Skepticist Philosophy as Ethnomethodology by Alex Dennis

Philosophy of the Social Sciences
Skepticist Philosophy as Ethnomethodology
Alex Dennis
Philosophy of the Social Sciences 2003 33: 151 DOI: 10.1177/0048393103033002001
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as Ethnomethodology ALEX DENNIS
University of Huddersfield
Ethnomethodology is in trouble, its conceptual apparatus prone to indifference or misunderstanding both from “conventional” sociologists and from its own practitioners. This article describes some of these loci of confusion and suggests that they have a common root in the relationship between ethnomethodology and conventional sociology. Ethnomethodologists’ desire to find a principled theoretical framework for dealing with this relationship is shown to be the com- mon basis for subsequent confusion, and some of the corollaries of their putative solution(s) are elaborated with regard to their philosophical and programmatic implications.
Keywords: ethnomethodology; social constructionism; situated action; social structures
This article contributes to the critical debates concerning ethnomethodology, particularly with respect to its methodological radicalism and its relationship to conventional sociology. If the “return to theory” in mainstream sociology involves reopening argu- ments about radical approaches to sociological practice, reenergizing some of these debates is of great disciplinary importance. Ethnomethodologists and their critics, however, have tended merely to restate existing positions—a practice that pays diminishing returns. Ethnomethodology has failed to become a widely accepted approach to the solution of sociological problems not just because of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of its aims and objec- tives—see, for instance, the final chapter of Sharrock and Anderson’s (1986) introductory text on the subject—but also because of internal confusions and contradictions in its own program(s). The aim of this article, therefore, is to attempt to elucidate the implications of these
Received 22 September 2000
Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 33 No. 2, June 2003 151-173 DOI: 10.1177/0048393103251679
© 2003 Sage Publications

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confusions as a first step toward reconsidering ethnomethodology’s disciplinary status.
To this end, three areas of confusion in the ethnomethodological project will be dealt with. They will be shown to have common roots, which, in turn, have common bases in a particular tendency within ethnomethodology: the desire to clarify the relationship between sociological topics and investigatory resources. The discussion will center on Zimmerman and Pollner’s (1970) “The Everyday World as a Phenomenon,” which both instantiates the ways in which epistemological ambiguities manifest themselves in the program as a whole and stands as the key ethnomethodological article on the topic- resource problem. The article’s status as an ethnomethodological “classic” warrants such particular attention: Zimmerman and Pollner’s argument was one of the first principled formulations of these issues and has remained largely unquestioned from within the discipline since its publication.
There are good grounds for finding ethnomethodology—or, at least, particular variants of the ethnomethodological project—want- ing. What is at issue here is not what constitutes ethnomethodology “proper” but rather what gets produced and referred to as “belong- ing” by Garfinkel, his students, and their followers. Given this caveat, there are three problems that need to be addressed.
Ethnomethodology and Sociology
First, is ethnomethodology a critique or correction of conventional sociological approaches? Garfinkel’s (1967) discussions of reflexivity and indexicality have certainly been referred to as “methodological horrors” (Woolgar 1988), concepts that reveal massive fault lines in the sociological project as a whole.1 This is inaccurate—Garfinkel repeatedly points out that his project is not meant to stand in such an ironicizing relationship to mainstream sociology—but it points toward a more difficult dilemma.
Although Garfinkel (1967) claims to be agnostic about ethno- methodology’s relationship to conventional sociology (p. viii), it is difficult to see how such an avowed attitude can be warranted. His
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contention that “objective” (context-free) descriptions of activities can only have an achieved objectivity—that is to say they rely, for their rigor, on tacit uses of the very understandings they are supposed to be describing—is difficult to understand as not undermining sociolo- gists’ claims to provide “better” accounts of the social world than those offered by any other member of society. Thus, his account of how quantitative coding schedules can only be brought to bear on survey materials by coders making reference to “what everyone knows” about how the world works is quite rightly taken as under- mining survey researchers’ claims to operate using scientific, objec- tive, and formal sets of procedures. Such research only gets carried out on the basis of the everyday understandings it is meant to be pro- viding an objective and disinterested alternative to.
Garfinkel is not arguing that his observations constitute a criticism of mainstream sociology per se, because, if he is correct, they are inevi- table features of how sense gets made in any social context. He is, nev- ertheless, well aware that he places conventional sociology, particu- larly in its Durkheimian forms, in a difficult position. The issue is not that such sociology is wrong—merely that it is not qualitatively differ- ent to the kinds of statements about society any member of society might make. Garfinkel, therefore, is not criticizing conventional soci- ology in exactly the same way he is not criticizing mundane sense- making practices: it is a phenomenon for study rather than something ethnomethodology should compete with.
One reading of Garfinkel, particularly common in conversation analytic work, is that ethnomethodology has therefore set itself differ- ent tasks to those of mainstream sociology—tasks that can be carried out in more rigorous and “scientific” ways. The perspective is there- fore one that operates in explicit competition with conventional soci- ology and, sometimes, with “common sense.” Such a tendency is the focus of Lynch’s (1993) critique of the professionalized conversational analytic project.
