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Pragmatism and Ethnomethodology


Mustafa Emirbayer and Douglas W. Maynard*

Department of Sociology

University of Wisconsin at Madison

April 14, 2010

* This paper is equally co-authored. The order given is alphabetical only

Pragmatism and Ethnomethodology


Three features of pragmatist thought remain empirically underdeveloped or insufficiently explored:

its call for a return to experience or recovery of concrete practices; its idea that obstacles in experience give

rise to efforts at creative problem-solving; and its understanding of language in use, including

conversational interaction, as an order of empirical practices in and through which problem-solving efforts

are undertaken and social order ongoingly and collaboratively accomplished. Our aim in this article is to

show that there exists a long-standing, theoretically informed, and empirically rich research tradition in

which these pragmatist themes are further developed, albeit in ways the originators might have foreseen

only in dimly programmatic form.

This research tradition is ethnomethodology.

We present in bold

strokes the classical pragmatist ideas of Peirce, James, Mead, Dewey, plus Addams, focusing on the three

themes mentioned above.




We show how Garfinkel’s work surpasses even that of the pragmatists in










ethnomethodological studies of work and science and conversation analysis, respectively, continue as well

to develop the original pragmatist impulse in unsuspected ways. Finally, we step back from this account to

ponder the broader significance of the connections we have explored between pragmatism and


Pragmatism and Ethnomethodology

In Experience and Nature (1988 [1925], p. 17), John Dewey highlighted three failures of what he

called the “non-empirical method” of philosophy: “First,” he wrote, “there is no verification, no effort even

to test and check.

What is even worse, secondly, is that the things of ordinary experience do not get

enlargement and enrichment of meaning as they do when approached through the medium of scientific

principles and reasonings.

This lack of function reacts, in the third place, back upon the philosophic

subject-matter in itself. Not tested by being employed to see what it leads to in ordinary experience and

what new meanings it contributes, this subject-matter becomes arbitrary, aloof—what is called ‘abstract’

when that word is used in a bad sense to designate something which exclusively occupies a realm of its

own without contact with the things of ordinary experience.” Dewey suggested that an empirical method is

needed to extend the insights of philosophy into empirical reality and to test them there, thereby preventing

philosophy itself from becoming overly theoretical and out of touch with concrete experience. He asserted:

“The problems to which empirical method gives rise afford, in a word, opportunities for more

investigations yielding fruit in new and enriched experiences. But the problems to which non-empirical

method gives rise in philosophy are blocks to inquiry, blind alleys; they are puzzles rather than problems.”

Philosophy requires modern science in order to advance beyond the realm of sheer abstract speculation and

argumentation and substantively to add to our understanding and grasp of the experiential world.

Dewey and the other classical pragmatists—Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, George

Herbert Mead—were all passionate believers in modern science.

Their philosophy was centrally

concerned with applying scientific modes of reasoning and inquiry to the problems of human existence.

For their own part, however, these pragmatist thinkers largely refrained from engaging in empirical (at least

social-scientific) investigation.


In essence, they pointed the way—but did not or could not follow it

themselves. Much of the promise inherent in classical American pragmatism accordingly went unrealized.

To be sure, like-minded figures such as Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Charles Horton Cooley were

pioneers of American social science, and pragmatism did profoundly influence the work of W.I. Thomas

and the Chicago School of sociology, not to mention, later, that of Herbert Blumer and symbolic

interactionists. including Morris Janowitz (1991).

Economics felt pragmatism’s influence, too, through

John R. Commons—and Marxism through the young Sidney Hook—while C. Wright Mills kept the idea

of a pragmatist critical sociology alive in mid-century.

Even now, however, two decades into a far-

reaching pragmatist revival, one is hard pressed to find many empirical research programs, other than

symbolic interactionism itself, that pursue an agenda either directly informed by pragmatist thinking or

bearing a close family resemblance to it. Research into civil society and the public sphere is influenced (by

way of Karl-Otto Apel and Jurgen Habermas) only in a normative sense by the classical pragmatists. The

same is true of feminist and race theory (one thinks here of Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Shannon Sullivan,

Cornel West, and Nancy Fraser).

And Hans Joas’s idea of the “creativity of action” has not inspired

extensive empirical investigation, at least not in the form of a systematic research enterprise, despite Joas’s

own persistent efforts in areas of macrosociology such as the study of modern wars and violence and the

sociology of religious phenomena. 1

Meanwhile, philosophic investigations by Hilary Putnam, Richard

Bernstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom have remained firmly planted in the ground of abstract

reasoning, at least in the sense of refining pragmatist precepts rather than of extending them empirically. 2

In our view, three features in particular of the thought of the classical American pragmatists remain

empirically underdeveloped or insufficiently explored: first, its call for a return to experience, a move that

entails, among other things, a recovery of concrete practices, an emphasis on what Harold Garfinkel has

described as the “just-thisness” of empirical everyday life as it is lived in situ; second, its idea of obstacles in


experience giving rise to efforts at creative problem-solving, that is, to concrete practices aimed at resolving

difficulties and accomplishing, in real time, a revised or reconstructed social order; and third, its

understanding of language in use, including conversational interaction, as an order of empirical practices in

and through which problem-solving efforts are undertaken and social order ongoingly and collaboratively

accomplished. The classical pragmatists, philosophers engaged in relatively abstract theoretical discourse,

were unable to pursue these ideas deeply into the empirical domain, even as they saw the empirical efforts

of others as a means more completely to realize their philosophic ambitions (as in the above quotation by


Among the key figures of the pragmatist revival, few besides Joas have sought to bridge the

divide between philosophy and social science, linking pragmatism-inspired action theory to theories of

social order and social change.

Our aim in this article is to show that there exists—besides symbolic interactionism, which this

paper does not set out to explore, even as it duly recognizes its importance—a long-standing, theoretically

informed, and empirically rich research tradition whose guiding ideas bear a close affinity to classical and

contemporary pragmatism. This research tradition is ethnomethodology, defined broadly to include not

only the seminal investigations of Garfinkel but also closely related endeavors such as ethnomethodological

studies of work and science as well as conversation analysis.

In important respects, ethnomethodology

goes far toward realizing pragmatism’s original promise; it attends, in a phrase, to pragmatism’s unfinished

business. 3 We are not proposing here that ethnomethodology and allied endeavors are based upon or

justified by pragmatist thought. Like Bernstein’s (2007, p. 12) point regarding contemporary philosophers

who, without direct influence from the pragmatist tradition, articulate “insights and themes” that deeply

articulate with and refine that tradition, our claim is that ethnomethodology extends pragmatism in

consistent and fruitful ways without any previous overt connection. This linkage between pragmatism and

ethnomethodology has gone largely unnoticed, and, indeed, would be disavowed by many, both from














ethnomethodology was actually constructed against, rather than with, classical American pragmatism.)

Ever since the publication of Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), it has been far more common to relate

Garfinkel’s work to three other major currents in mid-twentieth century thought: Parsonian structural-

functionalism, against whose theories of action and order Garfinkel is said to have developed his most

distinctive themes; Schutzian phenomenology, said to have been the most important source of Garfinkel’s

theoretical insights; and, in certain respects at least, Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy. With

the publication of Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism (2002), yet another

intellectual reference point has been highlighted as well: Durkheim’s program of inquiry into the

concreteness of social facts. This program is said to have served as Garfinkel’s theoretical obsession for

well over half a century.

These suggestions regarding Garfinkel help to situate his work within larger traditions of thought

and shed light on what makes its research program so creative and powerful. We are not concerned here to

dispute them.

By “redrawing the map,” however—as Donald Levine (1995, p. 293) proposes—and

pointing out neglected linkages between previously disconnected continents, we can illuminate not only

how the three pragmatist insights mentioned above can be empirically investigated, thereby dissolving the

aforementioned problem so presciently noted by Dewey, but also how ethnomethodology itself might be

differently understood, namely, as an arena in which pragmatist impulses for scientific investigation can

move forward, albeit in ways the originators foresaw only in dimly programmatic form. Our new

interpretation, accordingly, has the potential not only to change our map of the sociological terrain (Dewey

1988 [1925], p. 125) but also to stimulate new lines of investigation. Toward this end, we proceed in four

major steps. In the first, we present in bold strokes the classical pragmatist ideas of Peirce, James, Mead,

Dewey, plus Addams, focusing on the three themes we mentioned earlier. In the second, we show how


Garfinkel’s work surpasses even that of the pragmatists in developing the larger implications and promise

of those themes. Then, in the third and fourth sections, we demonstrate how ethnomethodological studies

of work and science and conversation analysis, respectively, continue as well to develop the original

pragmatist impulse in unsuspected ways. In the conclusion, we step back from this account to ponder the

broader significance of the connections we have explored between pragmatism and ethnomethodology.

Part One: Pragmatism

What are the key ideas of pragmatist thought, at least insofar as they bear upon our story regarding

Garfinkel and ethnomethodological studies of work and science and conversation analysis? What important

business does this tradition of thought leave unfinished? In what respects did it stall in its development,

conceptually as well as empirically, and why? What contributions do prominent figures of the pragmatist

revival make to completing the unfinished business of classical American pragmatism, and in what respects

do they, too, ultimately come short?

To consider pragmatism in such a light—that is, in terms of the

problems it leaves unresolved—is in itself already an endeavor in the pragmatist spirit. For pragmatism is

about nothing if not the creative solving of problems in experience through the application of reflective

intelligence. Blockages to habitual courses of thought and action—and creative or reconstructive ways of

addressing such blockages, typically in the medium of language—are among the core themes of the

pragmatist tradition. In this opening section, we discuss these same themes in broad outlines. We do not

falsely assume an across-the-board unity to the pragmatist tradition.

There are many differences and

divergences among the pragmatists.

For purposes of the present paper, however, it is less important to

probe into those discrepancies than to stress, in general terms, the overarching commonalities. We do not

mean, either, to restrict the universe of classical pragmatists—or their more recent followers—in invidious


fashion to the cast of characters mentioned above. We wish only to invoke the thinkers most necessary for

presenting the three sets of ideas we have highlighted, and, in so doing, also to suggest, in preliminary

fashion, how pragmatism fell short in developing them. Attending to these tasks sets up our discussion—in

later sections—of how the ethnomethodological tradition can be said to carry forward the original mission

of pragmatist thought.

The Return to Experience

The first of the topics of special relevance to us is the pragmatists’ return to experience.


pragmatism proceeds from the notion that the Western tradition, which includes not only philosophy but

also the philosophic assumptions underpinning modern science (both natural and social), erroneously

directs us away from lived experience, from concrete practices, toward theoretical abstractions. In two of

the founding texts of pragmatism, “The Fixation of Belief” (1992 [1877]) and “How to Make Our Ideas

Clear” (1992 [1878]), Peirce asserted the primacy of this realm of practice. He argued that “Doubt” or

confusions arising in experience are what occasion thought in the first place and that, in turn, the results of

thought must always be subjected to the pragmatic test: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably

have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these

effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Peirce 1992 [1878], p. 132). James reaffirmed this

basic thrust of Peirce’s “pragmatic maxim,” despite giving it a somewhat individualist slant in some of his

writings, including Pragmatism (1981 [1907]). In his view, practice—experience—supplies the impetus

for all inquiry; it also reveals the meaning of ideas and provides the ultimate test of their truth. “The whole

originality of pragmatism, the whole point of it, is its concrete way of seeing. It begins with concreteness,

and returns and ends with it (James 1981 [1909], pp. 281-82). (In the subsequent section, we show how

this quotation aptly serves as an epigraph for Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology.)

In later writings, James

supplemented these insights with what he termed a doctrine of radical empiricism, according to which


“there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed” —again,

“pure experience” (James 2003 [1912], p. 2).

As James conceived of it, pure experience encompasses not

only “the things themselves” but also “the relations between things,” not only material reality but also

consciousness, not only the objects of thought but thought itself. Thus, conceptual dualisms such as those

between subject and object, theory and practice, mind and nature, or ideal and material should be avoided

as pernicious and misleading.

In so inveighing against the tendency to posit false divisions inside a

seamless pure experience, James sought to further pragmatism’s aim of moving beyond the fruitless

abstractions so deeply engrained in the philosophy of his day.

Such an endeavor is central to Dewey’s work as well. In Experience and Nature (1988 [1925], pp.

18-19), he agreed emphatically with James that pure experience is “double-barrelled”:

“[I]t recognizes in

its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an

unanalyzed totality. “Thing” and “thought”

refer to products discriminated by reflection out of primary


(As we shall see, Garfinkel spoke in similar tones of the tendency among present-day

sociologists to focus on concepts at the expense of the situated details of practices.) Dewey was critical of

thinkers who remain caught up in such dualisms. What is required for an adequate grasp of experience, he

asserted, is a “trans-actional approach,” one that involves “the seeing together, when research requires it, of

what before had been seen in separations and held severally apart” (Dewey and Bentley 1991 [1949], p.

112). 4

(In this specific respect, he diverged not at all from James’s radical empiricism.) How, then, did

Dewey propose to do away with such longstanding divisions? The beginnings of an answer come in one of

his earliest major works.

