talk may be cheap, but meaning is pricey

For those who haven’t yet seen it, there’s a very interesting article by Colin Jerolmack and our own Shamus Khan, along with critiques and rejoinder. The article, “Talk is Cheap,” examines the fact that what people say is not the same as what they do (the problem of “Attitude-Behavior Consistency,” or ABC). They argue that ethnography is therefore the better way to ascertain behavior because ethnographers actually observe behavior itself instead of actors’ often-inaccurate accounts of behavior.  And since sociologists are held to be concerned primarily with social action — an assumption I’ll address below — ethnography (along with, by the way, audit studies such as Quillian and Pager’s) is the better approach.

There is much to like in this article. In particular, I appreciate the affirmative theoretical case for ethnography — the default position in favor of ethnography is a kind of sentimental wholism in which close observation is held to be more transparent than other methods, a position that I think is entirely indefensible. Instead, the theoretical point that behavior deserves observation and that ethnography provides that is really important and I think cements the place of the current generation of theoretically-sophisticated ethnographers in the center of sociology. The engagement between theory and ethnography has been tortured at times, and this is a major step forward in demonstrating the theoretical value of ethnography.

That said, I am concerned with some of the epistemological claims implied by the analysis. Jerolmack and Khan (hereafter, J-K) shift effortlessly between the terms behavior and action, an elision that illustrates one of my concerns. Behavior is not action; going back to Weber:

We shall speak of “action” insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior–be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence. Action is “social” insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course. (Economy and Society 4)

Alexander elaborates:

Free action [for Weber] depends upon a control that is achieved when individual purpose is formed over and against the barriers of both affect and conditions…. This kind of leverage can be provided only by the actor’s reference to an overarching normative order. It is the “constant and intrinsic relation to certain ultimate ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ of life” that allow will and intentionality to come about: “‘Values’ and ‘meanings’…are forged into purposes [Zwecke] and thereby translated into rational-teleological action.” (Theoretical Logic in Sociology, v.3, p. 24)

Action, in other words, is behavior plus meaning (to put my own gloss on it). And the construction of meaning–the core of cultural sociology–is at least as much about talk (or, more broadly, symbolic communication) as it is about behaviors. J-K seem to want good ethnography to handle both at once:

Ethnography can also analyze how unconscious cognitive and behavioral dispositions may shape behavior. Additionally, ethnographers are able to explain how such dispositions arise from the accumulation of situated practices over time…. Through sustained participation in the lives of her subjects, the ethnographer can actually witness and even experience the formation and/or activation of dispositions or schemas.

In other words, ethnography is able not just to ascertain what people do, but why they do it, through sustained attention to their accounts and interactions. But look–those interactions and accounts are, themselves, forms of talk. And they’re specifically-situated forms of talk that privilege certain grammars, certain modalities of meaning-making, over others. To be crude about it: people may not know why they do what they do, and whey they fail to do what they don’t do. And they may even be wrong about these reasons even if they think they know (either due to cognitive failings or to motivated reasoning).

J-K convincingly argue that ethnography is particularly good at examining interactions and relationships, but these are specific relationships and interactions: those that exist in particular space and that can be observed locally. Insisting on the local–“where the action is”–can prevent ascertaining the systemic, because the whole is (or can be) more than the sum of its parts.

That doesn’t mean those accounts are useless. Rather, it means that we need to puncture the rigid separation between talk and behavior. What people say, to whom, and when, is itself social action. Indeed, I’d say it’s among the most important social actions, because symbolic communication, the construction of audience, and the conveyance of representations are the core acts of meaning-making. Talk may be cheap, that is, but meaning is pretty valuable!

Cast in this way, ABC is no longer a failure of conventional sociology (and survey research) but a sociological explanandum of its own. In part this is about nailing down what the B in ABC is; as Steve Vaisey writes in his response:

…the behaviors we really want to know about aren’t happening at the time of the survey but prior to the survey in the messy, phenomenologically and interactionally rich flow of the respondents’ daily lives. As a survey researcher, I might not be “where the action is,” but the respondent was.

