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Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology ii 381

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. nonrational realms, respectively (see Figure 6.5). Specifically,that Smith (2005:227; empha­
··•. sis added) defines ruling relations as “objectified forms of consciousness and organization,
.·· constituted externally to particular places and people” clearly reflects her collectivistic ori­
entation to order. And although Smith also underscores that ruling relations refer to “that total
.complex •Of activities, differentiated into many spheres … through which we are ruled and
d:hiough which we, and I emphasize this we, participate in ruling” (Smith 1990a, ·as cited in
·Calhoun 2003:316; emphasis in original), which indicates an acknowledgment of individual
~gency, that “forms of consciousness are created that are properties of organization or dis­
.course rather than ofindividual subjects” (Smith 1987:3, emphasis added) clearly reflects a
¢ollectivistic approach to order. This dual rntional/nontational approach to action and col­

{ectivistic approach to order inhereiit in Smith’s concept ofrelations of ruling is illustrated in
}Figure 65. Taken together, Figures 6.4 and 6.5 illustrate that the multidimensionality of the
Yconcept of institutional ethnography is a function ofits incorporation ofthe more individualistic
iponcept of standpoint and the more collectivis,tic concept of ruling relations.

)his excerpt from her most recent book, Institutional l!thnography (2Q05), Sm,ith <::xplic- .
Jy defines “institutional. ethnography” and explains how she came to formulate this unique
etl1od of inquiry. In addition, Smith explains the historical trajectory of gender lllldxela­
◊tis of ruling-that is, how the radical division between spheres .of action and .of~on­
Jousness of middle-class men and women came to emerge. As indicated previously, it is
ecisely this conceptualization of relations of ruling (or ruling relations) as not simply.
odes of domination but also forms of consciousness that forms the crux of Smith’s work .

Institutional Ethnograp/Jy (2005)
Dorothy E. Smith.


hard to recall just how radical the experience of

.. women’s movement was at its inception for
‘seofus who had lived andthought withinthe
· ·culinist ·regime against which the ·movement
.ggled. For us, the struggle was as rrruch Within
·s.elves, with what we knew how to do and think
. feel, as with that regime as an enemy outside

}Indeed we ourselves had participated however

passively in that regime.··There was·no developed
discourse in which the· experiences that were spo 0
ken t>riginally as everyday experience could be
translated into . a public language and become
politica1in· the ways distinctive to the women’s
moveme11t. Welearned in talking with other women
about experiences thatw.e had and about others that
we had m:ithad. We began to name “oppression,”
“rape,” ”hatassmentt ‘!sexisnit ”violence,’.’. ·and
others. These were terms that did more than name.
They gave shared experiences a political presence.

. URCE: Excerpts from Institutional Ethnography by Dorothy Smith. Copyright © 2005 by AltaMira. Press .
. Produced with pennission of AltaMira Press via Copyright Clearance Center.


Starting with our experiences as we talked
and thought about them, we discovered depths
of alienation and anger that were astonishing.
Where had all these feelings been? How extraor­
dinary were the transfonnations we experienced
as we discovered with other women how to
speak with one another about such experiences
and then how to bring them forward publicly,
which meant exposing th~m to men. Finally,
how extraordinary were the transformations of
ourselves in this process. Talking our experience
was a means of discovery. What we did not
know and did not know how to think about, we
could examine as we found what we had in
common. The approach that I have taken in
developing an alternative sociology takes up
women’s standpoint in a way that is modeled on
these early adventures of the women’s move­
ment. It takes up women’s standpoint not as a
given and finalized form of knowledge but as a
ground in experience from which discoveries
are to be made.

