Talk Is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy

Colin Jerolmack, Shamus Khan

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This article examines the methodological implications of the fact that what people say is often a poor predictor of what they do. We argue that many interview and survey researchers routinely conflate self-reports with behavior and assume a consistency between attitudes and action. We call this erroneous inference of situated behavior from verbal accounts the attitudinal fallacy. Though interviewing and ethnography are often lumped together as "qualitative methods," by juxtaposing studies of "culture in action" based on verbal accounts with ethnographic investigations, we show that the latter routinely attempts to explain the "attitude-behavior problem" while the former regularly ignores it. Because meaning and action are collectively negotiated and context-dependent, we contend that self-reports of attitudes and behaviors are of limited value in explaining what people actually do because they are overly individualistic and abstracted from lived experience.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)178-209
    Number of pages32
    JournalSociological Methods and Research
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - May 2014


    • attitudinal fallacy
    • culture
    • ethnography
    • interaction
    • methods

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
    • Sociology and Political Science


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