Applying Conversation Analysis (CA) and Ethnographic Content Analysis (ECA) to Dysfunctional Conflict in Reality Television

Quintarrius Shakir (University of California, Santa Barbara (CA), USA)

Summary of the Project


Reality television has faced intense criticism for negative depictions of African American women and their husbands engaged in personal and group disputes. Reality television shows portraying African American women in elite professions like Married to Medicine, which centers on the personal and professional lives of Black female doctors and doctors’ wives, have not been exempt from this scrutiny. Before Married to Medicine aired, an online petition from medical students at Howard University surfaced proclaiming that the show exploits educated, professional Black women, associates them with “materialism… and unprofessionalism” and will make obtaining residencies harder for Black women. Beyond this petition lies a more distinct truth: women, especially Black women, are not afforded the opportunity to engage in aggressive behavior on stage or in everyday life without real consequences, consequences that activate particularly powerful racial and gendered stereotypes.

Reality television shows stir mixed feelings in the African American community. They are infamously known for broadcasting intimate conflicts between black women and men, and these images may be manipulated to disadvantage Blacks in the real world. Means Coleman and Yochim (2008) explain that the “here’s a stereotype, there’s a stereotype” lamentation, often offered by cultural critics, is valuable in that it not only lays bare the skewed treatment of blacks in media, but also works to pinpoint imagery’s social functions and forms (p. 1). It means something to trace the contours of Black social psychology and abstract from it meaningful ideas about (inter)personal justice, determination, unconditional love, and pain, but these media themes are missed, misunderstood, and critiqued as “inappropriate” and “savage” when the character or object of focus is Black or carried and embodies an aura of Blackness in an unconventional way.

“Many [reality television shows] are explicitly or implicitly promoted as ‘social experiments’,” writes feminist sociologist Beth Montemurro (2007). In reality television, conflict is often created through the development of alliances and strategic relationships and the process by which these unions are formed and torn apart. The Real Housewives of Atlanta could be considered a social experiment because of its systematized broadcasting of seemingly pathological behavior. But, I observe the show instead as more of a forum for airing tensions about normativity and non-normativity in the Black community. Reality television generates negative representations of Black American life by emphatically emphasizing the ways in which cast members of reality television shows choose to participate in conflict. Montemurro (2007) continues, “Reality shows often cast relatively diverse groups with the intention of seeing whether conflict or harmony will result” (p. 84). Black images in reality television assert and challenge dominant (and dominating) ideas about African American life, pathological behavior, and gender. The personal disputes between Black women are captured and broadcast in reality television shows and, then, marketed to American audiences.

This project applies conversation analysis and ethnographic content analysis to video clips of African American men and women participating creating and resolving social disputes. This project employs a mixed methodology to analyze social interaction. Conversation analysis (CA) is applied to clips to produce a transcript of verbal and non-verbal conduct. CA produces a mapping of patterns in human interaction. Ethnographic content analysis (ECA) is applied to explore emerging themes from in the video data. Employing both these methodologies enables one to produce an analysis that explains the rules and occurrences of patterns in media and society.

Research Question(s)

“The Real Housewives” reality television franchise has grown exponentially since 2006, such that it’s most popular spinoff-series The Real Housewives of Atlanta has dominated Sunday night television ratings. The public concerns itself with pathological representations of African Americans as vulgar and violent. For the Bravo network, the Atlanta version’s sixth season ratings spiked at a 4.63 million weekly viewership after airing a fist-fight between two men. My research questions are: (1) How do media representations of Black men and women in conflict produce a “personality engineering” that spreads itself in and between the domains of race, gender, and class-status? (2) How do these controlling images in reality television produce a terrain of conflict? What is the meaning for these conflicts in respect to the deep contradictions of Black lives?

Theoretical Framework

In The Real Housewives of Atlanta, upper-class African Americans are responsible for managing tension in intimate settings and maintaining (unwanted) contact with one another over an extended period of time. Individuals meet one-on-one and in groups to discuss sex, broken marriages and artificial relationships, business ideas, and each other. The presence of “shade” (sadiddy or illegitimate language and behavior) in an encounter determines the trajectory for disputes. The over-determined emphasis on intimate-sphere public explosions and conflicts is a staple of the reality television genre. I argue that in order to understand the contemporary racial dynamics between media and society, we need to turn our attention to pathological representations. I introduce the concept of Pathological Personality Engineering (PPE). PPE is an un-theorized concept that has profound implications for how African Americans live in media and the world. PPE describes exercises in self-branding that reflect the racial, sexual, and economic dynamics between people and a media-dominated society. PPE originates from the generative question, “How do people live the lives that are open to them without judgment or consequence?” For a lot of people who live poor and powerless, all they have is a sharp tongue. Aggrieved groups, more specifically, have developed speech into a high art. Turning your mouth into a gun helps to paint a more complete picture of what’s brewing behind the scenes. It is a form of self-respect and a performance intended for yourself as well as others. This concept describes the ways in which in-between people live in-between realities.

