Making Sense of Reality: Culture and Perception in Everyday Life


Tia DeNora

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    For Doug with love that is real in its consequences


    If a scientist states it as an axiom that the sensations of heat and light which we feel correspond to some objective cause, he does not conclude that this is what it appears to the senses to be ... [S]ociety cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action, and it is not in action unless the individuals who compose it are assembled together and act in common. It is by common action that it takes consciousness of itself and realizes its position; it is before all else an active cooperation. The collective ideas and sentiments are even possible only owing to these exterior movements which symbolise them, as we have established. Then it is action that dominates the religious life, because of the mere fact that it is society which is its source.

    Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, pp. 417–18

    About the Author

    Tia DeNora is Professor of Sociology in SPA (Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology) at Exeter University where she directs the SocArts Research Group. Her main area of research is music sociology where, most recently, she has completed a longitudinal study of music and wellbeing in collaboration with Gary Ansdell, a music therapist at Nordoff Robbins. Her books include Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (University of California Press, 1995), Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press, 2000), Music-in-Action (Ashgate, 2011), Music Asylums: Wellbeing Through Music in Everyday Life (Ashgate, 2013) and After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2003), which received honourable mention for the American Sociological Association’s Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book. With Gary Ansdell, she co-edits the Ashgate Series on Music and Change: Ecological Perspectives.

    Preface and Acknowledgements, or Music, Mucus and ‘California Sociology’

    This book represents a sort of intellectual ‘homecoming’ for me. Between 1983 and 1989 while a PhD student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I had the great fortune to study ethnomethodology with Hugh (‘Bud’) Mehan, cognitive sociology with Aaron Cicourel, and science and technology studies (STS) with Bruno Latour. It was at UCSD that I learned that perspectives from STS, cognitive sociology and ethnomethodology, as they focused on the local and routine production of ‘reality’, could be really useful for the development of music sociology. Those perspectives pointed to a focus on, among other things, how people encounter, use, tinker with and adjust to objects as they make their social worlds, and with those worlds, each other.

    Working on the research for what eventually became my first book (Beethoven and the Construction of Genius [1995]), I used this focus to consider how an environment conducive to the perception of Beethoven’s talent emerged and came to be developed. That environment drew music critical discourse, musical performance practices and embodied techniques of keyboard display into mutual reference with social networks, economic arrangements of musical patronage, and the material world of music-making, most notably changes in piano technology as Beethoven lobbied early on in his career for a more ‘Beethoven-friendly’ instrument. The growth of this environment was integral to Beethoven’s creative endeavours and to the perception of these endeavours. It also served as a foil against which the talents of his pianistic competitors could be, and were, downplayed. The key point here was that material and aesthetic environments are selectively nurturing; they allow some individuals, activities and forms of design a certain space – within which to be and grow (and grow in some directions). And they allocate this space differentially, to some people, projects and things at the expense of others. This often-tacit distribution of opportunities for growth, and its withholding, is, in other words, a key topic for sociology.

    While completing the book on Beethoven’s music, and thanks to advice from two new colleagues at Cardiff, Paul Atkinson (who had himself recently written about ethnomethodology for the Annual Review of Sociology [Atkinson, 1988]) and Sara Delamont (then writing on gender and education [Delamont, 1989]), I began to work on a topic more firmly lodged within gender studies and STS.

    That study focused on knowledge-based controversies associated with so-called ‘natural family planning’ and its basis in the minute monitoring of cervical mucus secretions during the menstrual cycle. I was interested in how knowledge, indeed predictive knowledge, about the fertile female body could be produced sensorially and through seemingly ‘low tech’ bodily technologies.1

    Working on both of these projects at the same time (Beethoven’s reputation, and fertility awareness contraception and its reputation), my touch-typing often transposed the words music and mucus, leading to seemingly absurd turns of phrase, for example, ‘Beethoven’s Mucus’ and ‘Cervical Music’. In a funny way, this mix-up only highlighted what, for me at least, these seemingly unrelated studies held in common, namely, the focus on identities and reputations as they come to be formed and take on established, often institutionalised, realities within ecological milieux. So, as certain practices and human/non-human networks came to be regularly patterned, it became increasingly difficult not to see Beethoven as a genius, increasingly difficult not to determine that cervical mucus contraception was ineffective. These realities had become, in effect, self-evident. How then to begin to unpick the history of their facticity?

