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Sosiologisk årbok 1998.1
The Unity of Self and Object1
Bruce Hackett
Loren Lutzenhiser
In keeping with the folklorist's patent affection for stories, we begin with a
In l980 an inter-campus and interdisciplinary University of California
research team led by a chemist and containing an engineering physicist
and two sociologists undertook research designed to explain why it is that
equations derived from elaborate computer models of energy consumption
in households fare so poorly when asked to predict, not the energy used in
unoccupied 'test' houses – varying in, say, insulation levels and thermostat
settings – but the energy consumption of homes occupied by actual
persons. Household energy consumption varies widely even within groups
of houses of the same size and type. We performed energy 'audits' on a
sample of houses in Davis, and interviewed their occupants as to their
relevant energy-using behaviors. The sociologists were being brought in, in
other words, to capture the 'behavioral' variation that the engineering
model could not anticipate or measure.
The painful consequence of this foray was that the sociological model – or
sociologically improved model – hardly improved upon the original.
This paper originally appeared in the journal Western Folklore and is reprinted with the
permission of The California Folklore Society
The Unity of Self and Object
Without going into detail, let us say simply that the correlation coefficients
between the variables derived from the interviews and actual metered
energy use were, as these things go, rather low.
In an effort to track down the large remaining 'unexplained variation' we
re-interviewed a number of persons in our sample, and we did so with a
relatively unstructured procedure that asked people to specify actual
behaviors rather than tell us – as in the original interview – what they
'usually' or 'normally' do. The wide difference between the 'normal' and
the 'actual' in many cases was impressive. Households in which the 'usual'
pattern was 'two full loads' of laundry a week might have already had five
half-loads this week, and the week was only half over. In time we began to
pay special attention to three features of this frequent disjunction between
the normal and the actual: first, the possibility that the 'normal account' of
one's behavior is designed not to describe it but to manage the
interviewing situation; second, that 'deviatons' from the hypothetically
normal pattern are unknown even to the deviant – the Self being social
enough that persons engage in what Goffman termed "civil inattention" in
the face of their own as well as others' stigmata; and third, that even when
persons are confronted with this disjunction they are equipped with a
reading of it such that their deviations are explained by the existence of
'exceptional events,' unfore-seen contingencies, or special circumstances –
those interpretations that insist, in effect, that while the behavior is deviant,
the person is not.
One might summarize this line of reasoning with the suggestion that, at
least in principle, statistically 'normal' behavior may have little to do with
the behavior considered morally normal or appropriate in the community
– that which is publicly 'accounted for' and publicly displayed in what the
dramaturgists refer to as the 'front' of one's life – and that indeed even in
that realm one need only be 'periodically' normal if one can muster a full
supply of 'special circumstances.' It may follow as well – and this, we
think, importantly – that recognition of these methodological issues in
Sosiologisk årbok 1998.1
social research comes late because we find it hard to imagine that anything
but statistical normality can be applied to behaviors as plainly utilitarian as
the use of household appliances. We will reflect again on these issues in a
moment, and with particular reference to the guides offered by Jamesian
thinking in effecting their resolution.
In a subsequent investigation, this time of energy use in an ethnically
cosmopolitan group of married student apartments on the Davis campus,
we tried to stand even closer to actual doings (as opposed to sayings) by
asking the residents of 24 apartments to keep diaries recording their
energy use for five days. There were several significant results of this
work, but the diaries, and subsequent discussions with their keepers, drew
our attention in particular to refrigerators, primarily because of the
surprise that virtually all of our informants expressed at the large number
of refrigerator openings and closings that their diaries, if not their beliefs
about their 'usual' conduct, revealed. This is surely not a major matter so
far as energy use is concerned, but we reasoned that close study of
persons' relations with this particular kitchen device might help to amend
what might be termed the 'theory of tools' that had implicitly guided our
initial researches, and have as a consequence a much broader relevance for
studies of resource consumption and perhaps for social research in general.
