In Conversation with David Silverman

Are you a student or practitioner of qualitative research looking to enhance your skills? Look no further than our first episode in our brand-new “In Conversation with SAGE Authors” series! We’re thrilled to kick off this exciting new series with David Silverman, author of some of our bestselling Qualitative Research books. In this exclusive interview, we dive deep into his motivations for writing these essential works, explore his background in the field, and learn how his books can help take your research journey to the next level. So, join us as we explore the fascinating world of qualitative research with one of its most influential figures!

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

More through luck than judgment, I became a student of sociology at the London School of Economics sixty years ago. In the 1960s, sociology at LSE was dominated by four figures: Tom Bottomore, Donald MacRae, David Glass and Robert McKenzie. From Bottomore and MacRae, I learnt that the main issues that mattered in British sociology arose in debates that grew out of nineteenth-century social theory in the work of Marx, Durkheim and Weber. Moreover, although Glass and McKenzie were researchers as well as theorists, the kind of research they favoured was mainly quantitative (demography and/or survey research). Indeed, the only research methods course around at LSE was on statistics – albeit very entertainingly taught by Claus Moser. Even the advanced methods course that I subsequently took at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for my MA in Sociology, was largely concerned with the design of quantitative research. Only a graduate seminar with Mel Dalton, author of a great piece of research on middle managers (Dalton, 1959), gave me a hint of what might be gained from more ethnographic work.

When I returned to the UK from UCLA, I began my research career with a study of the beliefs and values of junior ‘white collar’ workers. Influenced by sociological theories of class and social status deriving from the German sociologist Max Weber, I wanted to see if the way you perceived yourself was influenced by where you worked and by your future job prospects.

I used a structured interview schedule and my methodology was cast in the standard forms of quantitative research: an initial hypothesis, a two by two table and statistical tests (see Silverman, 1968). If I had completed this study, my future career might have taken a completely different path.

However, I started to have nagging doubts about the credibility of my research. Although I could manipulate my data so as to provide an apparently rigorous test of my hypotheses, this data was hardly ‘raw’ but mediated by various kinds of interpretive activities. Not the least of these arose in my administration of the interview schedule.

As I was interviewing my respondents, I was struck by the need to go beyond my questions in various, unforeseen ways so as to obtain the sort of answers I wanted. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t pre-tested my questions properly. It was only much later that I learnt that how we make sense in conversations necessarily relies on everyday conversational skills that cannot be reduced to reliable techniques.

In any event, I abandoned this study and turned to organization theory in a work that was to be both my Ph.D. and a successful textbook (Silverman, 1970). The approach I used was influenced by a mid-twentieth-century student of Weber, Alfred Schutz. Schutz’s phenomenology of the everyday world was concerned with the structures of everyday life. It made an easy link when in 1971-2, I was introduced to the study of the methods we all use in everyday life (ethnomethodology) by Aaron Cicourel who was a visitor at Goldsmiths’. Ultimately, this led to a book (Filmer, Phillipson, Silverman and Walsh, 1972) which had a short-lived fame as an early British text sympathetic to ethnomethodology.

After a period immersed in organization theory and philosophy, by the mid-1980s I had moved first into ethnomethodologically-inspired ethnography and then into conversation analysis. I spent the following decade exploring the uses of two contemporary social science theories. An ethnography of the personnel department of a public sector organization (Silverman and Jones, 1976) was heavily influenced by Harold Garfinkel’s (1967) ethnomethodology. And an analysis of literary texts (Silverman and Torode, 1980) derived from Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1974) semiotics. These studies confirmed my belief in the value of theoretically-informed research – a belief affirmed throughout the present text.

However, guiding principles tend to be double-edged. So, while we should assert their benefits, we should also be aware of their possible costs. Looking back on this early work, I now feel that it was a trifle over-theorised. Perhaps I had been so enthused by a newly discovered theory, that I hadn’t allowed myself to be sufficiently challenged, even surprised, by my data.