    It is here that ethnomethodology (and its associated perspectives such as cognitive sociology and STS) can help. The term ‘ethnomethodology’ means, literally, the study of the folk (‘ethno’) methods by which realities are contested, created, recreated, performed and enacted over time and space – the means by which our semblance of a natural, normal world of affairs is routinely and regularly produced and reproduced. This is the perspective that will inform much of what I shall describe in what follows. But it is a perspective often grossly misunderstood within the human sciences. It is therefore worth pausing for a moment to consider some of those misunderstandings as they make their appearance in the annals of learned journals and reviews.

    First, ethnomethodology is often misinterpreted as saying nothing more than that people make up reality out of nowhere as they go along. Associated with this misconception, ethnomethodology has been often (and somewhat flippantly) dismissed as ‘California sociology’, that is, a mode of understanding practised in the precarious and occasionally fey cultural territory of the westernmost American state (Lemert, 2002: ix; Linstead, 2006: 400). As such, ethnomethodology is identified with individualist, idealist and mentalist conceptions of reality (Maynard and Clayman, 1991: 386), as if reality were dependent upon nothing more than assertions and accounts, a kind of weak version of labelling theory, an ‘I say/you say’ programme of research. As I shall explain, I do not share this vision.

    While there was indeed a time when most ethnomethodologists were based in California, that is no longer the case. Moreover, the accusations of individualism, of a mentalist understanding of social action, and a talk-centred focus, cannot be fully squared with ethnomethodology’s obvious concern with craft practice, skill and human–object relations (resonating in turn with studies that examine our everyday encounters with the material world [see de Certeau on this point, 2011(1984): xi]). Yet more to the point, these misconceptions of ethnomethodology are contradicted in even the earliest statements of what ethnomethodology was about. For example:

    The objective reality of social facts as an ongoing accomplishment of the concerted activities of daily life, with the ordinary, artful ways of that accomplishment being by members known, used and taken for granted is, for members doing sociology, a fundamental phenomenon. (Garfinkel, 1967: vii)

    In short, most ethnomethodologically inclined scholars have tended to define ethnomethodology as the re-specification of our methods for knowing and measuring the world (Cicourel, 1964), for acquiring a sense of social structure (Cicourel, 1974) and for ‘work[ing] out’ Durkheim’s aphorism that we treat social facts as things (Garfinkel, 2002: 1). This working-out involves a mode of study devoted to the collaborative and craft practices by which the world as it ‘is’ comes to be produced. Thus, this re-specification is very different from the idea that reality is whatever I or you deem it to be because it is concerned with the (reality of) specific and trans-individual practices (craft practices – e.g., ways of handling materials and objects, ways of perceiving) by which realities take on their self-evident and often thing-like realness.2 It is also not synonymous with phenomenological studies of perceptions and experiences of reality reported by individual research respondents. By contrast, as just stated, it consists of a focus on how experiences are actually effected and enacted, how they are produced; and that question points to new answers to ontological questions along the lines of, what kind of reality is reality?

    To explore this ‘working-out’ or, as I will call it, the study of how we ‘make sense of reality’, I shall mobilise a number of case study examples, drawn from the rich and varied seam of sociology. Although I will begin and end with examples from my home field of socio-music studies (because I believe that music is good for sociology to think with), a good many of my examples will be drawn from work expressly devoted to the study of sex and gender, age, aesthetics and material culture, and dis-ability studies. I will also draw upon case studies from the sociology of health and illness, embodiment, organisational culture and neuropsychology. The aim of this slightly magpie tactic is to provide tasting-sized portions of what sociology can show, and what it can do. It is, I think, a scholarly version of curating (Acord, 2010) and as such I hope will result in something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. I will have more to say (and try to say it more simply) when I lay out the argument of this book in the introductory chapter.

