Theory & Science (2004)

ISSN: 1527-5558

Lynch on Schutz and Science:
Postanalytic Ethnomethodology Reconsidered

Alex Dennis
Lecturer in Sociology
Department of Behavioural Sciences
University of Huddersfield


In his Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action, Lynch (1993) argues forcefully for the cross-fertilisation of ethnomethodology and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) to clarify the methodological and epistemological foundations of the social sciences. Although Lynch acknowledges the continuities between the ‘new’ SSK and its disavowed precursors, notably Mannheim and Merton, he argues that no such continuity can be posited for ethnomethodology. Instead, he posits an epistemological and methodological break, located around Garfinkel’s ‘abandonment’ of Schutz’s conception of scientific method. Garfinkel’s later works are argued to be superior to their earlier, ‘protoethnomethodological’, counterparts to the extent that they no longer rest on Schutz’s flawed and scientistic approach to methodological rigour.

Although Lynch’s argument that the ‘new’ SSK is less new than it claims is convincing, by using the same argumentative tools one can equally well posit a continuity in Garfinkel’s own thought—one based on the Schutzian approach to scientific enquiry Lynch argues so forcefully against. The aim of this paper is to identify and elaborate on this continuity, and to question the utility of SSK in Lynch’s own programmatic formulation of ‘postanalytic ethnomethodology’. The question is not, therefore, merely whether Garfinkel abandoned Schutz’s arguments about science. Instead, what is at issue is whether anything in Garfinkel’s later work is incompatible with the Schutzian conception of scientific knowledge. By showing that no such intrinsic incompatibility exists, it will be possible to question the utility of the ‘new’ SSK’s theoretical and methodological positions both for ethnomethodology and for sociological thought more broadly.

Lynch’s Project

Lynch seeks to open up epistemology to empirical investigation. The core concepts of philosophy are reformulated as ‘epistopics’, mundane practices of enquiry, categorisation and classification capable of being described ethnographically as kinds of work. The study of such concepts, however, reflexively calls into question such a study’s own epistemological foundations: one cannot subject x to investigation while using x as a methodological tool (see, for instance, Bloor, 1976). The way methods are selected and used, therefore, requires a greater sensitivity to issues in the philosophy of science than most sociological investigations are called on to demonstrate.

Lynch argues that, at least in its early development, ethnomethodology’s programme of studies lacked such sensitivity. Garfinkel always sought to produce empirically warranted descriptions of ‘lay’ and ‘professional’ knowledge, and the ways in which the sense or rationality of such knowledge is situatedly achieved. Initially, however, he did so by relying too uncritically on Schutz’s distinction between what counts as rational in different fields of enquiry. Garfinkel’s (1960) ‘protoethnomethodological’ reliance on Schutz’s (1943; 1953) distinction between scientific and everyday reality allowed him to shore up the sociological respectability of his programme of studies, Lynch argues, but his initial unwillingness to question the validity of that respectability was a fatal limitation. Garfinkel, like Schutz, claimed his studies were scientifically rational (rather than common-sense rational), thus legitimising the privileged view of scientific rationality expressed in Schutz and taking such rationality out of the legitimate purview of ethnomethodological study. If ethnomethodological descriptions can only be distinguished from everyday accounts by virtue of their different, perhaps even superior, criteria for rationality, critically questioning whether those criteria are really that different to one another is dangerous and possibly undermining. According to Lynch, however, developments in the ‘new’ SSK, anticipated by Garfinkel’s ‘mature’ writings on science, do precisely that—and problematise the notion that sociology is really any different to common-sense knowledge about the world.

Lynch’s programme is to examine the extent to which the ‘scientific’ foundations of the social sciences need securing. He questions the very idea of ‘secure’ methodological foundations as a prerequisite for sociological description, thus cutting through more traditional debates about positivist versus non-positivist epistemological commitments. He concludes that the search for such foundations is destined to be fruitless, and that claims to have found them, or to be already conducting studies on their basis, are philosophically indefensible.

Lynch anticipates three objections to his argument. Firstly, he claims not to be recommending ethnomethodology to the practitioners of SSK, or the ‘new’ SSK to ethnomethodologists; he is not offering partisan or diplomatic solutions to the problems of either. Secondly, he is not merely system-building, but rather is focusing on achievable disciplinary objectives: the empirical study of epistemological topics, and the production of sociological descriptions using methods that do not call their own epistemological bases into question. Thirdly, he is not developing or criticising a theory for theoretical purposes: his work stands or falls to the extent that it facilitates useful and disciplinarily relevant empirical work. He summarises thus:

I agree that studies in ethnomethodology and sociology of science not only offer critical purchase on topics in epistemology and social theory but also provide leverage for an immanent critique of the modes of explanation and analysis that are employed in both fields. The sociology of science offers critical leverage against some of the scientistic tendencies expressed in many ethnomethodological and conversation analytic studies. At the same time, ethnomethodological studies offer what I believe is a more sophisticated understanding of language use and practical action than is found in constructivist sociology of science. Consequently, although I recommend ethnomethodology and the sociology of science as research fields that offer empirical approaches to epistemology’s traditional topics, I devote a great deal of critical attention to questions about just how these fields can more effectively address these topics (Lynch, 1993: xviii).

