PROCESSES OF MEANING MAKING

DVORA YANOW

Neither phenomenology nor hermeneutics engages methods directly (although qualitative meth- ods journal articles and textbooks are starting to discuss “phenomenological research design” and “hermeneutic research methods”). As social philosophies, their concerns were (and continue to be) directly with ontological and epistemological matters. But the orientations of both, and espe- cially their ontological and epistemological questions and positions, undergird the “logics” of interpretive methods (and, one might even say, their ethical concerns as well). That is, a method that focuses on lived experience—such as participant-observation, ethnography, interviewing with that focus, and so on—is phenomenologically inflected; and a method that treats texts and text analogues is hermeneutic in its sense. What these share in common is an orientation to questions of meaning. Although these methods did not develop in any linear, causal sense out of these philoso- phies, the latter provide grounding—in the form of a clarifying epistemological foundation—for some of the central methodological elements characterizing interpretive research methods.

Issues in the Artifact-Meaning Relationship

Although twentieth-century hermeneutic scholars did not explicitly treat it as such, the relation- ship between meanings and artifacts is a representational, or symbolic, one: Artifacts come to stand in for, to represent, their embedded meanings. The point is clearest in Goffman’s (e.g., 1959, 1974) and Mead’s (1934) writings and in the notion of a study of “symbolic interaction,” developed in their work.

The representational character of this relationship is at the heart of studies of and arguments concerning language: Are words “transparent” in their meaning, that is, do they equate to what they signify—does the word-meaning reside in the object—or is meaning more a matter of con- sensus? Foucault (1970, chapter 2), although not customarily grouped with interpretive philoso- phers, is helpful here. He locates the shift away from seeing words as the mirrors of their signifiers in the passage from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth: “in the sixteenth century, one asked oneself how it was possible to know that a sign did in fact designate what it signified; from the seventeenth century, one began to ask how a sign could be linked to what it signified” (42–43). This is a significant shift, from the analysis of equivalence to the analysis of meaning. The meth- odological importance lies in the shift in understanding of what it means to interpret symbolic referents. Is one “divining” the preestablished meaning of a sign, much as Joseph interpreted the meaning of the cupbearer’s, baker’s, and Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 40–41) or as a palm-reader divines the lines on a hand? This would indicate that meanings reside in the objects denoted by signs, that meanings are out there waiting to be “discovered”—hence, the methodological lan- guage of “findings.” Or are things signified to be understood as (in contemporary language) “constructed” meanings? Foucault drew the distinction in this way:

Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the signs speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs, to define what constitutes them as signs, and to know how and by what laws they are linked, semiology; the sixteenth century super- imposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude. (1970, 29)

The hermeneutic symbolic relationship is a dynamic one: each referent to or use of or engage- ment with an artifact is an opportunity to maintain and reinforce, or revise and change, its underlying meaning (Yanow 1996, 2000). Arguing that meanings cannot be apperceived or accessed directly, but only through interpreting their artifactual representations, leads to the basic methods of accessing sources of data used in interpretive analyses: observing (with whatever degree of participation), a conversational mode of interviewing, and the close reading of documents. These engage the concrete specificities of acts, language, and/or objects—artifacts embodying and ex- pressing the more abstract value, belief, and affective meanings.

For example, casual talk in common everyday encounters rarely explores meanings explicitly. One might strike up a conversation with someone in the grocery store and infer what she values or believes or what is meaningful to him from the words spoken, the tone of voice, and other ele- ments of nonverbal communication, including dress, bearing, gestures, and facial expressions. The point holds for corporate entities as well: Organizations’ or governments’ beliefs or values are seen as conveyed not only in their written policy statements but also in their nonverbal communication, such as their acts or the acts of their agents (see Lipsky [1980] on street-level bureaucrats being perceived as representing agency policy), or in the programs and spaces designed and/or used for implementing policies (see, e.g., Stein 2004, Yanow 1996). In this vein, Hopf (2002) built an argument about Soviet and post-Soviet identity, at two moments in time, through what might be called a hermeneutic reading of newspapers, popular magazines, high school textbooks, and the like, as well as official state documents. He treated these arti- facts as the embodiments of contemporaneous, collective identity elements, reading them as expressive of those collective meanings.

