Harold Garfinkel, who brought phenomenology back to the core of social theory, died last week in Los Angeles. His best-known work, Studies in Ethnomethodology, has led a double life. It’s put to work in introductory courses so that people can read about breaching experiments, and maybe do some minor ones themselves while pining for the days before IRBs. Here its contents are often played for laughs, or the general lesson that social life is a funny old thing and simultaneously more rulebound and more fragile than one might expect. On the other hand, the essays are a thoroughgoing and deep critique of the Parsonian approach to theorizing action, and relentlessly problematize the ongoing accomplishment of everyday life.

In the 1980s, the main problematic of social theory was micro- vs macro- and how to reconcile them. A common line of argument was that macro-theory required microfoundations, and these foundations were to be sought in the stable preferences and actions of (perhaps rational) individuals. Garfinkel’s vision of micro and macro was very different. Unlike the perhaps difficult but ultimately comforting search for a well-founded base to build society on, the ethnomethodological approach was more like the discovery of subatomic states and quantum-mechanical phenomena: way up there in the world of big celestial bodies, things looked orderly and stable, and there was some plausible prospect of discovering laws of society. Even a little further down the scale you could see where the structure was, even if it was inevitably messier. Studies in Ethnomethodology, however, zoomed in even closer on the micro-level and found that it wasn’t a level at all, that everything was constantly on the verge of going completely to hell, and that chaos loomed at every turn. Even today, when I read the breaching experiments it’s still striking just how quickly things move from an ordinary, boring interaction to a bunch of confused, upset, and very, very angry people who don’t know what is happening.

It turned out to be difficult to build on the discovery of the foamy, swirling reality that society was supposed to rest its weight on. Beyond some passing remarks I’ve seen in print or heard in person by those who were connected with Garfinkel and his circle, I don’t really know (nor do I much care) why the research program stalled out or became marginalized in the way that it did. Maybe it was the problem faced by a lot of phenomenological work, which finds it hard to reconcile its key insight (based on first-person experience) with a generative research program. Maybe it was a failure to transcend a little cult of personality. Maybe it was opposition from better-positioned competitors. I don’t know. Either way, it seems like a waste. But the core contribution is still there, and Garfinkel represents a vital link between the Husserlian tradition of the early 20th century and contemporary developments in the theory of social fields.