In a classic essay of the pragmatist tradition, “The Reflex Arc Concept in

Psychology” (1972 [1896], p. 97), Dewey suggested that experience is a “comprehensive


unity,” a “sensori-motor coordination,” consisting at least as much in action as in knowledge, an organic

circuit in which the contributions of object and subject, stimulus and response, can be seen “not as separate


and complete entities in themselves, but as divisions of labor, functioning factors, within the single concrete


He added that in most of the practices constituting ordinary lived experience, there is little

conscious separation among these elements, as the concrete practices in which we engage flow smoothly in

“a continuously ordered sequence of acts, all adapted in themselves and in the order of their sequence, to

reach a certain objective end” (Dewey 1972 [1896], p. 104). Sounding, in fact, one of the most distinctive

of pragmatist themes, he stressed the habitual and taken-for-granted nature of our practices, at least those

found in unproblematic circumstances lacking in uncertainty (e.g., “what sort of a bright light have we

here?”; “how am I to complete the organic circuit?”). When practices proceed uninterruptedly and without

resistance, their meaningfulness resides deep within them as part of an unbroken coordinated system of

activity, and the validity of objects forming part of those systems goes unquestioned as well.

It is one thing, of course, to call insistently for a return to experience, as Dewey and his fellow

classical pragmatists did.

It is another thing entirely to indicate how this might be accomplished.


classical pragmatists failed to demonstrate how one might actually move beyond the artificial issues they

decried and to “return” to the things of experience—including the very relations or trans-actions that are

also a feature of that experience. They provided lessons in principle but did not indicate a theoretically

informed method by which to proceed. 5

Much the same can be said of the more recent figures of the

pragmatist revival. Hilary Putnam, Richard Bernstein, and Richard Rorty, for example, write extensively of

Jamesian radical empiricism and Deweyan trans-actionalism and devote much attention to subverting the

false distinctions—e.g., facts and values; thought and action—that continue to hamper philosophic and

social inquiry. They engage vigorously as well with a wide range of substantive issues in social thought.

However, as professional philosophers, they are unable to do more than point in the right direction by

means of reasoned argumentation.

To be sure, Cornel West, Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Shannon

Sullivan, and Nancy Fraser go considerably beyond the aforementioned thinkers in inquiring substantively


into the concrete practices that constitute ordinary lived experience—in their case, especially, the

experience of race- and gender-based divisions.

But even so, they propound no systematic method

whereby one might study how social actors actually “do” race or gender, that is, how they creatively

accomplish, perhaps even in the face of challenges, problems, or perplexities, a social order marked by

concrete raced or gendered disparities in access to or possession of material or other resources.

Problems and Creative Problem-Solving

This last point brings us to the threshold of our second major theme: the pragmatists’ focus on

problems and creative problem-solving.

Long before Dewey, Peirce (1992 [1877], p. 114) spoke of a

“calm and satisfactory” state he termed “Belief,” a state that “does not make us act at once, but puts us into

such a condition that we shall behave in a certain way, when the occasion arises.” Belief, he suggested,

“involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit (1992 [1878], p. 129).

Dewey further developed this idea. In Human Nature and Conduct (1988 [1922], p. 15), he argued that

humans typically engage in a relatively unreflective form of action. “Habits may be profitably compared to

physiological functions, like breathing, digesting. The latter are, to be sure, involuntary, while habits are

acquired. But important as is this difference for many purposes it should not conceal the fact that habits are

like functions in many respects, and especially in requiring the cooperation of organism and environment.”

There is thus an important relation between habits and common sense: habits are preobjective or prior to

the specification of objects of knowledge. This does not mean, however, that humans are mere automatons.

Rather, they follow “acquired predisposition[s] to ways or modes of response, not to particular acts”

(Dewey 1988 [1922], p. 32). Habitual practices are, at least potentially, dynamic and adaptive, entailing a

tacit—indeed, bodily—knowledge that, without resort to conscious planning or a deliberate following of

instructions, enables one to react in real time to the changing vicissitudes of social situations. Dewey’s

account of such practices has been described by Joas (1996, p. 148) as a “non-teleological interpretation of


the intentionality of action.” In that account, habitual practices are oriented neither to the attainment of

externally determined goals, as in the rationalist means-end model of action, nor to the carrying out of rules

of action, as in the normativist model of Parsonian structural-functionalism, but to aspirations located, in

Joas’s (1996), p. 158) words, “in our bodies. It is the body’s capabilities, habits, and ways of relating to the

environment which form the background to all conscious goal-setting, in other words, to our intentionality.”

We extend Joas’s insight and ideas by suggesting how the latter can serve as a stimulus to empirical

research. As we show in the next section, pragmatist action theory anticipates something very much like

the perspective on real-time human conduct associated with Garfinkel’s writings.

Dewey recognized that an account of action restricted solely to habitual practices can only go so

far. Sometimes, he observed, habits come up against situations that present a blockage or a dilemma. In

respect to such circumstances, when the way to proceed is unclear, pragmatists came up with some of their

most important insights. When Peirce mentioned Belief, for instance, he counterposed it to a condition he

termed Doubt, “an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the

state of [B]elief. The irritation of Doubt,” he asserted, “causes a struggle to attain a state of [B]elief. I shall

term this struggle inquiry” (Peirce 1992 [1877], p. 114). Dewey, too, devoted careful attention to this state

of indecision. In “The Logic of Judgments of Practice,” he pointed out that all practical reasoning begins

with a problematic experience, a “fork in the road,” which it attempts experimentally to resolve. Thinking

is what occurs most especially in situations where regular channels of action no longer suffice, where

conflicts or ruptures in practice cause perplexity. 6

“[I]ncompleteness is not psychical,” he (1985 [1915],

p.15) wrote. “Something is “there,” but what is there does not constitute the entire objective

The logical implication is that of a subject-matter as yet unterminated, unfinished, or not wholly given.”

Something must be done—some practical judgment arrived at—that will render the situation settled and

resolved. Actors must systematically examine the facts of their situation, critically observe what is before


them, seek to clarify what is causing them perplexity, and attend to it. Such a thought process, Dewey

(1988 [1920], p. 161) remarked, is “not aimless, random, miscellaneous, but purposeful, specific, and

limited by the character of the trouble undergone.” By means of it, theory can be brought back into a more

meaningful connection with practice, such that the latter no longer proceeds by trial and error or in

accordance with custom or authority, but rather, calls for guidance upon a knowledge that has, for its part,

foresaken the quest for certainty.

Creative problem-solving, wrote Dewey (1988 [1929], pp. 169-70),

“effects an exchange of reason for

A man is intelligent not in virtue of having reason which

grasps first and indemonstrable truths about fixed principles,

but in virtue of his capacity to estimate the

possibilities of a situation and to act in accordance with his estimate.” (Or, as Cooley [1966 [1918], p. 351]

expressed it, “The test of intelligence is the power to act successfully in new situations.”) Intelligence is

brought to bear upon even the most mundane of everyday practices. Habits can themselves be made more


And the social conditions of the production and reproduction of those habits can also be


This might entail an extended process of reform, one aided and abetted by a critical

pragmatic science.

While Dewey provided perhaps the most fully developed account of perplexity leading to

intelligent reconstruction, it was Jane Addams who investigated most deeply the phenomenon of perplexity

itself, turning it into a topic in its own right. For her, perplexity was not merely intellectual but emotional

and existential, not merely a problem “out there,” objective and actual, but an experience of internal strain,

bafflement, and puzzlement. In Democracy and Social Ethics (2002 [1902]), she provided many examples

of such perplexity, centering around breakdowns in understanding that emerge when persons involved in

one course of life encounter others whose course is very different from—and alien to—their own. For

instance, when a charity worker visits her clients, she is bewildered by what she finds in the everyday lives

of these tenement dwellers; “the charity worker finds herself still more perplexed when she comes to


consider such problems as those of early marriage and child labor, for she cannot deal with them according

to economic theories, or according to the conventions which have regulated her own life” (Addams 2002

[1902], p. 21). Such conditions of perplexity provoke inquiries meant somehow to address them, responses

that can be reflexive, mechanical, and dysfunctional, or, alternatively, intelligent and practically effective.

The latter category of responses entails putting one’s pregiven morality to the pragmatic test and moving

forward with new taken-for-granteds, habits, and dispositions; it entails uniting practice with theory and

aiming genuinely to remove or resolve the original disturbance and to resume the flow of life. Thus, the

charity worker “discovers how incorrigibly bourgeois her standards have been, and it takes but a little time

to reach the conclusion that she cannot insist so strenuously upon the conventions of her own class, which

fail to fit the bigger, more emotional, and freer lives of working people” (Addams 2002 [1902], p. 33). It

should be plain here that what Addams described resonates deeply with the kinds of incongruities that have

been fruitful for ethnomethodological inquiry, a matter to be explored at greater length below. For what she

deemed specific troubles of moral adjustment are for ethnomethodology particular instances of a more

fundamental problem, that of a chasm between abstract rules, standards, and conventions, on the one hand,

and situated practices, on the other. This problem is one that neither Addams nor her fellow pragmatists

were equipped theoretically—or methodologically—to explore.

The Importance of Language

The final pragmatist theme of special significance to us is the theme of language or linguistically

mediated problem-solving.

Their engagement with the topic began, like almost everything else in that

tradition, with Peirce.

Saussure (1959 [1916], p. 71) is well known for having propounded a dualistic

understanding of the sign, seeing it as a combination of “signifier” (sound-image) and “signified” (concept).

Not only did Saussure assign this “double entity” a bifurcated structure; he also depicted it as static and

inert, for signifiers, while “arbitrarily” related to signifieds, were, in his view, “fixed, not free, with respect


to the linguistic community that uses [them].” Peirce, by contrast, took as his unit of analysis not dyadic

structures but a triadic process of “sign,” “object,” and “interpretant.” “A sign,” he (1932 [c. 1897], p. 228)

wrote, “is something which stands to somebody for

It addresses somebody, that is, creates in

the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign,” in an unending chain or

succession of interpretations.

With this focus on addressivity, Peirce made the theme of fundamental

sociality one of the key ideas of the pragmatist tradition. He also stimulated, with his emphasis on semiosis

as an ongoing, open-ended dynamic in which meaning is “infinitely deferred” (Searle 2005 [1994], p. 725),

important later work on indexical expressions, from Bar-Hillel (1954) to Garfinkel himself (1967;

Garfinkel and Sacks 1970); these expressions depend, for their very sense, on a grasp of their pragmatic

context, including knowledge of the persons saying them, their time and place of expression, and so forth.

Since Peirce restricted himself to logical or philosophical analyses, however, no tools were developed for

empirical inquiry into many key issues pertaining to such expressions. Finally, Peirce’s semiotic, with its

stress on both addressivity and indexical relations, led in the direction of a theory of linguistic-semiotic

community, a community of interpreters or inquirers (Peirce 1992 [1868], pp. 52, 54-55).

In such a

community, dialogue can proceed in respect to the interpretation and adjudication of competing truth-

claims, and a “settlement of opinion” can ultimately be brought about as “the result of investigation carried

sufficiently far” (1992 [1878], p.139; see also 1992 [1868]). This communitarian dimension to Peirce’s

thought also remained primarily logical-philosophical in character. Importantly, however, it prefigured and

pointed the way to the more socially grounded arguments of the later pragmatists and pragmatism-inspired

thinkers, including Apel and Habermas, whose views of discourse ethics are influenced by Peirce. That

communitarian dimension also anticipated ethnomethodology’s thrust into the empirical sphere of actual

social relations.

Dewey, too, developed prominently the idea of language as crucial to collective efforts to resolve


perplexities and to arrive at more warranted and practically effective opinions. To begin with, language

made possible, in his (1988 [1925], p. 132) view, “that preliminary discourse termed thinking” which

allows actors to reconsider, revise, and reconstruct problematic contexts.

“Events when once they are

named lead an independent and double life. In addition to their original existence, they are subject to ideal

experimentation; their meanings may be infinitely combined and re-arranged in imagination, and the

outcome of this inner experimentation—which is thought—may issue forth in interaction with crude or raw

events.” Indeed, this internal discourse makes events “infinitely more amenable to management.” But, as

Dewey further pointed out, linguistically mediated problem-solving is at the core not only of thinking but

indeed of all association. It is much more than a vehicle for storing and communicating knowledge; it is an

ensemble of means for the coordination of activity oriented toward the reconstruction of incomplete or

indeterminate situations. Dewey made this clear, for example, when he (1988 [1922], p. 57) observed that

language first comes into the world as a form of interaction involved in making demands for food or social

contact, “operat[ing] not to perpetuate the forces which produced it but to modify and redirect them.” And

elsewhere (1988 [1925] p. 139), too, he declared: “Language, signs and significance, come into existence

not by intent and mind but

in gestures and sound. The story of language is the story of the use made of

these occurrences; a use that is eventual as well as eventful.”

These assertions about language make

perfectly clear why he accorded it such significance in his writings on collective problem-resolution,

including his important work, The Public and its Problems (1988 [1927]). Notice, however, Dewey’s use

of the word “eventual” in the above quotation. It suggests that the meaning of utterances or language in use

develops in real time and is emergent. This seems to mean, by implication, that we need to understand

language as it exists in the concrete dynamic interactions of people actually speaking with one another.

