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Author Information: Bernard Wills, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College (Memorial University), bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 31-36.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41T

Whoever has provoked men to rage against him has always gained a party in his favour too

Image by Vetustense Photorogue via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

On a lazy afternoon there is nothing like another defense of Weak Scientism to get the juices flowing. This one “Why Scientific Knowledge is Still the Best” is quite the specimen. It includes, among other delights, an attempt to humble my perceived pride based on a comparison between myself and my wonderful colleague Dr. Svetlana Barkanova. (Mizrahi, 2018c, 20)

Here I must concede defeat. I don’t hold a candle to the esteemed Dr. Barkanova and would never claim to be her equal. Plus, I need no metrics to convince me of this. I am well aware of her overall excellence as she is an acquaintance of mine. However, this petty display overshoots its mark. All I said was that journals have, in fact, published things (by me) Mizrahi explicitly claimed no journal would publish (2018b, 46) and, frankly, I think I have established that point with any objective reader. I am certainly not bragging or claiming I have some rock star status as a scholar. Let’s proceed then to address the specific arguments he offers in his essay.

Material Causes Behind Intellectual Appearances

I will begin with quantity. This is a point he claims I overemphasize though at the same time he claims it is a crucial component of his own argument. (2018c,19) At any rate, he goes on yet another tangent about the superior quantity and impact of scientific research. To this I respond again, so what? It is no doubt true that more research and more ‘impactful’ research is produced in the sciences but why is this so?

To quote Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy stupid”. Science serves the interests of corporations and the military in ways that the humanities do not and so more money gets directed to the sciences. Since this is the case more scientific research is produced overall.

Now one could make an argument that this speaks to an overall greater utility for the sciences as opposed to other domains, but this is not the argument Mizrahi makes. Rather he asserts raw quantity itself as a feature that makes for the superiority of science. In both my replies I explained the problem with this and in neither of his replies has Mizrahi rebutted my points.

I pointed out a. that commercials are not superior to great artworks even though their number and impact is greater and b. Shakespeare scholarship would not be superior to physics if it simply happened that there were more of it. Mizrahi’s response to this is to complain about the word ‘odd’ (Mizrahi, 19) as if I intended it as a gratuitous personal insult. Actually though, I intended only to imply that his position seemed odd. It still seems odd to me to claim that if Shakespeare scholars suddenly put out a tremendous burst of articles (and pulled into the lead in the great race to produce more and more research) then that would somehow throw particle physics in the shade.

But, if Mizrahi wants to accept that conclusion then he is certainly welcome to it. If he wants to say that weak scientism is only contingently true and that it is only contingently the case that the sciences happen currently to produce more impactful research (for whatever reason), then he has done only what he all too often does; won a debating point by reducing his own thesis to a truism, here, that more =more. (Mizrahi, 19) At any rate, the frustrating thing here is that while Mizrahi asserts again and again the quantitative superiority of science he never condescends to explain why quantity is a valid metric in the first place, he asserts the fact without explaining why I or anyone else should regard that fact as significant.[1]

An Unanswered Question: Recursivity and Science

And, since Mizrahi is obviously sensitive on the point, let me say that calling an argument a sophism is merely an objective description not a personal insult as Mizrahi seems to think. (Mizrahi, 21) Mizrahi still does not recognize the fallacy, perhaps a kinder, better word than sophism (mea culpa), he committed in his reply to my point concerning recursive knowledge. Let me try again. My point was simple. Any argument founded on the claimed quantitative superiority of science founders on the fact that recursive processes, any recursive processes, can produce an infinity of true propositions.

In response to this Mizrahi said that this is not a problem for scientism for we can reflect recursively on scientific propositions in the same manner. To this I responded by saying that this was true but irrelevant as this had nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition was scientific or not. Nor does his account of scientific explanation include reflexivity as a source of knowledge. Reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is not the same as thinking scientifically.  His response his fallacious because it conflates two distinct processes.

This is why it does not matter in the least whether two people, a scientist or non-scientist, can produce an equal amount of knowledge by performing recursive acts in parallel. Neither are doing science. This perfectly obvious point is something Mizrahi claims he addresses in his replies to Brown (Mizrahi, 21) yet my examination of the passages he cites leaves me baffled for nothing in them touches remotely on the question of recursivity or explains how reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is equivalent to uttering a scientific proposition as a scientist.

Since Mizrahi does not intend to reply any further I suppose I will just have to scratch my head on this one and bewail my own lack of native wit. Plus, as Mizrahi seems to set great store by citations and references even in informal spaces like a review and reply collective it is a little jarring to see HIS not quite panning out (more on this below however).[2]

Systems and Ideologies

Why does Dr. Mizrahi still think I am calling him a racist when I intended to speak only in terms of systemic and not personal racism (Mizrahi, 21-22)?   In a systemic and so intersectional context, non-white identity does not mean one cannot occupy a place of privilege. He still does not see the difference between an ad hominem attack and an ideological critique of scientism. (Mizrahi, 23) Lorraine Code and Helen Longino, among others, have explained how standard accounts of scientific method have (WITTINGLY OR NOT!!) excluded women as knowers and Mizrahi can consult their works if he is interested.[3]  He may also consult Edward Said on how pretensions to scientific ‘objectivity’ underwrite colonialism.

