Intersubjectivity: This week’s lecture moves forward our thinking about qualitative research by looking at some specific case studies and discussing how examples of social media interaction can be understood as a series of regular sub-processes. Our starting point is to remind ourselves of the objective of ethnographic style research, in which, according to Kathy Charmaz we seek to “enter our research participants’ worlds to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions. But we do so as genuine participants ourselves, not as distanced, unbiased observers who dispassionately record the doings of others?” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xii). As Charmaz goes on “to understand what people intend and why they act as they do we must enter into their experience. We must share it” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xiv).
According to Robert Prus “at the heart of the sociological enterprise is the idea that human behaviour is the product of community life; that people’s behaviour cannot be reduced to individual properties. A major task facing sociologists (and social scientists more generally), therefore, revolves around the study of the accomplishment of intersubjectivity; that is, indicating how people become social entities and how they attend to one another and the products of human endeavour in the course of day-to-day life”(Prus, 1996, p. 2).
In examining these day-to-day interactions we should note, according to Prus, that “all constructions of reality, all notions of definition, identifications, and explanations, all matters of education, enterprise, entertainment, interpersonal relations, organisational practices, cultic involvements, collective behaviour, and political struggles of all sorts are rooted in the human accomplishment of intersubjectivity” (Prus, 1996, p. 2). In this pragmatic form of ethnography that Prus champions, then, it is the ‘intersubjective’ meanings, actions and routines that we establish as a community that enables people to work out on what basis they do things. As Prus comments, “the interpretivists observe that the study of human behaviour is the study of human lived experience and that human experience is rooted in people’s meanings, interpretations, activities, and interactions. These notions, they posit are the essential substance of a social science” (Prus, 1996, p. 9). And it is these interpretivists notions that we will use to determine the methodology for data collection and research in our study.
As Robert Prus explains: “Symbolic interaction may be envisioned as the study of the ways in which people make sense of their life-situations and the ways in which they go about their activities, in conjunction with others, on a day-to-day basis. It is very much a ‘down to earth’ approach, which insists upon rigorously grounding its notions of the ways in which human group life is accomplished in the day-to-day practices and experiences of the people whose lives one purports to study” (Prus, 1996, p. 10).
Prus argues that “it is in the course of developing familiarity with the language of a community that people are able to approximate rudimentary understandings of, or perspectives on, human life-worlds. Only once people develop some fundamental conceptualisations of ‘the world’ may they begin to exhibit some sort of reflectivity and meaningful human agency. Only with the acquisition of a language-based set of understandings or perspective are people able to take themselves into account in developing and pursing particular lines of action. As Mead (1934) observes, it is the attainment of language that makes the possession of a ‘self’ possible” (Prus, 1996, p. 11).
We are working, according to Prus “with stocks of knowledge (and conceptual schemes) gleaned through interaction with others, but now applying these in particular or situated contexts, in familiar and in different ways, people formulate thoughts, achieve unique experiences, experience novelty, and pursue creativity. Indeed, given the limitations of their existing (linguistic) stocks of knowledge on a collective basis as well as individual variants within, people’s experiences may well outstrip their abilities to retain and formulate more precise or lasting images of these events” (Prus, 1996, p. 12).
As such, according to Prus “human activity does not simply involve someone invoking behaviour of some sort, but more accurately entails several sub-processes. Most notably, these include: defining the situation at hand, considering and anticipating both particular lines of action and potential outcomes, implementing behaviour, monitoring oneself along the way, assessing situations both in process and in retrospect, and adjusting or modifying one’s behaviour both during immediate events and following earlier episodes” (Prus, 1996, p. 14).
“Human group life is intersubjective…
Human group life is (multi) perspectival…
Human group life is reflective…
Human group life is activity-based…
Human group life is negotiable…
Human group life is relational…
Human group life is processual” (Prus, 1996, pp. 15-17)
Prus points out that “ethnographers generally rely on three sources of data (observation, participant-observation, and interviews) in their attempts to achieve intimate familiarity with the life-worlds of those they study” (Prus, 1996, p. 19). And that “observation encompasses not only those things that one witnesses through one’s visual and audio senses, but also includes any documents, diaries, records, frequency counts, maps, and the like that one may be able to obtain in particular settings” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).
“Participation-observation” accorsing to Prus, “adds an entirely different and vital dimension to the notion of observation. Although the practice of describing and analysing one’s own experiences has often been dismissed as ‘biased’ or ‘subjective’ by those who think that researchers should distance themselves from their subject matters, the participant-observer role allows the researcher to get infinitely closer to the lived experiences of the participants than does straight observation” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).
