with the collaboration of Clifford Hill and Paul Byers 

General overview

Family life may be one of the areas of our lives that has remained most closed to research and most open to blinding interpretations. Some still talk in romantic images of harmony and peace. Many more construct a dark world of barely mitigated conflict that eventually produces a host of the miscellaneous ailments that trouble our adult lives. This book attempts to open a new area of investigation into family life by focusing on the wealth of small actions which, together, make the moment to moment unfolding of domestic routines.

The method is that of radical ethnography. The reader is taken carefully through the second by second unfolding of fifteen minutes in the life of an urban family as it cooks dinner, puts the children to bed, negotiates the possible purchase of a piece of fine furniture, deals with pouts, the planning of birthday parties, etc. The speech of the five people involved, two adults and three children, was tape recorded and transcribed. The analysis brings together developments from various traditions in cultural anthropology, ethnomethodology, and discourse analysis. Together they allow for a deeper look into mechanisms of everyday life that usually remain buried under many layers of interpretation.

The goal, however, is not to reveal some reality hidden behind myths. It is rather to highlight how, together, we construct single evenings, marriages, and even divorces, in the midst of earlier constructions--our own and that of others--in an uncertain and ambiguous process.

This book is an exploration of the intersection between anthropology and language studies, particularly as developed in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. In anthropology, interest in language had remained theoretical, with little concern for technical aspects of speech in performance analysis. Conversely, work in discourse analysis fails to place the formal mechanisms it identifies within larger frameworks.

Work in family therapy and communication theory slowly drifted away from its concerns with the joint construction of families within broader systems. This book moves the field forward into modern perspectives while remaining true to original intuitions.

Ambiguous Harmony is different from most books in cultural anthropology because of its close attention to fine details in social performance. It differs from books in discourse analysis because it places local performance within larger patterns of interpretation and by its demonstration of the ways these enter into performance.

The book also distinguishes itself from all books that deal with "communication problems" (whether in family or gender studies, education, etc.) as the product of misunderstandings based on any kind of difference (sex, culture, etc.). For me, troubles are jointly construct in a context where they make sense to all participants.

Table of Contents

Sound files and transcripts

in Teachers College Library

October 5, 1999