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Tuesday, May 27, 2014


I am reading about ethnomethodology these days. Ethnomethodology is a sociological theory originating in the 1960s, and I read about it with a colleague for whom using ethnomethodology as a theoretical background to her doctoral study might be useful. I remember I was totally gripped by ethnomethodology when it was first explained to me, so I am looking forward to meeting it again.

I am not going to give you an introduction into the theory, because I can't. But as I understand it, ethnomethodology shows that the basis of society - of people like you and me sharing a space and a time amongst us - lies not in 'norms and values' which bind us together, nor does it lie in the individual rational choices we make continuously in order to maximize our (material or immaterial) profits.

Society has a much deeper source. Before you can even think of norms and values binding groups of people together, before you can even act strategic in a group of people, there is a basic 'grammar of everyday life' at work which makes communication between people - be it verbal or non-verbal - possible in the first place. This 'grammar' is hidden deep down in us, and the only way we know our way around in it is by living our everyday lives. Therefore, living life is not so much a question of following laws, but rather we grope around our way in life, looking for shared understandings with our fellow members of society (Harold Garfinkel, the inventor of ethnomethodology, insists on calling human beings 'members'), and using all kinds of backwards interpretations to make that incomprehensible life comprehensible (Garfinkel: 'accountable') in hindsight, for example by saying that our social life rests on norms and values or on individual profit maximalisation.

I guess I love ethnomethodology because I feel it captures essentially the way my life is lived by me, as I see it. (Which is an ex-post-facto accountability judgement, of course).

What I like best, however, is that deep in the heart of ethnomethodology lies an idea of Trust. We live our lives Trusting that we can share our lives with others because we try to grope around life as best as we can and assume that others do the same. Because we are groping around, we don't always succeed; but because we Trust, there may be hope. It is Trust on a deep level, deeper than 'norms and values'; it is a sort of existential Trust, I guess, without which society - living together - would be impossible at all. Hence the capital T.

But although it is Trust on a deep and existential level, it is for me a sort of excuse to also believe in trust - lower case t - at the 'superficial' level of everyday life. I like to think that I can trust others; and I guess I hope that others may have some trust in me.

Has this anything to do with music? I don't know. I guess that musicking, as any form of human behavior, is social in essence and based on Trust, helping us groping our way around life. And I guess I see how music, here and now, acts not only as a thing of beauty but also - and often at the same time - as an instrument of power, and I sometimes feel that goes directly counter the idea of trust.

But in the end, sociological theory is just like music: it may touch you, but you will never be able to explain precisely why it does so.

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