Unfortunately, while Dewey highlighted the importance of concrete behavior and its temporal dimension,

one finds only illustrative examples in his writings—certainly no systematic investigations of actual


linguistic or conversational practices. In other words, Dewey wished to elucidate how cooperative inquiry

and associative behavior are possible. However, after engagingly thematizing the important social

characteristics of language, he curiously abandoned the pursuit, even though it would have greatly furthered

his understanding of the activities with which he was so concerned (cf. Colapietro 2009, p. 3).

Language, finally, was central to Mead’s understanding of the capacity of humans—through mind,

thought, and what he termed “reflective intelligence”—to control their responses and to adjust and redirect

their experience. Indeed, mind itself, as he pointed out in Mind, Self, and Society (1934), has to do in its

fundamental nature with language. In a familiar passage of that work, Mead (1934, p. 76) addressed the

question as to how a sequence of acts can become a human and meaningful experience. His answer drew

from Peirce’s earlier triadic theory of semiosis, conceptualizing meaning as a relation among three phases

of the social act: a gesture of one organism, the adjustive response of another organism, then the completion

of a given act.

“This threefold relationship constitutes the matrix,” Mead (1934, p. 77) wrote, “within

which meaning arises,” adding that in this threefold relationship, any gesture or linguistic sign has an action

component to it, insofar as its design indicates a response and a resultant collaborative social act: “The act

or adjustive response of the second organism gives to the gesture of the first organism the meaning which it

has” (Mead 1934, pp. 77-78). Mead’s insights were of great methodological import and, as we shall see,

conversation analysis would go on systematically to explore them. For his own part, Mead moved from

this account of meaning to a developmental view of language, as encapsulated by his famous metaphors of

play, the game, and the generalized other. Along the way, he also developed a theory of “intelligent

conduct,” using the term, much as Dewey did, to highlight delayed responses to signs in outward

experience, pauses that make possible “the implicit initiation of a number of possible alternative responses .

[and] the exercise of intelligent or reflective choice in the acceptance of that one

which is to be carried

into overt effect” (Mead 1934, p. 98). Finally, Mead (1934, p. 388) spoke, like James, Peirce and Dewey


before him, of concrete interactional processes in which actors take each other’s interests into account and,

in light of those interests, collectively work out courses of action aimed at reconstructing their problematic


Despite these emphases on sociality and collaborative problem-solving, however—and

somewhat like James’ “failure to stress sufficiently the inescapable environment of social communication”

in which human opinions and interests are embedded (Colapietro 2009, p. 3)—he continued to struggle

against cognitivist tendencies in his thinking. He also remained, like the other pragmatists, content to dwell

at the level of abstraction—for instance, pointing toward a concrete investigation of language in use while

not following that path himself. In the pages ahead, we shall have occasion to explore these shortcomings.

Many pragmatists since the time of the classical generation have made important contributions to

our understanding of language and the accomplishment of social order. One is C. Wright Mills, who, in the

1940s, elaborated a theory of vocabularies of motives according to which the motives for human conduct,

when articulated to others or to oneself, always and necessarily are expressed in the terms of a common

language. Mills’s theory was a classic bridge to empirical sociology, although its core insights have been

more extensively developed, not by Mills himself, but by researchers in the ethnomethodologal tradition, as

we shall see.

Pragmatist philosophers associated with what has been described as the linguistic turn in the

human sciences also made important contributions.

One thinks here, for example, of the late Richard

Rorty, for whom language was a category of central importance. Even more salient is Robert Brandom,

whose Making It Explicit (1994) has been hailed as a work of signal importance to the contemporary

philosophy of language. As Bernstein (2007, p. 17) explains it, “Ever since Charles Morris introduced his

famous distinction of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, it has become a virtual dogma among analytic

philosophers that there is a clear hierarchal ordering among these three

[P]ragmatics is

dependent on semantics, and semantics is dependent on syntax. Now Brandom radically challenges this

dogma and turns things upside down. His basic thesis is that pragmatics has explanatory



demands developing a comprehensive understanding of social discursive practices.”

Brandom too,

however, remains in the end highly abstract; failing to cross the divide separating theoretical from empirical

investigation of language. We shall explore in greater depth below the contributions he makes—and how

ethnomethodology and, in particular, conversation analysis can complement them.

Part Two: Garfinkel and Classical Ethnomethodology

The conventional story of twentieth-century philosophy has it that pragmatism went into eclipse

after World War II with the rise of analytic philosophy and the concomitant professionalization of the

discipline. Relatedly, the conventional story of twentieth-century sociology posits that, while pragmatism

exerted an early influence through the Chicago School, it too, by mid-century, was left largely behind, with

the partial exception of symbolic interactionism. Specifically, Parsonian structural-functionalism and a new

causalist approach to quantitative data analysis became hegemonic and relegated pragmatism-inspired

work to the status of a minor footnote in the history of sociological theory.

In recent decades, these

declinist narratives have been vigorously disputed, as contributors to the pragmatist revival have

reinterpreted the internal histories of the two disciplines and found a continuing strength and vitality to

pragmatist impulses, a “continuity and persistence of the pragmatic legacy” (Bernstein 1992, p. 817). In the

case of philosophy, it is now argued that, “rather than viewing the analytic movement as representing a

sharp rupture with pragmatism, we should understand that its most enduring significance is contributing to

an ongoing pragmatic legacy (Bernstein 1992, p. 823). And in the case of sociology, pragmatism is seen as

living on in several distinct currents of theory and research (as mentioned earlier in this article). We now

know that the story of pragmatist sociology after the late 1930s is a far richer one than at first realized. 7 Not

everyone, however, can be said to be carrying the pragmatist torch in self-conscious fashion. Some only do


so implicitly. And some pursue pragmatist themes only in the sense of gravitating intuitively toward the

same questions and same answers as the original pragmatists.

In the case of Garfinkel, in fact, this

engagement with themes originally laid out by pragmatism unfolds in the midst of strenuous arguments

actually in criticism of the pragmatists themselves. While Garfinkel can be said to have been captivated by

the three key themes of pragmatism we have emphasized, he also recognized that pragmatism has some

unfinished business to attend to, a promise that will remain unrealized so long as its pronouncements,

abstract and philosophical as they generally are, fail to lead us, in good pragmatist fashion, to tangible forms

of inquiry. In the first part of the present section, we explore in depth Garfinkel’s own explicit responses to

pragmatism. In the remaining two parts, we turn to his actual agenda for ethnomethodological research,

stressing there its recovery of experience, the first of the themes developed above.

Discussion of his

engagement with our two other themes is reserved for the later major sections of this essay.

Garfinkel’s Early Engagement with Pragmatism

The early period of Garfinkel’s intellectual formation, extending from the mid-1930s through the

early 1950s, coincides closely with the passing of the generation of the classical American pragmatists. 8

Between his college years at the University of Newark and his graduate studies at North Carolina and

Harvard, the halcyon days of pragmatism finally drew to a close and the ideas of Peirce and his successors

fell, if not into eclipse, then at least into a lower profile. How familiar was Garfinkel with pragmatism then?

It is difficult to imagine a well-read young sociologist, especially one with a taste for philosophy, not

feeling deeply the power of pragmatism during those years. But beyond such speculation, there is indirect

biographical reason to believe his knowledge was not inconsiderable, thanks in part to his relations with

certain mentors, teachers, and fellow students. From early on, for example, Garfinkel came into contact

with Philip Selznick, immersed himself in the writings of W.I. Thomas, and was captivated by Florian

Znaniecki—pragmatists all. He learned as well from Kenneth Burke, whose affinities with pragmatism are

now being recognized. 9


And while at the University of North Carolina’s sociology department, he also

was exposed to the spirit of melioristic social reform so prevalent in that milieu.

Garfinkel’s earliest writings give added evidence of the influence of pragmatism upon his thinking.

They also reveal, however, a simultaneous interest in and growing appreciation of yet another body of

work, namely, Continental phenomenology. 10

In his very first publication, “Color Trouble” (1940), an

observation-based study that won an award when subsequently published as a short story, Garfinkel

examined the dynamics of racial segregation in the South—in particular, the perplexities that arise when a

black woman passenger from New York City refuses to move to the back of the bus when the bus driver

orders her to do so. What Garfinkel (1941, p. 105) observed of a policeman on the scene—that “certain

blockages had presented themselves with which he felt insecure in dealing”—applies to his other characters

as well: they were forced to engage in situated reasoning when ordinary courses of action came to a halt.

The story became, in effect, a study of situated problem-solving undertaken by different characters as their

taken-for-granted habitual modes of conduct were disrupted. While showing an affinity with pragmatism

at least in this respect, “Color Trouble” may also indicate an emerging phenomenological orientation on

Garfinkel’s part.

His preoccupation, like that of the pragmatists, was with disruption, its potential for

mutual accommodation and its actual consequences or how the drama is brought to a tragic close and the

participants restore an ordinary structure to the situation. But Garfinkel also added a phenomenological

dimension, treating the situation as an epoché or moment of suspension when taken-for-granted solidities

and the stance of unquestioned belief in them can no longer be held. As this happens, the prejudices of the

participants were thrown into relief.

Garfinkel’s embrace of phenomenology also became evident in his Master’s thesis, which explored

differences in the treatment accorded in North Carolina to blacks and whites involved in homicides. “The

Negro offender,” noted Garfinkel (1949 [1942], p. 380), “is an unproblematical figure as far as the white


court is concerned”[:]

‘You never know why one nigger kills another.’” 11 By contrast, “the white

offender is a problematical figure

in the sense that the court recognizes the legitimacy and necessity for

understanding why the white offender ‘really’ killed his victim.” Despite an arguably pragmatist interest in

(race-specific) perplexities and judgments, he (1949 [1942], p. 376) explicated courtroom reasoning more

directly in phenomenological terms, citing Husserl, Gurwtisch, Schtuz, Cairns, “and others,” while holding

that actors employ a “system of procedures of definition and redefinition of social identities and

circumstances” to arrive at their racialized patterns of sentencing.

In a text composed in 1948, just two years after his move to Harvard, Garfinkel (2005) explicitly

engaged with, and positioned himself in respect to, the pragmatist tradition, even as he also embraced, all

the more clearly, the phenomenological way of thinking. 12 This difficult and abstract manuscript, which

lays out many of the key ideas of what would later become ethnomethodology, includes several passing

mentions of Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey. On one telling occasion, when Garfinkel was discussing

Parsons’s theory of action, he made a quick but sympathetic reference to James. “No more than a dozen

social scientists,” he (2005 [1948], pp. 139-40) complained, “have attempted to push

beyond the not

nearly so obvious obviousness of the division of objects as concrete and abstract, real and ideal

[,] to that

rational ground where James’s promise of a radical empiricism is indeed fulfilled.” Immediately thereafter,

however, he moved on to discuss ideas by phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.

In another passage,

Garfinkel (2005 [1948], pp. 145-46), referred in passing to Peirce—again, not unfavorably—suggesting

that his own views were “in accordance with C.S. Peirce’s formula” (i.e., the

pragmatic maxim).

Specifically, he noted, much as a chair’s identity consists in the “physical manipulations” and actions

directed toward it, so too are social identities symbolically constituted in and through “the operations by

which [they are] manipulated as [objects]” (e.g., “oppose, attack, defend, insult, validate

”). However,

here as

before, he (2005

[1948], pp. 147-48) moved on quickly to develop arguments of a

phenomenological nature. 13


Garfinkel explained that observers define social identities by accounting “in

‘because of’ and ‘in order to’ terms for the sequences of different signs that [these identities seem] capable

of generating

” These terms—‘because of’ and ‘in order to’—come directly from the phenomenology

of Alfred Schutz (1967 [1945]).

Garfinkel wrestled during these years with Parsons’s (1937) theory of the

structure of social action. He sought to provide for structures of experience of wider range than those found

in Parsons’s work, to render the theory of action better able to deal with the full panorama of actual and

concrete experience (Heritage, 1984, ch. 2).

Toward this end, he preferred phenomenology over

pragmatism, since the former provided him with conceptual tools for showing how the world actually looks

to actors, for revealing the “actor’s universe” as an “experienced universe” (Garfinkel 2005 [1948], p. 117).

It is as if, from Garfinkel’s own standpoint, pragmatism pointed in the right direction, but only

phenomenology could

take us there.

(We note later how phenomenology, at least in its cognitivist,

Schutzian, version, proved in the end not completely adequate for his purposes, either.)

Thus it appears that, in this text, Garfinkel moved largely within the intellectual universes of

Parsonian theory (which he criticized) and of Continental phenomenology (which he embraced)—and that

only secondarily and slightly did he orient himself to pragmatist thought. On the few other occasions in

which he did make direct reference to pragmatism, he did so in markedly critical tones.


contended that pragmatism takes a non-social view of the motives attributed to actors, seeing them as a

property of individuals rather than of the situations in which they find themselves. For example, he (2005

[1948], pp. 167-68) suggested that Mead’s notion of the “I” has something essentialist about it, as if the “I”

were a kind of “concrete biological organism” or “vessel” of motive. “Every social relationship will have

its peculiar order of motives that the actors assign to each other” while engaged in sequences of action

(Garfinkel (2005 [1948], p. 169). Relatedly, Garfinkel argued that pragmatism accords a false reality to

social roles and to the role-taking process through which actors are said to determine their courses of


conduct. “Living in the vivid present in its ongoing working acts,” he (2005 [1948], p. 116) pointed out,

“the working self experiences itself as the originator of the ongoing acts, and thus as an undivided total self.

