Dorothy Smith and Knowing the World We Live In

Article excerpt

The paper presents an account of the scholarly work of Canadian sociologist, feminist, theorist and activist, Dorothy E. Smith, leading up to her development of institutional ethnography as "a sociology for people." Drawing on selected writings, the author discusses some of the major ideas, debates and practical influences that are part of Smith's scholarly trajectory. The line of thinking that is illustrated is how her feminism was integral to her celebrated critique and re-writing of sociological method.


This article introduces some of the theoretical underpinnings of institutional ethnography, the kind of sociological inquiry that takes as its problematic people's experiences in the everyday world. It may seem simply straightforward and logical that a researcher would be interested in discovering and disclosing how things happen. And for many who do institutional ethnography, it has become exactly that. Yet, that goal for research did not just arise spontaneously. Rather, querying how things happen signals a particular interest for social researchers, a special focus for research that Dorothy E. Smith has been working toward across several decades. This is an entirely different research goal from making an explanation of events through the application of theory. Smith's approach to research draws on diverse antecedents. Learning feminism and practising feminism turned out to be crucial to the critique of sociology that she was making. My goal in this paper is to show some of the influences that have shaped Smith's development of institutional ethnography as a sociology for women and that has become a sociology for people.

How Smith's scholarly and practical work began to influence each other will be explored by reviewing important ideas from some of her writings. But, the purpose of reviewing the roots of institutional ethnography is not to understand Dorothy Smith as historiography. We can identify in her theory and methodology the results of her contesting of the philosophical and sociological ideas and practices she encountered. Looking back from a position in the 21st century gives us a certain advantage. Now, it is possible to see how things fit together as an approach with the name institutional ethnography. Smith's references to, and use of, as well as arguments with many other scholars throughout the course of her career help us identify the route along which she travelled. Although not exhaustive of the ideas that have been important to her, I have selected some that seem central to institutional ethnography. (1)

Besides reviewing its beginnings, this paper also looks briefly at how institutional ethnography stands with regard to contemporary intellectual debates in the first decade of the 21st century. Language itself had always held a special interest for Smith and even prior to attending university, as a young clerical worker in London she had read philosophy--for pleasure, she says. Later, she was intrigued by the way that the Oxford philosophers were writing about "ordinary language" philosophy. She liked to see how people used words and how words could be made to "mean." This made literature--novels and poetry--as well as scholarly commentary on them--influential in Smith's own thinking and her quest to understand everyday life. Postmodernism and post-structuralism have not passed by unnoticed in Smith's work and later on I touch briefly on her engagement with some of these debates. But the linguistic turn in scholarship has not overwhelmed Smith's thinking partly because attention to language use was always important to her project of trying to "write the social" as people live it. Her efforts towards knowing take up Ludwig Wittgenstein's (1953), whom she quotes as "bring(ing) back words from their metaphysical to their everyday uses" (Smith, 1999, p. 242). It has been her prevailing interest to figure out and teach a method of social analysis that is reflexive to the material contours of people's lives. …


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