SocialInteractionLogo.pngSocial Interaction. Video-Based Studies of Human Sociality.

2018 VOL. 1, Issue 2

ISBN: 2446-3620

DOI: 10.7146/si.v1i2.110037





Social Interaction

Video-Based Studies of Human Sociality


Objectivation practices[1]

Kenneth Liberman

Professor Emeritus, University of Oregon


Linkages between the early interactionist sociology of Simmel and Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology are explored, using illustrations drawn from the author’s research on coffee tasting, the debates of Tibetan scholar-monks, and players of board games. Garfinkel’s inquiries into the neglected objectivity of social facts are specified with concrete illustrations, and a model is developed to guide the investigation of some seminal topics in ethnomethodology. Discounting rational choice theory, voluntarism, and individualist models, this study offers an account of the objectivation practices that parties routinely employ when they collaborate in setting up an orderliness for their local affairs.

1. Introduction  

Sociology is accustomed to acknowledging three founding fathers – Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. Whenever a fourth founder is mentioned, that fourth person is usually Georg Simmel. In many ways Simmel is the thinker whose original contributions to sociology have had the most pertinence for the inquiries of ethnomethodology, and this is because he recognized that the mundane affairs of everyday life are foundational practices for society. Simmel (1959a: 315) calls the activity by which individuals find themselves operating cooperatively “sociation,” and he considers it to be a topic that is both fundamental and intractable (Simmel 1959: 324): “There is no perfectly clear technique for applying the fundamental sociological concept itself (that is, the concept of sociation).” Simmel’s idea of sociation can guide us so long as we recall Garfinkel’s (2006: 161) caution that a “rough statement doesn’t tell us what we’ve found; it tells us what to look for.”

What is this thing “sociation”? Simmel (1959a: 315) writes, “Sociation is the form (realized in innumerably different ways) in which individuals grow together into a unity.” How do people develop or discover a unified canvas for, in, and as their mundane social interaction? It is this collaborative search-and-discovery project that is the topic here. Under what conditions and to what extent are members able or unable to affect things? I am especially interested in inquiring about whether anybody at any time knows just what they’re doing. In other words, to what extent are persons engaged in sociation “actors” in the sense that they are able to control affairs in a deliberate fashion, and to what extent are they limited to responding to emerging patterns and rhythms that temporarily surface in the hubbub that surrounds them? Simmel (1959b: 342) cautions us that the real action of sociation “does not consist of cognitions but of concrete processes and actual situations.” While much social science is preoccupied with concepts and cognitions, ethnomethodology has turned its attention to the most concrete, immanent things of the world.

It is for certain that I do not want to proceed by defining sociation and then to proceed from that definition. Sociation is too deeply embedded in our lives to be treated in a heavy-handed way; instead, it requires being discovered just-as-it-is and then specified “from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself” (Heidegger 1962: 58). Simmel only named it; he himself did not yet know what it was. Consider what he said about the obscure “minor” social forms that are at work in sociation, which he contrasts with the “major” or more macro social forms[2] that have captured the attention of most social scientists: [2]

"On the basis of these major formations – which constitute the traditional subject matter of social science – it would be entirely impossible to piece together the real life of society as we encounter it in our experience… It is really these minor forms that bring about society as we know it.”  (Simmel 1959: 327)

I accept that these minor social forms are ethnomethodology’s fundamental data.

Phenomenology has informed these inquiries from the outset, and we should recall that Edmund Husserl and Georg Simmel were friends and read each other’s works carefully.

These well-used books authored by Simmel, which today sit on the shelves of Husserl’s books at the Husserl Archives in Leuven, demonstrate that Husserl took Simmel seriously and allow us to deduce that while ethnomethodology has learned a good deal from phenomenology, it can also be said that the sociological interest, and most importantly the interest in studying sociation that was later sustained and expanded by ethnomethodology, had some influence upon phenomenology. We should also not forget that Simmel is correct that these mundane social forms are obscure and that it is not easy to capture the details of these “everyday formations.” Ethnomethodology has made capturing these concrete local details into a discipline.

For the most part mainstream sociology has been disappointed with, and even resistant to, the messy but real details identified and described by ethnomethodological researchers. Daston and Alison (2010) located in 19th-century physics an illustration that is paradigmatic for our dilemma. From 1875 to 1894 a conscientious physicist, Arthur Worthington, had been making careful drawings of how different liquid media splatter when they hit a hard surface. In 1894, Worthington attempted to use the new art of photography to capture the details of how drops of various liquid substances splatter, because he believed that with photography he could capture those precise details even more perfectly. Much to his surprise, the real splattering was more disorganized and less coherent than what was presented by his ideal depictions. Daston and Alison (2010: 12 & 14) present the contrasting representations. First, here are the sketches of liquid media:

And then, the photographs of liquid media:

Worthington was disappointed that the real world offered less order than did his ideal representations in much the same way that mainstream sociology is dissatisfied with the results of ethnomethodological research.


2. Real-world phenomena

In the context of a Simmelian outlook, let us consider the aphorism invoked frequently by Garfinkel (1967: 33), “The policy is recommended that any social setting be viewed as self-organizing.” What does Garfinkel mean? In effect, it is a criticism of cognitivism in social science. Intersubjective affairs are unpredictable, and in spite of the many social scientists who imagine that our lives are more rationally motivated than they really are, events largely run themselves. This is an important change of perspective, and a postmodern one. As Garfinkel used to say, we have moved beyond rationalist just-so stories. The “reciprocal stimulation” that occurs (Simmel’s term, 1959a: 328) in intersubjective affairs is so dynamic that much of the time the participants gaze upon the affairs in wonder, barely able to anticipate where things might go next but keen to learn where that is, as soon as it happens. According to Simmel (1959b: 343) there is a necessary incompleteness to each situation, and this keeps participants anticipating.

Events are continuously in flux, and there are no time-outs. The flux of ordinary affairs keeps confounding us by exceeding our efforts to render those affairs orderly. And new rules are born every minute as part of our efforts to tame the situation or turn it to our advantage. As Simmel (1959: 328) tells us, “At each moment such threads are spun, dropped, taken up again, displaced by others, interwoven by others. These interactions among the atoms of society are accessible only to psychological microscopy, as it were.” It is ethnomethodology’s interest to provide microscopic scrutiny and to identify the endless entanglements of these recurring dislocations, which in ethnomethodology go by the following names: “no timeout,” “first time through,” “authochthonous,” “in vivo,” and my favorite, “the endless, ongoing, contingent accomplishments.”

In the 1960s and early 1970s some mainstream British sociologists dismissed ethnomethodology as a form of Californian subjectivism. This upset Garfinkel, first because never in his life did he think of himself as a Californian (in fact, he always hated the place); and second, because he was not a bit interested in subjectivity – already in his dissertation he had written about “the sterilities of subjectivity” (2006: 151). Instead, he called for ethnomethodologists to pay close attention to “the neglected objectivity” of social facts, and this is the principal clue that motivates the present essay.