Individuals and collective entities also use language, whether written or spoken, to communi- cate meaning. When word and deed conflict, we tend to trust the deed as the more “accurate” reflection of what the actor actually means.32 Asked directly to explain their acts and/or beliefs, research-relevant publics are likely to report what they think the researcher wants to hear, or what they believe is socially acceptable, or simply what they think they believe or value. Governmental or organizational statements, likewise, may express an ideal or desired state of affairs, rather than the experienced values of enacted policies-on-the-ground. The tension between desired states and experienced ones reflects what Argyris and Schon (1974) called “espoused values,” as distinct from “theories-in-use” manifested in acts or interactions, a distinction echoed by parents admon- ishing their children to “Do as I say, not as I do.” In this sense, spatial design and other physical artifacts are a form of deed: a nonverbal enactment of underlying values, beliefs, and/or sentiments (the first presupposition).

Researchers seeking to understand human meaning can have direct observational access to artifacts—to what people and organizations do. (I mean this as a statement about capability, not permission.) Meanings cannot be observed directly. We infer meaning(s) from their manifesta- tions in or expressions through the more directly observable, more tangible artifacts that embody them. Analysis proceeds through a constant tacking back and forth in ongoing comparison be- tween the nonverbal data of objects and acts observed and “read” and actors’ explicit pronouncements, whether in formal or informal speech or in writing.

This process points to one of the strengths of interpretive research: its utility for studying situations in which the meanings of words and deeds are not or are not likely to be congruent. Such interpretations are customarily treated as provisional, subject to corroboration, or refuta- tion, through further observation and/or conversational interviewing. This is a common use of interviews—for clarifying, corroborating, and/or refuting the researcher’s provisional meaning making derived from observation, reading, and/or other conversations, with the same or with other conversants. Because of the word-deed tension, efforts are made to ground such interview- ing in the details of lived experience (see Schaffer, chapter 7, this volume).

Interpretive Moments

Related to this is the question of making interpretations: who does it, and when? Interpretive researchers argue that the meaning they are after is that made by members of the situation; and so one would privilege those members’ meaning making over the researcher’s. Extreme versions of phenomenology (so judged by many, if not most, empirical researchers, as they border on solipsism; see Burrell and Morgan 1979, 238–40) argue that it is impossible to understand another’s meaning without reliving it. This position has been rejected by most in favor of the notion that we live in an intersubjective world in which empathetic understanding of another’s meaning is possible. This latter idea is what undergirds ethnographic and participant- observer analyses in particular (and even more so analyses of built space, as noted in chapter 20, this volume): that the researcher draws on a basic commonality of human experience and processes of understanding, and that through learning the language of the setting and its cus- toms, the researcher can acquire sufficient familiarity as to be able to understand events that transpire, while at the same time drawing on sufficient “stranger-ness” to make the accepted, unspoken, tacitly known, commonsensical, taken-for-granted, local “rules” of action and inter- action stand out as, in some way, different, thereby opening them up for reflection and examination. This means that researchers are drawing on themselves—their Selves—in significant ways.

One can delineate four interpretive moments over the course of a research project.Assume that we are interested in understanding an event. With a contemporaneous event, initial interpre- tations are made by persons actually present and observing it, even, perhaps, actively participat- ing in it. This could as well be the researcher, acting as participant-observer, as a member of the community-society-polity-organization under study. In an initial experiential interpretation, the researcher casts herself, implicitly, in an “as if” role—as if she is standing in for the situational member, drawing on their shared humanity as a point of reference, while also drawing on her own stranger-ness, which enables her to see and make explicit what for others is common sense. As noted above, she will want to corroborate, refute, or revise that initial, provisional sense making through conversations (interviews) with situational members and/or through further (participant-) observation and/or documentary evidence produced by situational members.

If, on the other hand, the researcher’s initial interpretation of the event develops from material conveyed to him by a member—that is, the researcher was not present, whether for reasons of schedule, timing, or access—he will also want to talk to other situational members who were there, so as to access their reports about the event, including their interpretations of it. In this situation as well, the researcher is likely to want to read materials, should they exist and be obtain- able, pertaining to the event produced by various other actors in it—contemporaneous newspaper accounts, radio or television program transcripts, diaries and the like, agency memos or corre- spondence or annual reports, and so on—for similar corroborative purposes. The further removed the event is from the present time, the closer the research moves to historical analysis, resting exclusively on documentary sources if participants are no longer living or otherwise unable to render firsthand reports, however clouded by the passage of time.