“Practical” Ethnomethodology
Second, there are immanent tendencies within ethnomethodology seeking to make Garfinkel’s ideas more relevant to the requirements of conventional sociological and/or practical activities. Ironically, some advocates of these positions present their work as a “radicaliza- tion” of Garfinkel (Pollner 1991). Pollner’s (1975) discussion of how
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the worldviews of psychiatric patients are disregarded as delusional is an example of how such a position manifests itself. A patient’s claim that his psychiatrist cannot see him make a table levitate—because the latter is incapable of “seeing cosmic reality”—is considered with respect to the epistemological and political implications of ignoring the possibility of such a phenomenon. Here, Pollner argues, what is at issue is not “what really happened” but how the grounds for saying whether something happened or not are decided on. He goes on to argue that because such grounds cannot themselves be empirically verified, sociologists have no warrant to take for granted one set over another (typically the psychiatrist’s mundane attitude over the “delusions” of his or her patient). Indeed, for Pollner, to do so is to grant everyday political decisions the same status as conceptual distinctions.
Such argumentative strategies have already been widely criticized from within the ethnomethodological community (Coulter 1975; Cuff 1993; Bogen 1990). What is of particular relevance for the purposes of this argument is that Pollner sets his problem up in such a way as to make it appear that the two contending parties are offering alterna- tive, and equally viable, hypotheses about the workings of the world—and it is the job of the sociologist to design a method that will allow these alternatives to be studied. Although this appears to be a radical step—and, with regard to issues concerning the treatment of the insane, it certainly is—it represents a thoroughgoing retreat from Garfinkel’s methodological radicalism. Garfinkel and Sacks (1970) argued that sociologists should be “indifferent” to members’2 argu- ments, to prevent such positions from being taken. It is explicitly not the job of any sociologist to provide ironicizing versions of the same kinds of arguments as those of members of society, and by remaining “disinterested,” they are less likely to.
Equally, however, there is no reason members of society should be interested in ethnomethodological descriptions. “Although they would, they can have none of it” (Garfinkel 1967, 9). Pollner has no such qualms. By setting everyday reasoning up as a theoretical enter- prise, rather than as the background against which such theories are developed and used, he uses (some of) the content of Garfinkel’s arguments while ignoring the rationale that lies behind them. Out of fear of taking sides, ethnomethodology changes from being the study of practical actions into a far more political and philosophical enterprise.
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Generalization and Cumulativity
Finally, there is a problem with construing ethnomethodology as a program of studies related to one another by a particular (sub)disci- plinary rationale: all such suggested rationales have proved problem- atic. Should ethnomethodology have an overarching objective, and if so, what should it be? Three possibilities have been suggested.
First, the aim might be to locate and specify the “formal properties” of everyday activities (Garfinkel and Sacks 1970). An instance of such properties would be those Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974) iden- tified in the course of investigations into the organization of everyday conversation. Sacks was able to show how conversation is organized with respect to a normative orientation to simple formal rules for turn taking and how that “orientation” is locally and interactionally deter- mined. The rules do not determine how conversation is produced but show what formal properties it must have to be adjudged “success- ful.” Despite the emphasis of subsequent conversation analysis on the workings of this model, it can convincingly be argued that Sacks’s aim was to demonstrate the possibility of empirically locating such formal prop- erties, and the study of ordinary conversation as a topic in its own right was very much secondary to this.3 The problem with this approach on a programmatic level, however, is that no other organi- zational phenomena with comparable formality have been identified: subsequent studies have only provided more examples of the same phenomenon.
Perhaps showing an orientation to this, Garfinkel’s subsequent emphases for ethnomethodological studies have moved away from the identification of “formal features” toward the specification of “interactional work.” Studies are conducted to show how members’ formal accounts (reports, descriptions, scientific findings, and so on, collected under the rubric “glosses”) are the achieved outcomes of work. This interactional work is typically disregarded as irrelevant to its final product, and its excavation and description are now, for Garfinkel, the key topic of ethnomethodological investigation. The interest in this field, glossed under such headings as “Lebenswelt pairs” and “the alternately asymmetrical relationship between ethnomethodology and conventional enquiries” (Garfinkel and Wieder 1992), has developed into the study of scientific (Garfinkel, Lynch, and Livingston 1981) and mathematical (Livingston 1986) practices, and of “epistopics,” the mundane and situated counter- parts of traditional epistemological and methodological terms of ref-
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erence (Lynch 1993; Button 1991). Although these developments are interesting and fit well with the possibilities opened up by the ethnomethodological project, they represent an inevitable retreat from its earlier radicalism. They are not only parasitic on other disci- plines—mathematics, science, philosophy—but also, often, are pre- mised on the argument that the “scientific” is somehow more worth studying than the “mundane.”4 Ethnomethodology, in short, becomes the study of other disciplines, lacking a distinctive research topic of its own.
