The challenge of developing bespoke methodologies from theoretical origins

So in a recent essay I tried to ‘hand-pick’ methodological principles and processes from existing methodologies such as discourse analysis, conversation analysis, foucauldian discourse and grounded theory. The results were more a useful exploration than successful! My main concern at the moment is to be to be able to select theories, ontologies and methodologies that are theoretically congruent and internally’true’ – in my mind this is where I (and others) can give qualitative research a powerful and reliable platform on which to stand.

My methodological summary for the analysis was thus:

‘The methodologies have been considered alongside a process of immersion and intimacy with the themes of the data and have been generated with these themes in mind..using the frame of a non-critical discursive analysis of themes, having used a grounded theory approach with a post-modern backdrop to recognise content within the texts as it is presented by the forum user(s). The idea of Foucauldian constitutive discourse and some principles of Conversation Analysis are also to be accepted and utilised.’

I am aware how ‘fuzzy’ and indistinct this approach seems! The main problem being that I am a prospective researcher with no formal linguistic background (or technical knowledge in any area other than intellectual rigour).’Critical’  literary disciplines seem to require a working knowledge of linguistics and are either informed by (or a reaction to) the discipline of linguistics – or so it seems to me.

This very prescriptive view of ‘critical’ theory may have been too restrictive and in many ways I have reviewed, critical discourse analysis (CDA) can be employed as an adaptive general approach more in line with a localised ‘critical social theory’ that acknowledges the power and possibilities within discourses between people.

The ‘data’ I wished to apply these ideas to was a particular subject thread within a public online forum.

Conversation analysis (CA) is a linguistic-based analystical tool developed exclusively for language analysis that acknowledges gesture as important in the localised and constitutive nature of comunication. It was not developed for text analysis, more for the in-situ ‘live’ generation of spontaneous language. It also does not agree with the principles of discourse analysis in that the founding principles of CA disregard context (in a linguistic or social sense) as important in the generation of semiotic meaning between individuals. According to CA, my understanding is that meaning is generated ‘ad-hoc’ throughout the course of ‘conversation’ or ‘discourse’ between individuals over time (hours, days, weeks, months, years) and so is useful in the analysis of relationships between people working, operating, living, socialising and interacting within similar environments or contexts.

This is where the ‘context-less’ ideas within CA seem too positivistic/ normative – that there will alway be an extrinsic reason (habitus, vocation, lifestyle, social group) for individuals to be interacting and most likely, influence the subject of and course of conversation (even discounting the dynamics of interaction during the localised discourse). There will always be a context that dictates and influences what is happening in a local discourse – to suggest a possible separation of that discourse from context seems to suggest an ‘experimental’ or ‘scientific’ approach that requires a particularily objective ontology. This does not at all fit a post-modern approach – it is its antithesis.

In retrospect, it does seem foolish, given the contradictions of CA with a Foucauldian discourse analysis which tries to make as little assumption as possible and whose founding principle is that apriory contexts shape everything to the point of it being impossible to be involved in a discourse without being explicitely or implicitely part of the history of use of the language used.

I did however wonder whether this (in some ways) hermetic environment of the forum containing conversation within a specific subject thread could be considered for significant and relevant meanings generated within and about the thread without trying to make links to a wider social discourse i.e. looking at how the users utilise their profiles in interacting, and observing what recognisable themes occure. I thought that this was particularly relevant to CA given the ‘atavistic’ and unknowable nature of the users’ identitity and context outside of that of the text within the thread.

The CA influence is perhaps in the focus of how the existing language with its existing meanings in that moment are being used in the observed discourse – especially in respect to the Foucauldian idea of language as constantly generative, fluid and malleable in its localised meaning and use – even as it cannot be detached entirely from even the faintest whisp of its origins.

Local discourse

The idea of an acknowledgement of a local discourse (i.e. local to and generated within this forum) a Foucauldian/ post-modern approach to language (nothing to be assumed) did not seem to me entirely incongruous with a non-critical, non-contextual, generative stance influenced by CA. A non-critical ethnomethodological stance perhaps denies the exploration of discourse in a wider and socially relevant way, but my epistemological concerns centred on the unwarranted assumptions that I foresaw as multiplying when relating the discourse within the forum to wider social discourse. The forum is also much more of a ‘context-less’ and theoretical space than a CA observation within a work environment.

I again ‘cherry picked’ the idea of grounded theory to generate a methodology and research ‘question’ from the data by approaching the data with only an ontological stance suggested by CA and DA discussed earlier. I again did not embrace the principle of grounded theory wholeheartedly, partly due to a lack of expertise and partly due to the more technical coding aspects (axial/ selective ‘coding’) disagreeing with my post-modern standpoint.


So the idea of an atavistic online interaction between users that is generative and contains themes relevant to how users self-identify and self-script seem very attractive to me. The ideas of performativity and identity online are subject that widen the remit of analysis even more. Maybe a CA influenced approach to analysis of online ‘contained’ discourse is a useful initial approach – a generative approach? I do still find myself attached to principles of non-assumption that seem to me to fit with ‘grounded theory’ also. This is an interesting example of how interacting with peers can help adjust understanding as I feel myself needing, at this stage, a readjustment and clarity that I think I can only get by comparing my ideas to those of people with some specific knowledge and experience in these areas…

Where now?!!

The resulting essay with a ‘contextless’ analysis wasn’t ‘convincing’ enough (according to assessors) with which I agree in this context but I am sure there is something to be said for forum analysis using principles that use CA as a starting point. But the complexity of generating these methodologies in a post-modern way is becoming very apparent to me!

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