Garfinkel (2002: 189) also proposed that, “Work-site practices are developingly objective and developingly accountable.” I am trying to elucidate just what is meant by “developingly objective.” In our efforts to tame our data, we must never lose the site of this “developingly,” and most probably even ethnomethodologists have yet to fully appreciate the actual flux of affairs. Like other people, ethnomethodologists are preoccupied with orderliness and with converting the flux of affairs into something more predictable, and this can lead them to proposing more order than is actually there. In everyday life most actors desire orderliness in their affairs, but they are unsure just how to accomplish it, and they end up stumbling into any ready-at-hand solution that presents itself in the course of their affairs. Moreover, people rarely seek a totalistic organization – they are not sociologists after all. Sometimes their interest in organization extends only as far as being able to cross the street.

As Garfinkel has taught us, members pick up from the looks of the world a method for organizing local affairs, and then they display for each other how such a method (a rule, a place in line, an opinion…) can be used to accomplish some orderliness. In other words, ethnomethods are instructable matters: people teach them to each other. But it is important to emphasize that in most cases these methods are stumbled upon, spotted serendipitously amidst the spectacle of the world. Only rarely are they planned with foresight; or, if they are planned such plans never quite work out in the way that is anticipated. That is the reason people to pay close attention to their mundane affairs, and it was this close attention that people pay that most captured Garfinkel’s imagination.

Even though these methods that people stumble upon and teach other assist them in organizing the orderliness of their local affairs, people still become entangled inside the local circumstances that these methods produce (Garfinkel 2002: 65). What has been astonishing in my research is to keep rediscovering that the ethnomethods lead the people rather than the people designing the methods by cognitive decision. Every line of communication becomes an entanglement, and yet the contingent circumstances set into play by these entanglements keep providing parties with further resources for organizing local orderlinesses by bricolage. Sometimes an ethnomethod can involve the use of any material thing that is at hand, which eases the task of organizing a local orderliness. By “a material thing” I mean things like blackboards, gameboards, Powerpoint, etc., but I also mean things like a phrase or a term that serves to get people onto the same page. Any device that is at hand can be made to serve the interests of cooperating parties in developing that unity of which Simmel is speaking.


3. An initial illustration 

I offer the following illustration in order to make more clear this important point about ethnomethods leading the people rather than people leading the ethnomethods. Professional coffee tasters are faced with the naturally occurring task of rendering the wildness of the tastes of coffee more orderly and subject to remembering, recording, communicating, considering further, etc. They work to locate, identify and describe the principal tastes by developing a few taste descriptors that can carry their discoveries and effectively communicate them to other personnel in the coffee industry. The meaning of some of these descriptors is simple and obvious, such as “chocolate;” but others, like “balanced,” “round,” and “clean,” are not so well defined, and the descriptors function in part by collecting whatever a drinker is able to discover while examining the taste in a cup under the guidance of the descriptor. The sense and reference of these descriptors can expand and contract, and much of the important work of professional tasters is to tame the meaning of these descriptors so that they can be made reliable and assist the work of making taste more objective and precise.

To aid them in such work, coffee tasters use evaluation charts that facilitate the translation of tastes into numerical, and thus hopefully objective, representations. These charts or schedules place something tangible in the hands of professional tasters, which they can then use to make their activities orderly, and I and my colleague Giolo Fele of the Università di Trento have spent several years studying how these charts are used, one sample of which is included here:


We used a simplified version of this chart to afford student lay tasters some focus for their evaluations. While our hope was that these charts would allow their thinking and discussion to be made more publicly observable to us and require them to verbalize their thinking so that we as researchers could follow their thinking more carefully, it did not work that way: instead of being used as a tool for exploring taste, the charts became a device for creating an orderliness that facilitated their being able to get on the same page in the social interaction that accompanied their tasting. The tasting itself and the flavors that the tasting identified, were relegated to a subsidiary status. In the end, the rating charts ended up governing the interaction not because it assisted their tasting but because it assisted them to organize a local orderliness for their social interaction and so render their interaction predictable and less risky. This is significant because it demonstrates that the cooperating parties’ immanent concerns with orderliness can have priority over the substantive objectives that their collaborative work was intended to address. Through a wide swathe of ethnomethodological and conversation-analytic research, what is most immanent in local interactional work supersedes more obvious items of business that may have motivated the social action in the first place.

Let us examine how this worked here. The first of these five short clips shows the tasting forms being passed out to the lay student tasters (not professional tasters) and displays their initial examination of the charts:


The Numerators 1

With these forms in hand, the lay tasters proceed through the first of three rounds of tasting, one for each cup of coffee they are evaluating:


The Numerators 2

Despite their task, they discuss flavors only briefly. Given the tasting schedule, they quickly reduce their evaluation to a numeral for entry on their form. The form affords them the opportunity to render their interaction orderly and to quite literally arrive on the same page. As we can learn from The Numerators 2 clip, which does not require a translation, they quickly adopt a protocol of discussing only numbers. How does that come to be the accepted protocol? That is never discussed by the tasters, and no proposal about doing so is mentioned. The course of affairs themselves simply lead the participants into what is, practically speaking, a numeration-only ethnomethod for providing orderliness for their work of tasting, and their work quickly becomes reduced to the task of filling out the numeral-based form.

Even when their numerical evaluations differ, they do not discuss those differences in terms of flavors: they speak almost exclusively about numbers, and this is so even while they are uncertain what is the meaning of those numbers. They are distracted from the serious work of tasting by the apparent orderliness of numeration. There is no calibration of these numbers, which is a necessary and vital step in professional tastings, at least until the second round when the naturally occurring comparisons between the first cup and the second cup allow their numbers to acquire more specific meaning. In the second round they taste their second coffee (The Numerators 3), and they numerate with more confidence, and it seems that they appreciate the safety that hiding behind these numbers affords them. Some categories that are given ratings, such as “balance,” are things about which they have little understanding. Their assessments regarding sweetness (dolcezza) and velvet texture (vellutato) display a gross kind of evaluating, and the tasters generate their numbers with minimal discussion, often nothing more than a “Si!” (yes).


The Numerators 3

By the third coffee that is tasted (The Numerators 4), the comparison practice has become more refined, and the robust character of their practice of numeration is evident in the fact that they discuss only numbers, and their growing confidence with their ethnomethod obscures the fact that their method is facile.

The Numerators 4

The tasters have barely learned a thing about the coffees. What is more, because they are not really discussing the tastes they are locating, they are unable to teach each other anything either. Here is a translation for part of their discussion in the final clip, “The Numerators 5” (5:16-27), during which they are assessing the “sweetness” aspect of the coffee without ever considering what it can be for a drink like coffee, which is characteristically bitter, to be sweet. Their numbers gain some practical currency by virtue of contrasting the evaluations from the earlier two rounds of tasting with the present coffee. They decide upon a number, and then proceed directly to the next category:

A Il primo era 5.

 The first was 5.

B E secondo?

 And the second?

A Secondo 9.

 The second 9.

C Un 7!

 A 7!

A O.K. … “Vellutato”? …
   OK. … “Velvet texture”? …

The tasters have lost the phenomenon (Garfinkel 2002: 264-67). Importantly, and as Garfinkel might have observed, they have not lost the phenomenon in any which way, they have lost it specifically because of their use, as an ethnomethod, of the “metrological” work (Garfinkel 2002: 284) of their numerating. By metrological Garfinkel is referring to the use of measurement practices for providing a definitive characterization of the inherent properties of the phenomena under examination and for providing an orderliness for their practical work on any local occasion (Garfinkel 2002: 270). In the final clip, the tasters have even become satirists regarding the cavalier character of their numerating: note that the rating of “seven” (“un sette!”) is offered in the manner of self-satire.  


