Ethnomethodology is the study of methods people use for understanding and producing the social order in which they live.[1] It generally seeks to provide an alternative to mainstream sociological approaches.[2] In its most radical form, it poses a challenge to the social sciences as a whole.[3] On the other hand, its early investigations led to the founding of conversation analysis, which has found its own place as an accepted discipline within the academy. According to Psathas, it is possible to distinguish five major approaches within the ethnomethodological family of disciplines.[4]

Ethnomethodology provides methods which have been used in ethnographic studies to produce accounts of people's methods for negotiating everyday situations.[5] It is a fundamentally descriptive discipline which does not engage in the explanation or evaluation of the particular social order undertaken as a topic of study.[6] However, applications have been found within many applied disciplines, such as software design and management studies.[7]


The term's etymology can be broken down into its three constituent parts: ethno - method - ology, for the purpose of explanation. Using an appropriate Southern California example: ethno refers to a particular socio-cultural group [think a particular, localized community of surfers]; method refers to the methods and practices this particular group employs in its everyday activities [related to surfing]; and ology refers to the systematic description of these methods and practices. The focus of the investigation used in our example is the social order of surfing, the ethnomethodological interest is in the "how" [the methods and practices] of the production and maintenance of this social order. In essence ethnomethodology attempts to create classifications of the social actions of individuals within groups through drawing on the experience of the groups directly, without imposing on the setting the opinions of the researcher with regards to social order, as is the case with sociological studies.[8]

Origin and scope

The approach was originally developed by Harold Garfinkel, who attributed its origin to his work investigating the conduct of jury members in 1954.[1] His interest was in describing the common sense methods through which members of a jury produce themselves in a jury room as a jury. Thus, their methods for: establishing matters of fact; developing evidence chains; determining the reliability of witness testimony; establishing the organization of speakers in the jury room itself; and determining the guilt or innocence of defendants, etc. are all topics of interest. Such methods serve to constitute the social order of being a juror for the members of the jury, as well as for researchers and other interested parties, in that specific social setting.[9]

This interest developed out of Garfinkel's critque of Talcott Parsons' attempt to derive a general theory of society. This critique originated in his reading of Alfred Schutz, though Garfinkel ultimately revised many of Schutz's ideas.[10] Garfinkel also drew on his study of the principles and practices of financial accounting; the classic sociological theory and methods of Durkheim and Weber; and the traditional sociological concern with the Hobbesian "problem of order".[11]

For the ethnomethodologist, participants produce the order of social settings through their shared sense making practices. Thus, there is an essential natural reflexity between the activity of making sense of a social setting and the ongoing production of that setting; the two are in effect identical. Furthermore, these practices (or methods) are witnessably enacted, making them available for study.[3][9] This opens up a broad and multi-faceted area of inquiry. John Heritage writes, “In its open-ended reference to [the study of] any kind of sense-making procedure, the term represents a signpost to a domain of uncharted dimensions rather than a staking out of a clearly delineated territory.”[12]

Theory and methods

Ethnomethodology has perplexed commentators, due to its radical approach to questions of theory and method.[13][14]

With regard to theory, Garfinkel has consistently advocated an attitude of ethnomethodological indifference, a principled agnosticism with regard to social theory which insists that the shared understandings of members of a social setting under study take precedence over any concepts which a social theorist might bring to the analysis from outside that setting. This can be perplexing to traditional social scientists, trained in the need for social theory and a multiplicity of theoretical references by Anne Rawls, in her introduction to *Ethnomethodology's Program* might be interpreted to suggest a softening of this position towards the end of Garfinkel's life.[11][15] However, the position is consistent with ethnomethodology's understanding of the significance of "member's methods", and with certain lines of philosophical thought regarding the philosophy of science (Polanyi:1958; Kuhn:1970; Feyerabend:1975/2010), and the study of the actual practices of scientific procedure.[8] It also has a strong correspondence with the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially as applied to social studies by Peter Winch.[16] References are also made in Garfinkel's work to Husserl (Transcendental Phenomenology), Gurwitsch (Gestalt Theory), and, most frequently, of course, to the works of the social phenomenologist Alfred Schutz (Phenomenology of the Natural Attitude), among others. On the other hand, the authors and theoretical references cited by Garfinkel do not constitute a rigorous theoretical basis for ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology is not Durkheimian, although it shares some of the interests of Durkheim; it is not phenomenology, although it borrows from Husserl and Schutz's studies of the Lifeworld (Lebenswelt); it is not a form of Gestalt theory, although it describes social orders as having Gestalt-like properties; and, it is not Wittgensteinian, although it makes use of Wittgenstein's understanding of rule-use, etc. Instead, these borrowings are only fragmentary references to theoretical works from which ethnomethodology has appropriated theoretical ideas for the expressed purposes of doing ethnomethodological investigations.

