Looking back and looking ahead

This site has been painfully neglected over the last few months. This is probably a sign of both how busy I have been with private and professional endeavours in my life, and of how unexperienced a blogger I still am. Starting a website – like starting a diet or a workout routine – is much easier than actually keeping it up. But since summer has now fully arrived, it is time to prepare the beach body together with more blog posts for other people whose beach body, like mine, only comes in two modes: pale or burnt red. A lot like Pommes Schranke.

pommes schranke.jpg

One of the things taking up my time has been an engagement at the University of Lüneburg. Over the winter term I have had great fun teaching a course with the befuddling title: “Ethnomethods of the Sciences”. What I tried to achieve over those four months was to give students an introduction to ethnomethodology in combination with a few issues in the sociology of science. Being part of what Lüneburg calls their “Leuphana semester”, the students I had in this seminar came from all across the academic spectrum: psychology, business studies, media studies, theology. The only thing they had in common (at least most of them) was that they had just started university. While I had not designed this course for first term students (I had no idea how Lüneburg organises its very odd degree system), I was surprised to see how well this course played out. Maybe because students hadn’t yet been subjected to the mantra that “only countables are accountables”, they easily embraced a situationist and interactionist perspective. The co-production of meaning and context in conversation, labs or the use of technology is, in my opinion, an easily demonstrable fact that students of all levels and from all degrees can observe, make sense of and benefit from in their own thinking within their own practical problems. Finally, the courage to acknowledge that the production of knowledge is a deeply practical and pragmatic issue allows not only for cynicism (which can be healthy at times, too) but should also enable practitioners to think about their work more clearly and reflect their methods and conceptual grids in the context of the essential triviality of everyday life.

Thanks to Tetiana, one of the students from this course, for taking some lovely pictures at and after our last session. I had a great time with these impressive students who have renewed my motivation to take up more teaching in the future.

Reading Logs (+little rant)

I have written up a short two-page document on reading logs. I try to use these in all seminars I am giving in order to stimulate discussion and encourage engaged reading. German universities tend to prefer presentations as a means of assessing student participation and understanding. I believe, however, they are a highly deficient way to achieve engagement in class. The real reason for preferring presentations is to take work load off the lecturer. 20-40 minutes of each 90-minute session is spent on a presentation with most of the remainder discussing the text in light of it. Lecturers need to prepare less, have to do no additional reading (of reading logs) and can evaluate students on the spot.

Presentations, in many ways, epitomise the lazy and indulgent culture prevalent in German universities - at least in the "soft" sciences. Of course, this is not due to some inherent character flaws or even mere negligence amongst lecturers. It is mostly a result of the complete lack of appreciation for teaching at universities. It is hard to believe that while we spend (ideally) 50% of our time on teaching, basically 0% of our job prospects are related to the quality of our seminars. Hundreds of hours spent discussing with young people are worth so much less than a paper that might only be read by a handful of academics. Simultaneously, a lot of teaching is done by young researchers who are vastly underpaid for their work. No wonder they are often not motivated to put more effort in than necessary. And no wonder the lack of enthusiasm often spreads to the students.

Anyways, this is the document. I would love to get some feedback and hear from others that might have used reading logs or had to write them as a student.

Enjoy your week!

Douglas Maynard (2003) Good News, Bad News. Conversational Order in Everyday Talk and Clinical Settings

The conversation analytic perspective (CA) has delivered a great amount of rich empirical analysis of micro-level social systems. Being based entirely on conversational data (tape recordings usually), CA is a deliberately restrictive enterprise.  Sometimes CA studies are daring so far into the territory of (socio-)inguistics that sociologists are sceptical as to whether their results are still even relevant for the discipline. Douglas Maynard’s Bad News, Good News (2003) has the great benefit to relate a rigid conversation analytical perspective (CA) to broader concerns of sociological ethnography and political implications of this type of research. The topic of how bad and good news are delivered is a thankful one for this exercise. On the one hand it centres on a reasonably manageable sequence of conversation that in itself is dynamic and morally loaded, and on the other hand this sequence is central to the performance of actors in significant institutional contexts (hospitals, political communication). While I cannot say that I would find Maynard’s attempt fully convincing, it will undoubtedly remain one of the most important points of reference in this regard for some time to come.