The Numerators 5

They have lost track of their agenda. They may not even have had an agenda, but were simply engaged in looking to the others and waiting for the situation to present them with an agenda. If we do presume that they had an agenda, which was to evaluate the coffees they were drinking, then they have lost track of that objective. They are caught up and become entangled in the very metrological procedures that they are using for providing orderliness to the local occasion. They have become “tangled in circumstantiality” (Garfinkel 2002: 65).

Examples of becoming tangled in circumstantiality abound, and as soon as I noticed this phenomenon I have been discovering it in nearly every bit of data I have collected during my various research projects. Let me offer another case here: when people ask a passerby for street directions it can happen that the reply includes many details that are not helpful for learning the direction and that distract the parties who are asking for directions so much (i.e. so entangle them in peripheral matters) that they fail to talk about, and occasionally even fail to recognize themselves, the inadequacy of the directions that were elicited. For instance, in some case studies that my students and I collected in Buenos Aires, two pedestrians walking across a part of the city asked a passerby, “How do we get to Lezama Park?” The passerby replied, “Take the 168 or 64 bus from Pueyrredón Street.” Instead of their replying, “But we’re planning to walk,” in order to elicit advice that would be more pertinent to them, in an effort to be cooperative the parties simply repeated the last few syllables of the passerby’s utterance, “en Pueyrredón,” along with an accompanying nod of their heads followed by a friendly “Gracias.” That is, they became caught up inside the agenda of the passerby and his reply, from which they were either unable or unwilling to extricate themselves. One might say that they showed deference to the autochthonic, emerging social structures of the occasion. Very many instances of soliciting directions turn out this way: the response is a divergence from what the parties intended to ask, and yet parties do not ask again, or try to reformulate their inquiry. The immanent requirements of the conversation distract the parties from the task of securing the needed information.


4. Excursus: Some historical perspective  

Garfinkel studied under Parsons, who in his sociological practice employed what had become sociology’s standard trope of the homunculus: people were turned into puppets, and the only thoughts they were allowed to have were those that the sociologist was able to stuff into their heads. The direction away from individualism, and rationalism, that we have been taking for three generations now has become clear. In contrast to Talcott Parsons, Schutz was insistent upon not being satisfied with theorizing society and turned to examining some of the lived realities of everyday life. In contrast to Schutz, Garfinkel came to mostly avoid even phenomenological theorizing and turned strictly to studies of naturally occurring activities for direction, even to the point of being accused of being an empiricist (Attewell 1974). In place of “production practices” Garfinkel began to speak of scenes as “self-organizing” (and there is an echo of Parsons in this), which are situations in which no matter how skillful members may be, they are not really in charge of things.

Finding one’s path through the complexities of our quotidian life requires considerable ability on the part of members, and ethnomethodologists like to examine each one of these artful practices, much in the way a bird-watcher is keenly observant and eager to identify and describe each newly discovered aspect of avian behavior. But in spite of their artful practices, members proceed myopically – their vision is local, even more local than local. This “more local than local” is what Husserl intended by his word “immanent” in the definition of phenomenology he offers in Ideas (1962: 161): “a pure descriptive theory of the immanent formations of consciousness”. We are constantly attempting to find our bearings, and much of the time no one is in control. The ethnomethodological investigation proceeds from the immanent looks of the world from the perspectives of the members trying to find their way together. Here I investigate how events organize themselves, and I try to appraise to what extent and under what conditions members are able to affect things. Parsons presumed too much. Schutz presumed too much. And on a few occasions even Garfinkel presumed too much. Since we are academics, it is difficult for us to shed our rationalist blinders.

In an unpublished 1962 paper, in which Garfinkel first laid out his plan for Studies in Ethnomethodology, he said that he would “treat … methodological interests of the members of society as objects of theoretical sociological inquiry” (Psathas 2004). To what extent do people really have deliberate, planned ahead of time, “methodological interests”? They can have them, to be sure, but my studies reveal that it is more common that they do not know what they are doing until a routine is put into play as a collaborative and autochthonous event.

In a 1965 version of the paper (typescript), which was delivered at the University of Oregon, Garfinkel said, “Persons, in the ways in which they are members of ordinary arrangements, are engaged in the artful accomplishment of the rational properties of indexical particulars.” At that early stage of ethnomethodology I think we possibly idealized what was rational activity. It turns out that rational activity is not nearly as rational as we were thinking at the time. The notion “members” already undoes some of the individualist, deliberate, controlling aspects of rational activity, in that it is an admission that people are acting as a collective. Deliberate, voluntarist, rational planning is not unknown, but mostly the events move too fast for planning to be very effective, a phenomenon that always impressed Aaron Cicourel (1974), who insisted in his field research that the basic structures of interaction were always in the process of emerging.

Once Garfinkel became absorbed in studying scenic practices, i.e. in “studies,” he came to rely less upon social phenomenological idealizations of decision-making and sense-assembly and to emphasize more the authochthonous and tendentious nature of those affairs. In the last year of his life, when he once casually used the phrase “production practices” in a conversation with me at his home, I criticized the term “production” by suggesting that it was too voluntarist. I said that yes an orderliness gets produced, but much of the time no one is in charge, and the orderliness that ends up governing affairs can be one that no one had in mind in advance, so “produced” is not always an apt term to describe what is going on. Garfinkel replied thoughtfully, “Yes, you’re right. Perhaps we need to give up on the term ‘production.’” Even at an early stage Garfinkel (2006 (1948), 156) intuited this: “One runs the risk of assuming a rational actor, and we wish to avoid this assumption;” and in the same study he downplays “purposeful calculation” (160). So then he asked me what term I would use instead. I replied that there is “congregational work oriented to finding an orderliness,” but that we have yet to identify it or describe it adequately. This essay is my attempt to move the ball further down the field.


5. Congregational work  

5.1. Intersubjectivity

Aron Gurwitsch, a student of Edmund Husserl who was brought to the US by Gurwitsch’s colleague Alfred Schutz, wrote about “intersubjectively concatenated and interlocking experiences,” (Gurwitsch 1966: 432) but this too is only a phrase and not yet a specification. While ethnomethodology has learned a great deal from Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity (elaborated for the social sciences by Schutz and Gurwitsch), ethnomethodology has also learned that most of these intersubjective activities are not necessarily planned, or necessarily conceptual. All three of these phenomenologists acknowledged the importance of signs, but their reading of the work of signs, while seminal, is perhaps too logical and conceptual to fully capture the role played by the brute materiality of the signs that come to be possessed in common by interacting parties, and that get used by parties to organize the local orderliness of their affairs. Careful studies of micro-interaction have revealed that these interconcatenations can occur before the meaning of the signs being shared by parties is settled. Social phenomenological perspectives that presume that a meaning always comes first, individual consciousness by individual consciousness, and only then comes to be “shared” or “negotiated” are mistaken. In fact, the meaning may never get settled, should not get settled, and in most instances cannot get settled. Innumerable social interactions take place during which parties operate with different understandings of the same signs, or even with no understanding at all. This situation is commonplace. It is our lives.

