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Explain the term ethnomethodology and discuss its

usefulness for the understanding of the everyday

functioning of society
Anne David
In this essay I intend to explore the aims and methods of ethnomethodology and what the
new micro approach has brought to the understanding of society. I will look at how the
approach differs from other more traditional theories and how it claims to overcome some
of the limitations that these established grand narratives encompass. Then, in turn, I will also
be looking at how the ethnomethodological approach can be criticised, and explore its own
limitations. Firstly, I will begin with a short explanation of the approach and how it emerged.
The literal meaning of the word ethnomethodology is peoples methods, and this is exactly
the focus of the approach. Coining the term in 1954, Harold Garfinkel (1967) founded the
approach that originated out of criticism of mainstream sociology, which he argued imposed
sociological categories on the ordinary person. The aim of the ethnomethodological
approach is to investigate how members of society construct and manage their sense of
social structure by examining taken for granted realities. The approach is critical of social
structures highlighted by other sociological theorists because it is believed that they are an
invention, to the extent that they depart from peoples own sense of structure. A key word
associated with the approach is indexicality, which is how people make sense of actions,
signs and remarks by reference to the context in which they occur; the approach aims to
explore this issue and how orderliness is reproduced reflexively by people in everyday life.
Much of the groundwork of ethnomethodology lies in phenomenology, a strand of
philosophy that attributes a sustained attempt to describe experiences without metaphysical
or theoretical speculations. Garfinkel was heavily influenced by the work of the
phenomenologists Husserl and Schutz, which can be seen in Garfinkels work as it bears
many resemblances to the interests and focus of their approaches, explaining why
ethnomethodology is commonly referred to as a phenomenological sociology.
Due to the logics of the ethnomethodological approach, the methods involved in studying
individuals and society are different from ones used by many other social scientists. The
approach never relies on questionnaires or surveys, or in fact any other method previously
taken on board because it is believed that everyday phenomena become warped when

viewed through a framework of scientific description. The ethnomethodological approach

actually bred its own methods of investigation in order to treat lived social realities, because
as is argued, everyday discourse consists of concepts that depart from formal logic. The
breaching experiment was one such method devised by Garfinkel. To conduct a breaching
experiment Garfinkel stressed that you must enter a social situation imagining you are seeing
things for the first time, therefore not bringing any background ideas or presumptions, and
to monitor what happens. Garfinkel argued that you would find there is chaos and confusion
in most instances. One such case that Garfinkel describes:
The victim waved his hand cheerily
(S) How are you?
(E) How am I in regard to what? My health, my finances, my school work, my peace
of mind, my ?
(S) (Red in the face and suddenly out of control.) Look! I was just trying to be polite.
Frankly I dont give a damn how you are.
(Garfinkel, 1967: 44)
Garfinkel makes the case that breaching a social situation highlights how understanding is
based on unspoken rules and shows how much background knowledge people use in daily
interactions. Television personalities Borat and Dom Jolly from trigger happy TV are two
contemporary examples of characters that breach social situations. Additionally,
conversation analysis is another strand of research that has grown out of the
ethnomethodological approach; it is the direct analysis of natural discourse in conversation.
Conversation analysis is not so much interested in the content of conversation but to
record and examine patterns in order to uncover the rules that allow communication to
proceed in a meaningful and orderly fashion.
One of the main defining aspects of the ethnomethodological approach is that it diverges
from conventional sociology; the approach is often referred to as an alternative sociology,
that ethnomethodology is not a sociology as sociologists know it (Garfinkel, cited in Button
1993: 7). Garfinkel was very sceptical of empirical mainstream sociology for many reasons;
one of them being that traditional sociology brings about the loss of the person in social
scientific research, which has implications for the way in which the practical person views
knowledge sources, resulting out of long-term rationality and the top down prominence of
bureaucratic knowledge; the crisis of legitimacy (Rogers 1983) is a concept that has
hovered in the minds of many. This was an issue highlighted most notably by phenomenology
and foreseen by people such as Husserl, but also amongst many others within sociology. It is
argued that a crisis of reason and commonsense would emerge to the extent that bearers of