    But first there are people to thank. I am grateful to Chris Rojek for suggesting that I might write a book about, as we initially conceived it, social framing. And to Chris’ brilliant colleague at Sage, editor Gemma Shields, who offered really helpful editorial suggestions, technical guidance and wisdom at every stage. Thanks as well to the other members of the Sage team: Katherine Haw, Jane Fricker, Michael Ainsley, Jonathan Hopkins for proofreading and Elizabeth Ball for the index. I am also grateful to Sage’s seven anonymous reviewers who read the initial proposal (yes, even the one who suggested that Sage reject it so as to ‘save trees’!) and to the three who read the full book: your help was great! At Exeter I want to thank Nigel Pleasants, Giovanna Colombetti, David Inglis, Tom Rice, Brian Rappert, and Dana Wilson-Kovacs, as well as former colleagues Robert Witkin and Barry Barnes. I also want to thank the current and past members of SocArts: Sophia Acord, Rita Gracio Alberto, Kari Batt-Rawden, Arild Bergh, Pedro dos Santos Boia, Elizabeth Dennis, Sigrun Lilja Einarsdottir, Pinar Guran, Trever Hagen, Mariko Hara, Rosanna Mead, Simon Procter, Craig Robertson, Evan Schurig, Sarah Smith, Ian Sutherland and Susan Trythall. I am also grateful to the sixty-something philosophy and sociology students who signed up for ‘Knowing the Social World’ in the autumn of 2011, 2012 and 2013 (it is true that you never really understand something until you’ve tried to explain it to someone else) and especially to James Berry, Exeter Class of 2013 (Flexible Combined Honours Programme in Psychology and Philosophy). James read the penultimate draft from the perspective of a ‘student user’, and his very helpful comments on how a student might navigate this text are incorporated in this final version. Thanks also to Paul Atkinson, Sara Delamont, Giampietro Gobo, Harvey Greisman (who on hearing the title suggested that the best way to write the book would be as a DIY manual) and Barry Saferstein and especially to my research partner, music therapist Gary Ansdell at the Nordoff Robbins London Centre who very generously read and commented on an early draft. Discussions in the ESRC Seminar on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, and the AHRC Network, Being in the Zone, were inspiring – thank you to all the participants. As always, at home, my gratitude goes to my husband Douglas Tudhope. If this book ‘makes (any) sense’ in making sense of reality, it will be due to the efforts of all of the above. I remain grateful for their help.

    Exeter, January 2014


    1. The project was funded by the ESRC. Cyclically produced cervical mucus can be sampled manually, held between the fingers and examined for its texture (stretchy, slippery, tacky?), smell (acid or vanilla?) and sight (clear, cloudy, white, cream?). It is not ‘high tech’; it does not require urinary dipsticks, aspirations or blood samples. However, the terms ‘high tech’ or ‘low tech’ presume too much in advance, since bodily technologies are also highly sophisticated, and may be easier (and less expensive) to sustain and maintain. Their ‘effectiveness’ however is more highly dependent upon the lay expertise of their users (DeNora, 1996).

    2. See also, for example, Zimmerman and Wieder’s (1971: 285) reply to the suggestion that ethnomethodologists seek ‘a solution to the problem of order in terms of “rules, norms, definitions and meanings” ’. They argued that this conception of ethnomethodology ‘severely delimits our central phenomenon, at the same time turning it into an essentially unquestioned resource for analysis’.


    The quote from Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms is reproduced with permission from Oxford University Press.

    Figure 1.1 is reproduced with permission from Daniel Simons.

    Figures 8.1 and 8.2 were first published in Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2009) Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations. Revised fourth edition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Reprinted with kind permission from Wiley.

    Introduction: Reality in everyday life

    This is a fairly short book addressed to what might seem like an unwieldy question – the nature of reality in everyday life. As I will suggest, the answer to this question can be made more manageable (and kept fairly compact too) if, instead of asking what reality is, we ask how our sense of reality is generated.

    That question considers the ways that realities are brought into being as realities and how, at least some of the time, that reality may be palpable. As I shall argue, this ‘how’ question is emphatically one that needs sociology, albeit a sociology informed by other disciplines, perhaps especially science and technology studies, philosophy, anthropology, social psychology, neuroscience and history, the last including histories of the immediate past as it is converted into present, and future, events.

