Talk Is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy

Colin Jerolmack, Shamus Khan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

542 Scopus citations


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
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


  • attitudinal fallacy
  • culture
  • ethnography
  • interaction
  • methods


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