The Making of an Analysis

In the preceding chapter, even as we dealt with matters which are often considered to be of simple methodological or technical import and are often relegated to appendices, we emphasized what is in fact the major theme of this work, the fact that human activity is always a construction of new objects with special properties, together with older objects with other properties, in the hope that the new object will itself be found useful for the construction of still further objects. At the same time we accept the recent critiques of the "objective" stance which have established that under no circumstances can any human being be a "pure observer"--whatever his technical skills. But we also accept the traditional challenge that has been given by modern society to scientists, the challenge of saying something about the world that is both demonstratably relevant to something in the world and demonstratably different from much common sense.

Thus, to record, to transcribe, is a human activity, and as such it transforms and substitutes one cultural object for another. But it is also the case that such recording and transcription have opened unexpected vistas that allow for the making of further statements about the human world. These are already radically challenging what most textbooks in psychology, sociology, or linguistics say about the human condition. As we move on to present the activities which we performed on the tape and transcript, both the warning of the dangers of reification and the celebration of new possibilities must be kept in mind. We do not offer the analysis we made as a "discovery" in the usual sense; we do believe however that we are dis-covering, un-covering aspects of behavior which other kinds of statements keep in the shadows.

The Production of Analytic Texts

Once it is understood that a transcript has no theoretical priority over any mode of representing an original event, we must wonder what other representations might also highlight aspects of the evening which the transcript itself buries. The initial discursive account of the evening with which we opened Chapter 1 was one such alternate representation. We now want to introduce four other types of representations, which will also be useful in the forthcoming analysis. They are:

1) a listing of activities as these emerge in the participants' talk and in their own words;

2) an initial representation of the temporal sequencing of the activities listed in the first representation. This representation is intended to stress the fact that activities come up again and again in a way suggesting that we search for the principles that govern this recurrence;

3) an initial representation of the shifts in participation;

4) a representation that brings together the three others and highlights the social organization of the evening.

As we proceed we also indirectly introduce the theoretical grounds we found most useful for the more technical aspects of the analysis, grounds that are made explicit most clearly in what is variously labelled "ethnomethodology" and "discourse analysis." In brief, a participant must have physically performed something, anything, through his speaking or not speaking, through the content of his speech or the way he delivered it, for us to say anything about it. The challenge at this point is to find ways of looking that allow for us to notice what signs were actually performed.

1) A list of activities: WHAT emerged

As the next chapter demonstrates, there is no systematic way of deciding what it is that the people did on the evening of the taping. That is, there is no way to close a debate focusing on the identification of distinct tasks which could then be listed or counted. There is no way to develop a systematic coding scheme. As we have been suggesting, the only "fact" on which we can depend is the actual occurrence of the whole, and the actual occurrence of new statements, "comments," "interpretations," and "analyses" which can be made to follow it in a way demonstratably tied to the original occurrence.

The first representation of the evening's historical progression emphasizes a property of this evening as it can be intuited using a common-sense attention to the words that were uttered. Specifically, we emphasize the representation of activities through the use of referential lexical items, words and verbs which were themselves used by the participants. These are the activities which emerged in their speech. We represent these here by using the same vocabulary. At this stage we are not trying to replace these words with words that would reveal the relevance of the participants' activities to matters of theoretical interests (like power in the family or enculturation). We are trying to focus attention on the words themselves, since, in the long run, all our analyses must be built on them.

At no time either during the evening or in the conversations we later had with Connie were we presented with an overall gloss for what was done that evening. At times Connie said that "nothing" happened. At other times she said that what happened were the kinds of things that happen "in families." Interestingly, there is no overall gloss for what this is that happens there, no verb like to family, that would do for familial setting what a verb like to teach does for schools, or to manage does for bureaucracies. Even the verb to parent is not quite applicable, for many reasons, including the fact that it does not mark what it is that one parent does with the other parent or what the children do to the parents. The participants, however, were never at a loss for words referring to specific tasks, or activities, which required specific stances from each person as they were called to the floor of the family. For example, at one point, Connie says "Snoopy's eyebrow's done" (sec. 104), which she later explained to us referred to her "sewing" the eyebrow back on a favorite doll of Mike's. At another point Ray says "thirty-six and a half" (sec. 119) as, it later became clear and we were specifically told later, he "measured" a space in the living room to check whether a "china cabinet" which he had seen earlier in the day would fit.