    As I shall describe, this question is ‘for’ sociology in two senses. First, it highlights what sociology (as opposed to, say, history, economics or political science) can do. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is ‘for’ sociology because it is a topic ‘made for’ that discipline, as it considers real-time practices, noting specifically the reality-making work that people do, and the objects, tools and sensory and aesthetic media that are drawn upon for this work as it is practised on a daily basis.

    The focus on that daily basis, the so-called quotidian or the everyday, is vital here. And yet, with some notable exceptions (Goffman, 1959; Lefebvre, 1971 [1968]; Douglas, 1971 [1971], 2010 [1971]; de Certeau, 2011 [1984]; Shotter, 1993; Pink, 2004, 2012; Inglis, 2005; Moran, 2005; Scott, 2009; Smart, 2007; Miller, 2010) the everyday is too readily side-lined within sociology as the study of picayune and mundane settings (often so-called private and domestic), in contrast to more extraordinary and heightened situations and forms of experience as found, for example, in religion and the public sphere.

    In my view, this dichotomy is misleading. First, it may prevent us from appreciating the admixture of ‘special’ and routine in all aspects of our lives, whether the mundane and repetitious procedures involved in the doing of science (Latour and Woolgar, 1986 [1979]) or religious devotion (Turner, 2008), or the often-extraordinary features of so-called ‘everyday’ drudgery (e.g., epiphanous moments while washing the windows; moments of excitement and surprise in scientific work [Garfinkel et al., 1981]). Second, an everyday/extraordinary divide constitutes the everyday as a place (e.g., the kitchen, the assembly line, the bus queue) that is associated with a mode of enquiry concerned with cataloguing practices as an end in itself (how the drudgery, say, of doing the laundry is accomplished in this culture versus that one).

    While the comparative study of, say, culinary procedures is a fascinating subject, it is not the kind of everyday sociology that I have in mind in what follows. By contrast, I suggest that the everyday can be more fruitfully understood if it is construed conceptually and in ways that capture the temporally charged, often mercurial, equivocal and contingent sense of reality as it is enacted and experienced in the here and now, wherever that might be. This conceptualisation means less focus on places and practices as topics in their own right, and more focus on how the enactment of place, practice and meaning actually takes shape.

    There are some excellent precedents for this focus in the literature. For example, Pink defines it as ‘concerned with treating the performance of practices as lived manifestations of and modifiers of skilled ways of knowing’ (2012: 60). In ways that are complementary, Thrift (2008: 12) suggests that we concern ourselves with ‘an active and always incomplete incarnation of events, an actualization of times and spaces that uses the fluctuating conditions to assemble itself’.

    Thinking about the everyday as practices and processes directs us in turn to the sites within which our (varied and varying) sense of reality is achieved or, as Scott puts it (2009: 1), ‘sites in which people do (perform, reproduce, and occasionally challenge) social life, day to day’. Building upon this thought, I reject the idea that there should or could be a sociology ‘of’ everyday life in the sense that there are sociologies ‘of’, say, football, food or fashion. By contrast I will suggest that if we consider the everyday conceptually, as the process of accomplishing the ‘here and now wherever we are’, then the everyday is not an enclave. It cannot, in other words, be abstracted from other social realms and there is nowhere that is not part of everyday life. In short, the everyday is not a set of places or experiences to be contrasted with the extraordinary; it is the site where experience is made manifest, where it takes shape, where sense is made.

    In this regard the everyday is the temporal location or ‘zero-hour’ where realities are brought into being and into focus in ways that matter – to us. The study of this ‘hour’ involves a rediscovery of the personal in sociology, but not, as Smart observes (2007: 188), in a way that necessarily has to imply individualisation: to the contrary, as we shall see, the sources of the self, the person, identity, relationship, even of individual sensation, stand outside of and are not the personal attributes of any individual.

