I paraphrase one of my favorite Garfinkel quotes as “when you screw around, then you get instructed” (2002: 257). The implied scene is familiar: a post office, a line, someone who enters and does not get to the “end” of the line. Maybe that person is somehow handicapped, a child, a foreigner, someone who was told by the clerk to “fill this form and come to the front of the line,” may be the person has an excuse of the type “I have just a quick question.” In any event, it is plausible that, when this person (P1) moves, then, someone else (P2) will say something like “the back of the line is that way!”
This account begs the analytic question many students then ask: “who gave P2 the authority to challenge P1?” Putting this way assumes that P2’s act follows a “giving” from some mysterious Pn. But it might be more correct, analytically to characterize P2’s act as a “taking” given that P1 never turned over speaking to P2 thereby “allowing” some statement from P2, or perhaps “requesting” information about the end of the line. By speaking the challenge, P2 initiates a sequence. P2 takes the (shop) floor and gives it to P1.
Let’s work with instructional sequences as takings that put obligations on P1 (as well as P3 … Pn). [note that this is a formal representation of moves such as institutionalizing universal compulsory schooling.] The next issue involves holding the floor in the way it was taken. This now places the onus on P3…Pn (the ‘staff’ of this encounter) to support what P2 is proposing (that P1 screwed around). P3 might say, like McDermott’s Rosa once said “yes, go around!” even as she proceeded to recite the overall meta-pragmatic rule of, in that case, lining up to read one after another. But P3 might also tell P2 “Come on! Let it be! Can’t you see that P1 [has an excuse]” P3 can thereby accuse P2 of being the one screwing around and in need of instruction about local etiquette.
In brief, and of course for those who know my work, “authority” is not vested in any of the individual protagonists whether the first, second, or third in the sequence. It is constituted, one turn at a time, by the evolution of the sequence as all participants discover to whom the authority is being devolved—for the time being. In that sense authority is communal but cannot be analytically constructed as preliminary—as it was put by generations of social thinkers, starting possibly in the 18th century who, with Rousseau, wrote about “contracts” for such a lines, land tenure, government. Eventually, as the encounter fades into history and what was made solidifies, it might even look like the encounter was the negotiation of a future contract binding on future participants. But, precisely, such contracts are never binding. Someone, soon, will screw around with it, and the question of who exactly is screwing about, and what to do about it, will re-open. The “contract” is not a homeostatic system (to be analogized as an “organism”), and even less the “will” of a community, but a fleeting assemblage that might be analogized as gravity wells [more on that another time] catching more or less willing participants.
Note, of course, that this is a structural model. It makes a lot of difference on the evolution of the (temporary) solutions to a dispute about who is to have authority over instructional sequences depending whether the “n” (in P3 to Pn) equals a dozen or hundred of millions (compare the authority Rosa took in McDermott’s classroom to that of the Supreme Court adjudicating who may marry whom).Print This Post