Sociological Epistemology: Durkheim's Paradox and Dorothy E. Smith's Actuality by Hart and McKinnon


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Sociological Epistemology: Durkheim's Paradox and Dorothy E. Smith's Actuality
Randle J. Hart and Andrew McKinnon
Sociology 2010 44: 1038 DOI: 10.1177/0038038510381609
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Sociology
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Sociological Epistemology: Durkheim’s Paradox and Dorothy E. Smith’s Actuality
  • ❚  Randle J. Hart
    Southern Utah University, USA
  • ❚  Andrew McKinnon University of Aberdeen, UK
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ABSTRACT
Emile Durkheim first outlined the problem of the categories for sociologists after Kant: how do we acknowledge the socially constituted nature of all knowledge and yet still make claims about social reality? In Durkheim’s late work he identifies two opposite responses to this problem: empiricism, which denies the problem; and idealism (or constructionism), which finds it difficult to talk about anything beyond
Tour conceptions of social conceptions. In this article we argue that the sociological work of Dorothy E. Smith provides a better solution to this problem than Durkheim does. Her work provides a useful map for studying social ‘actuality’ without succumb- ing either to relativism or to naïve realism, all the while maintaining the possibility of telling the truth about the actual social world.
KEY WORDS
categories / concepts / Dorothy E. Smith / Durkheim / epistemology / institutional ethnography / feminist theory / social constructionism
Sometime in the late 1980s, social theoretical debate on epistemology and social ontology ceased to guide the practices of much sociological research.1 As Reed and Alexander write:
There was ... a deep change of mood, a shift in the structure of feeling of sociologists, a vague yet powerful sense that the time for crisis and renewal had passed, that the hopes and dreams of theory belonged to a different time. (2009: 24)
1038
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The result has been the development of sociological practices marked by empir- ical pursuits that do not often include epistemological justification. We have shifted from a discipline in which healthy debates about how we know the world – and what assumptions we can make about how the world exists – were part of the background for empirical research, to a reality wherein such ques- tions are no longer interesting to a great many sociologists.
When a large number of sociologists are uninterested in pondering the philosophical foundations of their practices, we are essentially acting on faith that our disciplinary heroes got it right and that, as empirical sociologists, we no longer need to reflect on the epistemological foundations of our researches. In turn, our sociologies become divided between epistemology and empirical investigation. When sociologists are willing to disavow epistemological theory altogether in favour of faith in any one tradition of knowing, we risk a crisis of relevancy in so far as the justification for our truth claims becomes traditional knowledge (Lynd, 1939). When we cease considering important epistemologi- cal problems (and stop training new sociologists to enter into epistemological debates), we risk being unable to articulate our philosophies of knowing while also being unable (and unwilling) to understand and consider the philosophies of our sociological sisters and brothers.
Although there have been perennial epistemological debates throughout sociology’s history, an unresolved paradox of knowing was outlined long ago by one of our discipline’s founders. Emile Durkheim provides the classic state- ment on the two major epistemological poles, empiricism and social construc- tionism, and their inadequacy for dealing with what he takes as sociology’s fundamental epistemological problem. If we understand the world through socially constructed concepts, are our sociological concepts just secondary social constructs (a metavocabulary) for understanding the primary social con- structions as they are used by social actors? Or, can sociologists make true (objective) claims about social actuality? The two responses to this problem, as Durkheim describes it, are to deny the problem (empiricism), or to surrender to it (idealism/constructionism).
Durkheim has his own solution, arguing that these opposed epistemological responses reflect an ontological ‘dualism of the human condition’, a solution we find intriguing but unsatisfactory. Several theorists, including, among others, Adorno (O’Connor, 2004), Deleuze (Gane, 2009), Habermas (Bernstein, 1983), Marx (Bhaskar, 1986; Sayer, 1978), and the critical realist theorists (Archer, 1995), have proposed maps for a middle ground between the poles of empiri- cism and constructivism, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. We argue that Dorothy E. Smith’s under-appreciated epistemological position maps a traversable via media between the opposing dangers of empiricism and social constructionism.
Smith offers a classically rooted epistemological position that links the visceral to the symbolic through ongoing and shared epistemological practices – a position that deserves far more attention than it has received to date. Indeed, we take a Smithian approach to Durkheim’s problem and argue that the shared
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act of referring to the world links an objective historical-material reality to our shared descriptions and awareness of it. When we refer to the world in concert, we coordinate practices of knowledge creation and align our consciousnesses. In so far as our ways of knowing are useful and communicable, we understand a world in common, even if only momentarily. It is our capacity to express a world in common that provides the major reason why Durkheim’s duality of the human condition is misguided, and it also provides a road out of the para- dox his theory was meant to solve.