Maynard begins the book with three chapters that deal with methodological questions surrounding conversation analysis. In the first chapter, he positions ethnomethodology (EM) in relation to the phenomenological tradition. Maynard understands the epoche (that phenomenologists aim to bring about artificially by “bracketing” our everyday understanding of the world) as a common occurrence in the life-world. Bad and good news, he claims, have the same “interruptive and sometimes utterly disruptive” character. As such, they result in the kind of “noetic crisis” (12) that Garfinkel told his students to bring about (equally artificially when compared to phenomenology) by acting out in front of their parents. There are a series of questions that might ensue from these comparisons and cross-references about the relation of EM to philosophy, about the status of “bracketing” a method or as a naturally occurring phenomenon and about the naturalness of data in EM. But Maynard does not go down this road and neither will I.

The second chapter mainly deals with a series of strategies and problems that are fairly well-known in relation to bad news delivery. Maynard only brings these up to argue for a more interaction-based approach that does not simply “pigeonhole” observations into abstract categories (64). Maynard also tries to argue throughout his book that bad and good news delivery should not be treated independently and – as is the case mostly – good news delivery should not be neglected entirely. Their similarity and even their apparent asymmetry, he claims, can teach us something about the phenomenon.

Chapter three deals with the relationship between CA and ethnography and is likely to be the most widely-read chapter of this book which can be recommended for any course on EM and CA. Ethnographic research on bad news is mostly “occupationally and substantively confined” (66) whereas Maynard says his research is based on an “activity focus” (65; cf. Drew/Heritage 1992; Levinson 1979). As such, Maynard needs to address the “contextual critique” leveraged against EM and especially CA. “(L)arger or broader structures, categories, or organizations”, Maynard explains, should only be considered “(1) (if) such categories are relevant to participants and, if so, (29 (if) they are procedurally consequential in the sense that participants display, in their talk and interaction, an orientation to them” (70). As a result, Maynard is sceptical of what he terms a “mutual affinity” between ethnography and CA (68). Ethnography and CA should, for his purposes, be characterized by a “limited affinity” in which ethnography has three uses: 1.) It helps to describe the setting and identities within it and to choose which features of them should be described in more analytical detail. 2.) It helps to understand and explicate unfamiliar terms, phrases and courses of action. 3.) It helps with “curious” patterns of action that a sequential analysis cannot fully explain. As can be seen from this list, while Maynard does not eschew ethnography fully as do some of his colleagues in CA, it can hardly be said that ethnography is allowed any substantial or systematic part in his research. Instead of expanding beyond the conversational interaction, Maynard advises to go “’deeper’ into the concreteness of a setting” (77).

Chapters 4 to 7 present the empirical research of the book. I want to present these parts only cursorily as CA is best read with its data next to it and is therefore often somewhat lengthy. Firstly, Maynard presents what he calls “The News Delivery Sequence” (NDS) which is best presented in this chart from the book: 

The News Delivery Sequence (NDS) in Maynard (2003): 96.

The News Delivery Sequence (NDS) in Maynard (2003): 96.

The NDS proceeds from an announcement to a response to such announcement which will either encourage or discourage further elaboration. Depending on whether it is good or bad news, whether the news is unexpected – and depending on why it might be unexpected – the reaction will look or be expected to be different. An uncertainty on how to react to news (for example, is expecting another child good or bad news?) might lead to embarrassment and will have to be resolved interactionally. The announcement response as well as the elaboration will consequently tell observers a lot about the relationship of the interaction members and equally tell them something about that relationship as well.