Ethnomethodology as a Tool Kit
Finally, ethnomethodology might be understood as something that provides a set of concepts for examining everyday activities “for their own sake”—and only for their own sake. Ethnomethodology gives analysts a way of looking at things to make them seem “anthro- pologically strange” (Garfinkel 1967). In short, it becomes something that allows what is very obvious to be examined in its own right, as a topic of sociological investigation. The point of this, however, often gets lost along the way. Ethnomethodology becomes a swinging cri- tique of other approaches, which lack its detail and rigor, but can only offer an empiricist solution to sociological problems. Much contem- porary conversation analytic work instantiates this approach, for instance, those studies of work settings (Drew and Heritage 1992) pre- mised on the notion that the bases of different interactional settings (e.g., counselor-client or lawyer-witness) are the ways the “rules” for conversational interaction are modified in those settings. Although these studies present themselves as providing a typology of forms of turn taking, they do so merely by providing slightly different instances of the same thing. Little effort is made to relate the findings of such studies analytically, and their novelty is premised on their downplaying the extent to which “institutional” talk is grounded in, and is an explicit normative modification of, its everyday counterpart (Schegloff 1992). They are “news” only to the extent that they provide an alternative means of conducting organizational analyses.
If Garfinkel’s initial aspirations to locate and classify the formal structures of practical actions have had to be abandoned, it appears as if ethnomethodology’s future must lie either in parasitism on other disciplines or on the scattershot approaches of latter-day conversa- tion analysis and “ethnomethodologically informed ethnography.” This possibility raises questions about whether Garfinkel’s initial
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problematic is as useful a starting point as it first appeared—and war- rants a reexamination of how ethnomethodology was conceived of in the first place.
The locus for considering these issues is the point of intersection between ethnomethodological inquiries and their “conventional” sociological counterparts.5 The key article dealing with these issues is Zimmerman and Pollner’s (1970) “The Everyday World as a Phenom- enon,” which presents the most developed argument about these relationships and which is taken by many as the definitive statement of how they might be resolved. This relationship is construed with respect to the relationship between “topic” and “resource” in socio- logical inquiry. Of the range of ethnomethodological treatments of this relationship, Zimmerman and Pollner’s is one of the most cited, and it is telling that no subsequent attempts to develop the issues they raise have been made in the years since its publication. In some senses, therefore, Zimmerman and Pollner’s argument has come to represent the ethnomethodological statement of intent concerning the relationships between their perspective and professional sociology more broadly.
One of ethnomethodology’s strengths has been to reveal how the resources members tacitly rely on to make sense of the social world need not be naively relied on by professional sociologists. This is not to imply that such resources are defective but to point out that their ana- lytical employment undermines claims to objectivity or an orienta- tion to methodological rigor construed in a positivistic manner. The distinction between ethnomethodology and conventional sociologi- cal inquiry thus parallels Schütz’s (1943) distinction between the “sci- entific” rationalities and their “commonsense” counterparts. Although the two are by no means incommensurable, there are some differences in their constitution, which map onto different norms of good investigatory practice. Such similarities are unproblematic in most scientific work, in which the products of everyday investigatory work can be “attached to nature” (Garfinkel, Lynch, and Livingston 1981). In sociology, however, things are more complicated.
The problem for sociologists is that their field of investigation, the everyday world, is both the primary topic of inquiry and the point of departure for those selfsame inquiries (Schütz and Luckmann 1973,
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1983). Analysts have to pull themselves up by their shoelaces, so to speak, to find a location from which they can effectively issue war- ranted propositions. Zimmerman and Pollner’s (1970) argument is that by unreflectively relying on the “unanalysed properties of natu- ral language” for their inquiries, sociologists make use of the every- day world as a resource for their inquiries and thus render sociology a folk discipline: one that can only transcend its commonsense roots at a rhetorical level.
If they are correct in this, sociologists can never gain enough ana- lytical leverage to consider their topics of investigation in ways that would allow them to differentiate their activities from anyone else’s. By making members’ inquiries their topic of investigation, therefore, Zimmerman and Pollner seek to shore up sociology’s claims to rigor—to examine, by a circuitous route, sociology’s own grounds. Their argument, then, is based on a consideration of how members encounter, recognize, produce, and orientate to the social world, con- strued in relation to two alternative ways of encountering such prac- tices: conventional sociology’s own and ethnomethodology’s, radi- cally different, position.
For ordinary members of society, as a “pretheoretical” given, the social world is organized as a collection of objective structures. Women, for instance, are not “female” just because of the “work” they do to achieve their gendered status but because that work is hidden: they are female simply because that is what they are.6 Things are broadly what they seem to be, and doubts are always particular and partial, based on previous assumptions failing to operate in changing situa- tions, rather than radically skeptical in a philosophical sense.
According to Schütz and Luckmann (1973), the possibilities of skeptical doubt are restricted by the assumption of reciprocity of per- spectives: how anyone sees the world is assumed, by them, to be how anyone else would see it were their locations switched—and further- more, it is assumed that the same assumption is held reciprocally by all other members. This intersubjective organization forms the basis for “objective” descriptions of the world, which achieve their objec- tivity to the extent that they are good enough for the purposes for which they were designed. Thus, for example, motives can be suc- cessfully assigned to members’ actions to the extent that they are “obvious” or activities seen as having their particular specifications depending on what rules they can “reasonably” be brought under the auspices of. Such ad hoc bases for sense making allow social struc- tures to be treated as if they were real.
