From Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, 1967, pp. 38-44, 75.


Some essential features of common understandings


Various considerations dictate that common understandings cannotpossibly consist of a measured amount of shared agreement amongpersons on certain topics. Even if the topics are limited in numberand scope and every practical difficulty of assessment is forgiven,the notion that we are dealing with an amount of shared agreementremains essentially incorrect. This may be demonstrated as follows.

Students were asked to report common conversations by writing onthe left side of a sheet what the parties actually said and on theright side what they and their partners understood that they weretalking about. A student reported the following colloquy betweenhimself and his wife.



HUSBAND:

Dana succeeded in putting a penny in a parking meter today without being picked up.

This afternoon as I was bringing Dana, our four-year-old son, home from the nursery school, he succeeded in reaching high enough to put a penny in a parking meter when we parked in a meter parking zone, whereas before he has always had to be picked up to

WIFE:

Did you take him to the record store?

Since he put a penny in a meter that means that you stopped while he was with you. I know that you stopped at the record store either on the way to get him or on the way back. Was it on the way back, so that he was with you or did you stop there on the

HUSBAND:

No, to the shoe repair shop.

No, I stopped at the record store on the way to get him and stopped at the shoe repair shop on the way home when he was with me.

WIFE:

What for?

I know of one reason why you might have stopped at the shoe repair shop. Why did you in fact?

HUSBAND:

I got some new shoe laces for my shoes.

As you will remember I broke a shoe lace on one of my brown oxfords the other day so I stopped to get some new laces.

WIFE:

Your loafers need new heels badly.

Something else you could have gotten that I was thinking of. You could have taken in your black loafers which need heels badly. You'd better get them taken care of pretty soon.




An examination of the colloquy reveals the following. (a) There weremany matters that the partners understood they were talking aboutthat they did not mention. (b) Many matters that the partnersunderstood were understood on the basis not only of what was actuallysaid but what was left unspoken. Many matters were understood througha process of attending to the temporal series of utterances asdocumentary evidences of a developing conversation rather than as astring of terms. (d) Matters that the two understood in common wereunderstood only in and through a course of understanding work thatconsisted of treating an actual linguistic event as "the documentof," as "pointing to," as standing on behalf of an underlying patternof matters that each already supposed to be the matters that theperson, by his speaking, could be telling the other about. Theunderlying pattern was not only derived from a course of individualdocumentary evidences but the documentary evidences in their turnwere interpreted on the basis of "what was known" and anticipatorilyknowable about the underlying patterns. [4] Each was used toelaborate the other. (e) In attending to the utterances asevents-in-the-conversation each party made references to thebiography and prospects of the present interaction which each usedand attributed to the other as a common scheme of interpretation andexpression. (f) Each waited for something more to be said in order tohear what had previously been talked about, and each seemed willingto wait.

Common understandings would consist of a measured amount of sharedagreement if the common understandings consisted of eventscoordinated with the successive positions of the hands of the clock.i.e., of events in standard time. The foregoing results, because theydeal with the exchanges of the colloquy as events-in-a-conversation,urge that one more time parameter, at least, is required: the role oftime as it is constitutive of "the matter talked about" as adeveloping and developed event over the course of action thatproduced it, as both the process and product were known fromwithin this development by both parties, each for himself as wellas on behalf of the other.

The colloquy reveals additional features. (1) Many of itsexpressions are such that their sense cannot be decided by an auditorunless he knows or assumes something about the biography and thepurposes of the speaker, the circumstances of the utterance theprevious course of the conversation, or the particular relationshipof actual or potential interaction that exists between user andauditor. The expressions do not have a sense that remains identicalthrough the changing occasions of their use. (2) The events that weretalked about were specifically vague. Not only do they not frame aclearly restricted set of possible determinations but the depictedevents include as their essentially intended and sanctioned featuresan accompanying "fringe" of determinations that are open with respectto internal relationships, relationships to other events, andrelationships to retrospective and prospective possibilities. (3) Forthe sensible character of an expression, upon its occurrence each ofthe conversationalists as auditor of his own as well as the other'sproductions had to assume as of any present accomplished point in theexchange that by waiting for what he or the other person might havesaid at a later time the present significance of what had alreadybeen said would have been clarified. Thus many expressions had theproperty of being progressively realized and realizable through thefurther course of the conversation. (4) It hardly needs to be pointedout that the sense of the expressions depended upon where theexpression occurred in serial order, the expressive character of theterms that comprised it, and the importance to the conversationalistsof the events depicted.

These properties of common understandings stand in contrast to thefeatures they would have if we disregarded their temporallyconstituted character and treated them instead as precoded entries ona memory drum, to be consulted as a definite set of alternativemeanings from among which one was to select, under predecidedconditions that specified in which of some set of alternative waysone was to understand the situation upon the occasion that thenecessity for a decision arose. The latter properties are those ofstrict rational discourse as these are idealized in the rules thatdefine an adequate logical proof.