In the fifth chapter, Maynard distinguishes three forms of news delivery according to who is the “consequential figure” (121), i.e. which person is affected by the news. He accordingly differentiates between first party news (news about me), second party news (news about you) and third party news (news about another). Part of the results of this chapter are, again, summarised in a table replicated below.  The reader might wonder what the purpose of these taxonomic exercises might be that are reminiscent of the very “pigeonholing” Maynard had initially criticised. Especially the section on second-party news (e.g. on stoic reactions to news) may be helpful for practitioners, such as nurses – and, in fact, Maynard’s data is mainly derived from such settings. Beyond that, it is less clear to see the scope of the analysis.

The next chapter asks why bad and good news tend to be delivered differently. Specifically, Maynard argues bad news creates more trouble and makes more interactional work necessary. The reason for this, he argues, can be found in Sacks’s elaborations on “being ordinary” (Sacks, Lectures on Conversation, vol. II, part IV, lecture 1, pp. 215-222). Maynard argues, “(inasmuch) as the everyday social world is achieved as externally real and ordinary, it has an accomplished benign structure”  (183). What might interest us here is the deductive move Maynard (and Sacks) employs here: from small and detailed interactional data we draw conclusions about something as general as “the everyday social world”. Of course, institutional settings might influence how difficult it is to convey negative news and how unexpected bad or good news appear in context. The degree of difficulty and the interactional work necessary to overcome it might vary accordingly. Maynard’s discussion of doctor-patient or nurse-patient interaction goes to some length in this direction as well. Nurses with news about HIV test results, for example, tend to favour distanced behaviour.

Chapter seven addresses the often-noted phenomenon that the messenger and the message tend to become confused in bad news (but very rarely in good news). In Antigone, Sophocles famously had a guard engage in a lengthy pre-announcement (followed by an even lengthier elaboration) when he delivered the news that someone buried the corpse king Creon had forbidden to be touched:

And what is it that so disheartens you?

I want to tell you first about myself—I did not do the deed, nor did I see the doer, so it would be wrong that I should come to any harm.

Like a bowman you aim well at your target from a distance, and all around you hedge yourself off well from the deed. It is clear that you have some unheard-of thing to tell.

That I do, for terrible news imposes great hesitation.

Then tell it, will you, and so unburdened go away?

[…] So here I stand, as unwelcome to you as I am unwilling, I well know. For no man delights in the bearer of bad news.”

The guard is reporting to Creon in a modern adaptation of Sophocles'  Antigone . (c) Magda Molin

The guard is reporting to Creon in a modern adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone. (c) Magda Molin

The Persians- the always present enemy of the ancient Greeks – were known to execute messengers of bad news. It can be assumed that Sophocles wanted to morally educate the spectators of his play by teaching the importance of the boundary between the message and the messenger. Over 2400 years later, the blurriness of this distinction is still able to burden interaction in a way that needs to be countervailed by practices Maynard seeks to describe.

The last chapter of the book finally tries to connect conversation analysis to broader social implications. Many authors before have doubted whether this is possible at all and Maynard’s attempt also leaves much to be desired. The “benign order of everyday life”, Maynard argues, prevents politicians from admitting mistakes and leads to such disastrous results such as the systematic denial of epidemics and their consequences. This diagnosis seems pretty disingenuous and is also empirically out of sync with the rest of the book. To transpose results from “naturally occurring” data onto highly institutional and strongly charged settings ultimately sacrifices the specificity of the issue at hands for the sake of supposed clarity.

Overall, Maynard’s book offers a lot of detailed analysis of interactional data from which EM-scholars can draw a lot of inspiration. The relation to political questions, however, still needs to be clarified and the connection of CA to ethnographic data also ends up being much less rigidly specified than one might wish for. “Limited affinity” might be a good pragmatic solution, but it does not really touch the problems CA is faced with when dealing with institutional and culturally (or morally) sensitive data. The taxonomies of interaction sequences observed by Maynard can help especially practitioners from the fields that were observed for this book. But we should ask: To what extent is the NDS a “natural event” and to what extent do institutional contexts influence it? How could we operationalise the observation of such contexts more effectively? What effects have unwanted or institutionalised repetitions of the observed sequences influence on the efficiency and the way news deliveries operate? For example, considering the amount of medical knowledge available online and the de-legitimation of the medical profession to some extent, how do challenges to bad news affect the NDS? Does the delivery of bad news in the first instance (e.g. when there is just a suspicion) affect proceeding news deliveries (e.g. impede revisions). Such chains of NDS and their institutionalisations might need more investigations and it is yet to be seen to what extent CA could be helpful for such projects.

