Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Harold Garfinkel (1917-2011)

As my comrade in arms over at Global Sociology reminds us, the discipline of Sociology lost a giant last week.

This is a sad day for sociology as we hear of the death of Harold Garfinkel.

I had a love/hate relationship with Harold Garfinkel’s work. Studies in Ethnomethodology had a profound influence on my sociological education, but man, was that book a pain to read, especially at a time when there was no French translation and we had to muddle through the original. And as powerful a framework to analyze social action as ethnomethodology is, I don’t think Garfinkel was much of a public sociologist. The task to publicize the approach was left to the proponents of the school of thought he originated.

I also tend to think that ethnomethodology was misunderstood even within the sociological field. It was often viewed as a variation on Goffmanian analysis, a sub-field that ignored social context and social structure. It was also seen as being on the “agency” side of the classical (and absurd) “structure / agency” divide. Actually, ethnomethodology is a lot more structuralist than one thinks. It is not an actor’s theory. But it treats structures as emergent products of actions and interaction, rather than something to be assumed.

I've taught Garfinkel's "degradation ceremony" and "cashiering" as part of labeling theory and the imposition of the deviant or criminal stigma. As SocProf points out, Garfinkel's work was often interpreted in the shadow of Erving Goffman's contributions, but in my opinion his primary work in "breaking rules" of every day situations (and ethnomethodology in general) set the stage for dramaturgy, presentation of self, etc. I would also agree, Studies in Ethnomethodology was a monster to read!

But regardless, there aren't many of those 1950's-1960's symbolic-interactionist pioneers left today. Garfinkel will be remembered for many things, but for helping us make sense of our every day lives, those in and out of the discipline owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

UPDATE: Today's NYT (5/3/11) has a nice obit/tribute to Garfinkel and his work.

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