Smith’s argument has important implications for sociological research, but also for emancipatory politics (feminist, socialist, anti-racist, etc.). Her theoreti- cal work provides a means of conceiving the discursive nature of social life (and the operations of power) without giving up a notion of ‘truth’. Smith’s differ- ences with ‘postmodern’ feminist theorists such as Patricia Clough, Joan Scott and Judith Butler (cf. Butler and Scott, 1992; Clough, 1993; Smith, 1993, 1999: 96–130, 2005: 123–44) centre precisely on her suggestion that we can recognize the discursive nature of sociological knowledge without relinquishing the right to speak the truth of social actuality. To deny the possibility of understanding the social world would preclude the possibility of sociological discovery, but also deny us the political capacity to name new experiences and forms of oppression.
Durkheim’s Outline of the Key Epistemological Problem for Sociology and Proposed Solution
In his ‘Dualism of Human Nature and its Social Conditions’ (originally published in 1914), Emile Durkheim defends his recently published book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) against critics that he argues have miscon- strued its argument. Durkheim contends that his critics have misunderstood that the central notion of the Forms is the duality of the human condition, and this has resulted in some unfair appraisals of his work. While one must dig pretty deep in the Elementary Forms to find this ‘principle on which [Durkheim claims his book] was based’ (Durkheim, 2005[1914]: 35), his essay is important for the argument he makes about this dualist human condition and its bearing on the central conundrum of social-scientific epistemology.
The crux of the problem Durkheim addresses is this: how do we recognize the social constitution of the categories of perception without getting trapped by the categories, such that we are left stranded at vertiginous heights with nothing but concepts ‘all the way down’. If our perceptions of reality are all socially constituted, how then do we make verifiably true claims about (social) ‘reality’? On the one hand, extreme constructionists might argue that all we can do is study the concepts using yet more concepts. On the other hand, extreme empiricists tend to deny the problem altogether. Neither solution has seemed satisfactory to a great many sociologists. Durkheim’s solution was to suggest that the problem represented a duality of human nature, and as such the problem was itself the key to unlocking the mysteries of the social.
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In the ‘Dualism’ essay, Durkheim ponders an ontological problem that he suspects theologians and philosophers (as well as many reflective lay people) have long intuited: we are neither fully for ourselves nor fully for society. The essential argument of Durkheim’s essay is that the time-honoured view of human beings as homo-duplex, appropriately interpreted, does have scientific merit. Durkheim claims that philosophers and theologians have sensed some- thing quite true, although in distorted form, when they have argued that human beings are body-soul, or beast-angel. For Durkheim, this dualism reflects the human condition as individual (beast, body, egoism) and society (angel, soul, altruism) – two contending forces between which we are ever pulled. For Durkheim, these two sides have a number of different dimensions, including the material-spiritual, and egoistic-moral. In his discussion of the latter (egoistic- moral) dualism, Durkheim highlights how Kantian his thinking on such matters has become: what is moral is that which is ‘open to universalisation’.
We have two dimensions of consciousness which express this duality, Durkheim argues. One expresses our organism and its immediate experience. The other expresses our social nature; this originates beyond our visceral expe- rience and attaches us to a collective experience. One state of consciousness is dominated by our body; the other is dominated by society through shared rep- resentations. For Durkheim, it is essentially through concepts (collective repre- sentations) that the social world forms our consciousness and does battle with our individuality (egoism, visceral experience). The social, however, is always at risk when it enters anyone’s consciousness and its concepts are individualized – ‘each of us puts our own imprint on them’ (2005: 43). Rites and ceremonies (social routines and habits) keep idiosyncratic imprints from diverging too far from collective representations. Society thereby ensures that each of us will not too often use concepts (once learned) just as we please.
For William James, a newborn’s perceptions of the world are nothing but a ‘bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion’ (1983: 462) because they have not learned to organize their perceptions by means of concepts. In the Elementary Forms, Durkheim takes a strikingly similar position when he argues that:
Perceptible representations are in perpetual flux; they push each other like currents in a stream, and while they last they are constantly transformed. Each one is a func- tion of the precise moment it takes place. We are never certain of finding a percep- tion again as we first experienced it; for if the thing perceived has not changed, it is we who are no longer the same. ([Conclusion III] 2001[1912]: 328)
Perceptions are individual, and ephemeral, experiences; the concept, on the other hand, is ‘outside of time and becoming’. It is the anchor for our percep- tion because it transcends the individual: ‘To think conceptually is not simply to isolate and group together qualities common to a certain number of objects; it is to subsume the variable to the permanent, the individual to the social’ (2001[1912]: 334). That our concepts are social should be fairly self- evident, Durkheim argues, because concepts come from our shared language; language is a ‘collective elaboration’ that expresses the way society as a whole
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experiences the world, or as Durkheim puts it ‘imagines the objects of experi- ence’ (2001[1912]: 330).