Greg Myers (2005) Matters of Opinion: Talking about Public Issues - Review

The Paradoxes of Opinions

Focus group research has a bad reputation among many sociologists. As a method that has been particularly successful in the Anglo-American world of marketing and business research – “serious” academics tend to turn up their noses at this method. The results of focus group research often seem too predictable and too easily manipulated too be in accordance with rigorous science. Why, we could ask, should anyone believe that the things uttered in such an artificial situation as the focus group counted as social data and can be regarded as an indicator of that ephemeral and spectral thing that we have grown up to know under the name of “public opinion”?

Greg Myers book is driven in large part by this methodological scepticism that is characteristic of ethnomethodological research. He turns the readers’ attention to the notion of “opinion” and tries to develop an argument that goes beyond the dichotomy of realism and scepticism: Proponents of focus groups praise the method for simulating a more “natural” speech situation than the individual interview. They are “realists” in this sense. They attempt to show that groups of people really have “opinions” – even if they are only “social facts” – and these opinions have some degree of exteriority and objectivity. A sceptic, on the other hand, might argue that opinions are always situated, socially constructed and, ultimately, tell us more about the focus group’s moderator and sponsors than about something of such dubious existence as an “opinion”.

Myers stance – and this is again “typically ethnomethodological” – is a reflexive one. Opinions, Myers suggests, are neither fully real, nor fully unreal. They are paradoxical things:

"We cherish our own opinions, but we can also dismiss opinions as a poor substitute for facts.  Opinions are meant for public discussion, but are also private, individual, protected. Opinions are personal, but shared with a group. Opinions display one point of view, but the same speaker can express two contradictory opinions. Expressions of opinions are assumed to be ephemeral, but are also part of the on-going structure of society."

These paradoxes might explain why “opinions” lend themselves more easily (or intuitively) to ethnomethodological investigation than other objects. (Let’s remember how much uproar it caused when Latour (1986) started reminding people that the word “fact” derives from “facere”, i.e. to make or do.) Of course, readers of both Luhmann (1987) and Alice in Wonderland will be little surprised about the fact that paradoxes can be immensely productive. Myers initial intuition is, therefore, absolutely correct when he opens up the concept of opinion and follows it down the rabbit hole. Unfortunately, not unlike Alice, his engagement with opinions occasionally strolls off a little making the book and insightful and entertaining read but leaving much to be desired in terms of the consistency of its argument.


After having discussed some versions of the paradoxes of opinions in chapter 1, Myers describes an inventory for analysing talk-as-interaction that will be familiar to most interpretative researches (turn-taking, member categories, participant roles, discourse markers, rhetoric, transcription). In chapter 3 and 4, he returns to the notion of opinions and enlarges upon their contextual and institutional framing. Following Goffman, Myers points out that during focus groups participants constantly deal with the question “What is it that’s going on here? (Goffman 1986: 8)”. They need cues to find an – at least provisional – definition of the situation so they can model their contributions accordingly. But focus groups are not a very common situation for most people and different cues evoke different situations that blend into each other (e.g. raised hands invoke a classroom, while signalling agreement to close a topic invokes a meeting of some sort). This ambiguity can be productive if it prevents any specific situational definition to prevail. It can provoke many modes of contextualizing and avoids the discussion from becoming a too closely-bounded event. In chapter 4, Myers reformulates the above mentioned paradox of the opinion and marks off his approach from the “cognitive view of opinion” which conceives of opinions as distinct quantifiable entities. Instead, he refers to Blumers classic essay (1948) to describes the “social view” which describes public opinion as interactional and institutional. At this point, however, it becomes already less clear, to what degree Myers can resolve the paradoxes of opinions or indeed, whether he even tries to. It seems to me, that the tensions between the interactional and the institutional aspects of opinions only take the form of a restatement of the original paradox. And while Myers then manages to flesh out significant empirical detail by following this tension, the way his analysis relates to interactional and institutional aspects of opinions leaves some promises unfulfilled (as I will argue below).