How do the objective structures of social interaction get worked out before those structures receive their contents? Merleau-Ponty (1962: xx) offers us a clue: “Sense is revealed where my own and other people’s paths intersect and engage each other like gears.” It seems that the course of affairs serendipitously guides the participants to the competent coordinated social interaction they seek. Ethnomethodology and conversation analysis share the common aim of tracking just how these gears engage each other, that is, how the microstructures can lead the parties to their solutions. In this sense, intersubjectivity is more objective than it is subjective, and so perhaps a new name for the phenomenon should be sought. The important point here is that the events lead the way, and parties must continuously adapt to local structures that are always emerging, with no timeouts. This perspective is not in any way a resurrection of treating parties as judgmental dopes; rather, it proposes a specification of what it is that artful practices consist of. The importance of members’ work is not being diminished, but the idea that members always fully cognize just what they are doing is discounted. Members are not Robinson Crusoes who know, as individuals, each next step of what they are doing. The artfulness of their organizing an orderliness is to be found in how they apply the tools that get objectivated during the natural course of interaction and how they place them into service for the local tasks of providing for intelligibility, order, predictability, efficacy, and every other contingency of coordinating their activities: it is not that they always know these ahead of the “inside-with” tendentious life of their work.


5.2. Tendentiousness

The “artful accomplishment” and artful practices that were the focus of Garfinkel’s studies are not always highly planned doings; rather, they involve members’ keen but opportunistic watchfulness for any object that can be rigged to work for structuring the local affairs, or even more basically, that can help them stay out of trouble, which is frequently the first priority of parties on any occasion. In the early days of ethnomethodology, we used to speak of society as “a floating crap game,” an image that captures well the flux of our quotidian affairs. A social event leads itself, and situations are continuously in flux. Proust (2002: 60), observing the ever-changing and fluid rules of warfare during his account of the First World War, writes, “War is no exception to good old Hegel’s laws. It is in a state of perpetual becoming,” and even today our generals complain that we are always fighting the last war, which leaves us unprepared for fighting the present one. Like that, “rules” are not as stable as sociologists once imagined them to be, and each application of a rule happens first-time-through.

More than to principles (which operate as resources, much the way that rules do), peoples’ sight extends to what is “next” and not much further than that. Our sight is myopic. Things may tend toward a direction, but usually that direction is neither clear nor distinct. This is its tendentiousness. It is such a “close-in” phenomenon that careless social analysts can miss it. This can also go by the name of “the looks of the world.”

In the Boston Seminars[3] Garfinkel spoke of “the phenomenon as the interior course of its own production.” In other words, an event drives itself with its own momentum; however, it may not be clear where an event is heading. It is not that the people are not involved, but society moves in accord with its own momentum. This is closely related with the “inside-with” that Garfinkel speaks of in Ethnomethodology’s Program (2002: 271). People can only work with the practical objectivities that emerge within each occasion, and one thing leads to a next. In our absorption inside the local circumstances of each occasion, memories are short. Doug Macbeth, from who I learned to better appreciate this notion of tendentiousness, informs me that, “It is heard in a first which second is called for, and every present turn instructs what it calls for next.” It is this “nextness” and the horizon of this nextness that identifies the tendentiousness of affairs, and this is related to the flux of social interaction that I am describing.

Put in a different way, people pattern after each other, and they pick up ways of formulating and ways of knowing that follow from the previous speakers. However, they frequently misread a previous speaker and so inadvertently carry affairs off to a new hinterland that was not anticipated by anyone. The “floating crap game” aspect is that people must pay attention to these new hinterlands that keep arriving on the scene.

Macbeth also reminded me of a passage from an important essay by Michael Moerman and Harvey Sacks (1988: 180-186), “On Understanding,” where they are emphatic that turn-taking systems work “one utterance at a time.” The immanence of local affairs always presses upon one, and what is most proximal is the thing that grabs our attention. We are oriented to a “next,” but there is only one “next” at a time! This limits the opportunities for longer-term organizing, and solutions can become restricted to what is close at hand, to what is immanent, without the bigger aims of social science always playing the principal role. In short, we are overwhelmed by the swarm of the quotidian events that keep heading our way. When Moerman’s essay was republished in his 1988 book, Moerman had in the end come to recognize that understanding was not as straightforward as they had been assuming. That is to say, even two of the most brilliant of ethnomethodologists had been over-rationalizing intersubjectivity. Reconsidering his title during a brief “1987 Introduction,” Moerman recommended changing the wording of “understanding,” which had already become “what is called ‘understanding’,” to the more accurate “the events that pass or fail to pass as understanding,” which offers us a much more open representation of affairs, in the very way that the affairs are open for the participants. In making this move, Moerman acknowledges that understanding can fail, and that it is not rational in the strict way that we may like to assume and in the way that the “decision sciences” would have it today. Ordinary matters can be left up in the air, with no one certain, which is why parties keep themselves oriented to that next.

Because utterances occur one at a time, the activities that serve to organize local orderlinesses also occur one at a time, which results in everyone having to remain oriented to what next may be impending. In the immanence of this experience, people become myopic in their preoccupation with that next next that must be handled, to the point that larger-scale interests are lost sight of and even forgotten. (One only needs to recall how quickly we are able to lose the focus that motivates one of our own Google searches.) While macrosociologists are looking for the big picture in the way Simmel describes, and the phenomenologists are looking for the big theories, the parties themselves are preoccupied with not much more than looking for that next next, since that is what they need to survive in the interaction. While that may be too mundane for macrosociologists and phenomenologists to become motivated to invest much of their attention to such a topic, because it is critical for parties it is critical for ethnomethodologists.

The tendentiousness is the immanent traction that people procure on matters, often guided by what appears to be most readily communicable, i.e. by what can cause people to find themselves able to operate on the same page. It is important to note that operating on the same page is not necessarily the same thing as understanding meanings. Garfinkel always insisted that accounts were “vague” and that they were subject to “indefinite elaboration” (the etcetera principle). Here we must recall Garfinkel’s often repeated warning: “There is nothing hidden inside of our heads but brains.” The world is there in front of us, in the spectacle we are sharing, and that is why thinking is mostly a public activity. “Tendentious,” which I believe is a term Garfinkel did not use until the 1980s, is a way to repair our being too cognitivist in our studies. It is an appreciation that things run along to wherever they are heading, on their own, and we mostly are left to discover them after the fact. This is not to suggest that we never try to bring our focus to bear upon events, it is only to observe that much of the time we do not yet have a comprehensive grasp of what we are doing.


6. Objectivation 

To assist us in our efforts to examine the intricacies of this peculiar situation, at once curious and unavoidable, I offer the topic of what I am calling “Objectivation,” after Husserl (1969: 34; 1970: 358-61; 1973: 199), Schutz (1967: 133-34), and Garfinkel (2006: 135). Objectivation is the work of turning our thinking or activities into objects that are publicly available for people to use for organizing the local orderlinesses of their affairs. These objects can be notions or they can be actual physical objects, or both. They have a materiality that allows them to sit there in the spectacle, permitting parties to use them as focal points for their collaborative attention, i.e. for getting everyone on the same page so that they can commence the work of making their affairs orderly. They are the basic tools at hand with which the participants can work cooperatively.