To achieve these goals, Lynch must fulfil a number of requirements. He must show that the ‘scientistic tendencies expressed in many ethnomethodological and conversation analytic studies’ exist, that they are matters for legitimate concern, and that they can be overcome. Furthermore, he must demonstrate that his own conceptual apparatus relates in a necessary and adequate manner to the study recommendations he offers to researchers: the latter must follow from the former. Finally, to avoid accusations of partiality, he must show that the arguments he uses to address the problem—taken primarily from SSK, Wittgenstein, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty—are adequate to address the issue, and are handled fairly and appropriately.

The Role of Schutz in Lynch’S Argument

Schutz’s distinction between ‘everyday’ and ‘scientific’ rationalities occupies a central place in Lynch’s argument. If it can be shown to be less damaging than Lynch argues, and to be methodologically compatible with the later ethnomethodological work he recommends, SSK can be shown to an unnecessary addition to ethnomethodology’s conceptual toolkit—and, by extension, its broader sociological utility can be questioned. Lynch pursues his analysis of Schutz through two separate arguments: the first (Lynch, 1988) is a reconstruction of Schutz’s alleged account of what scientists do, and the second (Lynch, 1993) is a conceptual typography of the ‘scientific’ and ‘everyday’ rationalities. These arguments will be dealt with in turn.

In his earlier paper, Lynch (1988) ‘summarises’ Schutz’s purported views about the nature of scientific practice, as follows. The sciences are unified and defined by their regard for proper (experimental) method, founded on a set of procedural rules—glossed as the ‘scientific attitude’. Scientific theorising is ‘radically discontinuous’ with the rationality of everyday interactions and common sense reasoning, and is the only appropriate regulator of scientists’ actual working practices. Such theorising produces logically constructed systems of propositions based on explicit premises, evaluated against a scepticist view of the world. In this view, the presumption that things are, for all practical purposes, what they seem to be, is suspended. Instead, only those propositions that are already warranted by previous scientific investigations are acceptable matters of fact, and even they can be cast into doubt in the event that they turn out to be incompatible with the observed results of new experimental procedures. Propositions furthermore have to be mutually consistent and compatible with one another, and with other relevant propositions from the same ‘province of theoretical contemplation’. Their terms should be related to one another in accordance with the requirements of formal logic, and should be derived from tested observations.

Lynch’s summary continues by stating that scientists should be personally ‘disinterested’ in the outcomes of their research. Of course they can feel passionate about their work, but this should not affect what they do in the laboratory. Scientific arguments, equally, should be independent of the personal characteristics or preferences of the scientists who develop them. In this sense, scientists themselves are ‘disembodied’ as far as their work is concerned: their spatial, temporal and social locations are irrelevant to claims they make about the phenomena they are investigating. Socially speaking, therefore, scientists do not work as part of an institution, university or research laboratory, but as part of a virtual community of practitioners operating in the same field, working in accordance with ‘ideal, disembodied manuals of proper procedure’ rather than with an orientation to organisational constraints and regulations.

Such a view, Lynch goes on to point out, contrasts enormously with the actual practices of scientists working in real-world organisations and laboratories. The problem this produces (for sociologists) is fundamentally one of reconciliation: how can researchers show proper regard for these formal scientific criteria for rationality when their topics of enquiry are the loose and informal rationalities of everyday life? For Schutz this reconciliation can be achieved by separating description and theory development: the former requires that members’ activities are described from their own point of view; the latter, on the other hand, requires a principled orientation to the ideals of scientific rationality as outlined above.

Lynch dissolves this ‘problem’ by using arguments from the ‘new’ SSK which problematise the notion that scientific argument can be separated from its ‘social’ context. Theory development is always, in such accounts, reflexively related to scientists’ pragmatic motives and interests, and has even been claimed to be a mere post hoc rationalisation of self-serving and careerist manoeuvres on particular individuals’ parts (Gilbert and Mulkay, 1984). Schutz however, Lynch argues, advances a view of scientific practice which is incapable of being empirically tested, and which has been superseded by subsequent ethnographic investigations of what scientists actually do (Lynch, 1985; Latour and Woolgar, 1986).

This argument is related to Lynch’s further criticism concerning the putative relationship between scientific theorising and scientists’ actual laboratory practices. 1 Even if the Schutzian idealisation of the scientific attitude were to be orientated to by working scientists, it is unclear just how such an ‘orientation’ might manifest itself. What would it look like in practice, and how would it ‘translate’ itself into the practices of laboratory work? It is clear that common sense knowledge must have some kind of relationship to how scientists conduct themselves at work in real life, as Schutz himself acknowledges, but again what this relationship might be is open to question. Lynch, then, grounds his criticisms of Schutz in the ethnographic studies of scientists’ working practices, demonstrating that idealisations cannot be understood independently of their situated invocation and use. This provides him with good reasons to find in the ‘new’ SSK putative solutions to questions pertaining to the relationships between science and common sense. By showing Schutz to be wrong Lynch provides himself with a warrant to find something that will do a similar (but better) job.