If Durkheim held that all there was to the world was the way we ‘imag- ine the objects of experience’, and nothing beyond those imaginings, this would make him, in his terms, an ‘idealist’, though we would probably refer to this as a social constructionist position. But for Durkheim, sociology, like its object of study is a ‘monster of contradictions’, in Pascal’s phrase (2005[1914]: 38). The objects of experience are not reducible simply to the representations we make of them, and this is the claim of the opposite pole: empiricism. Thus:
We do not understand except through concepts. But sensory reality is not cut out to enter spontaneously and by itself into the framework of our concepts. It resists this and to make it pliant with it, we must force it to some extent, submit it to all sorts of laborious operations that alter it to make it assimilable by the mind, and we never manage to triumph completely over its resistance. Our concepts never succeed in mastering our sensations and translating them completely into intelligible terms. They take a conceptual form only if they lose that which is most concrete in them, that which gets them heard by our sensory being and moves it to action: they become something fixed and dead. (Durkheim, 2005[1914]: 38)
Durkheim’s reason for rejecting empiricism should be clear: perceptions that are not framed by concepts are purely individual and fleeting. Without concepts, we cannot be sure that we see the same thing as our fellows, and even if we could be sure of this, we should not be able to communicate about our purely individual experience. Science, including social science, is, for this reason, an inescapably social endeavour. Empiricism in fact relies on socially ordered per- ceptions of the world, although it is unable to admit as much. To put this in contemporary terms, while there may be theory-neutral experience, there can be no theory-neutral experience or observation in science, especially in so far as science requires communication.
While his criticisms of empiricism (including his own earlier programmatic methodological statement, 1965[1895]) are damning, Durkheim recognizes that empiricism nonetheless poses a serious, even insurmountable, challenge to constructionism: if our perception of the world is organized by concepts, where do the perceptions so organized come from? Few would want to argue that they are nothing but illusions. Further, Durkheim suggests, concepts never manage to fully capture our bodily experiences and sensations. We must adapt shared representations to meet the exigencies of our own needs, and to make sense of our bodily and individual experience. This imperfect fit means that we ply con- cepts to describe sensations and our individual experience, and in so far as we do this, we realize the inadequacy of shared language. That we have no option but to use shared representations to describe our selves to ourselves is itself a sign that society has a hold on us – our inner voice speaks the language of society, even as it fails to do so perfectly.
In Durkheim’s rendition of Kant, our social concepts constitute reason and give us phenomena (the appearance of things), but our bodies provide us with
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sensations of the noumena beyond our conceptions of them. Although these per- sonal sensations are inchoate without the social concepts that help us make sense of them, they are nonetheless real sensations. Thus, Durkheim writes: ‘It is evi- dent that passions and egoistic tendencies derive from our individual constitution, while our rational activity, whether practical or theoretical, is closely dependent on social causes’ (2005: 44). But, for Durkheim, ‘given that we possess an apti- tude to live both a personal and an impersonal life, what we need to know is not what name it is suitable to give these contrary aptitudes, but how they coexist in one and the same being, despite their opposition’ (2005: 41). Thus, the antinomy remains, and can only be comprehended by understanding this individual-social duality as both the root of the paradox and as itself a means for understanding the individual in the social world. The antinomy with which philosophers have long grappled becomes, for Durkheim, the starting point for sociological analysis.
Durkheim’s solution to this problem is not very convincing, for two primary reasons. First, like most sociologists, we do not find the relationship of individual to society conceived best as an antinomy. While there are undoubtedly moments of opposition, the individual and the social are mutually constitutive, rather than being radically opposed to one another (cf. Berger and Luckmann, 1967; Elias, 2000). Unless we can accept Durkheim’s assumption that the individual and society are distinct and opposed entities, obeying their own laws and existing together only as an antinomy, Durkheim’s argument quickly becomes unglued.
The second problem with Durkheim’s ‘solution’ is that he ‘solves’ the epis- temological problem by turning it into an ontological one. As such, he does not answer the fundamental questions about how we as sociologists may know, but instead he simply asserts that the difficulties we have with knowing are inherent in the (dualist) human condition. It does not, therefore, seem inappropriate to ask how he knows that this is the case.
If Durkheim’s critiques of the inadequacies of both the empiricist and con- structionists positions are compelling, and we think that they are, but his solu- tion to the problem is not, where does this leave us? While some empirical social scientists continue to cling to an unreconstructed empiricism that serves limited pragmatic purposes, among some theorists, the balance seems to have swung towards the constructivist pole, particularly after the ‘linguistic turn’ (Rorty, 1979) in the human sciences. But we must also recognize that there are serious dangers here, too. Especially since this leads to proposals that ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are inescapably relative to the context of their production and the games we play in defending them. It is difficult to know, however, how social scientific discoveries can be made in this way, or indeed how we can learn any- thing new, since the categories of perception are preordained by society.
