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Observation and membership categorization: Recognizing “normal appearances” in public space

Abstract: This paper looks at some mundane procedures that the sociologist, as a member of society, uses in making sense of observations. An ethnographic vignette presents a sociological problem: the observer categorizes a member as a pickpocket, even though no crime was actually witnessed. Membership Categorization Analysis shows how the categorial order is realized through observation of the visual scene. This paper discusses the nature of “serendipity” in sociological inquiries, highlighting the problematic nature of description, and what are to be taken as “data”.

Introduction

The functions and universality of categorization and classification systems are famously documented as parts of the anthropological and sociological canons (Durkheim 1971; Durkheim and Mauss 1963). Processes of categorization and classification, of people and things, are ubiquitous aspects of our lives (Bowker and Star 1999). Categorization is a routinized, mundanely available feature of academic, bureaucratic and everyday environments (Rose 1942).

Membership categories are ordinary descriptions and identifications of persons and collections of persons, which are used and applied by members on a commonplace and routine basis, in order to organize the social world in which they live. The use of membership categories is culturally methodic, i.e. membership categories are known and shared within a culture. Membership categories are features of the use of natural language, constituent features of ordinary language practices, i.e. culture. Membership Categorization Analysis is an attitude towards and explication of this aspect of people’s cultural logic.

This paper1 explores the generic and routine activity of observation. It moves towards the explication of observation as a linguistic, categorial activity, a gloss for an assemblage of members’ methods, such as categorization and making inferences, from visually available appearances. By examining the activities of serendipitous observations or a “discovery through chance” (Merton 1957:12), this paper is moving towards the procedural basis or the “how” of social analysis. It deals with unexplicated categorial order, taking visual appearances as researchable phenomena.

This paper remarks on the activities of observation whilst remaining neutral about what is being observed. A single-case vignette is presented to make available the practices of observation. Without providing a “preferred viewing” of observations, the vignette is available to analysis and interpretation. Therefore, this paper avoids stipulating the categorial order and attempts to present data derived from observations as transparently as possible. Hence, readers can “retrieve” the mundane cultural methods used in the analysis, and suggest alternatives.2 Whilst “a solution” is presented before “the puzzle”, this solution is a candidate solution rather than the solution to the puzzle.

Observation and Serendipity

This paper highlights issues of sociological reportage: the nature of data and ethnographic description, the status of “observation” as a research method, and “observations” as data. As well as a personalized report on (what may have been) criminal activity in public space, this paper is a contribution to the literature on “serendipity” in observational, textual and sociological research (inter alia, Becker 1994; Merton 1957; Merton and Barber 2002; Price 1986; Ramos 1998; Richman 1999; Roth 1963; Taylor, Zurcher and Key 1970; Thomas and Znaniecki 1958; Watson 1996). These studies are connected via the problematization of unforeseen contingencies as topics for analysis. Serendipity “involves the unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which exerts pressure upon the investigator for a new direction of inquiry which extends theory” (Merton 1957:105). In practical terms, this means being in a certain place at a certain time when the opportunity to observe an occasioned, contingent phenomenon presents itself.

Observation as an Intersubjective Activity

Edward Rose (1994) discusses how “looking” is a mundane activity. The resources for his paper derived from observations he made as his eyesight was undergoing rapid deterioration. Even with the limited vision he had at the time, Rose elaborates upon Sacks’ notion of the “viewer’s maxim”, which Sacks defined as follows:

If a member sees a category-bound activity being done, then, if one can see it being done by a member of a category to which the activity is bound, then: see it that way (Sacks 1974:225)

That is, even with limited vision, via his use of the viewer’s maxim, Rose was able to recognize how the visual scene was constituted. As Rose reports, the scene consisted of “an adult” walking past the railing upon which he was seated, “towards” the elementary school, and “a child” circling around the adult. “Being walked to school” is a category-bound activity. When seeing an adult and child walking towards a school, on a school-day, first thing in the morning, it is inferred 1) that a parent is walking a child to school; 2) that a parent walks their child to school, rather than somebody else’s child; and 3) that a child walks to school with their parent, rather than another child’s parent. In this visual scene, Rose recognized the adult as a parent of the child who skipped around them, and that the child attended the elementary school that they were approaching. Thus, Rose “saw” a parent escorting their child to school.