Lynch’S Critique Reviewed

Lynch’s argument here conflates two relevant topics of enquiry: what do scientists do and how do they do these things. Schutz does not, of course, argue that scientists literally become disembodied when they conduct their research procedures (and, of course, Lynch does not take him to be making such a claim). Schutz does, however, argue that scientists must present their arguments in particular ways for those arguments to be counted as adequate representations of their investigative practices by the scientific community as a whole. Thus, of course, scientists act in practical and interested ways—such as having a practical bent or aptitude for certain topics or techniques, or pursuing investigations on which career prospects might depend—but these kinds of orientations are irrelevant to the specifically scientific character of scientists’ activities. For the purposes of analysis, description, criticism and so on, the relevance of these kinds of orientations is suspended, and certain other criteria for adequacy of practice, alien to non-scientific forms of enquiry, are brought to bear.

Scientists, then, must maximise, and be seen to maximise, the clarity and consistency of their terms of reference as an end in itself. This constrasts with non-scientific investigatory practices, where propositions need only be formulated with as much clarity or consistency as is demanded by the task at hand. There are many examples of how scientists orientate to such idealisations, most perspicuously, perhaps, in the ways in which scientific reports are criticised and corrected on the basis of the process of peer review.

Lynch’s ‘problems’ with Schutz’s account are only problematic to the extent that scientists’ orientations to the ideals of scientific rationality cannot be reduced to something scientists ‘do’. They are neither activities (like ‘washing the beaker out before putting new chemicals in’) nor motivations (like ‘getting this in print will give me a better chance of securing tenure’). Instead, the orientation to the scientific attitude is an institutionally and organisationally situated set of practices undertaken by the scientific community as a whole. In contrast to Lynch’s claims, it is both capable of ethnographic investigation and, indeed, would be an interesting topic of empirical enquiry. Lynch’s account here, then, rests on his construing the idealisation of scientific rationality as a set of cognitive norms rather than as situated organisational working practices. The role of the ‘new’ SSK in his account rests on this misconstrual: if Schutz’s argument is capable of empirical validation, and it can be shown to withstand such a test, it requires no supplementation or replacement.

Protoethnomethodology and Postanalytic Ethnomethodology

To return to an earlier point, though, Lynch’s concern is not merely with how sociologists can understand the practices of working scientists. His broader project is to reformulate sociological methodology, and provide an anti-foundationalist grounding for ethnographic studies more generally. Lynch (1993; Lynch and Bogen, 1994) contrasts his—and Garfinkel’s—conception of the ethnomethodological project with the empiricist and foundational tendencies of conversation analysis, for example. The terms by which this contrast is undertaken are the logical outcomes of the distinction between Schutz’s ‘foundationalism’ and the conclusions drawn from laboratory studies in the ‘new’ SSK.

Lynch’s critique of conversation analysis is most strongly drawn out in his collaborative work with David Bogen (Lynch and Bogen, 1994). This critique has three components:

  1. Lynch criticises the rhetorical format of Sacks’ later works (Sacks et al., 1974), arguing that his construal of ‘findings’ in the form of ‘rules’ provides a foundationalist basis for subsequent research.
  2. Such work, he goes on to argue, rests on an illegitimate separation between the naïve skills of natural language speakers on the one hand, and the ‘professional’ analytic skills of conversation analysts on the other. The latter stand in an ironicising and superior relationship to the former.
  3. These developments, further, are the outcome of Sacks’ early desire to develop an esoteric scientific discipline from initially naïve, unreflective, lay understandings of everyday talk (see the programmatic statements made in Sacks’ early lectures in Jefferson, 1992). The point of conversation analysis in this model was to work toward the development of a research programme with its own disciplinary objectives that transcended the specific, situated, descriptive requirements of the everyday materials it investigated.

This characterisation is used to instantiate the view of what social research should be held (according to Lynch) by some ethnomethodologists. Lynch glosses this approach as ‘protoethnomethodology’, distinct from ‘ethnomethodology proper’ by its failure to transcend scientistic presumptions. He conceives of the ethnomethodological programme as having moved through three stages:

  1. ‘protoethnomethodology’ (Schutzian and scientistic);
  2. ‘ethnomethodology proper’ (separated from the foundationalist tendencies of protoethnomethodology); and
  3. ‘postanalytic ethnomethodology’ (the ethnographic study of epistopics). 2

The latter is Lynch’s own proposed programme of studies, which is characterised by seven study policies or recommendations:

  1. Topics for investigation should be chosen from existing epistemological themes, such as ‘observation’.
  2. Such topics should be approached through the empirical description of ‘primitive’ examples. Thus, to study observation, one might produce a rich ethnographic account of, for instance, bird watching (Law and Lynch, 1988). These stand as mundane examples of what ‘observation’ might be, providing an empirical grounding for further studies and analyses. An advantage of examining such practices is that no esoteric or specialist knowledge on the part of the researcher is required. The veracity of the claims he or she makes can, therefore, be easily checked by readers.
  3. Many different primitive cases of this kind should be located and described to determine and elaborate on the variety of activities that constitute its domain of use. 3 There is no good . priori reason to believe such cases need have something in common, so emphasising their variety and heterogeneity is important here.
  4. These descriptions must be based on analysts’ abilities to show readers what is involved in the practices being described. This can mean giving readers the means to follow others’ epistopical practices vicariously but, ideally, demands the construction of exercises in which readers engage in those practices themselves. Bjelic and Lynch (1992) provide an example of what such a demonstration might look like in their analysis of how prisms work: by requiring readers themselves to manipulate a prism and observe its effects on light ‘data’ for description and analysis are produced in situ.
  5. The claimed ‘scientific’ or ‘mundane’ status of activities should be treated with indifference. This is because to respect such a distinction would be to make an implicit assumption about the boundaries between these fields. Instead, such a boundary, if it exists, should be empirically observed and described over the course of epistopical enquiries.
  6. Methods should be chosen that are sensitive to the phenomenon under investigation on a case-by-case basis. Ordinary mechanisms of observation, description, comparison, and so on, expressed in vernacular terms, should be used out of preference. This is not to privilege such terms over their ‘scientific’ counterparts, but is a way of recognising that positing particular methods as superior tout court jeopardises analytical neutrality and risks introducing elements of epistemological inconsistency.
  7. The ‘results’ of such investigations can be used to dissolve professional notions of the nature of epistemological and methodological terms of reference. They can be ‘brought back’ to the ‘classic’ literatures from which the topics of enquiry were originally derived. This parallels Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘therapeutic’ philosophy, dissolving philosophical problems not by providing answers but by showing what the terms of reference they depend on actually mean in their legitimate domains of use.

Clearly a long way has been travelled here! The journey from Schutz’s alleged scientism, through a critique of conversation analysis, to this programme of studies as an alternative, is a complex one. Again, though, the legitimacy of Lynch’s critique of Schutz, and the role of the ‘new’ SSK are key to retracing these steps.

Lynch, Schutz and Garfinkel

Lynch’s argument is founded in debates within ethnomethodology concerning what (if any) philosophical, epistemological and methodological grounding the programme might require or be consistent with. His position is that Schutz’s arguments about the relationships between science and everyday life should be superseded by counterparts derived from, inter alia, Husserl and Wittgenstein. Although there are good grounds for treating the philosophical bases of sociology as fundamental to the disciplinary project (Sharrock and Anderson, 1982; 1985), there are also good grounds for finding Lynch’s argument to be misconceived. At issue is the extent to which Schutz’s views about the rule-governed nature of science are key to his influence on the ‘protoethnomethodological’ Garfinkel. If Lynch’s argument is correct, Garfinkel’s mature work was ‘mature’ to the extent that it was conceptually divorced from its Schutzian roots.

It might well be the case that subsequent developments in the sociology of scientific knowledge have rendered Schutz’s views problematic. Such an argument, however, only bites if two conditions can be shown to hold. Firstly, it must be demonstrated that Garfinkel’s later work—and Lynch’s own programme—represents a break from Schutz’s methodological position. If this is not the case, removing Schutz’s influence from the ethnomethodological project merely means something like ‘not citing him any more’. Secondly, it must also be shown that Schutz’s methodological arguments are incompatible with Garfinkel’s later work. If this is not the case, the relevance of making a break becomes questionable. Why should a decision to move beyond a particular position matter one way or the other if no consequences seem to follow from it?

The remaining sections aim to show that neither of these conditions holds. ‘Mature’ ethnomethodological work is perfectly compatible with a charitable reading of Schutz’s writings on ‘science’ and ‘common sense’, and, furthermore, can be shown to adhere to the principles of ‘scientific rationality’. This not only applies to Garfinkel’s work, and Lynch’s but—indeed—to most work in the ‘new’ SSK. What is at issue here is not what Schutz’s ‘real’ position on certain matters was—although, to a certain extent, this has been discussed above. What is important, instead, is the manner in which his writings were incorporated into the ethnomethodological project, and what influence those writings may or may not have had. Lynch’s critique of Schutz, if considered critically, can be used as a launchpad for showing two things. Firstly, it reveals the poverty of the ‘new’ SSK as a way of describing what scientists (and social scientists) actually do. Secondly, it reveals the extent to which Schutz’s analyses provide a more useful and ethnographically sensitive means of grounding sociological methodology than contemporary sociologists (including ethnomethodologists and sociologists of science) are prepared to acknowledge. Here, then, Schutz’s account of the ‘scientific’ and ‘common sense’ rationalities—central to Garfinkel’s ‘protoethnomethodology’—will be considered.