Most importantly, one of my discoveries is that people do not “construct” or “produce” these objects; rather, the objects find their way to centerstage on their own. Even when people do try to plan for them, parties are surprised by what they end up becoming, even though it is typical that parties will avoid displaying any surprise. By working “on their own” I mean that they have a ubiquitous temporal sequence that works like this:

Account Confirmation Objectivation Disengagement

There is not the space here to offer a detailed theoretical explanation of accounts.[4] This is a longstanding topic in ethnomethodology, although it is not always fully understood, and much has been written about it. Instead, I will take advantage of the multimedia aspect of this journal and offer some demonstrations of naturally occurring interaction that illustrate what accounts are and how they work in local occasions. Accounts only come to be adopted when they are confirmed by the parties who are present when the account is uttered, and this phenomenon seems to be well understood. Objectivation is equally important for the social work that parties face (that is, for the “sociality,” to use the term suggested by Simmel), even though the topic has not been given the same attention that accounts and confirmation have received. According to Simmel (1959b: 337), our subjective impressions “become objects as they are transformed into fixed regularities and into a consistent picture.” Objectivation is part of the way that parties come to produce the social “facts” about which Durkheim spoke and which is still considered to be one of the principal topics for sociological research.[5] This stage of this temporal sequence serves to point us toward objectivation as a radical phenomenon, by which I mean the endless, in situ work of parties to provide themselves with the tools necessary for organizing an orderliness for their situation. Especially, the gloss “objectivation” is intended to emphasize the communicative work of producing a Durkheimian thing. It should not be allowed to stand in for a study of that work but should help to guide the analyst to just where that work is taking place. Absent the identification and scrutiny of this collaborative public work, in its specifics, this step of the model is good for nothing. Ignore the model, but do look for the local work of producing the public object that affords a cohort of persons a means for coordinating their actions. Disengagement involves a degree of social amnesia that is applied to what has been objectivated. It is the activity by which parties are able to render themselves unaware that the “facts” they have adopted emerged within (“inside-with”) social processes in which they just had a hand. This amnesia is necessary for the objectivated tool, thing, ethnomethod, result, etc. to possess the moral status that is required if it is to compel conformity. Nevertheless, the apparent cohort independence of what is objectivated usually depends upon provision of some acknowledgement or public ratification of this elevated status; disengagement contributes to providing for the independence of what has been objectivated and for the “immortal” character of the social facts, as Durkheim described. It permits parties to sustain the illusion that the reality, as they acknowledge it, has fallen out of the sky (perhaps not simultaneously with the Ten Commandments but shortly thereafter) without their intimate participation, in just the way that my grade-school librarian always managed to do with her rules (giving me the opportunity to make many early studies of this phenomenon).  


Three illustrations of the model:

Utilizing the resources of this multimedia forum, video clips of three diverse cases of naturally occurring social interaction are presented in order to specify, by way of illustration, each of the first three of the components of my model.[6] These short “studies” include Play in a Game-with-Rules, Tibetan Philosophical Debating at a Buddhist university, and an Espresso-Tasting Session guided by a master roaster.


6.1 Play in a Game-with-Rules

The first illustration involves the formulation and objectivation of a rule of play during a game called Aggravation. The players are four students who had never played the game before. They are completing their reading of the rules and are about to commence play. The rules, of course, are unable to cover everything, and in our clip the players deliberate what to do about dice that accidentally roll off the table and onto the floor:


The player on the right (Player D) observes that the player who is rolling the die is shaking and rolling the die with considerable energy, so she raises the matter of what to do if the die should roll off the table. This is important because it can happen that a player who likes the number on the die will accept that number as the roll, but may try to re-roll if that number is not to the player’s liking. To Player D’s question, the player second from the left (Player B) offers a tentative assertion that carries the implication that if it is offensive there should be a policy for handling the situation. Player D commences an account, to the effect that such a person should be required to re-roll the die, and Player B quickly (in fact, almost simultaneously) confirms that account. Player B adds an observation that such a policy is in fact a rule made up by themselves, to which the female player next to him (Player C) chuckles, implying cooperation. Player A at the far left, the potentially offending player, comments upon what has transpired by jesting that the policy has become a “house rule,” at which Player C laughs. The transcript picks up the interaction from 0.19 seconds, approximately halfway through the clip:

D: What do we do if the die rolls on the floor?
B: Well if it’s offensive.
D: /Re- //Re-roll -Account
B: /      // Re-roll. -Confirmation
C: Hah.-
A: House rule of Aggravation. -Objectivation
C: [Laughs while gazing at D.]

A “house rule” is more common in cardplaying than it is in boardgame playing, and it is a rule that is not included in the formal rules or rulebook but is required by what Garfinkel (1974) has called the game-furnished conditions and is adopted by the casino or house at which the game of cards is being played. It more or less enjoys the same status as a rule in a rulebook or instructions. While in this clip it is an artful jest, a bit of humor that contributes to the players’ enjoyment of the play, it also is a move that effectively objectivates the policy so that it stands as a fact of their play beyond the reach of any individual player. This had consequences for their play later when a player who attempted to move the piece in conformity with the number on a die that had rolled onto the floor was overruled by this objectivated policy.


6.2 Tibetan Philosophical Debating


The debating is in Tibetan, and viewers will need to consult the transcript of the interaction for the English; the transcript can be coordinated with the video by consulting the timings. In what is typical for these Tibetan dialectics, the account provided by the debater who is standing is offered first in a positive form, then in a negative form, and once again in a positive and conclusive form. This repetition is used for multiple reasons: to make the issues at stake readily visible and hearable for everyone who is present, to possibly catch the Defender in an error or a confusion, and to contribute to setting a rhythm or pacing for their live dialectics. In this clip, the defenders confirm both positive accounts and disconfirm the negative form of the account:

The reflection of a face in the mirror in the continuum of an ordinary person is posited by the mind as erroneous. -Account
Defender-1: It is. It is. -Confirmation
It does not follow that the lack of accord between the appearance of the reflection of the face in the mirror and its mode of being is posited. [Hand-clap] 9:04:53
Defender-2: CHEE-CHEER [lit. “Because of what?” = No] -Disconfirmation
So, the lack of accord between the appearance of the reflection of the face in the mirror and its mode of being is posited. [Hand-clap] 9:04:55
Defender-2: Yes. -Confirmation
It follows that the mind that has posited the lack of accord between the appearance of the reflection of the face in the mirror and its mode of being is not complete, according to the Middle Way. [Hand-clap] 9:04:59
-Extension of

Defender-2: We say it is not complete. -Objectivation

In order for the parties to promote the result of their philosophical collaboration to the level of a social fact, not only do they need to provide a public account and secure confirmation for it, that account must be objectivated; that is, it must be turned into a social object that is able to stand in front of the parties independently of their talk. There are many practices that co-participants use to achieve objectivation. The debaters here use a different practice for objectivating the account than the ones found in our Game-with-Rules illustration, but it accomplishes the same purpose. In this case the confirmed account is objectivated by Defender 2’s assertion that “We say …,” which places the facticity of the matter out of the hands of any of the individual actors, and also by the Challenger’s rhythmical repetition of the account (which is much the way an auctioneer will accomplish it). It becomes a fact-in-hand, from which the parties will be able to proceed securely. This too conforms with our temporal model:

Account Confirmation Objectivation

With their “intersubjective thought object” (Schutz 1971: 12) in hand and “given equally to all” (Schutz 1967: 32), these Tibetan debaters can proceed with a course of rigorous philosophical dialectics.