There is an alignment between Rose’s watching this scene and his early fieldwork encounter, watching Paul Radin talking with a tribal chief whilst they were seated on a timber fence beside the Russian River. The significance of this event, for Rose, was the thoroughly linguistic nature of fieldwork activities. Indeed this is the connection between these events: the realization that the world is linguistically constituted. This does not reduce fieldwork to conversation but highlights instead how fieldwork activities—talking with informants, taking notes, observing the scene, walking the street—involve natural language activities. The routine, natural language practices involved in making sense of a scene—watching people, talking with people, listening to people’s accounts—are done by lay people as well as sociologists. Observation is not inert: members (lay people and sociologists) are active observers of the world, and actively attend to an intersubjective, visual order. Whilst Rose’s vision was problematic, the inferences that the scene made available to him via the viewer’s maxim were mundanely available to anyone witnessing the same scene.

Observation as Analysis

The beginnings of future analyses may emerge during activities of data-collection and data-assembly, for example, the activities of recording and transcribing. Research is not episodic, as if analysis only begins when gathering data stops. In similar fashion, observation may be regarded as generating analysis:

[I]t is one legitimate and fruitful way to approach materials, for the initial observations themselves, and in that that sort of sophisticated lay observation of a scene is one way that you come to find items that can be extracted and developed quite independently of the observations one initially made (Sacks 1992:271)

Observations are made using ordinary, sense-making practices. In Rose’s (1960) terms, a “natural sociological” account precedes the “professional sociological” account. When an observer makes observations, some observations are regarded as more/less relevant than others, some observations may be regarded as irrelevant, some “observations” might not be “observed” at all; in other words, “seen but unnoticed” (Garfinkel 1967:36). The observer may make connections with the visual scene, as instantiations of activities, as previously identified phenomena, or as observations that fit into an analytic framework.

There follows an ethnographic vignette, an account of a series of observations made in the course of one evening in Brussels, Belgium. That night occasioned reflections on the nature of observation for sociology. The source and outcome of these reflections is the recognition that in becoming “cognizant” with a visual scene, observations qua ordinary member are made before observations (and analysis) qua sociologist. That is, ordinary, common-sense activities in the interpretation of a visual order occur and are arrived at prior to (and as a basis of) sociological interpretations.

Fieldnotes were made at the time, and were written up several hours afterwards. As a sequence of fieldnotes, the report is to be approached with caution due to selectivity, memory recall and time-lags between the incidents and opportunities to write notes, opportunities to write notes in long-hand, and transferring these extended notes into a report. Some base-notes were made on the evening of the reported observations in Brussels, and were finished the next afternoon, on my return to England. It is, therefore, a personalized and contingent report.3

Vignette: An Evening in Brussels

I was in Brussels for one night. I wanted to do some exploring but for the moment I couldn’t go too far from the hotel: first, I had to find somewhere to eat and then cash some travelers cheques to pay the concièrge. Once this was out of the way I resumed the exploring; from time to time I returned to the Grand Plâce to see its illuminations by night.

I took some photographs. As I replaced the camera in its pouch, a man—he was wearing a yellow sleeveless jumper—put his arm out and stepped off the pavement directly in front of me. I had to stop abruptly otherwise we would have collided. I have no idea whether this was intentional. At the time it seemed quite a threatening gesture and I anticipated a confrontation. I was in a strange town whilst he was Bruxellesçois. Instead, however, he moved off with two other men so I relaxed. I relaxed because they spoke English: so he wasn’t Bruxellesçois after all. If there was going to be a disagreement I would prefer it to be in English.

I walked behind them around side streets. The other two men had northern English accents, and they were talking about “Shearer and Sheringham”. Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham play football (soccer) for different teams in the English Premier League, but play together only in the England team. So I inferred that they were talking about the national team, but I could not place the game they were talking about. I moved up behind them to listen more closely for news on the England team.