Chapters 5-8 include the bulk of Myers’ empirical work and as such cannot be reproduced in detail here. Chapter 5 deals with the ways topics structure the interaction of the focus group, how they can be opened, acknowledged, interpreted, rejected, changed, closed or reopened. Chapter 6 is making interesting points about the ways dis-/agreement is managed in a focus group. As in natural talk more generally, disagreements tend to be dispreferred in focus groups (Sacks 1987: 57). The moderator (or facilitator) plays a crucial role in encouraging disagreement and extending the “range” of contributions (Merton et. al. 1956/1990). Myers outlines a series of techniques to make disagreement more likely: using a weak agreement first, using the moderator as a buffer, constructing others and then attributing one’s opinion to them. He makes the general point that opinions are often imagined in opposing pairs. As such, their empirical occurrence strongly depends on the moderator, on the flow or sequence of the utterances and interactional differences between groups. Chapter 7 deals with the phenomenon of reported speech. Disagreement was one example in which real or fictional others can be used to set up an argument (“Some people might find this offensive”). Reported speech in this case has the function of rendering it less serious – Myers refers to this as “detachment”. Reported speech can equally have the function to render talk more persuasive by invoking direct experience (“And I said: ‘Hell no!’”). Myers points out that many things said in focus groups cannot unambiguously be attributed to individuals as their opinion – as something they can be said to “have”. These shifts must be seen from the perspective of interactional shifts within the focus group setting. Finally, chapter 8 brings up the topic of expertise which in many cases occurs as reported speech, too (“they say”). Of the four, this chapter is the least convincing and manages to only hint at the many and confusing ways expertise is invoked to manage interactional challenges. Myers suggests to regard invocations of expertise as “claims to entitlement” (177). It represents a shift in “footing” (Goffman 1981: 128) that can reference forms of knowledge and experience that have their origin from outside the focus group.

Chapters 9 and 10 are excurses into radio phone-ins and vox pop television interviews. While interesting in themselves they constitute somewhat of a distraction from the main body of the book. It is my opinion that its overall purpose could have been achieved more elegantly without them. Leaving the empirical detail of these chapters aside, their main impetus is to ask how such displays of opinion survive even though they can in no way be said to represent “public opinion” adequately. Vox pops, Myers suggests, might survive “because of the concreteness and particularity of the faces, places, and even the little hesitations and quirks” (222). Similarly, phone-ins incorporate “all the conventions and intimacy we associate with the phone” (201) and thereby create a direct, intimate link between the listener – typically a driver in her car on her own – and the person calling in.

The pleasure of opinions

These excurses help one of Myers’ main hypotheses to which we shall turn now. Phone-ins, vox pops and focus groups work, according to Myers, because people derive a pleasure from sociable argument.: “The expression of opinions, the discovery of how one’s opinions dovetail with others (or doesn’t) in a complex on-going interaction, is part of the excitement of being with other people, and the pleasure of talk” (234). These “social games” (Simmel 1949) constitute a special interactional quality. It is unclear what Myers tries to argue by referring to the “affective” quality of exchanges of opinion and it is very unsatisfying as a result of this book for a series of reasons. Firstly, the purpose of focus groups is not the entertainment of its participants. Keeping up their spirits is certainly a necessary tool for an effective focus group but it is not their institutional “goal orientations” (cf. Drew/Heritage 1992: 22) – whereas we might argue that that is exactly the case with vox pops and radio phone-ins. A clearer differentiation between the ways interactional pleasure is institutionally contextualized would have made a clearer case of what this argument adds to our understanding of opinions (there is a possible book to be written here about the use of interactional playfulness for institutional purposes – but it was not this book). Secondly, this argument is strictly speaking not a “finding”. It does not relate to the methods used in any meaningful way and could have been made with similar force by anyone unacquainted with ethnomethodology that knows focus groups, vox pops or phone-ins. In this sense, the argument distracts from the empirical work rather than referencing it.