I, however, will use a different example, one closer to my own interests and experience. In the institution in which I teach a significant portion of the students are of indigenous Miq’maw heritage. They are, by and large, NOT interested in hearing that their elders convey a secondary and qualitatively inferior kind of knowledge when compared to western scientists. Now, you could say that this is simple perversity on their part; they should ‘man up’ and accept the gospel of weak scientism! Things are not however so simple.

It is idle to claim that the experience of colonial oppression is irrelevant because science is universal, objective and politically neutral. It is idle to claim that the elevation of scientific procedures to qualitative superiority has no social and political ramifications for those whose knowledge forms are thereby granted second class status. This is because the question of scientism is bound up with the question of authority.

The fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who ‘know better’ because the propositions they utter have the form of science.[4]

Thus, whether intended or not, the elevation of scientific knowledge to superior status over indigenous knowledge elevates white settlers to authority over indigenous people and justifies the theft of their land and even of their children. Worse, indigenous people can see for themselves (because they are not blind) that this privileging of settler knowledge over their own is not benign. It is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependence and inferiority. Thus, Mizrahi’s facile assumption that scientism is ideologically innocent will not stand even cursory examination.

Partiality of Knowledge and the Limits of Learning

When I say that Mizrahi’s position is self-interested I am again simply pointing out a fact. If I were to write a paper arguing that the humanities are qualitatively superior to the sciences, deserved more funding than the sciences and that the hermeneutical practices of the humanities should be adopted by the sciences would Mizrahi not wonder if I was, in fact, being a little bit partial? Of course he would.

I, though, am not making that kind of argument, he is. I am not suggesting anyone is inferior to anyone; he is and as such I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether his position is tainted with bias. This is so especially as he has no much to say about the lack of ‘good faith’ in others.

On now to our unexpectedly long-lived example of Joyce scholars. Here I must thank Mizrahi for proving my point for me. Unaware that he is shooting his own argument in the foot he takes great pains to distinguish simplicity in scientific explanation from simplicity as an aesthetic quality.[5] He also distinguishes ‘accommodation’ (which the Joyce scholar seeks) from ‘novel prediction’ (which the scientist seeks). (Mizrahi, 25) It is indeed the case, as I myself asserted, that explanation in the humanities and in the sciences are related analogically not univocally. Terms from one domain do not immediately transfer directly to the other.

This is a perfect illustration of why scientific explanation is not the same as literary explanation. Simplicity is a desideratum for both forms of explanation but there is no answer to the question of whether general relativity is simpler than reader response theory for the obvious reason that different disciplines will parse the notion of simplicity differently.

But if this is so I ask again what makes a scientific theory qualitatively better than a critical reading of Joyce when they do not employ commensurate standards and have such fundamentally different aims? I ask again, what could ‘better’ possibly mean in this context? In what sense is a scientific theory simpler than a Joyce commentary if on Mizrahi’s own admission we are not dealing with univocal standards or senses of simplicity? In what sense is a scientific theory more coherent if we are not using ‘coherence’ in the same way in both domains?

Further I asked and ask again why the Joyce scholar even needs to make a novel prediction? Why is it a problem for his discipline if he does not use things he does not need? Further, Mizrahi resorts yet again to the canard that I am accusing him of saying the Joyce scholar does not produce knowledge as if this was even an answer to my question. (Mizrahi, 26)

Next, Scriabin. I think the best description of what my daughter did with the Prometheus chord is that she reverse engineered it. She worked backward from it to tell a story about how it came to be. Obviously this did not require any novel prediction about future Prometheus chords by future Scriabins. There is one Prometheus chord and it already exists. Further, the process by which it was created occurred once in the past.

Thus we are constructing an explanatory story about the past concerning a singular object not formulating a general law or making a testable prediction. This kind of story is used in all kinds of contexts. It is used here in music theory. It is used in those sciences concerned with past events. It is used by law enforcement to reconstruct a crime. Now, even if by some feat of prestidigitation one could contort such explanatory stories into the form of testable predictions this would be an after the fact rationalization not description of how actual people reason.

A World of Citations

Thus, let me emphasize once again that testability does not make science superior to on non-science for the simple reason that non-science does not typically need tests such as Mizrahi describes. Or, to put it another way testing is not employed in the same way in science and non-science so that if one says that, in some sense, the Joyce scholar ‘tests’ his ideas against the text one is speaking analogically not univocally as I attempted to point out in my previous reply. (Wills, 2018b, 38) Thus, Mizrahi’s claim about testability (Mizrahi, 28) is, yet again, beside the point.[6]

Now I turn to the minor objections. Dr. Mizrahi is upset that I have I have not cited the extensive literature on scientism. (Mizrahi, 18) Well Mizrahi has professed to show that science is superior to things like historiography and literary criticism even though he himself does not cite anything from those fields and shows no familiarity with what goes on in them.

Two can play at the rhetoric of citation and it is Mizrahi who claims that scientific procedures are better than non-scientific ones without making any direct comparison with the latter except for his cherished bugbear ‘armchair philosophy’. To return to the question of privilege, Mizrahi seems to assume that he is owed a deference he does not need to grant to others. As Latour says, citation is not accidental but essential to the rhetoric of an academic paper. (Latour; 1987, 30-62) Mizrahi’s use of the rhetoric of citation conveys the message that that his side has an epistemic privilege the other side does not: they are obliged to engage his literature but he is not obliged to engage theirs.

