Michael Lynch's Philosophy on the Ground: Appreciation of Melvin Pollner"

Philosophy on the Ground: 

Michael Lynch
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The American Sociologist
ISSN 0003-1232 Volume 43 Number 1
Am Soc (2012) 43:67-75
DOI 10.1007/s12108-012-9150-9


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Am Soc (2012) 43:67–75
DOI 10.1007/s12108-012-91

Philosophy on the Ground:

 An Appreciation of a “Spirit Master”
Michael Lynch

Published online: 29 January 2012
# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012


This essay is an appreciation of Melvin Pollner’s distinctive sociological approach to topics that are usually associated with philosophy. Pollner’s dissertation and early writings took up the theme of “mundane reason,” which he defined as an incorrigible presumption of a real world that is implicit in everyday conduct. Pollner addressed mundane reason, and the reciprocal idea of “reality disjunctures”—mo- mentary divergences between perceptual accounts of the “same” mundane reality— by describing routine exchanges in traffic court and confrontations between doctors and patients in psychiatric settings. Pollner’s work anticipated current enthusiasms for developing novel “ontologies” in social and cultural studies of science, medicine, and other subjects. Although he did attempt to locate metaphysics in the midst of everyday experience, this essay suggests that his “philosophy on the ground” radi- cally transformed philosophical ontology into an original and imaginative way to investigate constitutive activities.

\MelvinPollner.Ethnomethodology.Realitydisjunctures.Mundane reasoning . Ontology . Epistemology

In the early 1970s, Melvin Pollner’s (1970) dissertation, which was published many years later in heavily revised form (Pollner 1987), was one of the key texts that was circulated informally to students of ethnomethodology.1 I vividly remember my copy of it: a ream of paper printed in purple ink that would leave smudges on my fingers

1In his 1975 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, Lewis Coser complained that ethnomethodologists bypassed peer-reviewed publication outlets by circulating preprinted manuscripts and lecture notes (most famously, of Harvey Sacks’ transcribed lectures, which much later were published posthumously [Sacks 1992]). Coser intimated that such circulation was an evasion of the free circulation and public evaluation of knowledge required of members of the academic profession. His criticism ignored the fact that major publication outlets in sociology were less than welcoming to ethnomethodological work, and that preprint circulation was widely established in many sciences. Preprint circulation is now institu- tionalized in some fields such as physics and computer science in the form of digital preprint ‘archives’.

M. Lynch (*)
Department of Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University, 302 Rockefeller Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
e-mail: MEL27@cornell.edu

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and gave off a volatile, slightly perfumed fragrance. My copy was the product of a “spirit duplicator”: a ditto machine that was soon to be displaced by the photocopier. Each page of text was imprinted on a template known as a “spirit master,” and copies were run off through repetitive action on a cylindrical drum. When fresh off the press, copies were damp and fragrant from the alcohol-based printing fluid. The intoxicating smell and glowing ink would fade over time; a fitting fate for an ephemeral form of publication. For a student in the early 1970s, struggling to master the famously intimidating prose of ethnomethodology, Pollner’s dissertation was a “spirit master” that made ethnomethodology’s distinctive approach to the sociology of knowledge accessible to an interested novice. While my copy of his dissertation long ago grew dog-eared and faded, the value of his perspective and ideas has stayed with me ever since.

Pollner and Ethnomethodology

Pollner’s early writings expressed a line of argument and research, which no longer is much in evidence in the ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (ethno/CA) literatures (there are some exceptions, such as Berard 2002, 2003). From the point of view of many current students of ethno/CA, those writings are likely to seem programmatic, perhaps important for the history of the field but of little current value for empirical research. Pollner was not content with the way ethno/CA developed (Pollner 1991), and during his decades in the Sociology Department at UCLA, he struggled to maintain an intellectual path for himself and his students that somehow would wend its way down a narrow hallway between the Scylla of Emanuel Schegl- off and the Charybdis of Harold Garfinkel. Pollner’s approach was more successful than he himself may have realized, though his legacy is now mingled (often without explicit recognition) with various lines of thinking and research in social theory, science and technology studies, and social and cultural approaches to what used to be called “deviance.” His work anticipated by more than a decade the turn to philosophy and the reappropriation of philosophical topics that later became fashionable in poststructuralist social and cultural studies. Talk of epistemology and ontology now runs rampant in the social sciences. Far from being a precursor for such talk, Pollner’s early work exemplifies an alternative way to approach epistemology and ontology than those found in current social and cultural approaches to “empirical philosophy” (Mol 2002).

