New York University
Tracing the temporality of interaction is an uncomfortable project. Beyond the minute passage of interactional time or the social careers ethnographers can sometimes trace, lies the larger realm of “culture.” This is where imagined social trajectories play out, and where largely naturalized temporal landscapes seem to await. Looming above interaction are also the ways in which situations recur, the pulsating rhythms of social life. Yet, interactionism is usually suspicious of facile evocations of social structure and of culture writ large. For one thing, it is often unclear what we are talking about. But, for another, the problem of talking of broader structures of meanings is that we may lose precisely where the action is—in the back and forth of interaction, and in the ways actors constantly remake their worlds.
This was not by chance. Thinking about anticipations in action and interaction is one way in which we are afforded a way to think productively about the relationship between “culture” and interaction—a way that focuses on the processes through which taken-for-granted futures structure interaction, as well as the way larger landscapes of meaning are built up. This, then, showed up in most of my work—from my attempt to define moral action as a movement across situations, to my ongoing affair with the pragmatism of C.S Peirce, for whom the movement forward in time is a crucial feature of semiotic theory.
Thinking in terms of anticipations, however, may still assume something linear about time. This captures an element of our experience. We do, indeed, move irrevocably forward. And yet time, as sociologists from Durkheim through Henri LeFebvre and Eviatar Zerubavel remind us, has its “wave form.” To go back to the basics, a key part of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms is built on the imagined rhythms of Australian peoples, a rhythm that is translated into the division between the sacred and the profane, and finally to the human category of time. Social life pulsates in rhythms, in patterned ways. Indeed, as LeFebvre developed the notion, life can be usefully defined as a host of rhythms—sometimes working together, at times overlapping, often clashing.
This was an insight that I found theoretically compelling (even beautiful), but also something that emerged as a powerful aspect of the ethnographic work I was conducting. There, in tracing the ways in which Orthodox life flowed in a Los Angeles neighborhood, I found myself constantly needing to track multiple rhythms—of schools, of holy days, of prayers, of synagogue life. And then, I also found that to understand Orthodox life, I needed to pay attention to how the secular social worlds my interlocutors participated in were effectively erased—how identifications and relations were both invoked and expunged. In both cases, it brought the question of rhythm into sharp focus. It was rhythms all the way down. Drawing on LeFebvre, and on ethnographers such as Ben Snyder, I came to see social worlds as rhythmic constructions.
And so, when I received the Coser award, and needed to have an agenda to set, I decided to write about futures, and especially the rhythms of futures. But what can I say? Talking about futures, in itself, is far from original. Saying that time is a key element of social life is about as trite as saying that space is important, or that all of social action is somehow embodied—the kind of insight that sociologists periodically remind themselves of, and that allows them to reinvent the wheel. It is also not particularly groundbreaking to argue that we must hold on to both interaction and larger cultural constructs. The intellectual project Gary Alan Fine has developed over the years as well as Eliasoph and Lichterman’s “Culture in Interaction” are powerful ways to think in those terms.
But as I was working through my paper, I realized that the theoretical question that I am increasingly obsessed with is somewhat different. If futures are constantly haunting interaction, then people do not only live “in” situations, but also “between” them. There is a background of anticipations about the temporal rhythms and unfolding of social worlds that is a crucial part of any interaction. This intersection between the specific situation and these wider-reaching meaning structures, in turn, allows us to think anew about some of the core categories we use, both in the sociology of culture, and in studies of interaction. Taking this track I could also avoid facile ways to square the circle—e.g. by arguing that these are different levels of analysis, perspectives, or foci. If people live between situations rather than simply “in” them, that should have repercussions to the way we go about theorizing social life.
Yet if such a focus changes the very theoretical categories that we think through, how does it do so? To flesh out the possibilities this theoretical move engenders, I take two problems that I have been struggling with for the past few years. First is the relationship between boundaries and distinctions—two popular terms that sociological use when they talk about how groups do difference. As I show in my talk (and, I hope more clearly, in my paper), talking about distinctions and boundaries we implicitly make different assumptions about difference, assumptions. These assumptions—e.g. boundaries are largely binary whereas distinctions are distributed around a center—partially break down when we try to use them to understand a particular situation. And yet, these very distinctions are often very real to our interlocutors. Taking an inter-situational approach, and thinking in terms of anticipations and rhythms helps us understand both the how these ways of marking difference differ, and the instability that may turn a distinction into a boundary and vice versa.
The second problem, which Gary Fine and myself have been thinking through for a while, lies squarely in the theory of interaction. Since interactional theory mainly thinks about the temporality of the situation, much of the intellectual effort had been in explaining how actors work together to sustain a successful interaction—one that is “smooth” in the sense that actors’ lines of action and meaning need to constantly align. Less appreciated in their own right are moments of disruption, when aspects of the interaction, or the relationship which the interaction is part of, are being destabilized. As we argue, disruption is a key part of the interaction order, and a way to connect the interaction order to larger patterns of relations and meaning. And, important for our argument is the question of temporality. It is precisely because we anticipate the futures of interaction that smoothness, in itself, can be a misleading (are at the very least insufficient) focus of attention. Any theory of the interaction order needs to take into account, to take one example, that a disruption in the specific interaction can be important for the ongoing relationship. There are not only disruptions of interaction, but also for interaction, and for the relationship it is part of.
The above is, of course, but a sketch. What I hope it shows, however, is that thinking in terms of anticipations and rhythms can be a productive way forward, a way of thinking that can both help us think about new questions and empirical problems, as well as lead us to evaluate the theoretical apparatus we use to think of culture, action and interaction.