Ethnomethodology is the study of how social order emerges from and through social interaction processes.
Essentially, ethnomethodology seeks to create classifications of individuals’ social actions within groups by drawing directly on the experience of the groups.
It does not impose the researcher’s assumptions about what constitutes social reality and order.
Ethnomethodology is a subset of microsociology, which studies individuals and their daily interactions. It is not a popular method, but it has gained acceptance in sociology.
Ethnomethodology studies how people develop and apply shared methods to make sense of their social environment. It investigates the everyday practices people use to interact with one another and form social relationships.
It is described as “a way to investigate the genealogical relationship between social practices and accounts of those practices” (Lynch, 1993, p.1). Ethnomethodology can be broken down into its three constituent parts:
|Ethno-||a specific socio-cultural group||e.g., a community of undergraduate university students in Texas|
|Method-||the methods/practices this group uses in its day-to-day activities||e.g., related to online flirting|
|-ology||the structured analysis and explanation of these methods/practices|
Ethnomethodology is largely based on the idea that human interaction can build consensus. Interpersonal exchanges are impossible without this consensus.
Ethnomethodologists hypothesize that people in a society share the same behavioral norms and expectations.
Thus, by disrupting these norms, we can learn more about that society and how people react to broken normal social behavior.
Ethnomethodologists contend that people are generally unaware of the values they endorse and the norms they follow. It then tries to uncover these norms and behaviors that people cannot describe or explain.
Ethnomethodology opposes formal research methods, although ethnomethodologists mostly use qualitative methods. They argue that analytical methods should be determined by the nature of the phenomenon being studied (Sharrock & Anderson, 1986).
Origins of Ethnomethodology
Because it is so focused on human experience and interaction, ethnomethodology has lots in common with the philosophy of phenomenology.
Phenomenology attempts to describe how experiences, consciousness, imagination, interpersonal relationships, and one’s place in society and history are constructed and understood by people.
Alfred Schütz was the first major proponent of phenomenology in the social sciences. He sought to bridge traditional social science models with the study of the “everyday life world.” (Sharrock, 1989).
However, it was the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel who coined the term ethnomethodology in his Studies in Ethnomethodology in 1967. Garfinkel’s seminal book exposed how people make sense of their everyday lives
It questioned traditional sociological assumptions about how people should behave and provided a fresh look at how humans function in society.
Contemporary ethnomethodology approaches have invigorated numerous social science subfields like
- the study of language and social interaction
- the inner workings of bureaucratic and people-processing institutions
- the construction of formal scientific knowledge (Clayman, 2015).
- Studying how cases of suicidal death are recorded, confirmed, and analyzed as such. Ethnomethodology wants to understand how official suicide statistics are produced (through language, public servants’ routine actions, and shared assumptions about suicidal actions).
- Analyzing how the behavior of inmates in a rehabilitation center hampers their reintegration. This behavioral code could include an antisocial code based on hostility, unreliability, and dislike against the staff meant to help them resocialize.
- Investigating the methods and practices used to produce the social order of California surfers. The “how” could include the surfing dress code, jargon, gestures, and other repeated practices that create and maintain the routine of California surfers
- Exploring the semiotics (signs and symbols) of a conversation among Western adult speakers (e.g., eye contact, gesturing, nodding, verbal expression etc.)
- Studying how the classroom is organized through professor-student interactions in private London high schools.
- Researching the patterns and practices that constitute the social order in doctor-patient encounters (e.g., booking an appointment, behaving in a polite and formal manner, following doctor’s instructions etc.)
- Analyzing the common-sense methods through which jury members understand their role as a jury and present themselves as such to others.
- Exploring the informal norms and practices governing our relationship and interactions with loved ones (e.g., family, partner, close friends)
- Studying the shared sense-making practices defining productive boss-employee relationships (e.g., cultivating feelings of mutual trust and understanding, being polite but not overly formal, etc.)
Ethnomethodology Case Studies
1. Telling The Convict Code
D. Lawrence Wieder’s book (1974) provides an ethnographic account of the micro-society within an institution in east Los Angeles helping paroled addicts reintegrate into society. He also explains how such an institution “failed” to resocialize its residents.
Wieder observed that the behavior of residents was primarily influenced by other residents’ actions (instead of words or verbally communicated ideas). Such actions included displays of distance, untrustworthiness, or dislike for staff members.
Wieder’s described this behavioral code as “convict code”. He focused on the practical ways that both inmates and staff of the institution described the “convict code” by discussing the actions and incidents that occurred at the institutions.