[It is only] when the self in a reflective attitude turns back to the working acts performed [that] this unity

disappears,” giving rise to the mistaken idea of role-taking as a contemplative process apart from and

antecedent to the practical realities of working acts. (In a similar vein, he (2005 [1948], p. 192) criticized

Dewey for advancing an erroneous view of the self as a “mosaic of roles.”)

Garfinkel concluded that

pragmatism’s approach to action is itself contemplative and “theoretical,” granting a false reality to

concepts when instead it ought to be investigating real interactions. He seemed, in these instances, not

simply to move from positive references to pragmatism to more systematic uses of phenomenology, but

specifically to express dissatisfaction with the former as a way of thinking about selves, identity,

motivation, and role-taking. 14 What are we to make of these critiques, and what might explain them?

For one thing, Garfinkel’s way of addressing pragmatism in this early text was episodic and

incomplete. It lacked engagement with many of the latter’s most recognizable contributions, such as its call

for a return to experience, its understanding of habitual action, its concern with perplexity and intelligent

problem-solving (in which theory is brought back together with practice), its approach to language and

semiosis, and its vision of progressive social reform and reconstruction.

To the extent that his (2005

[1948]) monograph can be read at all as a critique of pragmatist thought, the study was unsystematic and

avoided a comprehensive understanding of pragmatism’s overall intellectual unity and cohesion. But more

importantly, there was something untenable about Garfinkel’s views of certain aspects of pragmatist

thought. The latter does not counterpose working acts to a purely contemplative orientation in which actors

do not act but merely think. Its point, rather, is that thinking is itself a mode of action, such that to separate

the two is a grievous error that prevents one from seeing how creative problem-solving actually is


For Mead, the “working self” involved in action is aware of originating that action but is

otherwise engaged in it unreflectively.


Its “reflective attitude” only comes about when that action is

blocked; only then does the self become an object. Indeed, Mead (1964 [1903]) wrote disparagingly of

“parallelistic psychology” and of its view that psychic components always accompany behavioral action,

and he surely agreed that role-taking is not a contemplative process undertaken apart from and somehow

antecedent to the practical realities of working acts. Pragmatism, then, does not deem the individual rather

than trans-actions the unit of analysis.

In fact, this charge better characterizes Blumer’s symbolic

interactionism, a subjectivistic abridgement of pragmatist thought gaining sway during Garfinkel’s early

years (and highly visible in his attention space), than it does pragmatism itself.

And the direction in which

this line of argument can more fruitfully be developed is a methodological not a theoretical one, focusing

research on concrete in situ interactions rather than on internal processes of mind. Garfinkel’s arguments

confused, it might be said, the parents with their offspring. Indeed, it is for this reason—and not only on

account of the genuine strengths of Continental phenomenology—that he was possibly too quick to

dispense with the home-grown alternative.

Finally, there is the consideration that phenomenology itself, at least in the Schutzian variant with

which Garfinkel was engaged during these years, resonates with at least certain aspects of classical

American pragmatism. To take just one example, Schutz drew explicitly upon James when developing his

account, in “On Multiple Realities” (1967 [1945]), of “finite provinces of meaning,” while there and in

other essays (e.g., “Common-Sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” [1967 (1953)]; “Some

Leading Concepts of Phenomenology” [1967 (1945)]), he developed connections as well between his

phenomenology of the life-world and Mead’s writings, although he also criticized those writings. 15 Of

particular importance to Schutz was Mead’s recognition of the importance of the “manipulatory area”

(Schutz (1967[1945], pp. 223-226) and what Schutz called the world of working within one’s “reach.” This

world was structured temporally in other ways that Schutz defined phenomenologically and cognitively


and that Garfinkel came to examine empirically and in terms of embodiment.

While phenomenology was

in many respects different from pragmatism, it should come as no surprise that the early Garfinkel moved

toward it even as he continued to hold onto insights bearing a deep affinity with classical pragmatist

thought. 16 To grasp more fully the principles underlying his fateful move, of course, it would be necessary

to study Garfinkel’s development from a “sociology of ideas” perspective, mapping the state of the

sociological field during his formative years, investigating his locations within and trajectory across that

space, and reflecting on the choices then available to him for professional advancement and elaboration of

his intellectual perspective. That, however, is a topic for a very different kind of investigation than the one

we are essaying here. 17

Members’ Methods and the Recovery of Practice

Despite Garfinkel’s impulse to downplay the overlap of his insights with those of pragmatism, he

actually went on in his subsequent writings to take up some of the fundamental concerns of the pragmatist

tradition, its unfinished conceptual and empirical business that requires “attending to.” Foremost among

these was the return to experience.

Whereas the pragmatists failed to give us purchase on the actual

concrete procedures whereby actors accomplish the meaningful, patterned, and orderly character of

everyday life, Garfinkel began, after the mid-1950s, to analyze systematically the “members’ methods”

whereby the orderliness of everyday life is ongoingly achieved. 18 The specification of these methods, the

systematic charting of lived experience, became the signal contribution of his life’s work. In a number of

papers published over the span of more than a decade, many of them collected in Studies in

Ethnomethodology, he enunciated this new program of research.

In language strikingly reminiscent of

Dewey but drawing heavily on Schutz (1971 [1943], Garfinkel (1967, p. 277) insisted that “the scientific

rationalities are neither properties of nor sanctionable ideals of choices exercised within the affairs governed

by the presuppositions of everyday life.”

Indeed, he continued, “the problems encountered by [many


conventional] researchers and theorists

may be troubles of their own devising. The[se] troubles would

be due

to the insistence on conceiving actions in accordance with scientific conceits instead of looking

to the actual rationalities that persons’ behaviors in fact exhibit in the course of managing their practical

affairs.” If Garfinkel here was able simultaneously to draw heavily on Schutz and to sound themes

reminiscent of the pragmatists, it is because Schutz himself (1976 [1943], pp. 77, 84), in the very paper

cited, drew theoretical ideas from the classical American pragmatists. Garfinkel (1996, 2002) later

emphasized his own heterodox way of thinking as a return to Durkheim rather than to pragmatism, as a

recovery of the neglected wisdom in Durkheim’s aphorism regarding the concreteness of social facts. 19

Drawing on the phenomenologists, he directed a powerful challenge to the two dominant sociological

perspectives of the post-war era—Parsonian structural-functionalism and quantitative data analysis—

claiming that both neglect the specific processes through which social facts are locally and endogenously

produced. In various places, however, Garfinkel (e.g., 1988) also effectively sounded pragmatist themes,

charging that these postwar sociologies elide practical action by conceptualizing it as unstable and

uncertain, as a stream of experience needing always to have order bestowed on it by means of theoretical

constructions such as rules or models, instead of its being an order already coeval with the very existence

and presence of social action. In his critical assessment, as in pragmatism’s critiques of Reason, conceptual

sociological thought was seen as standing over and above experience and as claiming a false superiority to


Garfinkel concurred with the pragmatists on another key point as well:

The world of pure

experience cannot be understood in terms of the dualist frameworks of modern epistemology, ways of

thinking that draw a sharp dividing-line between subject and object.

He acknowledged that actors

themselves have a dualist or objectivist view of the world—that is, in their “mundane reasoning” (to invoke

Pollner’s [1987] phrase), they conceive the world before them as obdurately real—but he added that actors


produce this sense of objectivity by means of various procedures or methods and that they do so all the

time, with no “time out.” Actors coordinate themselves, in other words, not by way of a common system of

symbols (i.e., by thinking alike), but by actively achieving a sense of knowing things in common and of

having the “same” perspective were they to change positions with one another. From a member’s point of

view, social facts are, indeed, objective, but paradoxically that facticity is the result of actors’ ongoing

concerted work. Objectivity is achieved. Garfinkel thus went to the roots of the objectivity of social facts.

He underscored the practical efforts, not only in everyday settings (the special province of Pollner’s

investigations), but also in collective enterprises such as modern science (including ethnomethodology

itself as a science), required to maintain the assumption of an external reality with transcendant properties.

Objective statements are generated in both everyday and scientific contexts, but they must be seen as

nothing other than indexical expressions whose verifiable sense is an achieved feature related to accounting

practices in the settings of which they are a part. Garfinkel specified a number of such practices, including

“ad-hocing,” which occurs when instructions are only partial and actors take the left-out steps on their own

to fulfill criteria of objectivity—“I can’t categorize this particular paper, but I’ll give it a ‘B’”—and

“glossing,” which occurs in the coding of ambiguous events, such as suicides.

(Yet another practice

involves creating narratives to fit one’s [scientific] data, as when one anticipates how a story will be used by

various parties: “How do I have to write up the account for those who will read it?”) In uncovering these

and other practices, Garfinkel showed how “primordial” divisions in pure experience are actually achieved.

His program of ethnomethodological inquiry emerged, in this sense, as an important elaboration upon

Jamesian (and Deweyan) radical empiricism.

Much like Dewey as well, Garfinkel supplemented these insights with a careful inquiry into the

ways in which actors continually interpret, contextualize, and find underlying patterns, meanings, and

unities in the “objective” facts before them. His inquiry was fully consistent, moreover, with Gurwitsch’s


(1964, p. 234) appreciation of James’ (1890[1905], pp. 196ff.) injunction to avoid the “psychologists’

fallacy”—that is, “in discussing a state of mind from the psychologist’s point of view, to avoid foisting into

its own ken matters that are only there for ours.” Following gestalt theory and phenomenological

psychology, Gurwitsch (1964) explored how actors do not build things up in the natural and social worlds

piecemeal but assemble them into “gestalt contextures.” That is, they experience them as already there and

constituted; to take but a simple example (Gurwitsch, 1964, pp. 240-42), when a navigator discovers land, it

is first seen as a vague and somewhat indeterminate “coastline” or “island” and only secondarily and

progressively in terms of its detail.

interaction, a gestalt-like character.

Actors accord to social objects, too, and to complex scenes of

How does this happen?

Garfinkel (1967, ch. 3) spoke here of a

“documentary method of interpretation,” in which “an actual appearance [is treated] as ‘the document of,’

as ‘pointing to,’ as ‘standing on behalf of’ a presupposed underlying pattern. Not only is the underlying

pattern derived from its individual documentary evidences, but the individual documentary evidences, in

their turn, are interpreted on the basis of ‘what is known’ about the underlying pattern. Each is used to

elaborate the other.” Garfinkel also recognized, as Wieder (1974, pp. 187-88, 200) has pointed out, that

these “individual documentary evidences” are often indexical expressions (e.g., accounts of actions) that,

accordingly, “have no self-evident or self-explanatory sense.

Instead, the utterances as ‘pieces’ have a

sense as constituent parts of the setting in the manner that a constituent part of a gestalt-contexture has

functional significance.” Achieving the gestalt requires actors’ work, of course, and it puts into question any

conventional dualism of account and setting, subject and object. One might recall here the Deweyan idea

of an organic circuit, in which the stimulus is not “outside” or “external to” the response. As Dewey made

clear, actors’ response is into the stimulus, helping to constitute it. In gestalt terminology, the constituted

whole provides for ex post facto derivation of stimulus as well as response. What especially prefigures

here—and resonates with—the above insights of early ethnomethodology is the implication that the gestalt-


like character of objects and interactions is a practical achievement. Indeed, it points even beyond early

ethnomethodology (and Schutzian phenomenology) in its view that this achievement has bodily and

concerted dimensions and is not merely cognitive. 20 In his later writings, Garfinkel moved to embrace that

very insight. In Ethnomethodology’s Program (2002, chs. 1, 8), he stressed that actors’ orientation toward

objects (e.g., ringing phones), is an embodied orientation, and he coined such terms as “oriented objects”

and “coherence of phenomenal fields” to highlight, in his editor’s (Rawls 2002, p. 32) words, “the

embodied character of

practices for producing and recognizing the coherence of perception.”

One final (and related) feature of Garfinkel’s return to experience and practical action are his

insights into, not the cognitive coherence of the world, but its normative ordering. As a good Kantian,

Parsons before him had insisted that there is a lawfulness to the moral life, an order ensured by the

following of norms and rules. Garfinkel, by contrast—and in this respect he followed Burke (1969 [1945])

and especially Mills (1940)—contended that norms are best seen as features of settings and as parts of the

very organization of conduct of those settings, not as causes of that organization in the first place. Settings

teach what one needs to know, practices get done according to what those settings need done, and this takes

place irrespective of what the prevailing norms might be: the ordering capacities embodied in actors’

practices—and not the rules themselves—are what is most important (Hilbert 1981). Social settings are

thus already intelligible and orderly, not chaotic and disorganized, and an “autochthonous” order is already

there, albeit one always and ever in the process of being achieved.

From Garfinkel’s perspective, the

problem with norms and rules was that they are decontextualized: in actual social life, even predictable

activity requires judgmental work. Those who do not undertake such work and operate without common

sense—e.g., the “actors” in Parsons’s framework—are “judgmental dopes” (Garfinkel 1967, pp. 66-67).

