Internal conversations and natural language use / question for qualitative researchers

Much of my thesis centers around the notion of internal conversation. Leaving aside broader theoretical issues (what it is, how it works and why it’s important etc) it also poses an obvious epistemic question: if you’re using interviews then how can you claim to gain knowledge of people’s internal conversations? I’ve never thought this was much of an issue but I have always recognised it as a legitimate question to be asked of any empirical research that operationalizes the concept.

However I find myself, currently knee deep in transcription while also writing my methodology chapter, wondering whether it’s actually a pseudo-problem. In my interviews my participants constantly report, unprompted, on their internal conversations. I’m not comfortable posting data on my blog but here are some examples of the kinds of constructions (i.e. as opposed to the actual internal conversations subjects refer to) I’m talking about:

  • So I’m like “why should I do this if that’s how she’s going to be with me?”
  • I’d do it for a few years, then I’d be “right, I know how this works, I can move onto something else now”
  • And I was like “ah, i see what’s really going on here”

There is obviously much more to the internal conversations of the people than these examples suggest. However I think it’s important to recognise that when you talk at length to person a about topic b, they will frequently report on internal conversation c when it is relevant, exists and they feel comfortable recounting it. This seems quite naturally really: if you are recounting past events to a present interlocutor, it would produce strange truncated accounts if inner speech was categorically expunged from the description as a whole.

Does this ring true of other people’s experience conducting semi-structured interviews? I’m a bit shocked this point hadn’t occurred to me previously and now I’m wondering how far to pursue the line of argument.

I’m also cautious that there’s a risk of reducing actual interview conversations to their empirical recounting in the interview situation. Furthermore, the participants who seem to do what I’ve described above the most are also the most communicative more broadly. For instance they’re the ones who will tend to describe social interactions through recounting both sides of a dialogue (e.g. I was like “X”, then she was like “Y”, then he butted in and was “Z’) which is perhaps why I hadn’t picked up on this earlier. Do those who practice other forms of reflexivity naturally recount internal conversations in external speech? Do they do it more/less? Do they do it differently?

2 thoughts on “Internal conversations and natural language use / question for qualitative researchers”

  1. (I caught your name and research in MA’s Reflexive Imperative and thought to look you up…)

    The question, “how can you claim to gain knowledge of people’s internal conversations?” is spot on. I’ve been preparing for a pilot study, and that question almost instantly confronted me. I’ve felt some relief by attending to informal conversation with others and identifying some comments that indicated similar statements like those you cited.

    Having said that, though, that sense of comfort hasn’t proved a thing. So, in some convo’s with some cog anthro people around Fuller, I’m consistently hearing the advice: attempt to engage the informant/respondent in a way that elicits how they practice reflexivity. All of which makes great sense: except, as you observed, it is the communicative reflexives that routinely give utterance to their internal conversations. So, yes, the semi-structured interview does promote the declarations of internal conversations.

    I don’t think there’s a pseudo-problem here, but I would be surprised if an empirical recounting were possible!!! Meanwhile, I’m looking into other ways with which to elicit reflexive data from the autonomous, meta’s, and fractured. For now, though, I’m won’t be surprised if I end up relying upon interviews.

    All the best,

  2. Hi Mike, thanks for your comment. It’s particularly welcome given I’m actually writing my methodology chapter at present – drop me a line if you fancy a chat at some point, my e-mail is mark AT 🙂

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