Any one of these circumstances presents a second interpretive moment, in which the re- searcher seeks to make sense of material that is secondary with respect to her firsthand experi- ence of the event. This is what Schütz, Geertz, and others (e.g., Mark Bevir and Patrick Jackson in this volume) mean in characterizing human sense making as interpretations of interpreta- tions, a double hermeneutic (in Giddens’s term [1984]). The time and space dimensions of this doubling are captured in what Schütz (1967) called first- and second-order interpretations; meth- ods textbooks refer to the duality as emic-etic;35 Geertz (1983, 57) termed them “experience- near” and “experience-distant.”

Two additional interpretive moments become clear in looking beyond research-site interac- tions at the research process as a whole. A third comes in the analysis and writing up of accessed and generated data. As noted above, writing itself has increasingly come to be seen as a way of world making, as words are carefully and rhetorically-logically chosen and both data and analysis are shaped into a logical, persuasive account. This perception emphasizes the extent to which writing is, itself, a method—a method of analysis and of discovery, as the researcher combs through observational and interview notes and sees ever newer things.36

The fourth interpretive moment is brought into focus by “reader-response theory” from liter- ary studies. This approach to textual analysis took issue with earlier theories as to the locus of textual meaning. These earlier theories had been based on two usually unspoken assumptions fundamental to early communications theories: that meaning is determinate; and that meanings are made and set only by their “senders” (in the systems language of much communications theory) or creators. This led critics to search for meaning in the author’s intent (in which case it was the reader’s job to ferret out the meaning intended by the author, leading to explorations in authorial biographies, contemporaneous histories, and so forth). Contesting this came the argu- ment that meaning resided in the text itself—the author was “dead” (which meant the reader’s job was to analyze the text’s rhetorical or poetic devices: metaphors, rhyme scheme, rhythm, and so forth; see, for example, Ciardi 1959). Contending, in turn, with this approach was one that argued that readers were not passive recipients of authors’ meanings but active constructors of meaning themselves, bringing their own backgrounds to the texts they read, drawing on these backgrounds as well as on the words of the text in its interpretation. Meaning, in this view, is created out of an interaction between reader and text, or among reader, text, and author’s intentions (e.g., Iser 1989).37 From this perspective, textual meaning is not finite, since each reader hypothetically brings a different experience to the reading, or the same reader, marked by new experiences in the interim, might even “find” a different meaning on two separate readings.

The fourth moment, then, takes place in the reading (or hearing) of the research report. What this highlights is the distinction between “authored” texts and “constructed” texts, and it points to one of the issues in evaluative criteria for research and one of its central dilemmas. As Peregrine Schwartz-Shea notes in chapter 5 of this book, one of the interpretive procedures for dealing with questions of research trustworthiness is to involve situational members in reading the draft re- search report. The dilemma is how to proceed when that reading is at odds with the researcher’s interpretation. Seeing textual meaning as not finite and reading as an interpretive moment sug- gests a potential reframing of such an encounter, from one in which the researcher dismisses the reading as inherently flawed to one that opens the door to an exploration of rationales (or back- grounds) for different readings. (The procedural implications are explored in that chapter.)

The same layering of interpretation and meaning holds when the subject of interpretation is a (literal) text or a physical artifact, rather than an event. This may be seen in examples from the organizational implementation of public policies (e.g., Ingersoll and Adams 1992, Stein 2004, Swaffield 1998, Yanow 1996; see also Chock 1995, Linder 1995). Not only are legislative and other language and organizational buildings texts (or “texts”) that are interpreted by implementers and others acting in the situation for which the text was produced; but those interpretations—in the form of agency language, objects, and acts—themselves become “texts” that are “read,” by those actors and others. An act, object or spoken language is interpreted by its “readers”—agency staff, clients, and so forth. And these interpretations come in the form of responses—acts, lan- guage, and/or objects—that themselves are then treated as texts and interpreted, prompting fur- ther responses. It is in this sense that interpretive methodologists claim that “it” is interpretation or meaning-construction “all the way down.”

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