Garfinkel (2002, chs. 1, 5-6) did speak of how actors use rules to help others to learn a procedure. These

“instructed actions,” however, have “praxeological validity” only insofar as they pass what can be


construed as a pragmatic test—that is, insofar as they work or make sense—and this is so regardless of

whether activities have been in accord with the rules along the way. (For example, actors drive on the

highway as a profoundly practical matter rather than “follow the rules of the road” in some mechanical

fashion). Garfinkel suggested that actors use norms and rules to realize whatever organizational purposes

they can be fitted into. As judgmental workers, they tolerate violations to keep the work flow going; they

make exceptions “just this time” and suspend (rather than break) the rules putatively governing their

actions. (Zimmerman’s [1970] important early inquiries are dedicated to working out this proposition.)

Norms and rules are significant, in fact, “as a way, or set of ways, of causing activities to be seen as

morally, repetitively, and constrainedly organized” (Weider 1974, p. 175); they are a constitutive part of the

very activities they purportedly regulate.

As such, they manifest the property Garfinkel (1967, ch. 1)

termed “reflexivity.” In pragmatist terms, norms and rules are important only insofar as they are invoked or

used. Garfinkel went well beyond what the classical American pragmatists were able to achieve in this

regard. Conceptually, he generalized from formal institutions—to which Mills (1940), in particular, had

confined himself—to all putatively norm-governed settings, and substantively, he set up a highly fruitful

and wide-ranging empirical research program. We shall soon see how Sacks and his collaborators (Sacks,

Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974) followed him down this path in their own work on turn-taking.

Two Implications of the Recovery of Practice

Throughout all the above discussions, Garfinkel developed two other important themes, one

theoretical and the other methodological.

In a theoretical vein, he maintained that the procedures—or

members’ methods—through which social order is produced are themselves nearly always lost sight of by

the actors who engage in them. In this respect, members’ methods are very much like the tacit, habitual,

and taken-for-granted practices highlighted by the pragmatists (especially Peirce, Dewey, and Mead),

practices that come under conscious reflective scrutiny only when blocked, thwarted, or rendered


ineffectual. 21

The reflexivity accruing to objective properties of settings is “uninteresting” (Garfinkel

1967, p. 7) to the actors themselves; they remove such properties from visibility.

Actors consider the

everyday world “objective” or “just out there”; they do not ask ethnomethodological questions. Indeed, if

they did ask such questions about their procedures or otherwise attempted to “stabilize” them, nothing

would get accomplished and the “anomic features” of settings would be “multiplied” (Garfinkel 1967, p.

270). 22

So too with moral order and the use of norms and rules.

Garfinkel reacted here against the

“teleological model of action” (Joas 1996) shared by structural-functionalism and rational actor theory, as

well as by various quantitative approaches, which, for lack of having a theory of action of their own, often

formulate their hypotheses in ad hoc fashion.

Both structural-functionalism and rational actor theory

ascribe to actors’ modes of relation to the world something of their own mode of relation to the actors:

namely, an intellectualist orientation. In a manner foretold by Dewey in The Quest for Certainty, these

approaches judge actors’ rationality by the superior criterion of the theorist’s own rationality, assigning to

actions that lack sufficient facts or scientificity the character of being “emotional” or “value-driven,” that is,

non-rational. (This is evident enough in the case of rational actor approaches. But it applies as well to

Parsonian theory, as Heritage [1984, 1987] has extensively and persuasively argued.)

What both

approaches disregard is the distinctive “logic of practice,” to invoke Bourdieu’s (1990 [1980]) famous

phrase, a corporeal and unthinking logic that remains wholly outside the terms of a “means-end” schema or

theoretical reason. While it is true that most sociology depends on various degrees of abstraction or “formal

analysis” (Garfinkel 1996; 2002, chs. 1, 5), as soon as one moves in that direction one leaves behind the

world of concrete experience, a world that ethnomethodology, like pragmatism, wishes to recover.

Garfinkel took very seriously the workings of practical action. Conceiving of action as comprising an array

of members’ actual methodic procedures, which in Deweyan terminology are “trans-actional,” he moved

even beyond pragmatist thinking, since the latter has rather little to say empirically about the practices


whereby social order is actively accomplished.

Methodologically, Garfinkel also made a crucial contribution: he developed an actual program for

doing ethnomethodology and for empirically identifying the aforementioned procedures for producing

social order. His great achievement was to convert the Jamesian metaphysics of radical empiricism into a

highly elaborated research agenda, one that maintained, with Heidegger, that the most fruitful approach is

not to ask, “‘What is metaphysics?[,]’ so that we would then begin by talking about metaphysics, [but]

instead [to] ask a metaphysical question and thereby land ourselves in the midst of metaphysics” (Garfinkel

2002, p. 199). 23 How did Garfinkel envision empirically exploring the world of “haecceities” and of

concrete experience?

He stressed, above all, that one has to be doing, as a competent participant or

“member,” what other members of a concrete setting are doing. It is only in this way that one can see what

the practices are that make up the setting and that are features of it by being observable as features. Generic

(or “formal”) analysis—e.g., “the students were nodding”—is insufficient. How does one know that they

are students? How does one know that they are nodding? Garfinkel admonished: Do not explain what

others do as a collectivity; first-person narratives are better. Do not say “sometimes” or “usually.” Do not

speak in “generalities” (Garfinkel 2002, p. 203), even when using ethnomethodological terms. Do not say,

even in respect to a single actor, “He gestures whenever he makes points.” Say instead: “When he stated

such-and-such a thing, he made a gesture that could be interpreted as a point.” The gesture’s meaning is

indexical to whatever else is going on in particular in that setting. So if you have a schema in your head of

what certain things mean, it will not get you anywhere in terms of understanding how people do what they


Get down to the rich details and the skill involved in the practices. Go for the lively features. Isolate

elements that have some prominence and then describe how they get concretely achieved as

intersubjectively real for the participants. Get hold of their specifics, as opposed to their generics. Such

were Garfinkel’s practical admonishments.

Much about them, again, is reminiscent of the pragmatists’


sensibility. But whereas classical American pragmatism maintained, even in its most empirical moments, a

certain distance from concrete details, Garfinkel moved beyond any lingering theoreticism.

Indeed, he

produced a wide variety of recommendations for getting at practices in lived experience that would

otherwise be hard to detect or analyze. It is this contribution that constitutes his enduring legacy—and the

most significant means whereby he can be said to have carried forward the unfulfilled agenda of pragmatist


Part Three: Ethnomethodological Studies of Work in the Professions and Science

The above topic of Garfinkel’s methodological policies leads us directly to the second of the three

pragmatist themes we originally identified: problems and creative problem-solving.

Following Schutz

(1967 [1953]), Garfinkel (1963, p. 188) proposed, in his seminal paper, “A Conception of, and Experiments

with, ‘Trust’ as a Condition of Stable Concerted Actions,” that the “perceived normality” of events in the

everyday world reflects actors’ investment in certain tacit and unreflective presumptions, that is, in the

commonsense knowledge made possible by adherence to the attitude of daily life. When actors do not—or

cannot—invest in these presumptions, they experience profound difficulties in maintaining the everyday

social scene. Garfinkel also owed a debt to Burke on this score, and hence, indirectly, to the pragmatists—a

fact that became apparent in a much later work (2002, p. 211), in which he spoke approvingly of Burke’s

[1969 (1945)] idea of “perspective by incongruity.” In similar spirit to Burke, he (1963, p. 187) asked in his

“Trust” paper, “what can be done to make for trouble[?]” Garfinkel devised social-scientific procedures for

rendering “members’ work” visible: the most famous of these were his “breaching experiments,” which he

originally presented as “tutorial exercises” or teaching “demonstrations” for students. These experiments

brought about in participants of social scenes a state of profound disorientation—or, to use a term from


Dewey’s and Addams’s vocabulary, perplexity—and yielded the unanticipated additional result (which

might have surprised even the pragmatists) that the regular workings of taken-for-granted practices are

experienced not only as a cognitive but also as a moral obligation (hence the word “trust” in the essay title).

In Studies in Ethnomethodology, Garfinkel introduced yet another approach to the uncovering and

specification of ethno-methods. Examining a real-life situation, that of an “intersexed” person in pursuit of

a gender changing operation, he argued that blockages to the ordinary unrecognized operation of everyday

practices arise, not from experimental contrivances, but from features already built into (and “naturally”

occurring in) that situation. Thus, “Agnes,” who seeks to “pass” as a woman despite “male” features to her

anatomy and biography, is forced to act as a “practical ethnomethodologist” (Garfinkel 1967, p. 180),

thereby experiencing the ordinary taken-for-granted world—specifically, the dichotomous sex composition

of the normative gender order—as already and profoundly “breached” and thereby providing unique

insights into how the visibility of anyone’s gender status is ongoingly accomplished. The model of inquiry

established in this case study became increasingly prevalent, as investigators more and more eschewed

inducing breaches in favor of examining obstructions arising spontaneously in social situations.

But in

either case, the similarities between pragmatism and ethnomethodology were highly evident. We focus on

more of these similarities in what follows, contending that pragmatist views on perplexity have a close

analogue in what Garfinkel—and later ethnomethodologists of work and science—refer to as “the shop

floor problem.”

The Shop Floor Problem

In the pragmatist tradition, as we have seen, perplexities represent a kind of moral fissure that arises

when one way of life runs up against another, indexing a breach in social relations.

For example, when

examining disruptions to common-sense knowledge, Addams directed special attention to sexual, class,

ethnic and other categorical differences between people, along with the disparities in power these can


involve. She exposed the perplexities that arise, for example, when children (especially daughters, in her

account) become educated and depart from obligations of filial piety to embrace wider social ideals; when

household members employ domestic helpers; when any actor in an industrial or educational enterprise

depreciates the social experience of those who labor to earn wages or become educated; or—in the example

we discussed earlier—when a social worker of one class and educational background confronts a family of

a lower stratum. Garfinkel went about the problem of investigating perplexities in a significantly different


He examined instances in which one way of life is articulated in bureaucratic requirements,

procedural specifications, or management plans, while another is what actually happens on the shop floor,

with all its unanticipated circumstances and contingencies. From an ethnomethodological point of view,

any workplace can be filled with the kinds of contingencies, circumstances, particularities, and exigencies

that preoccupied Addams’s charity workers, difficulties that defy the abstract plans and expectations of

theorists, managers, designers, and others concerned to stipulate how shop floor courses of action should

flow: the disparity between “plans and situated actions,” to invoke Suchman’s (1987) phrase, is not always

class-based, but it can be. What Garfinkel emphasized is that this disparity is better conceived as a function

of the shop floor problem than as a discordance between different kinds of social experiences or

backgrounds. That is, he stressed that the source of perplexity is best understood as a discrepancy between

managerially approved ways of recording and tracking performance and the actual skills in detail and

locally organized, lived work of doing a job in real time with the materials and personnel at hand. The

pragmatists fell short in probing empirically the situated methods and practices whereby participants

actually handle such discrepancies and produce order at the local level. Following Garfinkel, by contrast,

ethnomethodologists of work and science have investigated and documented the particular, concrete,

collaborative, and “real-time” ways in which actors manage, in face of manifold contingencies and

unanticipated circumstances, to carry out the abstract versions of whatever it is that their occupational


responsibilities might require. 24

Before we turn to an assessment of these various ethnomethodological investigations, let us briefy

review Garfinkel’s own inquiries into the shop floor problem. He began to elucidate the issue (without

specifically labelling it as such) as early as Studies in Ethnomethodology, where he directed close attention

to actors’ concrete worksite-specific practices, whether these be found in jury rooms, outpatient psychiatric

clinics, or suicide prevention centers. In a later article, “The Work of a Discovering Science Construed

with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar,” he turned to the “night’s work,” as he called it, of

astronomers engaged in discovering activities. “We did not examine,” he and his co-authors (Garfinkel,

Lynch, and Livingston 1981, pp. 137, 139-41, italics in original) observed, “and we want not to examine

the end-point object [i.e., the discovered pulsar] for its correspondence to an original plan. We want to

disregard, we want not to take seriously, how closely or how badly the object corresponds to some original

design—particularly to some cognitive expectancy or to some theoretical model—that is independent of

their embodied work’s particular occasions as of which the object’s production—the object—consists,

only and entirely.” Garfinkel and his associates devoted themselves instead to specifying these embodied

practices’ “first time through,” “local production properties.” 25

It was only in Ethnomethodology’s

Program that Garfinkel discussed the shop floor problem explicitly and at length. 26

Dubbing it

“Ethnomethodology’s discovered topic,” he observed there that the practices found “in work’s places, just

there, and with just what equipment and instruments are at hand, in just this building, and in just these

rooms, with just who is there, in just the time that is marked by clock” (Garfinkel 2002, pp. 95, 249), can be

the object of tutorial exercises, which attend to the “phenomenal field properties of common occurrences”

(Garfinkel 2002, pp. 95, 249, 100). Or, he added, they can drive “hybrid studies,” which are concerned

with “properties of work in densely recurrent structures

ubiquitously” (Garfinkel 2002, p. 100, italics ours).

, not occasionally but systematically, and therein

The latter studies require investigators to immerse


themselves in the work settings they are studying, to become so competent at the work at hand that their

findings will be taken seriously by those occupationally or professionally engaged in it. 27 Even with these

recent elaborations, however, Garfinkel’s insights into the shop floor problem evinced a remarkable

consistency over the decades. Together, they opened up an ambitious new agenda for substantive research.

Garfinkel brought together—under one conceptual rubric—a wealth of new empirical questions to explore.

