Science And Ethnomethodology Research Paper

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Ethnomethodology is a sociological approach to the study of practical actions which has influenced the development of constructionist, discourse analytic, and related approaches in science and technology studies (S&TS). Early ethnomethodological studies of ordinary activities and social scientific research practices developed an orientation to local practices, situated knowledge, and concrete discourse which later became prominent in science and technology studies. In addition to being a precursor to S&TS, ethnomethodology continues to offer a distinctive approach to practical actions in science and mathematics which rivals more familiar versions of social constructionism.

1. Ethnomethodological Research Policies

In the 1960s, Harold Garfinkel coined the term ethnomethodology as a name for a unique sociological approach to practical actions and practical reasoning (Garfinkel 1974, Heritage 1984, p. 45, Lynch 1993, pp. 3–10). Garfinkel was influenced by existential phenomenology (especially Schutz 1962) and sociological theories of action (especially Parsons 1937). As usually defined, ethnomethodology is the investigation of ‘folk methods’ for producing the innumerable practical and communicative actions which constitute a society’s form of life.

1.1 Ethnomethodological Indifference

Unlike methodologists in the philosophy of science who accord special status to scientific methods, ethnomethodologists examine methods for composing and coordinating ordinary as well as scientific activities. Garfinkel deemed all methods to be worthy of detailed study. This research policy is known as ethnomethodological indifference (Garfinkel and Sacks 1970, pp. 345–6, Lynch 1993, pp. 141–2). According to this policy, any method is worthy of study, regardless of its professional status, relative importance, adequacy, credibility, value, and necessity. This does not mean that ethnomethodologists treat all methods as equally ‘good’; instead, it means that they do not believe that preconceptions about the importance and validity of particular methods should determine a choice of research topic.

Ethnomethodological indifference is similar in some respects to the more familiar policies of symmetry and impartiality in the Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge (Bloor 1976, pp. 4–5). However, there is a significant difference between the two, which has to do with a less obvious implication of the term ‘ethnomethodology.’ In addition to being a name for an academic field that studies ‘folk methods,’ the term refers to ‘methodologies’—systematic inquiries and knowledge about methods—which are internal to the practices studied. Many social scientists (including many in S&TS) assume that the persons they study perform their activities unreflexively or even unconsciously, and that the intervention of an outside analyst is necessary for explicating, explaining, and criticizing the tacit epistemologies that underlie such activities. In contrast, ethnomethodological indifference extends to the privileges ascribed to social scientific analysis and criticism:

Persons doing ethnomethodological studies can ‘care’ no more or less about professional sociological reasoning than they can ‘care’ about the practices of legal reasoning, conversational reasoning, divinational reasoning, psychiatric reasoning, and the rest. (Garfinkel and Sacks 1970, p. 142)

Perhaps more obviously than other domains of practice, scientific research involves extensive methodological inquiry and debate. Science is not alone in this respect. In modern (and also many ancient) societies, large bodies of literature articulate, discuss, and debate the practical, epistemic, and ethical character of a broad array of activities, including legal procedures, food preparation, dining, sexuality, child rearing, gardening, and fly fishing. Any effort to explain such practices sociologically must first come to terms with the fact that explanations of many kinds (including social explanations) are embedded reflexively in the history, production, and teaching of the activities themselves.

1.2 Ethnomethodological Reflexivity

Garfinkel (1967, p. 1) spoke of the ‘reflexive’ or ‘incarnate’ character of accounting practices and accounts. By this he meant that social activities include endogenous practices for displaying, observing, recording, and certifying their regular, normative, and ‘rational’ properties. In other words, social agents do not just act in orderly ways, they examine, record, and reflexively monitor their practices. This particular sense of ‘reflexivity’ goes beyond the humanistic idea that individuals ‘reflect’ on their own situations when they act, because it emphasizes collective, and often highly organized, accounting practices. The fact that the persons and organized groups that social scientists study already observe, describe, and interpret their own methodic practices can provoke challenges to the authority of social science methods when the latter conflict with native accounts. Whether or not a social scientist agrees with, for example, official accounts of scientific method given by the subjects of an ethnographic or historical investigation, it is necessary to pay attention to the more pervasive way in which methodic understandings, and understandings of method, play a constitutive role in the practices under study. For ethnomethodologists, the research question is not just ‘How do a society’s (or scientific field’s) members formulate accounts of their social world?,’ but ‘How do members perform actions so as to make them account-able; that is, observable and reportable in a public domain of practice?’ Accordingly, accounts are not simply interpretations made after actions take place; instead, actions display their accountability for others who are in a position to witness, interpret, and record them.