Dorothy E. Smith’s Epistemology between Realism and Constructivism
Dorothy E. Smith has developed a sophisticated, reflexive critique of sociology, as well as offering a productive new vision for sociological research (institutional
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ethnography). Contrary to some popular renditions of Smith as an advocate of ‘standpoint epistemology’, her sociology is by no means a relativism premised on women’s subjective experience (Lemert, 1992). Rather, Smith has long argued that all knowledge is socially produced and coordinated (1990b) and that soci- ologists must focus attention on how the social world is ‘actually’ put together (2004). By focusing on the historical-material and emergent nature of knowledge creation and communication (including within sociology), as well as on the simultaneous articulation of inter-subjective consciousnesses, Smith’s work, we argue, avoids being relativist without becoming naively empiricist.
Smith’s analysis of contemporary society is her own, and not merely a syn- thesis (Hill-Collins, 1992) of previous thinkers. Nonetheless, her theoretical and empirical research have clearly emerged from her ongoing conversations with Marx (as well as Bakhtin, and Vološinov virtually alone among the Marxists), George Herbert Mead, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and ethnomethodology. Through sophisticated readings of Marx and Mead in particular, she develops the dialec- tical interplay of constructionism and realism, and these become key resources for her critique of sociology and her rejection of postmodern constructivism. Smith’s work recognizes (at least implicitly) the empiricist and constructivist responses that Durkheim analyses but she provides a novel way of understand- ing them; and her work contains the tools for an epistemology that allows us to cut a route between the elements of Durkheim’s dualistic paradox without proposing an a-historic ‘dualism of human nature’.
Smith has long argued that all knowledge is inevitably socially negotiated, using examples such as Helen Keller and so-called ‘feral’ children (1999: 96–130, 2005: 78–98) to show that language use is essential for knowing. Without the coordination of subjectivities provided by shared concepts, we would indeed be left with the transient perceptions that Durkheim describes. Thinking in Smithian terms, we could also recognize the social as Durkheim describes it, but it would need to be radically reinterpreted. Durkheim argues that ‘[t]o think conceptually is not simply to isolate and group together qualities common to a certain number of objects; it is to subsume the variable to the permanent, the individual to the social’ (2001[1912]: 334). These concepts are ‘outside of time and becoming’ and for that reason they organize social relations from beyond immediate personal experience. In Smith’s terms, the power of concepts to dominate and coordinate is characterized as ‘the ruling relations’, and she understands these in much more critical terms than Durkheim does (discussed later). At the same time, however, language itself, for Smith, is never conceived outside of time and place; it is part of historical-material reality. Indeed, language is material in so far as it is textual, auditory, electronic and so on (Smith, 2004: 458).
For Smith, recognizing and negotiating a world in common is a social act, but she has no need to leap across the abyss lying between the solipsistic con- sciousness of the ‘bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion’ to the solid bank of ‘society’; rather, she argues that much of the work of knowing happens through the coor- dination of subjectivities in face-to-face interaction. This coordination of sub- jectivities is different from, and indeed sometimes sets itself in opposition to, the
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relations of ruling. Conceiving the social relations of knowledge in this way does not entail a denial of the poles that Durkheim identifies, but it does require a significant redescription of his understanding of social concepts.
Relations of Ruling
Women’s experiences provide the starting point for Smith’s sociology, but this subject position is most useful, not because a gendered epistemology is privi- leged, but because it makes the ‘ruling relations’ visible and thus an object of knowledge and communication. Smith’s analysis of the ruling relations empha- sizes the distinctive textuality of power; ruling relations are structured by sets of expert knowledge, bureaucratic categories, organizational policies and forms that must be completed. Moreover, these texts are material and populate the world they help coordinate; the ruling relations are much more than ruling ideas. Smith writes that:
...the ruling relations form a complex field of coordinated activities, based in tech- nologies of print, and increasingly, in computer technologies. They are activities in and relation to texts, and texts coordinate them as relations. Text mediated relations are the forms in which power is generated and held in contemporary societies. Printed or electronic texts have the generally neglected property of infinite replica- bility. Replicability of infinite forms of meaning that can be activated in multiple local settings is fundamental to the ruling relations. The materiality of the text and its replicability create a peculiar ground in which it can seem that language, thought, culture, formal organization, have their own being, outside lived time and the actu- alities of people’s living – other than, as the latter become, objects of action or investigation within the textual. The material text creates a join between the local and particular, and the generalizing and generalized organization of the ruling rela- tions. (1999: 79)
This is not simply bureaucracy (and certainly not Weber’s version of it); Smith is much closer to Marx, who charts a trajectory by which ruling relations become more impersonal, or where personal relations are mediated through abstract categories, like money. This has only become truer, subsequent to Marx’s life: the corporation, the stock market, the education system (to choose three) are all administered textually, and by means of abstract categories, forms, texts, memos and reports.