Like other ethnomethodologists of his generation, Pollner was highly critical of the long-standing efforts in American sociology to emulate an abstract version of scien- tific method; instead, he argued in favor of treating methods as topics rather than resources for sociology (Zimmerman and Pollner 1970). He took on board Garfin- kel’s (1963) and Cicourel’s (1964) reorientation to methods as practical activities to be investigated, regardless of whether the methods are produced by social scientists or by the “folk” they study. He also delved deeply into Schutz’s (1964) phenomeno- logical sociology, Winch’s (1958) critical analysis of social scientific concepts, and other theoretical and philosophical lines of argument that elucidated the extent to which concepts and methodic procedures in the social sciences are indebted to, and ultimately inseparable from, ordinary language, commonsense knowledge, and
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routine social practice. Winch (1958), for example, argued that efforts to turn “motives” into causal variables in social psychological experiments were “misbegot- ten” exercises in epistemology, and he suggested that explication of the meaning of ordinary conceptual usage was more appropriate than supposing that common lan- guage could be turned into stable explanatory resources (also see Mills 1940). As Berger and Luckmann (1966) elucidated, Schutz’s body of writings offered a distinc- tive version of sociology of knowledge that investigated the constitutive uses of ordinary knowledge, rather than the more specialized or privileged forms of knowl- edge, ideology, and expertise. Though often consigned to the philosophy of social science, such critical writings offered a way to identify and elucidate how philosoph- ical (as well as methodological and social-theoretical) topics provided starting points for explicating the active constitution of social phenomena. However, instead of taking a contemplative approach to the meaning of concepts and the structure of the life-world, ethnomethodologists sought to examine and illuminate constitutive practices on their own ground. This is what Pollner set out to demonstrate in his early writings, and to a large extent he succeeded.

Mundane Reason(ing) and Reality Disjunctures

The empirical materials in Pollner’s dissertation were drawn from his observa- tions and hand-recorded transcripts of interchanges in traffic court—a very low level tribunal in which people charged with traffic offenses appear before a judge (often a clerk) to plea their cases, and the state is usually represented by an attending police officer. Pollner made some acute observations on the social- interactional organization of such hearings (see, for example, Pollner 1979), but the main topic of his study—“mundane reason”—seemed more of a philosophical or theoretical theme than a subject of empirical sociological investigation. And yet, as Pollner made abundantly clear, his study was an empirical sociological investigation; it was not a philosophical or theoretical treatise, though he discussed philosophical and theoretical issues at length.

Pollner developed two closely related articles from his dissertation, which were published a few years later in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. In the first of them Pollner (1974) presented his thesis on mundane reason (calling it “mundane reason- ing” in the article) and exemplified it with traffic court excerpts. By calling such reasoning mundane, he did not mean that it is banal—although the events of traffic court certainly are routine. Instead, he referred to the incorrigible presupposition that a singular real world is intersubjectively available, even in the face of obstinate disagreement about it. This does not mean that the parties to a dispute would agree, for example, about whether a defendant’s car was exceeding the speed limit, but that they would not question the underlying fact that the car actually was traveling at some speed at the time and place in question.