1.3 Topic And Resource

The idea that explanations, explanatory concepts, and, more generally, natural language resources are common to professional sociology and the activities sociologists study is a source of long-standing consternation and confusion in the social sciences (Winch 1990, [1958]). As Garfinkel and Sacks (1970, p. 337) noted:

The fact that natural language serves persons doing sociology, laymen or professionals, as circumstances, as topics, and as resources of their inquiries furnishes to the technology of their inquiries and to their practical sociological reasoning its circumstances, its topics, and its resources.

An injunction developed by ethnomethodologists (Zimmerman and Pollner 1970), and adopted by proponents of discourse analysis (Gilbert and Mulkay 1984) is that social analysts should not confuse topic and resource. That is, they should not confuse the common sense explanations given by participants in the social activities studied with the analytic resources for studying those same activities. A variant of this injunction in social studies of science warns the analyst not to adopt, for polemical purposes, the very vocabulary of scientific authority that social studies of science make problematic (Woolgar 1981, Ashmore 1989). While this may be good advice in particular cases, when taken as a general policy the injunction not to confuse topic and resource may seem to encourage a retreat from the very possibility of describing or explaining, let alone criticizing, the practices in question. If every possible analytic resource is already found in the social world as a problematic social phenomenon, then what would a sociologist have to say that is not already incorporated into the practices and disputes studied? While acknowledging that this is a problem for any sociological explanation of science, Latour (1986) recommends a ‘semiotic turn’ which would examine the terms of the (scientific) tribe from the vantage point provided by an abstract theoretical vocabulary. But, unless one grants special epistemic status to semiotics, this ‘turn’ simply reiterates the problem.

2. Ethnomethodology And The Problem Of Description

Ethnomethodologists do not agree upon a single solution to the problem of reflexivity, and contradictory ways of handling it are evident in the field, but some ethnomethodologists believe that sociological descriptions do not require special theoretical or analytical auspices in order to overcome reflexivity. As Sharrock and Anderson (1991, p. 51) argue, under most circumstances in which descriptions are made and accepted as adequate, there is no need to overcome epistemological scepticism. Ethnomethodologists treat reflexivity as ubiquitous, unavoidable, and thus ‘irremediable.’ Consequently, reflexivity is not a ‘methodological horror’ (Woolgar 1988, p. 32) that makes description or explanation impossible or essentially problematic, because an ethnomethodologist is in no worse (or better) shape than anyone else who aims to write intelligible, cogent, and insightful descriptions of particular states of affairs. Even so, there still remains the question of the scientific, or other, grounds of ethnomethodological descriptions.

2.1 The Possibility Of ‘Scientific’ Descriptions Of Human Behavior

A possible basis for ethnomethodological descriptions is presented in an early argument written by Sacks (1992, pp. 802–5), the founder of a field that later came to be called conversation analysis. This was a brief, but intriguing, argument about the possibility of developing a science that produces stable, reproducible, naturalistic accounts of human behavior. Sacks observed that natural scientists already produce accounts of human behavior when they write natural language descriptions of methods for reproducing observations and experiments. Social scientists who attempt to describe ‘methods’ in a broad range of professional and non-professional activities are in no worse position than natural scientists who attempt to describe their own particular methods. In other words, Sacks conceived of the replication of experiments as a particular (but not necessarily special) case of the reproduction of social structures. While social scientists do not aim to produce ‘how to’ manuals, they can write accounts of social actions which are ‘true’ in a praxiological sense: adequate to the production and reproduction of the relevant practices.