6.3 Espresso-Tasting Session


The third illustration of the model is extracted from a Coffee-Tasting Session in Italy guided by a master roaster, and the parties are speaking Italian; an English translation is included with the transcript. These lay tasters are offering their assessments of the flavors they find in the espresso blends they are sampling. They are not doing blind tasting, since these tasters collaborate about each flavor descriptor, and also because their assessments are being subjected to review by the master roaster who has designed blends of several coffees, and roasted and prepared them according to a certain plan of his own. The parties still need to coordinate what they will accept to be facts, which they do in the manner of our model, but this is an occasion where claimed expertise does play a role in directing the discussion:

Cioccolato /fondente
Dark chocolate
Molto leggero come cioccolato fondente.
Very light-tasting, like dark chocolate.
No, anche perchè ho detto il cioccolato.
No, because I also said chocolate.
Positivo o negativo, non lo so.
Positive or negative, I don’t know.
Positivo positivo.
Positive positive.
A me ricorda un’arach-l’arachido. Il sapore dell’ arachido.
For me it recalls pea-peanuts. The flavor of peanuts.
-Extension of
Quindi sempre un seme olioso.
Therefore always an oily seed.
-Summary Account
Si! Proprio quel sapore.
Yes! That’s the very flavor here.
Allora, quest’olio qui è tipico del, dell’estrazione all’italiana.
So then, this oil here is typical of, of “the Italian extraction.”

This illustration presents us with yet another practice for objectivating an account. Although at first there was some contestation on the part of C, the tasters confirm the appropriateness of “dark chocolate” as a proper account for the taste, and that account is expanded by the taste descriptor “peanuts.” The master roaster (C) combines those two descriptors into the single descriptor “an oily seed,” and when his summary account receives confirmation, C consolidates the authority of that descriptor by objectivating it, which he accomplishes by giving it a universal name (“the Italian extraction”) that suggests widespread knowledge about it along with general acceptance of its veracity as a definitive account. Following this, none of our tasters who wishes to appear competent will contest that taste descriptor, and so it stands as a new fact of life in the parties’ work of sensory evaluation.

Although in each of our illustrations the parties employ a different practice of objectivation, all three cases conform to the suggested progressive sequence:

Account Confirmation Objectivation

Let me be clear about how I am treating this model: these events surely do not take place just because I have developed a model. And in the spirit of Garfinkel, I beg the reader not to pay too much attention to it, for the reason that it can blind one to the radical events that are going on and diminish the openness of any examination. Under no circumstances should these stages be substituted for the concrete identification, observation, and specification of the constituent activities. Even so, my students in ethnomethodology have found this temporal description helpful for guiding their inquiries regarding some of the more interesting aspects of ordinary sociation. While much attention has been paid in the ethnomethodological literature to accounts and to confirmation, less attention has been given to objectivation practices, even though they are critical for the establishment of social facts. The point of this exercise is to remedy this lacuna.


7. Discussion  

In his studies of accounts and “formulations,” Garfinkel observed that accounts require confirmation by others, and that any formulation of local affairs was always “subject to review by others.” Accounts are the corporate means by which candidate understandings become public objects. Objectivating something, which means to construct a unity for it so that it can be shared, retained, and communicated, is a topic that Edmund Husserl persisted in examining from the period of Logical Investigations, in 1899, until his final lectures in 1936, including “The Origin of Geometry.” In “The Origin of Geometry,” Husserl (1970: 360) emphasized the importance of how concepts are objectivated in the social world: “In the unity of communication among several persons, the repeatedly produced structure becomes an object of consciousness, not as a likeness, but as the one structure common to all.”

For Alfred Schutz this objectivation was key to his tracking of intersubjectivity, and he explained that it involves the public work by which something is given equally to all. According to Schutz (1971: 12) an intersubjective thought object is formulated by and for the parties in order to facilitate the work of their sociality, and this was an early clue for Garfinkel. For Schutz, who was the first to speak of production in this way, the “objective meaning” refers to “the already constituted meaning-context of the thing produced whose actual production we meanwhile disregard” (Schutz 1967: 133-34). This “disregard” is the social amnesia, the disengagement. One of Garfinkel’s discoveries was that parties are not motivated by the meaning of an account as much as they are motivated by the demand that they render their local affairs orderly.

One way by which people learn just-what they mean is to objectivate their notion and then observe what that objectivated notion accomplishes, that is, just-what it comes to mean during the course of their interaction. Once some understanding is discovered, that is, as something begins to be played out in local affairs in a way that is evident, that understanding can be displayed to everyone who is present, and in that way an understanding can be made an objective fact that stands independently of the people who staff the course of affairs. In the technical words of Husserl, which were adopted and extended by Garfinkel, parties gradually work to substitute “objective expressions” for “essentially subjective and occasional expressions,” and this is work that is done collaboratively.

Husserl did not investigate extensively the local contingencies of this substitution, and Garfinkel (2002: 204-5) took that up as a principal topic for ethnomethodological research. In undertaking these studies, Garfinkel and his students discovered something fantastic: this local work can include situations where words, glosses, and categories exist as objects for everyone before their practical intelligibility is fixed. In fact, using the glosses in order to fix their sense and reference is part of the work that a local cohort of actors routinely performs when organizing the objective intelligibility of an occasion. The part that is fascinating about this, and the part that is arational about it (and here I do not mean non-rational, for the reason that rationality can consist of precisely this), is that agreements can occur before people understand just what they mean; but despite the blind into which a cohort is willing to enter headfirst, from the outset the confirmed and objectivated account is binding upon everyone, even before its sense and reference has been fully determined. Let me specify this, using another example that involves lay coffee tasters:        


A      It’s definitely bold.

B      It’s a very bold coffee.

A      I definitely agree with the boldness …

A      It was really sour, bitter, too strong. But bold.

Interviewer: What do you mean by “bold”?

A      He was the one that said “bold.” How is bold?

Here the first taster offers the original, albeit indeterminate taste descriptor of “bold.” Possibly his immanent preoccupation was with getting through the task without appearing dumb, but he did closely attend to the coffee before offering his descriptor, a descriptor with which Taster B agrees. Taster B’s agreement leads Taster A to double-down on his account. But then the interviewer asks Taster A to explain to her just what this descriptor means. At this, Taster A pretends that he was not the one who proposed the descriptor. His gambit makes it evident that he did not possess a clear understanding of the meaning of his descriptor. Since probably Taster B also lacked a clear understanding about just what was intended by the account he was confirming, when the two tasters consolidated their affirmation of the descriptor, they were validating an account that lacked specific content. In my coffee-tasting data, specification of such content is a matter that is sometimes left to subsequent tasting and discussion. In this case the Interviewer’s question exposes the vacuity of the tasters’ formulation of the coffee’s flavor. In Taster A’s defense it should be observed that according to the way that social facts are produced, and to how accounts are objectivated, the propriety of an account is very much the result of a collaboration among the parties, and so it might be said that Taster B had as much to do with the objectivation of the account as did Taster A. What is vital for the success of the interaction is that the parties provide some order to their assessment and are able to operate on the same page. Their adoption of an account before it acquired its content was how they accomplished that.

