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Ethnomethodology is a field of sociology that studies the commonsense resources, procedures, and practices through which the members of a culture produce and recognize mutually intelligible objects, events, and courses of action. The field emerged in the late 1960s in reaction to a range of sociological perspectives, most prominently structural functionalism, which treated conduct as causally determined by social structural factors. In contrast, ethnomethodology stressed that social actions and social organization are produced by knowledgeable agents who guide their actions by the use of situated commonsense reasoning. Rather than treating the achievement of social organization as a given from which the analysis of social structure could proceed, ethnomethodological research was directed at the hidden social processes underlying that achievement. The resulting research focus on the properties of commonsense knowledge and reasoning represents one strand of what has been termed the "cognitive revolution" in the social sciences. As a sociological perspective however, ethnomethodology deals with the socially shared and publicly accountable nature of commonsense reasoning rather than with psychological aspects of cognitive processes. Its primary research stance has been descriptive and naturalistic rather than explanatory or experimental.


The basic outlook of ethnomethodology was developed by Harold Garfinkel (1967a) during a twenty-year period spanning graduate research at Harvard under the supervision of Talcott Parsons through an extensive number of empirical investigations at UCLA. Garfinkel's starting point was the vestigial treatment in the sociological analyses of the 1950s of how actors employ knowledge to understand and act in ordinary social contexts (Heritage 1984). With respect to the prevailing treatment of internalized norms as motivational "drivers" of behavior, Garfinkel noted that the achievement of goals requires actions based on knowledge of real circumstances and that where coordinated action is necessary, that knowledge must be socially shared. What is the character of this knowledge? How is it implemented and updated? By what means are shared and dynamically changing knowledge and understanding concerning actions and events sustained? Merely to raise these questions was to point to fundamental deficiences in the theory of action.

In developing answers to these questions, Garfinkel drew on the theoretical writings of the phenomenological sociologist Alfred Schutz (Schutz 1962–1966). Schutz observed that each actor approaches the social world with a "stock of knowledge at hand" made up of commonsense constructs and categories that are primarily social in origin. The actor's grasp of the real world is achieved through the use of these constructs, which, Schutz stressed, are employed presuppositionally, dynamically, and in a taken-for-granted fashion. Schutz also observed that these constructs are held in typified form, that they are approximate and revisable, that actions are guided by a patchwork of "recipe knowledge," and that intersubjective understanding between actors who employ these constructs is a constructive achievement that is sustained on a moment-to-moment basis. Ethnomethodology took shape from Garfinkel's efforts to develop these theoretical observations into a program of empirical research.

A major component of these efforts took the form of the famous "breaching experiments," which were inspired by the earlier "incongruity experiments" pioneered by Solomon Asch and Jerome Bruner. The breaching experiments employed a variety of techniques to engineer drastic departures from ordinary expectations and understandings about social behavior. By "making trouble" in ordinary social situations, Garfinkel was able to demonstrate the centrality of taken-for-granted background understandings and contextual knowledge in persons' shared recognition of social events and in their management of coordinated social action. He concluded that understanding actions and events involves a circular process of reasoning in which part and whole, foreground and background, are dynamically adjusted to one another. Following Karl Mannheim, he termed this process "the documentary method of interpretation." In this process, basic presuppositions and inferential procedures are employed to assemble linkages between an action or an event and aspects of its real worldly and normative context. The character of the action is thus grasped as a "gestalt contexture" (Gurwitsch 1966) that is inferentially and procedurally created through the interlacing of action and context. Here temporal aspects of actions and events assume a central significance (Garfinkel 1967a), not least because background and context have to be construed as dynamic in character. Within this analysis, presuppositions, tacit background knowledge, and contextual detail are the inescapable resources through which a grasp of events is achieved.

Garfinkel (1967a) also showed that the recognition, description, or coding of actions and events is an inherently approximate affair. The particulars of objects and events do not have a "one-toone" fit with their less specific representations in descriptions or codings. The fitting process thus inevitably involves a range of approximating activities that Garfinkel terms "ad hoc practices" (Garfinkel 1967a). This finding is, of course, the inverse of his well-known observation that descriptions, actions, and so forth have indexical properties: Their sense is elaborated and particularized by their contextual location. An important consequence of these observations is that shared understandings cannot be engendered by a "common culture" through a simple matching of shared words or concepts but rather can only be achieved constructively in a dynamic social process (Garfinkel 1967a). Similar conclusions apply to the social functioning of rules and norms.

In summary: Garfinkel's researches indicate that every aspect of shared understandings of the social world depends on a multiplicity of tacit methods of reasoning. These methods are procedural in character, they are socially shared, and they are ceaselessly used during every waking moment to recognize ordinary social objects and events. A shared social world, with its immense variegation of social objects and events, is jointly constructed and recognized through, and thus ultimately rests on, a shared base of procedures of practical reasoning that operationalize and particularize a body of inexact knowledge.

