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Poetics (Amst). 2009 Apr;37(2):162-184.

Hearsay Ethnography: Conversational Journals as a Method for Studying Culture in Action.

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Visiting Research Scientist UCLA, Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, California Center for Population Research, Institute for Social Science Research, 4284 Public Policy Building, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1484,


Social scientists have long struggled to develop methods adequate to their theoretical understanding of meaning as collective and dynamic. While culture is widely understood as an emergent property of collectivities, the methods we use keep pulling us back towards interview-situated accounts and an image of culture as located in individual experience. Scholars who seek to access supra-individual semiotic structures by studying public rituals and other collectively-produced texts then have difficulty capturing the dynamic processes through which such meanings are created and changed in situ. To try to capture more effectively the way meaning is produced and re-produced in everyday life, we focus here on conversational interactions-the voices and actions that constitute the relational space among actors. Conversational journals provide us with a method: the analysis of texts produced by cultural insiders who keep journals of who-said-what-to-whom in conversations they overhear or events they participate in during the course of their daily lives. We describe the method, distinguishing it from other approaches and noting its drawbacks. We then illustrate the methodological advantages of conversational journals with examples from our texts. We end with a discussion of the method's potential in our setting as well as in other places and times.

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