orgtheory.net

the trouble with garfinkel

John Levi Martin’s new book, The Explanation of Social Action, is a riot, meaning I’m thoroughly entertained and intellectually provoked at the same time. The ultimate aim of the book is to provide a new basis for judging the quality of social theory. I’ll say more later about how well he accomplishes this goal. For now I just want to draw attention to one of my favorite footnotes of all time. It appears early in the book when John is talking about theorists he is going to discuss and those he dismisses by their absence:

I might reasonably also be asked why no use is made here of the work of Garfinkel (e.g., 2002), which had many of the same influences and made many of the same critiques of conventional sociological explanation. The answer is simple: Garfinkel chose to write in gobbledy-gook, and although I do not begrudge him the enjoyment he so obviously received from this activity, I also see no reason to wade through the results to extract arguments that were made previously and more clearly by others. Finally, rather than indicate to his sociological readers that there was a wide range of inspiring and dissenting traditions from which they could draw (the approach of the current work), Garfinkel instead attempted to put his own formalizations in between his students and the phenomenological tradition, acting more like a cult leader than a scholar. Even did I not find this somewhat disappointing on a human level, it would make little scientific sense to reward such behavior.

This gives you a taste for the kind of book he has written. You may not agree with everything John writes in this book, but he certainly knows how to make punchy points.

Written by brayden king

February 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Posted in books, brayden, just theory

18 Responses

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  1. I saw him give a talk a couple months ago. Besides making me want to buy the book, the two things I remember best are 1) He repeatedly used a hypothetical situation in which a pterodactyl ate you on your way to work as a way to discuss causation in social theory and 2) He responded to a question on STS simply by saying he has never gotten past the first few pages of any STS work because of the jargon so he couldn’t answer any questions about it.

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    Josh

    February 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm

  2. Sorry about my ignorance… but what is ‘STS’?

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    Austen

    February 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm

  3. That’s nice, but if you really need a morning laugh:

    http://home.uchicago.edu/~jlmartin/On%20Science.htm

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    Omar

    February 1, 2012 at 5:57 pm

  4. Omar

    February 1, 2012 at 6:26 pm

  5. Science and Technology Studies

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    Josh

    February 1, 2012 at 6:33 pm

  6. @omar: Now I am confused. JLM is clearly pro-robot, but he’s anti-tamagotchi. Hmm. Continuing the riff below on hipster runoff:

    Should I be alarmed by this contradiction?
    Would Garfinkel be alarmed by this contradiction?
    Is Lana Del Rey alarmed by this contradiction?
    What does JLM think of gingers?
    What does JLM think of what MIA thinks of gingers?
    Should M.I.A. get tons of plastic surgery and try 2 become the next Rihanna?
    Will JLM go lamestream after this book?
    Is indie sociology over?

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    TCB

    February 1, 2012 at 7:04 pm

  7. I had JLM on vinyl, before he signed with a major label (Chicago), so I feel qualified to respond to TCB.

    Should I be alarmed by this contradiction? NO

    Would Garfinkel be alarmed by this contradiction? DEPENDS, WOULD WOLFGANG KOHLER BE ALARMED?

    Is Lana Del Rey alarmed by this contradiction? MAYBE, BUT SHE WOULD CONSULT CHRISTIAN VON EHRENFELS FOR GUIDANCE

    What does JLM think of gingers? SINCE YOU ASKED, HE’S TTLY CHILL ON GINGERS

    What does JLM think of what MIA thinks of gingers? H8S

    Should M.I.A. get tons of plastic surgery and try 2 become the next Rihanna? ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL!?!

    Will JLM go lamestream after this book? NO WAY. ANYWAY, DOESN”T MATTER, HE’S LIKE THE ZOOEY DESCHANEL OF INDIE SOC, WHATEVS HE DOES, HE’S STILL COOL WITH THIS ALTBRO!

    Is indie sociology over? DUDE, INDIE SOC WAS TOTALLY OVER FIVE MINUTES AFTER NICOLAUS’S “FAT CAT SOCIOLOGY” ADDRESS AT THE ’68 ASAS. HOW OLD ARE YOU?

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    ALTBRO

    February 1, 2012 at 10:59 pm

  8. Yeah that section jumped out at me too. See: http://permut.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/john-levi-martin-on-harold-garfinkel/ I’ve made progress, but (don’t tell him) still haven’t finished the book.