Again, Mizrahi accuses me of Eurocentric bias in citing Augustine and Aristotle (Mizrahi, 23) yet a glance at his own references does not reveal ANY citations from Shankara, Ashvaghosa, al Ghazzali, al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Lao Tzu, Kung Fu Tzu, or any other thinker outside the western tradition. Miizrahi’s own citation list betrays the very story he is trying to tell about mine!  Finally, in a somewhat involved passage he responds to the charge that he vacillates between Weak and Strong Scientism by citing the full text of a passage from one of his replies to Brown. (Mizrahi, 24) I don’t why he does this because his words say the exact same thing even when put in this larger context.

He reports that certain philosophers and scientists think of knowledge as “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study studies, as opposed to non-scientific study.” He then states, directly, that he follows this view. (Mizrahi, 24) This does indeed look like vacillation between weak and strong scientism.

However, I will not hammer him on one passage for what might, after all, be an unintentional slip or loose phrasing. If he says his position is weak scientism and weak scientism only then I take him at his word.

Conclusion

I will reiterate again the one basic reason why I think weak scientism is unconvincing and that is that it seems to be an exercise in bare arithmetic. Is there more scientific research than non-scientific? Well, more is better! Does science have 4 of the features of good explanation and history only 3? Science wins! This purely arithmetic procedure completely ignores the contexts in which different scholars work and how they reach their conclusions.  I conclude by saying what I said in my first reply: that Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is the mountain that gave birth to the proverbial mouse.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Bohannon, John. “Hate Journal Impact Factors? New Study Gives You One More Reason.” Science Magazine. 6 July 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/hate-journal-impact-factors-new-study-gives-you-one-more-reason.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad About Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017): 351-367.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

Van Wesel, Maarten; Sally Wyatt, and Jeroen ten Haaf. “What A Difference a Colon Makes: How Superficial Factors Influence Subsequent Citation.” Scientometrics 98, no. 3 (2014): 1601-1615.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of Any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 34-39.

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

[1] Mizrahi is not going to like this but some have questioned whether impact ratings and other quantitative metrics have the significance sometimes claimed for them. See Callaway, as well as Van Wesel, Wyatt,  ten Haaff, and Bohanon. Indeed, Mizrahi seems to have internalized the standards of the university’s corporate masters (with their spurious emphasis on external metrics) to an uncritical and disturbing degree.

[2] Is Mizrahi claiming in these passages that ‘scientific knowledge’ is any knowledge that happens to be produced by a scientist as ‘practitioner’ in a field (Mizrahi 21) whether accidental to her practice or not? If so, he has yet again defended his thesis at the cost of making it trivial.

[3] He may begin with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if he likes.

[4]  See D. Simmonds on this point (addressing an anti-indigenous activist notorious in Canada): “My particular interest here is the way in which science has been reified by Widdowson and Howard and used to legitimate state decision-making on behalf of oppressed peoples. Science is counterposed to indigenous traditional knowledge, which by way of a children’s parable (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is denounced as mere superstition in the service of a corrupt “aboriginal industry.” The state is called upon to harness scientific rationalism in the old colonial interest of “civilizing the savages.” In the words of Widdowson and Howard, “It is not clear how the remnants of Neolithic culture that are inhibiting this development can be addressed without intensive government planning and intervention” (252).

[5] Simplicity as I use it here does not refer to ‘simple language’ but to the economy of a work’s design. I admit though that I should have distinguished between two kinds of simplicity here. The simplicity of the work itself and the simplicity of the critic’s exposition of the work which of course formally differ. It is the latter case that more closely resembles the simplicity of a scientific theory though if Mizrahi wants to deny they are identical that is entirely to my own purpose for I deny this as well.

[6] This speaks to the overall banality of Mizrahi’s thesis. He tells us that the best explanation is one “explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions.” (Mizrahi, 28) He then adds “Wills seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence are good making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability?”. (Mizrahi, 28) Well I have said many times why not. Testability as Mizrahi defines it is not relevant to all inquiries. It is not even relevant to all scientific inquiries. ‘Testing’ can take different forms that resemble each other analogically not univocally. I don’t know how many different ways I can say this: the test of a thesis on metaphysics is elenchic. The test of a thesis about Joyce is a close examination of his texts. The test of an archeological claim is the examination of artefacts. Mizrahi’s entire argument boils down to the claim that science beats non-science 4 to 3! Yet clearly Mizrahi has tilted the field by asking non-science to conform to a standard external to it and applied arbitrarily. Unity, coherence, testability and so on are resemblance terms that cash out differently in different inquiries.

Author Information: Andrew Carlin, Manchester Metropolitan University, A.Carlin@mmu.ac.uk

Carlin, Andrew. “On the Practical Work of Citation: Foundationalism and (Inter)disciplinary Incommensurability.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 28-40.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3kw

Please refer to:

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Image credit: Jef Safi, via flickr

In this response[1] I would like to thank Pamela Moss for her careful attention to my work. I may disappoint readers hoping for some measure of controversy or opposition—Moss has produced a cogent set of arguments in response to my original article. I very much appreciate her comments, and I have followed up her references with profit. There are general and specific areas upon which we both agree.