In Smith’s account, textual relations of ruling appear to ‘have their own being, outside lived time and the actualities of people’s living’ (1999: 79), bear- ing more than passing resemblance to Durkheim’s understanding of ‘society’. But Durkheim’s ‘society’ is in some respects under-explicated, especially in so far as he largely ignores the textuality of power relations in advanced societies. Durkheim finds the origins of ‘society’ in ritual, collective effervescence and collective representations. Smith, however, asks how specific societies are made possible. It is only within contemporary, complex societies, for instance, that power relations can be embedded in texts that have the capacity to organize peoples’ lives, actions, and consciousnesses.
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For Smith, concepts and symbols do not only represent, rather, they are the primary means of action within text-mediated power relations. In the corporate world actions entail reading reports, making decisions, and taking action by filling out forms, balancing budgets, writing further reports and policy state- ments, designing organizational charts, or sending letters, memos and emails. None of this requires the co-presence of another person, indeed it can be done entirely within this hyper-real (non-)space of the ruling relations (Smith, 2005). Domination is conceptual but, as Mills (1959) wrote of social issues and personal troubles in The Sociological Imagination, it also has a real (and observable) impact on the actual world – the worker is disciplined or made ‘redundant’, the manager gets the stock-option facilitating the purchase of a nicer car, the student is expelled or given a scholarship. But the coordinated effects in the real world are mediated by the hyper-real world where abstract symbols are manipulated in texts. In her classic essay, ‘K is Mentally Ill’, first published three decades ago in Sociology (1978; 1990a), Smith demonstrates just how perceptions may be coordinated by various genres of ‘accounting’ for human behaviour – including the accounts of social science. The result, as she so poignantly writes, is the actual control of ‘K’.
The way that gender intersects with the relations of ruling is vital for Smith’s claim that there is particular value in beginning analysis with the expe- riences of women (Smith, 1987). Over the past several hundred years as this text-based mediation of ruling relations has developed, women have been sys- tematically excluded from, but positioned in relation to, these conceptual prac- tices. Smith writes:
The suppression of the local and particular as a site of knowledge has been and remains gender organized. The domestic sites of women’s work, traditionally identi- fied with women, are outside and subservient to this structure. Men have functioned as subjects in the mode of governing; women have been anchored in the local and particular phase of the bifurcated world. It has been a condition of a man’s being able to enter and become absorbed in the conceptual mode, and to forget the dependence of his being in that mode upon his bodily existence, that he does not have to focus his activities and interests upon his bodily existence. Full participation in the abstract requires liberation from attending to needs in the concrete and par- ticular. (1990b: 18).
It is clear that women’s home-work – care for the well-being of children and the men who go off to work in offices that coordinate relations of ruling – has been preoccupied primarily with the particular needs of particular people at particu- lar times. But Smith observes that much of women’s paid work:
... mediates between the abstracted and conceptual and the material form in which it must travel to communicate. Women do the clerical work, the word processing, the interviewing for the survey; they take messages, handle the mail, make appoint- ments and care for patients. (1990b: 18–19)
In short, women do the ‘people work’ and ‘body work’ that mediate the abstract activities of the ruling relations. Both as women work to bridge the two worlds
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so organized – the abstract, seemingly disembodied relations of ruling and the particular, embodied world of everyday/everynight life – and as they discover that it is impossible for them to fully exit from actual reality into the transcend- ent relations of ruling, a divided or bifurcated consciousness is formed.
This bifurcation of consciousness is not entirely unlike Durkheim’s duality of the human condition, but Smith recognizes the specific historic and social causes of it. The duality that Durkheim describes is not inevitable and universal, but social, historic, and gendered. As Smith writes:
Entering the governing mode of our kind of society lifts actors out of the immediate, local, and particular place in which we are in the body. What becomes present to us in the governing mode is a means of passing beyond the local into the conceptual order. This mode of governing creates, at least potentially, a bifurcation of con- sciousness. It establishes two modes of knowing and experiencing and doing, one located in the body and in the space it occupies and moves in, the other passing beyond it. (1990b: 17)
In the 1970s, for Smith, working as a professor at the University of British Columbia and with sole responsibility for two young boys at home, the division between these two worlds became the starting point for a sociology beginning with women’s experience. By virtue of its need for abstract categories and objec- tive perspective (a perspective rigidly divided from the actuality of everyday/ everynight experience of looking after two kids), sociology seemed to be part of, or at least embedded in, the problem.
Where Durkheim sees ‘society’ abstractly, Smith populates the relations of ruling with real people with real forms of knowledge who create and coordinate the actual social world as they work. Society is achieved concretely; it is actual social relations. As part of the matrix of expert systems within this conceptual realm sociology itself participates in the ruling relations in so far as sociologists are at work to name social processes; sociology shares the problematic (in the Althusserian sense) of ruling, rather than beginning from the problematic of everyday life, or the actuality of being ruled and governed. Starting with the experience of women grounds the sociological enterprise in everyday/everynight actualities, and provides a starting point for understanding how these everyday actualities are coordinated extra-locally by the relations of ruling.