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Members gear themselves into this interactionally constituted and collaboratively understood social world—a social world that is “always already there” as Merleau-Ponty has it—treating it as exter- nal and constraining, made up of structures with all the characteris- tics of Durkheimian social facts. Our definition will therefore sub- sume all that needs to be defined if it states:
A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint; or which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individ- ual manifestations. (Durkheim 1982)7
Zimmerman and Pollner (1970) argue that professional sociologists treat members’ experiences of these kinds as if they were valid epistemological categories—they treat as “really real” what is actu- ally just “real for members.” Although social structural phenomena can be problematized for heuristic, argumentative, or comparative purposes, their existence as real is not itself questioned. Consequently, a “vast order of activity” is excluded from analytical purview, socio- logical descriptions are little more than souped-up members’ accounts, and “professional” sociology’s claims to analytical superi- ority are merely rhetorical devices (pp. 86-87). What members say is treated as if it represented a propositional description of the social world and is thus used as a substitute for analysts’ own descriptions. The nature of members’ accounts is, therefore, excluded from analyti- cal purview (Sacks 1963), and the problems of sociological methodol- ogy appear to be ones of adequate translation—how to convert ver- nacular natural-language statements into formally logical propositional descriptions (Garfinkel 1967). Zimmerman and Pollner illustrate and elaborate this argument with reference to demography, survey research, and ethnography (pp. 88-92), demonstrating its applicability in each case.
Zimmerman and Pollner’s (1970) argument so far is representative of the position of committed ethnomethodologists: if sociologists inevitably end up using members’ understandings, categories, and methods in conducting their professional inquiries, it is incumbent on them as a disciplinary matter to investigate how those understandings, categories, and methods are produced and used. Zimmerman and Pollner’s argument and their candidate solution to the “problem” are both geared toward taking such concerns very seriously indeed—
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indeed, well more than half of their text is devoted to demonstrating the nature and extent of this problem (pp. 80-92).
What has been argued so far is now news to no one. Much of the furor that greeted Garfinkel’s (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology con- cerned ethnomethodology’s putative relationship to mainstream sociology, and the argument that “lay” and “professional” sociology should be treated as the same in ethnomethodological investigations is one of Garfinkel’s most scandalous ideas. That ethnomethodological studies orientate to mainstream sociology in this way (where they show such an orientation at all) is also common knowledge—the studies Zimmerman and Pollner themselves list are all perspicuous examples of this approach. What is more questionable in their argu- ment and, it will be argued, what has proved a baleful influence on the development of ethnomethodology since it was first presented is the notion that there might be a context-free means of “overcoming” this problem.
To that end, therefore, Zimmerman and Pollner’s (1970) argument concerning the solution of the topic-resource problem will be out- lined. They point out, first of all, that the “normal, natural facts of life” (p. 94) that members of society orientate to are objective conditions of action for those members. By using the concept of the “occasioned cor- pus of setting features” (henceforth occasioned corpus) they seek to “emphasise that the features of socially organised activities are partic- ular, contingent accomplishments of the production and recognition work of parties to the activity” (p. 94). This “corpus” is “occasioned” insofar as the social accomplishment of this apparent objectivity is an ongoing and in situ accomplishment: it does not rely on “knowledge, skill and belief” standing prior to and independent of the occasion of its use.
The point of the occasioned corpus is that it allows any setting to be considered from a point of view that treats every component of the set- ting as a whole as such an accomplishment. Nothing is “taken for granted” as “really” objective, factual, or context free. The externally constraining nature of the situations of our action is to be treated as just a feature of those situations and something that can itself be sub- jected to analysis: in what way is the objectivity of social settings something that is achieved by parties to those settings?
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What Zimmerman and Pollner are arguing is that any structural feature of any situation should be treated as if it were something that emerged from the activities of parties to that situation and that has no “existence” independently of those activities. Such structural features include such phenomena as participants’ ethnicity, gender, and age; roles and responsibilities; and the setting’s physical and organiza- tional content—in short, all the topics of conventional sociological inquiries.
They go on to state that
from the member’s point of view, a setting presents itself as the objec- tive, recalcitrant theatre of his actions. From the analyst’s point of view, the presented texture of the scene, including its appearance as an objec- tive, recalcitrant order of affairs, is conceived as the accomplishment of members’ methods for displaying and detecting the setting’s features. For the member the corpus of setting features presents itself as a prod- uct, as objective and independent scenic features. For the analyst the corpus is the family of practices employed by members to assemble, recognise, and realise the corpus-as-a-product.
Accordingly, from the point of view of the analyst, the features of the setting as they are known and attended to by members are unique to the particular setting in which they are made observable. Any feature of a setting—its perceived regularity, purposiveness, typicality—is conceived as the accomplishment of the work done in and on the occa- sion of that feature’s recognition. The practices through which a feature is displayed and detected, however, are assumed to display invariant properties across settings whose substantive features they make observable. It is to the discovery of these practices and their invariant properties that enquiry is to be addressed. Thus, instead of an ethnog- raphy that inventories a setting’s distinctive, substantive features, the research vehicle envisioned here is a methodography . . . that searches for the practices through which those substantive features are made observable. (Zimmerman and Pollner 1970, 95)
Zimmerman and Pollner (1970), therefore, analytically locate their concept with respect to one of ethnomethodology’s putative pro- grammatic objectives: the location of formal and generalizable prop- erties of practical actions (Garfinkel and Sacks 1970). They go on to provide a number of “recommendations” for the use of this concept in empirical investigations (pp. 95-99). It is largely on the basis of these that the concept is problematic and its centrality to ethnomethodology’s problems can be demonstrated. They are as follows:
1. The occasioned corpus should be treated as having no context-free ele- ments, that is, no elements that are separate to their situated use. In
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other words, regardless of how members treat them, structural fea- tures should not be treated as having an independent, external, con- straining existence (p. 95).
