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The Montreal Massacre

A Story of Membership Categorization Analysis

By Peter Eglin & Stephen Hester
Subjects Social Science, Sociology
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Paperback : 9780889204225, 168 pages, October 2003


The Montreal Massacre: A Story of Membership Categorization Analysis adopts an ethnomethodological viewpoint to analyze how the murder of women by a lone gunman at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal was presented to the public via media publication over a two-week period in 1989. All that the public came to know and understand of the murders, the murderer, and the victims was constituted in the description and commentaries produced by the media. What the murders became, therefore, was an expression of the methods used to describe and evaluate them, and central to these methods was membership category analysis — the human practice of perceiving people, places, and events as “members” of “categories,” and to use these to explain actions.

This is evident in the various versions comprising the overall story of the Massacre: it was a crime; it was a tragedy; it was a horror story. The killer’s story is also based on his own categorial analysis (he said his victims were “feminists”). The media commentators formulated the significance of the murders in categorial terms: it implicated a wider problem, that of violence against women, and thus the reasons for the murders were shown to be categorial matters.

As a contribution to sociology, and as a demonstration of the significance of ethnomethodology for understanding social life, the book reveals the methodical and particularly categorial character of how sense is made of events such as this and how such methodical and categorial resources are central to human interaction.


  • Short-listed, Harold Adams Innis Prize for best English-language book in the Social Sciences 2005


``. ..what is really special about this book is that it tackles a truly dark case without succumbing to sensationalism or to ideological sentimentality. It marks a new high point for criminal-justice case analysis, and is likely to become a classic of its kind. ''

- Jeff Coulter, professor of sociology, Boston University

``This is an extraordinary book. The meticulous analysis of the categories used in stories and of reflections on the Montreal Massacre is both highly original and a model of what ethnomethodology can contribute to the analysis of the media. At the same time, the scope of the study and the range of materials it draws on recover for the reader an event that reverberated widely in Canada and bring alive again a singularly painful passage in the struggle against violence against women. ''

- Dorothy Smith, OISE, University of Toronto, author of Writing the Social: Critique, Theory, and Investigations

``Despite the authors' focus on media stories and commentary, their book has managed to avoid any of the sensationalism usually associated with the news. The Montreal Massacre is a scholarly work, and an enriching one. Although I was initially uncomfortable with placing this tragedy under the microscope, the authors' sensitive treatment soon dispelled these qualms. ''

- Naomi Brun, Canadian Book Review Annual, 2006

``I found myself quite impressed with the sensitivity the authors showed in exploring the Montreal massacre, and I think they were able to acknowledge the immense feeling associated with this event without compromising their analytical approach. ''

- Kristin Atwood, University of Victoria, Labour/Le Travail