The Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology: Durkheim, Weber, and Garfinkel

The Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology: Durkheim, Weber, and Garfinkel

The Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology: Durkheim, Weber, and Garfinkel

The Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology: Durkheim, Weber, and Garfinkel


"In The Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology, Richard Hilbert demonstrates a historical connection between Harold Garfinkel's recent empirical studies, termed ethnomethodology, and the nineteenth-century sociological theory of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Hilbert rejects the conventional view that draws radical distinctions between ethnomethodology and traditional sociological concerns and that even characterizes ethnomethodology as a break from sociology entirely. While ethnomethodology retains its radical character, Hilbert argues, that same radical nature was already contained in classical sociological theory but was driven from prominence by a generation of American interpreters, most notably Talcott Parsons. Moreover, according to Hilbert, ethnomethodology provides empirical demonstration of theoretical principles outlined by Durkheim and Weber that have remained relatively concealed. Ethnomethodology's roots in classical sociology can be established analytically, but they are also historical, says Hilbert. Garfinkel was Parsons's student, and his investigations were deliberately and consciously directed to anomalies in Parsons's theory. Parsons's theory, in turn, was based on his readings of Durkheim and Weber, in which he expressly took issue with them, negating and suppressing many of their key insights and dismissing major themes while ignoring others. Thus the "conventional sociology" Garfinkel inherited and eventually overthrew was in fact Parsonian sociology--a "negative image" of Durkheim and Weber. Hilbert shows that wherever Garfinkel overturned Parsons, he simultaneously resurrected classical themes that Parsons had dismissed or suppressed. He makes this case on a theme-by-theme basis, demonstrating a one-to-one correspondence between classical ideas and ethnomethodological findings mediated by Parsons, who transmitted inverted classical ideas to Garfinkel. Therefore, says Hilbert, ethnomethodology is not a break from sociology but is at the core of the discipline's origins." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Some of the great theoretical works in modern sociology have been treatments of previous classics. Talcott Parsons Structure of Social Action in 1937 built up a new synthesis by means of analyzing Durkheim, Weber, and Pareto. Jeffrey Alexander Theoretical Logic in Sociology (1983) adds Marx to Durkheim and Weber among the old classics, and then treats Parsons as the following theoretical generation. Jürgen Habermas Theory of Communicative Action (1981), which is closely contemporary with Alexander's work, does much the same but adds George Herbert Mead to the pantheon. Whoever wants to set forth a major line of theory, it seems, does well to present it as a synthesis of and corrective to the great theoretical efforts of the past.

Richard Hilbert Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology is in this mold. But what constitutes a classic is itself the result of just these sorts of choices as to whom one features. Hilbert's lineup of building blocks and stumbling blocks is a rival construction to those of Alexander and Habermas. For Hilbert, the classics worth building on are Durkheim and Weber--not surprising, perhaps, since these are the constants on everyone's list. But the next step is a contest, in which Parsons plays the part of obfuscating the old classics and turning them into a blind alley; while Harold Garfinkel and his school come to the rescue, rediscovering the key insights of the classics and demonstrating them in empirical detail.

Hilbert's revision will be a gestalt switch for mainstream sociologists and ethnomethodologists alike. When ethnomethodology blew onto the sociological scene in the mid-1960s, it had the aspect first of an underground movement and then of an intellectual revolution. Whether they favored this movement or not, most people on both sides tended to see the situation as a struggle of ethnomethodology versus sociology. Now Hilbert tells us that the ethnomethodologists have been the truest sociologists all along.

All such claims, rearranging the symbols of our intellectual identities . . .

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