Lynch (1993) argues that Garfinkel’s (1960) principled distinction between the scientific and common sense rationalities led him to an untenably ironicising approach where members’ activities are implicitly contrasted with their ‘scientific’ counterparts—and found wanting. It is Lynch’s view that the kinds of ethnographic studies he advocates in his programme of ‘postanalytic ethnomethodology’ would constitute a way of empirically grounding and clarifying this distinction—if it can be found to exist at all—in ways that do not rely on its presumptive existence as an . priori matter of fact. I will argue, firstly, that Garfinkel’s ‘mature’ ethnographic studies of mundane enquiries empirically demonstrate that the rational bases of those enquiries are entirely compatible with Schutz’s account of how they operate. Secondly, I will show that a similar compatibility obtains between Garfinkel, Lynch and Livingston’s ‘mature’ description of scientific practice on the one hand and Schutz’s account of scientific rationality on the other. Finally, I will show that the Schutzian specification of these scientific rationalities does not just hold in relation to ‘hard’ scientists but also with regard to sociologists’ own methods of enquiry—including those of the ‘mature’ Garfinkel and Lynch’s programme of epistopical studies

Garfinkel on Scientific and Common Sense Rationality

Lynch argues that Garfinkel’s work rested on an incoherent Schutzian distinction between ‘science’ and ‘common sense’ until the mid-1960s. This, he contends, manifested itself both in how activities were described and in how methodological decisions were evaluated and made. How Garfinkel read, understood and used Schutz is therefore key to unpacking Lynch’s claims. The fundamental problem with Lynch’s argument is that he counterpoises the ‘scientific’ and ‘common sense’ rationalities as if they were alternatives, or even incommensurable. For Schutz and Garfinkel, however, all the ‘everyday’ senses of rationality are also scientific ones. Furthermore, the ‘scientific’ rationalities are in no way in competition with their ‘mundane’ counterparts. One of the points of Garfinkel’s (1964) breaching experiments, for instance, was to demonstrate that attempts to enforce the scientific rationalities on members going about their everyday affairs do not appear as asking for ‘extra care’ or ‘more caution’, but rather as ‘annoying’, ‘pointless’ or ‘psychologically disturbed’.

Neither Schutz nor Garfinkel made claims about what scientists do in laboratories, but attempted, rather, to clarify the differences between what might constitute ‘good investigatory practices’ in the scientific and mundane realms of enquiry. The methodological motivation for this exercise was to prevent scientific rationality from being used as the yardstick against which everyday activities are assessed. If Lynch is correct about the ethnomethodological project and its subsequent development, it should be possible to demonstrate two things. Firstly, there should be an incompatibility between Garfinkel’s ‘mature’ work and this Schutzian distinction—insofar as the former deals with the rational properties of everyday activities. Secondly, where ethnomethodologists have studied scientists’ work ethnographically, their investigations should reveal the misguided nature of Schutz’s claims—and provide alternative possibilities with greater empirical veracity. The remainder of this section will be devoted to showing the former condition does not hold; the second will be taken up subsequently.

In considering Garfinkel’s work in this way, what is immediately apparent is that its main topic of investigation is the rationality of everyday activities—the relationship between competent practices and the sensible accounts members give or can give of them. In his study of coroners’ practices, for instance, Garfinkel (1967) deals with how decisions made about how people died are warrantably rational given the conditions under which those decisions are made. In terms of Lynch’s argument about the breach between ‘protoethnomethodology’ and ‘ethnomethodology proper’ this is an interesting study insofar as it appears to represent the point at which Garfinkel’s early concern with Schutzian arguments was superseded by his subsequent emphasis on the indexicality and reflexivity of members’ accounts. This paper is a perspicuous example (if Lynch is correct) of Garfinkel’s movement beyond Schutzian scientism. It can, therefore, be fruitfully considered in relation to his earlier enumeration of the rational properties of everyday activities (Garfinkel, 1960) to evaluate the extent to which his earlier argument is transcended.

In his earlier paper, Garfinkel (1960) lists ten senses in which the term ‘rational’ can be correctly applied to everyday activities, following and reproducing Schutz’s (1943) conceptual argument. All of these senses can be shown to apply to the practices of the coroners in his later study (Garfinkel, 1967). These meanings—i.e., those from the earlier paper—will be dealt with in relation to the coroners’ decision-making practices. To avoid yet another list those meanings are listed here as numbers 1–10 throughout the text.

‘Rational’ can mean (1) engaging in practices of categorising and comparing to work out whether a decision to be made is ‘the same’ as previous ones, or—one a more fundamental level—to simply recognise that choices between alternative courses of action can be made in the first place (9). This can be seen in the coroners’ comparing the compatibility of the features of a corpse with other corpses they have examined or heard about. It can also (2) refer to a concern with how ‘well’ a conception of a situation matches that situation in its concrete particulars, as when the coroners consider alternative sets of typical events that might have been compatible with a suicide which would leave the victim’s corpse in the state in which it was found—in order to assess the veracity of their original impressions. ‘Rational’ can also mean (3) attempting to use the ‘same’ means to make a decision that were previously employed with successful results or (5) employing predetermined . priori criteria for making decisions—such criteria can (although they do not have to) take the form of rules ( 8). Coroners’ invocation of standardised and context-free methods of enquiry demonstrate the orientation to these senses of rationality, and are justified by an appeal to the ‘reasonable’ (Garfinkel, 1967) nature of the specific verdicts they arrive at. Being able to appeal to ‘grounds’ (10) for a particular course of action can, indeed, itself be a significant way in which the rationality of that action is ensured. Taking account of the likely consequences (4) of activities further shores up the likelihood that those activities will be adjudged rational—hence decision-makers’ attempts to work out what predictable outcomes their decisions might have ( 7). Thus, coroners typically orientate to the possibility that their verdicts might be queried, or claims made against the Suicide Prevention Centre—and, also, orientate to the potential uses their verdicts might be put to by other interested parties. Those decisions are rational, furthermore, that (6) show a concern for how long they will take, and how well they can be co-ordinated with other related activities. Garfinkel (1967) illustrates this with reference to coroners’ practices when he states:

The work by SPC [Suicide Prevention Centre] members of conducting their enquiries was part and parcel of the day’s work. Recognised by staff members as constituent features of the day’s work, their enquiries were thereby intimately connected with the terms of their employment, various internal and external chains of reportage, supervision and review, and similar organisationally supplied ‘priorities of relevances’ for assessments of what ‘realistically’, ‘practically’, or ‘reasonably’ needed to be done and could be done, and how quickly, with what resources, seeing whom, talking about what, for how long, and so on. Such considerations furnished the ‘we did what we could, and for all reasonable interests here is what we came out with’ its features of organisationally appropriate sense, fact, impersonality, anonymity of authorship, purpose, reproducibility—i.e. of a properly rational account of the enquiry (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 173).

This is all well and good but what does it have to do with Lynch or science? The point here is that Garfinkel’s ‘mature’ or ‘ethnomethodological proper’ work can be understood with reference to Schutzian notions of everyday rationality in exactly the same ways as its earlier ‘variant’. By pursuing an ethnographic study of the rationale behind coroners’ working practices, Garfinkel provides an empirical demonstration of how these senses of rationality are used and understood in everyday situations. Although this might appear to be somewhat different to the Schutzian project per se—one of conceptual clarification rather than the provision of topics for empirical investigation—it is entirely congruent with Garfinkel’s contemporary notion of respecification. Respecification is the empirical description of work that accounts depend on but which are disregarded as irrelevant to their finished product (Garfinkel, 1991), and is essentially identical to Lynch’s conception of epistopical investigations. There are no reasons why this concept should not be understood, firstly, with reference to Schutz’s definitions of rationality and, secondly, as a means of demonstrating the veracity of Schutz’s account in relation to Garfinkel’s and Lynch’s studies. Garfinkel’s first ‘mature’ ethnography—that in which the inseparability of accounts and their ‘contexts’ is demonstrated—is one, therefore, that seems compatible with Schutz’s account of the rational properties of ordinary activities. But does it also hold with reference to their scientific counterparts?

To show whether or not ‘mature’ ethnomethodology is compatible with the Schutzian distinction between scientific and everyday rationality, one would have to locate and demonstrate the inapplicability of relevant counter-examples. Nonetheless, if the argument above is correct, there is no reason why one cannot find in Garfinkel’s mature work an instantiation and empirical elaboration of what Schutz asserted about the features of rationality in everyday life. In relation to the argument being undertaken concerning Lynch, however, to demonstrate this alone is far from sufficient.

Ethnomethodology as the Study of Epistopics: Science as an Example

Lynch’s main points are that Schutz drew too strong a distinction between the ‘scientifically rational’ and ‘common sense’, and that this distinction led to problems when considering sociological methodology. To consider this argument further, it will be necessary to consider how compatible ‘mature’ ethnomethodological work on the situated practices of scientists might be with the ‘protoethnomethodological’ norms of scientific rationality. Before doing this, however, the relationship, in Schutz, between the two sets of rationalities should be emphasised.

Lynch (1988, in particular) emphasises a notion that Schutz demarcates the two in a very strong sense: the two are ‘radically discontinuous’ and ‘incommensurable’. This is not the case. Of the fourteen ways in which accounts of activities can be warranted as rational, ten are common to both common sense situations and scientific theorising. The issue for Schutz is not that science operates on a completely different footing, but that it is based on a voluntary divergence from everyday modes of operation. Science, just like any other ‘reality’ is a manipulation of the foundations of everyday life—something that starts from, and returns to, the mundane (Schutz, 1945). What is distinctive about the activities of scientists is that they are conducted with an orientation to four additional requirements for (accountably) rational practice over and above those of their everyday counterparts. These requirements are alien to those of everyday life, and demands that everyday activities should adhere to them lead to confusion (Garfinkel, 1964). Members assume that such demands are motivated by mischievous motives rather than by a principled or ‘superior’ sense of what constitutes rigour.