  1. The features of settings that members orientate to—“corpus” and “decorpus”—should not be treated as being a selection from a larger possible set. No such set exists separate to this work (pp. 95-96).
  2. Thus, no features from any particular setting can be generalized to other settings—the elements of any setting are uniquely assembled. Where members treat elements as “the same,” as in previous or alter- native settings, that “sameness” is as much of a member’s achievement as any other feature of the setting (pp. 96-97).
  3. The practices by which members use and orientate to setting features belong to a family of such practices that can be described and related formally (p. 97).
  4. Structural features of settings are “real,” “external,” “constraining,” and such—or, conversely, “fake,” “pretended,” “freely chosen”—as features of the ways they are treated. Their ontological status is some- thing sociologists should be agnostic about, as nothing hinges on this for sociological purposes (pp. 97-99).
  5. The occasioned corpus is not, therefore, merely a list of features of set- tings but also includes as a component part the “phenomenological textures” of those features: their “connectedness, objectivity, orderli- ness, and relevance” (p. 99).
For Zimmerman and Pollner, at least at first, this concept, taken with its rules of use, represents a form of phenomenological reduction. It allows settings to be organized with proper regard for their condi- tions and circumstances of production. Zimmerman and Pollner con- clude their discussion with a list of ethnomethodological studies (Sacks 1992; Wieder 1974; Pollner 1979) that, they claim, have been conducted using the occasioned corpus—explicitly or implicitly—as an organizing rubric.
Although the occasioned corpus is presented as solution to Zimmerman and Pollner’s problematic, its ambiguous features instantiate those of much ethnomethodological practice more gener- ally. These features are at the foundation of the problems identified at the beginning of this article and can be categorized under three head- ings: those associated with the positivist tradition, those associated with interpretations of Schütz, and those associated with the epistemological and ontological implications of methodological decisions.
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The Legacy of the Positivist Tradition
Zimmerman and Pollner’s invocation of the occasioned corpus is premised on an unexplicated view of what sociology should be doing. Although they argue that conventional sociologists are doing “the same thing” as any other member of society engaging in practical activities, they treat the former as answerable to particular rules of good methodological practice in ways the latter are not. In doing this, they breach their own guideline for the use of the occasioned corpus: treating criteria of “accuracy,” “objectivity,” and suchlike as things that are assembled and used by parties to the activities under investiga- tion. On one hand, therefore, they criticize and strive to correct the practices of professional sociology—while on the other they argue against subjecting practices to such criticism or correction when the criteria for such interventions are not “native” to the practices themselves.
This may not appear to be too much of a problem—it can be under- stood merely as a requirement that claims to relate more closely to the practices they are “about”—but, on a deeper level, it only has bite insofar as conventional sociology is set up as a straw man.8 Zimmerman and Pollner treat Durkheim’s injunction to treat social facts as real as if it were an assertion that social facts are real. By blur- ring the distinction between a methodological convenience and an ontological assertion, they can set ethnomethodology up to do every- thing mainstream sociology is supposed to do—only in a more rigor- ous and thoroughgoing way. This is only achieved by treating socio- logical inquiries as if, on one hand, they were just like any other everyday inquiry, while, on the other, they warrant particular analyti- cal attention and critical scrutiny.
The manner in which Zimmerman and Pollner set up their own project is more positivistic than it might at first appear to. In recom- mending the occasioned corpus, they appear to provide a mechanism for overcoming naive sociological assumptions. Such a recommenda- tion, however, is unworkable unless a clear positive criterion for descriptive quality exists. Zimmerman and Pollner here fall into the trap of assuming that there are clear criteria for the production of “better” descriptions.
Any description can be read as “adequate” depending on the crite- ria used to evaluate it (Sacks 1963). Thus, “longer” descriptions can be read as either “more detailed” or “verbose” while “shorter” ones as either “more terse” or “superficial.” Zimmerman and Pollner (1970,
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95-99) appeal to ideals of good practice in their advice concerning how to use the occasioned corpus but fail to provide criteria for what might constitute adequacy in this sense. This presents those who would use it with two related dilemmas. On one hand, there is no guarantee that any kinds of formal similarities between members’ corpusing activities can be found at all—which would make each and every study conducted under the auspices of the occasioned corpus merely a story rather than a contribution to a body of evidence. On the other, it is difficult to see how one could determine on an a priori basis what would constitute a “finished” description of a setting to provide the initial materials to locate such similarities in the first place. How many features might there be in a setting, and how would one know when they had all been accounted for? The assumption behind Zimmerman and Pollner’s argument, therefore, is that such a crite- rion exists—and, it must be assumed, this criterion itself must be con- text free, objective, acceptable to everyone, and so on.
