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Ethnomethodology (literally, 'the study of people's methods') is a sociological discipline and paradigm which focuses on the ways in which people make sense of the world and display their understandings of it, thus producing the social order in which we live. The term was initially coined by Wikipedia:Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s.

While sociology usually offers an analysis of society which takes the social order for granted, ethnomethodology is concerned with the methods with how that order is produced in the first place. While other approaches seek to provide accounts of social settings which compete with those offered by ordinary members of those settings, ethnomethodology seeks to make clear the accounting practices that members themselves use. In this way it seeks to offer a comprehensive and coherent alternative to mainstream sociology.

History and Influence

The approach was developed by Wikipedia:Harold Garfinkel, based on Wikipedia:Alfred Schütz's phenomenological reconstruction of Wikipedia:Max Weber's Wikipedia:verstehen sociology.

While ethnomethodology is often seen as removed from more mainstream sociology, it has been 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 had an impact on linguistic and particularly on pragmatic, spawning a whole new discipline of Wikipedia:conversation analysis. Ethnomethodological studies of work have played a significant role in the field of Wikipedia:human-computer interaction, improving design by providing engineers with descriptions of the practices of users.

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.

Varieties of ethnomethodology

According to George Psathas, five types of ethnomethodological study can be identified. These may be characterised as:

1. The organization of practical actions and practical reasoning. Including the earliest studies, such as those in Garfinkel's seminal Studies in Ethnomethodology.

2. The organization of talk-in-interaction. Otherwise known as conversational analysis (latterly Wikipedia:conversation analysis) this approach was established by Harvey Sacks in collaboration with his colleagues Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.

3. Talk-in-interaction within institutional or organizational settings. While early studies focussed 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?

Some leading policies and methods

Ethnomethodological Indifference
This is a policy of deliberate agnosticism 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.
Rose's Gloss
A neat way of getting someone to tell you what you don't know without admitting to ignorance. On visiting Garfinkel, Edward Rose remarked "things sure have changed around here," thus getting Garfinkel to tell him what had in fact changed recently in the area. Thus, Rose is able to ask a question without knowing what the question means until he hears the answer.
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) (first published in 1967)
  • 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)

Psathas, G. (1995) ‘‘Talk and Social Structure’ and ‘Studies of Work’’, in Human Studies, 18: 139-155.

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