microsociology 3005

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Thomas J. Scheff

The basic idea of microsociology is to fill in
the human detail missing from abstract repre
sentations of human beings and their societies.
The endeavor begins by describing, second
by second, the structure/process of social life.
The goal is to show the reciprocal relation
ship between these events and the nature of the
society in which they occur, how each causes the
other. There have been three main approaches:
ethnographic, experimental, and linguistic.

Ethnography fills in some of the details by
close observations and reportage of behavior in
context. One example is the study by Edwin
Lemert of paranoia among executives in busi
ness organizations. By interviewing and obser
ving several subjects, Lemert was able to make
a signal contribution to the development of
labeling theory.
Experimental studies by Asch and others
provide an important example of the use of
the quantitative approach to show fine grained
aspects of context that influence conformity
and non conformity. Perhaps the most surpris
ing result of these studies was that a large
minority of subjects are easily but inappropri
ately influenced by their blatant conformity to
the behavior of the majority.
Finally, discourse and conversation analysis
of social interaction has demonstrated lawful
regularities in linguistic sequences (such as
questions and responses) that usually go unno
ticed. Unlike the first two approaches, close
reading of verbal texts reveals the otherwise
invisible filigree that makes up a vital core of
human relationships.
However, each of the three approaches is
specialized to the point that important aspects
are omitted or obscured. Ethnography is usually
reported at the level of ordinary language, miss
ing systematic observation and analysis of fine
details. Quantitative studies are systematized,
but leave out the details of context, sequence,
and, for the most part, nonverbal components.
Conversation analysis emphasizes system and
sequence, but omits the link to the larger
social context in which dialogue takes place.
These difficulties pose a crucial problem for
sociology. How can we represent human reality
if there are no actual persons anywhere in our
In one of Milan Kunderas essays on the
history of the novel he addresses the problem
of accessing human reality:

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own
life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of
love. The most precious, the most important
situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense
remains (I took this point of view, he took that
one. I was aggressive, he was defensive), per-
haps a detail or two, but the acoustic-visual
concreteness of the situation in all its continuity
is lost.