At one point Ray in fact asks the same question which we are asking: "What's happening?" (sec. 302-303). By examining Connie's response (sec. 304-335) we can get a good picture of the kind of response which makes sense in the setting, the response which, we argue, in fact makes the setting what it is and, by implication, what it is not.


Connie's response consists of a series of verbs of action (to go, do, finish, tell, brush), specified when necessary by a noun describing the action performed (swimming, homework, teeth), and concluded by an et cetera close ("and everything"):

- he went swimming;

- he didn't do his homework;

- he had to finish his homework;

- I had to tell him;

- he is doing really good now;

- he has one more to go;

- they have brushed their teeth and everything.


By carefully listening to the participants, or, more exactly, by carefully reading the transcript for such words, a list can be made of what we call "activities" specifically "emerging" in the talk. Figure 1 summarizes this list.

At this stage, no attempt is made to classify these activities beyond putting together some of those which are clearly marked as subactivities (e.g. the references to the Snoopy dolls, the sock, the dress snaps and the contents of the sewing box are all listed under the heading "sewing"). There is precisely no attempt to "analyze" what the people were "also" doing, or "really" doing. Undoubtedly, they could be said to be doing many other things, but they do not say that they are doing these other things. They make a distinction in their own performances which we must respect.

The activities are listed "in order of first appearance on the transcript" to evoke the multiplicity of the focuses which the participants created for themselves and with which they then had to deal. This means that talk about sewing (1) emerged before talk about the china cabinet (2), and that talk about the Snoopy doll (1.1) emerged before talk about the sock (1.2). However, talk about the china cabinet in fact emerged long before talk about the sock. The next section is intended to clarify the temporal organization of the activities.

2) The temporal sequencing of the activities: what emerged WHEN

All human action unfolds in time, and we can understand this action in its systematicity only if we pay close attention to the way temporality is handled by the participants. Temporality, like space, can be structured. Like space, time also allows for the centrifugal forces which destroy structures to play themselves out. How the participants use temporality as they construct the event must be a central concern of ours.


The first of the figures evoking temporality, Figure 2, emphasizes the distribution of the emergence of the activities over the half-hour. It is particularly interesting, on the first cursory glance, for the indications it gives about the relative dominance of certain activities, some of which are focused upon for longer stretches of time, or repeatedly, while others surface only once or twice. The top-to-bottom axis of the figure represents the passing of time, each line standing for a half-minute. The minutes are numbered on the left. The horizontal axis of the figure is used to display the main level of activities as these were identified in Figure 1. Explicit emergence of the activity within the talk is indicated by a mark in the appropriate column. A mark is entered whether the emergence during the half minute is a very fleeting event or not. During seconds 90-120 (mn 1.5), for example the china cabinet emerges for only 4 seconds, while most of the rest of the minute is given to an elaboration of the discussion of the repair of the sink. Yet such a fleeting emergence indicates that the activity is somehow alive for the participants, and this must be indicated.

The figure is designed to emphasize the difference between those activities which occupy time and are repeated, and those which emerge more fleetingly. When an activity emerges, it displaces or postpones all the other activities which could have emerged. It makes a new historical situation for all those that will actually follow. In Figure 2 we have arranged the activities so that those which emerge most often are at the center of the figure, while the others are distributed at the periphery either to the left or the right of the center.

Finally, the right most column indicates how many activities emerged within the same half-minute, thus indicating the presence of a kind of rhythm between moments of focus and moments of cycling through activities which we investigate later.

3) The emergence of participation: WHO emerged WHEN

The first two figures focused our attention on the multiplicity of the activities in which the participants engaged. We noted repeatedly that the explicit emergence of an activity in talk is an interesting matter in its own right, since it suggests the existence of mechanisms segmenting the overall activity of conducting familial life, dividing the practical labor of reproducing the family in a particular way in which we can see culture at work. At that stage we did not mention the distribution of the participants in the various tasks. The implicit grammatical subject was a structured unit, the "family," which, as a whole, organized itself to produce something concrete with certain properties which then became part of the history of each participant.

We have to engage in the same kind of analysis to understand who emerged as an audible participant at any one time. As we emphasize repeatedly in various contexts, it is a basic premise of this analysis that the family as a whole is always the unit of our analysis: all the people are always involved in everything, even when they do not emerge as specified participants. Silence is never a sign of passivity; remaining silent is an activity which allows other activities, other participants, to emerge. At this point, we simply want to summarize this emergence using common-sense intuition as it is structured by the technology used to evoke the original experience: the tape recorder. Nothing is easier, when listening to the tape, than noticing who is speaking (even when we cannot make out the words). Yet all research based on visual material tells us that most socially productive human action can be performed without speech. It remains that the alternation between speaking and not speaking is meaningful, and much can be learned by tracing it.


