were, in fact, performed. The “fake ID” cards were merely “props.” Their friends rehearsed the performance with them backstage before doing their front-stage performances. Likewise, in “Practicing Sorority Rush,” the sorority’s use of a “skit” is a performance of culture that both teaches and enculturates new members to the ways of sorority rush. The performance that scapegoats the “bad rushee” creates and maintains cultural meanings and expectations for behavior during rush.

Clearly, viewing the world as a drama has much in common with viewing culture as performance. Performance theorists have extended the ethnographic approach by shifting the emphasis from the “performance of culture” to “culture as performance” (Conquergood, 1989, p. 82). Moreover, the idea of performance is extended not only to those people or organizations being studied but to the researcher or ethnographer as well. Thus, performance becomes the method as well as the focus. Beyond this, however, ethnographic approaches have grown considerably, moving far beyond the traditional ethnographic models to those embracing the political and aesthetic nature of research (see Conquergood, 1991) while also expanding beyond the kinds of “realist tales” that ethnographers have traditionally told (Van Maanen, 1988); many ethnographers now use types of writing conventions that are typically found in literature and fiction and that could be thought of as being both performative and ethnographic. Thus, an organizational ethnographer such as Bud Goodall can write in the persona of a detective who is on the case, finding clues, and living in the rock ’n’ roll mystery.

The “performative approach” is multifaceted, and research may include the literal oral performance of cultural scripts before an actual audience. Such research also often includes elements of the qualitative and ethnographic approaches. In one sense, however, the performance approach is a critique to the idea that culture is reducible to texts that require the researcher to be there to turn observations into field notes or interviews into transcripts. The sorority women who were competent performers in faking their identities did not require the researcher’s presence before they performed; thus, the performance approach seeks a more equitable balance, in which researchers and the people being studied may be viewed as coproducers.

However, the performative approach does not seek to do away with written texts, such as field notes or interview transcripts. Rather, the performative approach seeks to redefine and expand the nature of what it means to do ethnography. We see this in much ethnographic work on organizational cultural performances, such as the two previously discussed sorority studies.

The critiques of traditional research and their claims of “objectivity” became more problematic, and the “crisis” about how “reality” was represented became a voice with growing insistency within the communication studies discipline. The performative approach acknowledges the subjectivity of the researcher and examines the political and ethical choices of the researcher in the construction of both written and oral performances (Conquergood, 1991). In fact, some research projects in the performative approach might be categorized as “autoethnography,” in the sense that the researcher is a member of the very culture being studied.

Some basic themes of the performative approach are as follows:

  • Moving beyond a conception of the world as a socially constructed text
  • A commitment to collaborative work with those being studied
  • Recognition of critical and emancipatory possibilities in the work
  • The politics of academic publishing
  • The author’s increased reflexivity and positionality within the work
  • Consideration of the ethical implications of all aspects of performative work
  • Greater legitimacy given to autoethnographic performances (even if written)
  • Integration of artistic forms within the work produced, such as photographs and poems (e.g., Picart, 2002)

Consider the following, in which the middle-aged, male researcher has created a narrator voice that belongs to a 20year-old sorority woman:

“A five-star girl, a major hottie named Dani Hunter, walks into a class I’m taking. She is tall and blond, with almond-shaped eyes, and bright even teeth. Her face is flawless, every pore and freckle perfectly placed. She’s wearing an emeraldcolored dress that fits her like the skin on a peach. She moves like a dancer, which we later find out she is. I love her and hate her all in the same moment. Along with the fifty other mortals sitting in the room, I am shocked silent listening to the sound of our collective sighs of resignation. Everyone watches Dani as she snakes through the class, down an aisle, and sits in the second row. I’m watching as girls from Omega Zeta, Delta Phi, Theta Gamma, and the other sororities covet Dani and talk with their eyes. This is fever. This is lust.” (Scheibel & Desmond, 2007, pp. 1–2)

This opening description, acknowledging the physical presence of a woman desired by the sorority, is in keeping with the new ethnography, which legitimates the body as a site of concern for ethnographers. To show lust, rather than tell about it, the sorority narrator waxes poetically about Dani Hunter, who is the object of her desire, discussing her eyes, her hair, her “flawless” face, the tightness of her dress, which “fits her like the skin on a peach,” and how she moves. To the extent that lust prizes the body and physical beauty, describing the sorority woman in such a way is legitimate, particularly if we keep the idea in mind that what is being read—the text—is now possessed by you, the reader, not the researcher (Goodall, 2000, p. 134). And it is certainly more reasonable to have the narrator’s voice being that of a sorority woman, since it is the sorority’s lust that is being shown. Conversely, using the researcher’s middleaged white male voice as that of the narrator only suggests the metaphor of the researcher as organizational voyeur.