formal authority symbolize reason in western societies (Rogers, 1983: 6). This was noted as
a problem because bureaucratic rationality ultimately moulds bureaucratic knowledge.
However, as Garfinkel tries to argue, the lives of practical people contradict bureaucratic
knowledge since social sciences artificially abstract from everyday life (Garfinkel, 1967: 40).
For that reason, bringing scepticism about truthfulness and validity of such knowledge, the
gulf people experience between knowledge and action concerns the divide between scientific
knowledge and everyday action (Rogers, 1983: 6). Garfinkel would then argue that
ethnomethodology and its concerns are able to bridge the gap and ease tensions of this
crisis of legitimacy issue, as the approach claims to be closer to reality and the everyday
actions of the real person. Therefore, as is argued, the ethnomethodological approach is
useful for the understanding of the everyday functioning of society as it is a step closer to
understanding, for the reason that it is an interpretation of everyday life by the same means
as the people that it claims to study.
The ethnomethodological approach criticises how commonsense knowledge goes
unrecognised, and is undeserving of the significantly inferior status it holds next to scientific
knowledge. Garfinkel argued that, inescapably, other sociologists themselves use
commonsense understanding to attempt to explore and study the social world.
Furthermore, these understandings are used to recognize peoples actions and intentions.
However, these sociologists are still not mindful of this reliance on mundane commonsense
knowledge. Durkheims study of suicide (1897) is an example that is able to illustrate this
point. Durkheim (cited in Macionis and Plummer, 2005) argued that there were four types of
suicide which related to the extent to which people are integrated and morally regulated.
Altruistic suicide is one type of suicide that Durkheim identified, which occurs when an
individual is too integrated and commits suicide on behalf of a wider community. It could be
maintained that Durkheim would have had to use his commonsense knowledge to decipher
the intentions of suicide. Ultimately, he could have never known whether someone
committed suicide for their wider community or, in fact, any other reason for someone
committing suicide. But as Garfinkel would have argued, Durkheim was neglectful of how he
came to interpret the intentions of such people. Garfinkel is disapproving of how, in this
sense, mundane and everyday knowledge is used to create grand theories which then
become manipulated and distorted, creating an abstracted empiricism that is unable to
advance a truly credible theory. The summary of Garfinkels concerns can be summed up in
a quote by the phenomenologist Mehan: smoke is not the phenomenon of interest; fire is
(cited in Rogers, 1983: 87). Ethnomethodology claims to explore the credible realities of the

social world because the foundations of structure, order and interpretation stem from
mundane, commonsense practices. Therefore, the ethnomethodological approach is useful
for the understanding of the everyday functioning of society because, as it claims, it is more
in touch with real knowledge of the practical person.
As neglectful as ethnomethodology argues mainstream sociology to be, it could also be
argued that ethnomethodology is in turn neglectful of the importance of studying society on
a wider scale. It could be seen that ethnomethodology neglects the way in which mundane
activities of people are constrained by social factors that cannot be appreciated through such
small-scale analysis. Critical theorists would challenge Garfinkels use of only studying smallscale phenomena. Feminists would argue that patriarchy must also be examined on a larger
scale, not just looking at specific interactions in order to really uncover the oppression of
women in society. Similarly, Marxists would argue the same in the case of the proletariat and
bourgeoisie. Both of these critical theories believe that research should not be value-free
and should be used to highlight inequality in the social world. On this issue, the
ethnomethodological approach could be criticized for not promoting equality changes to the
existing social world, especially constrained by its methodology, and therefore from this
perspective is limited in its usefulness of studying the everyday functioning of society. The
work of C Wright Mills (1959) and the sociological imagination can also be related to this
strand of thought. Wright Mills stressed the importance of the sociological imagination in
peoples everyday lives, which he argues is our most needed quality of mind (1959: 2). To
obtain this way of thinking, Wright Mills argues that there must be an understanding of the
differences between personal troubles and public issues, and how they interact. Wright
Mills notes how many are seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of
their own lives and the course of world history (1959: 1). This example of the sociological
imagination illustrates how it is still important to acknowledge aspects of human activity that
do not fall into the category of everyday mundane activity.
Even though ethnomethodology has undeniably brought a new wave of thinking about
experience and knowledge, it cannot stand on its own. It would appear that the approachs
foundation lies in setting itself up against other mainstream approaches, pointing the finger at
where other approaches have gone wrong. In this instance, ethnomethodology seems to
have become, in part, a sociology of sociology. However, critical of the way others conduct
social research, ethnomethodology still doesnt provide much of an answer on how it should
be conducted. The ethnomethodological approach does not provide rules as to what to