It’s important to note that Wieder didn’t try to explain why the inmates couldn’t to reintegrate into society (because they didn’t follow accepted norms). Instead, he investigated how those in the halfway house developed their own explanatory theories (“the convict code”) to make sense of their reality.
2. A guest in one’s own home
In an experiment, high school students were asked to pretend they were guests in their own homes. They didn’t tell their families what they were doing.
They behaved in a polite and impersonal manner, used (Mr. and Mrs.), and spoke only when spoken to. These are characteristics of formal speech used between strangers.
When the experiment was over, numerous students said their families laughed at their odd behavior.
Some families thought their kids acted nice because they wanted to gain something. Other parents were outraged or perplexed; they even told their children off for being rude and disrespectful.
This experiment demonstrated that even the informal norms that control our (inter)actions with our families are meticulously constructed. The “social order” of the household is threatened when these norms are disturbed.
3. The conduct of jury members
In 1954, Harold Garfinkel, the creator of ethnomethodology theory, investigated the behavior of jury members. He attempted to describe the common-sense methods by which jury members present themselves as a jury.
Garfinkel used empirical methods to illustrate, among other things, their shared sense-making practices of jury members, like
- establishing facts
- developing evidence chains
- assessing the trustworthiness of witness testimony
- organizing speakers in the jury room
- deciding the guilt or innocence of defendants
In this specific social setting, such methods serve to create the social order of being a juror for (i) the members of the jury, (ii) researchers, and (iii) anyone else.
Ethnomethodology understands conversations as a social process built upon shared ideals and cultural norms. In other words, a conversation requires certain characteristics for participants to recognize it as such and continue it.
For example, friends engaged in a discussion might
- exchange glances
- nod in agreement or disagreement
- ask and answer questions
- smile or change the tone of their voice according to their stance on a particular topic.
Imagine these techniques are not used correctly—e.g., if members stop talking and are looking at their phones. Then, the conversation will break down and be substituted by another type of social situation.
Strengths of Ethnomethodology
Harold Garfinkel’s conceptualization of ethnomethodology made two fundamental contributions to sociology as we know it.
- He established a new and distinct field of study to investigate the ordinary ways of practical action used by members of society to understand and organize their daily lives. Thus, ethnomethodology enriched the toolkit of microsociology (Cayman, 2015).
- Ethnomethodology dismantled society’s assumed existence before its analysis. Garfinkel creatively reversed Durkheim’s famous principle of “the objectivity of social facts” (that social facts are the foundation of sociology as a science). Garfinkel argued that we should regard the “objectivity of social facts” as a social accomplishment. He made this accomplishment his research focus (Rawls, 2020).
- Ethnomethodology bridged the perceived divide between common-sense and scientific reasoning. That’s because it
- investigated the ways in which the phenomena/behaviors under examination occurred and
- found that such phenomena/behaviors stem from ordinary human understanding and communal life
Criticisms of Ethnomethodology
Critics of ethnomethodology argue that the theory lacks an “epistemological foundation” and cannot objectively explain social phenomena (Lynch, 2005).
But, it should be clear by now that analytical objectivity is against the theoretical basis of ethnomethodology.
Ethnomethodology studies the “common-sense” resources, procedures, and practices through which members of society interpret their everyday life. It focuses on how these social interactions create orderliness when mutually recognized within social settings.
Because of its focus on small-scale human interactions, ethnomethodology is an approach used mostly in microsociology. Its strengths lie in the emphasis on ordinary and often neglected practices, small communities, and a bottom-up approach to understanding society.
It lacks, however, the analytical robustness of more formalist approaches. It’s an excellent theory to use if you’re trying to understand “how” people produce the order of social settings rather than “why”.
Anderson, D. C. (1978). Some Organizational Features in the Local Production of a Plausible Text. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 8(2), pp. 113–135.
Clayman, S.E. (2015) Ethnomethodology. In Wright, J.D. (Ed), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier, pp. 203-206
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Lynch, M. (2005). Scientific practice and ordinary action: Ethnomethodology and social studies of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, A. (2020). “Harold Garfinkel”. In Ritzer G., & Stepnisky J. (Eds.) Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists. Blackwell: London,.
Sharrock, W. (1989). Ethnomethodology. The British Journal of Sociology, 40(4), 657–677.
Sharrock, W.W., & Anderson, R.J. (1986). The ethnomethodologists. Chichester: Ellis Horwood.
Wieder, D. (1974). Language and social reality: The case of telling the convict code.The Hague: Mouton.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.