Smith’s corrective was not simply to add the gender variable, but instead of beginning with sociology’s abstract theoretical categories and objective (view from nowhere) methods, she began with the problematic of everyday life (1987, 2004). Much of mainstream sociology can be criticized for its tendency to reify (not Smith’s term) concepts. Verbs become nouns, processes become things: ‘organization, institution, meaning, order, conflict, and power’ (2004: 55). Terms like ‘role, rule, norm and so on’ are treated as phenomena existing ‘out there’ independent of any concrete action. Patterned actions are seen as exam- ples of rule- or norm-obeying behaviour. Analytic concepts like ‘bureaucracy’ become not just sociologists’ tools, but are seen as real entities in the world. The ideologists give such concepts explanatory power: something happens because
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of bureaucracy, globalization, heterosexism, or utility-maximizing; these are conceptual names we might give to certain phenomena – but they are by no means explanations. When we treat them as such we are giving sociologists’ concepts causal power; the concepts act, people cease to.
This creates a number of major blind-spots, not least of which is the textual organization, and domination, of people in everyday life by means of the very abstract concepts in which and with which sociologists ply their trade – a prob- lem Giddens has termed the ‘double hermeneutic’ (1984). Social organization, by means of state and corporate powers, coordinates people’s actions independ- ent of their face-to-face everyday/everynight relations. When sociologists take their abstract concepts for granted, using them as a means for understanding the world, they often fail to see that they correspond to the social world because these concepts participate in organizing the social order which they want to study. Sociology thereby replicates the relations of ruling, particularly if we accept the ‘giveness’ of social concepts as Durkheim construes them.
The Social Act and Social Consciousness
Although Durkheim’s social is created and maintained at the level of conscious- ness, an individual’s experiences are hers alone, and embodied existence is in some measure solipsistic. Thus, the logic of the individual and that of the social are inevitably an antinomy. Durkheim’s paradox of the human condition rests on the assumption that each individual is necessarily divided internally between pure experience of an objective world and collective representations of that same world. For Smith, however, individual consciousness does not confront the actuality of the world alone – which makes this confrontation always social. The ‘actual’ is always already constituted in social acts and in conjunction with text-mediated relations of ruling. This ‘actual’ reality, moreover, is inclusive of individual con- sciousnesses – not only of an objective social/physical world, but of one’s sense of self and place in relation to that world. Consciousness is situated in the actuality of everyday/everynight life in so far as it is a social consciousness constituted in interaction. In our interactions we create tacit reality – or challenge conventional constructions of it – and our social consciousness is thus derived from such nego- tiation. That reality is constituted in the social act means that the truth of that reality is also constituted in the social act. This is not to deny that an objective world exists, but to acknowledge, contra Durkheim, that our shared knowledge of it is an ongoing social achievement and it is always open to contestation.
Smith tells a story – one familiar to all those who have spent time with infants learning language – of her son’s first word. She and Dave saw a bird at the window. ‘Bird’, she said, and he repeated it, beginning to get the hang of the fact that this sound referred to the funny creature fluttering outside the window. Several days later, Dave pointed to a fish in a tank, and said, naturally enough, ‘bird’. Correcting her son, Smith tells Dave, ‘No, not bird. Fish’ (1999: 115). At
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the time, Smith used this example to demonstrate to students in her class a lesson taught by many social constructionists: words are arbitrary signs which we attach to things and teach children to learn the connection between the sign and the object. In Smith’s subsequent thinking, the episode has taken on new sig- nificance, derived in part from her reading of Mead and Bakhtin and her expe- rience in the women’s movement. Rather than seeing the problem of meaning as a subject-object relation, she has come to see it as a subject-object-subject relation, which is ‘an alignment of the individual consciousnesses via the utter- ance’ and the pointing (indexicality) that accompanies such interactions. It involves a mutual recognition of ‘bird’, or ‘fish’, or politically, the shared rec- ognition of ‘oppression’ and ‘injustice’. More precisely, referring ‘is a concerting of consciousnesses through symbolic communication that gives presence to an object for participants in the emerging course of a social act’ (1999: 115).