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    Michael Bishop

    February 2, 2012 at 2:38 am

  9. I adore JLM, read about a third of this book, and may give it another go. The central problem I had with it was that it sort of drove home to me a point it didn’t intend, which is that I don’t actually think very much of contemporary sociology is about trying to explain human action. There’s a lot of sociology that tries to explain outcomes, and a lot of sociology that tries to explain beliefs, and a lot of sociology that tries to explain what might be called action-initiated events, and a lot of sociology that tries to explain the action of supraindividual entities, but not much from where I’m sitting that is trying to explain the actions of persons as such.

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    jeremy

    February 3, 2012 at 9:42 pm

  10. Jeremy – I took it as an assumption of the book that more sociology should be about trying to explain social action. If we want to understand the causes of social outcomes, then we need to get closer to the source of causation, i.e., action. I’m not sure what I think of this assumption. The problem, of course, is that it may not be necessary or wise to always search for ultimate causes when we’re simply interested in outcome X at an aggregate level. The reductionists in the room, however, would probably find his argument very appealing though.

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    brayden king

    February 3, 2012 at 11:31 pm

  11. @josh: oh joy, more mindless STS bashing. Maybe he should pick up some decent exaples of STS instead of the usual ANT straw man that crops up on this blog.

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    adam hedgecoe

    February 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm

  12. Would you accept that footnote from a student?

    Prof. Martin obviously thinks well of himself, perhaps validated by his teaching at Chicago, as opposed to Eastern Michigan University, for instance. So, if a professor from EMU were to write a book, they would have to stick to the subject and obey the rules, but Chicagoans are so privileged that they can descend below the freshman level and write textbooks as if they were posting on Facebook.

    Garfinkel, I know. Martin, I had to look up.

    “John Levi Martin is an intellectual nomad in the vast universe of sociological inquiry. These days, his main areas of interest are: field theory, social structures and party formation. He has previously written on classical theory, historical changes in sexual decision making and the economy, the shaping of belief systems, the use of racism as a valid conceptual category in American sociology, the relationship between interpersonal power and attributions of sexiness, methods for the analysis of qualitative data, political psychology, and the division of labor in Busytown”. — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Levi_Martin

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    Michael Marotta

    February 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm

  13. I haven’t read J L Martin’s book.

    The footnote takes us right back to the 1960s/70s when sociologists and academics like Gellner and Coser criticised Garfinkel for his language and described him as a “cult leader”. Nothing new there. Also, other sociologists and social theorists have omitted other sociologists in their work; e.g. Parsons famously left out Simmel from his theoretical developments, some say for political reasons – Parsons being in Harvard whilst Pragmatism/Symbolic Interactionism that was very much influenced by Simmel flourished in Chicago.

    I don’t think Martin does himself a favour with the footnote as leaving Garfinkel just because the language doesn’t suit him, feels a bit lame.

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    Dirk vom Lehn

    February 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm

  14. Some of the dissent voiced here may actually prove Martin’s point. There is a cultishness to a lot of schools of social theory, especially ones descended from one or another school of Continental philosophy. This is, as someone said, nothing new, but it does lead to special pleading and people saying but you didn’t mention, x, y, or z. I think it’s fair to say this is truer of Garfinkel than many others in the mainstream post-war canon. Especially with phenomenology and its offshoots, this cultishness is not unrelated to a certain mode of expression. But I think the central thrust of Martin’s footnote, which is the more damaging claim for Garfinkel’s status as an important theorist to cite, is not the cult-like following or the obscure language. It is the fact that what he said ultimately boils down to what others have said. Thus the footnote is to deflect the inevitable criticism of his decision to ignore Garfinkel. One could claim that he is wrong and Garfinkel did more than this. But if you can only know this upon becoming, again, a devotee, then that’s arguably not the fault of the reader, but the irresponsibility of the author to distinguish their work.

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    theory grad student

    February 7, 2012 at 8:20 pm

  15. JML’s footnote is a casual comment, not worth further discussion. He decided to leave Garfinkel out. What else is in the book? Why should we read it, Brayden?

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    Dirk vom Lehn

    February 7, 2012 at 9:33 pm

  16. @ALTBRO: I’m watching the super bowl half time show and I’m like, “hey, MIA” and then I’m like, “oh, that’s what that bro was talking about on orgtheory” and then I’m like, “hey, was that some sort of time-traveling bro, how did he know that MIA was going to show up on the super bowl half time show?” The more you know…

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    notJLM

    February 8, 2012 at 5:42 am

  17. […] getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space (Garfinkel again, but see here for another awesome citation controversy) against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is […]

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