In considering scientific practices, then, what is at issue is not whether the activities of scientists can be understood as ‘mundane’, because the Schutzian conception of rationality would indicate that they surely must be, but whether they are accounted for with reference to specific, additional, non-mundane criteria of rationality. The account of the discovery of the pulsar in Garfinkel et al. (1981) will be discussed to this end, as Lynch (1993) regards this paper as an archetypal example of what ‘mature’ ethnomethodology might look like. 4 In this paper, Garfinkel, Lynch and Livingston consider documentary ‘traces’ left by astronomers on the occasion of their discovering the first pulsar, a phenomenon physics had indicated should exist but an instance of which—at the time—had not yet been located. Garfinkel et al. emphasise the discovery of the pulsar as radically different to the problem faced by coroners (see above) insofar as what situated practices of enquiry might come to is unknown from the start. All that is ‘present’ at the start is a ‘potter’s object’, a ‘something’ (or perhaps a nothing) , the nature of which is unknown. In contrast to this situation, Cocke and Disney, the astronomers in question, formally report their activities as if the properties of the pulsar were ‘behind’ the work that led to its discovery. The account is ‘about’ the pulsar rather than about what Cocke and Disney did. This could be construed in terms of Gilbert and Mulkay’s (1984) account of scientific methods as post hoc rationalisations or Latour’s (1987) ‘Janus-faced’ distinction between ‘what scientists say’ and ‘what scientists do’. Either of these interpretations, however, miss the point.

The discovery is ethnographically interesting insofar as a scientifically-warrantable and rational set of propositions concerning the pulsar are ‘retrieved’ from the mundane laboratory activities being undertaken—where that work of retrieval is itself part of those mundane activities. The ‘reports’ of the discovery are radically different to the ethnographic descriptions Garfinkel et al. (1981) provide, not because the latter are ‘more complete’ but because the latter are irrelevant to the former as a scientific report. The pulsar’s existence is reported first as a message to other physicists, providing a report of its location and features—allowing them to ‘see it too’—and then as a finished, formal, report in a reputable scientific journal. Whatever Cocke and Disney’s accounting practices might or might not have been they were sufficient for them to provide an account that was acceptable as scientifically adequate to the community of physicists at large. Indeed, with an amusing pedantry, Garfinkel et al. (1981) include Cocke and Disney’s published report as an appendix to their own article, to demonstrate its acceptance through standardised procedures of evaluation, replication, publication and so on.

It should be remembered that Schutz is not making any metaphysical claims about the essential nature of rationality, but is trying to show under what circumstances statements made by scientists and other members of society can legitimately be counted as rational. What are being examined, therefore, are not the activities ‘in themselves’, but the accounts members provide of those activities. This is a fundamental point for understanding the problems of Lynch’s account: he treats scientists’ activities as if they were either rational or irrational, rather than treating the accounts of those activities as having features that will allow them to ‘pass’ as rationally acceptable to other competent practitioners or not. Here, it is possible to consider Schutz’s account of the scientific rationalities more closely.

Schutz supplements the ten ‘mundane’ senses of rationality with four specifically scientific ones—scientific practices being the only practices that can be held to account on the basis of all fourteen. These senses are as follows:

  1. Scientifically rational actions must be carried out in accordance with the principles of formal logic and the rules of scientific procedure. Failing this, persistent attempts must be made, and be shown to be made, to realise these ideals.
  2. Scientific solutions must be made up of propositions comprising terms whose semantic clarity and distinctness is maximised.
  3. Such clarity and distinction are ends in themselves, rather than matters that merely need to be good enough for the purposes at hand.
  4. Where ‘matters of fact’ are used as grounds for further action, they should be compatible with the warranted corpus of scientific knowledge as a whole (except where that corpus is itself subjected to revision on the basis of the procedure being undertaken).

What is important in relation to Garfinkel, Lynch and Livingston’s account of the discovery of the pulsar is that its report can be understood, and is shown, to be constructed and received on the basis of an orientation to these ideals. The fact that Cocke and Disney did many different things on the evening in question is irrelevant; those matters that are scientifically relevant were construed, checked, reviewed and accepted on the basis of these idealisations, as instantiated in the written report(s) of the pulsar’s discovery. This is what Garfinkel et al. refer to when they talk of science ‘attaching the object [the pulsar] to nature’, and their study of the evening’s events as finding what is scientifically relevant in them as ‘extracting the animal [science] from the foliage [mundane courses of action]’. Cocke and Disney do not provide an ethnographically-adequate description of their activities, because that is not the kind of description that is required. The account they do provide is one that deals only with scientifically interesting and pertinent matters: in short, those matters that demonstrate that, amongst all the other things they did on the evening in question, all the things they needed to do to ensure the scientifically rational status of their claim to have discovered a pulsar were done, and were done correctly. In this sense, ‘correctly’ is indistinguishable from Schutz’s notion of ‘with proper orientation to the ideals of scientific rationality’.

To reiterate, when writing up (or providing any reasonable account of) their work, Cocke and Disney make the properties of the pulsar out to be ‘behind’ the success or failure of the activities they undertook in the laboratory. Its characteristics are made out to be the cause of what they can or cannot say about it, and so their account(s) are ‘about’ the pulsar and its attributes rather than about what they did. This allows for replication, double-checking, and suchlike, but also facilitates the generation of an account which adheres to the four tenets of scientifically rational accounting practices as outlined above. Tentative statements about the pulsar are empirically checked and re-checked through systematically changing the specifications of the ‘runs’ made to locate and identify it. Those ‘runs’ are undertaken to allow a definitive and scientifically adequate statement of the pulsar’s location and nature to be generated and disseminated as an end in itself. This allows the finished account to be critically examined to ensure its rationality in the senses outlined above.

