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Am I An Ethnomethodologist?

Author: Lars Frers (2004)

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Am I an ethnomethodologist? In this brief statement I want to position myself in relation to the theoretical and methodological stance associated with the field of ethnomethodology. At the time that I first wrote this text (spring 2004), I had not read Garfinkel's Studies in Ethnomethodology yet. For writing this statement I relied on discussions with people working in the field (mostly at IU Bloomington during the time Douglas Maynard was teaching there), on the impressions that the lecture of a set of different articles and book sections made on me and, for the purpose of having a good and easily available single reference, on the article The Diversity of Ethnomethodology by Douglas W. Maynard and Steven Clayman (Annu. Rev. Sociol. 1991. 17: 385-418). In early 2006, I corrected grammatical mistakes and revised the style in several places.

In my study I want to track down the ways in which technology and the built environment participate in creating orderly socio-spatial constellations, the ways in which people orient themselves in relation to the visible, hearable, smell- and touchable things around themselves. To reach this goal, I want to focus my observations on the practices of people in a specific environment: railway and ferry terminals. I want to study how people (including myself) through their actions and experiences create a certain kind of order around themselves, for themselves, and for others. This positive approach towards the subject matter seems to be quite similar to the enterprise of ethnomethodology:

From an ethnomethodological standpoint, raw experience is anything but chaotic, for the concrete activities of which it is composed are coeval with an intelligible organization that actors already provide and that is therefore available for scientific analysis. Central to the achievement of this organization are practical activities through which actors produce and recognize the circumstances in which they are embedded. The principal aim of ethnomethodology is to investigate the procedural accomplishment of these activities as actual, concerted behaviors. (p. 387)

A central assumption made in this quotation is the intelligibility of the order. The ethnomethodologist is not looking for some kind of essential social order that lies hidden in a greater structure or in the unconscious. The argument is that the ghost in the machine is not removed from the actor's availability, it is not some mystic quality beyond the understanding of everyday people. The ghost in the machine is their hands and mouths, they make it speak and act and come alive. It speaks the language of humans, it is made by humans, therefore it can be understood. The actors themselves refer to the ghosts – they might even make jokes about them (cf. pp. 393-394) At this point I would like to add that there is a certain schizophrenic edge to this picture, in which people are talking to and about themselves. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to bring in some Deleuze…

I can follow this argumentation and would agree that actors in their practices create and contest the social order, and that approaching the subject of social order and deviance from an ethnomethodological perspective might open spaces for changing this order, since it makes subtle practices perceiveable. Practices by which we align ourselves with rules or aspects of social order which we might actually not appreciate very much (to put it mildly). Outfitted with this practical knowledge about our own actions we might then be able to change what we do and thus change the world around us, challenging rules that seem unnecessary or inadequate.

One might object that this a pretty approach, but a very blue-eyed one at best. To a certain degree, I would agree with such scepticism. However, there is one thing about this approach that makes it so attractive to me: it raises the sensibility of the researcher to an extraordinarily high degree – experienced through the eyes and ears of a trained conversation analyst, aided by recording and enlarging technologies, the simplest exchange of utterances can explode into a highly complex, well-ordered, and contested field of social relations. There is a certain openness for surprise in this approach that can be highly productive. This approach to understanding social and material practices can quite effectively be countering theoretical over-generalizations and methodological blind spots. This matches what Maynard and Clayman describe as the phenomenological sensibility of ethnomethodology (p. 388).

Following everyday behavior in the Schützian "Lebenswelt" ethnomethodologists do not necessarily look at behavior in or for itself, they look at displays of behavior. It is towards these displays that other actors orient themselves, by doing stuff or displaying behaviour themselves. Bringing in Merleau-Ponty opens the theoretical focus, which now includes the body as a part of the constellations of everyday life. As Maynard and Clayman put it, the body lives things, objects, and features of the world before they can be conceived (p. 390), and the body is not something that can be thought of as a separate entity from the mind: […] it is a rejection of the mind-body dichotomy in an effort to make sociological analysis answerable to the corporeity of so-called subjective behavior. (p. 390)

This sense for corporeity seems to be very helpful for my enterprise, as the corporeity both of the people in railway and ferry terminals, and the corporeity of the things and technological artifacts in these locations will be a central piece of my analysis. I want to reconstruct the ways in which bodily alignment and bodily sensations shape what we do and I want to reconstruct how our actions shape things and people around us.

The last aspect of ethnomethodological inquiry that I want to discuss here is its specific perspective on the basic assumptions we are making in our daily practices. Ethnomethodology treats these basic assumptions as one of the most important aspects of inquiry. Again, these assumptions are not conceived as something that lies beneath the actor’s consciousness; they are also something that, particularly in moments of crisis or irritation, is made visible, referred to and interactively enacted by the actors. Ethnomethodology bends the inquiry about basic assumptions back on itself, reflecting it’s own embeddedness in the world and the the embeddedness of science in the Lebenswelt:

[…] the strategy for ethnomethodological inquiry is to analyze mundane reason in such a way as to understand its organizational contribution to inquiries of every kind, even those involving itself. This requires, according to Pollner (1991 [Left of Ethnomethodology. Am. Sociol. Rev.]), a radical reflexivity, a willingness to confront primordial presuppositions, including those which permit one's own sustained investigation in the first place. (p. 392)

This radical reflexivity is another aspect of ethnomethodology; an aspect which makes it attractive for me. My position in the field – my own actions and reactions, my comfort and discomfort, the way I shape my behavior, the displaying of myself as a normal, albeit video camera wielding participant in the settings I observe – is of fundamental importance for my whole study, it is something that I have to pay as much attention to as possible.

Taken together, it appears that yes, I am an ethnomethodologist. However. Although I agree that looking for the essence of society or social control, that looking for the power relation that shapes the behavior of people in our society (or only in stations and terminals) is not a very fruitful approach, I would not leave out concepts about certain social/cultural/economic/political structures. Social structure, or put into postmodernist terms, grand narratives, are important aspects of the socio-spatial constellations through which we move in our everyday lives. There is something like a neoliberal reconfiguration of public transport and of security; there is something that can be called Occidental or Western culture, and so on and so forth. It is something that people refer to, that they display an alignment to, pushing it or challenging it. What does the ethnomethodologist in me do about these narratives, about social structure? How can the ethnomethodologist in me arrange himself with the marxist, the petits-burgeois/working class member, and all the other bits and pieces of my academic and everyday life identity? I want to try to let them clash. I want to confront the observations I made as an ethnomethodologist with how I understand Bourdieu’s social praxeology, I want to let the actions of the people in front of the ticket machine clash with Foucault’s ever present power relations and dispositives, and I want to see how the comfort-seeking traveler and Sennett’s bodies in pain get along. Being an an almost reckless optimist, I hope that they can agree on a few things and perhaps even enjoy each other’s company.