What is at issue here is the sense in which Zimmerman and Pollner’s “problematic” only makes sense as a “problem.” When they argue that “just because” members treat social facts as real does not give professional sociologists a warrant to do the same, it is unclear whether they are saying
1. that such an assumption should be phenomenologically bracketed (held in abeyance to see what hinges on it) or
2. that such an assumption should be viewed skeptically (treated as incorrect unless it can be proved otherwise).
This is very important in terms of getting their argument going. If social facts are real, there is no problem with conventional (Durkheimian) sociology as it stands—it treats phenomena as they really are. If they are not, however, in that respect sociologists are mis- guided tout court. And—by extension—so are members of society. This effectively means inverting Durkheim’s aphorism: treat social facts as if they are illusory.
This might appear to be a very uncharitable reading of Zimmerman and Pollner’s argument. Why should a legitimate exer- cise in phenomenological bracketing be treated as if it were making any assertions about the veracity, reality, utility, and so forth of its topic of inquiry? Surely this is to misunderstand what such bracket- ing is all about? The legitimacy of this argument can perhaps be clari-
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fied and extended by considering how Zimmerman and Pollner inter- pret and use Schütz’s phenomenological writings.
The Uses of Schütz
The issue this raises centers on what is meant by “socially con- structed” or “socially constituted.” It should be remembered that members see their world, according to Schütz, in routine and uniform ways—through processes of typification. We return to “the same” place, with “the same” colleagues, day in and day out. This is not problematic—indeed, it means we do not need to work out what is going on in each and every setting we encounter, because such “work- ing out” is only required when how that setting operates cannot be brought under the auspices of a preexisting typical state of affairs. Schütz’s description of learning to “pass” in a different culture pro- vides an example of how previously unencountered settings and situ- ations are rendered typical and routine over time.
The point here is that there are enormous phenomenological differ- ences between familiar states of affairs and novel ones. Zimmerman and Pollner claim the occasioned corpus can handle such distinctions, but it only does so by rendering familiar situations really as novel ones that are treated as if they were familiar. The qualitative difference between the typical and the unusual, which is central to Schütz’s account of everyday understanding, is lost in theirs. In its place lies not merely a “flattening” but a methodological requirement that such typifications are treated as collective illusions as a methodological principle. The necessary background for all explanations and descrip- tions is brought into analytical purview only insofar as it is not treated as necessary, and ultimately, Zimmerman and Pollner’s arguments lead in the final analysis to the bases for ethnomethodological studies themselves being cast into similar doubt.9 The problem here is that this background provides a foundation for all forms of analysis, rather than posing an analytical problem in its own right—and one cannot cast it into question without that undermining one’s own arguments, if those arguments are premised on the possibility of being solved by empirical studies.
Once the sense of background understandings being the basis for practical activities is lost, a second step is taken. The reconstitution of the social world on a moment-by-moment basis is rendered a cogni- tive achievement rather than the outcome of a shared orientation to held-in-common understandings. It is on this basis that Zimmerman
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and Pollner treat what, for Schütz, was the real basis of the social world in a way that facilitates the kinds of conceptual moves “social constructionists” subsequently went on to make. That these are not entirely separate tendencies can be shown by considering Pollner’s (1975) article on the “politics of experience.” Here, Pollner questions how “delusions” are distinguished from “valid claims about reality,” in a manner that treats each as if they were the cognitive possession of those advancing claims about them. Under the auspices of the occa- sioned corpus, a collective delusion would be indistinguishable from a shared orientation to social-factual structures, something that pro- vides Pollner with his subsequent problematic.
For Schütz, of course, these matters are not so problematic. Key terms would not be epistemological or cognitive but the roles and sta- tuses of parties to the interaction: here, “psychiatrist” and “mental patient.” The patient is not “positing a radical departure from the con- ventions of the philosophy of perception” but is unable to account for his perceptions with proper respect for the norms of the everyday world. That is why he is a mental patient, and that is why his experiences are downgraded. Of course, under the rubric of the occasioned corpus, such statuses would themselves be bracketed and could not be used as analytical resources—although an unexplicated Cartesian dualism, of course, could.
Important to Zimmerman and Pollner’s account is their gaining analytical purchase by removing the normative organization of everyday understandings. Things are as they are not just because they are treated that way but because it is required that they be treated that way. A failure to adequately orientate to the tacit norms of everyday interaction does not appear to members of society as a challenge to their routines but as something deviant that must be corrected or explained away (Garfinkel 1967). By removing the normatively ordered sense of everyday activities and understandings, Zimmerman and Pollner leave themselves open to a further criticism.
Method, Epistemology, and Ontology
There is a traditional distinction between the “social” features of a situation and its “physical” or “material” composition—the former the disciplinary province of sociology and the latter of physics or chemistry (among others). Many matters that “count” as “members” of the latter category are “orientated to” by members insofar as their stability and continuity are a prerequisite of social interaction. The
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continuing effects of the law of gravity are, for instance, needed for most things to get done. Their effect should, surely, mean that they are “part” of the elements “corpused” by members in the course of their interactions. A further problem therefore emerges: how can it be decided what does or does not “count” as orientated to? Does the fact that members wear clothes “count” or only the kinds of clothes they are wearing? If the latter, how can such a selection be made without it relying on members’ orientations for its sense? Are only matters that are explicitly talked about ones that count? But surely this relies on members and analysts sharing a common language to be used as a methodological criterion, again bringing the grounds of the program of work into question.
