January 8, 2000

Michael Lynch's Report on His Visit to Japan on 21 - 25 July, 1998

The following report was originally submitted by Professor Michael Lynch to the Japanese EMCA research group. Here it is reproduced with his permission. I divided the text into some sections. (AN)

Ethnomethodology and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

Professor Aug Nishizaka of Meiji Gakuin University and Professor Naoki Ueno of the National Institute for Educational Research were kind enough to invite me to visit Tokyo in late July 1998. Arrangements were made for a series of Seminars at Waseda University and the National Institute for Education Research, and a lecture at Meiji Gakuin University. A grant from the Ministry of Education and Culture, and additional financial support from Waseda University also helped make the visit possible.

The seminars and lecture covered a series of topics related to research in ethnomethodology and the sociology of scientific knowledge. T began the initial seminar at Waseda University on 21 July by summarizing my understanding of an ethnomethodological approach to practical actions and practical reasoning developed by Harold Garfinkel in the early 1970s.At that time he initiated a programme of studies of work in the professions and sciences. This programme built upon the overall vision of the production of social order presented in Garfinkel's landmark book, Studies in Ethnomethodology. Consistent with the idea that locally organised interactional practices give rise to and sustain the stable properties of the "ordinary society", Garfinkel and his students investigated specialised forms of expertise associated with unique social and natural orders in science, law, medicine, and other fields. Sociological approaches which were dominant at the time tended to represent the work of the professions and sciences in terms of general sociological variables. By so doing, they disregarded the distinctive competencies and social relations that scientists, artists, and lawyers cultivated, and thus, according to Garfinkel, they failed to take into account just how such competencies are implicated in the production of social order.

At around the same time, the Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) was being developed at the University of Edinburgh and elsewhere in Great Britain. Like Garfinkel, the proponents of the Strong Programme criticised earlier approaches in the sociology of science for missing the distinctive "nature and contents" of the natural sciences. Much of the inspiration for the Strong Programme came from the philosophy of science, and in many respects the version of sociology promoted by SSK was unsophisticated. In the seminar, I discussed a number of critical differences between ethnomethodology and ``constructivist" SSK (these are developed in greater detail in my book ``Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action"), but I also noted that because of its success and visibility, SSK cannot be ignored by anyone who would study the organization of scientific and technical practices. Both ethnomethodology and SSK orient to features of ``actual" scientific practice which differ from (and sometimes contradict) philosophical and methodological idealisations. And there is a family resemblance between SSK's notion of symmetry (the same form of social explanation should be given for scientific knowledge, regardless of whether it is two is that ethnomethodological indifference extends to the sociological resources that SSK would use to ``explain" the construction of scientific knowledge.

Formal Instructions and Practical Actions

In the seminar at Waseda University on 22 July, I focused on a recurrent theme in ethnomethodological studies of work: the relationship between formal instructions and practical actions performed in "real time". To exemplify this theme, I discussed a particular study I conducted with Kathleen Jordan (a former student of mine at Boston University, who completed a dissertation in 1997). This was a study of particular laboratory protocol known as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which was invented about 12 years ago, and has since become extremely widespread in numerous scientific, medical, and forensic laboratories. We investigated PCR in order to examine how the specific protocol was modified and accommodated to different circumstances of investigation. For us, PCR was prototypical social phenomenon: a recurrent standardised production that is performed by practitioners of varying skill and diverse interests in numerous settings. Moreover, it is a subject of endogenous practical inquiry and dispute about the identity between different trials of the "same" technique. Our study of PCR was ethnomethodological, in the sense that we investigated methodic practices (ethno-methods) as well as endogenous inquiries into the problematic organisation of those practices (ethno-methodolgy). It was an unusual ethnomethodological study because of the way we investigated numerous sites of practical inquiry. This was necessary, in order for us to "follow the technique." This was not the sort of in-depth ethnography or intensive analysis of particular tape recordings which so often is associated with ethnomethodology.

The PCR study led us to an ongoing controversy about the uses of DNA "fingerprinting" in criminal investigations. DNA fingerprinting makes use of mo1ecular biological analysis to compare traces of bodily tissue (e.g., blood or semen stains) found at crime scenes with blood or cheek-swab evidence taken from a suspect. DNA fingerprinting was controversial for several years in the US,and it was featured in the nationally te1evised OJ Simpson trial in 1994-95. During the seminar I presented transcript from the Simpson trial in order to exemplify a common type of practical inquiry that occurs during US trials. In the transcript,a laboratory administrator is Interrogated by a lawyer for the defense. The interrogator exploits a difference between procedures described in a laboratory manual and the "actual" practices performed in the lab. It is as though the defense lawyers had performed an ethnography of science. In fact,they had performed a very thorough (and expensive) investigation of laboratory practices used for analyzing evidence in the particular case. My analysis was used to demonstrate the point that ethnomethodology's subject matter includes both the practices that constitute social order and the formal analyses which render accounts of Those practices. The relation between the two can be an interesting and contentious matter,which is itself an ethnomethodological phenomenon.