In Figure 3 we use a modified temporal axis (top to bottom) to display who participates in what. In the left most column are the codes from Figure 1. In the body of the figure, a cross indicates explicit audible participation by the person in whose column the cross appears. In a few cases, a person initiates something that is not picked up by anyone else. When this happens, the cross is bracketed. The length of time given to any one activity is not indicated here. For example, in seconds 1-17 Connie addresses Mike about Snoopy dolls. He is a participant as an addressee, and then as a speaker. Kate, who is not addressed, does speak back to her mother on the topic. She takes a position which we will refer to as that of the "interpreter." In Figure 3, all three are thus marked as participants in a topic arising from Connie's sewing. When Ray begins speaking at second 15, he does not acknowledge in any specific manner the preceding and still- ongoing exchange. He starts something else (the discussion of the china cabinet). Connie picks up on it and then moves on to still something else (something that she did that day). The two children do not appear in either of these activities either as addressees or interpreters. When they do speak, it is to propose that the group attend to something else.

Figure 3 displays something so striking that, as we explained earlier, it served as the basis for our organization of the transcript itself. Connie is involved, either as initiator, addressee, or interpreter, in almost every activity which emerged in the talk that evening. She is also the one who initiates by far the most matters that are not picked up by anyone. This is something to which we will return repeatedly, as it suggests the presence of a powerful pattern. Metaphorically at least, Connie is "at the center of" the family, and this is worth noticing.

4) The temporal aspects of participation: WHO emerged doing WHAT WHEN


Figure 4 brings together Figure 2 and 3 for the first 15 minutes of the transcript, the section on which we focus. Once again, the temporal axis is top to bottom. Each line represents 15 seconds. The horizontal axis is divided into columns for the people, whose emergence as participants is indicated by crosses. In the right-most column is the label of the dominant activity. As mentioned earlier, an activity has emerged if it is specifically labelled in the speech of one person. A person is a participant if he or she emerges audibly as either initiator, addressee or interpreter. The boundaries are marked by speech which is either not specifically tied to the preceding activity in that it does not take it into account lexically or deictically, or speech which specifically denies the right of the preceding activity to dominate.

The point here is to reveal something which becomes particularly relevant when we deal with the participation of the children in the evening's organization. There is a major alternation between matters which concern the children and matters which do not concern them. Like the matter of the mother's overwhelming participation in everything that happens, the mechanisms through which the children come and go as emergent participants are fascinating in their own right.

The Place of the Figures within the Overall Text

At this point, a reader should probably read again the passages, in the preceding chapter, when we summarized in a literary fashion who the people were and what they did. These texts should then be contrasted to the figures, which should be approached, not as "analyses" or "summaries," but as alternate texts with different stylistic and rhetorical properties. We have written them to highlight various "interesting" properties of the event. Together, they constitute the text which you, as reader, are holding, a "book about family life in America studied in strict ethnographic fashion," as it might be summarized in conversations where no more than one line can be given to it.

These texts were produced in radically different literary genres. They are in fact but some of the texts which could be produced. The rest of this overall text consists of other such texts. What is important at this stage is that these texts each have a radically different rhetorical power over further texts or conversations which one might have. In that sense they are not equivalent, even though they are closely linked. As we see much later (in Chapter 9), this difference, in special settings, becomes the basis for acts of political power which establish some of these texts as somehow "more" evocative of the "reality" of the original event, "more" useful for an understanding of what it is to live in "America," "more critical," in all the senses of the word, than others.

In democratic or skeptical modes of investigation, the specific awareness of multiplicity and power easily leads to a kind of interpretative despair which can itself become hegemonic. Geertz's complaint about "blurred genres" (1980) thus becomes Tyler's notion (1986) that the ethnographic task can be no more than a vaguely evocative one where we are given a general feeling for other possibilities but must refrain from any display of concern for knowledge, science, if not truth. In fact "genres" do not blur when they multiply. The current concern with multiplicity of symbolization and textual representation is the result of a social scientific search for displays of human behavior that are arguably more revealing than those we have used until now. What is wrong about old ethnographic genres is not that they are grounded in specific ideological universes; it is that these universes, in various ways, silenced certain aspects of the human condition. We are still accountable to the humanist challenge: We must learn how to handle multiplicity, and we must teach what we have learned.

