Qualitative, Ethnographic, and Performative Approaches to Communication

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Book Chapter

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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”?

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 chapter 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.