Article published in:Evaluating Cognitive Competences in Interaction
Edited by Gitte Rasmussen, Catherine E. Brouwer and Dennis Day
[Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 225] 2012
► pp. 1–14
This collection of papers analyzes the phenomena of ‘cognition,’ ‘competences,’ and ‘evaluation’ with an ethnomethodological (EM) and/or conversation analytic (CA) praxiological approach. Hence, the approach of this collection differs from many approaches and research interests within cognitive science. At the same time, it ventures out into the investigation of a phenomenon that the EM and/or CA tradition has historically been very critical of, namely ‘cognition’. Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary ambition to unite insights and theories from diverse research fields of human sense-making across domains of human activity. Each research field has investigated and theorized about specific aspects of sense-making processes – or rather processes of meaning construction, – such as language competence, memory, perception, and thinking. The study of meaning construction in cognitive science has, roughly speaking, been conducted on the basis of two assumptions which run contra each other. This has therefore occasioned discussions at length within the field: (a) the brain and the ‘mind’ are two separate things. ‘Thinking’ – which includes understanding and feeling – occurs in the mind which is observable only to the individual who possesses the ‘mind’; (b) the ‘mind’ and the brain are inseparable, implying any kind of “mental” event that occurs is a neuronal firing within a person (Coulter 1991: 177). Both assumptions have been challenged by different research paradigms and programs within different research fields such as dynamic system theory (Kelso 1995; Port & van Gelder 1995), psychology (Edwards & Potter 1992), cognitive linguistics (Fauconnier & Turner 2002) semiotics (Brandt 2004; Hoffmeyer 2005), and sociology in the vein of EM (Coulter 1991; Garfinkel 1967, 1996; Suchman 2002, 2007) including a specific form of ethnomethodological work, namely CA (Atkinson & Heritage 1984; Boden 1990; Goodwin & Heritage 1990; Heritage 1984; Levinson 1983; Zimmerman 1988). Common to most of the critique is the understanding that the explanatory force of models which conflate mind and brain fails in describing sense-making since the description of ‘a thought’ in terms of neurological activity in the brain does not capture what that activity (the thought) is about. Or to put it in Coulter’s words: “Brain events, such as neuronal firings, are not grammatically connectable to any object-complements: one cannot have a neuronal firing that, of, or about anything!” (1991: 178). The critique also concerns the description of cognitive, or meaning construction, processes in so-called computer models. Computer models treat cognition as a process of symbolic transformations in which time is not a factor since they (the models) connect series of events through logical operations. The critique contends that time as a factor cannot be resolved through such logical operations. Time is continuous, hence sense is made through processes in time rather than through symbolic transformations and the processes are then organized “dynamically rather than logically” (Hoffmeyer 2005: 386). Common with parts of the critique is also the understanding that whatever processes thoughts are, these are in most cases observable; that is “thinking in one’s mind (silent thinking, pausing to think) is not the most fundamental form of thinking, but instead presupposes thinking in play, work, or words” (Malcolm 1978: 415). Observable ‘thinking in play, work, or words’ is the focus of EM/CA studies. The EM/CA approach to the study of such observable phenomena differs dramatically from other, even similar studies, since it is praxiological and procedural. By procedural EM (and CA) does not mean process. “Procedural means labor” (Garfinkel 1996: 6). The EM/CA research interests concern thus how phenomena which members of society and members of academic research fields such as cognitive science manage to be given. How do ‘cognitive’ phenomenona like ‘thoughts,’ ‘understandings,’ ‘states of mind’ come to be ‘facts’? EM/CA is in other words concerned with descriptions of how “living together” (Blum 1970: 30) is possible and, of particular relevance here how human activities make the conception of phenomena (including ‘cognitive’ ones) possible. The description of these activities does not necessarily require observations or speculation about what goes on ‘within the mind’ or ‘in the brain.’ (see for instance Lynch 2006). The research interests lie instead in how members of society (including members of academia) organize their lives and activities so that the existence of phenomena of every kind is recognizable to them. Following Coulter (1991), the central issue in studies of ‘cognitive’ matters like – in our case – ‘cognitive competence’ or ‘evaluating cognitive competence’ becomes then “how can members tell, and how do they make tellable, inter alia¸ their beliefs, memories, forgetting, dreams, understandings, thoughts, ‘states of mind’, the rules they are following, and the knowledge they possess?” (ibid: 189). Organized lives and activities – such as the ‘evaluation of cognitive competences’ – exhibit ordered patterns which are achieved intersubjectively by the members. That is, together members arrange and systematize their actions in specific recurrent and recognizable methodical ways. It is a basic premise of EM/CA that the activities produced by members are identical to the methods and procedures used by them to make such activities understandable, – observable and reportable. Thus, EM/CA studies analyze how members construct social and cultural reality locally, as they apply recognizable methods for doing so, and seek to capture the logic of these methods. EM is not a method in and of itself. It is rather a sociological program or as Garfinkel puts it A Catalog of Ethnomethodological Investigations (1996: 7). CA or at least parts of CA (cf. Schegloff 1993) understands itself as a vein of EM studies (Maynard & Clayman 1991; Heritage 1984; Sacks 1984), and it understands itself as (a) method(s) for studying members’ sense-making methods in interaction. CA interests concern how members arrange and organize produced social actions in time, place, and space in and for interaction (Psathas 1995: 3). The actions are produced methodically in systematic and recurrent ways which makes them recognizable and understandable as actions of a specific kind. CA describes how and what kind of specific ‘job’ the specific action is doing; actions are then the methods in and through which sense is achieved. CA seeks to understand the logic of participants’ methods in and for interaction as CA describes participating members’ intersubjectively achieved ordered patterns of actions.
Published online: 21 November 2012