Revisiting the Cultural Dope

Human Studies 35 (2):223-233 (2012)
This essay focuses on the "cultural dope," an ironic reference in Harold Garfinkel's Studies in Ethnomethodology to the rule-following actor in conventional sociological theories. In the nearly half-century since the publication of that book, the "cultural dope" has been incorporated into numerous criticisms of "models of man" in the human sciences. Garfinkel's account appeals to many writers because it seems to present an alternative picture of the actor: an individual who is self-aware, reflective, and skilled in the conduct of daily affairs. A problem with such a generalized picture of the actor is that it may seem to encourage uncritical acceptance of whatever "the public" (or a broad segment of the public) happens to believe or support. This paper revisits Garfinkel's account of the cultural dope, and contrasts "conservative" and "radical" readings of what Garfinkel does with that figure. The "conservative" reading leaves the edifice of a social-structural model largely intact, and provides an alternative, more complex, picture of individual action than that of a cultural dope. The "radical" reading places relevant social structures in a dependent relation to the contingencies of action, and thus destabilizes the very theoretical edifice that sets up the problem of how to integrate individual actions with stable social structures. In line with the "radical" reading, this paper suggests that Garfinkel creates serious difficulty for any generalized "model of man," regardless of whether it portrays the individual as active or passive, well-informed or ignorant, or reflexive or not
Keywords Harold Garfinkel  Ethnomethodology  Cultural dope  Social theory  Cultural theory
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DOI 10.1007/s10746-012-9227-z
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