“A rich variety of insightful analyses and original, empirical studies”

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Björn Sjöblom
Department of Child and Youth Studies, Stockholm University


Peter Tolmie & Mark Rouncefield (red) Ethnomethodology at Play 334 sidor, inb., ill. Aldershot, Hamps.: Ashgate Publishing 2013 (Directions in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis) ISBN 978-1-4094-3755-0

Peter Tolmie & Mark Rouncefield (eds.)
Ethnomethodology at Play
334 pages, hc., ill.
Aldershot, Hamps.: Ashgate Publishing 2013 (Directions in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis)
ISBN 978-1-4094-3755-0

This latest installment in Ashgate’s series “Directions in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis” presents an introduction and twelve chapters on the ethnomethodology of leisure activities. The inclusion of the word “play” in the title is something that even the editors find the need to explain – “play” is here contrasted with “work”, the subject of a previous volume by the same editors (Ethnomethodology at work, 2011). More specifically, the present book deals with “leisure, sport and other cultural activities” taking place in non-work settings. One of the stated aims of the volume is to show the breadth of ethnomethodological analysis, demonstrating that no topic is outside its reach a priori, and that activities normally dealt with in the sociology of sport or leisure can be studied from an ethnomethodological perspective just as workplace activities can be. The editors cite several prior studies of leisure activities in which ethnomethodological perspectives have been used, but in contrast to the more common use of ethnomethodology in workplace studies, they are few in number.

This book is both contrastive to and building upon ethnomethodological studies of work, transposed to leisure activities. The introduction by Tolmie and Rouncefield summarizes some of ethnomethodology’s uneasy relationship to sociology generally, the sociology of leisure in this particular case. Like most similar stories of ethnomethodology’s relationship to any disciplinary field, the conclusion, following Garfinkel’s project, is that ethnomethodology proposes a radical shift, from the theoretically driven explanations of activities to the explications of the praxis upon which any account (in social science of otherwise) tacitly builds. In other words: what ethnomethodology can provide for leisure studies is detailed demonstrations of leisure activities, just as it has done the for workplace studies in the last few decades.

The twelve chapters of the book (many written by some very well-known scholars in the field of ethnomethodology) are organized into four parts: “domestic pleasures”, “having a hobby”, “getting out of the house” and “doing stuff together”. As far as headlines go, this is a very loose organization of the book – most (but not all) of the chapters could, for example, be characterized as being about “hobbies”. A few concern sports, distance running, rock-climbing and possibly yachting being the only examples. Also, and perhaps surprising given the proliferation of digital activities in everyday life, only one chapter (Brooker and Sharrock’s on remixing music) deals with an activity that is computer mediated.

Most of the chapters feature settings and activities that the researcher him- or herself participate in, that is, descriptions and analyses of the authors’ own leisure activities. These range from ordinary everyday activities such as preparing meals or reading bed-time stories, to much more specialized endeavors such as digital remixing of music, yachting or line dancing. The studies exhibit what Garfinkel has dubbed “the unique adequacy requirement”: the need for the analyst to have deep practical skill and knowledge in and of the activity under study, rather than merely having a theoretical interest in them. The studies are therefor, the editors claim, all examples of “hybrid studies”: the practitioner (who also happens to be an ethnomethodologist) develops an analytical account of the activity under study, explicating the praxis through which the activity and its orderliness are accomplished. As the editors claim in the introduction, “how useful or successful this is remains open to debate” (p. 11) is something the reader is advised to keep in mind when reading this book.

In this chapter, the two runners examine their “running-together”, carefully studying for example how they use vision and hearing for coordinating pace and assessing their training partner’s level of fatigue, and of their collective navigation of the terrain of their run.

The authors use a multitude of approaches. Some rely on traditional ethnographic observation (like Kelly’s chapter on line dancing), sometimes through the use of video recordings (Tolmie and Crabtree’s study of a family’s outing to the countryside). Common to all of these are, true to the ethnomethodological tradition, an attention to detail in the actions and practical reasoning of the participants. This, however, does not entail that the authors go down the route of conversation analysis, where the participants’ conversations are analyzed, primarily with regards their sequential structure. The editors are explicit about this in the introduction, distancing the ethnomethodological perspectives in the book from conversation analysis’ project. Talk, naturally, is part of many of the activities studied, but analysis of its sequentiality is never its focus. The use of detailed transcripts of verbal conduct is rare in the present book. Some chapters do, however, use concepts derived from conversation analysis. An example of this is Tolmies, Benford and Rouncefield’s study of collaboration and coordination in Irish music sessions, where local problems such as “who should play” and “what song should be played” are analyzed using concepts such as “self-selection”, “other-selection” and “completion point”, all fundamental to conversation analysis.

Other chapters rely on more autoethnographic approaches, for example Hockey and Allen-Collinson’s study of running as a joint accomplishment. In this chapter, the two runners examine their “running-together”, carefully studying for example how they use vision and hearing for coordinating pace and assessing their training partner’s level of fatigue, and of their collective navigation of the terrain of their run. In this sort of approach, ethnomethodology’s connection to phenomenological perspectives is apparent.

A third approach, of a distinct ethnomethodological type, is that of the tutorial exercise, used in ten Have’s study of identifying birds through their songs. This chapter in part aims at teaching the reader how to do this sort of bird identification, providing instructions of how to listen to actual birds and differentiate between different species singing, as well as of how to do description of its relevant properties.

Someone who is not familiar with these leisure settings may learn, through tutorial exercises and otherwise through detailed accounts, of the practices that are fundamental to these activities. For the reader who has prior experience, the studies may very well provide an eye-opener into the details of the practices that may previously have gone unnoticed. In the end, whether a researcher in leisure studies, sociology of sport or any other related discipline will find this book insightful and useful to a large degree depends on his or her attitude towards ethnomethodology. For someone who does not favor this type of analytical perspective, the chapters of the book may seem lacking in theory and generalizability. Those studies that do make use of and develop more of a theoretical apparatus do so in a distinctly ethnomethodological fashion that will perhaps seem foreign to someone not already familiar with its concepts and its prior studies. As an example, Lynch’s chapter is a very thoughtful re-examination of an (unpublished) study by Laurier and Brown on the subject of fly-fishing, and the role of socially organized vision in this activity. While Lynch provides new insights into the relationship between vision and practice, the text it examines will probably not be known outside the community of scholars of ethnomethodology.

However, for someone who already has an interest in the organization of actual, practical action and reasoning within activities of work and leisure, and especially those who favor an ethnomethodological perspective, this book provides a rich variety of insightful analyses and original, empirical studies.

Copyright © Björn Sjöblom 2014

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