Interpreting Discourse: Coherence and the Analysis of Ethnographic Interviews


Agar, M., & Hobbs, J. R. (1982). Interpreting discourse: Coherence and the analysis of ethnographic interviews. Discourse processes, 5(1), 1-32.


The data we analyze is from a series of life history interviews with a career heroin addict in New York, collected by Agar (1981). We analyze this data in terms of a combination of two AI approaches to discourse. The first is work on the inferencing that must take place in people’s comprehension and production of natural language discourse. The second approach to discourse applies work on planning to the planning of individual speech acts and to the plans speakers develop for effecting their goals in larger stretches of conversation. In this paper we first outline how we apply these approaches to the ethnographic data. We discuss three kinds of coherence in terms of which we analyze a text, and then describe our method more generally. We next give an example of the method of microanalysis on a short fragment of an interview, and then show how the beliefs, goals and concerns that the microanalysis has revealed are tied in with the rest of the corpus. Finally, we discuss the significance of this work for ethnography.

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