Struggling for the Soul of Sociology: Bauman and Ethnomethodology

By Lisa Morriss and Greg Smith

Bauman’s critical assessment of ethnomethodology(EM) was the lead article of the first issue of The Sociological Review of 1973. Its placement perhaps reflected the serious attention British sociologists gave to EM as the newest import from the Land of Sociology. Then as now, The Sociological Review was in the vanguard of new theoretical developments in sociology. The journal had already published Jeff Coulter’s Decontextualised meanings: Current approaches to Verstehende investigations – one of the first articles sympathetic to EM to appear in a British sociology journal. Bauman’s article, in contrast, was sternly critical of this new approach to sociology. Bauman queried EM’s claim to be based in phenomenology and was firm in its rejection of EM’s apparent disdain for any need to correct common sense with the findings of social science.

Nowadays it is perhaps hard to understand the passions EM generated in the heady days of the early 1970s when its bid to offer an original, radically different way of doing sociology first emerged in Britain. British sociology enjoyed enormous growth over the previous decade and was strongly associated in the public imagination with political dissent and cultural experimentation. Like any new movement, it attracted attention for its moments of excess. These seldom exceeded occasionally extravagant conference presentations, though these were enough to attract Ernest Gellner’s notorious dismissal of EM as a “Californian way of subjectivity”. Bauman was not distracted by such pitiful ad hominem arguments. Instead he questioned EM’s phenomenological provenance.

Bauman showcased his knowledge of developments in philosophy to argue that phenomenology cannot provide a basis for sociology. In acknowledging the philosophically radical character of Husserl’s phenomenological programme, Bauman suggested that it was impossible to link this to sociology as an empirical social science. Bauman was right to claim that Husserl’s programme did not lead straightforwardly to a sociological research agenda. However, the issue had been recognised much earlier, notably in Schutz’s critique of Husserl’s notion of transcendental intersubjectivity. However, what Schutz and others (e.g. Heap & Roth) showed was how phenomenology offered concepts of great use in sociology. This more measured view of the relation of the relation of phenomenology to EM became apparent in Bauman’s Hermeneutics and Social Science.

For the Bauman of 1973, a major source of discontent with EM was its unwillingness to take a critical or corrective stance towards common sense knowledge. In his paper, Bauman argues that EM “remains voluntarily speechless when confronted with the task of assessing the value of commonsensical images“. However, early EM studies were concerned with the structure of common sense understandings, understandings that (unlike Bauman’s ‘images’) could prove extraordinarily difficult to uncover. For example, Garfinkel’s infamous breaching experiments produced “reflections through which the strangeness of an obstinately familiar world can be detected“.

Bauman was particularly perturbed by the notion of EM indifference, namely, the abstention from judging the ‘adequacy, value, importance, necessity, practicality, success, or consequentiality’ of the practical account-able methods of members. For Bauman, ethnomethodology denies the “very possibility of true (in fact, any ‘better’, ‘more reliable’, trustworthy) knowledge”. In one sense, Bauman was correct – but only by overlooking the rationale for EM indifference. Ethnomethodological studies aimed to examine concrete, witnessable and thus empirical data but with no concern as to whether these are ‘true’ or ‘real’. EM research focused solely on members’ methods, how account-able phenomena were practically accomplished in an interaction. Thus, EM indifference became a cardinal principle for efforts to articulate the working structures of members’ practices, while the task of contesting and criticising members’ beliefs and practices was left in Weberian fashion to the citizen, not the social scientist.

Bauman’s article proved to be the first of a flurry of articles in the early 1970s where sociologists of more orthodox persuasions set out their objections to EM and challenged its critique of conventional sociology. In ways that are becoming forgotten nowadays, these were times of great intellectual conflicts, often phrased in Thomas Kuhn’s terminology as “paradigmatic” battles for dominance as “normal science”. Jürgen Habermas’s neat division of positivistic, interpretive and critical perspectives, each with their own distinctive knowledge-constitutive interests, had yet to find broad currency. The intensity of Bauman’s language in the pages of this article bear testimony to an old struggle for the soul of sociology. More than four decades on, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that both sides won.

Lisa Morriss is a qualitative researcher at Lancaster University, UK. Her background is in sociology and social work; her interests include mental health, motherhood, stigma, and ethnomethodology. Lisa is involved in an arts-based project called ‘Experiencing the social work world’ with Jadwiga Leigh and Matt Morriss with a current exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, UK until 18 June 2017.

Greg Smith is Professor of Sociology at the University of Salford, UK. He is internationally known for his writings on the work of Erving Goffman (1922-82). He has written or edited six books and numerous articles and chapters on Goffman, the ethnographic sociologies, cultural studies and visual sociology. His empirical research has included work on public harassment, theft from motor vehicles, Internet sociability, and the social organization of queuing.

Originally published 1st May 2017

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