2.2 Replication And The Reproduction Of Social Structure

It is well established in the sociology of science that replication is problematic. Instead of being a methodological foundation for establishing natural facts, particular instances of experimental replication often beg further questions about the detailed conditions and competencies they involve (Collins 1985). To say that replication is problematic does not imply that it is impossible, but it does raise the question of how scientists manage to secure assent to the adequacy of their experiments. The phenomenon of just how scientists conduct experiments, and how they establish particular results in the relevant communities, has become a major topic for socio-historians and ethnographers of science (Gooding et al. 1989). Consequently, in the more general case of the reproduction of social structure, it seems reasonable to conclude that Sacks identifies a topic for ethnomethodological research, but not a grounding for a possible sociological research program (Lynch and Bogen 1994).

Ethnomethodological studies of the reproduction of order in science, other professions, and daily life, address the topic of the production of instructed actions. Instructed actions include an open-ended variety of actions performed in accordance with rules, plans, recipes, methods, programs, guidelines, maps, models, sets of instructions, and other formal structures. In addition to examining efforts to reproduce initial observations, ethnomethodologists have studied a series of topics: deriving mathematical proofs, following instructions for photocopying, and re- producing standard laboratory protocols (Garfinkel 1986, 1991, Garfinkel et al. 1981, Livingston 1986, Suchman 1987).

2.3 Ethnomethodology And Social Constructionism

Ethnomethodology has an ambivalent relation to social constructionism. Early laboratory studies (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Knorr 1981) integrated selected themes from ethnomethodology into constructionist arguments, but many ethnomethodologists prefer to speak of the ‘production’ rather than the ‘construction’ of social orders (Lynch 1993, Button and Sharrock 1993). While it may be so that no fact is ever free of ‘construction’ in the broadest sense of the word, local uses of the term in empirical science (though not in mathematics and certain branches of theory) refer to research artifacts which are distinguished from a field of natural objects (Lynch 1985). Ethnomethodologists prefer not to speak indiscriminately of the construction or manufacture of knowledge, in order to preserve an ‘indifferent’ orientation to the way distinctions between constructed and unconstructed realities are employed in practical action and situated argument.

2.4 Normative And Ethical Considerations

Ethnomethodology has been criticized for treating normative aspects of the activities studied as ‘mere phenomena’ (Habermas 1984, p. 106). For example, when studying a contentious court case (Goodwin 1994) or jury deliberation (Maynard and Manzo 1993), an ethnomethodologist does not assess the discursive practices by reference to ideal standards of validity, rationality, or justice. This does not suppose that normative considerations are ‘mere’ phenomena. Instead, it supposes that peoples’ methods (the phenomena studied by ethnomethodologists) are just that: situated actions that, for better or worse, in-corporate normative judgments and ethical claims.

Instead of recasting such judgments and claims in terms of one or another transcendent framework, ethnomethodologists attempt to explicate the way normative judgments are produced, addressed, and fought over in specific circumstances. When ethno- methodologists investigate highly charged uses of, and appeals to, normative judgment, they enable readers to examine specific configurations of action and reasoning that do not neatly fall under recipe versions of norms and values. Consequently, rather than invoking or developing a normative theory, ethnomethodologists invite their readers to consider intricate situations of practice and contestation that no single general framework can possibly forecast or resolve.

Practical and ethical dilemmas are no less salient for ethnomethodologists than for cultural anthropologists, lawyers, and other participant-investigators. The policy of ethnomethodological indifference does not relieve an investigator of ethical choices and responsibilities. Like other investigators, ethnomethodologists may in some circumstances find it advisable to respect norms of privacy and propriety, while in others they may feel compelled to expose wrongdoing. However, as a body of doctrines, research policies, and exemplary studies, ethnomethodology does not supply a set of rules or ethical guidelines for making such difficult choices. This does not mean that ethnomethodologists proceed without ethics, but that their ethical judgments, like many of their other judgments, have a basis in communal life that is not encapsulated by any academic school, theory, or method.


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