Similarly, ethnomethodology advocates no formal methods of enquiry, insisting that the research method be dictated by the nature of the phenomenon that is being studied.[3][9][11] Ethnomethodologists have conducted their studies in a variety of ways,[13] and that the point of these investigations is, ' discover the things that persons in particular situations do, the methods they use, to create the patterned orderliness of social life.' [15] Michael Lynch has noted that: "Leading figures in the field have repeatedly emphasised that there is no obligatory set of methods [employed by ethnomethodologists], and no prohibition against using any research procedure whatsoever, if it is adequate to the particular phenomena under study.".[15][17][18]

Some leading policies, methods and definitions

Differences with sociology

Since ethnomethodology has become anathema to certain sociologists, and since those practicing it like to perceive their own efforts as constituting a radical break from prior sociologies, there has been little attempt to link ethnomethodology to these prior sociologies.[25] However, whilst ethnomethodology is distinct from sociological methods, it does not seek to compete with it, or provide remedies for any of its practices.[26] The Ethnomethodological approach differs as much from the sociological approach as sociology does from psychology even though both speak of social action.[27] This does not mean that ethnomethodology does not use traditional sociological forms as a sounding board for its own programmatic development, or to establish benchmarks for the differences between traditional sociological forms of study and ethnomethodology as it only means that ethnomethodology was not established in order to: repair, criticize, undermine, or 'poke fun' at traditional sociological forms . In essence the distinctive difference between sociological approaches and ethnomethodology is that the latter adopts a commonsense attitude towards knowledge [28]

In contrast to traditional sociological forms of inquiry, it is a hallmark of the ethnomethodological perspective that it does not make theoretical or methodological appeals to: outside assumptions regarding the structure of an actor or actors' characterisation of social reality; refer to the subjective states of an individual or groups of individuals; attribute conceptual projections such as, "value states", "sentiments", "goal orientations", "mini-max economic theories of behavior", etc., to any actor or group of actors; or posit a specific "normative order" as a transcendental feature of social scenes, etc.

For the ethnomethodologist, the methodic realisation of social scenes takes place within the actual setting under scrutiny, and is structured by the participants in that setting through the reflexive accounting of that setting's features. The job of the Ethnomethodologist is to describe the methodic character of these activities, not account for them in a way that transcends that which is made available in and through the actual accounting practices of the individual's party to those settings.

The differences can therefore be summed up as follows:

  1. While traditional sociology usually offers an analysis of society which takes the facticity [factual character, objectivity] of the social order for granted, ethnomethodology is concerned with the procedures [practices, methods] by which that social order is produced, and shared.
  2. While traditional sociology usually provides descriptions of social settings which compete with the actual descriptions offered by the individuals who are party to those settings, ethnomethodology seeks to describe the procedures [practices, methods] these individuals use in their actual descriptions of those settings

Links with phenomenology

Even though ethnomethodology has been characterised as having a "phenomenological sensibility",[13] and reliable commentators have acknowledged that "there is a strong influence of phenomenology on ethnomethodology..." (Maynard and Kardash 2007:1484), orthodox adherents to the discipline - those who follow the teachings of Garfinkel - know better than to represent it as a branch, or form, of phenomenology, or phenomenological sociology.

The confusion between the two disciplines stems, in part, from the practices of some ethnomethodologists [including Garfinkel], who sift through phenomenological texts, recovering phenomenological concepts and findings relevant to their interests, and then transpose these concepts and findings to topics in the study of social order. Such interpretive transpositions do not make the ethnomethodologist a phenomenologist, or ethnomethodology a form of phenomenology.

