Asymmetries in legal practice, asymmetries in analysis? A review of recent ethnographies influenced by the studies of work tradition
School of Sociology & Social Work, University of Tasmania, Hobart
Although Ethnomethodology/Conversation Analysis has to some extent become fragmented and institutionalised into different analytic traditions, there is still the potential for lively debate between approaches on how to conceptualise and research social settings, and for collectively challenging the assumptions, methods and findings of mainstream social science. Looking for such debates, this paper will discuss the studies of work programme in relation to legal practice. This requires researchers either to become competent in different areas of law or pursue ethnographic research with the aim of understanding technical issues. These studies make us think differently about law as a social institution to conventional sociological or policy research. They also offer a distinctive way of conceptualising and investigating “knowledge in action” and “interactional asymmetry” that differs from conversation analysis and membership categorisation analysis (although there is the potential for synergy, or perhaps creative “asymmetry” in combining approaches). The examples discussed include studies by Stacy Burns on American civil disputes, Baudouin Dupret on criminal cases concerning sexual conduct in Egypt, Bruno Latour (not normally considered an ethnomethodologist) on a French administrative court and my own research on Australian children’s courts, all published in the last decade.
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About Dr Max Travers
Max Travers started his academic career by studying history at the University of Cambridge, and later qualified as a solicitor. He then completed a masters, and then a Phd in sociology at the University of Manchester (1991) supervised by Wes Sharrock. The thesis was based on an ethnographic study of work in a small firm of criminal lawyers. It was published as The Reality of Law (1997). After teaching sociology and criminology at Bucks New University in High Wycombe, he moved to the University of Tasmania in 2003.
Dr Travers current research focuses on the mundane details of juvenile justice and he has long been a proponent of the application of ethnographic data collection methods to the largely quantitative field of criminal justice studies. His work has added description of the ‘missing what’ to legal work in a law firm, youth justice courts and quality assurance audit with a subtle yet steady focus on the real practices of people in the course of everyday life. He favours the monograph as a means of addressing or capturing different perspectives and ordinary work within institutions. In addition to The Reality of Law, he has published The British Immigration Courts (1999) and most recently The Sentencing of Children (2012), “a Chicago-style ethography”. The New Bureaucracy (2007) a study of quality assurance was partly “an attempt to understand the humble feedback form”.
His edited collection Law in Action (1997) with John F. Manzo, brought together some hard to find original pieces on the ethnomethodology and conversation analysis of law in action by Sacks and Garfinkel, alongside contemporary contributions from ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts. Methodological papers have engaged in argument with critical theorists, and positivist researchers, for example in the field of evaluation research. His text book Qualitative Research Through Case Studies (2001) is unusual in containing chapters on ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, but also for making a thorough going contrast between interpretive and critical traditions. He has argued provocatively that qualitative sociologists should be wary against commercial or state-driven pressures to be innovative.
Dr Travers was the lead investigator on a large grant to investigate regulation in the field of affordable housing, and has recently applied with colleagues at the University of Tasmania to study homelessness and bail practices. He is conscious that it is difficult to pursue ethnomethodological or even sociological research in a thorough going way on such applied projects. The report on housing does, however, describe how organisations experience and understand “red tape”. His most recent project has been to make contacts with Asian criminologists, with a view to pursuing a comparative interpretive study in which researchers from different countries reflect on comparison. A paper that introduces the traditions of symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology to a readership more familiar with quantitative traditions in criminology, but perhaps open to a different viewpoint, is being reviewed by the Asian Journal of Criminology.