Here is another instance of persons who agree with a formulation before they know what it means. It comes from my data on games-with-rules:


Bill:     [Reading rules] “You may trade resources with other players for using maritime trade.”

Linda: Okay.  

Bill:     Which we don’t know what that is.

Linda:  ’Kay.

Bill:     [Summarizing rules] You may build roads, settlements, or cities. And/or buy development cards. You may also play one development card any time during your turn. After you’re done, pass the dice to your left, who then continues the game by repeating what we just did.

Linda:  So I can like roll and get settlement cards or I mean like resource cards and then I can like do stuff?

Bill:     Yep.

In the case of this interaction, which depicts gameplayers collaborating in the task of working out what the rules for gameplay are supposed to mean, we know that they have agreed upon a gloss for some gameplay without knowing what they have agreed to because one of the parties observes publicly, “We don’t know what that is.” This does not deter the parties from continuing to review the rules in such a manner. It is common for parties to read rules that are not intelligible; in fact, when the reading is divorced from some gameplay, rules frequently are not intelligible, and so it is rare for gameplayers to read all the rules of a game before they commence play. Too much reading of unintelligible material can render a local social interaction absurd. For this reason, Linda offers her gratuitous cooperation, and that is not an unimportant step in allowing the parties to proceed with organizing their understanding, but that understanding lies ahead of them in the interaction and so is part of what Schutz and Garfinkel have called the prospective and retrospective sense of understanding, which has played an important role in ethnomethodological analyses. Bill’s “Yep” in the final line of the transcript is probably gratuitous as well.

John Heritage and Geoffrey Raymond (2005: 15) suggest, “Within the general framework of agreement on a state of affairs, the matter of the terms of agreement can remain,” and Heritage (2013: 383) tells us, “In the midst of agreeing with one another, speakers are still addressing the terms of agreement.” Heritage and Raymond emphasize there can be a “raw affiliation” (2005: 17) that lacks any content and amounts to merely “a simulacrum of agreement.” These raw affiliations are fascinating and deserve further study because they help to reveal the brute sociality of our lives.

Even though an agreement lacks content and does not yet mean very much, that the local cohort has already accepted an account serves to assist the account in winning the moral authority of a social fact in the way that Durkheim has elaborated. In fact, all three stages of our model can be fulfilled without there being much content behind the material expression of an account. A good deal of what makes conversations interesting, even exciting, is that the meaning of an interaction is often left unresolved, presenting participants with the highly engaging task of resolving matters, at least for practical purposes. Here I am not at all speaking about how individual understandings get “negotiated.” More commonly, no one knows what is going on, and parties discover only serendipitously, inside-with the emerging affairs, some way to get on the same page. And it does not necessarily have to really be the same page, it can be that the parties only think it is the same page. Situations like that are hardly rare. It is possible to become capable of better recognizing them when we abandon our practice of believing our own social mythologizing; however, there are practical benefits in organizing the local orderliness of some social interaction by working out a structure and using it to coordinate the interaction before the participants themselves have recognized the meaning and consequences of what they have accomplished. In fact, it is difficult to imagine social life without this.


7.1 Anonymity and moral compliance

The immortality of social facts was an orientation Durkheim developed by considering Montaigne, who spoke of the mystical authority of the law. What are the origins of this “mystical authority”? To some extent it must be rooted in a sense of responsibility for others’ expectations; but why is there a sense of responsibility for other’s expectations? Here we discover a second sense of “accountability.” The first sense of accountability is how the intelligibility of emerging affairs can be summarized in an account, as I have been describing, and the second sense of the term is how we can be oriented to the expectations of others and so are “accountable” to others for affirmation of the appropriateness of our behavior. Commonly, others’ expectation is that we will be cooperative, and this is an expectation that can be easily read on the face of the other. Moreover, in many circumstances our very first objective is to stay out of trouble and we are eager to be cooperative, even though we may not yet know what it is we need to do in order to be cooperative.

Garfinkel (1967: 35) begins his “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities” – which remains the name for our “studies” even today – by discussing Kant, for whom there were two “mysteries,” the stars in the heavens and the moral order within: “For Kant the moral order ‘within’ was an awesome mystery; for sociologists the moral order ‘without’ is a technical mystery.” Here we are examining this moral order “without,” and the responsibility about which I am speaking is anonymous. That is to say, it is any member’s practice. Let’s have a closer look at it.


"Devo dire?"   A

Here Italian lay tasters are doing their best to comply with the protocols of proper coffee-tasting, but they are handicapped by the fact that they do not really know what those protocols are. They were given a form on which to note some taste descriptors and to offer a few numerical evaluations of some categories of flavor. Taster A commences her summary by reading off her sheet:

A   Allora, io he escrito, va ben, amaro. E noce especiato, ho cerchiato,
So, I have written, all right, bitter. And walnut spice, I circled,

però poi ho scritto “poco corposo.”
but then I wrote “little body.”

Here she pauses in order to read how her contribution is being received by the others, and she pays particular attention to the young bearded man at the end of the table who is facing her (see clip) and who is the organizer for the tasting session. Gazes like this are opportunities for parties to solicit what their account has come to mean and also for monitoring their satisfactory compliance with what is expected. In this way her gaze services both senses of the term “account.” She hesitates here because she is uncertain about just what she is supposed to do next. So she asks of the session organizer, “Am I supposed to say the numbers too?”:

"Devo dire?"   B

A   Devo dire anche i numeretti?
Am I supposed to say the numbers too?

B    Si, se vuoi si.
Yes, if you want to, sure.

A   Va ben. Aroma 6, corposità 3, equilibrio 5, dolcezza 5, vellutato 3, e retrogusto 7.
All right. Aroma 6, body 3, balance 5, sweetness 5, velvet 3, and aftertaste 7.

What is noteworthy about this this clip is that B, the organizer of the session, does not really have a preference regarding how A reports her sensory evaluation. In fact, he is deferring to her even as she is deferring to him (note particularly B’s facial gestures at second 0.04 in the “Devo dire?” B Clip). Such an “After you, Alphonse” / “No, after you” routine is a comedy that is common in our interactional affairs. Taster A is ready and willing to comply with any rules that are in force; her problem is that she does not yet know what those rules are. In this clip the situation is even worse than this, since no rules have been established. The openness of the structure for interacting can sometimes become paralyzing, so A proceeds with one way to accomplish her reporting, which, by the time the other tasters take their turns, becomes the authorized way to do it, presenting us with one more case of an event organizing itself. What is occurring is that each participant is attempting to locate a local structure, and the parties’ desire in general for a structure, any structure, is more important than the particular structure that they adopt.