In my later research, I tried to find a better balance between the theoretical ‘armchair’ and the empirical ‘field’. In both an ethnography of hospital clinics (Silverman, 1987) and a conversation analytic study of HIV-test counselling (Silverman, 1997), I adopted a more cautious approach to my data, inductively establishing hypotheses, using the comparative method, and identifying deviant cases.  In both studies, unlike my earlier work, I explored ways of making my research relevant to a wider, non-academic audience in a non-patronising way.

However, these later studies also derived from two related methodological assumptions present in my 1976 study of a personnel department. All three studies were based not on interviews but on naturalistic data. And all of them looked at how the participants talked to one another and focused on the skills they used and the local functions of what they did.

What inspired you to write this collection of qualitative research books?

Research methods matter to me because my attempts to do worthwhile social research have brought me face-to-face with issues of principle that cut across both methodological and theoretical issues.  These books are based on the lessons I have learned from my own research practice and from supervising research students. These lessons bring to the fore a number of positions that are implicit in my textbooks: a demand that qualitative research be methodologically inventive, theoretically-alive and empirically rigorous.

My four SAGE books complement one another. Interpreting Qualitative Data discusses how to analyse each of the major sources of qualitative data: interviews, focus groups, ethnographic data, documents, digital data, mixed methods, conversational data and visual data.

Doing Qualitative Research is a primer for doing a qualitative research project aimed at final-year undergraduates and research students. Unusually, it is based on the Q&As I have had with hundreds of research students in the workshops I have taught in four continents.

My edited book Qualitative Research brings together compelling chapters on areas of qualitative research written by an array of famous researchers who share my enthusiasm for rigorous and relevant research.

Finally, my little Very Short Book is a polemic statement of what I take to be good research practice.

What set these books apart from others in the qualitative research field?

My four books have the following features in common:

  • Most of the qualitative research literature aims to use research to understand people’s ‘lived experience’ and so treats what people say as a window into their lives. By contrast, I believe qualitative research can be distinctive by studying what people do, including telling stories about their experiences.
  • While much qualitative research ‘manufactures’ its data through interviews and focus groups, I remind students of the power of ‘naturalistic data’ which can show how the social world gets enacted moment by moment.
  • Unfortunately, quantitative researchers who criticise qualitative research’s lack of credibility have some truth on their side. My books show how our work can be credible yet distinctive from what the quants do.
  • In all four books, I have aimed to avoid the somewhat stale, preaching style of some textbooks. Instead, I have aimed to write in a down-to-earth, chatty way with lots of helpful examples.

How do you think your books might help students on their research journey?

There is an argument that the best way to become a good qualitative researcher is to learn by doing rather than being preached at. My books aim to help you to learn by doing in two ways:

  • By contesting the common assumption that you need to do a lot of reading followed by long periods of data collection before you can do any good data analysis. By contrast, I demonstrate how data analysis is best begun within the first few weeks of a research project. Only by early data analysis, can you work out what research problems to pursue and what research models work for you.
  • The exercises in Interpreting Qualitative Data and Doing Qualitative Research provide valuable additional ways of learning through doing.

And, what about the impact on readers of your books?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by appending the attendees’ remarks made on the chat function after zoom workshop sessions at two different Australian universities in the past few months:

Workshop Session 1

“Thank you David. I have found the course tremendously helpful.”

“Thanks so much – this has been hugely valuable and has challenged the paradigms I’ve been taught to date in a very positive way!”

“Many thanks @David for this helpful session! I appreciate it a lot”

“Thank you, David. This course was enlightening. I look forward to chatting with you in our 1-to-1.”

“I have learned a lot, Thanks David”

“I am glad I chose to do this course and I am already taking away from this course a lot to think about in relation to my future research projects. Thanks David!”

Workshop Session 2

“Thank you it was a fantastic session!”

“Thanks David for such a thought-provoking and interesting presentation!!”

“Thank you David for a really interesting presentation. I really appreciated the examples you provided as they demonstrated your points really nicely.”

“Thank you David – that was a really rich and fascinating presentation!”

“Thank you so much David! There were amazing learning days from you!”

Find out more about David’s books here

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