While reading Aaron Hung’s wonderful dissertation about the collective construction of video game play (2009), something struck me again: Conversational Analysis, and indeed ethnomethodology with which it is closely related, has not faced quite systematically with conversational drift in longer sequences. Hung “unit of analysis” is something like two hours. Much of the analysis is about the shifting of the interactional orders, including moments when the shifting is actually brought to the conversational surface as participants offer different interpretations (meta-discursive comments) about what happened “earlier” so that different things might happen “later.” By choosing such a unit of analysis Hung takes himself out of classic CA to the extent that it is intent on demonstrating the making of orders and their reconstitution through various kinds of repairs under various kinds of stresses. He is far from the first to look at longer sequences heavily marked for particular settings (e.g. classroom interaction, counseling interviews, medical examinations, etc.). And much of the literature is about struggles to establish and maintain an order. But there is much less about the “failures” to maintain a particular order that eventually, and relatively seamlessly, lead to another order.
I have become fascinated by these events in which I see the best evidence we have for a separate human process that we might label “education” in the powerful sense of the word where it is not collapsed into either “schooling” or “learning.” Such evolutionary drifting also has to be ubiquitous to explain what anthropologists have been talking about when they have written about culture as a process of patterning—what I now write about as “cultural production.” I started pushing this in a 2004 address (Varenne and Cotter 2007) which I wrote when Ray McDermott, Jean Lave and I conducted a joint seminar on the “politics of ignorance.” What remains exciting is the attempt to base a theory of sociability, that is “culturability,” on the facing of ongoing and ever renewed ignorance about what is the feature of a current environment that is likely to make the most difference in the immediate future. This, of course, is but another take on classical Garfinkel but with the twist that my concern now is less with ordering and more with culturing as the process of the production of new arbitrary orders which, if I am right, must be a ubiquitous, ongoing process, at the most local of levels, as well as at the macro levels anthropologists have mostly been working at.
I believe we now have a good set of ethnographies exploring various possibilities (Varenne 2008). Hung pushes this at the most local of levels by showing how a young woman and use three young men to teach her how to play a video game first by finding herself necessary to their play (which required four players), and then by being shown multiply ignorant, eventually by discovering what it is that she had to manipulate, and then by getting at least some of the instruction she actually needed, thereby temporarily suspending “regular play,” and possibly then producing a still different order as the four started playing again with her as less incompetent.
It is only be pushing such ethnographies of everyday life that we can bring together the structural traditions ethnomethodology develops (Garfinkel 2002) with the Bakhtinian emphases on dialogical centrifugality.