Now, the obvious difficulty with this choice of research sites lies in the
reserve people might have with regard to the positioning of an
ethnographer in their kitchens. Faced with this problem and with the
requirement of a somewhat intrusive method, in the next stage of the
research we invaded the kitchens of those least able to resist our advances
– friends, colleagues, relatives and students. Without advance warning we
went so far, in fact, as to ask people if we could obtain a photograph of
the box in its present configuration, using a polaroid camera. This would
not only obtain a visual record to help us make sense of our subsequent
The Unity of Self and Object
conversations, but would allow those conversations to proceed without
holding open the refrigerator door.
The result of these activities was the provision of a variety of data that
could not without some considerable distortion be accommodated within
what we came to call the 'functional account' or the 'rational account' of
the refrigerator – the largely implicit theory of tools (or of, in this case,
appliances) noted above. According to that theory, appliance use is a
'means to an end,' and it is sober, wide-awake, pre-planned, intentional
rather than habitual or traditional; above all, there is assumed to be a
discontinuity between person-using-appliance and the appliance itself, such
that person uses appliance but the appliance does not in any significant
sense use, identify or define the person. Our emerging hunch was that this
model was an instance of cultural 'front' (and in this sense not, we should
note, simply a 'bad theory'), in terms of which interview questions are
appropriately answered, but not a good guide to the back regions of
everyday life. We thought the model seriously challenged by information
we sorted roughly into three categories:
(l) Materials suggesting that the refrigerator contains what Levi-Strauss
refers to as a "bricolage" – an assortment of obviously useful and
desirable items for which no use is, at the moment, obviously desirable.
The essential idea is that people frequently 'patrol' or 'forage' in the
refrigerator (adults are inclined to view this as a 'special problem' with
children), not looking for particular items but rather 'taking stock' – even,
in fact, allowing the device to indicate their own mood. One of our
informants has a small sign near the refrigerator that cautions: 'Do not
open the refrigerator to see how hungry you are.' There were some subtle
indicators, in fact, that persons often open the refrigerator and then utilize
their own activity as an indicator that they must be hungry – otherwise
why would they have opened the door? There are, of course, intermediate
cases, whole meals that consist of bricolage, of 'leftovers'.
Sosiologisk årbok 1998.1
(2) Materials suggesting that several of the uses of the refrigerator are
'accumulated' in the course of 'living with' the box. These are typically
discussed as somewhat 'deviant' uses, and we took these stories as
indicators of what people do in fact take to be the 'normal' uses of the
refrigerator. The stories themselves, in fact, can be read as tales of
'exceptions that prove the rule' and thus constitute part of the verbal work
that is done to keep the refrigerator within its proper 'frame' – work that
indicates, then, the work that must be done by the person to literally
constitute or accomplish what we know as a 'refrigerator.' Under this
rubric we have, for example, the case of the herpitologist who keeps a
separate refrigerator for the hibernation of snakes, the couple who freeze
their garbage, the painter who stores his paintbrushes in the freezer, the
woman who washes and then freezes her panty hose for 'longer life,' those
who keep valuables such as baby shoes in the freezer, those who store
money in plastic containers ("it looks like pesto") or in plastic cabbages
(made in Japan) that unscrew, or students who utilize a fake 'coke' can to
store 'coke' or other 'controlled substances.'
(3) Materials that indicate the use of the refrigerator to socially indicate the
character or social standing of its owner, or which suggest that certain
types of social structures or social arrangements are, in effect, 'built in' to
the box. For example, one female informant informed us that when she
took up with a new man she would, early in the relationship, make it a
point to inspect his refrigerator to 'see what kind of a man he is.' Another
woman complained that she thought her large apartment refrigerator to be
constantly demanding the storage of 'large meat items' that were
inconsistent with her preferred way of life. And there were several
occasions on which persons admitted to, for example, keeping fresh fruits
and vegetables in the refrigerator to "indicate our good intentions, but
mostly we eat at Wendy's."