In addition to functioning as a base for understanding actions, these procedures also function as a resource for the production of actions. Actors tacitly draw on them so as to produce actions that will be accountable—that is, recognizable and describable—in context. Thus, shared methods of reasoning are publicly available on the surface of social life because the results of their application are inscribed in social action and interaction. As Garfinkel (1967a) put it: "The activities whereby members produce and magage the settings of organized everyday affairs are identical with members' procedures for making these settings account-able" (p. 1).

While the results of Garfinkel's experiments showed that the application of joint methods of reasoning is central to the production and understanding of social action, they also showed that the application of these methods is strongly "trusted" (Garfinkel 1963, 1967a). This "trust" has a normative background and is insisted upon through a powerful moral rhetoric. Those whose actions could not be interpreted by means of this reasoning were met with anger and demands that they explain themselves. Garfinkel's experiments thus showed the underlying morality of practical reasoning and that the procedural basis of action and understanding is a part—perhaps the deepest part—of the moral order. Such a finding is consistent with the view that this procedural base is foundational to organized social life and that departures from it represent a primordial threat to the possibility of sociality itself.


Garfinkel's writings have stimulated a wide range of commentary, theoretical reaction, and empirical initiatives. In what follows, only the latter will be described. Empirical research in ethnomethodology will be discussed under three headings: (1) social structures as normal environments, (2) the creation and maintenance of social worlds, and (3) studies of work. A fourth, and possibly the most conspicuous, initiative—conversation analysis —is discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopedia.

Social Structures as Normal Environments. In his theoretical writings, Schutz (1962) argued that human consciousness is inherently typifying and that language is the central medium for the transmission of socially standarized typifications. In a number of his empirical studies, Garfinkel developed this idea in relation to social process, noting the ways in which commonsense reasoning is used—often within a moral idiom—to typify and normalize persons and events. A number of influential ethnomethodological studies have taken up this theme and focused on the ways in which particpants may be actively or tacitly engaged in creating or reproducing a texture of normality in their everyday affairs.

Much of this work was focused in the fields of deviance and bureaucratic record keeping. This focus was far from accidental. In both fields, the participants are concerned with the administration of socially consequential categories and in both—with their indigenous preoccupation with classification and definition—normalizing processes were close to the surface of organizational life and were somewhat easier to track. Pioneering studies in this area included Sudnow's (1965) analysis of "normal crimes," in which he showed that California lawyers employed models of "typical" offenders and offences in plea-bargaining procedures that departed substantially from the provisions of the California criminal code. Zimmerman's (1969) work on record keeping in a public welfare agency showed that bureaucratic records employed typifications of clients that could only be interpreted by reference to detailed background knowledge of the organization's procedures (see also Garfinkel 1967a, pp. 186–207). Wieder's (1974) work on a halfway house for paroled narcotics offenders showed that a "convict code" profoundly shaped how staff and inmates perceived events inside the institution—with disastrous consequences for its success.

Related works on deviance—by Cicourel (1968) on the policing of juveniles and by Atkinson (1978) on suicide—crystallized points of friction between ethnomethodology and more traditional approaches to the study of deviant behavior. Both studies examined the social processes underlying the classification of deviants. Each of them detailed a complex of commonsense considerations that enter into the determination of the nature of a deviant act and (in the case of juvenile offenders) the treatment of its perpetrator.

Cicourel's study showed that police treatment of juveniles was informed by a lay theory that posited a connection between juvenile offenses and the home background of the offender. Offenses by juveniles from "broken homes" were treated more seriously than offenses by those from other social backgrounds. In consequence, offenses by juveniles from broken homes were more likely to be officially reported, were more commonly the object of court proceedings, and had a greater tendency to result in custodial sentences. Police records, Cicourel showed, embodied a related process of idealization and typification in which case records, as they were developed through the system, became increasingly concise, selective, and consistent with the assumptions, objectives, and dispositions of the legal agencies. At the core of Cicourel's argument was the claim that the processing of juvenile offenders exhibits a circular process. Basic assumptions about the causal factors associated with juvenile crime were being used to normalize offenders and were built into the differential treatment of juveniles. From this point, these assumptions became built into police records and statistics and, finally, into social scientific treatments of the statistics that "recovered" the initial assumptions as valid explanations of juvenile crime.