It is this active and shared process of speaking
from our experience, as well as acting and orga­
nizing to change how those experiences had been
created, that has been translated in feminist
thinking into the concept of a feminist stand­
point-or, for me, women’s standpoint. However
the concept originated, Sandra Harding (1988)
drew together the social scientific thinking by
feminists, particularly Nancy Hartsock, Hilary
Rose, and myself, that had as a common project
taking up a standpoint in women’s experience.
Harding argued that feminist empiricists who
claimed both a special privilege for women’s
knowledge and an objectivity were stuck in an
irresolvable paradox. Those she described as
“feminist standpoint theorists” moved the femi­
nist critique a step beyond feminist empiricism
by claiming that knowledge of society must
always be from a position in it and that women
are privileged epistemologically by being mem­
bers of an oppressed group. Like the slave in
Hegel’s parable of the master-slave relationship,
they can see more, further, and better than the
master precisely because of their marginalized
and oppressed condition. She was, however,
critical of the way in which experience in the
women’s movement had come to hold authority
as a ground for speaking, and claiming to speak

truly, that challenged the rational and objectified
forms of knowledge and their secret masculine’
subject. Furthermore, feminist standpoint theory,
according to Harding, implicitly reproduced the 2
universalized subject and claims to objective/
truth of traditional philosophical discourse, an ‘
implicit return to the empiricism we claimed to ‘
have gone beyond. ,

The notion of women’s standpoint-or indeed (
the notion that women’s experience has special;
authority-has also been challenged by feminist
theorists. It fails to take into account diversities,,••
of class and race as well as the various forms and ‘
modulations of gender. White middle-class het­
erosexual women dominated the early phases
the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s,
but soon our, and I speak as one, assumptions
about what would hold for women in
were challenged and undermined, first by
ing-class women and lesbians, then by African­
North American, Hispanic, and Natiye women. ,

, The implicit presence of class, sexuality,
colonialism began to be exposed. Our assump~
tions were also challenged by women in other
societies whose experience wasn’t North Ameri­
can, by women such as those with disabilities
and older women whose experience was not
adequately represented and, as the women’s
movement evolved over time, by younger
women who have found the issues of older femi­
nists either alien or irrelevant.

The theoretical challenge to the notion of
women’s standpoint has been ma:de in terms
its alleged essentialism. It has been seen as
essentialist because it excludes other bases of
oppression and inequity that intersect with the
category “women.” The critique of essentialism,
however, assumes the use of the category
“women” or “woman” to identify shared and
defining attributes. While essentialism has been
a problem in the theorizing of woman, it cannot
be extended to all uses of such categories. In
practice in the women’s movement, the category ·
has worked politically rather than referentially.
As a political concept, it coordinates struggle
against the masculinist forms of oppressing
women that those forms themselves explicitly or
implicitly universalize. Perhaps most important,
it creates for women what had been missing, a
subject position in the public sphere and, more

Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology ii 383

generally, one in the political, intellectual, and
cultural life of the society.

Claiming a subject position within the public
sphere in the name of women was a central
enterprise of the women’s movement in its early
days in the 1970s and 1980s. A powerful dynamic
was created. While those making the claim first
were white middle-class women, the new subject
position in public discourse opened the way for
others who had found themselves excluded by
those who’d gone before. Their claims were
positioned and centered differently, and their
own experience became authoritative. It is indeed
one of the extraordinary characteristics of the
women’s movement that its continual disruption,
its internal struggles against racism and white
cultural dominance, its internal quarrels and
angers, have been far from destructive to the
movement. On the contrary, these struggles in
North America and Europe have expanded and
diversified the movement as women other than
those with whom it originated gave their own
experiences voice.



Standpoint is a term lifted out of the vernacular,
largely through Harding’s innovative thinking
and her critique (1988), and it is used for doing
new discursive work. Harding identifies stand­
point in terms of the social positioning of the
subject of knowledge, the knower and creator of
knowledge. Her own subsequent work develops
an epistemology that relies on a diversity of sub­
ject positions in the sociopolitical-economic

regimes of colonialism and imperialism. The
version of standpoint that I have worked with,
after I had adopted the term from Harding (pre­
viously I’d written of “perspective” … ) is
rather different. It differs also from the concept
of a feminist standpoint that has been put for­
ward by Nancy Hartsock in that it does not iden­
tify a socially determined position or category of
position in society (or political economy).i
Rather, my notion of women’s (rather than femi­
nist) standpoint is integral to the design of what
I originally called “a sociology for women,”
which has necessarily been transformed into “a
sociology for people.” It does not identify a posi­
tion or a category of position, gender, class, or
race within the society, but it does establish as a
subject position for institutional ethnography as
a method of inquiry, a site for the knower that is
open to anyone.