In the current historical context, personality engineering may be more important to the reproduction of social inequality than criticisms about unconventional Black American expression and behavior. PPE embodies the formal codes and procedures that shape the public perceptions of Black women as a collective group and structure the culture in which they live. PPE, like the law of cause and effect, implicates there are social costs and consequences for all types of behavior for stigmatized groups. Although Black people can generate millions of dollars along with millions of fan letters when performing this exercise, the concept cannot be divorced from the social, economic, and cultural conditions in from which it emerges and to which it is applied.


The research upon which the current study is based is drawn from over nineteen hours of video data collected from the sixth season of the American reality television show The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Data were collected though digital video records (DVR) over the course of six months, from November 2013 to May 2014. The sixth season of this franchise is distinct in that it was the first reality television show on the Bravo TV network to have an all-Black (not predominately Black) cast. The racial demographics and landscape of The Real Housewives of Atlanta cast (and Atlanta, the city) stamps Blackness onto the show; thus, the omnipresence of race is visible and relevant. I am observing 15 instances of personal disputes between cast members and other parties. I analyze the ways in which social conflict emerges within personal encounters, the themes emanating from these personal disputes, and how the lives of elite African American women and men are portrayed.

Two methodological challenges are encountered when analyzing personal disputes in reality television. The first is, like social conflict in an individual’s everyday life, it can be difficult to track the beginning and ending of an interpersonal conflict and the ways in which parties align and array themselves around conflict. In the show, a dispute emerges between two or more parties, but becomes difficult to track over a series of multiple encounters. The second is that the level of analysis in which personal encounters take place is difficult to illustrate comprehensively in the space of a journal article. Two methods are employed here to address these challenges: ethnographic content analysis (ECA) and conversation analysis (CA).

I have two goals. The first is to describe the ways in which social interaction in African American culture is gendered. The second is to demonstrate how a systemic mapping of talk-and-interaction can illustrate the ways in which conflict emerges in everyday life. This project relies exclusively on video data and generates empirical findings from the application of CA and ECA. The disputes I examine emerged in The Real Housewives of Atlanta between the cast members, their husbands, and their close friends and family members. CA is employed to illustrate the ways in which personal conflict is constructed within discourse and to maintain readability of arguments. ECA is a qualitative technique used to “document and understand the communication of meaning, as well as to verify theoretical relationships” (Altheide 1987). Although all research methods have limitations, my mixed methods approach has advantages over qualitative researchers who choose to employ a single method.


My first preliminary finding indicates that people often fail to resolve conflicts dealing with infidelity in a marriage, betrayal in a friendship, or personal disrespect, and these failures manifest themselves socio-psychologically as social injuries. These conflicts are difficult to resolve because the injuries are never fully healed, emotional triggers open old wounds, and new arguments about the same issue are brought to the surface. Tables 1a, 1b, and 1c illustrate examples of this. This finding builds on the literature dealing with studies of micro-level interaction and representations in broadcast television. These findings indicate a media images have a powerful connection to real-world gender and class social structures.


Altheide, D.L. (1987). Reflections: Ethnographic Content Analysis. Qualitative Sociology 10 (1), 65-77.

Coleman, R. R. M., & Yochim, E. C. (2008). The Symbolic Annihilation of Race: A Review of the “Blackness” Literature. African American Research Perspectives, 12, 1-10.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Gerbner, G. (1972). Violence in television drama: Trends and Symbolic Functions. In Comstock, G. A., & Rubinstein, E. (Eds.), Television and Social Behavior Volume 1: Media Content and Control (pp. 28-187). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Montemurro, B. (2007). Toward a Sociology of Reality Television. Sociology Compass 1, 1-23.

Howard, W. (2004). Teaching Race and Racism in the Twenty-First Century. In The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice (pp. 69-77). Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, Print.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

The first advantage is using CA and ECA means I will produce a systemic mapping and analysis of my data. Second, ECA is a method employed in communication studies which can analyze mediated images in an associative, holistic, and non-linear approach way. Finally, the concepts and arguments generated from these methods will be grounded in observation and memory. An example of these advantages at work is employing CA to recognize gendered patterns in talk-and-interaction and ECA to identify racist tropes that appear from previous imagery.

Methodological Challenges

One methodological challenges of working with reality television data is generalizing arguments about human interaction from video clips developed for television production. Cultural critics critique reality television shows for staging meetings between cast members and prompting spontaneous and sometimes erratic behavior. Another challenge working with video data is that drawing analysis from interactions that are prompted means that the results are only relevant to media imagery and not real world social interaction.

Methodological Limitations

One methodological limitation in a mixed methods approach is that it is time consuming. A second limitation is that analyzing both CA and ECA data can be confusing because of the amount of data under examination. The final limitation is that employing both these methods requires a clear presentation to get the maximum benefit out of the study. This is difficult to accomplish when researchers are not familiar with one or both methods used in this study.

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