We now turn to ethnomethodologists’ systematic pursuit of these questions, to their actual studies of the

shop floor in all its concrete details.

Perplexities in Social Work and Health Care

One can only imagine what a Dewey or (especially) an Addams might have done with the tools of

an ethnomethodologist.

And one can only imagine what an ethnomethodologist would do with these

pragmatists’ (again, especially Addams’s) empirical research topics, studying, for example, the perplexities

of charity (and social) workers from within the framework of the shop floor problem.

While no

ethnomethodological study has yet covered this empirical terrain, there are a few investigations somewhat

closely related to those of Addams. Let us briefly consider them, selecting from the wide literature on this

topic a small set of studies that engage with our featured themes while also representing especially

influential contributions to the ethnomethodological tradition.

The first and

earliest of these is

Zimmerman’s aforementioned inquiry into intake processes at a welfare agency. He (1970, pp. 221, 222,

228) found that workers often face perplexing situations when rules about assigning clients come up against

unforeseeable circumstances that do not fit with what the rules dictate.

There is a discordance, he

discerned, between the “explicitly stated policies and procedures designed to advance formally defined

goals” and “the variety of practices and mundane considerations involved in determinations of the

operational meaning and situational relevance of [these] policies and procedures,” a discrepancy, that is,

between the formal plan of the organization and its “actual task structure

, the variety of problematic


features generated by the attempt to put [its programmatically specified tasks] into practice.” Faced with

this discrepancy, workers regularly depart from the rules—the abstract version of how they are to assign

clients. They do so, not out of noncompliance or deviance, but from a concern that everyone involved be

accountably satisfied that the processing of cases is happening for all practical purposes. The “order” of

getting work done in an “orderly” fashion resides, not in the rules per se, but in the methodic ways in which

workers use the rules, especially in perplexing contexts, in a concerted effort to achieve agency goals.

Zimmerman (1970, p. 225) concluded (in words that could almost be found verbatim in a pragmatist

account of intelligence): “[T]he operational import of formal rules and organizational policy (of which the

assignment procedure is an instance) is decided by personnel on a case-by-case basis and warranted on

‘reasonable grounds.’

[T]he reasonableness of such decisions, from the point of view of personnel,

relies upon a taken-for-granted grasp of, and implicit reference to, the situated practical features of task


Closer yet to Addams’ concerns was research on British Health Visitors and their dealings with

families with newborn babies. Health Visitors (HVs) are agents of a community-nursing program in the

United Kingdom, authorized to detect and prevent ill health, identify physical needs, and provide advice to

families in the care and management of their children. HVs have a statutory obligation to visit all mothers

with children under the age of five to ensure that illness is prevented and to find problematic cases for

referral to specialized agencies. Having to fill out a form called the Child Health Record and to fulfill the

textually stated requirements of the Health Visitors’ Association presents a kind of shop floor problem, with

all the moral dimensions that Addams glossed but was unable to explore in the details of everyday practice.

Although HVs attempt to construct a befriending relationship to families, Heritage (2002, p. 316) observes:

“A substantial proportion of mothers, particularly those in poorer socioeconomic circumstances, see the HV

service largely in terms of social control and surveillance and attempt to minimize contact with its



Most surveys suggest declining levels of satisfaction with the role and value of HVs.”

There appear to be good interactional reasons for such declining levels of satisfaction. For example, there is

a moral backdrop to the relationship that is not explicitly formulated.

HVs regard mothers as properly

motivated to take care of their babies but not necessarily as competent to do so; this orientation on the part

of HVs results in their frequently offering unsolicited advice to mothers, who mostly resist the advice and

sometimes in a defensive way. The relationship comes to be constructed, not as a befriending one, but

rather as one of “experts” to “novices,” as the HVs and mothers (sometimes fathers) struggle with one

another in beneath-the-surface “competence struggles” (Heritage and Sefi 1992), wherein “mothers strive

to show that they have displayed vigilance in child care and have competently responded to problematic

situations” (Heritage and Lindström 1998, p. 416).

This research on Health Visitors addresses precisely the kind of perplexity about which Addams

wrote, a perplexity based in professional-lay disparities and in the class differences built into them.

However, there is much more afoot here than background-variable disparities. The very form that HVs

need to fill out, a form with requirements for face sheet data, consent signatures for immunizations, and

explanations of clinic procedures, is often an intrusion—with “an alien set of relevancies” (Heritage 2002,

p. 318)—into the relationship between HVs and mothers (except when fathers are present); HVs use it to

legitimate their questions and to draw fathers into the conversation.

Moreover, following a principle

“drawn from the normative order of everyday life” and neither built into the form nor drawn from any

procedure for implementing the instrument, HVs ask questions that are “optimized” (Heritage 2002, p.


For instance, the form has a blank space for “birth information: pregnancy normal/abnormal,


HVs regularly generate this information by asking (optimistically), “And you had a normal

pregnancy?” Exceptions occur when they have learned something through prior discussion that indicates

that there was some difficulty.

Thus, the form does not operate irrespective of the identities of participants


and across all circumstances. Rather, while drawing on generic interactional relevancies, it still responds to

particular circumstances, for HVs engage in “recipient design” (Heritage 2002, p. 326; cf. Sacks, Schegloff,

and Jefferson 1974) by asking questions that reflect in situ family biography.


research demonstrates again and again that bureaucratic forms in any work setting always involve a set of

“normal, natural troubles” (Garfinkel 1967, p. 192) in their use. Accordingly, these forms require and call

for common-sense interpretation, as embodied in a set of practices for understanding and interpreting their

requirements in relation to situated purposes and circumstances. Entries in bureaucratic records, according

to Heath and Luff (2000, p. 38), require “defeasing,” which, in the philosophy of jurisprudence, refers to

how any rule or law, despite its precision and relevance, confronts actual conditions that it cannot handle in

formulaic fashion. Somehow, the rule or law (or stipulated categories on a form, in the case of welfare and

other such agencies) needs to be explicated with regard to those conditions. Because circumstances and

contingencies are boundless, the perplexities of doing shop floor work—perplexities that cause actors’

responses to be, in Dewey’s terms, incomplete or unfulfilled—are also boundless. The great insight and

contribution of ethnomethodology has been to make a topic of these perplexities and to demonstrate that

social organization inheres in the practices by which actors handle them.

One final line of work that bears, at least indirectly, on the sorts of perplexities originally addressed

by Addams is ethnomethodological studies of good and bad news, typically conducted in social settings

involving health care providers and recipients.

Maynard (2003) has investigated how good and bad news

represents disruptions of quotidian life to the extent of jeopardizing participants’ sense of what is real. He

observes that participants in the everyday world on rare occasions inhabit a state that phenomenologists

thought belonged only to the philosopher, a state of “epoche,” where the ordinary abandonment of doubt in

the objectivity of the external world and in the character of certain social objects therein is suspended.

(Peirce, too, as we have seen, spoke of states of Doubt and of Belief.)

Unlike the phenomenologist,


however, who suspends the natural attitude in a strategic fashion, everyday actors have the epoche thrust

upon them often in moments of ordinary talk and social interaction, moments when they become oriented

to possible good or bad news and its various adumbrations.

In those moments, they experience something

very much like the perplexity with which pragmatists were preoccupied.

Indeed, as one commentator

(Siegfried 2002, pp. xxv-xxvi) has pointed out, Addams herself suggested that this perplexity of experience

represents a breakdown—an epoché—of “usual understandings,” “assumptions,” and “presuppositions,”

all close cousins of commonsense knowledge and of what Schutz (1967 [1953]) referred to as the attitude

of daily life.

Recall, from our earlier discussion, that when Dewey (1988 [1938], ch. VI) spoke of

perplexity, he conceived of it as an “indeterminate situation.”

In the ethnomethodological treatment of

good and bad news, it is possible to see, in fine interactional detail, the epoche and indeterminacy in which

participants become embedded.

It is also possible to follow in pragmatist terms the creative problem-

solving and intelligence with which these participants, when delivering or receiving good or bad news,

move, as it were, between social worlds, reconstructing the old in light of new exigencies. They do so

through practices that shift the accent of reality from one prior set of social organizational forms to a newer,

fresher set. In episodes consisting of only a few turns of talk, that is, speaker and hearer open up—and then

close back down—deep fissures in their everyday experience, thereby creating (at least ideally) newly

habitual, newly intelligent modes of being in the world.

Perplexities in the “Discovering” and Social Sciences

Empirical analyses of social welfare and medical settings are by no means the only contributions

by ethnomethodologists to the systematic study of the shop floor problem and of perplexity.

It will be

recalled that Garfinkel himself deemed these phenomena to be prominent features of the “discovering


It is these sciences, accordingly, that he made a key object of ethnomethodological



In Dewey’s work, if not in Addams’s, the discovering sciences were a topic of utmost

importance. It is to these sciences, Garfinkel declared, that we must go, not to philosophy, to find out the

facts of the world. Dewey seemed to suggest, in fact, that all the positive sciences—mathematics, physics,

chemistry, biology, among others—are commensurate with pragmatist investigation, for they help to

resolve situations of perplexity by providing knowledge necessary for overcoming conflict in coordination.

What he did not investigate, however—but ethnomethodology does—is the phenomenon of perplexity as it

appears inside science itself. Garfinkel’s co-authored inquiry into the discovery of the pulsar, together with

subsequent work by his collaborators on that study—Eric Livingston and Michael Lynch—demonstrates

that the discovering sciences are, indeed, often the sites of incongruities between plans and situated actions.

These researches have shown how perplexity in terms of the shop floor problem emerges and is dealt with

in the everyday, on-the-job, real-time activities of working scientists.

Livingston (1986, pp. 7, x), for

instance, explores how, in “the situated, lived-work of doing professional mathematics—that is, as a work-

site phenomenon,” mathematicians confront and solve problems in the “production of ordinary, naturally

accountable proofs.” In most studies, he observes, “the living foundations of mathematics


untouched and unexamined.” In his own research, by contrast, he (1986, p. 16) examines “the local work

of producing and exhibiting, for and among mathematicians, a ‘followable’—and, therein, a naturally

accountable—line of mathematical argumentation.”

In this way, he (1986, pp. 15-16) returns “the

mathematical object to its origins within the mathematical work-site

, the real-world practices of

professional mathematicians,” thereby highlighting the “‘reasoner’s work’ that surrounds even a simple

proof and [that] recovers that proof as a naturally accountable mathematical object.” Livingston’s inquiry is

an exemplary hybrid study of practices in the discovering sciences, meant to be “instructive in and

consequential for” practicing mathematicians themselves (Livingston 1986, p. 6). It explores from within,

as it were, the problem-solving in which scientists engage on a regular basis, in the course of a day’s work,


taking seriously the situated details of the actual work they do on the mathematical shop floor.

Lynch, too—Garfinkel’s other collaborator on the pulsar article—offers useful insights into the

shop floor problem within the discovering sciences. He examines a neuroscience worksite, one devoted to

studying, with an electron microscope, a regenerative brain process called “axon sprouting.” 29


(1985, p. 3) focuses on the “unformulated practices” of that laboratory setting, practices outside the purview

of official “methods sections” of published research papers, with their “step-by-step maxims of conduct for

the already competent practitioner to assimilate.” Drawing on ethnographic observations, as well as on

conversation analyses of recorded worksite interactions—interactions involving “talk which accompanies

the work as that work is underway; not talk about the work but talk in the work, talk which is part of the

work” (Lynch 1985, p. 10)—he devotes close attention to the problem, one often encountered by

neuroscientists as part of their day’s work, of distinguishing “facts” from “artifacts” in the electron

micrographs generated by their work equipment and procedures. Production of that distinction in specific

cases, and then also the resolution of perplexities, are concerted and in situ achievements. Lynch’s work

also inquires into the problem of reaching agreement in scientific practice. It explores the “devices” and

ethno-methods whereby laboratory scientists, in the course of their shop talk, move toward an “achieved

agreement”—in other words, “how the talk of members establishes any ‘objectivity’ for all practical

purposes in the local setting” (Lynch 1985, p. 203). Lynch’s (1985, p. 202) focus is on the modifications

that colleagues effect in their own and others’ accounts of objects, “the ways in which speakers change their


in the face of expressions of disagreement by others in a conversation.”

Such an

investigation leads him to questions previously taken up by the pragmatist philosophy of science,

specifically by Dewey’s (1988 [1938], p. 15) theory of “warranted assertibility,” a standard the latter sees as

replacing “Truth.” For our present purposes, what is most significant here is the manner in which Lynch

(1985, p. 203) adds to ethnomethodology’s insights into “the unremitting achievement of



details in concerted work” on the shop floor, that is, the contribution he makes to its understanding of the

setting-internal—specifically, interactional—world of the discovering sciences.

Besides such studies, ethnomethodology also features a closely related line of work that directs

attention to the shop floor problem within the social sciences. Garfinkel (1967, ch. 1) himself pointed

toward such a research focus when he showed how coding the contents of folders in an outpatient clinic to

provide a “disinterested” description of the clinic’s operations depended on a variety of embedded and tacit

“ad hoc considerations.” Coding instructions, he (1967, p. 24) wrote, “furnish a ‘social science’ way of

talking so as to persuade consensus and action within the practical circumstances of the clinic’s organized

daily activities.” Recent research on the survey interview (Maynard and Schaeffer 2000; Maynard, et al.

