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Editor's Blog

Harold Garfinkel, Norms, Conflict and Change

Professor Harold Garfinkel (1917-2011) RIP   

Harold Garfinkel, Professor of Sociology at UCLA, died this month. A brief obituary can be found here and the New York Times' obituary is here. I would like to make a few brief comments out of respect and to explain to a wider public why his passing is of significance to a generation of sociologists.. 

He will be remembered by many students of sociology as the guy who pioneered experimental disruption as a research method for revealing the hidden assumptions of everyday routines, rituals and habits. His students engaged in such breaches of normality as behaving like a stranger in the home instead of like a partner, not surprisingly gleaning an earful of revealing vitriol from the apparently unrecognized partner. Similarly, in another experiment, Garfinkel's students negotiated standard price merchandise. Other valuable work studied the ways we use iconic conversational devices to convey invisible evidence and complex epistemological assumptions - you know what I mean - you know, some people, not always of limited vocabulary, say 'you know' three times a sentence. 

This for me was interesting. I had thought Arabic bargaining practices were unlikely to work in Woolworth's until I tried it on in some of Cambridge's finest emporiums. I was amazed at the bargains to be had!  Fixed prices?  No way. Well, in search of quality jeans and car tyres anyway.  It didn't work so well in Tesco's, where you could be beaten up for holding up the queue.

Seriously, Garfinkel's work was used by sociologists of very different political inclinations - I don't know whether he had any of those but my guess would be they were liberal conservative - to demonstrate the fact that ordinary everyday life is deeply structured by norms, assumptions, prejudices, beliefs and ideas. This thought matter made sense of our routines, habits, rituals and practices. It was what made it meaningful, even though this stuff is so taken-for-granted that we can usually barely articulate it or explain it or even notice it. As [[Jonathan Culler]] once put it, in his book on Structuralist Poetics, anyone can kick a ball between two posts but only within certain cultures is it a goal. Garfinkel's Studies in Ethnomethodology [1967] turned the study of these hidden assumptions and methods into a new discipline, ethnomethodology, the study of the methods ordinary people use to make sense of the world.

Arguably these taken-for-granted assumptions and meanings, and the even-more-taken-for-granted methods for establishing those assumptions [nod, nod, know what I mean], constitute the bedrock of all social life, at home in leisure groups, at work and in politics too. Yet they are not usually seen as what we or politicians argue about as political ideology. Ideology is usually seen as clear, open, on the surface, organized discourse and motivated. It is supposed that this is what structures our lives, not whether we take our turns in conversation, or whether we question our partner's every move, or whether we bargain with shopkeepers. Yet there are very good reasons to think, on the basis of observing humans in action, that we actually run our lives more by assumption, inference, faith, prejudice and superstition than reason, logic and considered judgment.

We like to think we are rational and that logic got us to that point - or at least men tend to think like that, or at least non-social science graduate men etc etc  This brings us to the et cetera clause: Garfinkel, [[Harvey Sacks]] and others pointed out that of course our throwaway lines, our et cetera clauses, actually contain loads of important meaning. Our key words are not necessarily the ones we shout loudest.

The relevance of this here is enormous, and of course I am writing this to an imaginary public not to professional sociologists, because it points to the role played by all of us in our own legal systems, our own oppression if you like, or in our own moral worlds. All criminologists know that prison life can be collapsed or destroyed by the inmates any time - the order and system inside a prison only works because inmates permit it to. We are not just powerless recipients of domination and bad politics. We consent, to a point. We repeat or even subscribe to the everyday norms and moral judgments that keep those processes of power alive and effective. When we withdraw our consent, as is currently widely occurring in various Arabic satrapies, then these regimes collapse. We may not have leaders, we may not have a plan, we may not want a revolution in our rational minds, but when we withdraw our supportive assumptions and acceptances the system collapses like a pack of cards.

Harold Garfinkel may not have intended such radical implications for his work.  However, as a follower of [[Talcott Parsons]] and a certain conservative brand of US sociology, he believed in what sociologists call the 'normative order', what the rest of us call morality, as the bedrock of society. He believed, it seemed from afar, in the conservative idea that societies depend upon shared assumptions or mores and that if there is a breakdown in morality there will be a breakdown in society. Our current PM, David Cameron, frequently articulates such a view and it is clearly the bedrock of his 'big society' propaganda. The idea is also fundamental to all those who bemoan the decline in such traditional values as respect or even in morality itself. Clearly, social cohesion, stability, order, and balance do depend upon the existence of some shared mores or morality or agreement in principle - or is it just plain, mute, compliance sometimes? Moreover, some of us would argue that, again as we are seeing in the Middle East right now, social stability rests as much upon force and food, battles and bribes.

Disruption, the destruction, critique or subversion of existing moral patterns and institutions, does not always lead to the reinstatement, reiteration or return of the challenged conventions and their enforcers.  Life moves on and things sometimes change, violently and significantly. Perhaps it was those moments, those seismic shifts and sunamis, that Professor Garfinkel's work did not address or explain. But this is not a critique, merely a respectful recognition of quality based upon some shared understandings, know what I mean? 

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