Eavesdropping as Method

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 11:56 am

Talking to people as a means of investigation is more problematic than most assume.

Three, related, concerns have directed us away from the standard and seemingly straight forward route of ‘talking to people’ as a means of studying life in society.  Firstly, What do we do to people when we ask them questions or talk with them?  Secondly, where do their discourses (their opinions or answers) come from? Finally, what is really being tested when we ask question.  We have already made clear our fear that involvement in the creation of our own materials of study is an epistemological weakness and needs to be avoided but as talking is foundational to so much analysis of life in society our concerns with it as a research tool need additional clarification.  So let us treat these concerns in reverse order..

What is really being tested?

Throughout Distinction Bourdieu is quite clear that questions (here for opinion polls and social surveys) test the competence of the interviewee to answer the question posed and not what they know or think (cf Bourdieu 2004: 417-426).  Those competencies derive from the individuals educational-capital, the extent of cultural-capital in their composition of capital, and their over-all extent of capital and it is these that govern if and how people respond to questions.  Bourdieu shows that questions test a persons sense of competence to answer and so unless we are seeking to examine such competencies we should not ask people questions.

Where do opinions and answers come from?

There is a nexus of thinkers who have pointed towards the social formation of opinions and the kinds of discursive fragments one finds in conversation from a variety of theoretical perspectives.There are two main lines of work: on the process of discourse as action in society and in the field of the common-sense.

If we start with action in society and Herbert Blumer’s symbolic interactionism we can see that Blumer’s criticisms of opinion polling (Blumer 1986) hold good for all question-asking because they focus on the development of opinions in society. For Blumer “the formation of public opinion occurs as a function of society in operation” (Blumer 1986: 199-200) and as an active process in society and not in the individual “it is also very clear that in the process of forming public opinion, individuals are not alike in influence nor are groups that are equal numerically in membership alike in influence.” (Blumer 1986: 200). For Blumer question-asking confronts these unequal processes in society and not the individual interlocutor. This of course is a similar line of thought to Foucualt’s position on the episteme; the discursive regime in society that orders discourse for (or against) individuals (Foucault 2006: xxiii-xxiv. Foucault 1971).  Foucault and Blumer force us to recognise that it is to optimistic to accept that people’s opinions are their own. We live in society and the language of that society must be the minimum condition for the development of ideas & concepts.  The structures of relations of power in society will structure and effect individuals responses to questions.

The common-sense is a field of knowledge that resides in society and culture and which individuals can mobilse in their own discourses. It is a form of distributed knowledge that we do not control and which, because it seems to exist everywhere, seems neutral and harmless. This is of course not the case and its effects have been worked through by Gramsci (1971), Geetz (1993) and (under the synonym doxa; via Aristotle) by Barthes (1975) and Bourdieu (1977: 159-171).  In each case the common-sense (or doxa) has been theorised as a field of social force that individual are enmeshed within (imbricated with) and which is beyond their control. For Gramsci the common-sense’s “most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is” (Gramsci 1971: 419).  The key point being that for Gramsci much of the action of hegemony was directed towards the common-sense and that the force of ideology in capitalism was felt in this very field.  That which we encounter when we talk to people or ask them questions may well be the ‘common-sense’ and not the thinking of the person before us (or our questionnaire) and how could we tell? Epistemologically it may be that asking (however obliquely constructed this ‘talking to people’ may be) might be the worst way of finding things out (See also Edwards 1997 p62-76).

What do we do to people when we ask them questions or talk to them in the course of our studies?

In the act of asking people questions or of more obliquely talking to them we establish a relation of subjectification with them. We transform them into subjects of our study. This process of interpellation (Althusser 1971) forces them into a mode of being which is specific to the situation of being asked and divorced from the rest of life (following Benjamin we could say ‘made-auratic’). The direct imposition of the analyst-of-social-life on that very life in society that is trying to be studied will not uncover the traces of life because the analysts involvement has effaced them. We can see similar approaches to the construction of the subject in the work of Butler (1993) and especially in Foucault’s History of Sexuality (vol.1 1998).  Foucault insists that “one must not suppose that there exists a certain sphere of” knowledge “that would be the legitimate concern of a free and disinterested scientific inquiry were it not the object of mechanisms of prohibition brought to bear by the economic or ideological requirements of power” and that it is only possible to study something “because relations of power had established it as a possible object” of such study (Foucault 1998: 98).

This combination of issues requires us to acknowledge that we need other modes of exploration of society if we are even going to begin confronting problems caused by that very process of study and investigation.

We, inspired by Benjamin, propose to adopt eavesdropping as a method to see if that helps us avoid these problems.


Louis Althusser (1971). “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”, in his Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New Left Books

Barthes, R (1975) The Pleasure of the Text, trans. R Miller, New York, Hill and Wang

Blumer, H (1986), ‘Public Opinion and Public Opinion Polling’, in his Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, Berkeley, University of California Press

Bourdieu, P (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. R. Nice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Bourdieu, P (2004) Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, trans. Nice R, London, Routledge

Butler, J (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the discursive limits of sex, London, Routledge

Foucault, M (1971) ‘Orders of Discourse’, Social Science Information, Vol. 10, No.2

Foucault, M (1998) History of Sexuality (vol.1), London, Penguin

Foucault, M (2006) The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences, London, Routledge

Gramsci A, (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Trans. & Ed. Quintin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, London, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd

Geertz, C (1993) ‘Common Sense as a Cultural System’ in his Local Knowledge, London, Fontana

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