Methodological tangle: phenomenology, ethnomethodology or symbolic interactionism?


I’ve been reading up on different methodologies tonight and have been getting myself confused.

As I said in the last post I’m placing this research firmly in the “subjectivist” camp. Tonight I’ve been looking at what Cohen and Mannion (2007) say about naturalistic approaches to research (pp 19-26).

I want this research to be an immersive process, where I try to share the “frame of reference” of the people and groups I’m studying. The fact that I’m a participant in the field of project support means that trying to take a removed, objective perspective isn’t realistic. I’m trying to understand the situation from within. 

Cohen et al focus on 3 traditions within this naturalistic approach; Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology and Symbolic Interactionism.

At the moment I’m still trying to tell them apart. Here’s a summary of what I understand of each:


The most important thing is the “subjective conscienciousness”, where and individual’s consciousness creates meaning based on experiences. It concerns understanding of the underlying meaning of “things”, stripping away assumtions based on how we perceive the world, influenced by cultural norms.


The study of everyday activities, particularly social interactions. The focus is on how the sense that individuals have made of the world influences behaviours. The most important thing is how the individual perceives their reality. Research relies heavily on immersive fieldwork

Symbolic Interactionism

This is not something I’ve come across before so it’s the one I’m having most trouble understanding (It’s all relative, I’m not sure I understand the other two either!). SI seems to look more at how people’s actions are aligned to perceptions of how others might act but like the previous two is also concerned with the meanings that individuals ascribe to things. SI sees this process as something which is constantly in a state of flux.

Where do this leave me?

I’m not sure I’m able to draw clear lines between these 3 approaches. They all seem to hand on the idea of how meanings are constructed. This is especially relevant given my topic area. I said in a previous post that one of the functions of story is to help us ascribe meaning to experience so a methodology based on these naturalistic  approaches seems appropriate.

But even with this I’m getting myself tangled up. This dissertation is a story on the topic of the usefulness of story that relies on finding out the stories of the people that are involved in the process of telling stories. 

All I can think of is Russian dolls!

The fact is that I still want to want to take an ethnographic approach which will help me discover what it is like for teams undertaking these funded projects with a view to seeing how storytelling impacts on them. But I can also see that this idea of interactionism might be helpful. The teams exist and act in a context where they are trying secure funding, now and possibly in the future, from JISC so relations with programme managers will be important. They work for institutions that will be placing their own demands on them. And then there’s me, a proponent of storytelling who probably has a few ingrained assumptions about the value of storytelling and works for a company who has a strategic relationship with JISC.Innovation who is funding the projects.

I’m not sure I’m any the wiser!