So one element of ABC is temporality: we ask respondents whether they have engaged in a particular behavior, generally over a particular time-frame. Or, as in the case of the Quillian and Pager work, we ask whether they would engage in such behavior in the future. In asking these questions–whether in a standardized survey interview or an unstructured interview–what we’re doing is creating a particular social situation and observing the behavior of a subject when placed in that situation. The behavior, in this case, is talk. But taking talk as being purely representational–that is, as either accurate or not–is the wrong way to think about language in action. The decision of how to answer any of these questions requires, at a minimum, the cognitive work of determining the behavior and timeframe of interest (I am reminded of the, possibly apocryphal, story of an adolescent medicine researcher including the question “Are you having sex?” on her survey. “No,” responded the bewildered teen. “I’m here, answering your questions! Does it look like I’m having sex?!”). But it also likely involves the interpretive tasks of evaluating why the interviewer is asking and what kind of person would answer in what way.  Meaning is created and conveyed through the construction of this situation, and latent culture is thereby revealed.

There are two theoretical traditions in which to ground the case I’m trying to make. One of these–the “repertoire” or “toolkit” tradition–is well represented by Karen Cerulo in her response. Essentially: we don’t know the culture people have but don’t use (Swidler) unless we do some kind of active work to get them to reveal that culture. To the extent that schemas are meaningful, they must remain latent, their elements evoked when the situation demands it. So in order to find such elements, we have to actively “ping” them, not just watch as they are evoked by naturally-occurring stimuli.

The other tradition I want to raise is pragmatism. Encapsulated in the description of the ABC problem is, I think, an implicit claim to authenticity: behavior is authentic, where attitude is less so. But adopting a pragmatist position, in which (a) talk is a kind of action; and (b) all action is authentic in the scene in which the actor is placed, encourages us instead to think about interview responses as the actions of actors in situations. And that, in turn, should discourage the rigid division between ethnography and other modes of ascertainment, and between talk and behavior.


Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

5 thoughts on “talk may be cheap, but meaning is pricey”

  1. Good post, Andy. I agree with you that talk is also action, not the same as action action, but meaningful stuff in its own right. And ethnography often reveals important stuff. Absolutely. I can think of lots of instances in which the talk itself really matters.

    Which is not, as you say, to disagree that observation of what people actually do is also important and meaningful.

    My own thoughts, not inconsistent with your but I think a bit different from what you said, is a critique of the idea that ethnographers always understand what they are observing and that ethnography necessarily reveals more about meanings of actions than talking to people. In my observations, people who are members of the observed groups almost always think they have been misunderstood.

    The presupposition that graduate students and PhDs who embed themselves with people unlike themselves can somehow transcend their own class and background to truly understand other people is itself worthy of examination.Under what circumstances would we assume that high school drop outs could do an ethnography of PhD sociology departments and corporate boardrooms and truly understand the meanings the participants in these structures have of their own behavior? In saying this, I presuppose that a high school dropout could do a great critique of a PhD sociology department or a corporate boardroom, and render the taken for granted exotic and problematic. But would this observer truly understand what they were seeing from the point of view of the participants? And, conversely, does our grad student or PhD observer of “other people” truly understand what they are seeing? Wouldn’t asking people their interpretations of what is happening be a helpful contribution to the research?

    Again, yes, the talk itself is an interactional moment. So is the thing being observed by an ethnographer. I value ethnography. But I do get annoyed when ethnographers imagine that they are somehow immune from the laws of research, in which the observer always has an effect and the method is always imperfect. I suppose for their part, ethnographers imagine they are the only ones subject to critique. From my vantage point, everybody seems to be critiquing everybody, and imagining that theirs is the only standpoint under critique.


    1. But olderwoman, PhDs and high school dropouts aren’t just two unordered categories when it comes to understanding social behavior, are they? Not to go all snobby on the education system, but I would hope there is at least some benefit from a graduate education — especially training as an ethnographer — in terms of ability to understand and interpret stuff.

      On a side note, did y’all like the 5/11/2014 NYT Magazine cover story title, “What Timothy Geithner Really Thinks”?


      1. Of course education matters, but it is important to theorize how it matters. Consider two PhDs with comparable education & training, but one grew up in a wealthy suburb and attended only private elite schools, while the other grew up in a poor neighborhood and attended a large public high school and college before getting accepted to graduate school. Let’s assume they were trained by the same mentors and did equally well as students. Would you expect them to generate identical research results in all settings? Why or why not? (Actually, I think this could make for an interesting prelim question.)


      2. Yes, I agree.

        This is interesting: “In my observations, people who are members of the observed groups almost always think they have been misunderstood.”

        I wonder if the same applies to people who fill out Census surveys and they see how the data are analyzed to infer meaning from their actions. I don’t see why not.


      3. “I wonder if the same applies to people who fill out Census surveys and they see how the data are analyzed to infer meaning from their actions. I don’t see why not.” Yes it does, in my view. Pay attention, for example, to the responses by academics to statistical studies of the academy.


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