As a method of inquiry, institutional ethnog­
raphy is designed to create an alternate to the
objectified subject of knowledge of established
social scientific discourse. The latter conforms to
and is integrated with what I have come to call
the “ruling relations”-that extraordinary yet
ordinary complex of relations that are textually
mediated, that connect us across space and time
and organize our everyday lives-the corpora­
tions, government bureaucracies, academic and
professional discourses, mass media, and the
complex of relations that interconnect them. At
the inception of this early stage oflate-twentieth­
century women’s movement, women were
excluded from appearing as agents or subjects
with the ruling relations. However we might
have been at work in them, we were subordi­
nates. We were women whose work as mothers

iHartsock’s concern is to reframe historical materialism so that women’s experience and interests are fully inte­
grated. Of particular importance to her is the adequate recognition of the forms of power that the women’s
movement has named “patriarchal.” Women’s marginal position, structured as it is around the work associated
with reproduction and the direct production of subsistence, locates women distinctively in the mode of produc­

. tion in general. For her, taking a feminist standpoint introduces a dimension into historical materialism neglected
by Marx and his successors. She designs a feminist standpoint that has a specifically political import. It might,
I suppose, be criticized as essentialist, but, ifwe consider not just North America and not just white middle-class
professional North America, it’s hard to deny that Hartsock is characterizing a reality for women worldwide. In
Canada a recent census report shows that while women’s participation in the paid labor force has increased
substantially over the past thirty years, “women remain more than twice as likely as men to do at least 30 hours
a week of cooking and cleaning” (Andersen 2003, A 7) and are more involved in child care than men, particularly

·· care of younger children.


reproduced the same gendered organization that
subordinated us; we were the support staff, store
clerks, nurses, social workers doing casework
and not administration, and so on. In the univer­
sity itself, we were few and mostly marginal
(two distinguished women in the department
where I first worked in Canada had never had
more than annual lectureships).

“Standpoint” as the design ofa subject position
in institutional ethnography creates a point of
entry into discovering the social that does not
subordinate the knowing subject to objectified
forms of knowledge of society or political econ­
omy. It is a method of inquiry that works from the
actualities of people’s everyday lives and experi­
ence to discover the social as it extends beyond
experience. A standpoint in people’s everyday
lives is integral to that method. It is integral to a
sociology creating a subject position within its
discourse, which anyone can occupy. The institu­
tional ethnographer works from the social in peo­
ple’s experience to discover its presence and
organization in their lives and to explicate or map
that organization beyond the local ofthe everyday.


The project of developing a sociology that does not
objectify originated, as did so much in the wom­
en’s movement, in exploring experiences in my
life as a woman. That exploration put into question
the fundamentals of the sociology I had learned at
length and sometimes painfully as an undergradu­
ate and graduate school student. I was, in those
early times, a sociologist teaching at the University
of British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada,
and a single parent with two small boys. My expe­
rience was of contradictory modes of working
existence: on the one hand was the work of the
home and ofbeing a mother; on the other, the work
of the academy, preparing for classes, teaching,
faculty meetings, writing papers, and so on. I could
not see my work at home in relation to the sociol­
ogy I taught, in part, of course, because that sociol­
ogy had almost nothing to say about it.

I learned from the women’s movement to
begin in my own experience and start there in

finding the voice that asserted the buried woman/
I started to explore what it might mean to think
sociologically from the place where I was in}
body, living with my children in my home and
with those cares and consciousness that a~{
integral to that work. Here were the particulari:P
ties of my relationships with my children, mj’
neighbors, my friends, their friends, our rabbit’
(surprisingly fierce and destructive-my copy)J
of George Herbert Mead’s Mind, Self, and Soci,,}’;
ety bears scars inflicted by our long-eared pet’s(
teeth and claws), our two dogs, and an occit{“,
sional hamster. In this mode, I was attentive tO;
the varieties of demands that housekeeping/
cooking, child care, and the multiple min9r
tasks of our local settings made on me. WhenJ,’
went to work in the university, I did not, of
course, step out of my body, but the focus of my
work was not on the local particularities of relit,,
tionships and setting but on sociological dist
course read and taught or on the administrativ~ ,, .
work of a university department. Body, of/:nv>
course, was there as it had to be to get the work,
done, but the work was not organized by and i11
relation to it. ··

