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ethnomethodology A sociological approach which emerged out of the breakdown of the so-called orthodox consensus in the mid-1960s. The label was coined by the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel, who laid the foundations of ethnomethodology as a theory, and as a self-conscious critique of all conventional sociology. Explaining the origins of the term, he suggests that ‘“ethno” seemed to refer, somehow or other, to the availability to a member of common-sense knowledge of his society as common-sense knowledge of the “whatever”. If it were “ethno-botany”, then it had to do somehow or other with his knowledge of and his grasp of what were for members adequate methods for dealing with botanical matters … and the notion of “ethnomethodology” was taken in this sense’ (‘The Origins of the Term “Ethnomethodology”’, in R. J. Hill and and K. S. Crittenden ( eds. ), Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology, 1968)
. This interest led Garfinkel to analyse, in great detail, the methods used by people in everyday life to account for (or make sense of) their activities—both to themselves and others. These unconventional (some might say esoteric) researches are reported in Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), where Garfinkel gives the most concise definition of his studies, as being ‘directed to the tasks of learning how members’ actual, ordinary activities consist of methods to make practical actions, practical circumstances, commonsense knowledge of social structures, and practical sociological reasoning analysable'.

For a decade or more after the publication of Garfinkel's text, ethnomethodology was the subject of fierce and often bitter debate within sociology departments. It has now settled into an accepted but minority preoccupation, although some of its insights have been taken into the centre of sociological theory, particularly through the work of Anthony Giddens.

Ethnomethodology draws on a varied philosophical background: phenomenology on the one hand and Wittgenstein and linguistic philosophy on the other. Together with much post-structuralist and post-modernist work, it is a sociological representative of what has become known as the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, an increasing preoccupation in twentieth-century philosophy with the nature of language and language use. Social life, and the apparently stable phenomena and relationships in which it exists, are seen by ethnomethodologists as a constant achievement through the use of language. It is something that together we create and recreate continuously. This is indeed the rationale behind the name: ‘ology’ (the study of) ‘ethno’ (people's) ‘method’ (methods) of creating social order. The emphasis is on doing things: we ‘do’ friendship, being a sociologist, walking along the street, and everything else. At one time it was common to distinguish linguistic from situational ethnomethodology, but this is no more than a difference in emphasis, the basis for both tendencies resting firmly in the use of language.

There are two central ideas in ethnomethodology: indexicality and reflexivity. The first is the insight that there is no such thing as a clear, extensive definition of any word or concept in a language, since meaning comes from reference to other words and to the context in which the words are spoken. It is always possible to ask ‘What do you mean?’ about a statement, and then go on indefinitely, asking the same question to whatever answer is given. There is no final answer. Much of Garfinkel's early work consisted of sending his students out on exercises which establish the fact that we create and maintain a sense of meaning and existence in social life which is not actually there. One such exercise was to ask ‘What do you mean?’ relentlessly during conversations. The result is that people become distressed and angry when the taken-for-granted rules we use for establishing meaning are undermined. They lose their sense of social reality.

Reflexivity refers to the fact that our sense of order is a result of conversational processes: it is created in talk. Yet we usually think of ourselves as describing the order already existing around us. For ethnomethodologists, to describe a situation is at the same time to create it.

Both ideas formed part of a radical critique of all conventional sociology—which explains the bitterness of some of the arguments that ensued. According to ethnomethodologists, conventional sociologists are constructing a sense of social order in the same way as a layperson: namely, meanings are regarded as substantive and unproblematic. Consequently they are taken for granted. By contrast, ethnomethodologists argue that the proper task of sociology is to sort out the interpretive rules by means of which we establish our sense of order, rather than engage in reflexively establishing that sense. In this way, conventional sociology becomes an object of study for ethnomethodology, in the same way as any other human social activity is an object of study. Thus, Garfinkel's book contains both an essay on coding answers to sociological interviews and an essay on trans-sexuality, the activities sharing an equal status as ways of producing social reality.

The example of so-called glossing illustrates the sort of interpretive procedure in which ethnomethodology is interested. In everyday life glossing means avoiding the issue. For ethnomethodologists, all talk is glossing, since the issue cannot be directly stated. In glossing, we employ a range of taken-for-granted rules, such as the ‘etcetera rule’, which adds to every other rule a clause which says ‘except in reasonable circumstances’. Harvey Sachs, who specialized in conversation analysis, stated numerous similar rules, including the one which states that, generally, only one person speaks at a time, and that if this rule is broken it is only for a very short period.