To further muddy the waters, some phenomenological sociologists seize upon ethnomethodological findings as examples of applied phenomenology; this even when the results of these ethnomethodological investigations clearly do not make use of phenomenological methods, or formulate their findings in the language of phenomenology. So called phenomenological analyses of social structures that do not have prima facie reference to any of the structures of intentional consciousness should raise questions as to the phenomenological status of such analyses.

Garfinkel speaks of phenomenological texts and findings as being "appropriated" and intentionally "misread" for the purposes of exploring topics in the study of social order.[15] These appropriations and methodical "misread[ings]" of phenomenological texts and findings are clearly made for the purposes of furthering ethnomethodological analyses, and should not be mistaken for logical extensions of these phenomenological texts and findings.[15]

Lastly, there is no claim in any of Garfinkel's work that ethnomethodology is a form of phenomenology, or phenomenological sociology. To state that ethnomethodology has a "phenomenological sensibility" or that "there is a strong influence of phenomenology on ethnomethodology" is not the equivalent of describing ethnomethodology as a form of phenomenology (see Garfinkel/Liberman:2007:3-7).

Even though ethnomethodology is not a form of phenomenology, the reading and understanding of phenomenological texts, and developing the capability of seeing phenomenologically is essential to the actual doing of ethnomethodological studies. As Garfinkel states in regard to the work of the phenomenologist Aron Gurwitsch, especially his "Field of Consciousness" (1964/2010: ethnomethodology's phenomenological urtext): "you can't do anything unless you do read his texts."[15]

Conversation analysis

Main article: Conversation analysis

The relationship between ethnomethodology (EM) and conversation analysis (CA) has always been somewhat contentious in terms of boundaries. The clearest single statement appearing in the literature, from an orthodox EM perspective.[15]

Unpacking Rawls' statement, we can note two essential distinctions:

  1. In as much as the study of social orders is "inexorably intertwined" with the constitutive features of talk about those social orders, EM is committed to an interest in both conversational talk, and the role this talk plays in the constitution of that order; think indexicality / reflexivity here and the essential embeddedness of talk in a specific social order, and the role of the reflexivity of accounts in the constitution of that order. It is in this sense that Rawls states that, "Conversational Analysis is not separate from Ethnomethodology." [11] Such a position is wholly consistent with the orthodox EM literature, and posts as nothing new to any orthodox ethnomethodologist - one who follows the teachings of Garfinkel.
  1. On the other hand, where the study of conversational talk is divorced from its situated context, and de-linked from its reflexive character in terms of constituting a specific social order - that is, as it takes on the character of a purely "technical method", and, "formal analytic enterprise in its own right." [11] - it is not a form of ethnomethodology understood in any orthodox sense. The "danger" of misunderstanding here, as Rawls notes, is that CA in this sense, becomes just another formal analytic enterprise, like any other formal method which brings an analytical toolbox of preconceptions, formal definitions, and operational procedures to the situation/setting under study. It might further be noted that when such analytical concepts are generated from within one setting, and conceptually applied (generalised) to another, the (re)application represents a violation of the orthodox EM position regarding the ethnomethodological description of a given social order, as it ignores the essential/fundamental EM principle of the embeddedness of talk in a specifically situated social order.

In general, we can say the following: [1] Both EM and CA are independent forms of investigation; [2] There is no necessary connection between EM and CA studies in terms of principles or methods; [3] EM and CA studies may overlap in terms of interests and projects; [4] CA studies must adhere to the foundational tenets of EM studies in order to be considered properly ethnomethodological; [5] EM studies may utilise CA methods, as anecdotal descriptions, as substantive findings (when in conformity with foundational EM principles), or as supplemental findings germane to the in situ findings of a particular EM study; and, [6] Both disciplines can function very well without the other, but in as much as their interests coincide in any given instance, both can profit from the understanding of the others investigational methods and findings.


According to George Psathas, five types of ethnomethodological study can be identified (Psathas:1995:139-155). These may be characterised as:

  1. The organisation of practical actions and practical reasoning. Including the earliest studies, such as those in Garfinkel's seminal Studies in Ethnomethodology.[20]
  2. The organisation of talk-in-interaction. More recently known as conversation analysis, Harvey Sacks established this approach in collaboration with his colleagues Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.
  3. Talk-in-interaction within institutional or organisational settings. While early studies focused on talk abstracted from the context in which it was produced (usually using tape recordings of telephone conversations) this approach seeks to identify interactional structures that are specific to particular settings.
  4. The study of work. 'Work' is used here to refer to any social activity. The analytic interest is in how that work is accomplished within the setting in which it is performed.
  5. The haecceity of work. Just what makes an activity what it is? e.g. what makes a test a test, a competition a competition, or a definition a definition?