2002) continues this attention to ad hoc methods necessary to the survey-based social science enterprise. It

shows how survey researchers seek to control the data collection process by standardizing the survey

interview and its administration. Since no instrument or instructions (manuals, procedures) can be devised

that anticipate the plenitude of emergent exigencies that accompany the interview as an in vivo task, there is

always “more” to instructions than can be provided. This “more to it” involves members’ methods as an

uncharted domain of organized activities accompanying survey manuals-, procedures-, and instruments-in-

use. Maynard and Schaeffer (2000) discuss “analytic alternation” in the context of survey interviews as a

way to investigate practitioners’ work, both its adherence to formal inquiry—use of rules, procedures, and

instruments for conducting the interview—and deployment of taken-for-granted, tacit skills, as these are

exhibited in the orderly details of talk and action that support and help achieve survey interviews as the

relatively reliable and valid instrument they are taken to be.

Heeding Garfinkel’s warning that

ethnomethodology ought not to present itself as a corrective to formal analysis, ethnomethodological

studies of the survey interview do not aim to undermine the methods or findings of survey research.

In pragmatist terms, a concern with social and moral reform through better democratic organization

















ethnomethodological and conversation analytic studies have proliferated. Besides the aforementioned

science and workplace studies, these include investigations that highlight the complexities of “routine”

endeavors, where job descriptions need to be informed by explications of actual practice (Whalen, Whalen,

and Henderson 2002; Heath and Luff 2000); analyses of doctor-patient communication and of how medical

education can benefit from knowledge of sequential organization (Maynard and Heritage 2005; Heritage

and Maynard 2006; Heritage et al. 2007); and a line of studies that can be said to show how domination

perseveres and democracy is obstructed in everyday encounters (this line of inquiry begins with the racial

homicides paper of 1949 [1942] and extends through Garfinkel’s “Agnes” study [1967] to works by West

and Zimmerman [1977], Celia Kitzinger [2000; Kitzinger and Frith, 1999], and Rawls [2000]; these

writings all explore how race, gender, and sexuality are “done” or accomplished—and thereby disclose

ways in which the workings of these principles of division can be “undone”). The various investigations

we have mentioned do not merely demonstrate the member-methodic architecture on which the everyday

world is built. Rather, “ethnomethodology is applied ethnomethodology,” as Garfinkel (2002, p. 114) once

proposed; it proceeds on the assumption that its inquiries can be remedial so long as their expertise avoids

generic representation and tags itself instead to the particularities of actual talk and embodied practice in

concrete social settings.

Ethnomethodology can engage in genuine critical reconstruction and, in a

pragmatist spirit, apply intelligence to situations of real perplexity, but it can do so only provided it remains

wedded to the details situationally embedded in concrete shop floor problems.

Part Four: Conversation Analysis

The last of the three great pragmatist themes we highlight in this essay is language, or linguistically

mediated problem-solving.


This, too, is a problem-area to which pragmatism has contributed much,

recognizing, in Dewey’s words, that “Language occupies a peculiarly significant place and exercises a

peculiarly significant function in the complex that forms the cultural environment.” As Dewey himself

nicely expressed it, although language is just one institution among others, “it is (1) the agency by which

other institutions and acquired habits are transmitted, and (2) it permeates both the forms and the contents

of all other cultural activities. Moreover, (3) it has its own distinctive structure which is capable of

abstraction as a form” (Dewey 1988 [1938], p. 45, italics in original). Despite his considerable insights into

language, however, here as well Dewey left unfinished business for ethnomethodology—and its close

relation, conversation analysis—to take up and complete. In this regard, pragmatism was hardly different

from any number of other perspectives informing sociology.

As Schegloff (1996a, p. 162) has noted,

although “language figures centrally in the organization of social life, it has remained peripheral to the main

thrusts of the discipline.” When not peripheral, it has been studied for the way it is stamped with abstract

social and cognitive structures rather than in empirical fashion, that is, according to its actual usage and in

terms or orientations that actors themselves employ or display. While the pragmatists did bring language

and its integral place in human conduct to the brink of empirical investigation, they did not and could not

step over a chasm created by philosophical and theoretical shortcomings inherent in their perspective. In

this section, we examine some of these shortcomings, directing special attention to the following issues: (1)

the inherently indexical quality of words, phrases, and utterances: the notion, that is, that context provides

invariably for their sensibility; (2) the insight that language in use is not primarily about communication in

the traditional sense but instead involves performing social actions of a vast variety and in organized or

patterned ways; and (3) the idea that, although language use exists in behavior, such behavior need not

involve “taking the role of the other” or internalizing rules for comporting linguistic productions, or any

other such subjectivist processes. A brief revisitation of our three thinkers in this area—Peirce, Dewey,


and Mead—will prove useful here, together (in each case) with a consideration of how ethnomethdoology

and, in particular, conversation analysis are compatible with pragmatist ideas yet move beyond them in

promising new directions. We shall also discuss briefly the relevant ideas of pragmatist philosopher Robert

Brandom, and then, similarly, inquire into how conversation analysis helps those ideas to move from the

abstract realm into that of the concrete. Before any of that, however, we shall begin with a brief overview

of Garfinkel’s contributions to linguistic analysis, together with a discussion of the (related and seminal)

contributions of his associate, Harvey Sacks.

From Ethnomethodology to Conversation Analysis

Garfinkel’s (1967, p. 1) interest in language cannot be said to have represented a first-order

attraction. Rather, it derived from his preoccupation with “practical activities, practical circumstances, and

practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical study.” However, from the very beginning of Studies

in Ethnomethodology, he (1967, pp. 1-2) drew attention to the phenomenon of “accounts” of everyday

activities, or verbalizations of various kinds that locate, identify, describe, categorize, analyze, or otherwise

provide for the sense of practical activities.

Accounts, including those that aim for scientific precision,

always—i.e., “in every particular case”—lack in ostensive or literal truth and verifiability; rather, they have

a certain looseness to them, such that members need employ a variety of accounting practices in using and

understanding those accounts. Accounting practices include, as mentioned earlier, ad hocing (“et cetera,”

“let it pass,” and so forth), and they also include procedures such as supplying whatever unstated

understandings are necessary to comprehend the accounts, waiting for subsequent talk to grasp fully the

significance of some current saying, building up an account’s mutually elucidating particulars over the

course of conversation, and orienting to the serial placement of accounts in the developing course of action.

The “recognizable sense” of accounts always depends on the “socially organized occasions of their use”

(Garfinkel, 1967, p. 3), which is to say, the tacit methods or practices to which members must adhere and


that are the universal although not invariable accompaniment to assembling accord on, or achieving the

objectivity of, any account for every and all participant(s) in a setting.

Accounting practices are the

“properties” (Garfinkel 1967, p. 11) by which actors consider themselves to be remedying the occasionality

or context-embeddedness of indexical expressions as they use them in the course of realizing practical

actions. We shall have more to say about indexical expressions when we return shortly to the pragmatists.

Just as Garfinkel did not investigate language in use because of a first-order attraction, but rather

out of an interest in practical activities, Sacks developed his investigations of conversation in hopes of

developing a science that could handle the details of actual social (linguistic) events and activities.

Recording technology, which allows the replaying of segments of talk, transcription, and repeated

observations, enabled the inquiry.

Prior to the emergence of conversation analysis, the social scientific

study of language was mostly in the hands of linguists. Or when sociolinguists took to the field, it “was

explored as either dependent or independent variables

rather than as process or practice” (Schegloff,

Ochs, and Thompson 1996, p. 12). Sacks (1992 [1964-72], pp. 622-23), however—like Garfinkel a

sociologist through and through—asked whether a “fully comprehensive, coherent linguistics” is even

possible if one does not come to grips with actual, even singular, utterances in their context—the

particularities and specificities of utterances as participants use them in everyday affairs. He concluded that

the grammar of utterances is deeply related to their occurrence in interaction-based sequences—and

therefore in a locally produced and locally determined social organization—rather than in abstract syntactic,

semantic, or other cognitively based mechanisms or other elements (e.g., demographic factors) external to

interaction as such. This analytic orientation was evident in Sacks’s famous co-authored paper, “A Simplest

Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation” (Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974,

pp. 699-700), in which he and his colleagues specified the practices or methods whereby actors solve the

problem of how to accomplish the feature of interaction that only one person talks at a time (they do so


through the achieved orderliness of turn-taking in conversational interactions). It was also evident in work

on the so-called “adjacency pair,” in and through which indexical expressions—i.e., any and all spoken

utterances—come to have their intelligibility. Adjacency pairs include greeting-greeting, question-answer,

request-response, assessment-agreement or disagreement, joke-appreciation, news delivery, and manifold

other sets wherein a constitutive utterance is defined and understood not only by its possible grammatical

design but also by its placement contiguous to other(s) in the sequence. Drawing from Garfinkel’s

insights—as well Goffman’s (1966, 1983) attention to “the neglected situation” of ordinary interaction and

its order—investigations by Sacks and his collaborators and successors provided a solid foundation for

advances into problem areas brought by pragmatism to the forefront of philosophic inquiry but then left

empirically untouched.

That is, conversation analytic research

has something to offer pragmatism and

sociology more generally. But what, specifically, are these unsolved problems of the pragmatist approach

to language? And how does conversation analysis, despite lacking specific engagement with pragmatist

formulations, nevertheless address these problems?

Language in Use

Peirce’s investigations of language, it will be recalled, are an example of an extremely prescient

approach that resonates with later linguistic philosophy.

Also of interest, however, are two issues

regarding indexical expressions that his semiotic theory left empirical social science to address. One is the

question of how signs actually work, the problem of (at worst) a potential for infinite regress in the sign-

object-interpretant relation or (at best) a certain vagueness as to how meaning is actually settled in real

linguistic communities, rather than in the minds of perceivers. The other is what kind of analysis can be

done with an infinite regress of semiosis, with a continuous linguistic process, with expressions whose

sense is not denotative but instead somehow deeply and recursively context-dependent. While technically

incisive and elegant in its own right, Peirce’s semiotic bequeathed to social science no actual tools for










conversation analysis —does propose compelling ways of addressing both issues. As we have seen, one of

the originating insights of this tradition is that the use of language involves indexical expressions. Garfinkel

(1967, p. 44) noted that indexical expressions do not represent disordered or disorganized interaction or the

potential for an infinite regress of contextual explication for their sensibility; rather, they are the precise site

where social order and social organization are to be found. The orderly properties of indexical expressions,

in other words, are the “ongoing practical accomplishment” (Garfinkel and Sacks 1970, p. 341) of

participants in actual settings—and therefore capable of empirical investigation.

As adumbrated above,

conversation analysis represents the most sustained empirical approach to the orderliness of language in use

and to indexical expressions in particular. Sacks’s early inquiries into how the positioning and placing of

utterances provide for their intelligibility are now the starting-point of a wide array of studies on the

sequential organization of conversation.

Paying attention to sequences, to what happens next at each

moment in relation to what it follows in a developing course of speech-based action, this body of work

pursues a sustained and rigorous inquiry into indexical expressions and their social organization. Moreover,

conversation analysis and cognate inquiries such as discursive social psychology (Potter and Edwards

2001) handle effectively the more general problem of context.

Discourse analysts often suggest the

importance of “context”—wider social structures in which members of society may be embedded—but

conversation analysis suggests that the more local sequential context needs first-order appreciation, because

that is the environment to which participants in interaction demonstrably orient. To the extent that these

participants deal with wider social structures, it is also to say that such structures will be consequential for,

and thereby analytically available in, the sequential organization of the talk (Schegloff 1987).

How about Dewey—what can be said of his approach to language? Of special interest here are his

observations concerning language as dynamic social action, its use in and as the coordination of activities,


and the way its contextual embeddedness provides for meaning. Dewey (1988 [1922], p. 57) held that

language, in meeting “old needs,” “opens [up] new possibilities” and is a device for undertaking human

efforts of immense and ever-widening variety.

He also stressed that a speaker and a hearer are both

necessary to discourse and that their cooperation through act and “contemporaneous response” is the means

by which speech and gesture enter into behavior, such that meaningful objects come to sensuous


This is fully compatible with ethnomethodology’s idea of reflexivity, which holds that

accounts of the objective characteristics of a setting are embedded parts of the practices that bring them to

their objectivity. Finally, as one interpreter (Black 1962, p. 517) observed, Dewey contended that words

find meanings in contexts such as rules, habits, methods of action, coordinations, forecasts, attitudes, plans,

and designs. However, in the end, Dewey left the following problems unresolved: If language is activity,

just what activities do we use it for and how? If language helps us coordinate our activities, how can we

abandon the untenable notion of rule-governed stability and investigate the practices by which people act in

concerted and cooperative ways?

If context is important to the meaningful determination of gestural

activities, including utterances and other linguistic components, how do we rigorously analyze context?

(Dewey’s concern with defining the meaning of a word or idea by its consequences often implied or

entailed employment of the very term being defined. 30 )

After his probing investigation of Dewey’s

approach to language and related topics, Black (1962, p. 523) concluded that Dewey “did not approach the

subject as an inquiring empiricist, eager to discover what was antecedently unknown, but rather as an

investigator whose broad philosophical position was already so firmly established in his own mind that he

sought illustrations rather than material for new conclusions.” Picking up where Dewey left off, however,

conversation analysis does “find” the actions that utterances perform; it does so by attending to participants’

orientations, as the latter are displayed in interaction.