How, one might ask, is the poor analyst to know what can legiti- mately be talked about in practice if he or she cannot use conventional theoretical resources (that, presumably, years at university honed into the fine tools they are today) or everyday understandings (that are ruled out of bounds as part of the topic-resource dichotomy’s very structure)? This issue is perhaps the heart of the matter.
Although it might make sense to doubt something’s existence against a taken-for-granted presupposition of the world being the way it clearly is, this is radically different to the kinds of philosophical doubt being discussed here. Although both can be glossed as “doubt- ing,” the latter depends on the assumption that “reality” is the same kind of thing as a proposition about something. This is not the case. To doubt systematically in a Cartesian manner is not to be “more rigor- ous” or “more careful”—it is to make a mistake about what doubt is. This is, in short, because doubting “everything” requires the use of analytical resources that themselves must, as aspects of “reality,” be subjected to such doubt themselves. Ultimately, such doubt can only be asserted to the extent that it itself is taken as separate to “reality.” Because that doubt clearly does exist (for it to be asserted), it must, however, be a part of that reality. In short, such arguments are logi- cally reducible to paradoxes. Wittgenstein (1974) provides a much more detailed examination of these kinds of issues.
Zimmerman and Pollner replace a typified, routine set of back- ground understandings with a kind of collective solipsism. It might be argued—and indeed it would be correct to argue—that there is nothing wrong with doing such a strange thing for methodological reasons. If such a strange move were to reveal things that otherwise would be invisible, its “strangeness” is irrelevant.
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The problem here is that this is merely another level of the ironicization Zimmerman and Pollner criticized in conventional soci- ology. Conventional sociologists, whose findings are contrary to “common sense,” pass those findings off as superior on the basis of the “scientific” (or, at least, more than ordinarily rigorous) status of their methods. For ethnomethodologists, this is enormously prob- lematic. Zimmerman and Pollner, however, seem to find principled reasons not to so disagree on specifics only by disagreeing with the entire mode in which members experience their world: as external and constrain- ing. The ways members make sense of their world are set up as if they constituted a theory—and then are treated as if that theory were itself being asserted philosophically.
This is the result of a third—and, for the purposes of the argument being presented here, final—way in which Zimmerman and Pollner reveal the ambiguities in much ethnomethodological argument. It is unclear whether the “unanalysed properties of natural language” are problematic as sociological resources because they are unanalyzed or because there is something wrong with them. Zimmerman and Pollner claim the former, but the latter possibility is never far from the surface. Whether conventional sociology is methodologically loose or just plain wrong is left open, as is the ontological status of the occasioned corpus. If it is not understood as, in some way, being a theoretical description of how the world “is,” Pollner’s (1975, 1991) subsequent work—at least—makes little sense.
Zimmerman and Pollner, it should be remembered, claim to be agnostic with regard to the “objective” existence of social structures because their existence cannot be demonstrated independently of the occasions of their use. Nevertheless, in claiming that such structures are “brought to life” solely because they are so used, they make what is perhaps an unnecessarily large step. It amounts to an assertion that because such structures cannot be studied independently of their use, then on the occasions of their use they are “brought into existence.” For the purposes of a methodological convenience, this appears reason- able, but insofar as methodological commitments can be interrogated as epistemological claims, it is anything but.
Zimmerman and Pollner do not wish to defend members’ under- standings against analysts’ ironicizing interventions—this is not the problem. Instead, their complaint is that analysts’ understandings might be tainted by their unexplicated grounds: those drawn from the realm of common sense. If epistemological certainty could be found, Zimmerman and Pollner would have a legitimate starting point for
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analysis. Because it is lacking, this problematic—how to maximize the legitimacy of arguments—becomes a problem: how can certainty be found. The skepticist overtones of the occasioned corpus stem from this slippage. The desire for transcendence—being able to view what is going on from a point of view of epistemological security—strips sociologists of their recourse to commonsense understandings and, prevented from using unexplicated resources for analysis, leaves them with no choice but to appeal to philosophical “certainties.” The appeal of the kinds of philosophy that deal in such certainties stems from this initial requirement.
The fundamental problem with construing the ethnomethodological project in terms of the relationship between sociological topics and methodological resources is that of how natural language is to be treated. If it must be examined prior to its use as a sociological resource and cannot itself be used as a resource for conducting such an anal- ysis, sociology is left with neither topic nor resource. There is no way of “getting out” of the social world and, therefore, no way of viewing it without running the risk of its commonsense mode of understanding tainting analytical work.
Without the “corpusing” and “decorpusing” of setting elements, it would appear Zimmerman and Pollner are arguing that the social world has no “real” existence—or would be something like James’s “blooming, buzzing confusion.” A plenum, to use Garfinkel’s (1996) term—a disorganized, chaotic confusion from and against which order and stability are constructed—is being offered as the alternative to an analytic account of the production of order. And just as Garfinkel asked, who needs a plenum? Certainly not members of society, who are not permanently on the brink of falling into disor- derly and confused semantic paralysis. It seems that if anyone needs a plenum, it is constructive sociologists, who use the concept as a means of demonstrating the analytical utility of their theoretical accounts of why we are not plagued with such chaos. Something like a theory of order is required, because without it the world would look like chaos—as if something that a theory could account for were all that could avert such chaos.