Such a situation is responsible for many follies in our everyday lives. For instance, a first person can suggest an account, and that account can elicit a confirmation by a second person; however, it can (and does) happen that a second person misunderstands the meaning of the account given by the first person and so confirms something that the first person did not intend. It can also happen that the first person will decide not to correct the second person, even when the first person recognizes that the account has been misunderstood (cf. Liberman 2017: 171-215). How can this happen? One way it can happen is that a third person, who does not understand the sense or reference of the account but who does recognize that the first person and the second person are in agreement about it, will nod his or her head and confirm the account gratuitously. It could be that the first person may have been ready to correct the second person until the third person offers the additional gratuitous confirmation. The additional confirmation can cause the first person to choose to remain silent, first because the immanent local work of undoing a confirmed or objectivated structure can become a complicated matter, and second because it appears that a satisfactory communal agreement has been reached and there may be some reluctance to disrupt an established harmony, even when the harmony is only apparent. It is possible that the first person thinks that the second and third persons understand what they have agreed about. All of the parties (including a fourth party who remains silent, and confused) can even act on the basis of an account confirmed this way. For the sake of giving some flesh to our example, let us say that the topic was about the group going to a movie, and the first person suggests a currently playing movie that stars Denzel Washington, who is presently starring in two movies; the second person thinks only of the current movie that was not the one that the first person had intended. In the way described, the four of them can head off to watch a movie that none of them had a desire to see. Moreover, that no one wanted to see the movie can remain opaque to each of the parties. There is no way that social scientists could gauge how many decisions are set into motion in just such a fashion, so intricate is the interaction. What I am describing is ubiquitous, and it can involve a matter as simple as when parties laugh together heartily without knowing what it is they are laughing about.

The responsibility that people feel to comply with others’ expectations operates in the midst of the objectivation practices. In the transition from the article, “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities” that appeared in Social Problems in 1964, to the second chapter by the same name of his 1967 Studies in Ethnomethodology, Garfinkel omitted the first paragraph of his “Concluding Remarks,” which read, “The expectancies that make up the attitude of everyday life are constitutive of the institutionalized common understandings of the practical everyday organization…” (Garfinkel 1964: 249). Part of the motive for objectivating accounts or institutionalizing common understandings is that any compliance with what is expected needs to be organized, and what behavior it is that can constitute correct compliance must be something that everyone present is able to recognize, since this knowledge must become a public possession. Moreover, when people act in compliance they do not act as individual actors but as sort of a local “anyone,” as an anonymous “member.” Accordingly, part of the local work of parties is to provide for the public recognizability of the methods and agreements that are set into play. The work of making them recognizable (that is, “instructably observable and instructably reproducible” (Garfinkel 2002: 148)) is collective, and such work is not usually undertaken on one’s personal behalf but is done anonymously.

I have observed that each party is preoccupied with figuring out what must be done “next” before the time to do it arrives. Since events can move very fast (there are no “timeouts”), strange things can happen. These strange things can become an embarrassment for social scientists who take their “Just So Stories” seriously. My argument here is that we need to abandon some of the social mythologies of rules, laws, negotiated agreements, etc., which render our lives more deliberate and rational than they in fact are,[7] and pay closer attention to the granular details of social interaction turn-by-turn and move-by-move. Let us learn from the real world of which we speak.

Surely this aspiration is a component of what comprises the study of “sociality” that Simmel recommended. Simmel (1959: 328) writes, “Perhaps this sort of insight will do for social science what the beginnings of microscopy did for the science of organic life.” I certainly hope so. Indeed, the fine-grained, turn-by-turn analyses of ethnomethodology involve just this kind of microscopy.





Attewell, P. (1974) “Ethnomethodology Since Garfinkel.” In Theory and Society 1: 179-210. Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison 2010 Objectivity. NY: Zone Books.

Cicourel, A. (1974) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interaction. NY: Free Press.

Garfinkel, H. (1964) “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities.” In Social Problems 11: 225-250.

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, MJ: Prentice-Hall.

Garfinkel, H. (1974) Soc 149 Class Lectures given at UCLA’s Department of Sociology.

Garfinkel, H. (2006) Seeing Sociologically: The Routine Grounds of Social Action. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.

Gurwitsch, A.(1966) Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time. Trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. NY: Harper & Row.

Heritage, J. & Raymond, G. (2005) “The Terms of Agreement: Epistemic Authority and Subordination in Talk-in-Interaction.” In Social Psychology Quarterly 68 (1):15-38.

Heritage, J. (2013) “Epistemics in Conversation.” In The Handbook of Conversation Analysis, eds. Jack Sidnell and Tanya Stivers. Oxford: Blackwell.

Husserl, E. (1962) Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Husserl, E.(1969) Formal and Transcendental Logic. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Husserl, E. (1970)  “The Origin of Geometry,” Appendix I in Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Husserl, E. (1973) Experience and Judgment. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Liberman, K. (2004) Dialectical Practice in Tibetan Philosophical Culture. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Liberman, K. (2013)  More Studies in Ethnomethodology. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Liberman, K. (2017) Understanding Interaction in Central Australia: An Ethnomethodological Study of Australian Aboriginal People. Oxon: Routledge, (orig. 1985).

Macbeth, D. (2011) “Understanding Understanding as an Instructional Matter. Journal of Pragmatics43 (2): 438-451.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Moerman, M. & Sacks, H. (1988) “On ‘Understanding’ in the Analysis of Natural Conversation.” In Moerman, Talking Culture, Ethnography and Conversation Analysis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 180-86.

Proust, M. (2002) Finding Time Again. London: Penguin Books.

Psathas, G. (2004) “The Correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Harold Garfinkel.” In H. Nasu, L. Embree, G. Psathas and I. Srubar (eds.), Alfred Schutz and His Intellectual Partners. Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesselschaft mbH, pp. 401-434.

Schutz, A. (1967) Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Schutz, A. (1971) Collected Papers, Vol. I. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Simmel, G. (1959a) “The Problem of Sociology,” in Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics. NY: Harper & Row, pp. 310-36.

Simmel, G. (1959a) “How Is Society Possible?” in Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics. NY: Harper & Row, pp. 337-56.



[1] This paper is based upon a plenary address delivered at the 12th Conference of the International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis (IIEMCA), held at the University of Southern Denmark in August of 2015. Two earlier and primitive versions of that address were given, one in 2014 as the keynote at the Annual ‘BrainFood’ Conference, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark, under the title “Some Arational Bases of Rational Activities;” and the other as a talk in 2015 to the Facoltà di Sociologia at the Università di Trento and published in their departmental papers (“Studying Objectivation Practices,” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Sociologia e Ricerca Sociale, Università di Trento, Italy, New Series (Electronic), No. 2, 2016, pp. 1-22).

[2] By major or macro social forms Simmel (1959: 326-27) is referring to “superindividual structures”: “Great organs and systems like states, labor unions, priesthoods, family forms, economic systems, military organizations, guilds, communities, class formations, and industrial divisions of labor, seem to constitute society and therefore appear to be the subject matter of the science of society.”

[3] “The Boston Seminar,” 6/24/75. This is available online at the EMCA-Legacy website (

[4] Chapter 5 of Ethnomethodology’s Program (Garfinkel 2002: 169-93) is as good a place to begin as any other.

[5] An initial explanation, along with a case study, is available in Liberman 2004: 92-106.

[6] The fourth component, Disengagement, awaits fuller specification.

[7] For a brief expansion of this ethnomethodological perspective on rules, visit “Le Regole di Surf: Intervista a Kenneth Liberman,” available at times 31:34-35:00 (the only portion of the interview that is in English) on the video that is available at