In Schegloff’s (1996a, pp. 168-172) terms, the

approach to action of conversation analysis encompasses at least three kinds of inquiry.

One involves


procedural accounts of the sequentially organized practices by which participants accomplish actions and

see what they are doing.

Another involves locating formulations and the methods by which such

formulations work to perform things like inviting someone to join a group or fishing for information. A

third entails showing alternative ways of producing utterances—whether in immediate or delayed fashion,

for instance—and of accomplishing activities related to the actions already underway. For example, a (by

now) well-known finding is that agreeing with a previous speaker’s utterance is regularly done

immediately, while disagreeing usually is delayed. These patterns embody what is known as “preference

structure” in conversation. 31

Conversation analysis attends as well to some of the unfinished business in Mead’s view of


Like Dewey, Mead (1964 [1903]) saw cognition not as a permanent phase or aspect of

consciousness but as a moment in a process that begins when knowledge of the world breaks down and

critical reflection is required.

In analyzing this process, he discussed the significant symbol and the

problem of meaning. In his view, a gesture or any linguistic sign has an action component to it, insofar as

its design indicates a response and a resultant collaborative social act.

Mead (1934, p.6 fn.6) held that

language or speech can only be understood “in terms of the social processes of behavior within a group of

interacting organisms;

it is one of the activities of such a group.” Repeatedly, he invoked behavior,

behavioral sequences, and overt activity as the repositories of meaningful linguistic and gestural signs, in a

way that undermined what Reddy (1979) has called the “conduit metaphor”: the idea that language use is

only about “communicating” thoughts and ideas rather than implementing actions of various kinds.

However, Mead also developed the idea that significant symbols call out in the sender the same response

they call out in the recipient, or what Mead called “taking the role of the other.” Two important tendencies

in social theory flow from this notion.

One is a move toward a subjectivist approach to symbolic

interaction (Blumer), in which action requires inferring the thoughts of the other; the other is a rule-


governed notion of language use and communication (Habermas), in which “same” responses are thought

to depend on the internalization of grammatical rules. With either of these tendencies, analysts move away

from behavioral analysis as such, undermining Mead’s own social behaviorist approach to language and

gesture, and Mead himself never really took on language as an empirical topic in its own right. As Joas

(1985, p. 117) puts it, “in his theory of the origin of language, Mead restricts himself to the level of

symbolic interactions and of elementary, one- and two-word sentences.

His theory lacks an adequate

concept of syntax as much as it does a semantics comprehending word fields and fields of meaning, or a

taxonomy of the various ways in which language can be pragmatically used.”

While Mead’s writings

provided insights into the abstract structures of language, their target of inquiry was always the sentence

devoid of any context of experience in which an actual person has really used the sentence. This is a little

like using a computer game such as “Sim City” to present a theory of urban development, rather than

plunging into the concreteness of the social and political organization of a real city’s workings.


highlighting this rather primitive theory of language in Mead’s work, Joas reminds us yet again of

unfinished theoretical business. Pursuit of this unfinished business—specifically by way of conversation

analysis—may now be due, if not overdue.

Needed with respect to language use and provided by conversation analysis in a way that fulfills

pragmatist sensibilities is a theory and methodology that captures how participants in interaction actually

talk—and how they do so using interpretants and indexical utterances with an intrinsic organization that

they themselves achieve in real time. Conversation analysis offers a mode of inquiry that places priority on

members’ methods in terms of overt practices of talk and social interaction . It does not deny subjectivity or

“mind”; it seeks only to gain access to how the actors themselves have access to one another’s internal

cogitations (to the extent that those are consequential): namely, through what is observable and reportable

about concerted behavior. 32 It is through participants’ displays in their conduct together that subjectivities


are made manifest—and only then as an outcome of action and interaction rather than as its progenitor. If

one person invites another to a movie and the recipient declines the invitation, the one may gather, through

a nuanced construction of the declining utterance, that the recipient really “wanted” to go out (or the

opposite) as a matter somewhat independent of the declination itself.

By the same token, noticing the

design of the invitation, its recipient may infer how sincere its speaker was in issuing it. Analytic access to

the wants or desires of these actors may be built upon their practical access to such internal entities, rather

than upon the analyst’s privileged theoretical or methodological claims, post-hoc interviews, or the like.

Interestingly, through such means, even the sorts of thought processes, activities of “mind,” in which Mead

himself was most interested—namely, those involved in intelligent problem-solving and in the creative,

meliorist reconstruction of social scenes—can be effectively investigated. For it is in and through linguistic

interaction, as accessible to analysts of conversation, that the working-out of intelligent solutions is often

visible. Returning to an example we mentioned earlier, Heritage and Lindström (1998) examine a Health

Visitor’s relationship with a mother who, over the course of several visits, confesses to not having strong

feelings for her newborn child. As the authors relate the story, the HV at first engages with the mother as a

professional, reassuring her that this is “natural.” But as the mother, in subsequent visits, reveals further

anxiety about her attitude toward the baby, the HV shifts from this professional stance toward becoming

recognizably more personal, telling the mother, for instance, that it took her over six weeks to establish a

bond with her own baby. The HV’s narrative practice of speaking her own troubles is a way of entering

into the experience of the mother and, in the mother’s own words, is “reassuring.” Rather than operate as a

bureaucratic “baby expert,” the HV relates to the mother intelligently (in a pragmatic and procedural sense),

that is, as a “befriending” supporter (Heritage and Lindström 1998, p. 433), stressing that the mother’s

worrisome attitude toward the baby will resolve itself and implying that, far from abnormal, it can easily be

recognized in contemporary technical and medical discourse. Here is a case, then, of intelligent conduct in


interaction, as charted and analyzed by ethnomethodological students of conversation.

Making it Empirical

Before concluding this section on language, it is worth making mention of Robert Brandom’s 1994

book, Making It Explicit, a highly regarded and relatively recent major publication in the pragmatist

tradition. One achievement of that text, as Bernstein (2007, pp. 16-17) has suggested, is to have drawn

upon Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Hegel in developing a critique of “epistemological and semantic

representationalism” in modern philosophy in favor of a theory of “discursive practices.” And an outcome

of this critique, as we discussed earlier, is to have turned on its head Charles’ Morris’ hierarchy of syntax,

semantics, and pragmatics, wherein the latter is assigned the bottom rung.

In sociology, Emanuel

Schegloff (1996b) has argued similarly against the notion of predication, or the idea that the proposition is

fundamental to the constitution of language and language use.

Just as representationalism has infected

much of modern philosophy, predication underlies linguistic and traditional sociolinguistic approaches to

language use. Conversation analysis replaces these approaches with an analytic orientation to “the move,

the action, the activity” (Schegloff 1996b, p. 112) whereby sometimes, but by no means always,

representation and predication may happen. That is, communicating ostensively (through representing or

predicating) is only one kind of speech act among a myriad of others that include complaining, advising,

ordering, reporting, announcing, discriminating, telling a story, being ironic, greeting, welcoming, and

joking, and that depend neither on representation nor predication to have social force and consequence. The

resonance with Brandom’s critique is important.

Moreover, Brandom’s goal is to develop a “rationalist” pragmatism that involves a normative

orientation to social practice. This orientation and its roots in commitments and proprieties may resonate

with “trust” and “morality” in a Garfinkelian and Schutzian sense. Brandom’s goal and its possible

ethnomethodological resonances are matters too complex to address here.

However, let us offer the


following two observations. First, his work again points in possibly fruitful directions for modes of inquiry

that would embody our three identified pragmatist features: a return to experience, a focus on creative

problem solving through real-time praxis, and an understanding of language as people actually use it for

talking and acting in concert with one another. As a philosophic rather than social scientific endeavor,

Brandom’s discussions of anaphora, deixis, and other aspects of indexical utterances employ constructed

examples, suppositions, and literary extracts to illustrate his arguments, returning us to the exact point the

early pragmatists left social science in the first place: without an empirical program having theoretical

underpinnings compatible with pragmatist philosophy. Second, it bears repeating that, although

ethnomethodology and conversation analysis have never explicitly addressed pragmatist themes, to claim

that they implicitly do so is consistent with asserting about the “new pragmatists” (not only Brandom but

also Jeffrey Stout, Cornel West, and others) that, as Cheryl Misak (2007, pp. 1-2) has put it, they bring out

“the best of Peirce, James, and Dewey as resurfaced in deep, interesting and fruitful ways,” whether or not

these more recent thinkers are part of the pragmatist tradition. Or, as Bernstein (2007, p. 11) has said of

philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, and Davidson who were involved in the linguistic turn,

they “were able to refine and advance pragmatic themes that were anticipated by the classical pragmatists.”

Ethnomethodology and conversation analysis present that refining and advancing ability and potential for

pragmatism not in philosophy but in theory and research in the sociological tradition.


Prior to the Parsonian era, which coincided with the ascendancy of quantitative data analysis,

pragmatist thought provided much of the underlying impulse behind American sociology. Its influence

was pervasive both in the discipline and in intellectual life more generally. There has been a resurgence of


pragmatism in philosophy, and to a perhaps lesser but still significant extent, in social science as well (e.g.,

Dickstein 1998; Joas 1993, 1996). In this paper, we have sought to contribute to a revitalized pragmatism

in sociology by stressing the striking thematic continuities between it and ethnomethodology, and in so

doing, to demonstrate just how deeply the latter, among its other independent contributions, can relate to the

grand and venerable tradition of social thought of this country.

Our hope is that, by offering such

arguments, we have stimulated—in good pragmatist fashion—fresh new connections between estwhile

distant relations, a new set of questions to explore and new studies to pursue. It does not matter that the

young Garfinkel, in his concern to separate his way of thinking from the symbolic interactionism of his day,

distanced himself as well from classical American pragmatism, aligning himself instead with Continental

phenomenologists and gestalt theorists such as Husserl, Schutz, and Gurwitsch. Nor does it matter that, in

seeking to bring about an intellectual revolution in his field, to recover its neglected or lost essence (a

strategy typical of subversives), he invoked the sacred figure of Durkheim rather than, say, of Peirce,

Dewey, or Mead. What is important here are the fundamental commonalities between the pragmatism that

prevailed in the years of Garfinkel’s early intellectual development and the unique, even revolutionary

mode of inquiry that he and his followers, including in the field of conversation analysis, went on to


Once we recognize these commonalities among the two projects, we can make valuable

progress toward realizing the aims they share, each enterprise fortified, perhaps, by the insights and

admonitions of the other. As Levine (1996, p. 276) has put it, while the variegated theoretical traditions in

sociology have developed from a common Aristotelian heritage to yield an “array of distinctive

sociological orientations,” and while those orientations have developed internally, they have also benefited

from cross-theoretical dialogues. If that is true internationally, it must also be the case that two

autochthonous U.S. theoretical traditions can speak to one another in fruitful ways even when heretofore

they have not sought to do so.


We have suggested three ways in which pragmatism and ethnomethodology converge or at least

can be in the kind of dialogue that Levine and, interestingly enough, Rorty (1979, p. 318) before him

advocated. First, the return to experience means eschewing analyses that depend on inert background and

other abstractions and bringing social life as it is lived in its member-produced practices to the forefront of

sociological inquiry. Second, a focus on creative problem-solving—always a prime concern of the

pragmatists and recently analyzed by Joas (1996, p. 144; ch. 3) as “situated creativity” to be found in the

“full spectrum of human action” rather than in a narrow swath (as in artistic endeavors)—leads to a

theoretical approach that is non-teleological in character, comprehends embodied activity and language use,

and captures actors’ pre-reflective competencies. Such considerations point toward ethnomethodological

and conversation-analytic research because there are few other theoretically informed empirical endeavors

that fit Joas’ criteria so well. Finally, language is a venerable pragmatist topic, as in Dewey’s formulations

about its “eventful” as well as “eventual” character in use and Mead’s preoccupation with significant

symbols. Ethnomethodology and conversation analysis are cognate with pragmatism insofar as they are

concerned with understanding utterances both as context dependent in a local and temporally developing

sense and as a site for social action and interaction—and intent on analyzing them in a way that captures

their pragmatically cooperative (or, in ethnomethodological terms, collaborative or co-produced) character.

One might ask what is the significance of drawing this new map, of pointing out the interlinkages

between two geographies. The answer is that, as Levine (1995, p. 293) has proposed, redrawing the map of

the social sciences lessens the salience of rigid theoretical boundaries and of superficial narratives of

theoretical and empirical unity based on exclusivity. A new map can join territories that have been thought

to consist of irreducible differences. Of course, regarding attempts at altering cartography, Dewey (1988

[1925], p. 125) once observed: “It may be [objected] that it [is] not the world which [is] changed but only

the map.” In counterpoint, however, as Dewey himself immediately added, “there is the obvious retort that


after all the map is part of the world, not something outside it, and that its meaning and bearings are so

important that a change in the map involves other and still more important objective changes.” Possibilities,

in other words, are tangible and clear for mutual enrichment of the two traditions of pragmatism and

ethnomethodology, and such boundary-crossing can only add to the excitement and fruitfulness of each and

the sociological tradition as a whole.


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