A common criticism of ethnomethodology is that it does not tell us anything very important. By definition, the big political and social issues of the day are beyond its scope, since the concern is with how we constitute this world, rather than what we constitute it as being. It is argued that the rules it draws out are also comparatively low level and merely tell us what we already know. The most damning criticism by a conventional sociologist is still John H. Goldthorpe 's ‘A Revolution in Sociology?’ (Sociology, 1973)
, although the most vitriolic critiques are probably James S. Coleman's review of Garfinkel's book in the American Sociological Review (1968), and Lewis A. Coser's celebrated presidential address to the American Sociological Association in 1975 (Two Methods in Search of a Substance', American Sociological Review).

Although ethnomethodological work continues, it is neither as prominent, nor as controversial as hitherto. On the other hand, a modified version of some of its insights is now almost taken-for-granted: there is, for example, a much wider recognition among sociologists of the problematic nature of meaning and of the way in which our talk does contribute to the creation of our social reality. Meanwhile, ethnomethodology has become a relatively prosperous alternative discipline, with its own conferences, journals, and centres of excellence. (An excellent overview of contemporary work is John Heritage 's essay on ‘Ethnomethodology’ in Anthony Giddens and and Jonathan H. Turner ( eds.) , Social Theory Today, 1987.)

Among ethnomethodologists Aaron Cicourel has been most concerned with establishing a relationship with conventional sociology (see Cognitive Sociology, 1973
). The most systematic attempt to integrate ethnomethodological insights into sociology can be found in the work of Anthony Giddens, particularly in New Rules of Sociological Method (1976), and The Constitution of Society (1984). He stops short of seeing social reality and societies as constructions of talk, but recognizes that taken-for-granted rules of talk and action are fundamental to social order, and employs a notion of rule similar to that of ethnomethodology as a way of understanding both social action and social structure and bringing the two together. See also COGNITIVE SOCIOLOGY; COMMONSENSE KNOWLEDGE; ETHNOSTATISTICS.

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Ethnomethodology is an approach to the study of everyday life with a particular emphasis on the construction of cultural meanings amongst minority groups. The term incorporates the prefix ethno- to refer to cultural context, including language and jargon, myths, symbols, and codes of behavior, and the word methodology, which refers to the means, rationale, and philosophical assumptions involved in the approach to investigating such phenomena.

Developed by Harold Garfinkel in 1967, ethnomethodology was initially dismissed by prominent social theorists of the time, such as Alvin W. Gouldner (19201981), who described Garfinkels work as mere Californian sociology (cited in Garfinkel 2002, p. 3). In spite of this early disinterest, ethnomethodology continues to influence empirical social science research in a diverse range of fields, most notably in the areas of education, health, gender, media, and criminal justice.

Specifically, ethnomethodology investigates the functioning of common sense within cultural contexts, stressing the active, reasoned, and informed character of human social behavior. Put simply, ethnomethodology is the study of how individuals maintain a sense of reality in a given social situation through the means of social interaction with other individuals. That is, a conversation is a social process of interaction that has certain requirements in order for individual participants to identify it as a conversation and keep it going as such. For example, people will look at one another, nod, murmur, take turns in speaking, and in asking and responding to questions. If these requirements are not met, or are employed in ways that deviate from the expectations attached to the perceived reality of a conversation, then the interaction breaks down to be replaced by an alternative social process.

Garfinkels work was thus a development of the phenomenological insights of Alfred Schutz (18991959), who had argued that commonsense knowledge is patchy and incomplete and that shared understandings between individuals are contingent achievements based upon this revisable and approximate knowledge. Garfinkel conducted a series of quasi-experimental procedures that exposed the tacit assumptions and presuppositions that underpin shared understandings during social interaction, which he argued had to be understood as an event-in-context. That is, linkages are assembled between a process of social interaction and the cultural context within which the interaction takes place.

Crucially, therefore, changes in the understanding of an events context will evoke some shift or elaboration in an individuals ability to grasp the meaning and reality of the interaction itself. Put simply, to make sense of social interaction between individuals it is necessary to grasp the cultural context in which it takes place. Individuals frequently design their interaction so as to make use of localized contexts in order to elaborate and particularize the sense of their talk and actions. A useful example here is how the cultural products of the poor and minority groups, such as rap lyrics, can be misunderstood if the cultural context in which they are produced is not fully grasped.

Ethnomethodology remains a highly influential approach in the international social sciences, continuing to open up innovative areas of analysis in sociology, social psychology, and linguistics in particular.

SEE ALSO Communication; Conversational Analysis; Cultural Relativism; Culture; Culture of Poverty; Ethnicity; Minorities; Nonverbal Communication


Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Garfinkel, Harold. 2002. Ethnomethodologys Program: Working Out Durkheims Aphorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Heritage, John. 1984. Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Mark Davis

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