If I can gloss Moss’ reply, she details instances in my observations on disciplinary borrowings—particularly in relation to Stefan Timmermans’[2] use of David Sudnow’s[3] book Passing On—where I was doing precisely what I suggested Timmermans had being doing with Sudnow. I was making the point that in the case of disciplinary borrowings, authors could do more to account for the epistemological positions of arguments that are taken in support of their current paper. This elicited Moss’ “Tu quoque!” (“You too!”) conclusion:

A more generally relevant expectation might be that the cited articles are fairly represented for the purposes of the citation and that the collected body of articles cited is appropriate to the interpretations and generalizations the citing author is making.[4]

Moss’ critique, that had I outlined both Sudnow’s and Timmermans’ objectives more clearly I may have reached a different conclusion about Timmermans’ use of Sudnow’s work, is fair and one with which I agree—up to a point.

On Referencing as Practical Work

Among the—but for purposes of publication, deliberately unstated—aims of my paper was in advancing a broader consideration of literature measurement systems: bibliometrics, citation analysis, informetrics. A problem for citation analysis is context: what is a particular citation doing at a particular juncture within an article.

In emphasizing the “purposes” of references and citations, Moss confirms my reading of Timmermans’[5] article as oriented towards Sudnow’s book for the substantive field “sociology of death/dying,” what I had called “the ‘reading list’ approach to sociology.”[6] I am not concerned that Moss discerns “many purposes for using the literature within research projects.”[7] Indeed, I am delighted that she recognizes this, for example in my own use of citations within the original paper[8]; so much of the scholarship on citation and referencing misses this key feature of academic writing. Of course I was not suggesting that the main, or the one and only purpose for using the literature is for the surfacing of an identifiable research problem.

The reification of citations as homogenous entities for the practical purposes of counting how many times an author’s work is cited decontextualizes the work being accomplished by the writer of the citing work. As bibliometrics becomes increasingly sophisticated and fragmented—identifying new “edges” of scholarly communication to be operationalized, and new measures for doing the operationalizing[9]—discussions of citation measurement, citation practices and the contextual bases of referencing from outside bibliometry (resisting disciplinary “ownership”) appear less frequently.[10] They are all the more precious in their scarcity.

Without distorting discussion with consideration of members’ motives—“official lists” of these have already appeared in information science[11]—we may observe how references are doing different, practical work. For example, and in no particular order:

  • For purposes of comparison, e.g. to establish that a phenomenon was observed in other settings also.[12] The concatenation of sources or accumulative appeal to other settings may be a form of persuasion (see below)
  • For purposes of comparison, e.g. that related or similar phenomena can be observed in other settings also (including citations of David Sudnow’s “Normal Crimes” paper[13]).
  • For purposes of comparison, e.g. may be positive or negative citations. Often found in literature review sections.[14] For example, references may be cited “to demonstrate the novelty of one’s results. This is often achieved by reviewing the current state of knowledge in an Introduction, and then showing or implying that the findings reported constitute an advance.”[15] (This is also a form of persuasion; see below)
  • Locating arguments—according credit to a previous paper[16]
  • Locating arguments—facilitating information retrieval, so that readers are able to pursue the inquiry into particular points of discussion (as Moss has been able to do in her reply, for instance)
  • Locating arguments—while this relates to according credit it may also work to disclaim responsibility, or spreading the blame; colloquially known as “CYA”[17]
  • Glossing arguments—using citations as “concept symbols”[18]
  • Persuasive devices—as Nigel Gilbert suggests, citations on their own may not be “tools of persuasion”. However, they can do persuasive work. For example, “respected papers may be cited in order to shine in their reflected glory even if they do not seem closely related to the substantive content of the report”[19]
  • “Recipient design”[20]—in submitting a manuscript to a journal, the author tailors some of the arguments, and references, as recognizable to the particular journal under consideration. This may involve having been “socialized” into a particular discipline; or, this may involve considerable guesswork, anticipating what the journal editors/reviewers find acceptable[21]
  • “Doing disciplinarity”—displaying affiliation with particular disciplines, or fields within disciplines. Citing particular bibliographic sets presents the paper as relevant to particular research interests; for example, physical geography but not necessarily human geography
  • Self-citation—this may be doing informative work; though self-citation may be rhetorical or used as an authorization procedure[22]
  • “Doing networking”—displaying membership within a research network[23]; or attempts to affiliate with a particular research network.[24]

This is not an exhaustive list of the work of citations and citation practices; there are considerably more possibilities—demonstrable and reportable—reviewed elsewhere.[25] It was not the remit of my original paper to explore all of these in detail but, suffice to say, I am aware of the complex issues arising from academic requirements and their measurement.[26]

Locating David Sudnow within Ethnomethodology

Whilst I take no umbrage with Moss’ observation that I may be misrepresenting Timmermans’ representation of Sudnow, I am less sanguine about the contextualization of Sudnow’s work—both in Timmermans’ article, and in my own article. This dissatisfaction extends beyond Passing On and across Sudnow’s corpus of studies: I had not sufficiently explained the connections that I recognize as features of Sudnow’s works, taken as a corpus; and how this corpus coheres with the ethnomethodological corpus.[27]

For reasons that may become clear, this is not the venue in which to revisit arguments that were merely glossed by references—as mentioned above, providing citations as glosses for arguments is another use of the literature, of course—in order to explicate my practical reasoning procedures regarding selectivity of items, and corpora, of literature, which are queried by Moss.[28] To borrow Harold Garfinkel’s phrase (that derived from his collaborations with Sudnow), these are “documented conjectures”—from lectures on ethnomethodology, conversations with ethnomethodologists, and my acquaintance with studies from the “ethnomethodological literature.”

