Studies in Ethnomethodology

From p. 82 in Social Theory Re-Wired

The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical studyGarfinkel is not typically thought of as a scholar in the pragmatist tradition, yet many themes of pragmatism are evident in his work. He is interested in everyday practice and lived experience as opposed to abstract theory and, like George Herbert Mead, he ascribes an importance to language in bringing everyday social order and experience into being. For more about Garfinkel’s ties to pragmatism, see Mustafa Emirbayer and Douglas Maynard’s paper, “Pragmatism and Ethnomethodology.” , and by paying to the most commonplace activities of daily life the attention usually accorded extraordinary events, seek to learn about them as phenomena in their own right. Their central recommendation is that the activities whereby members produce and manage settings of organized everyday affairs are identical with members’ procedures for making those settings “account-able.”Here Garfinkel is describing the goal of his so-called “breaching” studies. They are intended to illustrate how people create and recreate the social order. In doing so, the social order they create cannot be separated from the methods or logics they use to create it. The “reflexive,” or “incarnate” character of accounting practicesThe point that these practices are reflexive is key to Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology. He is making the point that how we interpret and describe an everyday experience is also a part of that experience. For example, think about how ubiquitous the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes has become. Movie reviews do not simply recount what happens in the movie: they also determine how many of us watch and interpret the film. Put simply, the movie and the way we describe the movie are mutually constitutive. Why is this important for Garfinkel? Because we can discover the underlying social order by analyzing how people talk about it. and accounts makes up the crux of that recommendation.

From p. 83 in Social Theory Re-Wired

For Kant the moral order “within” was an awesome mysteryEighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that morality was essentially an innate duty within us that could be discovered through reason. Garfinkel is more concerned with the moral order that exists outside of us; that is, the rules that govern everyday social interaction. You can read more about Kant’s moral philosophy here. ; for sociologists the moral order “without” is a technical mystery. From the point of view of sociological theory the moral order consists of the rule governed activities of everyday life. A society’s members encounter and know the moral order as perceivedly normal courses of action—familiar scenes of everyday affairs, the world of daily life known in common with others and with others taken for granted.A classic example of how moral facts get encountered in the humdrum of everyday life is what we do when we stand in a line. Think back to the last time you waited in line at a coffee shop. Did you go straight to the front of the line, turn around and face the person standing behind you, and ask them for a double cappuccino? Most likely not. When we walk up to a line, we already recognize it as a line before we step into it. However, the line can only exist if it is achieved as such by everyone else in it. 

They refer to this world as the “natural facts of life” which, for members, are through and through moral facts of life. For members not only are matters so about familiar scenes, but they are so because it is morally right or wrong that they are so. Familiar scenes of everyday activities, treated by members as the “natural facts of life,” are massive facts of the members’ daily existence both as a real world and as the product of activities in a real world.We might think of the “natural facts of life” as social facts in the Durkheimian sense. However, whereas Durkheim thought social facts were an objective reality external to us, Garfinkel is suggesting that social facts get created through the ongoing practical activities of everyday life. They furnish the “fix,” the “this is it” to which the waking state returns one, and are the points of departure and return for every modification of the world of daily life that is achieved in play, dreaming, trance, theater, scientific theorizing, or high ceremony.

From p. 84 in Social Theory Re-Wired

For these background expectancies to come into view one must either be a stranger to the “life as usual” character of everyday scenes, or become estranged from them. As Alfred SchutzGarfinkel was influenced by Alfred Schutz’s phenomenological sociology, even though he later came to critique many of Schutz’s ideas. Schutz was fascinated with the meanings and categories through which people perceive everyday life. (See also the Profile page for Mid-Twentieth Century American Theory.)  pointed out, a “special motive” is required to make them problematic. In the sociologists’ case this “special motive” consists in the programmatic task of treating a societal member’s practical circumstances, which include from the member’s point of view the morally necessary character of many of its background features, as matters of theoretic interest. The seen but unnoticed backgrounds of everyday activities are made visible and are described from a perspective in which persons live out the lives they do, have the children they do, feel the feelings, think the thoughts, enter the relationships they do, all in order to permit the sociologist to solve his theoretical problems.We can think of background expectancies as preconditioned norms that are shared between members of a society that operate sort of like recipes. When we encounter a situation, such as going to the doctor’s office, we already have some frameworks for how to interpret it based on prior experience. So, we follow the norm to check-in and wait patiently for our turn. Garfinkel is suggesting that sociologists are interested in how those norms—which most of take for granted and never notice—get created. 

From p. 87 in Social Theory Re-Wired

For the purposes of conducting their everyday affairs persons refuse to permit each other to understand “what they are really talking about” in this way.In this passage—and in the preceding paragraph not included here—Garfinkel is challenging the claim that individuals rationalize and reflectively think about every part of their decision-making process. Reflecting on these decisions takes a lot of time and energy, and generally makes social interaction awkward, if not downright impossible. For example, when someone says, “I’m hungry,” you could theoretically respond with any number of questions about their daily caloric intake, their preference for Asian foods, or their literal or figurative use of the word hungry. However, they anticipate that you will know what they mean and respond with something like, “Me, too” or “Let’s get a bite to eat.” These anticipations and shared understandings about what is left unsaid are key to accomplishing every life. The anticipation that persons will understand, the occasionality of expressions, the specific vagueness of references, the retrospective-prospective sense of a present occurrence, waiting for something later in order to see what was meant before, are sanctioned properties of common discourse. They furnish a background of seen but unnoticed features of common discourse whereby actual utterances are recognized as events of common, reasonable, understandable, plain talk. Persons require these properties of discourse as conditions under which they are themselves entitled and entitle others to claim that they know what they are talking about, and that what they are saying is understandable and ought to be understood. In short, their seen but unnoticed presence is used to entitle persons to conduct their common conversational affairs without interference. Departures from such usages call forth immediate attempts to restore a right state of affairs.Examples of the normal state of affairs getting breached are all around us. Some brilliant— although sometimes difficult to watch—examples were conducted by comedian Sasha Baron Cohen in his film, Borat. Another great example is this one from the Yes Men, a group of activists who impersonate members of the World Trade Organization to address a unique problem in the global workplace to a group in Finland. Can you think of other examples? 

Let's Go Garfinkeling

Question 1 of 1

If you have ever taken an introduction to sociology class, you have probably already been sent out to break a social norm and report on the aftermath. Rather than do that, try deconstructing more mundane conversations to discover how something taken-for-granted gets accomplished.

In the reading, Garfinkel describes a conversation between a student and his wife about going to a shoe repair shop. The student then analyzed what was taken-for-granted in order for the conversation to unfold smoothly. For this activity, report your own conversation with a friend or relative about something mundane like going to a shoe repair store and then analyze what common understandings were necessary to “accomplish” the conversation. Then, choose a short conversation from another setting, like a social networking site or an interview on the news, and do the same thing. How did the context, if at all, shape what was required for the conversation to happen? Report your conversations and answer to this question below.

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