And yet old habits are hard to break. Consider the following footnote, which tells about lust in a traditional academic voice, suggesting that the researcher—historically produced from a long line of academic researchers—feels compelled to make his case in a way that is true to his own research roots:

The present Greek world of sororities is not so far removed from the ancient Greek world, where Epicurus linked death and lust. The “blind lust” with which “people pursue an immortality of reputation” is also an attempt to secure a “continued existence” and is an instantiation of the denial of death, which is linked to the fear of death. See Martha A. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994, p. 198). The “death of sororities is real; the sorority’s membership dwindles, and the campus chapter of a sorority ceases to exist.” Conversely, the fear of death in the Greek world is “also mixed with a sure and certain hope, the hope of reincarnation.” See Jane Ellen Harrison, Epilogomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Themis (1962, p. 290). In this sense, each year of rush may be viewed as a reproductive reincarnation in which new members replace those who have left (Scheibel & Desmond, 2007, p. 5).

One might argue that the researcher’s compulsion to cite sources and to incessantly document might also be considered a lust of sorts, for the fear of death in universities stalks not only sororities but also untenured professors. There is a political reality here, expressed in the axiom “publish or perish.” Thus, there is a political dimension to the performative approach. What counts as knowledge, and who makes that decision? Who gets to perform the culture? What types of writing are valued in university Communication departments? What types of writing will get a new professor tenured? These can be life-and-death questions in a new professor’s career (see Conquergood, 1991).

By the time Dani Hunter was invented, the researcher had been researching sororities for almost 15 years, had observed rush backstage for hours at a time, had felt the boredom of the sorority women who were seniors and had been through rush several times, and could feel the anxiety and excitement of the sorority women who were new to “this side of rush.” The backstage boredom of sorority rush had also been experienced by the researcher’s tired body.

The article “Sorority Rush as Lust” was published in the journal Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, a progressive electronic journal open to an array of styles of performative research and specializing in publishing manuscripts that would be difficult, if not impossible, to get published in the more traditional journals. While traditional communication journals periodically choose to publish scholarship that pushes the boundaries, such occurrences are few and far between.

The researcher’s choice to use the “voice” of a sorority woman was based on several considerations. First, the researcher’s knowledge of sororities and sorority rush was comprehensive. Second, the researcher was not portraying sorority rush in a way that sororities would consider negative. Consider the following two texts, the first of which is from the main body of the article and which is using the sorority narrator’s voice:

“During all these parties, we engage the rushees in conversations, and try to get to know them, and also try to get them to know us. Obviously, the conversations we have with the rushees are way superficial. I mean, it’s hard to get to know somebody on the basis of a few short conversations. ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ ‘What’s your major, Dani?’ ‘What year are you?’ ‘Where do you live?’ We’re not talking deep here, but we do get a sense of the girl’s character. Are the rushees just asking questions about drinking and guys? Not a good sign.”

The following text is the corresponding footnote referred to by the “” in the above text:

Sororities often explicitly use these questions—often in a cluster—to characterize the superficiality of conversations between rushees and current members. However, sororities are very concerned about the nature of rush party conversations, and their respective “rush manuals” often include sections listing “conversational do’s and don’t’s” (e.g., “DO listen not only with your ears, but with your eyes, heart and mind” and “DO NOT interrupt, gossip, lie, argue.” (Omega Zeta Rush Manual, 2002, p. 12)

In reading these two texts, you might notice that in the first text, the voice of a first-person narrator’s “character” strives for a candidness so that the reader might accept what “she” is saying, acknowledging the superficial nature of sorority members’ typical conversations with rushees.

The narrator’s use of “we” and “us” attempts to create the impression that the narrator is a woman among other women. The reader might notice that the narrator’s emphasis on the word “way” is an attempt—albeit superficial— to give the narrator a smidgen of linguistic cool. In contrast, the second text—a footnote to the first text— reverts to traditional third-person voice, elaborating on the main text and providing and citing data (a sorority’s rush manual), which is the standard way of supporting claims.

Sororities often explicitly use these questions—often in a cluster—to characterize the superficiality of conversations between rushees and current members. However, sororities are very concerned about the nature of rush party conversations, and their respective “rush manuals” often include sections listing “conversational do’s and don’t’s” (e.g., “DO listen not only with your ears, but with your eyes, heart, and mind” and “DO NOT interrupt, gossip, lie, argue”).