Ethnomethodology and the Logic of Practice

The lecture at Meiji Gakuin on 23 July, was held as part of a colloquium series in the Graduate School of Sociology. My talk was entitled "Ethnomethodology and the Logic of Practice". It developed themes that had been introduced during the previous day's seminar, and again it incorporated some material from the OJ Simpson trial. One of the fundamenta1 points made in the paper is that ethnomethodology's subject matter includes loca11y and institutionally organised analyses of practices. The more technical part of the paper was about a circumscribed use of a formal logical device (the counterfactual conditional) in an interrogation. The implications of this situated use of formal logic was a subject of a lively discussion after the lecture.

Pictures Juxtaposed and Chains of Custody

The afternoon seminars on 24-25 July at NIER were preceded by morning sessions in which Naoki Ueno, Yasuko Kawatoko, and Aug Nishizaka presented their studies of the practical organisation of work in (respectively) an industrial machine tool factory, a frozen food warehouse, and a perceptual psychology laboratory. I was gratified to see how each of these studies made creative use of themes and research strategies from ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.

During these seminar on 24 July I presented a series of slides about studies of visualisation in the natural sciences (mainly biological anatomy and optical astronomy using digital image processing). I attempted to show how pictures of different kinds (photos, diagrams, models, etc.) are often juxtaposed in pairs and series. Unique forms of sequential order and conditional relevance can be identified in the analysis of such pairs and series.

I began the seminar on 25 July by addressing a challenging question about the reasons for doing ethnomethodology, which had been asked at the end of the seminar the day before. Then I presented a series of slides which had been prepared for a project I have been doing with Ruth McNally, a Research Fellow at Brunel University (the project was supported by a grant from Economic and Social Research Council of the UK - 'Science in a Legal Context: DNA Profiling, Forensic Practice and the Courts', Award No. R000235853). The theme of the presentation was "chains of custody" the various protocols, paper trials, and devices which protect the "continuity" of criminal evidence items when they are collected, moved, stored, and analysed. A particular rape/murder case in the UK was used to exemplify the phenomenon. An example of a photocopied signature which momentari1y problematised a link in the chain was used to illustrate the fragile, seemingly trivial, ways in which chains are constituted.

I was very gratified to see that the seminars and lectures were well-attended, and that many members of the audiences expressed interest and asked challenging questions during the sessions. T also enjoyed the conversations and conviviality during the reception at NIER on 24 July and the dinners after the other sessions.


I am very grateful for the excellent work of translation done by my friends Mikako Sato, Yoshi Fujimori, and Nozomi Ikeya. Mikako handled the translation during the seminar on 21 July, Yoshi translated on 22 and 23 July, and Nozomi was enlisted on 25 July to act spontaneously as my translator. I was unable to give my translators advanced texts for most of what I presented, but they did marvelous work. Mikako and Yoshi also devoted a great deal of their time guiding my wife and I around Tokyo and accompanying us on trips during the weekend.

I am very grateful to Aug Nishizaka and Naoki Ueno for all of the help, support, and guidance they gave me before and during the visit. Professor Nishizaka took many hours from his busy schedule ad Department Chairman to make sure that I know what to expect in the seminars, and had an enjoyable visit. Taeko Nishizaka also helped my wife enjoy her visit to Tokyo by taking her to museums and tea ceremony. So, we are very grateful for the guidance and friendship we received.

I am grateful that the Ministry of Education and Culture made it possible for me to visit Tokyo. I especially would like to thank Professor Kitazawa for arranging the Waseda seminar and helping to secure financial support from Waseda University. I understand that without his efforts, my visit would not have been possible. Waseda University contributed financial support for the seminars on 21-22 July, and Meiji Gakuin University sponsored the lecture on 23 July. Satoyuki Morita and Kazuo Nakamura deserve special thanks for their help with the local arrangements for the seminars and lecture, I also would like to thank the EMCA, the DEE and the GSR research groups for helping to circulate announcements. And, finally, I would like to thank all of the participants for attending the sessions, participating in some lively discussions, and contributing to the financial support.

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