The second paper was about “reality disjunctures”: momentary ruptures in mundane reasoning, or moments when one party expresses commitment to a perceptual experience that others deem impossible or absurd (Pollner 1975). Pollner recognized that such discrepant perceptual accounts typically are resolved, often before any full confrontation, with commonsense reasoning that discredits one or
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the other account as a product of illusion, delusion, defective observation, or dishon- esty (cf., Coulter 1975). A disjuncture is sustained for only so long as there remains the possibility of reciprocal dismissal. “Just as ego’s experience of the world can be used to dismiss the veridicality of alter’s experience, alter can respond to ego in kind” (Pollner 1975:411). Thomas S. Kuhn’s (1962) Structure of Scientific Revolutions was at its peak of popularity at the time, and it is tempting to say that Kuhn’s conception of incommensurability aptly characterizes the logical relationship between contrary accounts in a reality disjuncture. There is a large difference, however (cf., Pollner 1975:428, n4). The epistemic discontinuities or ruptures ascribed to incommensura- ble paradigms are quite grand—we could call them “macroruptures”—as they cover comprehensive, relatively stable ideological and practical systems, whereas reality disjunctures often are momentary, quickly repaired “micro ruptures”.

Although fundamental disputes can, and sometimes do, break out in courtrooms, psychiatric hospitals, and other settings that foster disjunctive claims, for the most part alternative versions of mundane reality are foreclosed or quickly shut down by being treated as jokes or symptoms of insanity or incompetence. In the court hearings Pollner described, no defendant rested his case on the possibility that an automobile, like Einstein’s train, could simultaneously travel at different speeds, one known to the driver of the moving vehicle and the other to a police officer observing it from outside. When discrepant accounts were given about how fast an automobile was traveling, “mundane” explanations preserved the presumption of a common reality by raising possibilities such as a malfunctioning speedometer, an inaccurate radar read- ing, a mistaken identity, or a lying witness. An alternative universe, or even a new ‘paradigm’ at odds with taken for granted reality, is rarely more than an analytically imagined possibility.

Pollner’s analysis of mundane reasoning and reality disjunctures required imagi- nation: his descriptions did not present themselves as inductive accounts of explicitly produced, coordinated, and co-oriented details of mundane interaction. He spoke of presuppositions and raised the salience of an ontology or epistemology implicit in routine exchanges. He invited readers to imagine that, and how, a singular objective world was presumed, and not simply present as a self-evident reality; and, moreover, that it was taken for granted as an unquestioned background preserved its sovereignty over any momentary anomaly or disjuncture.
Although such imagination may seem at odds with the requirements of empirical research, it was consistent with the distinctively empirical stance of early ethnometh- odology. Instead of using the theorist’s privilege to postulate a hidden, implicit, and even unconscious order that gives form to overt thought and conduct, the program- matic demand was to find or create moments in which the presumptive fabric of the mundane world is revealingly ruptured. When introducing his famous breaching experiments, Garfinkel (1967: 38) suggested that they were “aids to a sluggish imagination.” Rather than being systematic tests of conjectures, these ‘experimental’ interventions were designed to disrupt taken for granted orders of activity and to delay their repair, in order to open up conjectures about the constitutive organization of normal environments of social action and interaction. Performing such breaching experiments is a dangerous game, and no longer one that is likely to gain approval by university human subjects committees. Pollner’s approach required imaginative in- tervention, but instead of deliberately creating breaches (or giving students exercises
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that required them to create such breaches by, for example, treating intimates as though they were strangers), he discovered and elucidated breaches that, as it were, occurred naturally, generated as a matter of course through courtroom dialogues and psychiatric observations of ‘delusional’ patients.