Similar conclusions were reached by Atkinson (1978) in relation to the treatment of suicide. Drawing on the work of Garfinkel (1967G) and Douglas (1967), Atkinson argued that police conceptions of "typical suicides" profoundly influenced how particular cases of sudden death were investigated and treated. These conceptions not only influenced individual verdicts but, through the accumulation of verdicts, the official statistics on suicide. Atkinson concluded that sociological studies of suicide based on official statistics are unavoidably engaged in decoding the commonsense typifications of suicide that were constitutive in the recognition of, and verdicts on, individual cases and that accumulate in the statistical record.

In sum, ethnomethodological studies of typification in relation to deviance and organizational records have had both "constructive" and "deconstructive" moments. New and important social processes that inform the categorial activities of public agencies of various kinds have been uncovered. At the same time, these discoveries have challenged traditional sociological treatments of official statistics. The "deconstructive" conclusion that official statistics of social phenomena may be largely artifactual and, in many cases, can tell us only about the kinds of assumptions and practices that animate the relevant officials has provoked debates in the discipline that are unresolved to the present date.

The Creation and Maintenance of Social Institutions and Social Worlds. An important aspect of ethnomethodological theorizing is the notion that social institutions are sustained as real entities through vocabularies of accounts (or accounting frameworks) through which the events of the social world are recognized and acted upon. Although this idea can be traced back to C. Wright Mills (1940), it found vivid expression in Garfinkel's (1967a) analysis of a transsexual individual, which he used as an occasion to investigate the nature of gender as (1) the achievement of a particular individual that (2) was made possible by the person's grasp of, and subscription to, appropriately "gendered" practices and accounting frameworks that are generally hidden or taken for granted by normally sexed persons.

A number of subsequent studies have developed this preoccupation with the role of accounting frameworks that are employed in the taken-forgranted production and reproduction of social institutions and social realities. An early and influential work was Wieder's (1974) study of the role of the "convict code" in a halfway house for paroled narcotics offenders. Wieder showed the ways in which the code—which prescribed a range of activities hostile to staff members—functioned both as a fundamental way of seeing "what was going on" in the halfway house and as a resource that could be invoked in accounting for noncompliant conduct in interaction with staff members. Of particular interest is Weider's finding that the "code" functioned in these ways among both offenders and staff despite their distinctive and conflicting perspectives on the activities of the halfway house. In transcending the formal power structure of the institution, the code was the predominant medium through which events were defined and acted upon by all participants and, for this reason, served as a source of power and control for the offenders.

At a still more general level, Pollner (1974; 1987) has explored the ways in which a version of reality is socially sustained within a collectivity. Our sense of reality, he argues, is a social institution that is sustained by particular socially organized practices, which he labels "mundane reason." Within this framework of practices, we start from the presumption that real-world objects and events are intersubjectively available as determinate, definite, noncontradictory, and self-identical. That this presumption is actively sustained, he shows, emerges in environments—ranging from everyday events to more specialized contexts such as the law courts, mental hospitals, and research science—where witnesses disagree in their depiction of objects and events. In such contexts, Pollner observes, a range of procedures are invoked that discount one version of events and privilege the other. The invocation of such procedures sustains (by restoring or repairing) persons' belief in a single noncontradictory reality. "Explaining away" a witness's testimony—by, for example, arguing that he couldn't have seen what he saw, was not competent to do so, or was lying or even insane—functions in the way described by Evans-Pritchard (1937) as the "secondary elaboration of belief." Such secondary elaborations, Pollner observes, are inevitably used in defense of the factual status of all versions of the world. They are the universal repair kit of the real. Pollner's work has stimulated a range of empirical studies in a variety of settings, ranging from mental hospitals (Coulter, 1975) to a research community of biochemists (Gilbert and Mulkay 1984), and has strongly influenced the recent "discourse analysis" movement in social psychology.

Workplace Studies. In recent years, ethnomethodological research has been most prominently visible in social studies of science (Lynch 1995) and in studies of knowledge and action in the workplace (Button 1993). These studies are continuous with earlier investigations in that they examine the practical context and practical achievement of scientific and workplace activities. However they also radicalize earlier studies in their demonstrations of the practical contingencies that underly the production and use of "hard" scientific and technological findings just as much as they do more ephemeral cultural objects such as sketch maps (Garfinkel 1996, in press).