    As I shall describe, this focus on the everyday requires high-resolution methods of investigation. That focus involves detailed, fine-grained engagement with the singular and specific process by which realities came into being – here, this time, not there, that time; in this place, not in that one; through these procedures. This concern with singularity or, as Harold Garfinkel (1967) put it, with haecceity, is a concern that is shared by scholars working in the field of technology and science studies most notably. It is also a concern that harks back to critical theory and I will explore that matter in Chapter 1 (specifically why Adorno believed that philosophy should consist ‘of the qualities it downgrades as contingent, as quantité négligeable [negligible quantities]’ (2005: 8). And it is a matter of concern within sociological theory today in ways that resonate with pragmatist philosophy. (For example, as the sociologist Randall Collins puts it, ‘[n]othing has reality unless it is manifested in a situation somewhere’ [Collins, 2004: 259]. So too, John Dewey’s comment that ‘things are what they are experienced to be and … every experience is about some thing’ [1934: 247].)

    In sum, to be able to trace the short- and longer-term history of experience’s production, the assembly of that ‘somewhere’ (Collins) and ‘some thing’ (Dewey), is to be able to address the question of how the sense of reality comes to be generated and how it takes shape, albeit contingently and only for a time, this way rather than that way. This task can be empowering, not only for sociologists, but for all of us in our day-to-day lives since it is from within everyday life, and at different moments on a daily basis, that we pose our many questions about ‘reality’.

    These questions are eclectic and, understandably, often anxious: Am I healthy? Can I be said to have mental capacity? What is my IQ? Are my co-workers trustworthy? Do I look fat in this dress? Am I in danger here? Am I likely to be promoted? Which of them was telling the truth? Is ME a real disease? Will this pain get better? Was that research finding valid? Is she or he really my friend? Is there global warming? Does smoking kill? Is our water clean enough to drink? Does God exist? Is A more beautiful than B? Is violence in this case justified? We may also question where realities come from, how ‘solid’ they might be, whether some types of reality (physical conditions, natural occurrences, physical laws such as gravity) are more solid than others, or the extent to which different realities are subject to challenge and, therefore, change. While these are philosophically oriented questions, one need not be a philosopher to pursue an interest in reality; though, as I will describe in Chapters 1 and 2, philosophers are highly useful in helping us to sharpen the focus on reality.

    We are, in short, all reasonably interested in the reality question. It is an existential and ecumenical question, and this point brings me to the question of for whom this book is written. The answer is anyone who has ever wished to contend some claim about what is real (what is good, beautiful, true?) or who has wondered about how it is that things get their realness in the first place. This description includes the non-academic-but-interested reader, budding social scientists and academic professors. Some might object that these groups constitute mutually exclusive readerships; I would disagree for two main reasons. First, 25 years of encounters with students have taught me that: (a) if theory is illustrated with concrete examples it is not necessary to ‘dumb it down’ for newcomers; (b) no theory is truly useful (or indeed viable) without being grounded in examples; and (c) using grounded examples elaborates theory because it can illuminate matters that we might be unable to anticipate (to that end this book uses many examples: some highly serious and some more deliberately light-hearted). Second, regardless of formal training (indeed, perhaps sometimes in spite of it), we are all ‘experts’ in terms of how we contribute to and account for the making of our worlds.

    And so we come to the overall aim of this book. It will take its lead from the quote from Durkheim used as an epigraph for the book. It will take another lead from Goffman, who in his book Frame Analysis, and musing on a thought from William James, commented that the crucial question about reality is the one concerned with ‘our sense of its realness’. Whether or not something has this quality, Goffman suggests (and here he draws on the analogy of photography), is a problem that has ‘to do with the camera and not what it is the camera takes pictures of’ (1986 [1977]: 2).

    Following these leads, the discussion that follows will develop a perspective devoted to the minute procedures by which our sense of reality takes shape in actual and everyday situations, whether in institutional and organisational settings, in domestic, rural and urban environments, or in online media forums, for all of these locations constitute the settings of our daily experience. This focus will be pursued through three key questions, which further specify the senses in which I use the words making sense:

    • How is the wide array of what confronts our senses, the so-called sensory manifold, channelled into representations, definitions and claims about reality?
    • How do we come to agree upon, and share, these realities and what happens when we do not?
    • What are the consequences of different understandings of reality in terms of lost and found opportunities – for the environment, for identities and social relationships?

