Analysing Everyday Explanation: A Casebook of Methods

Charles Antaki

The conventional categories and classifications of disciplinary social inquiry are creaking under the weight of outworn distinctions. The book at hand exemplifies such difficulties. It is subtitled as a "casebook of methods" even though it is certainly not a book about methodology in any conventional sense; its authors are located variously in departments of psychology, social science, communications, philosophy, sociology, and education; and its unifying theme is the diversity of approaches to "explanations" in everyday life. What is most useful about the collection as a whole is that it brings together examples of work influenced by otherwise separated disciplinary approaches: cognitive social psychology, ethnomethodology and social phenomenology, sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, deconstruction theory, and ideology critique. Whether one prefers to label these convergent themes interpretive social psychology or the social psychology of communicative interaction is not of great importance: the issues involved here will necessarily embrace several disciplines.

The editor has been active in Britain over the past decade (as reflected in several books and collections) as a psychologist trained in the tradition of attribution theory. What is instinctive about the present volume is that it seeks to embrace the range of contemporary research in Britain and North America which attempts to address "common sense" explanations, using theories and techniques which go beyond the tradition of attribution theory which has been concerned especially with common sense attributions of causality, but also descriptions of labelling, moral responsibility, and self-presentations. The introductory discussion of explanations by Antaki develops a distinction between two traditions of research: conventional, largely experimental attribution theory oriented toward individual social cognition, as opposed to research on publicly exchanged explanation associated with largely qualitative interpretive work--as evident in the pragmatics of communication, ethnomethodology, discourse analysis and symbolic interactionism--which is the specific focus of this anthology. A crucial aspect of this redefinition of the domain of everyday explanation is thus a very broad definition of the topic, which, in the case of Stephen Draper's chapter, is indebted to certain strains of artificial intelligence research attempting to come to terms with the interactional dimensions of information processing.

The task of the "casebook of methods" is to introduce a variety of approaches which appear to fall into three main categories (though the papers are grouped in a slightly different way): non-experimental extensions of social cognition and attribution research; studies of accounts indebted to ethnomethodology and conversation analysis; and discourse oriented narrative theory concerned with rhetoric and ideology. Each chapter effectively integrates a theoretical discussion, empirical examples and a concluding discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the approach used.

Chapters dealing with non-experimental attribution research include the work of John H. Harvey et al. on the use of oral and written communications for the analysis of "free response" or "unstructured attributions." Peter Tetlock and Peter Suedfeld, psychologists at UBC, apply integrative complexity theory to archival materials in a provocative way which goes far beyond content analysis, illustrating their argument with research on historical materials based on the cognitive strategies of different types of revolutionary leadership. Antaki develops a cogent argument for countering the reductionism of traditional attribution theory by interpreting individual explanations as "coherent wholes." Finally, James Voss makes ingenious use of Stephen Toulmin's theory of argumentation as the basis for the analysis of problem solving strategies and reasoning in "ill-structured domains." Taken as a whole, these essays demonstrate the ferment in non-experimental attribution research and should be of interest to a wide range of researchers outside of psychology.

The second type of essay illustrates the range of rather familiar strategies (at least within sociology) associated with ethnomethodology and conversation analysis: Michael Cody and Margaret McLaughlin present research on oral arguments in traffic courts; John Heritage reiterates his approach to "explanations as accounts"; and Rom Harré discusses the role of pronouns in accounts. Only the paper by Ivan Leudar and Antaki introduces some novel (if brief and cryptic) issues by attempting to use G. H. Mead's notion of "completion" in dialogue as the basis for studying the formal, dynamic aspects of conversations.

The third group of papers will likely prove of most widespread interest to students of sociology and communications. Mary Gergen introduces recent work on the use of narrative structures to analyze social explanation. Margaret Wetherell and Jonathan Potter draw upon the strategy of discourse analysis developed by Gilbert and Mulkay's research on "interpretative repertoires" in scientific discourse to analyze the construction of race relations in New Zealand. Ian Parker, on the other hand, attempts to appropriate critically (he is acutely aware of some of the political deficiencies of the method) aspects of literary deconstructionism to get beyond some of the pitfalls of structuralist and hermeneutic approaches, especially their treatment of power. Finally, Michael Billig introduces an aspect of his wide-ranging research on ideology by suggesting the continuing importance of "the traditional skills of scholarship" in the study of ideology, a point neglected especially with the rise of content analysis.

The strength of this collection is that it points to areas of complementarity and overlap between otherwise separated approaches, effectively breaches the theory/methods gap which has otherwise plagued much work on discourse theory in particular; and it provides an accessible handbook of suggestions for innovative research strategies, most of which can be brought to bear upon theoretical questions of broader social and political significance--as against the trivialization of research problems which seems to characterize much mainstream discourse analysis associated with linguistics and conversation analysis.



  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

SSHRC LOGO