4 - The Ethnomethodological Sense
This is the fifth in a series of notes to fifteen
lectures for my class SCFF5005:
Interdisciplinary Study of the Family.
One curious feature of most all work on family and kinship is that it calls
upon often unspecified hypotheses about internal household dynamics, or even about
face-to-face personal interlationships, and yet rarely, if ever, leads to a call
for direct investigation into these dynamics or interrelationships.
The criticism may be levelled most specifically to anthropology where, except
perhaps for Malinowski (or Mead and Batesons), there is little systematic descriptions of
face-to-face relations in the most local of settings
In fact these overall observations have been made many times and, particularly
in sociology, and to a certain extent in personality psychology, several starts
were made to move from a discussion of general characteristics of family organization
and their relationships with general characteristics of the large social contexts
of families, to a direct investigation of the inner workings of a household.
Parsons and Bales
Bateson and the Palo Alto School
Others mentioned in Gubrium (p. 38ff)
Note how Gubrium's sketch history of the field suggests that
this field has operated in terms of a kind of theory of "family
culture" that parallels much that has been written about "culture"
His criticisms are to the point, though he appears to fail
to realize that what some described as "family themes" might
be interpreted as evidence that small local groups can
develop variations over the encompassing patterns that he
then proceed to talk about.
Other works such as mine in
There have been two main difficulties
a technical one: how does one observe the internal workings of families/households
a theoretical one: what is there to observe that we cannot get at through
the development of audio-/video- analysis techniques and
In psychology, the movement towards the recognition that the individual
is not quite a bounded unit, thus the development of family therapy.
In linguistic, the emphasis on the interactional, communicational, social
aspects of language in the speaking and the development of "conversational
In sociology, the challenge raised by Garfinkel and "ethnomethodology" against
the most important of these developments is that of ethnomethodology since it brings
a determined look at interaction in its actual moment to moment unfolding
(rather in its results); thus it ties with interests in agency, (personal?) (shared?)
a continual reminder that individual action can only be understood in terms of the
actions of others.
a continual reminder that the constructed world is the factual world within
which people are living.
The historical roots:
reaction against Parsons understanding of Durkheim;
the importance of Alfred Schutz and, possibly, Weber;
the hidden (in the original sources) relevance of the American
pragmatists (Peirce, Dewey and particularly G.H. Mead);
the rediscovery and reconstruction of Durkheim;
The central ideas:
away from analyses looking at action from the standpoint of knowledge or the self
away from analyses starting with possible formal features of the situation (e.g.
no reliance on categories like gender, class, ethnicity, etc., unless specifically
used/referred to in interaction.
emphasis on local construction
emphasis on the facticity of consequences as constructed in local interaction.
What does this mean for family studies?
from definitions of the family to action that indexes "family"
emphasis on language and symbolic behavior as demonstratably constituted
through the consequences of the behavior on future behavior.
"family" as a posteriori category derived from interaction (if in fact
it can be so derived in particular interactions). This would allow for
"emic" analyses of features that would specifically refer to early
structuralist thinking about the meaningless units that allow for meaning.
thus "family" is not a locus of research but rather a discovery of
An example from my research: given the utterance
"found us proper china thing"
what is being constructed? (agency of the speaker)
what is being used for this construction?
how might it constrain the next construction?
how might it leave itself open to deconstruction/
appropriation/transformation (agency of the hearer)
October 5, 1999