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Psychology and Formalisation

Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology and Statistics


Anita Williams

This book revisits psychology’s appropriation of natural scientific methods. The author argues that, in order to overcome ongoing methodological debates in psychology, it is necessary to confront the problem of formalisation contained in the appropriation of methods of natural science. By doing so, the subject matter of psychology – the human being – and questions about the meaning of human existence can be brought to the centre of the discipline. Drawing on Garfinkel, Sacks, Edwards and Potter, the author sees ethnomethodologically informed qualitative methods, which stem from phenomenology, as a possible alternative to statistical methods, but ultimately finds these methods to be just another method of formalisation.She returns to Husserlian phenomenology as a way to critique the centrality of method in psychology and shows that the adoption of natural scientific methods in psychology is part of the larger push to formalise and objectify all aspects of human existence.

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Chapter Two: An Ethnomethodological Investigation of Therapy—Clinical Psychologists ‘Do Being Ordinary’


As I have argued in the previous chapter, conversation analysts, overlook that they are making judgements about people and their actions from a particular specialised theoretical framework. Conversation analysts, like scientific psychologists, obscure the social world by replacing what actually happens in social situations with inaccurate theoretical constructions. According to Michael Lynch and David Bogen (1994), the problems I have noted with conversation analysis (CA), result from the fact that CA has developed into a formal discipline. CA has become a specialised procedure through which to substantiate the claims conversation analysts make about the social world; rather than investigating the practices by which members and social researchers alike produce orderly accounts of things in and through their actual practices.

Lynch and Bogen (1994, 90–93) suggest that the central problem in CA is the formality with which conversation analysts describe the informal practical activities of everyday members.1 In order to understand the difference between CA as a discipline of investigation and Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology (EM), in this chapter, I will draw upon Garfinkel’s work specifically to examine the practices of clinical psychological therapy. In addition, I will draw upon Harvey Sacks’s original work in order to demonstrate that his work does not need to be interpreted as indicating a formalised method of social inquiry, but rather can be read as being in line with Garfinkel’s EM. In doing so, I aim to show that Garfinkel’s and Sacks’s original work can offer an alternative to natural scientific...

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