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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Conversations Into Texts: A Method for Studying Public Culture


Sociology has long struggled to develop methods adequate to its theoretical understanding of society as a reality sui generis (Durkheim, 1982). While culture is widely understood as the most collective aspect of societies, the methods sociologists use keep pulling us back toward an image of culture as produced by the interaction of individual minds. To try to capture more effectively what is genuinely collective about culture, 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 explore the ways and settings in which participants in conversational interactions use culture, illustrating the methodological advantages of conversational journals with examples from our texts. We end with a discussion of what we have learned about culture in action and the method’s potential in our setting as well as in other places and times.

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