Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Participant Observation of Alcoholics Anonymous: Contrasting Roles of the Ethnographer and Ethnomethodologist

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Participant Observation of Alcoholics Anonymous: Contrasting Roles of the Ethnographer and Ethnomethodologist

Article excerpt

This paper is an attempt to explore the possible research stances available to the researcher involved in participant observation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It examines some ethnographic studies of AA, within both naturalistic and symbolic interactionism research paradigms. However, mindful of the constitutive nature of language in social interaction and also wishing to focus on AA as a discoursal process, ethnomethodological approaches are examined, particularly the insights available through Conversational Analysis (CA) and Institutional Interaction. The methods of scrutiny available through these approaches--the emphasis on data and fine-grained detail as well as the context sensitivity available to the acculturated observer--it is argued, make the ethnomethodological approach eminently appropriate in terms of exploring the reflexive relationship between AA discourse and its social organisation.

Key Words: Participant Observation, Alcoholics Anonymous, Ethnography, Ethnomethodology, Conversation Analysis, Institutional Interaction, Insider / Outsider


The purpose or this paper is to explore the positions of the insider and outsider in social research and relate these to ethnographic and ethnomethodological research methods involving participant observation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The paper will focus on method, which though determining what is known is itself determined by a particular way of seeing. It is useful to try to conceptualise and locate possible approaches according to the four paradigms Gubrium and Holstein (1997) refer to as four idioms of qualitative inquiry, namely naturalism, ethnomethodology, postmodernism and emotionalism. This paper will explore the first two of these approaches from the point of view of insider observation of AA. It will look at some existing research and argue that AA, being constituted mainly through discourse, may be effectively approached through ethnomethodology, focusing particularly on the form of Conversation Analysis (CA) known as institutional interaction.

The paper is also an exploration of what Collins' (1991, p. 53) calls a 'personal biography'. She sees 'personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge' for 'outsiders within the academy'.


In exploring the role of inside observer, it is useful to start by examining Naturalism, being the most fully established of the four idioms of qualitative inquiry referred to above. According to Gubrium and Holstein (1997, p. 6), 'naturalism seeks rich descriptions of people and interaction as they exist and unfold in their natural habitats'. Implicit in traditional forms of naturalistic ethnography is the notion of a coming together of two essentially discrete entities; one being the researcher and his/her methodology and the other the participants and their social world. Room (1993) in her studies of AA as a social movement takes a macroscopic perspective on AA as a structured social entity and tries to locate it in the context of history and other social movements in the United States. She looks at its formative influences, membership, impact on society and its organisational structure, remarking 'AA has succeeded in creating an organisation that breaks Michels' "iron law of oligarchy" (1958, p. 171) by building in structures and principles that minimize the professionalization of leadership and keep effective organisational power at the level of egalitarian face-to-face interaction". Using such a wide-angled lens, we are presented with an overview in the context of history and society in general. However, the voices involved in this 'face-to-face interaction'; are not heard nor their emotional world felt. For this, a more ethnographic approach is required. Neither does Room attempt to give insights into the possible constitutive reflexivity of the relationship between the organisational structures and that face-to-face interaction that an ethnomethodological approach may explore. …

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