And in the discussion of these two texts, this researcher, that is, me, Dean Scheibel, is acknowledging the choices implicitly made while writing the original article. And it is this sort of thing, this arguably somewhat narcissistic (Taylor & Trujillo, 2001, p. 179) placing of me, me, me within what is being written, as it is being written, reflecting on the rhetorical choices that I’m making, that is one of the variants of the performance approach, and it becomes one of the writing conventions one may find within the newest autoethnographic trends.

The researcher—notice that “the researcher” has reverted to the traditional narrative voice—chose to work with a female coauthor on the manuscript, a young woman who had been instrumental in helping the researcher conduct research on sororities. Beyond the researcher feeling that he “owed” Megan for providing some editorial assistance (an “acknowledgment” in a footnote would have sufficed), the idea that the researcher is performing this research stuff together and with members of the culture suggests a debt of sorts. But even more, the researcher wanted her voice or, more specifically, wanted access to her knowledge of a sorority woman’s voice. As it was noted in the original published manuscript, “In using this voice, I collaborated with a former student, Megan Desmond, who had been a member of a campus sorority; in editing my work, Megan provided a number of phrases, which I used verbatim” (Scheibel & Desmond, 2007). The researcher believed that Megan, as a woman, might be able to provide valuable suggestions and advice in creating a female voice; thus, the researcher and a former sorority member worked together to cocreate a narrating voice.

A performative approach to communication, informed by a heightened process of authorial reflexivity along with political and poetic enactments, allows for a widening of what may be considered scholarship and knowledge. Appropriating a sorority voice for a narrator creates an appreciative immediacy and a connection between author, reader, and “other,” allowing the reader to experience the performance of the sorority in a manner typically not found in traditional scholarship; thus, the reader was able to “lust” and “covet” Dani Hunter through the eyes and voice of a narrator that was not the voice of the authors. However, the performative approach’s use of literary conventions is not widely accepted in the discipline’s “important” journals but is more likely to be found in edited collections (e.g., Banks & Banks, 1998; Bochner & Ellis, 2002). Not surprisingly, the performative approach’s ability to inform scholarship is politically motivated not only to create a friendly context for studying relatively discrete communicative phenomena but also to transform the political allegiances of the communication discipline itself, with a particular interest in widening what is understood as “scholarship.”

In concluding this section on the performative approach, there seems to be some sort of expectation that the researcher acknowledges his or her own positionality with regard to these three approaches: My methods are generally qualitative and sometimes ethnographic. I favor doing analysis of naturally occurring conversations and of texts derived from ethnographic interviews. I often use the dramatistic theories of Erving Goffman and Kenneth Burke, who view reality as drama, so maybe I have at least a big toe in the performative approach. But these acknowledgments are generally about as autoethnographic as I can get.


Qualitative, ethnographic, and performative approaches to communication are interrelated yet distinctive. The three approaches each have their own history, disciplinary origins, values and ways of doing things, revered texts, and practitioners. As a student who may have the opportunity to study something out in the world, the secret is to find a context that interests you—bars, museums, tattoo parlors, surf shops—and jump in and begin. You won’t be able to write about everything, but you’ll probably find something that holds your interest. Then you will find out what works for you and what you enjoy doing. Even more important, however, is that people are researchers, and the methods discussed in this research paper are the same things you do every day of your life: You participate in life; observe things around you; talk with people; and, if you’re lucky, get to write about—and perhaps perform—those things.

Qualitative, ethnographic, and performative approaches to communication, while having areas of convergence, can also be wildly dissimilar. My reading of these three areas narrowed the range among the approaches. A different reading likely would have made the areas of divergence among the approaches more noticeable, say, for example, by discussing a “conversation analysis” study under the heading of the qualitative approach. But even here, the “poetics of conversation” have been noted in speech errors (Hopper, 1992).

So it is worth dwelling on the areas of commonality among the approaches. Although the title of this article, “Qualitative, Ethnographic, and Performative Approaches to Communication” calls the three areas “approaches,” each can legitimately be called a “method” (see Frey, Botan, & Kreps, 2000). And each of the three “approaches” is a method, a manner, of studying communication phenomena; likely, it was in that sense that you interpreted the title when you read it. However, there is another definition of the word approaches, one that I prefer and that better summarizes the similarities among the three approaches. Thus, approaches suggests a drawing closer to or a coming nearer to. And I think it is this idea that the three approaches embody. Each allows us to get closer to and nearer to what we wish to understand: communication. And yet we are always approaching, never fully arriving, which, of course, provides us with humility and a good motive to continue doing what we are doing.


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