The Unity of Self and Object
Within this general category one of the most revealing types of
information was brought forth when we showed our photographs of
refrigerators to persons other than their owners; significantly, in our view,
the observers almost without exception saw 'types of people' or 'types of
families,' not simply refrigerated items, in the pictures. We subsequently
tried a crude 'test' of these interpretations by showing people pictures of
refrigerators taken in academic departments, not in households, and still
the tendency was to see than as revealing a certain peculiar form of
'family' (a nice indicator, no doubt, of the real social work done by
refrigerators kept in academic department offices or mail rooms). In the
course of this work we were also apprised of the 'familial' character of the
refrigerator by being informed repeatedly of the difficulties of 'managing'
the refrigerator in student households, a kind of data that might be said to
have opened a whole new line of research. Students can become adept at
– as one student put it – the 'taxation' of each others' provisions, and there
are strategies for doing this: knowing, for example, that the pieces of fudge
have been counted, one uses a very sharp knife to but slice slivers from
the sides of each piece. Peanut butter and ice cream can be sometimes
successfully 'taxed' by carefully drawing one's spoon through these
substances in exactly the same configuration as did their (presumptive)
owner. There are also small tragedies that inhere in these situations; roommates will not usually begrudge each other a "taste" of milk or peanut
butter, but if all members of a student household behave accordingly, the
owner's provisions can soon vanish (in a "tragedy of the commons") at the
hands of an essentially unwitting collective. One student told us that the
rule in his household, a judicious mixture of resignation and principle, is
this: "You can tax my butter, and you can tax my milk, but you cannot
tax my meat."
Now, the connection between these items of information and the wit and
wisdom of William James, whom we celebrate on this occasion, is this: that
they result from the effort to move the locus of inquiry progressively in
the direction James advocated, toward the direct and unmediated
Sosiologisk årbok 1998.1
examination of experience. Confronting the resolutely dualistic
thoughtways of his day, the surgical divorce between the material or
objective 'outer' and the mentalistic or subjective 'inner' realms, with the
outer either determining or standing in wait as a resource for the inner, he
opted for the idea of their de facto unity in the actual processes of living.
His 'radical empiricism' closed the gap between self and object, seeing their
relations in experience as the primordial stuff out of which each might be
factored for separate viewing but within which no separation occurs;
insofar as we can speak of a distinction between self and object within
experience at all, the relationship is circular, with self and object
'constituting' each other. Within experience, the dualistic notion of 'personusing-refrigerator' is replaced by 'refrigerator-user;' the tool being used
defines the user. For us, the fact that 'third parties' looking at photographs
of refrigerators saw selves or social structures (especially families) therein
is significantly Jamesian in that it indicates the unity of self and object, and
it also suggests that this unity is socially perceived.
James also counterposed pre-reflective 'habit' and the 'stream' of
experience to the dualistic notion of 'rational' object-use; we found the
latter in responses to our questions about 'normal' or 'usual' behaviors, and
a great deal of evidence for the former in the diaries that we asked people
to keep. More importantly, perhaps, we found a great deal of evidence for
the 'openness' of experience insofar as the uses to which the refrigerator is
put are emergent, not altogether pre-conceived. The tool, as it were,
'enters into' the determination of its own utilities, suggesting new ideas for
its own definition, comes to manage snakes and clothing, and threatens to
take on altogether new identities – as vault, closet, display case, morgue.
The self must 'manage' this identity in visual, tactile and verbal ways,
because this 'tool' is 'self-implicating.' When 'deviations' from the norm are
spotted, the 'rationalizations' James saw as the major task of reason itself
are offered; these are said to indicate 'special circumstances.' But what
they indicate instead is probably a homely version of James's 'pluralistic
The Unity of Self and Object
universe.' We like to imagine that our researches have started to do for the
kitchen what Kinsey did for the bedroom – to indicate the fact of variety
against the posturings of 'normality' – and that James would have
Finally, we note at least one of the avenues this research has opened to us.
Insofar as tools do in fact contribute, in their use, to the determination of
their own utility, this means that tools and technologies ought properly to
be analyzed historically, as in effect 'social movements.' What they are
good for is a consequence, not a determi-nant, of their use, and this means
that they are 'cultural' items, aspects of ways of life, 'ingredients' in styles
of living as opposed to tools in the sense of 'mere' tools: they have
consummatory as well as instrumental meaning. A related idea is that tools
do not meet a priori 'needs' – or, better yet, that they contribute to the
definition of the problems for which they are solutions. Here we come into
contact with one version of another central tenet in James – the
importance of 'belief' in the definition, procurement, and construction of
'reality.' Belief generates reality through experience; willingness to try an
incipient tool, to believe that it is at tool, is what makes it so. Applied to
the area of concern that fostered this inquiry, for example, this implies the
legitimacy of experimenting with 'alternative' energy technologies in the
realization that people will, and do, adapt their needs to the devices they
have for meeting them.
