Ethnomethodology (literally, 'the study of a people's (folk) methods') is a sociological discipline which examines the ways in which people make sense of their world, display this understanding to others, and produce the mutually shared social order in which they live. The term was initially coined by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s.
Ethnomethodology is distinct from traditional sociology, and does not seek to compete with it, or provide remedies for any of its practices (Garfinkel:1967:viii).
Differences between traditional sociology and ethnomethodology
Two central differences between traditional sociology and ethnomethodology are:
1. While traditional sociology usually offers an analysis of society which takes the facticity of the social order for granted, ethnomethodology is concerned with the procedures (syn: 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 (syn: practices, methods) these individuals use in their actual descriptions of those settings.
Ethnomethodology's "...central recommendation is that the activities whereby members produce and manage settings of organized everyday affairs are identical with member's procedures for making those settings 'account-able' " (Garfinkel:1967:1).
HistoryThe approach was developed by Harold Garfinkel, based on his artful analysis of traditional sociological theory (primarily: Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons), traditional sociological concerns (the Hobbesian "problem of order"), and the phenomenologies of: Aron Gurwitsch, Alfred Schutz, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger (Garfinkel:1967:