As I accelerated to overhear better, the man in the yellow tank top turned away. So I suddenly realized that he was not with these two men, although from behind, the “tie signs” and spatial alignments indicated that they were all together. Indeed, that he had been close beside them all the time didn’t appear to have been noticed by the two men.

This was a fleeting observation. The Euro ’96 football championship was being held in England, and I was more interested in listening to a conversation in order to catch up on the results. The men were not particularly informative, and I stopped to watch the towering arrangements of fresh fruit and live crustaceans that were being set out on stalls in the narrow street.

As I passed a doorway, I caught sight of a television inside; some people were sitting below it, looking up at the screen: a football match, between players wearing white shirts and orange shirts, which was available “at a glance” as the England versus Holland match. So this was the match the men had been talking about. I went into the café. It was rapidly getting darker, and neon signs were lighting up. With the score at 4-0, I settled my bill and set off to the Grand Plâce again.

This was to be my penultimate visit there: the outdoor cafés had not packed up their tables and chairs; there were still some people finishing their drinks. There were a lot of young men sitting on the museum wall, watching the tourists. Tourists: people craning their necks looking up at magnificent buildings, cameras round their necks or at the ready, groups of people shuffling together whilst one of their number squinted through a camera viewfinder, people carrying maps and looking at guidebooks.

Having paid the concièrge I entered the Grand Plâce from the Central Station/Rue Des Eperonnier side. As I was standing with my back towards the museum I realized that the two elderly women next to me were speaking in English. They were a curious couple, standing in one corner of the Grand Plâce, facing each other, animatedly discussing a neighbor.4

Then I noticed—and again this is a fleeting observation, perhaps peripheral vision—that the man wearing a yellow tank top was standing just beside one of them (the nearest one to me, with her back towards the direction of Central Station). I took a second look: he had his head held back and was looking diagonally across and towards the spires above us. He was standing as any other tourist would stand.

Well now I knew who he was—or rather what he was—and therefore what he was (or was not) doing. Of course he was not a tourist, he was not admiring the view. He was eyeing-up these women’s pockets, or bags, with a “pickpocket gaze”5: where would he find money or valuables, an assessment made whilst affecting or mimicking the activities associated with being a tourist.

I was genuinely fascinated by his passing as a tourist, but gripped in a dilemma. Here are two elderly women (categorizable as “vulnerable to pickpockets”6), who speak English (and would understand any warning that I might cry out), and I hoped to stop this man from taking advantage of them. Maybe he noticed me staring: he walked away. Perhaps he had stolen something as he walked away; I could not tell and shall never know.

I went for another walk. There were a lot of tourists taking photographs at the bottom of a street, so something of interest was happening. (It was the Manneken-Pis.) I returned to the Grand Plâce to watch the illuminations come on. I started to get bored and became more interested in the shutting down of the cafés: people being asked to drink up and move on, taking the furniture inside the cafés leaving customers isolated, etc. Whilst watching plastic tables and chairs being removed from the café alongside the museum, I noticed the yellow tank top. It was the pickpocket again.

He was standing with—among—a group of Asian tourists. It did strike me as odd that he had the audacity to manœuvre himself into a group of people. His manner was of following the flow of conversation—he even seemed to laugh as they laughed rather than standing adjacent to them. Suddenly the group, or a member of the group, made an exclamation: they all ran towards a brightly-lit window (it looked like jewellery from my position). “Ran” is the wrong word: they moved less than ten yards, but very fast. They huddled together, staring at the glittering contents of the window, and I watched the man in the yellow tank top rush with them. His trajectory was slightly different though; they rushed headlong, whilst he arrived at the same place by moving in an arc, finishing up nearest to me, staring into the window. If I had not known otherwise, I would have thought he was in their group, a friend or relative. At a glance he was in their group. He passed, or attempted to pass, as being with them.