For the purposes of conducting their everyday affairspersons refuse to permit each other to understand "what they arereally talking about" in this way. The anticipation that personswill understand, the occasionality of expressions, thespecific vagueness of references, the retrospective-prospective senseof a present occurrence, waiting for something later in order to seewhat was meant before, are sanctioned properties of common discourse.They furnish a background of seen but unnoticed features of commondiscourse whereby actual utterances are recognized as events ofcommon, reasonable, understandable, plain talk. Persons require theseproperties of discourse as conditions under which they are themselvesentitled and entitle others to claim that they know what they aretalking about, and that what they are saying is understandable andought to be understood. In short, their seen but unnoticed presenceis used to entitle persons to conduct their common conversationalaffairs without interference. Departures from such usages call forthimmediate attempts to restore a right state of affairs.

The sanctioned character of these properties is demonstrable asfollows. Students were instructed to engage an acquaintance or afriend in an ordinary conversation and, without indicating that whatthe experimenter was asking was in any way unusual, to insist thatthe person clarify the sense of his commonplace remarks. Twenty-threestudents reported twenty-five instances of such encounters. Thefollowing are typical excerpts from their accounts.


CASE 1

The subject was telling the experimenter, a member of thesubject's car pool, about having had a flat tire while going to workthe previous day.

(S) I had a flat tire.

(E) What do you mean, you had a flat tire?

She appeared momentarily stunned. Then she answered in a hostileway: "What do you mean, 'What do you mean?' A flat tire is a flattire. That is what I meant. Nothing special. What a crazy question!"


CASE 2

(S) Hi, Ray. How is your girl friend feeling?

(E) What do you mean, "How is she feeling?" Do you mean physicalor mental?

(S) I mean how is she feeling? What's the matter with you? (Helooked peeved.)

(E) Nothing. Just explain a little clearer what do you mean?

(S) Skip it. How are your Med School applications coming?

(E) What do you mean, "How are they?"

(S) You know what I mean.

(E) I really don't.

(S) What's the matter with you? Are you sick?


CASE 3

"On Friday night my husband and I were watching television. Myhusband remarked that he was tired. I asked, 'How are you tired?Physically, mentally, or just bored?'"

(S) I don't know, I guess physically, mainly.

(E) You mean that your muscles ache or your bones?

(S) I guess so. Don't be so technical.

(After more watching )

(S) All these old movies have the same kind of old iron bedsteadin them.

(E) What do you mean? Do you mean all old movies, or some of them,or just the ones you have seen?

(S) What's the matter with you? You know what I mean.

(E) I wish you would be more specific.

(S) You know what I mean! Drop dead!


CASE 4

During a conversation (with the E's female fiancee) the Equestioned the meaning of various words used by the subject . . .

 

For the first minute and a half the subject respondedto the questions as if they were legitimate inquiries. Then sheresponded with "Why are you asking me those questions?" and repeatedthis two or three times after each question. She became nervous andjittery, her face and hand movements . . .uncontrolled. She appearedbewildered and complained that I was making her nervous and demandedthat I "Stop it". . . . The subject picked up a magazine and coveredher face. She put down the magazine and pretended to be engrossed.When asked why she was looking at the magazine she closed her mouthand refused any further remarks.


CASE 5

My friend said to me, "Hurry or we will be late." I asked him whatdid he mean by late and from what point of view did it havereference. There was a look of perplexity and cynicism on his face."Why are you asking me such silly questions? Surely I don't have toexplain such a statement. What is wrong with you today? Why should Ihave to stop to analyze such a statement? Everyone understands mystatements and you should be no exception!"


CASE 6

The victim waved his hand cheerily.

(S) How are you?

(E) How am I in regard to what? My health, my finances, my schoolwork, my peace of mind, my . . . ?

(S) (Red in the face and suddenly out of control.) Look I was justtrying to be polite. Frankly, I don't give a damn how you are.


CASE 7

My friend and I were talking about a man whose overbearingattitude annoyed us. My friend expressed his feeling.

(S) I'm sick of him.

(E) Would you explain what is wrong with you that you are sick?

(S) Are you kidding me? You know what I mean.

(E) Please explain your ailment.

(S) (He listened to me with a puzzled look.) What came over you?We never talk this way, do we?


 

Concluding remarks

I have been arguing that a concern for the nature, production, andrecognition of reasonable, realistic, and analyzable actions is notthe monopoly of philosophers and professional sociologists. Membersof a society are concerned as a matter of course and necessarily withthese matters both as features and for the socially managedproduction of their everyday affairs. The study of common senseknowledge and common sense activities consists of treating asproblematic phenomena the actual methods whereby members of asociety, doing sociology, lay or professional, make the socialstructures of everyday activities observable. The "rediscovery" ofcommon sense is possible perhaps because professional sociologists,like members, have had too much to do with common sense knowledge ofsocial structures as both a topic and a resource for their inquiriesand not enough to do with it only and exclusively as sociology'sprogrammatic topic.

 


ENDNOTES:

[4] Karl Mannheim, in his essay "On the Interpretation of'Weltanschhuung' " (in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge,trans. and ed. Paul Kecskemeti (New York: Oxford University Press,1952), pp. 33-83), referred to this work as the "documentary methodof interpretation." Its features are detailed in Chapter Three.

 


Back tothe Syllabus