But all of this requires a great deal of respect for experience. A sociology
fully grounded in experience, implicitly a celebration of James, has yet to
emerge, although the fetal stages are there, in the ethnographic approach.
Whatever the abuses and vulgarities to which the term 'experience' may
be prone – and Roger Abrahams has certainly helped us to remember
them – this protean concept seems the best weapon we have against the
traditions of positivism and functionalism in the social sciences. Infatuation
with either an individualized or a social but essentially generic conception
that does not recognize variations of intensity in experience can direct
Sosiologisk årbok 1998.1
attention away from what Abrahams calls the Big Times and from a
culture's central ritual core. But the concept does try to direct attention to
social life as lived, as opposed to its explanations, causes or functions. It
can, in fact, suggest the sense in which the latter are themselves the
products, not the antecedents, of living. It can direct attention, then – in
the manner advocated by the philosophical Pragmatists – to outcomes and
consequences, among these being the 'reasons' commonly treated as
antecedent motives. As a corollary, we are more likely to find in the
background of or as antecedent to current practical, need-satisfying,
instrumental activity a sense of play or experimentation. We tried to
emphasize the sense in which 'refrigeration,' as an active noun, can be seen
as open-ended in its meaning and even playful, its 'need' largely emergent,
but the analytic point that tools create their own need can be broadly
generalized: the revised sociological theory of 'deviance' makes it clear, at
least to us, that without the rhetorical workings of church-men,
psychiatrists, teachers and policemen we would not include the sinner, the
mentally ill, the ignorant or the criminal among the identities available to
people in our social world – that the solutions, in short, are always the best
guide to the problems. It would be tempting to suggest that this theoretical
development makes it possible to see even the diagnostic categories of
these professions as 'folklore' in the vernacular sense in which folklore
stands for the not-quite-justified celebration of accumulated practice.
To argue that tools can be said to act, in their use, to confer rather selfserving identities on their users (to gradually become, in one formulation,
"institutions") is to adopt a posture that seems congruent with the longterm shift from a focus on the 'text' to a concern with context,
interpretation, and performance, with the proviso that these distinctions
are themselves problematic. The unit of analysis in the refrigerator study is
the entire circle that includes the box, the user and the audience to that
use, each of these being at times interchangeable; we say, again, that the
refrigerator 'embodies' its user-audience, just as the user-audience must
The Unity of Self and Object
'perform' the refrigerator, keeping it within its proper 'frame.' And the
'circle' described here is social, insofar as self and object are socially
defined and there is social complicity in the maintenance of definitions:
access to refrigerators is a socially and carefully regulated matter.
Finally – and in keeping with the Pragmatic project – we think it
important to explore the sense in which esthetic considerations guide the
'composition' of the tool and its circle. We have toyed at length with the
seemingly esthetic issues that arise continuously in refrigerator-stories if
one hears and sees them in that fashion – issues concerning proper storage
and warehousing strategy, cleaning routines, selection of contents and
containers. The refrigerator can be likened, sometimes is explicitly likened,
to a piece of kinetic sculpture, a household art-object-in-process, constantly
modified (or not modified) so that it looks, feels, is 'right.' It is true, of
course that we do not gather audiences to gaze upon the fridge, or gather
refrigerators together in galleries. This device is not the centerpiece of
large and carefully crafted ritual. But then it is not really clear why
refrigerators are not the stuff of galleries; in fact, it isn't really clear that
they aren't. Much of social science, after all, is an effort to find sacred
meaning in profane arrangements, or to reclaim ritual before it's lost to the
language of utility, and included here might be license to 'see' the kitchen
as a gallery of sorts. Debate as to the legitimacy of such a framing might
be fruitful, but in any case it would seem to be legitimate debate within
folkloric studies, where tools can be examined as items of culture and
there seems to exist, almost as a defining characteristic of the field,
sympathy for an experiential and generic conception of art.
Sosiologisk årbok 1998.1