Obituary for a unique mind: Harold Garfinkel died last week

Sad, but true: Harold Garfinkel died a week ago at the age of 93. A student of Parsons (and maybe his most creative critic), linking American and European social theory again through the works of Alfred Schuetz, he became well known as the founding father of Ethnomethodology – the study of the orderliness of social life, created in the moment-to-moment work of (not so) ordinary practices. 

Instead of praising all his accomplishments and wonderful writings, a short passage of his 1996 paper in Social Psychology Quarterly (59/1, pp. 5.21) will show how much we owe him, and it is not a passage describing Ethnomethodology – but a footnote showing his modesty and humor. The footnote is attached to the claim that the achievements Formal Analysis are “unquestionably demonstrable achievements” (page 6):

If this claim is read as irony, it will be read incorrectly. To read it withou irony, recall the scene in Ionesco´s Rhinoceros. The last man and his girlfriend, Daisy, are looking out into the street below filled with rhinoceroses. Daisy exclaims: ‘Oh look, they´re dancing.” The last man: “You call that dancing!” Daisy: “That´s the way they dance.” (…) EM is not claiming to know any better (than FM, JHP). But neither is EM proposing to institute and carry out EM investigations of ordinary society while being in the midst of organizational things and therein knowing nothing. Rather, we´ ll proceed without having to decide or even know how to proceed while knowing nothing. Instead by [beginning], by [carrying on], by [finding our bearings again], by [completing an investigation], we´ll land ourselves in the midst of things. Procedurally we know something. We´re not agnostic. (…) In the midst of its endless things we´ll study the work of which immortal ordinary society consists. We´ll see. 

With that in mind I remembered the statement from Latours “Reassembling the social” (2005: 54-55): “It would be fairly accurate to describe ANT as being half Garfinkel and half Greimas: it has simply combined two of the most interesting intellectual movements on both side of the Atlantic and has found ways to tap the inner reflexivity of both actor’s accounts and of texts.” John Law already claimed that ANT is (or should be) a modest sociology. From Garfinkel, whose thoughts live on in us, we can learn how that is done.