One issue that I should have made more explicit is how my original argument was framed within a disciplinary history of ethnomethodology. Passing On was written at a particular juncture in the history of ethnomethodology. In 1966, at University of California, Berkeley, Sudnow and Harvey Sacks were awarded their doctoral qualifications. A group of Goffman’s students had moved away from Goffman’s work intellectually, and increasingly aligned themselves with Harold Garfinkel, then a junior professor at University of California, Los Angeles.[29]

In the acknowledgements section of his PhD dissertation, Sacks does not mention Goffman; instead, Sacks thanked Edwin Shneidman for facilitating access to the telephone calls at the Center for the Scientific Study of Suicide, Suicide Prevention Center, Los Angeles, which he had used as data; and he thanked Garfinkel for financial and intellectual support: “In acknowledging this support of his I may also say that it is but the most tangible and recent item on a long list of indebtedness I have to him.”[30]

Another source of disappointment for Goffman was how Sacks had written a dissertation very different from a ‘more-Goffmanian-style’ manuscript that Sacks had shown him in the early Sixties.[31] As Sacks’ dissertation supervisor, Erving Goffman was reluctant to sign off on Sacks’ doctoral dissertation. Famously, the Chair of the dissertation committee, Aaron Cicourel, intervened to authorize Sacks’ award.

Garfinkel, Goffman, Sacks and Sudnow are all dead, now; we cannot solicit their recollections of 1966. However, the possibility that Goffman resented Garfinkel’s intellectual affinity with his own students is inferentially available. If Goffman did feel this way, or if Sudnow perceived Goffman to be acting on these feelings, we should not be surprised by the sociological program that characterizes Passing On. Sudnow had already published an article critical of the use of data in traditional sociological methods[32]—whatever their considerations of members’ methods might become, Sudnow was contributing to its development.

When Moss[33] decries “I read Sudnow for explicit references to ethnomethodology. I read the preface, the introduction, the conclusion, the appendices, and all the headings and subheadings in the book, and could not find ‘ethnomethodology’ named,” it would have been extremely unlikely for Sudnow to have used the word “ethnomethodology” within the pages of his dissertation as it had only just been coined.[34]

Although Sudnow does refer to ethnomethodology. In answer to Moss’ specific query[35] the prefatory note is not in his dissertation but appears in the Prentice-Hall edition of Passing On:

I have benefited at various points in the conduct of the research from my discussions with Sheldon Messinger, Harvey Sacks, Roy Turner, and Helen Pat Gouldner. An earlier version of Chapter 4 was presented at a conference held by Harold Garfinkel of UCLA in the summer of 1965. My indebtedness to Professor Garfinkel will, I hope, be clear to those who know his work. I do not claim, however, that this study is well representative of ‘ethnomethodological’ sociology, though should that be at all true, I would be very pleased.[36]

One of the key phrases in this acknowledgement is “My indebtedness to Professor Garfinkel will, I hope, be clear to those who know his work.” Unlike Sacks’ acknowledgement of Garfinkel’s influence in his dissertation (above), this does not appear in Sudnow’s dissertation. It is a “noticeable absence”; and “those who know his work” recognize this as a noticeable absence.

The field-specificity of Passing On is not only available through the citations it contains.

“Epistemologies at the Disciplinary Level”:[37] Indifference and Incommensurability

Despite the ritualistic citations to Goffman contained in his thesis, Sudnow was part of the “ethnomethodological firmament”. As mentioned above, he had already published an “ethnomethodological” study[38]; and, after Passing On was published, he was a key advocate of ethnomethodology in an infamous panel discussion to debate its disciplinary place in sociology.[39]

A decade later, at Garfinkel’s encouragement, he published an ethnomethodological study of competence—playing jazz piano—that can be seen as an early expression of Garfinkel’s “studies of work” program. Garfinkel’s procedural policy of “ethnomethodological indifference,” which discouraged literature use as a formulaic requirement of studies, made it possible for Sudnow “to realize the consequences of allowing the keyboard, and not an academic discipline, to tell me where to go.”[40]

To reiterate, my detailing of Sudnow’s books and papers in the original article were not geared toward idle recitation of references but were warranted by the reticulation of intellectual concerns that made up the corpus of Sudnow’s work, and how these cohered with the developing corpus of ethnomethodological studies. This is but one of the instances of item of literature/corpus of literature to which I was referring in the original arguments, and which Moss found problematic. Yet I make no apologies for reading Sudnow this way. However, Sudnow disputed Garfinkel’s presentation of “ethnomethodological indifference.”[41]

