Ayer, Schutz and Garfinkel: Ethnomethodology and the Impossibility of a Social SCIENCE


  • Richard Heyman




A. J. Ayer distinguishes between synthetic propositions, which must be tested against the facts of the empirical world, and analytic propositions, which depend for their validity on the definitions of the symbols they contain. Alfred Schutz writes, “The facts, data, and events with which the natural scientist has to deal are just facts, data, and events within his observational field but this field does not “mean” anything to the molecules, atoms, and electrons therein. Yet the facts, events and data before the social scientist are of an entirely different structure … It [the social world] has a particular meaning and relevance structure for the human beings living, thinking and acting therein.” Harold Garfinkel, in his formulation of the work of ethnometholodogy, combines the concepts of indexicality and reflexivity to argue that these are irremediable properties of all social phenomena, thus making these phenomena massively contingent, created and intersubjective. Taking the arguments of these three scholars this paper argues that a science of the social world is an impossibility because understanding the nature any phenomenon has more to do with the ontology of the phenomenon than with the method used to study it. There can be no scientific claims to knowledge from the social sciences because social phenomena don’t exist as meaningless constructs as do physical phenomena; they exist as meaningful constructs and can never be more than examples of Ayer’s analytic propositions, Schutz’s meaningful relevance structures and Garfinkel’s indexical and reflexive expressions. Social phenomena are inescapably ambiguous, analytic and tautological.