The “social game”-argument points to a deeper problem of this book. Myers uses the often-mentioned paradoxes of opinion to set up his book. Unfortunately, he ends up getting lost in their maze. Not entirely unlike other CA scholars who praise the special or moral character of face-to-face interactions (e.g. Anne Warfield Rawls 2010), Myers emphasises the pleasantness of exchanging opinions in order to keep up interactional sociability. Interaction thereby becomes unlocked from its institutional context and becomes a “social thing-in-itself”. This tendency is in keeping with the general sense one gets in reading large parts of his book. The interactional achievement of expressing an opinion leaves the concept itself largely untouched. It becomes thereby tempting to read this book as kind of CA-inspired guidebook to focus groups. Indeed, many classics of the trade give advice that sounds not dissimilar to what Myers tells his reader (especially Merton et. Al. 1956). This was clearly not the author’s attention but it casts doubt on the book and on the CA method more generally. Simultaneously, there is an enduring ambiguity running through chapters 5-8 as it is sometimes less clear whether Myers is discussing opinions in focus groups or opinions per se. At many points, it sounds like he is doing the latter. Paradoxically, the focus group setting then takes on the same lab-like naturalising function for his research that it does in original focus group research.

Finally, Myers manages to resolve the paradox and achieve a kind of narrative closure for his book. But the tension within the concept of opinion, I would argue, is not there to be resolved – at least not so easily. In a much too short concluding chapter, Myers comes back to the point that opinions are simultaneously mediated and situated. (the book confirms my more general suspicion that ethnomethodology and systems theory can only really survive if they finally bury their grudges and scholars manage to weave them together in empirical research). He goes into four defining features of opinions: they are interactional, packaged, mediated and intertextual. But his hints at what this means concretely do not go far and the connection to his empirical material is loose at best. If Myers had followed up on his promise to take up a “social view” that would follow the construction of opinions from interaction through to different institutional settings and discursive practices, this could have been a much stronger book. Unfortunately, he stays too close to the conversational data to really achieve this. It is questionable, whether CA on its own is really the right method to approach questions that are trans-situational, institutional, mediated and intertextual (as Yuqiong Zhou (2006) has also pointed out). My strong inclination is to say probably not. As a result, Myers achieves a lot of things in his books. He lays out a convincing and thoughtful way to talk about the interactional qualities of opinions. He develops a conversation analytic perspective on the phenomenon of focus groups. He compares different formats in which opinions are constructed. But Myers cannot deliver all the things he sets out to do initially. Especially the ways in which the interactional aspects of opinion construction links up to institutional contexts and become points of reference that can travel across situations remain unexplored. This leads to some considerable ambiguity which undermines the overall methodological implications of the argument. This being said, these tensions give the reader ample opportunity to contemplate the extent of micro-sociological research, which – combined with its empirical insight – makes Matters of Opinion a more than worthwhile read for anyone interested in conversation analysis, public opinion research or political communication.

Listening to J.L. Austin in his own voice

Harvard has recently published a tape from a 1959 lecture that Austin held in Sweden. Everyone acquainted with speech act theory will not be surprised by anything he says. But it is nice to listen to this significant figure of ordinary language philosophy that all interpretative sociologists should study (but often don't). I first read Austin at the News School where we studied his "Plea for Excuses" where the term "Ethnographic Fieldwork in Philosophy" first appears. If I ever find the time and interest to do so, I would like to look into Austin's potential significance for sociology. For the time being, I am quite happy to enjoy listening to him in person for the first time. And yes, he is exactly as posh as you would expect.