The workplace studies began with a focus on embodied courses of practical reasoning and action that are involved in the technically competent performance of work tasks that range from playing jazz (Sudnow 1978) to proving a mathematical theorem (Livingston 1986), laboratory work in brain science (Lynch 1985), or astronomical discovery (Lynch et al. 1983). Work in these fields was studied for the detailed texture of the shop-talk and workbench practices that comprise the recognizably competent performance of work tasks. A further focus on workplace studies has emerged from Lucy Suchman's (1987) pioneering study of human–machine communication. A very large body of ethnomethodological work has focused on a variety of aspects of machine-mediated observation and communication (for representative studies from a large corpus, see Button 1993, Luff et al. in press), as well as fundamental aspects of the relationship among computers, human action, and communication (Agre 1997; Button et al. 1995). Another set of studies addresses disciplinarily specific processes of representation in science (Lynch and Woolgar 1990), police work in courtroom testimony (Goodwin 1994), and historical events in the political context of congressional hearings (Lynch and Bogen 1996). Finally, a new body of work by Lynch and his collaborators (see Jordan and Lynch 1998) examines the nature and application of scientific techniques concerned with DNA sequencing in a variety of contexts, ranging from research and industrial to forensic contexts. This research explores the contigencies that support the stability and objectivity of these techniques in some contexts, while subverting them in others.


Since its emergence in the 1960s, ethnomethodology has developed as a complex set of research initiatives that have raised topic areas, problems, and issues for analysis where none were previously seen to exist or perceived to be relevant. A number of these initiatives have had a pronounced "deconstructive" dimension that has sometimes appeared iconoclastic or even nihilistic (Pollner 1991). Yet in its oscillation between constructive and deconstructive tendencies, ethnomethodology has been a significant site of theoretical and empirical innovation within sociology. It is exerting a continuing impact on the sensibility of the discipline. Finally, it has also had a wide ranging influence on a range of adjacent disciplines that are concerned with knowledge systems, communication, action, and practical reasoning

(see also: Conversation Analysis)


Agre, P. 1997. Computation and Human Experience. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Atkinson, J.M. 1978 Discovering Suicide: Studies in the Social Organization of Sudden Death. London: Macmillan.

Button, G., ed. 1993 Technology in Working Order: Studies of Work, Interaction and Technology. London: Routledge.

——, Jeff Coulter, John Lee, and Wesley Sharrock 1995 Computers, Minds and Conduct. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cicourel, A.V. 1968 The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Coulter, J. 1975 "Perceptual Accounts and Interpretive Asymmetries." Sociology 9:385–396.

Douglas, J. 1967 The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937 Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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. New York: Ronald Press.

——1967a Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

——1967b "Practical Sociological Reasoning: Some Features of the Work of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center." In E. S. Schneidman, ed., Essays in Self-Destruction. New York: International Science Press.

——1996. "Ethnomethodology's Program." Social Psychology Quarterly 59(1):5–21.

——in press. A Catalogue of Ethnomethodological Investigations, ed. Anne Warfield Rawls. Boston: Basil Blackwell.

——, M. Lynch, and E. Livingston 1981 "The Work of a Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11:131–158.

Gilbert, G. N., and M. Mulkay, 1984 Opening Pandora's Box: A Sociological Analysis of Scientists' Discourse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, C. 1994 "Professional Vision." American Anthropologist 96(3):606–633.

Gurwitsch, A. 1966 Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Heritage, J. 1984 Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge, Mass.: Polity Press.

Jordan, K. and M. Lynch 1998 "The Dissemination, Standardization and Routinization of a Molecular Biological Technique." Social Studies of Science, 28:773–800.

Livingston, E. 1986 Ethnomethodological Foundations of Mathematics. London: Routledge.

Luff, P., J. Hindmarsh, and C. Heath, eds., in press. Workplace Studies: Recovering Work Practice and Informing System Design. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Lynch, M. 1985 Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science. London: Routledge.

——1995 Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action: Ethnomethodology and Social Studies of Science. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

——, and D. Bogen 1996 The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text and Memory at the Iran–Contra Hearings. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

——, E. Livingston, and H. Garfinkel 1983 "Temporal Order in Laboratory Work." In K. Knorr-Cetina and M. Mulkay, eds., Science Observed. London: Sage.

——, and S. Woolgar, eds. 1990 Representation in Scientific Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Mills, C. W. 1940 "Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive." American Sociological Review 5:904–913.

Pollner, M. 1974 "Mundane Reasoning." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 4:35–54.

——1987 Mundane Reason: Reality in Everyday and Sociological Discourse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

——1991 "Left of Ethnomethodology," American Sociological Review 56:370–380.

Schutz, A. 1962 "Commonsense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action." In A. Schutz, Collected Papers: Vol. 1. The Problem of Social Reality, ed. by M. Natanson. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

——1962–1966 Collected Papers, 3 vol. The Hague: Matinus Nijhoff.

Suchman, L. 1987 Plans and Situated Action. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Sudnow, D. 1965 "Normal Crimes." Social Problems 12:255–276.

——1978 Ways of the Hand. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Wieder, D. L. 1974 Language and Social Reality. The Hague: Mouton.

Zimmerman, D. 1969 "Record Keeping and the Intake Process in a Public Welfare Agency." In S. Wheeler, ed., On Record: Files and Dossiers in American Life. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.

John Heritage

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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