This is the heart of the problem with ethnomethodology: how can one avoid analytically taking matters for granted, while not making
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those matters out to be “problems” in their own right? It is one that the sociology of scientific knowledge also has to address, and with simi- lar epistemological and methodological consequences (see, for instance, Woolgar and Ashmore 1988; Lynch 1993).
In conclusion, therefore, it is perhaps worth bringing one of Garfinkel’s arguments back to the forefront of this debate, one that finds a distorted parallel in Pollner’s argument about the veracity of mental patients’ delusions. Analytical terms can be related in all kinds of ways and still provide theoretically adequate accounts of the same “facts.” Given this, there is no reason to regard any one theory as inherently superior to any other—unless one is serious about the pur- suit of empirical studies. If one is serious, a criterion for making such a decision does exist: whatever methodological, epistemological, or conceptual decisions maximize the range of theoretical questions that can be solved by empirical investigations should be treated as correct (Garfinkel 1952, chap. 1-4).
The occasioned corpus is problematic to the extent that it is an attempt to find a principled, generic, theoretical solution to what are, in fact, localized and practical problems for analysis. “The world” is talked about as if it were a “something” that members orientate to—as if Schütz was talking about an overarching epistemological decision members make on questions of existence, appearance, reality, illu- sion, and so on. This was not the case. Schütz was characterizing the collectively enforced mode of reasoning that members operate within when going about their everyday tasks.
The point is not that members do not operate in the kinds of ways Zimmerman and Pollner, and their later skepticist followers, empha- size. Rather, there is no need to construe that as a closed system of meaning. To do so does not make one “more rigorous” or to “take matters to their logical conclusion” but to make a mistake. Members do not operate on the basis of an epistemological theory but rather have certain grounds for their actions that can be redescribed in theoretical terminology. This is the difference between a Schützian “attitude” and what would constitute a philosophical hypothesis. Members’ activities are more or less rational, more or less useful, and more or less successful for practical purposes. To take them as a context-free and logically determinate form of reasoning is to simply misunderstand what “practical purposes” are. They are, of course, just the kinds of things Garfinkel (1967) called ad hoc reasoning—to distinguish them from the kinds of logical propositional forms found in, for instance, theoretical physics.
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One of the features of the occasioned corpus, therefore, is that it is presented as a generalized solution to the problem of sociological description insofar as it can handle the principled separation of socio- logical topics and analytical resources. A fundamental issue here is that the concept is introduced as a solution to other problems, not as something that should stand or fall as a theoretical instrument to be considered on its own merits. To the extent that Zimmerman and Pollner claim it can get around the problems of constructive sociology, they can legitimize its use. When considered as a theoretical construct in its own right, however, it is clearly incoherent—and the incoher- ence it instantiates is at the heart of the “problems” with ethnomethodology isolated at the beginning of this article.
Although it might seem somewhat threadbare as an alternative, ethnomethodology might reconstitute itself better on the basis of something like Bittner’s (1965) solution to the same problem Zimmerman and Pollner pose: if studying a particular setting, only use social phenomena from other settings to gain analytical purchase on it. Although this might not provide a means of getting ethnomethodology out of its current impasse(s), it provides a firmer foundation both for empirical study and for ethnomethodology to reconsider its minimally theoretical roots. At the very least, it will allow a clearer separation to be made between the social constructionism of, for instance, discourse analysis on one hand and ethnomethodology on the other.10
1. For Woolgar, of course, these are merely specific cases of the problems they raise for investigatory disciplines more generally.
2. Including conventional or “constructive” sociologists.
3. I am grateful to Wes Sharrock and John Lee for their suggestions concerning the importance of seeing Sacks’s work as a methodological demonstration.
4. Garfinkel’s arguments on this point are well summarized in Lynch (1993).
5. Here, “conventional” means “lay and professional,” that is, those inquiries con- ducted into the workings of the social world by ordinary members of society and pro- fessional sociologists. The distinction between the two, it should be remembered, is not acknowledged in ethnomethodology.
6. See Garfinkel’s (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology (chap. 5) for an account of how this might be examined empirically.
7. Garfinkel (1996) has increasingly emphasized the externally constraining, objec- tive characteristics of socially constituted phenomena—characteristics that are the
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achieved outcomes of members’ interactional work. Although “socially constructed,” they are “real” for members in exactly the sense Durkheim intended.
8. Indeed, what constitutes “closeness of fit” between claims and practices is itself something that is “internal” to practical activities. Compare, for instance, shaking a bot- tle of ketchup to loosen its contents with handling radioactive materials.
9. This is, of course, insofar as ethnomethodological accounts cannot be based on a privileged analytical position, something that only seems to be achievable at the level of rhetoric (Dennis 2001).
10. Such a separation is implied by Lynch’s (2000) discussion of the uses of reflex- ivity by a variety of sociologists.
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Alex Dennis is a lecturer in sociology in the Department of Behavioural Sciences at the University of Huddersfield. His book, Making Decisions about People, is published by Ashgate.