As a methodological policy, qua phenomenological bracketing, ethnomethodological indifference enabled the analyst to focus on a phenomenon without the distraction of “related literature,” which both set the “terms and determinations”[42] of the analysis and necessarily distanced the analyst from the phenomenon of interest. Sudnow appreciated how non-ethnomethodologists could understand “ethnomethodological indifference” as code for a Weberian attitude of “value-free” inquiry; even “objectivity” (something which, following Felix Kaufmann[43] on the protocols and standards of acceptability in social science, Garfinkel did not intend); or worse, for Sudnow, as being “indifferent” to iniquities and inequalities.[44]

To be clear, “ethnomethodological indifference” was not an ethical (or non-ethical) position but a methodological procedure. Even though Garfinkel’s work is characterized by a compassionate advocacy of those in adversity[45]—Garfinkel certainly was not indifferent to circumstances—Sudnow would never reconcile himself to what he regarded as a significant error of judgement on Garfinkel’s part.[46]

Ethnomethodologists have not been shy of taking up traditional sociological topics, such as racism, power, and inequality. It is a misrepresentation of ethnomethodological investigations to claim otherwise. That ethnomethodology has addressed topics in different ways is undeniable, however; yet this is not the same as being “indifferent” to such matters. As I said in my original article,[47] for instance, power has been approached as an in situ, collaborative activity.[48] This is to be contrasted with traditional representations of power in anthropological and sociological approaches.[49] Moreover, the topical relevance of studies brings me to another note of contention for Moss, regarding the appropriateness of the word “traditional” as a generalizing description of sociology.

My use of the word “traditional” does not connote “classical,” as Moss assumes in questioning its contemporary relevance.[50] “Traditional” does not compartmentalize work in pro tempore or chronological fashion. “Traditional” is not setting an arbitrary temporal marker between, say, Nineteenth Century sociology, or pre-War sociology, or pre-Nineteen Sixties sociology; versus Postmodern sociology, post-Nineteen Seventies Sociology, or Twenty-First Century sociology. Not at all. My use of the word “traditional,” as I have consistently used it, reflects or has equivalence with “professional sociological theorizing,” or “constructive analysis” (and, later, “formal analysis”). However, I should recognize—and I thank Moss for drawing this to my attention—that these were and remain contentious adjectives, too.

To clarify my use of terms, “traditional” is intended to disambiguate forms of sociology, as “professional sociological theorizing,” in contrast to “radical” forms of sociology which seek to explicate members’ practical sociological theorizing. Abbott’s fractals analogy, which he uses to emphasise the fluidity of conceptual development,[51] does not address this.[52] Nor, to use Moss’ other example,[53] does Actor-Network-Theory (ANT).[54]

Moss’ specific question reads, “is ethnomethodology incommensurable with ANT in the same way it might be incommensurable [with] traditions reflecting the structure-agency dualism?” A short answer is “Yes.”[55] The structure/agency dualism is implicated in foundational forms of theorizing, which both Abbott[56] and Latour[57] reproduce. In taking a methodologically ironic stance vis-à-vis members’ practical decision-making activities they fail to dissolve the tensions set up by foundational theories. Moss draws attention to Bruno Latour, who “acknowledges [ANT’s] affinities with ethnomethodology,”[58] but how does Latour go about such acknowledgement? Through citation of “ethnomethodological” resources; and here we may return to the ad hoc list of work done through referencing, above.

Furthermore, a key criterion remarking “incommensurability” is the gestalt configuration of analytic approaches. Ethnomethodology seeks to explicate the in situ, in vivo, practical work of members’ activities. In striving towards such explication, the ethnomethodologist cannot be beholden to “foundational” (e.g. Cartesian) formal analytic positions because these theorize out the very praxeological details that are being sought. Hence, ethnomethodology “dissolves” foundational residue, such as the structure/agency dichotomy, as interference with the description of members’ practices. Likewise, Actor-Network-Theory proposes an unnecessary analytic distancing from members’ phenomena. As Sormani asks,

why ‘ontologize’? Why, as an ethnographer, ‘ontologize, ‘epistemologize’, or otherwise ‘theorize’ phenomena, instead of describing them in their self-identifying features?[59]

The ontological fetishism of ANT removes the analyst further from the distinctive details which are not only constituent features of practice, what Sudnow[60] once termed “describably elegant knowledge,” but are practice; whether that be managing the interactional work of running an auction, professional coffee tasting, or playing jazz piano.

The plenitude of references to ethnomethodology within the Latour text cited by Moss are footnoted asides to relevant sources,[61] not to necessarily commensurable sources. That is, Latour takes a “found relevance” approach to his citation of ethnomethodological sources, e.g. in his example of the user manual that came with the new digital camera[62] he references Garfinkel’s[63] discussion of assembling furniture according to the instructions. He collocates this citation to Garfinkel with reference to Donald Norman[64] on user-centred design. The cognitivism of Norman’s thesis is at odds with the praxeological line of argument advanced by Garfinkel—these are incommensurable approaches, that become proximal citations via a reading-list approach to substantive topics, but readers familiar with Norman and with Garfinkel are unlikely to be confused as to the “found relevance” or nature of Latour’s use of literature. Latour’s practices of citation are unremarkable, routine, and certainly do not suggest that ANT possesses analytic affinities with ethnomethodology.

