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Sunday, January 29, 2012


It is rumored that a very deep humming sound permeates the soundscape of western life. Where it comes from nobody knows. Some people point at the sewerage system under our streets. I don't hear the sound, luckily. Because people say that once you have noticed it, you never get rid of it. The rest of your life, you hear a maddening hum.

Learning theorists might be tempted to call the point where on starts hearing the hum a transformative learning experience. Never again will life be as it was. Your frame of reference - in this case your auditory frame of reference - has switched fundamentally.

I think I recently went through something like it.
 It was when I got acquainted, in the context of a course on research methodology, with something called "ethnomethodology". Ethnomethodology is not widely known outside sociological circles, and even within it I think it is not always part of the standard repertoire of Social Theory one should master. And of course I know hardly anything about it myself (yet?). But let me try to explain why it was so powerful to me.

Essentially, what I gathered from the explanation of and discussion about ethnomethodology and some further reading afterwards, was the strict focus on social practice. It looks at social pratice as something irrepeatable, something very much of the moment. Say, two people make music together. What they do is, at that specific moment, bringing into the world the act of two people making music. There are no a priori references; no theories to lean upon; nothing can be done but to look at those two people and try to figure out how they, in that particular moment, create a form of social order between them. Of course they do that with a repertoire of earlier experiences on how to create social order - but the order is not there, something they either fit in or not fit in - they make social order then and there.

The most powerful illustration was in an article I read about whether institutions such as "the school" or "the state" or "the army" do really "exist". The article argued that they exist only when people together are "schooling", "stating" or "armying".

This gives all social life a featherlight and breakable character. Unless we put our world in existence while we exist there is nothing left. It makes social life an amazing construction - not a grand construction, but a lovely continuous nolens-volens creation of all of us; you, me, the neighbour.

Once you look at the world like that, there is no way back. You are always in the moment, in a situation - and you are outside, looking with wonder how we together bring the world into being by our (ethnos) habitual ways of doing and being (methods).

When I looked up ethnomethodology in Wikipedia, a long time ago, just to get a first idea, I read that Garfinkel made up the term by referring to other disciplines: ethnobotany, ethnomusicology. Yes, ethnomusicology.

No wonder I felt attracted.

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