The Journal of Value Inquiry

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 169–183 | Cite as

Maigret's method

  • M. W. Jackson

Conclusion To argue that Maigret's method is ethnomethodology still leaves open the question whether he is an historian or a sociologist. This is a question about method, not about the name of disciplines. Maurice Mandelbaum once made the distinction in these words:

The task of the historian is not one of tracing a series of links in a temporal chain; rather, it is his task to analyze a complex pattern of change into the factors which served to make it precisely what it was. The relationship which I therefore take to be fundamental to historiography is ... a relationship of part to whole, not a relationship of antecedent to consequent.

Mandelbaum's historian relates the part to the whole, leaving it for the sociologist to relate the antecedent to the consequence.

If that is so, then Maigret is first an historian ascertaining and accumulating the subjective meanings that individuals use to produce the facticity of their own lives. And in the course of so doing he discovers the nature of the reality in which the crime occurred. Once he finds his way into the realities of the crime there is time and need for the sociological analysis of antecedent and consequent. To suggest a comparison, Maigret practices in miniature the method of Norbert Elias in that he tries to understand his subjects as they understand themselves. Maigret's is an idiographic science and not a nomethetic one. For this reason Maigret, unlike Holmes, almost never refers to previous cases in the effort to understand the matter at hand.

The temptation is to conclude that Maigret is a little like Fernand Braudel in combining history and sociology by turns. But I wonder if there is not a more profound sense in which Maigret, if not all sociologists, is an historian. If we have any knowledge it is of the past, not of the present or the future. Minerva's owl does indeed take wing only at dusk, as Hegel wrote. By the time we have understood the present, it is the past.

If Maigret's aim is not the unvarnished truth, that is not because of the constraints of police work but because of the constraints of the world. The irony of Maigret's ethnomethodology is this. Simenon's style is rightly celebrated for its evocation of atmosphere. The apposite analogy occasionally offered is between Simenon's spare and laconic style and Impressionist painting. Simenon does not describe people and places in the Maigret stories but suggests them with a sentence or two. The style is not realism, whatever the effect. As Rafael Koskimies has written, Simenon selects and simplifies. Impressionism is the style of painting that accepts the surface as reality. The play of light and color on the surface of objects is suggested on the surface of the canvas with the texture and color of the paint. If Simenon is an impressionist in his art, Maigret cannot be in his. He does not settle for the surface, but goes inside of it. Once there he learns all he needs to know and all that he can know. The confessions that so frequently occur in the Maigret stories do not confirm his suppositions, but release the tensions of the drama in a catharsis. Finally, if Maigret's Maigret must admit in his Memoirs that he could not in fact go into the detail of every reality personally in the manner described above, it only proves how terribly taxing the method called Verstehen is.

To conclude, Maigret has a method, but it is not a recipe that others can follow step-by-step. His method is an orientation to reality and a commitment to understanding in a certain way. To call Maigret's procedure a method requires the definition of “method” to include more than cook books, however brilliant the cook books are. Maigret's method is a part of the context of discovery. Naive realists like Méchin imagine that they live only in the context of justification.

Of course, no one's understanding is perfect. Maigret makes mistakes. There are times when an explanation based on behavior would be more accurate and economical. If Simenon does not dwell on Maigret's failures it is clear that Maigret uses other methods, too. The triangulation of a variety of methods is what in fact most of us practice whatever we preach.


Complex Pattern Police Work Sociological Analysis Subjective Meaning Profound Sense 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. W. Jackson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of GovernmentUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

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