He turned away and looked at me. At this point I do not know whether he had stolen anything or not. I was looking directly at him (I had been staring at him for some time) and had a notebook and pencil in my hand. I was in the process of putting the book into my jacket pocket; it was catching on the pocket lining, so I had to take some time over it. I held the flap of the pocket up so that the red cover of the notebook was visible. I knew I was smirking at him: he began walking away, “hugging” the museum wall, looking at my uplifted pocket flap. He caught my eye again and disappeared. By that I mean I turned to my left, where the women were still talking, but did not see him.

Recognizability: Observation, Passing and Membership Categorization

I did not see this person pick anybody’s pocket in the Grand Plâce. Nevertheless, I recognized him to be a pickpocket. Here is a sociological problem, then: without any evidence to confirm his being a pickpocket, I saw him for what he was. I did not see him engage in any criminal activity, yet still I claim to have seen a pickpocket. This was the first pickpocket I have ever recognized as a pickpocket, but without any previous experience of watching pickpockets, how did I realize that he was a pickpocket?

I am emphasizing the visibility aspect because, I presume, pickpockets should blend into a crowd—surely pickpockets rely upon their invisibility?7 I take it that pickpockets depend upon our very inability to spot them in order to steal from people. I “wrote-up” fieldnotes made at the scene and in the hours which followed. I do not expect to have the opportunity of “spotting” a pickpocket again.8

I also recognize, however, that this may be quite dissatisfying for readers. After all, I am talking about a series of observations: there are no still photographs or video-recordings. (I do not imagine that one could, either, for I assume that any self-respecting pickpockets would not allow themselves to be caught on camera.) The fleeting, once-only nature of such observations problematizes conventional understandings of data, description and interpretation (Watson 1996:120-121). As such, this paper presents readers with “an altogether informal, unproved, perhaps unproveable, perhaps irrelevant to prove it, characterization of what took place” (Sacks 1992:271).

I cannot prove that this actually happened and actually happened in this way. However, in this paper I am not interested in proving that I saw a pickpocket. It is of sociological interest that I can claim to have seen a pickpocket, that I did indeed see things this way. It is because I did not see him pick anyone’s pocket, that perhaps the question is not whether he actually was a pickpocket. I take it that the topic of inquiry is how I saw things, that I saw things one way rather than another. These considerations of the observation of a pickpocket have been made as an ordinary member: inferences drawn from observations are warranted by my membership in society. Although the “data” for this paper are not retrievable, such as transcripts or recordings, the inferential and categorizational work done is made as transparent as possible for readers to adjudge the warrant of observations. As such, the importance of this procedure is “what the observer brings to the datum rather than the datum itself” (Merton 1957:105).

Sometimes we recognize individual people as being representatives of a certain type of person. That is, we categorize them. I have not been trained to “spot” criminal activity; however, we can learn to categorize people and we can be taught to categorize people. From hospital settings, Hughes (1977) outlines some of the features of recognizing and categorizing patients, that categorization is not necessarily based on medical expertise but also on common sense judgements. Sbaih (1995) notes how triage nurses recognize and differentiate between urgent and not-so-urgent patients as they enter the Accident and Emergency Department (A&E), or Emergency Room (ER). The triage nurses “prioritize” patients: they adapt the queue of patients as necessary should new cases present themselves for treatment. Their professional competence enables them to see “what is different” (Sbaih 1995:63). So A&E queues are a “special case” of queue. Queues display the coincidence of sequence and category (Watson 1997), where “sequential turns” in the queue can be seen as “categorial turns” (such as next in line, next-but-one, etc.). But to be “next in line” in the A&E queue is contingent upon the arrival of emergencies categorized as “more urgent” medical emergencies.

Following Sacks, we find that some people are trained and experienced at “seeing” what is different; however, it is not just trained personnel who utilize as an observational method the “incongruity procedure” (Sacks 1972:283). The “incongruity procedure” means by recognizing who and what is “normal” at a certain place, anyone or anything different or out of place becomes noticeable, such as White men making towards a corner to buy heroin in a Black neighborhood.