Like Durkheim, Smith acknowledges that to understand the social world, or social actuality, we must examine how it is constituted in people’s knowing. For Smith, however, epistemological practices (‘doing knowing’) are as much constituents of the social as are physical objects, and there is no ‘outside’ posi- tion from which to know. Epistemology is not something that is the preserve of philosophers and sociologists, but, rather, the social act is already epistemo- logical practice. Unlike in Durkheim’s conception, visceral experience too is known in common and there is no clear and simple divide between what we sense and how we relay ideas of our sensations to each other. In so far as we wish to communicate our bodily sensations we can describe them to each other and come to understand tacit, visceral commonalities. As opposed to Durkheim’s strict separation between the visceral and the social, then, we can (and do) translate the visceral into social knowledge, even if we do so imperfectly. According to Smith:
Referring is always a local achievement of some actual occasion or sequence of occasions. As such it is always problematic ... Knowledge, and hence the possibility of telling the truth and of getting it wrong, is always among people in concerted sequences of action who know how to take up the instructions discourse provides and to find, recognize, and affirm, or sometimes fail to find, what discourse tells us is there, as well as relying on just such dialogic sequences to settle disputes about what is. Knowledge, thus conceived, is always in time, always in action among people, and always potentiates a world in common, once again, known in common. This account of knowledge and telling the truth represents them not as functions of the individuated consciousnesses of post-Cartesian philosophy, but as dialogic sequences of action in which the coordinating of divergent consciousnesses is medi- ated by a world they can find in common. (Smith, 1999: 127)
Consciousnesses are aligned – if only temporarily – in the social act, which includes the material practices of referring to objects, sensations, and ideas in the world. In interaction we come to share recognition of an objective world through socio-material practices such as pointing, indexing, and elaborating. The co-presence of bodies encourages shared acknowledgment, since this allows for face-to-face elaboration and correction.
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The interactional matching and culling of experience with concepts is inevitably and always already socially organized. As Smith writes: ‘Referring is a social act in which the category used by the speaker provides something like a set of instructions for the hearer to look for and recognize an object that can be treated as fitted to the category’ (1999: 126). The practices of referring to the world, of matching experience with concepts, words and ideas, constitute a shared reality. Smith continues:
The hearer may not be successful; she may get it wrong; or the instructions may be inaccurate and misdirect her. But a good map will tell the truth if we know how to read from it to the features it indexes (they become features in the reader’s local practices of indexing) ... (1999: 126)
In so far as we use language successfully to find a world in common, the truth of that world is achieved together.
We do not often have the luxury of negotiating meaning in concert when we confront texts. This is why the ruling relations can govern and order the social world extra-locally through text mediation, especially when we are una- ware that this is being accomplished. Text-mediation is, for the most part, a lonely process of confronting the ruling relations: there is rarely co-presence, sharing, and culling of experiences. And if there were, it would do little to con- front textual power as it is the non-presence, discursive authority, and infinite replicability of the ruling meanings that make them almost insurmountable as authoritative meanings. Singular challenges to the ruling relations have little or no impact because those same ruling relations are replicated and enacted so pervasively that a critical mass of agreement or use is continually maintained. There is no definite ‘authority’ in a local setting (if anywhere) with whom to negotiate. The meanings of the ruling relations appear to arise from a ‘non- space’ and are often only visible in the coordination of the social act itself.
While our exposition of Smith’s analysis began with the concept of the ruling relations, these relations can only be uncovered in concrete local experience. As for Marx, who begins Capital with the actuality of the commodity form as it is confronted in everyday life, Smith’s critique is concerned first of all with how the local setting and social consciousnesses are organized and achieved in the social act, and also with how extra-local ruling relations may coordinate such social relations. The social act can be (and often is) coordinated extra-locally. By start- ing with how the actuality of local settings is accomplished, we can better under- stand the organizational capacity of text-mediated forms of rule. It is the capacity of discursive formations to organize social relations from a hyper non-space that makes it imperative to start critique from the local sites that are coordinated and contextual social acts. Sociology as a critical project (as opposed to an ideological one) disrupts the ruling relations by taking the everyday/everynight world as its problematic and making the ruling relations knowable.
This is not to say that the relations of ruling rule absolutely. Unlike Durkheim, who prioritizes the power of society (collective representations name our experiences), Smith maintains the notion that not only can we can know and communicate the ‘truth’ about the world regardless of the ruling relations
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and its established discourses, but we can also name new experiences in com- mon and discover new truths. And these truths are known in concert: it is in free communication with others, and (ideally) our ability to hold conversations, that we align our consciousnesses, focus on some shared experience or sensa- tion of the world, correct misunderstandings, and construct social reality in the process. As Smith writes, ‘Truth and knowledge are grounded in the founda- tional moments in which the social comes into being through language and through the sensory ground which human organisms share’ (1999: 128). Again, opposed to Durkheim who maintains that the individual and Society are inevi- tably in conflict, Smith argues that social reality itself emerges (and changes) out of a never-ending sequence of social acts, which are always already guided by some combination of social and visceral experiences.
The everyday practices of people and the ‘intersubjective spaces’ that they create through shared recognition of the objects of their experience provides an important lesson for sociological practice in what Smith has named ‘Institutional Ethnography’ (2005). In an interview, for instance, sociologists participate with an informant in the same intersubjective space. Rather than seeing the ‘data’ produced as ‘contaminated’ by the interaction with an interviewer, we are better advised to see it, Smith argues, as a dialogue in which we participate in the coordination of consciousnesses, that we can learn, with those we interview, to ‘see’ their world, the world to which they refer. In this way, our preconceptions can be corrected, and we can learn to map their social world, including the relations of ruling in which they are embedded and to which they are subjected.