In a personal conversation, Pollner once remarked that there is always a temptation to ascend the “transcendental elevator”2 when attending to common- sense reasoning. As I understood this remark (or, perhaps I should say, as I now understand it), it referred to a temptation to treat fleeting, circumstantial disjunctures as though they are surface features of an abstract and ubiquitous ideological land- scape: a cognitive system or discursive formation that can only be envisioned by ascending in imagination to the highest possible vantage point. Like other ethno- methodologists, Pollner no longer entertained the transcendental phenomenologists’ hope of establishing an apodictic position from which to explicate the natural attitude of everyday life as though from an outside vantage point. Where was there to stand? At the same time, he knew that he would need to assume the uncommitted stance of an outsider in order to postulate the equivalence or “equivocality” (1975:411) of competing perceptual experiences. He was unwilling to settle for a mundane analysis of mundane activities, because such an analysis would lose sight of the implicit ontology and epistemology that he gave the name “mundane reason.” And yet he also didn’t want to partake of the practices he was analyzing by, for example, invoking the objective nature of a situation in order to explain away a perceptual account at odds with it as “the artifact of a set of sociological or psychological mechanisms for producing and sustaining the semblance of objective reality” (1975:422). Such a sociological explanation would be yet another instance of the constitutive phenomenon.

Nothing is more central to mundane reason than the work of demarcating artifacts (social and psychological constructions) from objective reality. To presume such a demarcation prior to giving a sociological explanation is to place the constitutive work of demarcation beyond the reach of such explanation. Perhaps an example will help clarify this point. This example is from research inspired in part by Pollner’s treatment of reality disjunctures (Lynch 1985). Natural scientists frequently distinguish “artifacts” from the natural phenomena or fields they investigate. Although archaeologists look for and carefully preserve artifacts, natural scientists usually try to get rid of them, especially when they interfere with the interpretation and presentation of data. They also recognize that the features they see as artifacts are not the end of the story; others may lurk undetected, and in fields that use electron microscopy, an entire micrograph bears traces of the preparatory practices and mediating instrumentation through which it was produced. Such a realization does not stop laboratory researchers from continuing their ongoing efforts to distinguish just what and just how a given micrographic field is or is not subject to artifacts. To say that everything the microscopist sees is an artifact (a “construction”) provides neither comfort nor meaningful criticism, and to impute a dualistic ontology to their work is bound to miss the specific distinctions they need

2 It is possible that Pollner used this expression in his writings, but I have not found it. Ian Hacking (1999: 22) later used the term “elevator words” to make a point about particular terms that tend to be lifted from everyday language and given special philosophical attention.
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for making judgments about whether the material under scrutiny is adequate and presentable. Following Pollner, it can be revealing to pay close attention to partic- ular disputes about whether one or another phenomenon is an artifact, and moments of equivocality do sometimes arise, which can be very revealing. What they reveal, however, is not a grand philosophical system as much as a local environment of possible things and actions relevanced by visible traces (analogous to a crime scene for a team of detectives). These can include traces of possible mistakes, malfunc- tioning instruments, procedures that went awry, singular histories of laboratory animals, as well as characteristic profiles of cellular membranes, organelles, and so on, and all in the same perceptual field.

Pollner’s notion of reality disjunctures, as his own analysis demonstrated, applies very well to the analysis of dialogues in court. Parties to a court hearing reconstruct and “test” events outside the courtroom by reference to horizons of possibility in a taken-for-granted real world. But, again, this is not any world, or a world-in-general, but a local world of relevant possibilities. Different cases also can reveal distinct ‘species’ of disjuncture. For example, a variant of reality disjuncture was salient to the analysis of a British rape case that went through two appeals and involved an early form of DNA profiling evidence (Lynch et al. 2008:199). According to the judicial summaries, the DNA evidence supported the prosecution’s case, while the “ordinary” evidence (eyewitness testimony, alibi evi- dence) supported the defense. Among the issues the appeal court justices deliberated over was whether probability calculations should be used to weigh all relevant evidence on the same scale, or whether (in their terms) the “scientific” (DNA) evidence should be presented in terms of a random match probability figure while the “commonsense” evidence should be presented vernacularly and without proba- bilistic calculations. To make a very long story short, this was a reality disjuncture of a special kind, as it involved a judicial demarcation of the relationship between science and common sense. While trying to settle what really happened, the justices also ruminated about the epistemic equivalence or non-equivalence of the kinds of evidence presented by the adversary parties. As in the case of laboratory scientists distinguishing artifacts in an electron-micrographic field, the judicial summary and resolution of the terms of a disjuncture constituted a case within the established terms of a powerful institution.

