American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Social Interaction and Presentation of Self in a Masked World (Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis)

Anne Rawls, Bentley University
David Gibson, University of Notre Dame

The COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of what we do as sociologists, throwing into sharp relief the dangers of adhering to individualism and disregarding the social mechanisms of cooperation and scientific/occupational expertise that organize the myriad situations of everyday life. As the pandemic reveals the inequalities and contradictions in our society, sociologists engaged in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (EM/CA) are uniquely placed to examine what happens when taken-for-granted assumptions and interactional practices change rapidly. In the tradition of Durkheim, we take an empirical social-contract approach, examining the underlying conditions of cooperation that ground sensemaking (making recognizable social facts), and how the need for reciprocity and trust limits the conditions under which social arrangements are viable. 

Harold Garfinkel, the originator of ethnomethodology, found that disruptions/breeches of expected everyday behavior reveal underlying and unstated social conditions that usually remain invisible. The failure of the U.S. response to COVID-19 is a peculiarly EM/CA moment, revealing the ugly underbelly of U.S. society: The stark reality that society requires “essential” workers to sacrifice their lives for the economy; that high death rates are associated with polluted living conditions, lack of shelter, food insecurity and poor access to medical care; and that mass incarceration and policing kill. We are ensnared in something very like an ethnomethodological breaching experiment that is revealing hidden and unwelcome secrets. 

The problems revealed by the crisis intersect with three areas of EM/CA section research. Section members immediately began studying how ordinary people and experts are making sense in this rapidly altering social space by mobilizing interactional resources in new ways.

First, expected ways of doing ordinary things are being fundamentally disrupted/breeched. Practices for passing strangers on the street, entering into and exiting encounters, claiming space in parks/beaches, and forming lines, are being rapidly reinvented. David Gibson reports that social distancing in fluid, public settings is uneven, likely exacerbated by a lack of reciprocity in perspectives. Section member, Clemens Eisenmann, is part of a group of 100+ scholars from over 25 countries making observations of ongoing interactional changes.

Our ability to interact face-to-face with significant others, on whom we rely for confirmation of presentations of self, identity, and meaning, has been severely curtailed. Section member Neil Jenkins is studying face-to-face interaction and technical platforms, and “the collaboration needed for ‘satisfactory’ communication and work practices.”

The locations where people achieve social identities and the identities available in those locations have changed for many who need to achieve working identities at home or online. In an observational study, I find this particularly difficult for students, whose families tend not to recognize them in their adult outside-the-home identities. Students also report that family rituals interfere with working-at-home. 

The familiar daily social organization of time and space has stopped, leaving many disoriented — describing a simultaneous experience of having too much time and not enough. As daily routines are disrupted, and we lose the social practices and markers that create a stable shared sense of time and space, the experience of these social categories is left to the vicissitudes of individual experience: revealing their social character in the breech. 

Second, inequalities of race, class, and gender become obvious as the middle-class shelters in place, leaving poor, Black, and female workers to risk their lives on the front lines. As people realize that everyone depends on the health and security of those we have systematically overlooked, we see that the poor are the “makers” while the rich are the “takers.” Racism, hidden in tacit interactional practices since the 1960s, is now displayed in high rates of death and illness.

Section member Waverly Duck reports that some White Americans are having difficulty making sense of why they should obey Black essential workers who instruct them to wear masks, wait in line, and stand six feet apart in venues (like supermarkets), making it obvious they have never taken direction from a Black person before. 

Third, are the specialized ethno-methods of those we rely on for scientific expertise. In science — as in everyday life – it is necessary to establish the scientific “object” through social practices. Ethnomethodology focuses on how procedures for producing knowledge, such as official statistics and epidemiological models, depend on social practices. Official statistics are as much a reflection of the practices used to constitute them as of the world they purport to measure. The categories “death from COVID-19” and “infected with coronavirus,” for example, are social constructions, not unrelated to the brutal biological facts of illness and death but shaped by social exigencies of testing and categorization. Expert methods/practices in other institutional settings are also in the spotlight, including those used by prisons to judge who can safely be released and by doctors who must quickly determine a patient’s prognosis in order to allocate scarce respirators, antibiotics, etc. 

On the street and in institutional settings, lives now hang on methods of “ad-hocing,” muddling through, and “good enough,” which ethnomethodology, with its commitment to detailed observation and attention to ethno-methods, is uniquely suited to study and explain.