Further discussion of the varieties and diversity of ethnomethodological investigations can be found in Maynard & Clayman.[13]



  1. 1 2 Garfinkel, H. (1974) 'The origins of the term ethnomethodology', in R.Turner (Ed.) Ethnomethodology, Penguin, Harmondsworth, pp 15-18.
  2. Garfinkel, H. (1984) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  3. 1 2 3 Garfinkel, H. (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working out Durkheim’s Aphorism, Rowman & Littleford, Lanham.
  4. Psathas, G. (1995) ‘‘Talk and Social Structure’ and ‘Studies of Work’’, in Human Studies, 18: 139-155.
  5. Randall Collins, Michael Makowsky (1978). The discovery of society. London: Random Ho use. Page 232
  6. Wes W. Sharrock, Bob Anderson, R. J. Anderson (1986) The ethnomethodologists. London: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-85312-949-5. Page 18
  7. Rooke, J. & Seymour, D. (2005) ‘Studies of Work: Achieving Hybrid Disciplines in IT Design and Management Studies’, Human Studies 28(2):205-221.
  8. 1 2 Michael Lynch, Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action: Ethnomethodology and Social Studies of Science, Cambridge UP, 1993.
  9. 1 2 3 Garfinkel, H. (1984) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Polity Press, Cambridge
  10. Cuff, E. C., Sharrock, W. W. & Francis, D.W. (2006) Perspectives in Sociology (fifth edition) Unwin Hyman, London.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Anne Rawls, "Harold Garfinkel", Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, ed. G. Ritzer. Blackwell: London, 2000.
  12. Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. Cambridge, U.K: Polity Press. Page 5.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Doug Maynard & Steve Clayman, "The Diversity of Ethnomethodology", ASR, V.17,pp. 385-418. 1991. A survey of various ethnomethodological approaches to the study of social practices. Page 413-418.
  14. John Heritage, Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology, Cambridge:Polity. 1991.(ISBN 0-7456-0060-3). Page 1
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Harold Garfinkel (2002). Ethnomethodology's Program. New York: Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-1642-3. Page 4.
  16. Cuff, E. C., Sharrock, W. W. & Francis, D.W. (2006) Perspectives in Sociology (fifth edition) Unwin Hyman, London
  17. Michael Lynch, The Social Science Encyclopedia, Routledge, 2nd Ed., 1989.
  18. Garfinkel, H. & Wieder, D. L. (1992) 'Two Incommensurable, Asymmetrically Alternate Technologies of Social Analysis', in G. Watson & R. M. Seiler (eds.), Text in Context, Sage, London, pp. 175-206.
  19. 1 2 Mark Okrent, Heidegger's Pragmatism, Cornell University Press, 1988. Pages 157-172
  20. 1 2 3 4 Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Malden MA: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing. 1984. (ISBN 0-7456-0005-0) (first published in 1967)
  21. Brooks:1974
  22. Michael Lynch, Mark Peyrot. "Introduction: A reader's guide to ethnomethodology". Qualitative Sociology. Springer Netherlands. 2005.
  23. Karl Mannheim, "On the Interpretation of Weltanschauung" (1952),in, From Karl Mannheim (ed. Kurt Wolf), Transaction Publishers, 1993.
  24. Aron Gurwitsch, The Field of Consciousness, Duquesne University Press, 1964 [out-of-print].Pages 202-227
  25. Attewell, Paul. (1974). "Ethnomethodology since Garfinkel," Theory and Society 1(2): 179-210.
  26. Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Malden MA: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing. 1984. (ISBN 0-7456-0005-0) (first published in 1967). Page: viii
  27. Hugh Mehan & Houston Wood, The reality of ethnomethodology. 1975. Chichester: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-59060-6. Page 5.
  28. Kenneth Leiter, A Primer of Ethnomethodology. 1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-502628-4 . Page 14.


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