    In addressing these questions, I have two objectives. The first objective is to develop the point that critical attention to world-making processes in everyday life can be interesting, indeed comforting insofar as it helps us to get a grip on the ‘why’ of how things are (it allows us, as my mother used to say, to ‘be philosophical’ about things). The second, and more ambitious, objective is to suggest that a perspective devoted to how the sense of reality takes shape can, at least once in a while, help us to change aspects of our worlds and their organisation. Not only do we come to realise that things could be otherwise, but also we can learn how to create that otherwise through an understanding of the machinery of reality’s production. It seems, therefore, somehow fitting to begin this book by quoting the famous ‘thesis eleven’ from Karl Marx:

    The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. (Marx, 1998 [1845]: 571)

    Mindful of Marx’s exhortation, I have organised into three main parts the nine chapters that follow. Part 1 does a bit of stage-setting with some help from philosophy. In Chapter 1, courtesy of two key philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Theodor Adorno, I outline the importance of perspectives that value nuanced attention to the things we encounter and which do not presume in advance of these encounters what reality will, or must, be like. Insofar as this perspective puts the brakes on hasty presumptions about reality, it also provides the basis for what I introduce as ‘slow sociology’ (and I use the term perhaps in a sense that is opposite of Latour’s term, ‘slowciology’ [Latour, 2005: 122]), though I think I am probably otherwise in agreement with his focus on ‘tracing’ the mutually constitutive connections made between things and people.

    My notion of ‘slow sociology’ takes general inspiration from the ‘slow food’ culinary movement and the ‘slow cinema’ movement. It takes more specific inspiration from John Law and his discussion of Appelbaum (1995) and the concept of ‘stop’ (in which he is considering what can be perceived when ‘vision’ is produced through the prosthetic of the blind person’s stick and the much more tentative movements associated with this form of perception):

    The stop slows us up. It takes longer to do things. It takes longer to understand, to make sense of things. It dissolves the idea, the hope, the belief, that we can see to the horizon, that we can see long distances. It erodes the idea that by taking in the distance at a glance we can get an overview of a single reality. (Law, 2004: 10)

    With Chapter 2, I begin to shift tempo, or ‘slow things down’, by considering the gap between our conventional or received understandings of reality understood as formulations (e.g., natural categories) and the things that they seek to formulate. This is to say that I consider the classification systems (language, scientific categories, images) by which we come to know that which we take to be axiomatic about the world. In particular, I examine the conventional use of dichotomies and binary divides according to which our basic concepts are structured: things such as yes/no, on/off, good/bad, clean/dirty, healthy/ill, pleasant/unpleasant. I suggest that while these dichotomies are useful as devices of ordering (because they require commitments to one or another form of identity and thus provide a series of coordinates for interaction), they are not very useful as empirical descriptors because they over-simplify much subtler matters. This over-simplification can be seen whenever general categories are seen to ‘not quite fit’ (and thus are partially contradicted by) the singular character of actual instances. As I will describe, those instances can no more determine the shape of general categories than can those categories preordain how their instances will appear on actual occasions. Thus, and in keeping with others who have written on this topic, the complexity of reality is highly resistant to any one neat reality-formulation. Of great interest, therefore, is how this complicated ‘mess’ gets cleaned up; how formulations come to be made to seem ‘realistic’ and in ways that lead the eye (or any other sensory modality) away from the gaps between formulations and what they formulate. And for this task we need, as I describe in Part 2, advanced or ‘strong’ cultural sociology.

    To that end, in Part 2, I present the major theoretical themes that form part of a sociology of reality, set up to include a focus on how the sense of reality is achieved. First, in Chapter 3, I review work in cultural sociology devoted to the topic of culturally and technologically mediated or figured reality. Beginning with the famous ‘Thomas Theorem’ and a focus on the ‘definition of the situation’, I describe how this definition needs to be fully set in material and institutional contexts in which things – identities, situations – come to be transfigured. A concern with these contexts leads us back to Marx and his emphasis on materiality and material praxis. From there, but retaining the focus on praxis, I consider Durkheim on the symbolic realm leading on into neo-Durkheimian cultural sociology associated with the ‘strong programme’ today and its concern with how culture is performed.