“Like those doing straight observation,” Prus explains “researchers engaged in participant-observation normally try to remain fairly unobtrusive or nondisruptive in the setting being studied. However, participant-observation entails a more active (and interactive) and ambiguous role as researchers attempt to fit into the (dynamics) settings at hand. Insofar as more sustained participant-observation typically allows researchers to experience on a first-hand basis many aspects of the life-worlds of the other, it offers a rather unique and instructive form of data to those able and willing to assume the role of the other in a more comprehensive sense” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).
As such “interviews represent the third major method of gathering ethnographic data, and under some circumstances may provide the primary source of data for field researchers. By inquiring extensively into the experiences of others, interviews may learn a great deal about the life worlds of the other” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).
In our lab activity this week we will use Nvivo to analyse a set of articles that contain forums and discussion boards in which readers relate their thoughts about the articles that are published.
In analysing the interactions that are being made in these discussions we can work out what regular sets of processes are being followed. The generic social process and sub-processes of routine interaction. As Prus argues, as researchers we should attune ourselves to the processes that people follow, and not just the “significant key elements of people’s involvements in situations,” for these process also define the essence of community life.” According to Prus, “these processes are interdependent and need to be viewed holistically if we are to develop a fuller appreciation of each. Nevertheless, each process encompasses several (sub)processes within, and on these levels each is amenable to empirical inquiry” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).
So, as researchers we are attuning ourselves to the way that people, agents acting in the following:
- Achieving Identity
- Being Involved
Sustaining and intensifying involvements
- Doing Activity
- Experiencing Relationships
- Forming and Coordinating Relationships
Encountering outsiders” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).
The way that people make sense of their interactions is a process of external interactions and the reflections that go into building a persons sense of identity. According to Rober Prus, this “’Identity work’ is contingent on people’s capacity for ‘self-reflectivity;’ it requires that one begin to take oneself into account in developing lines of action or that one became ‘an object unto oneself.’ Reflecting the perspectives one has on the world, people’s identities or self-other definitions are not only situated within those realities, but also are influenced by the ongoing shifts in perspectives that people normally undergo over time and across situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 152).
Identity work is series of processes in which people define their role and their position within community life through a set of generic social proceses. Therefore we are attuned to consider how people make sense of the interactions when:
- “Encountering perspectives (definitions of reality) from others
- Assessing (new, incoming) perspectives and resisting unwanted viewpoints
- Developing images of objects (including images of other people and oneself)
- Learning (cultural patterns of objects (e.g. rules of thumb, norms, fashion)
- Defining situations (i.e., applying perspectives to the ‘cases at hand’)
- Dealing with ambiguity (lapses and limitations in existing explanations)
- Resolving contradictions (dilemmas within and across paradigms)
- Extending or improvising on existing perspectives
- Promoting (and defending) perspectives to others
- Rejecting formerly held viewpoints
- Adopting new viewpoints (Prus, 1996, p. 152).
“Like other (symbolic) interactions, emotional interchanges may be viewed best in process terms” (Prus, 1996, p. 179).
As Prus describes, “the focus is on people (a) developing generalised images and understandings of emotional states as these are viewed in the community at large, (b) learning cultural recipes or ‘rules of thumb’ (how to tell when) to define situations as emotional ones, and (c) applying those cultural understandings and recipes to specific ‘cases at hand’. This in no way denies the abilities of others to offer, suggest, or attempt to impose their understandings, rules of thumb, or definitions of the situation on the focal actor, but draws attention to the points at which people define themselves as being in emotional states or situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 177).
Therefore, according to Prus, “’human interaction is a positive shaping process in its own right. The participants have to build up their respective lines of conduct by constant interpretation of each other’s ongoing lines of action… Factors of psychological equipment and social organisation are not substitutes for the interpretive process; they are admissible only in terms of how they are handled in the interpretive process’ (Blumer 1966: 538)” (Prus, 1996, p. 69).
Prus quotes Blumer when he argues that “’the essence of society lies in an ongoing process of action – not in the posited structure of relations. Without action, any structure of relations between people is meaningless. To understand, a society must be seen and grasped in terms of the action that comprises it’ (Blumer 1966: 541)” (Prus, 1996, p. 70). And so, therefore, “Given the complex, ambiguous and emergent nature of human relations, there is no definitive set of instructions that can provide to insure success in the field” (Prus, 1996, p. 192). Being attuned to the many possibilities of action, interaction and meaningful interplay is a priority for the researcher, putting aside our own prejudices and onions so that we can engage as fully as we might in the social processes we are attempting to observe.
Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York: State University of New York Press.