Garfinkel and Lynch as Scientifically Rational Sociologists

It can thus be demonstrated that Garfinkel’s ‘mature’ works demonstrate that members orientate to different (but overlapping) ideals of rationality when pursuing ‘mundane’ and ‘scientific’ investigations. Furthermore, they can be shown to do so in accordance with Schutz’s specification of those ideals. What remains, therefore, is to show how these ideals also apply to the professional practices of sociologists.

Sociological reports adhere to a ‘scientistic’ mode of presentation—one that might not be warranted by the criticisms of, in particular, Gilbert and Mulkay (1984). Some of the experiments with ‘new literary forms’ by practitioners of the ‘new’ SSK have attempted to overcome this problem (Woolgar, 1988). Nevertheless, such practices have not ‘caught on’, and have not been utilised by any of the major figures in ethnomethodology. Sociologists, Lynch included, do not talk about how much coffee they had to drink to bring themselves to start writing after a heavy night out, how the telephone kept interrupting their train of thought, or how their accounts are produced under personal and institutional circumstances deleterious to their quality. To do so would not be ‘more thorough’, but would be to replace sociological reports with ethnographies of sociological writing practices.

Positively, and perhaps more to the point, Garfinkel and Lynch provide accounts of their work that adhere to the kinds of scientifically warrantable rationality Schutz refers to. This can be seen, perhaps most ironically, in Lynch’s ‘study recommendations’ for his ‘epistopics’ programme, as outlined in the section ‘Protoethnomethodology and Postanalytic Ethnomethodology’ above. Collecting a wide range of ‘primitive’ cases of epistopical activity, for instance, is motivated by the desire to maximise the clarity of terms of reference used by sociologists, understood as a desirable end in its own right—in contrast to the vernacular use of such terms which is (implicitly) imputed to ‘traditional’ as well as the ‘new’ SSK Rules for correct procedure are outlined, and recommended with regard to their descriptive and analytical superiority, and a warning is given to avoid premature assumptions being made concerning the ‘scientific’ or ‘mundane’ status of the matters being considered. The fact that Lynch’s argument was subjected to peer review prior to publication, and made available in a format designed to elicit critical comments, further illustrates his orientation to the community of sociological practitioners and their orientation to ensuring the warrantable and normative rationality of sociological work. In short, and not as a complaint or criticism, Lynch’s work is scientifically rational through and through.


It should be remembered that Lynch’s account is not meant to be a description of developments in either ethnomethodology or the sociology of scientific knowledge, but is an intervention into a series of debates concerning the future of both fields—and how they might be developed. Equally, this paper is not meant to be a call for a ‘return to Schutz’, or as a review of Lynch’s exposition, but as a critical intervention into the same debates. I agree with Lynch that there are problems with premature theorising, constructive analysis and foundationalism in ethnomethodology. The point of disagreement is not that they are good things—anything but—but that it is illegitimate to try to locate their bases in Schutz’s work, and that attempts to do this will merely lead to further conceptual confusion. The notion that the ‘new’ SSK might have a role in a rejuvenated ethnomethodology is problematic (to say the least), and, interestingly, Lynch’s account of how epistopics might be studied does not rely on this field. Instead, what does appear are specific arguments and concepts drawn from the later Wittgenstein.

This points, perhaps, to an alternative source for problems of foundationalism and constructive analysis in the ethnomethodological project. To deal adequately with these issues, however, would make an already somewhat convoluted argument even more so. It is worth mentioning in passing, however, that a key move in the history of ethnomethodology seems to have been that of replacing the search for the ‘formal structures of practical actions’ (Garfinkel and Sacks, 1970) with the examination of the hidden work that underpins the terms of reference of other enquiring disciplines (Garfinkel, 1991). In terms of the relationships between ethnomethodology and other sociological perspectives, and between the ethnomethodological programme and its topics of enquiry, this is perhaps a more foundationalist and constructive move than is sometimes acknowledged (Dennis, 2001; 2003).


I am grateful to Jeff Coulter and Wes Sharrock, and to the Theory and Science reviewers, for their comments on an earlier version of this paper, and, in particular, to Michael Lynch for his support and criticism. The weaknesses of this paper are despite, rather than because of, their efforts.


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1. Here, as elsewhere, ‘laboratory’ means something like ‘situated scientific’. Ethnographies of scientific practices tend to be glossed as ‘laboratory studies’, but this does not imply a conceptual demarcation between ‘laboratory’ and ‘field’ (or other) scientific work.

2. This is not a chronology, but a typification of tendencies within ethnomethodology. Some of Lynch’s subsequent work (e.g., Lynch and Bogen, 1996) and Garfinkel’s (2002) recent writings are not necessarily ‘postanalytic’ in the sense Lynch intends here, for example. The issue at hand is not what ethnomethodology used to be and is moving to, but in what ways it might fruitfully extend its research programme. In this sense, therefore, Lynch’s argument is similar to Garfinkel’s (1986) earlier programmatic statements about ‘ethnomethodological studies of work’.

3. Or, to put it another way, the language-games in which it plays a part (Wittgenstein, 1967).

4. It was, of course, also co-authored by Lynch.