From Academic Kids

Ethnomethodology (literally, 'the study of people's methods') is a sociological discipline which focuses on the way people make sense of the world and display their understandings of it. As human society is entirely dependent on these methods of achieving and displaying understanding, ethnomethodology holds out the promise of a comprehensive and coherent alternative to mainstream sociology. The approach was developed by Harold Garfinkel, based on Alfred Schütz's phenomenological reconstruction of Max Weber's verstehen sociology.

While sociology seeks to provide accounts of society which compete with those offered by other members, ethnomethodology focuses on how these accounts are organised in the ongoing moment to moment maintenance of social order. Since this is usually taken for granted, ethnomethodologists have used research methods in the past that 'breach' or 'break' the everyday routine of interaction in order to reveal the work that goes into maintaining the normal flow of life. Some examples include: pretending to be a stranger in one's own home; blatantly cheating at board games; or attempting to bargain for goods on sale in stores. These interventions have demonstrated the creativity with which ordinary members of society are able to interpret and maintain the social order.

While ethnomethodology is often seen as at a remove from more main-stream sociology, it has proved to be extremely influential. For instance, ethnomethodology has always focused on the ways in which words are reliant for their meaning on the context in which they are used (they are 'indexical'). This has led to insights into the objectivity of social science and the difficulty in establishing a description of human behavior which has an objective status outside the context of its creation. Ethnomethodology has also influenced the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge by providing a research strategy that precisely describes the methods of its research subjects without the necessity of evaluating their validity. This proved to be useful to researchers studying social order in laboratories who wished to understand how scientists understood their experiments without either endorsing or criticising their activities. Ethnomethodology has had an impact on linguistics and particularly on pragmatics, spawning a whole new discipline of conversation analysis. Ethnomethodological studies of work have played a significant role in the field of human-computer interaction, informing design by providing engineers with descriptions of the practices of users. Finally, ethnomethodologically informed management and leadership studies are newly emerging fields.

Some leading policies and methods

Ethnomethodological Indifference This is a policy of deliberate agnosticiam towards social theory. It is a specialised application of the phenomenological technique of bracketing. By deliberately suspending our preconceived notions of how the social order is maintained, we are able to more clearly see the social order in its actual, real-time, moment-to-moment production.

First Time Through This is a practice of treating any social activity as if it was happening for the very first time, in an attempt to discover how that particular activity is put together by those who participate in it.

Breaching Experiment Not really an experiment, but rather an 'aid to the sluggish imagination'. Another way of making clear the work that is done by members to maintain the social order (see above).

Sacks' Gloss A question about an aspect of the social order that recommends, as a method of answering it, that the researcher should seek out members of society who, in their daily lives, are responsible for the maintenance of that aspect of the social order. Sacks' original question concerned objects in public places and how it was possible to see that such objects did or did not belong to somebody. He found his answer in the activities of police officers who had to decide whether cars were abandoned.

Durkheim's Aphorism Durkheim famously recommended that we 'treat social facts as things'. This is usually taken to mean that we should assume the objectivity of social facts as a principal of study (thus providing the basis of sociology as a science). Harold Garfinkel's alternative reading of Durkheim is that we should treat the objectivity of social facts as an achievement of society' members, thus making this achievement of objectivity the focus of study.


  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1984. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Malden MA: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing. (ISBN 0-7456-0005-0)
  • Garfinkel, Harold. (Hrsg.) 1986. Ethnomethodological Studies of Work, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (ISBN 0-7100-9664-X)
  • Garfinkel, Harold. 2002. Ethnomethodology's Program. New York: Rowan and Littlefield. (ISBN 0-7425-1642-3)
  • "Lectures on Conversation" by Harvey Sacks 1992 (two volumes) Backwell, Oxford.

See also

de:Ethnomethodologie fr:Ethnométhodologie


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