Although, there are distinct differences, too. Moss is correct, I think, in speculating whether the nature of incommensurability—between ethnomethodology and various forms of sociology—differs, and this is a valuable point to explore. For instance, Latour[65] claims overlap with ethnomethodology regarding the notion of “accounts”. However, for Latour, accounts are reasons, justifications, verifications, excuses; in environments of uncertainty, accounts justify the certainty of action, e.g. as adequate or plausible in the circumstances. For ethnomethodology, actions—textual, verbal or otherwise—are accounts.

The give-away is Latour’s[66] epistemological contrast between natural science accounts and social science accounts: “This is why the question of what is a good account is so much more crucial for the social than for the natural sciences”[67]; and later in the same chapter, this is transformed into “a good text.”[68] For ethnomethodology, there are “accounts” but there is no continuum for adjudging the adequacy or plausibility of accounts, such as “a good account”; that is a member’s concept, not an analytic category. Latour’s notion of “account” has more in common with a symbolic interactionist notion of account[69] than ethnomethodology.

Indeed, while I regard Moss’ query about incommensurability as a valuable pedagogic opportunity it also seems misdirected, given that Latour[70] distances himself from Garfinkel’s gloss “formal analysis.” Garfinkel used the term formal analysis to sharpen the focus of his distinction between incommensurable approaches in sociology—what (as mentioned above) he had termed “constructive analysis”—and incommensurable approaches in the social sciences more broadly. Latour[71] misquotes Garfinkel, and through misquotation, understates Garfinkel’s original distinction, the “worldwide social science movement.” Garfinkel began to use formal analysis in preference to constructive analysis in order to emphasize that sociology was only one discipline among many which misaligned its phenomena of inquiry with analysts’ versions of members’ methods.[72]

Furthermore, while Moss[73] posits “affinities” between ANT and ethnomethodology, Latour’s claims on this matter are shallow. Latour’s attempted connection between “the quality of a text”[74] and the “unique adequacy requirement of methods”[75] does not set up “equivalence.”[76] The unique adequacy requirement, like ethnomethodological indifference, is a methodological policy. Like ethnomethodological indifference, the unique adequacy requirement does not distance the researcher from the phenomenon of inquiry. It thus distinguishes between studies of work that describe and produce phenomena of investigation.[77],[78]

I take Moss’ query regarding incommensurability seriously, and suggest that both the structure/agency dualism and ANT are incommensurable with ethnomethodology through producing “methodological irony”. Both foundational reasoning (e.g. theorizing which is an outcome or based upon a structure/agency dualism) and ANT preclude a praxeological orientation as an accountable, constitutive feature of research ab initio. The post hoc incorporation and/or triangulation of members’ practices creates conceptual confusion and category-errors. This characteristic of ANT and its formulation as a blend of ethnomethodology and semiotics is fundamentally flawed as a praxeological pursuit, regardless of Latour’s claims—and his referential practices—to the contrary.[79] As vividly formulated in another context,

These sets of analytic practices cannot be conflated any more than can the games of football and tennis be conflated to produce a ‘supergame.’[80]

In studies involving human action, both ANT and studies in foundationalist programs require the analyst to make the final (if analytically arbitrary) decision as to what is really going on. As Lynch argues, “the theorist’s monism frames the heterogeneous ontologies attributed to actors within the frame.”[81]

In summary, if I was setting up a “contrast set”—to borrow Dorothy Smith’s[82] phrase—it was between traditional sociology, which as I have hoped to clarify does not connote a temporal characterization but an epistemological characterization vis-à-vis members’ practices; and radical sociology, which seeks to explicate members’ practices without re-describing them in terms of analytically imposed categories.

Conclusion

In trying to provide an overall view, however, I want to emphasize that the ethnomethodological position on foundationalism (and anti-foundationalism) is methodological, not epistemological, philosophical, or theoretical. Indeed, much of the contestation of this issue has been quarried through the distortion or misunderstanding of ethnomethodology’s position as an epistemological rather than a methodological approach to the phenomena of sociology.[83] The “identifying details” of studies in ANT and Cartesian investigations vary, yes; and the respective identifying details have specific consequences for the realization of incommensurability.

Yet this should not distract us from the difficulties of programs of interdisciplinarity: intra-disciplinary approaches within sociology have a wide degree of “autonomy,”[84] which challenges assumptions of disciplinary coherence, let alone interdisciplinarity.[85]

Nor should this distract us from assembling a corpus of studies that instead of taking an evaluative approach to members’ phenomena, extrinsic to the settings of members’ practices; develops inquiries that seek to explicate members’ practices from within the settings in which they occur.

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[1]. I am grateful to Glenn Gillespie at UC Berkeley Libraries, for factual clarification; and especially to Rod Watson, for generous discussion of these issues, and for alerting me to analytic asymmetries within this Response.

[2]. Timmermans, “Social Death as Self-fulfilling Prophecy.”

[3]. Sudnow, Passing On.

[4]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 53.

[5]. Timmermans, “Social Death as Self-fulfilling Prophecy.”

[6]. Carlin, “On Some Limits of Interdisciplinarity,” 5.

[7]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 47.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Kozak and Bornmann, “A New Family of Cumulative Indexes for Measuring Scientific Performance.”

[10]. Bittner, “Citation Classic Commentary on ‘The Police on Skid Row”; Blackman, “Social Media and the Politics of Small Data”; Hertz, “Pimp My Fluff”; Stavrakakis, “Wallon, Lacan and the Lacanians.”

