During the time I spent studying judges' use of language in the Pima County Superior Court, in Tucson, Arizona, judges and lawyers occasionally expressed surprise that an anthropologist was doing research in their courts. Some of them may have been surprised because they associate anthropology with archaeology, which is a highly visible area of endeavor in Arizona, and other kinds of anthropologists usually do ethnographic studies of communities in small-scale non-Western societies. So what was I doing in court? My own single major study up to that time had been an ethnographic study of language use on a small Indian reservation in Oregon ( Philips [ 1983] 1993). In that study I combined the classic ethnographic method of participant observation in a community with what has come to be called microethnography, which is the study of culture and social structure in face-to-face interaction ( Philips 1993). Usually, microethnographic work involves tape recording or videotaping an activity in a bounded setting. In my case the settings were classrooms where I tape-recorded as well as observed.
Sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s I decided to change my areal and substantive foci of research. I was really more interested in law than in education. And I found that people on Indian reservations generally did not care to be "studied." But when I began observing in the courts in downtown Tucson, much of what went on was unintelligible to me. 1 I couldn't tell how much of this unintelligibility was due to my lack of background in law and how much it was due to shared knowledge about specific cases that courtroom personnel were privy to but I was not. I decided to go to law school for a year to find out how much the legal interpretive perspective was contributing to sense making in the courtroom and to better understand the interpretive perspective of the members of the culture I wanted to study.