    In Chapter 4 I develop the Durkheimian perspective from, as it were, the ‘inside out’ by considering the cultural character of the so-called internal realities of embodiment and emotion. That focus includes a concern with how classifications and identifications can inform our experience as we engage in forms of emotional work, and it includes the ways in which cultural and aesthetic media can be seen to ‘get into’ action through processes of informal learning. These perspectives undercut any notion of the ‘natural’ body and turn our attention instead to how embodiment takes shape, which also points out the possibility for cultural variation over time and space.

    Chapter 5 considers that variation. I begin with Mary Douglas and the notion of things out of place. I then move on to describe the temporal variability of cultural categories, including micro-temporal variability as culturally mediated conditions shift, wax and wane from second to second. I draw together these themes with a case study of aesthetic-based controversy, one that also addresses head-on the question of things out of place in time, understood as a matter of cultural variability. More substantively, this case study also highlights age-linked presumptions about propriety, ritual grooming, ugliness, and what counts as being ‘womanly’.

    With Chapter 6 I move into what I consider to be the core of this book and the turning point for the chapters that follow. I consider the question of what kind of reality culture itself is. Referring back to the argument developed in Chapter 2 (the deconstruction or critique of categorical description), I describe how it is misleading to suggest that culture is to be understood simply as a set of background scripts or patterns that in some way come to figure the foreground of action, interaction, agency or experience. By contrast, I focus on how cultural categories (e.g., the categories of femaleness or maleness) are themselves matters that have to be realised in situations of action, which is a way of saying that culture ought to be a topic of research, not a resource for sociological explanation. I therefore consider the mutual alignment of instance and category. By this I mean that we need to learn how to observe the reflexive relationship between culture, categories, rules and generalities and action, instances, observances and particularities. (For example, who counts as a woman, or a man; how and why; and how that simultaneously constitutes both the person and the category to which they are assigned.) I suggest that this is a core topic for the sociology of reality creation and the point of entry for considering realities as they become manifest in real-time experience. To develop this theme, in Chapter 7, I highlight culture’s need for, as it were, realisation in action, examining situations of multiple reality in which the meaning and application of cultural categories are overtly contended. When more than one reality vies for status as the ‘real’ reality, it is possible to see more clearly how the sense of reality is linked to ways of life and forms of politics, understood in both the experiential and governmental sense.

    Having presented the key concepts for understanding reality in terms of how it is a creation, I then move into Part 3, where I focus directly on what I describe as the ‘artful practices’ of reality’s enactment. In Chapter 8, building on examples from Wittgenstein, practical magic, neuropsychology, crime fiction and music therapy, I consider the matter of sensing itself, understood as the means and practices by which perception is honed and enhanced (and understood to be inevitably prosthetic). This topic takes us into the very heart of what it means to study the sense of reality, and illuminates perception as a form of action. I suggest that it is possible to trace the ‘present history’ of how perception and its object can be seen to emerge in relation to situations that enhance perception. I also detail the minute practices that are often glossed over when we speak, more generically, of perception. Through that detailing, I will aim to contribute to a growing concern in the scholarly literatures with pre-cognitive ways of knowing (what are we conscious of ‘knowing’, what do we ‘know’ without knowing we know it, and which forms of knowing/sensing come to be hailed as ‘the’ ways of knowing the world?). It is there, I suggest, that we can learn from the realm of magic and conjuring, in terms of how perception can be directed and how that process itself can tell us about how culture gets into action. This learning in turn helps us to see how realities should be understood as ‘virtually real’.

    In Chapter 9, I return to the question of how the sense of reality is achieved, this time in order to showcase the importance of mundane, devoted and recurrent action as the engine of that process. I ask the following question: how is it possible that people manage to create virtually real realities despite – as is often the case – confusion, disorganisation, multiple orientations, ambiguity and time pressure such that the possibility of seemingly mutual situations of human contact are made possible? I then develop what I think may be the most important lesson of this book, that realities are virtually real but nonetheless real in their consequences. To underline this point I use examples dealing with the situated enactment of ability/disability and capacity/incapacity. I suggest that these, often-medicalised, realities can be seen to emerge according to how social situations are arranged. By way of conclusion, I suggest that these examples show perhaps more clearly than any others how ecologies of action/perception distribute opportunities and possibilities for being and acting in the world. I suggest that we need, therefore, to consider carefully what kinds of sense it is possible to make.

  • References

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