Peter Eglin and Stephen Hester use membership categorization analysis in combination with ethnomethodology to explore the events associated with the shootings on December 6, 1989, at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, in which fourteen women and the gunman lost their lives. The result is detailed analysis provided through accounts in specific newspapers, relating the thoughts and viewpoints of feminists, family, friends and neighbours, and others, as well as the journalists themselves. An ethnomethodological approach enables those who were involved in the shootings that day, or affected by it, to have their membership in appropriate categories, depending on the theme, unveiled in a precise, detailed manner. As the authors explain in the introduction, they were not out to provide a sociological explanation for the killings but to examine the event itself and possible motives, as far as the members involved in telling the story were concerned. Such detail of situated action depends on “recognizable stocks of knowledge,” is how Willliam Housley and Richard Fitzgerald phrase it. “An utterance only becomes a knowledgeable claim in and through the situated recognition work of members” (Housley and Fitzgerald, 2002: 74). Their investigation of the role of ethnomethodology in sociological analysis refers to the idea of social context as achieved, the members’ categories being situated within devices or collections rather than within the context of the wider society, a feature that Eglin and Hester reiterate in their text.
In the first of two sections, Part One: Stories of The Montreal Massacre, Eglin and Hester demonstrate their thoroughness, moving from one scenario to another, including extracts and passages mainly from newspapers, explaining the schemes of interpretation of the members, and at times revealing their own place as interpreters grappling with the different perspectives set out by the “speakers.” The stories they present are of situations and the characters, and of the practical consequences within society as constructed by the members. They make it clear, however, that sociological theorizing was not part of their task in presenting the Montreal Massacre as a members’ phenomenon.
In Part Two: The Montreal Massacre and Moral Order, Eglin and Hester develop a sociological position on some aspects from the previous section. In an attempt to locate the causes of the Montreal Massacre within the wider society, they turn to such issues as the relation between the individual and society, and the links between social structure, social action, and motivation. Using the members’ own category analysis, they comment on the consequences of the killings and the significance of this event for members, based on the reasoning and need for expressions of grief of those members selected to speak.
The material used for this book came from newspaper accounts at the time of the shootings in December, 1989, in the Globe and Mail and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. Eglin and Hester explain that it was mainly through these reports and commentary that the phenomenon of the Montreal Massacre was made, and made available to the public. Eglin and Hester admit here their biases and misgivings about the analytic procedure while presenting their own views on the meaning of the shootings and the significance to society. Despite this, they say in conclusion, they remained as detached as possible from any emotional or political commitments, while reflecting on the social process and their own human place in it.
One question ethnomethodologists have attempted to address has been the instability of meaning in day-to-day life. Gale Miller elaborates on the analytic potential of three different approaches – ethnography (and ethnomethodology), conversation analysis and Foucault, one common element among them being that knowledge and language are related. He contends that all constructions of social reality are open to contest and change (Miller, 1997: 29). Differences in ways of perceiving social reality are addressed in the research conducted by Eglin and Hester, but the limitations of their work due to the emphasis only on specific newspapers within a certain time frame cannot help but be an issue of validity. Over time, the focus on the happenings of that December day have grown, albeit in a particular direction, while the ideas gained from Eglin and Hester’s research remain situated in the past. Although the first section of the book deals with diverse social realities, the second section seems to move gradually towards a focus on one particular social reality.
In their work on discourse analysis, Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell emphasize change, explaining, for instance, that “the relatively static exemplar or prototype is replaced with the idea of a cluster of potentially inconsistent features and expectations” (Potter and Wetherell, 1987: 136). They suggest that the categories are “the building blocks of our many versions of the social world,” but that “once we look closely at the blocks we see that they themselves are not solid and defined, but have to be moulded in discourse for use in different accounts” (p. 137). It is suggested that the possibility of change in socially constructed realities points to “the practical, moral and/or political implications that different social realities might have for individuals and groups” (Miller, 1997: 29). Writing about socially-constructed realities as an abstract concept, however, is not the same as conducting a study in which that concept is being applied to practical circumstances which are historical, and which are also socially relevant today. The difficulties of doing research on a controversial topic set aside, one question I have is whether Eglin and Hester’s use of ethnomethodology and membership categorization analysis demonstrates the risk of reaching inflexible conclusions rather than considering changing ideas over time, in terms of the significance of the shootings at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal.
There are, potentially, two audiences for their book: those interested in ethnomethodology and discourse analysis, and another readership interested in understanding how and why the shootings at Montreal happened and the consequences for society. Eglin and Hester’s detailed analysis and interpretations of the ways individuals make sense of their worlds, and this collection of historical material about the Montreal shootings, ensure that this book will remain useful over for many years to come, and to a variety of readers.
Housley, Wm. and Fitzgerald, R. (2002) The Reconsidered Model of Membership
Categorization Analysis, pp. 59-83, Qualitative Research. 2: 1. 59-83.
Miller, G. (1997) Building Bridges: The Possibility of Analytic Dialogue Between
Ethnography, Conversation Analysis and Foucault. In David Silverman (Ed.). Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice. London; Thousand Oaks, CA; New Delhi: Sage.
Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and
Behaviour. London; Thousand Oaks, CA; New Delhi: Sage.
See also, Montreal Massacre website,
This page was last updated in Dec 2018