The two subjectivities, home and ,m·mprQ1 1~,
could not be blended. They ran on separate
with distinct phenomenal organization. l’!!t’!l’l!__~!-J”
attention, reasoning, and response were
nized quite differently. Remembering a
appointment for one of the children wasn’t
of my academic consciousness, and if I
careful to find some way of reminding
that didn’t depend on memory, I might have well
forgot it. My experiences uncovered radical diP
ferences between home and academy in
they were situated, and how they situated me, in
the society. Home was organized around the par­
ticularities of my children’s bodies, faces, move,
ments, the sounds of their voices, the smell of
their hair, the arguments, the play, the evening ·
rituals of reading, the stress of getting them off to
school in the morning, cooking, and serving
meals, and the multitudes of the everyday that
cannot be enumerated, an intense, preoccupying
world of work that also cannot really be defined.
My work at the university was quite differently
articulated; the sociology I thought and taught
was embedded in the texts that linked me into a

Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology :11 385

discourse extending indefinitely into only very
partially known networks of others, some just
names of the dead; some the heroes and masters
of the contemporary discipline; some just names
on books or articles; and others known as teach­
ers, colleagues, and contemporaries in graduate
school. The administrative work done by faculty
tied into the administration of the university,
known at that time only vaguely as powers such
as dean or president or as offices such as the
registrar, all of whom regulated the work we did
with students. My first act on arriving in the
department office, after greeting the secretaries,
was to open my mail and thus to enter a world of
action in texts.

I knew a practice of subjectivity in the univer­
sity that excluded the local and bodily from its
field. Learning from the women’s movement to
start from where I was as a woman, I began to
attend to the university and my work there from
the standpoint of “home” subjectivity. I started
to notice what I had not.seen before. How odd,
as I am walking down the central mall of that
university that opens up to the dark blue of the
humped islands and the further snowy moun­
tains to the north, to see on my left a large hole
where before there had been a building! In the
mode of the everyday you can find the connec­
tions, though you may not always understand
them. In a house with children and dogs and rab­
bits, the connection between the destruction of
the spine of my copy of Mind, Self, and Society

and that rabbit hanging around in my workspace
was obvious. But the hole where once there’d
been a building couldn’t be connected to any
obvious agent. The peculiar consciousness I
practiced in the university began to emerge for
me as a puzzlingly strange form of organization.
If I traced the provenance of that hole, I’d be
climbing up into an order of relations linking
administrative process with whatever construc­
tion company was actually responsible for the
making of the hole; I’d be climbing into a web
of budgets, administrative decisions, provincial
and federal government funding, and so on and
so on. I’d be climbing into that order ofrelations
that institutional ethnographers call the “ruling
relations.” These could be seen as relations that
divorced the subject from the particularized set­
tings and relationships of her life and work as
mother and housewife. They created subject
positions that elevated consciousness into a uni­
versalized mode, whether of the social relations
mediated by money or of those organized as
objectivity in academic or professional• dis­
course. Practicing embodiment on the terrain of
the disembodied of those relations brought them
into view. I became aware of them as I became
aware of their presence and power in the every­
day, and, going beyond that hole in the ground, I
also began to think of the sociology I practiced
in the everyday working world of the university
as an organization of discursive relations fully
integrated with them.

•• ————••————
Introduction to The Everyday World as Problematic

In this reading taken from The Everyday World as Problematic (1987), Smith further eluci­
dates institutional ethnography using concrete examples from her own experience. As you
will see, by starting from her own experience Smith does not mean that she engages only in
a self-indulgent inner exploration with herself as sole focus and object. Rather, Smith means
that she begins from her own original but tacit knowledge as well as from the acts by which
she brings this knowledge into her grasp (Calhoun 2003:320). As Smith states, “We can
never escape the circles of our own heads ifwe accept that as our territory…. We aim not
at a reiteration of what we already (tacitly) know, but at an exploration of what passes
beyond that knowledge and is deeply implicated in how it is” (ibid.).

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