Tag Archives: research

Serial Killers and Second Languages: Exploring Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis has me thinking about serial killers. Before I can explain why I’m mentioning violent murderers, though, I have to explain discourse analysis. Tatyana Bondarouk and Huub Ruel’s article “Discourse Analysis: Making Complex Methodology Simple” describes discourse analysis as a methodology with origins in hermeneutics. They outline the hermeneutical belief that “interpretations give a meaning to a text within a framework of the interpreter’s experiences” (which reminds me a lot of reader response theory) and explain the “hermeneutic circle [which] is continually open for re-interpretation” (which reminds me of grounded theory).

In addition to explaining the theoretical roots of discourse analysis, the authors also include detailed descriptions of each step of their process, complete with tables and charts. Admittedly, I had to reread some of the charts a few times before I could make sense of them, but I did appreciate having some concrete examples of how exactly discourse analysis could be applied to research. 

As they explain their research process, the authors describe conducting informal interviews in which the interviewer is an active participant. Here’s where I started to think about serial killers. There’s this great show on Netflix called Mindhunter about two FBI agents who interview notorious serial killers during the 1970s. As they attempt to perfect and streamline the interview process, the agents clash with a psychologist who wants them to be the “speaking questionnaires” that Bondarouk and Ruel describe. 

The FBI agents, however, are more active in the interview process—they use the same “snowballing technique” as Bondarouk and Ruel by asking new questions based on what they’ve learned from previous killers; they use informal language to get the killers more comfortable; and they ask “provocative questions” to elicit authentic, unfiltered responses. They even perform rudimentary “member checks” by re-visiting specific killers and asking for clarification on certain topics. 

If you like dark, dramatic thrillers based on true events, I highly recommend you check out Mindhunter!

In these interviews, the FBI agents engage in what James Gee describes as “Discourses, with a capital ‘D.’” In his article “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics,” Gee describes Discourse as not just language use, but as “ways of being in the world” (526). The way the FBI agents in Mindhunter speak and act when they return to the conservative Bureau sharply contrasts the casual, offensive, and violent language they use to connect with serial killers; they utilize different Discourses in different contexts. 

Gee explains that these different Discourses are ways of communicating that, like a foreign language, cannot be learned in a classroom, but must be acquired through experience. His discussion of the conflict and tension that arises as people attempt to balance their “primary Discourse”—or their “original and home-based sense of identity”—with their “secondary Discourses”—i.e., the ways of communicating they learn in the “public sphere” (Gee 527)—reminds me of the literature I analyzed for my undergraduate thesis; I studied texts by Latino authors that use code-switching to reveal the challenges of balancing two different cultural identities. One of the works I explicated was “Bilingual Blues” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat, which is a short poem that clearly articulates the speaker’s struggles to balance his primary Discourse as a Cuban with his secondary Discourse as an immigrant in the United States. 

Not only does straddling these different Discourses cause personal and emotional strife, but, as Gee explains, it can also affect a person’s social status. The author compares “dominant Discourses,” which are considered mainstream and prestigious, to “nondominant Discourses,” and he explains that it’s difficult for those engaged in nondominant Discourses to gain prestige and power because it’s impossible to learn a new Discourse unless you’ve experienced it. This discussion of gatekeeping in dominant Discourses reminds me of Patrick Hartwell’s article “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” (on which I gave a presentation last semester). Hartwell’s article explains how grammar is a Discourse that can’t be taught through explicit instruction, so it’s one of many barriers keeping marginalized people from opening the gates to the world of wealth, prestige, and power.

The Allure of Autoethnography

The three readings this week turned me into autoethnography’s biggest fan. First, there’s “Autoethnography: An Overview” by Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner; the authors explain autoethnography, defining it as a mixture between autobiography and ethnography in which the researchers use their own personal experiences within a culture to understand and analyze that culture. This article also outlines the common criticisms of the method, and it provides examples of different categories of autoethnography. “Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity” by Alec J. Grant and Laetitia Zeeman shows an example of an autoethnography in which Grant uses his memories and reviews his school magazines to explore the culture of the small town he grew up in. He and Zeeman finish the article with a dialogue about the cultural and metaphorical meanings of the short story.  Finally, in “An Autoethnography on Learning About Autoethnography,” Sarah Wall describes the criticisms of autoethnography, explains its roots in postmodernism, and highlights various examples of other researchers who have put this method into practice.

After reading these articles, I feel drawn to use autoethnography for my own research purposes. I like this method because it feels accessible both for researchers and readers, and it seems like it could lessen the gatekeeping that’s found in traditional academia. When describing postmodernism—the philosophy in which autoethnography is rooted—Wall writes, “many ways of knowing and inquiring are legitimate and…no one should be privileged” (147). There’s a lot of privilege hidden in traditional academia; for example, not everyone has the time, money, energy, resources, power, etc., to conduct research. Autoethnography validates your personal experience as being worthy of inclusion in a study, even if your experience doesn’t align with “traditional” scholarly theories (many of which were posited by white men in positions of power and privilege).  

I also like that autoethnography is actually readable. So many of the scholarly articles I’ve read are filled with impossible to decipher academic jargon describing complex academic theories, but autoethnography tempers those complicated theories by using more literary and “evocative” language (Ellis et al.). “Whose Story Is It?”  illustrates this perfectly; Grant’s short story—which uses the literary conventions of a memoir—is engaging and clear, but his academic dialogue with Zeeman is much denser and more challenging to comprehend. 

It seems counterintuitive to keep your research hidden behind nomenclature so confusing that the real people the research affects can barely understand it. The purpose of research shouldn’t be just to discover new information and share it with like-minded academics, but it should also be to use that information to improve people’s lives in a practical, tangible way. Ellis et al. explain how autoethnography views research as a political and socially just act. I imagine that because researchers employing autoethnography are using their actual lived experiences within a culture, their research will result in more practical, useful, and socially just theories because they’ve lived those theories.

However, the problem with using your lived experience in your research is that the people you live with become part of the study, too. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the ethical implications of autoethnography for this reason. Ellis et al. state that to ensure they’re being ethical, researchers can show their work to anyone mentioned in the narrative in order to gain their approval, or the writer can alter names, locations, and other identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of all involved. But I still have questions about the practicalities of those strategies. For example, how prevalent does a character have to be to warrant showing that person the finished narrative (i.e., if you mention someone once or twice, and they’re not central to the narrative, should you still show them your work)? Do you still need to show them the final draft if you’ve already changed their identifying information? And how much can you alter the story before you compromise the integrity of your results? I’m hoping I can find some way to navigate these ethical concerns, because I’d really love to use autoethnography for my own research.