“Our pace was perhaps just a little too fast; our heads were bent a bit too low; and our arms were swinging just a little too fast and wide; but we tried to act like normal white pedestrians strolling innocently through East Harlem at midnight under a freezing December drizzle” (Bourgois 1998:38)

From this quotation, normality varies with time as well as place. What is normal on a weekday may not be normal at the weekend; what is normal during the day may not be normal at night.

In the Grand Plâce, I did not recognize and categorize this man as a pickpocket by looking at him in a “passing glance” (Sudnow 1972). Recognizing and categorizing his activities took time; I came to the realization that he was a pickpocket, rather than “instantly” recognizing him as a pickpocket. Garfinkel (1967) formalized a family of members’ methods as the “Documentary Method of Interpretation”: with the historico-prospective unfolding of events, and the mutual elaboration and revision of underlying patterns and indexical particulars, I recognized a man to be Bruxellesçois, English, then Bruxellesçois again. Over a course of time, I began to understand what he was doing:

As the police are oriented to using appearances as evidence of criminality, so criminals are oriented to using appearances as fronts, i.e. as hindrances to recognition (Sacks 1972:284)

Upon closer inspection, I recognized his activities to be “recognizably tourist” activities, that he was engaged in activities in which any new visitor to the city would be involved. However I had previously observed him in different areas of the Grand Plâce and in streets surrounding the Grand Plâce—remembering how I had been wary of him because I recognized him to be a habitué, familiar with the place, whilst I was the visitor. Further, I recognized him to be a habitué even though I had never seen him before in my life, and knew nothing of his personal biography. I knew that this was his “home”.9

Furthermore, I saw him present himself for all practical purposes as a tourist even though I knew he was not a tourist. I recognize that “‘tourists’ comprise visible kinds of persons, how their presence, appearance, accoutrements, ways of talking show who they are and make plain the purpose of their activities to anyone who should witness them” (Watson and Sharrock 1991:6). I do not consider that it requires “expert” knowledge in order to see someone presenting as a tourist when they are a habitué, but for what reasons would he be doing this?

Some researchers have found that people in “marginalized” or “stigmatized” groups engage in the work of passing. Eidheim discussed a small population of Lapps living in northern Norway. He found that the stigmatized Lapps restricted their use of their own language: “Lappish must be regarded as a secret language or code, regularly used only in situations where trusted Lappish identities are involved” (Eidheim 1969:45). This is an instance of what Goffman (1968:31-45) called “the own” and “the wise”: the wise are those people who know a person’s true identity, with no need for any façade. The own are those people who are unaware of a person’s true identity, and from whom their true identity will be concealed.

In order to pass consistently as having an identity different from one’s real identity, the building up of forms of evidence is necessary. Watson (1970) showed Black South Africans in Colander, under the Apartheid regime, who were “passing for White”. Only White people were eligible to perform certain kinds of work. Even if they did not appear to be White, if a person performed such tasks, it was assumed that they could not be Black. Poverty was associated with being Black rather than White. Living in a Whites-only area was also taken as evidence of a White identity. If suspicions were raised about a person’s ethnic identity, a pass-White could reply “I do a Whites-only job, I live in a Whites-only area, my children go to a Whites-only school, and I’m a member of a Whites-only tennis club.” A combination of these is taken as evidence that a person is Not-Black.

Garfinkel (1967) gives an account of “Agnes”, an inter-sexed person. Agnes was born male, but when Garfinkel met her she had been living as a female for two years. Within that time she had been learning how to be seen as a woman rather than as a man. At the time of Garfinkel’s study, a person was seen either as a woman or a man. Like the pass-Whites in Colander, not being seen as one meant that a person was seen as the other. Agnes knew that if people didn’t see her as male then she would be seen as she wanted, as female. Garfinkel learned from Agnes how people are seen at first glance and over time to be a certain sex; and how the knowledge of sexual comportment can be exploited in order to pass as a member of a different sex.