[11]. E.g. Bornmann et al., “What Factors Determine Citation Counts of Publications in Chemistry Besides their Quality?”; Weinstock, “Citation Indexes.”

[12]. Glaser and Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory, 169, passim.

[13]. Cavan, Liquor License, 18; Cicourel, The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice, 55.

[14]. Carlin, “On Some Limits of Interdisciplinarity.”

[15]. Gilbert, “Referencing as Persuasion,” 116.

[16]. Merton, “Priorities In Scientific Discovery.”

[17]. Raymond L. Gold, personal communication.

[18]. Small, “Cited Documents as Concept Symbols.”

[19]. Gilbert, “Referencing as Persuasion,” 116.

[20]. Sacks and Schegloff, “Two Preferences in the Organization of Reference to Persons in Conversation and their Interaction.”

[21]. Myers, Writing Biology.

[22]. Falagas and Kavvadia, “‘Eigenlob’”; Fowler and Aksnes, “Does Self-Citation Pay?”

[23]. Hellsten et al., “Self-Citations, Co-Authorships and Keywords.”

[24]. Note for sociologists: this is a literal “reference group”!

[25]. E.g. Bornmann and Daniel, “What do Citation Counts Measure?”

[26]. Boellstorff, “Submission and Acceptance.”

[27]. Sudnow, Passing On.

[28]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 46.

[29]. Pace Moss (2016, 49), in my original article (Carlin 2016, 14, n. 13) I was clear that Erving Goffman, not Harold Garfinkel, was Sudnow’s dissertation supervisor.

[30]. Sacks, “The Search for Help,” ii.

[31]. This early manuscript was known informally as “the Police Paper” (Schegloff 1999), which Sudnow went on to publish (Sacks 1972).

[32]. Indeed, Sudnow’s “Normal Crimes” paper was described as one of “The most significant works on this subject” (Douglas, The Social Meanings of Suicide, 163).

[33]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 49.

[34]. Bittner, “The Concept of Organization.”

[35]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 49.

[36]. Sudnow, Passing On, v.

[37]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[38]. Sudnow, “Normal Crimes.”

[39]. Hill and Crittenden, Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology.

[40]. Sudnow, Ways of the Hand, viii.

[41]. Sudnow, “An Ethno-autobiography of Teaching.”

[42]. Bittner, “The Concept of Organization,” 247.

[43]. Kaufmann, The Methodology of the Social Sciences.

[44]. Sudnow, “An Ethno-autobiography of Teaching.”

[45]. Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” “Passing and the Managed Achievement of Sex Status in an Intersexed Person,” and “Instructions and Instructed Actions.”

[46]. Sudnow, “An Ethno-autobiography of Teaching.”

[47]. Carlin, “On Some Limits of Interdisciplinarity,” 14.

[48]. Sharrock and Button, “The Technical Operations of the Levers of Power.”

[49]. Moerman, “Life after C.A.”

[50]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[51]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[52]. My citation of Abbott’s work reiterates the variegated use of sources, as I had, for the purposes of the original article, only selected Abbott to establish the long-standing nature of interdisciplinarity. My citation was certainly not an endorsement of the book in toto, though many studies in citation analysis fail to disambiguate negative from positive citations, i.e. treat all citations as homogenous.

[53]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[54]. Latour, Reassembling the Social.

[55]. However, this direct affirmative shall be qualified below.

[56]. Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines.

[57]. Latour, Reassembling the Social.

[58]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[59]. Sormani, Respecifying Lab Ethnography, 234.

[60]. Hill and Crittenden, Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology, 51.

[61]. E.g. footnotes 22, 49, 63, 97 in Latour, Reassembling the Social.

[62]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 205.

[63]. Garfinkel, “Instructions and Instructed Actions.”

[64]. Norman, The Psychology of Everyday Things.

[65]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 205.

[66]. Ibid., 125.

[67]. Ibid., emphasis added.

[68]. Ibid., 129.

[69]. Scott and Lyman, “Accounts.”

[70]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 226.

[71]. Ibid., fn. 312.

[72]. A pedagogical heuristic of this argument is the phenomenological emphasis on distinguishing between resources for study and topics of study (Zimmerman and Pollner 1970).

[73]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[74]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 129.

[75]. Garfinkel and Wieder, “Two Incommensurable, Asymmetrically Alternate Technologies Of Social Analysis.”

[76]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, fn. 182.

[77]. Livingston, Ethnomethodological Foundations of Mathematics; Lynch, Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science.

[78]. Vide another example of the practical work of citation: Latour cites both of these studies of work in Reassembling the Social (pp. 59, 223) also; but he points to different relevances in citing them than I do in citing them together here.

[79]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 122.

[80]. Watson, “The Understanding of Language Use in Everyday Life,” 11.

[81]. Lynch, “Ontography,” 453.

[82]. Smith, “‘K is Mentally Ill’.”

[83]. Francis and Sharrock, “Where Ethnomethodology Stands.”

[84]. Sharrock and Watson, “Autonomy among Social Theories: The Incarnation of Social Structures.”

[85]. In my original article, I cited the demonstration of this problem (Greiffenhagen, Mair and Sharrock, “Methodological Troubles as Problems and Phenomena”), which, in its demonstration, attends to the “identifying details” of the autonomy of sociological strategies.