focus on and what might be of particular interest. Ethnomethodologists offer no handbook

and few recipes for doing ethnomethodology (Rogers, 1983: 104). Also, the issue of
evidence to many of Garfinkels suggestions is another issue that has been challenged.
Garfinkel has been criticized for taking an I take-what-I-can-get posture towards evidence
(Rogers, 1983: 103). Sudnow and Sack (cited in Rogers, 1983) also look at the outcomes of
ethnomethodological research. Garfinkels work generates rules that virtually give him back
his data ... his position implies that evidence derives from description so faithful to lived
reality that they effectively regenerate their data in the telling (Sudnow and Sack cited in
Rogers, 1983: 104). These ideas suggest that in fact the ethnomethodological approach is not
easy to conduct and fails to muster up much at all apart from description, so in this instance
social scientific explanation merely appears to elucidate what commonsense cannot disclose
(Rogers, 1983: 103). Therefore, in this case, the usefulness for understanding the everyday
functioning of society appears to be diminutive.
As well as not providing many points of reference methodologically, the methods that have
been provided by Garfinkel have been challenged for harbouring many negative features. The
breaching experiment was coined and so well defined by Garfinkel that its distinct nature
comes up against a lot of criticism, especially from an ethical point of view. The wholly
covert nature of the breaching experiment brings about many ethical considerations, one of
these being that it does not provide participants the opportunity for informed consent,
which of course entails deception and the potential for causing harm to participants. As
illustrated before, in the Hi how are you? case, people can become very aggravated; this is a
similar story to many of Garfinkels breaching experiments. If taken for granted assumptions
and mundane practices are as important as is argued then it is a possibility that even a slight
breaking of common practices can have a significant impact. It will always be unknown as to
what offence may be caused to participants in breaching experiments not only harm to
participants but also harm to the researcher if a participant were to become infuriated.
These ethical considerations will always be present when conducting a breaching experiment
because obviously it cannot be carried out overtly or any other way because it would
undermine its own aims and processes.
Not only is ethics something to take into consideration, but also the practical element of
conducting a breaching experiment. Ditton (cited in Bryman, 2004) looked at the problem of
taking notes in covert research, the difficulties and in some circumstances impossibility of
taking notes at all: notes are very important ... it is too risky to rely exclusively on your

memory (Bryman, 2004: 296). In the case of the breaching experiment, it might not always
be possible for a researcher to remember every specific detail in relation to the reactions of
un-knowing participants. The conversation analysis sphere of ethnomethodology also has its
own limitations; making it possible to gain access to real, normal conversation has many
implications to do with the invasion of privacy. To truly examine a conversation it cannot
only be heard once; therefore, to carry out an examination fully the conversation must be
recorded the problems with this are obvious. It would appear the approachs own
methodological concerns can inhibit practicality and accessibility for understanding the one
thing it seeks to explore. Therefore, it could be argued that the usefulness of the approach
in understanding the everyday functioning of society is then hindered.
In conclusion, it would seem that there are both negative and positive implications in
adopting the ethnomethodological approach to understanding the everyday functioning of
society. However, most significantly, it would appear that the approach is restricted by its
own thoughts, especially when it comes to methodological concerns. Although it claims to
create an understanding of everyday society that is closer to reality, the practicality of
carrying out such research is perhaps not viable. The ethical considerations of the breaching
experiment and conversation analysis illustrate how sometimes naturally occurring research
sites are inaccessible, which is the explicit focus of the approach. Thus, any usefulness is
stunted by its own distinctive logic of inquiry. The ethnomethodological approach appears to
be more descriptive and exploratory rather than explanatory and therefore is perhaps not
always so useful.

Bryman, R. (2004), Social Research Methods (second edition), Oxford, Oxford University
Button, G. (1993), Ethnomethodology and the human science, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Garfinkel, H. (1967), Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall
Macionis, J. and Plummer, K. (2005), Sociology: A Global Introduction (third edition), Harlow,
Pearson Education Limited
Rogers, M. (1983), Sociology, ethnomethodology, and experience, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press
Wright Mills, C. (1959), The Sociological Imagination, Chapter 1 - The Promise, Oxford,
Oxford University Press