From Ontology to Ontography?

Decades after Garfinkel (1967: Ch. 8) pluralized “rationality” to become “the rationalities” of science and commonsense, it is now commonplace to read about lay and professional knowledges, epistemologies, ontologies, and expertises. The plurali- zation of these terms resituates and dis-privileges them—they are no longer reserved for savants, philosophers, or experts and their scholarly communities. In critical theoretical writings, the “cultural dope” of social theory (Garfinkel 1967: 68) not only is rehabil- itated, she becomes a cultural avatar whose perspicacity authorizes the theorist’s vantage point (Smith 1992). At the same time, this leveling and democratization of knowledge(s) creates a reflexive crisis for the “standpoint” presumed by the very scholars who promote it (Haraway 1988; Pels 1997; Woolgar 1988). Pollner
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recognized and suffered that crisis, and while he may never have found a way out of it, he was unwilling to evade it. The dilemma was this: analytically endowing mundane activities with metaphysical significance (as mundane reason) seemed to make it glow with the light of scholarly traditions; at the same time, to conflate mundane practices with scholarly epistemology, ontology, and so forth, tended to obscure the fact that such practices were, after all, mundane: situated “on the ground”—on their own ground, not that of philosophy.

A shift in terminology can signal this difference between academic philosophy and philosophy on the ground, but it has its own hazards. To illustrate: a few years ago I gave a talk in a conference on the theme of “the turn to ontology” in science and technology studies (Lynch 2008). This theme marked a recent trend in the deploy- ment of philosophical vocabulary to refer to the distinctive “ontologies” characteriz- ing culturally and institutionally embedded networks of bodies, practices, and things. It succeeded earlier preoccupations with epistemes and social epistemologies. As a deflationary move, I suggested an alternative term “ontography” to distinguish between heady philosophical talk of “ontology” and the study of mundane moments in which ontology is a perspicuous matter of concern.3 I thought I had coined a neologism, but had I done a quick Google search at the time, I would have discovered the numerous sites on which the term is found, defined, and of course debated (currently estimated at around 3,700 sites). For the most part the word is defined in a way very different from what I had in mind. The first source that comes up defines ontography as “a description of the nature and essence of things” (Encyclo 2007).4 Paging down the list of sites, we learn that the term has a place in “object-oriented philosophy,” at least one variant of which proposes unholy matrimony between classical metaphysics and Actor-Network Theory.5 The coinage of my brain—ontog- raphy—
apparently had been pre-appropriated by the very sort of metaphysical program I sought to distinguish it from. Instead of suggesting an ethnography of lay-philosophical reasoning (as in Pollner’s study of traffic court), it seems that ontography more often licenses the classic philosophical prerogative to lay out for the rest of us a definitive account of the essence of things. So, we’re back to square one.

The suggestion I take from Pollner’s work is not that sociologists should become rump ontologists or even sophisticated philosophers who come up with novel designs on the world. Instead, it is to search for and examine the situated productions and uses of terms, distinctions, and modes of argumentation reminiscent of those that preoc- cupy professional ontologists. 

With luck and imagination, we might even learn more than we already know.

3 This rhetorical move was parasitic on Peter Dear’s (2001) term “epistemography” which suggested a similar move with respect to epistemology—to identify it with specific historical investigations of themes such as “experience” or “intelligibility.” This idea was akin to my own programmatic conception of ethnographic investigations of “epistopics” (standing topics of epistemology such as observation, repre- sentation, and measurement [Lynch 1993]), which in turn borrowed from Garfinkel’s (1991) “respecifica- tion” of classic sociological themes. When approached from the ground-floor level, any distinction between epistemography and ontography becomes difficult to sustain.

4 The Phrontistery: A Dictionary of Obscure Words defines “ontography” as “description of reality, essence or being” (Forthright 2007).

5 See Object Oriented Philosophy (2009). Actor-Network Theory is a source of much of the current rumination about ontologies in science and technology studies (see, for example, Latour 1999).
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