The ‘truth’ of these social worlds can be known intersubjectively. Just as two people can look together at a landscape and agree upon and produce a map of the terrain (and as that map can then inform others of what to look for and expect to find), institutional ethnographers often use this as the guiding meta- phor for understanding the institutions in which the people they interview are located (2005: 123–44). Anyone who has done interviews with people in ‘for- eign’ territories recognizes that we learn from our respondents, that by talking with them, and having them explain their world to us, we recognize that we can slowly learn to fill in the blank spots on the map from these encounters, and that the ‘data’ that we thereby produce is a collaborative effort, not unlike the way in which we learn to see a ‘bird’ together.
At the same time that institutional ethnography recognizes that research is necessarily intersubjective, as a political research project it purposefully ‘exploits’ that intersubectivity to not only make visible the ruling relations, but also to imagine more humane, less restrictive, and more open spaces of com- municative interaction. In other words, institutional ethnography is a critical public sociology: it concerns itself with the present actualities of social worlds, accentuates how and why these worlds are coordinated, and intervenes for social-political change. Consistent with Smith’s reflexive epistemological posi- tion, institutional ethnographers situate their own practices – and the reasons for their researches – within the same historical-material context as that under investigation. There is no assumed Cartesian separation between the object of knowledge and those seeking knowledge and reform.
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Concluding Remarks
Durkheim asks how the social sciences are possible if all knowledge is socially constituted, and if the individual and ‘Society’ are inevitably opposed. While con- structivism, at its most extreme, proposes that we can only study concepts with other social concepts, empiricism tends to avoid reflecting on the social nature of conceptualization altogether. We have argued that Dorothy Smith offers a useful approach to mapping a course between these two extremes, while outlining a reflexive sociology (institutional ethnography) rooted in our capacity to know in concert. In Smith’s work, the individual and ‘Society’ are not radically opposed; rather, the social comes into being in the co-presence of sequenced social acts.
Smith offers an understanding of the social and social consciousness quite distinct from that of Durkheim. Any bifurcation of consciousness (or, essential duality of the human condition) that Durkheim describes must be understood, in her view, as an historical development. Indeed, rather than begin analysis from a Cartesian and Archimedean view of the social world (as Durkheim does), Smith would ask how this ‘essential duality of the human condition’ (if real) becomes specifically problematic in the actuality of real human lives, or how the duality itself has socio-historic causes.
Since our consciousnesses are coordinated through the social act, we are always vulnerable to the relations of ruling, especially in a world mediated by texts. But the formation of oppositional consciousnesses is likewise always pos- sible in concert, as we can learn to see things – together – in new ways. It is this capacity to coordinate consciousnesses, to learn to see the world in new ways, that makes critical knowledge of the social world possible. Institutional ethnog- raphy allows us to see, together with those we interview and whose social worlds we study, how their lives (and ours) are coordinated by the relations of ruling. Abstracted populations, groups, or subcultures are not what is most interesting to Smith, but actual people in their communities, neighbourhoods, and conversa- tions, and the way they coordinate – and are coordinated in – their lives. Smith’s sociology is a sociology both for people and about their coordinated relations.
Sociology has always had to steer a course between the Scylla of empiricism and the Charybdis of constructionism. While there have always been some who are happy to be swallowed whole by the monsters of scientism or of relativism, most sociologists have tried to avoid this. By recognizing that our perceptions of the world are always coordinated materially with others, and yet are coordi- nated with reference to an actual world, both physical and social, Smith’s soci- ology provides us with a map to safe passage without succumbing to Durkheim’s dualism, and hopefully without our researches being swallowed by the relations of ruling. While Smith’s map may not be the only viable one, it is certainly one of the most interesting and useful for social analysis and critique.
Acknowledgements
We wish to thank the editors of Sociology and the reviewers for their invaluable comments and feedback.
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Note
1 For interesting reviews and discussion of the ‘return to the empirical’, see the special issue of the European Journal of Social Theory (2009) 12(1).
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Randle J. Hart
Is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Utah University. He specializes in social theory and social movements. His most recent research appears in Qualitative Sociology and Social Movement Studies. His current research on anti-UNESCO campaigns by the American Radical Right was presented in March 2010 at the ‘UNESCO and the Cold War’ conference hosted by UNESCO and the Heidelberg Centre for American Studies, University of Heidelberg.
Address: Department of History and Sociology, Southern Utah University, 351 West University Boulevard, CN 225, Cedar City, UT 84720, USA.
E-mail: hart@suu.edu

Andrew McKinnon
Is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. His research interests include the sociology of religion, sociological theory, historical sociology and the sociology of energy. Publications include contributions to Sociological Theory, The Journal of Classical Sociology, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Critical Sociology.
Address: Department of Sociology, School of Social Science, Edward Wright Building, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3QY, UK.
E-mail: andrew.mckinnon@abdn.ac.uk

Date submitted January 2009 Date accepted February 2010 

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