There is also the problem of establishing a particular shared cultural identity. For example, how do you make sure that you will be recognized as an American prisoner of war rather than a Vietnamese guard, and that the person you are communicating with is also an American prisoner of war (Butler 1977:403). Part of this involves knowing how to pass as a member of a particular category, it involves certain cultural knowledge. In Butler’s case, he was talking about a “pass-code”: something which American prisoners of war would know and that they could rely upon their Vietnamese guards not knowing. What this present paper is referring to is something cross-cultural: things that tourists normally do and habitués do not.

So the same common-sense practices with which we recognize someone as being female, or White, can be relied upon by someone who wishes to pass as female or White. As Sacks said, “Persons may exploit an ability to present appearances to which they are not entitled” (Sacks 1972:284). Also, these same interpretative methods can be clues for pickpockets when they are “‘taking in the sights’, or, in other words, looking for ‘live ones’” (Shaw 1966:97). The visual order is an intersubjective order. Members, on a routine basis, see what other people see; Sacks (1972) elucidates how different finite provinces of meaning open up different ways of observing the visual order. He also suggested how the police see everyday objects “in terms of favorite misuses”, e.g. that “[g]arbage cans are places in which dead babies are thrown” (Sacks 1972:292). Sacks did not limit the activity “doing looking” to the police, however:

for a bunch of people on a train, each of them may have a different way of seeing who else is there. That can be suggested in a fairly obvious way. One guy on the train could see the others as “whites”, one guy may see the others as “marks” (e.g. if he’s a pickpocket), and various other such ways of seeing what the others are (Sacks 1992:6)

This analysis suggests that pickpockets, looking for potential targets, see “live ones” as those people likely to be carrying money (like tourists) in much the same way that people in Colander see someone to be White (rather than Black), or female (rather than male).

Conclusion

The visual order is a linguistic order, in that members categorize each other ongoingly. The ongoing activities of categorization produce a visual scene, which is linguistically constituted and linguistically organized from within. This paper notes how the categorial order is realized via observation of the visual scene. Such considerations have a general relevance for sociology because sociologists approach visual settings as members of the self-same society they study, using the same common-sense methods as other society-members use.

The considerations in this paper are speculative and corrigible: after all, I did not see any crime committed. This is instead a report of what “street ethnography” might usefully consist—the methods we use to make sense of appearances of public space. At the heart of observation—and passing—is the issue of recognizability: how visual scenes are recognized—and made recognizable—by members.

Notes

1 Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Roger Slack and Rod Watson, who gave valuable feedback on the analysis. A version of this paper was included in my Ph.D. thesis (Carlin 2000), which was funded by the ESRC; this version has been produced with financial support from the H.W. Wilson Foundation.

2 Such reanalysis could conceivably produce a “Goffmanian” account of observations.

3 For example, the tenses used in the writing of the vignette have been preserved.

4 A neighbor, I presumed, from “back home”; furthermore, from their accents, I presumed that “home” was in England.

5 In my fieldnotes I underlined this phrase and drew attention to formulations of observation: the “tourist gaze” (Urry 1990) and “professional vision” (Goodwin 1994).

6 This is a predicate that may be imputed onto incumbents of this category (Lee and Watson 1993:105-106).

7 Maurer (1964:174) observes that this is a naïve presumption: “Because the public has been impressed with the fact that pickpockets work in crowds, there is a widespread belief that they cannot work anywhere else. This is not true”.

8 The chance or “opportunist” nature of my noticing this pickpocket is emphasized by Maurer (1964), who asserts that pickpockets are easier to spot when working in teams—for example, via the wearing of an identifiably national costume (Watson 1995:206)—than when working alone.

9 A realization made more pertinent by the language barrier, which I noted in the vignette. As Watson (1995:198) observes “est un principe un espace public, mais pas ‘mon’ espace public.”

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Author: As H.W. Wilson Newman Scholar in Library & Information Studies, Andrew P. Carlin conducted research on aspects of academic texts, disciplinary boundaries and bibliographic practices, and encouraged students of ethnomethodology to study libraries as public spaces. This involved observation of members’ mundane activities in library spaces – queuing, passing between stacks, claiming ownership of desks, and the ratified use of space.

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