The "Everyday" in Critical Interactionism

What do I mean by studying everyday life?  What is everyday life?

The "everyday" world is the world we all live in and spend most of our time.  Waking up in the morning and eating breakfast with a family member, running around the house getting ready for work, driving to work, chatting with colleagues at the copy machine, having lunch with a friend from high school, spending time with our child doing homework--this is the stuff of everyday life.  It is often a world of home and family, of habit and familiarity.

It is also a realm of power struggles, of oppressive practices and resistance to those practices.  Critical Interactionism insists on historicizing the everyday and recognizing both its continuity and discontinuity with the past.  Capitalism has gone global in ways Marx's could never foresee.  In our rapidly changing world the everyday world continues to be colonized and commodified by electronic media and other technological changes that have eroded and transformed our notion of the public sphere and of civil discourse.

The everyday world is the realm of our lived experiences.  It's routine nature leads it to become habitualized and taken-for-granted. Our need for a sense of "ontological security" become satisfied through trusted habits.  When we do what we have done so many times before we keep some of life's anxieties at bay.

But the everyday world is also a realm in which we question and resist the quotidian, normative and taken-for-granted.  By ignoring our need for "ontological security", and breaking free from our past patterns of complicity with structures of dominance, and daring to do the right thing, we can transform the world.  The everyday world is a site of radical transformation!

For "microsociologists", a term sometimes used to describe those who study the processes and structures that make up the everyday world, this is a realm of social activity and social interaction, including talk and other forms of situated and embodied actions.

Sociologist Erving Goffman described the realm of face-to-face interaction as the "interaction order".  In a series of highly influential books he opened up for sociological analysis all the stuff that occurs in this realm.  Often interactions occur when participants are "co-present", but increasingly in our mediated world co-presense is longer a requirement of communicative action.

Different types of interactions, including social occasions and gatherings, have different rules of "situational propriety".  In situations of co-presense we typically monitor the "face work" and body idioms of those with whom we interact.  We are very attuned to the information that is being presented and to the information that we present.

During the 1960s, several other American sociologists published work opening up this realm of everyday life for sociological analysis, including Harvey Sacks, Harold Garfinkel and Emanuel Schegloff.  Their ethnomethodological approach greatly inspired my own thinking.  Writing in this tradition, Melvin Pollner and Don Zimmerman famously critiqued sociologists for using everyday life as a "resource" for their studies, but failing to make it a "topic" in its own right.  Employing the "attitude of everyday life" (Schutz), the constitution of the world is taken-for-granted, not only by ordinary people, but social scientists as well.

Ethnomethodolgists insist that the most banal of activities are done through methodic procedures.  As Garfinkel states: "the objective reality of social facts is an ongoing accomplishment of the concerted activities of daily life."

Moving from classical ethnomethodology to Critical Interactionism moves us from a somewhat ahistorical account of the everyday world to an account that highlights everyday life under contemporary capitalism and in late modernity.  When we critical reflect upon the interaction order we find a site of contestation, of subjugation and of potential liberation.

In our times the supposed triumph of neoliberalism has lead some to declare the "end of history" as if no other form of social order will ever emerge.  Capitalism has become naturalized as "just the way the world works" and the way it was always meant to work.

We seem to be retreating to the realm of everyday life, perhaps as a way to escape the cynicism and despair we feel with the world.  We substitute Facebook "friends" for traditional forms of sociality and build pseudo communities to assuage our alienation with the world.  Perhaps our inward turns and abandonment of the traditional public sphere are not the whole story, as we see Facebook playing a major role in the Arab Spring of 2011.

One of my mentors, the great canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith, has famously stated that "the everyday world is problematic" in that it is organized by social relations that are not observable within it.  Her insightful research is a powerful reminder that the social organization which makes possible the daily scenes of our lives is not wholly contained within those local settings.

Clearly, "everyday life" is not merely a backdrop for more important activities and institutions, and needs to be studied in its own right.  It is a site where consciousness is formed and transformed.

Everyday life is also a realm filled with cultural objects, including popular media forms, that are saturated with significance.  It is a repository of the collective dreams of humanity for the realization of a better world.

While under capitalism our daily lives are often filled with alienated attitudes and oppressive tendencies, and the habitualized and taken-for-granted seem to dominate our lives, we must never loose sight that the realm of everyday life is the realm of praxis and emancipatory transformation.  While we tend to focus on the "ordinariness" of everyday life, we must never forget that within it lies the possibility of "extraordinariness" if WE seize the authorship of our lives and act with intention!