Each of the texts constructed here highlights certain properties of the original event. Each text has a particular rhetorical power. The first, more literary, texts initially may appear to "tell us more." The transcript may suggests that it is a "more accurate" representation of the original speech. The figures may seem to "give more details." The final interviews we discuss later may seem to tell us "what it actually all meant" to at least one of the participants, something that none of the other texts will appear to do. All this is true, as long as we understand that none of these texts in any way recaptures the original event. The event is absolutely gone. It has left some traces, and these traces have multiplied as we have produced more texts with earlier traces. Each of these texts must thus be understood as a "symbol," that is, as a concrete mark pointing back to other concrete marks of the same kind, and forward to marks that may be made in the future. The symbols gain their power through the plausibility of the links which are established, but also, as Wagner (1975) has suggested, through the fact that they propose something different, new, and interesting. It is not so much that the "center" is empty, as the deconstructionists proposed, as it is that it is continually moving as new texts appear and get linked with the historical remnants out of which they were built.

If we understand our analyses less as attempts to reconstruct the past and more as acts constructing the future, then we can find our way back to an understanding of our overall task as a "scientific" one. It is the task which helps "us" (those who actually do find it useful wherever they were born and raised) gain the kind of written knowledge one can trust when something has to be deliberately constructed, be it a rocket to the moon, a curriculum, a form of therapy, or a national or international policy.

In this perspective, our concern with "form," the concern which led us to spend so much time transcribing, is not an instance of "mere formalism." Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the physical, material "stuff" with which we construct the texts of our lives. The human sciences rarely suffer from an excess of formalism. More often than not they suffer from a more-or-less unwitting idealism, as they suggest that what is constructed in history is made up of vague "feelings," "attitudes," or "beliefs" producing "interpretations" with no particular locations. In fact, the constructions of culture have a physical reality. To speak, to write, requires energy, time, and space. It leaves sensory residues which can be collected and examined for what they are, what they did, and what they can do. The "feelings" which you, as reader, are developing about the family we are writing about, or this text, are not evanescent, "subjective" (in the sense that they are not motivated) nonevents. They are very concrete acts that are triggered by the interaction of other very concrete acts. That the response may be unique, and that the triggering mechanisms may be very complex, does not make the response less concrete and material. It does not invalidate the attempt to make science. It simply suggests that our task is even more complex than we knew.


What happens next? It may be a major feature of the Western novelistic account that it is not quite finished until a second ending is offered. This information is offered and a closure is produced which the main account appeared not to provide. And so, we are told, "they married, they had many children, and they lived happily ever after." When we teach the material presented here, students regularly ask, "Did they buy the china closet?" and, after the analysis is started and they have begun responding, they wonder, "Did the Harveys get a divorce?"

We do not have much more information. We did not seek it, and strictly speaking, this information is not necessary to the analysis, even though the little that we have indicates the further complexities involved in dealing with large-scale historical patterns, even within such a small group as a family. Let us just say that what happened is very much within the range of what can happen to upper-middle-class urban families.

Some small matters should be mentioned, however. First, Connie helped us extensively with the transcript. She succeeded in disambiguating many utterances which we just couldn't hear. She talked to us repeatedly about some of the matters which emerge in the speech but are not locally developed. While we never replace the actual speech with these further comments, they help us highlight the difference between the local expression of the information and the other possible forms which representation could take.

Finally, 2 years after the main taping, Connie was interviewed twice, once by a student as part of a research on "loneliness in marriage" and then by Hervé Varenne. The first of these tapes is used in Chapter 9 as evidence for Connie's ability to speak about her life using other vocabularies than the one which emerges in the main text. However, it belongs to a very different genre ("the revealing interview") and was not submitted to the same kind of analysis as the other was.

All this did "happen next" but it does not quite answer the questions triggered by our curiosity. Thus ...

A china closet was indeed bought, though not the one under discussion in our text. Ray bought it 2 months later, without further consultations, and he presented it to Connie on her birthday.

Two years after the tape, Connie initiated a divorce over Ray's protests. It turned out not to be too amicable an affair, and Connie left with the three children. She moved away from New York City, finished her doctorate, and made herself a new life with all the skills she had practiced.