“I didn’t do anything dangerous”: Inmates doing being ordinary, moral, and caring

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“I didn’t do anything dangerous” - Inmates doing being ordinary, moral, and caring
Being considered trustworthy is a members’ concern (Nielsen & Nielsen, in Press). When having breached societal norms you are less likely to be perceived as trustworthy (Housley & Fitzgerald, 2009; cf. Garfinkel, 1963). One example of people having breached norms are convicted fellons doing time in prison, and they are likely to be considered and categorized as less trustworthy and moral than ‘ordinary people’ (Sacks, 1984).
In our data, consisting of video recordings of interaction between inmates in an open prison and the prison personnel, we see both parties orienting to constructing the inmates as ‘not dangerous’, but rather ‘ordinary’ (Sacks, 1984) or ‘moral’. In this paper we show examples of inmates doing interactional work such as telling about ordinary events (such as duck-feeding or going to the movies), accounting for prior breaches of norms, and explaining former actions or choices as moral or ‘not dangerous’. In the excerpt below the researcher is about to turn of the camera after filming and has just asked the inmate if he still consents to having been filmed and reminded him of his right to opt out.

In this paper we use CA and Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA) (Sacks, 1989; Schegloff, 2007; Fitzgerald & Housley, 2015) to explore how inmates work to construct locally relevant identities in their interaction with employees at the prison. Membership categories concern a deeper moral order that frames how members of society can hold each other accountable (Hester & Eglin, 1997; Housley & Fitzgerald, 2009) and thus we find MCA to be a usefull approach to investigate both trust as practical action and trustworthiness as category bound predicate (Psathas, 1999) in our data. We show how inmates with convictions for serious crimes, such as first- and second-degree murder and aggravated assault such as rape, self-ascribe to categories commonsensically considered trustworthy, peaceful, or unselfish such as ‘duck-feeders’ or ‘helpers of the homeless’ using direct lexical formulations, category bound actions and character bound displays (Nielsen & Nielsen, 2022) and how the employees partake in this co-construction of positive and trustworthy local identities.
This paper thus contributes to EM based work on how members use relevant social categories in their identity work, particularly in the context of prior norm breaching, and to applied EM/CA by using MCA to provide professional practitioners with insight into how best to help and support some of society’s most ostracized and socially disadvantaged members with their interactional construction of new identities as part of their resocialization process.

Fitzgerald, R., & Housley, W. (2015). Advances in Membership Categorisation Analysis. SAGE Publications
Garfinkel, H. (1963). A conception of, and experiments with, trust as a condition of stable concerted actions. In O. J. Harvey (Ed.), Motivation and social interaction: Cognitive approaches. Ronald Press.
Hester, S., & Eglin, P. (1997). Culture in action: Studies in membership categorization analysis. International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis.
Housley, W., & Fitzgerald, R. (2009). Membership categorization, culture and norms in action. Discourse & Society, 20(3), 345–362. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42889265
Nielsen, M.F. & Nielsen, A.M.R. (2022). Revisiting trustworthiness in social interaction. Routledge.
Psathas, G. (1999). Studying the organization in action: Membership categorization and interaction analysis. Human Studies, 22(2–4), 139–162. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005422932589
Sacks, H. (1984). On doing "being ordinary". In: Atkinson & Heritage: Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge University Press
Sacks, H. (1989). The M.I.R Membership Categorization Device. Human Studies, 12, 271–281.
Schegloff, E. A. (2007). A tutorial on membership categorization. Journal of Pragmatics, 39(3), 462–482.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date29 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jun 2023
EventInternational Conference on Conversation Analysis ICCA Brisbane - University of Queensland Brisbane (Meanjin) Australia, Brisbane, Australia
Duration: 26 Jun 20232 Jul 2023


ConferenceInternational Conference on Conversation Analysis ICCA Brisbane
LocationUniversity of Queensland Brisbane (Meanjin) Australia
Internet address

ID: 360067876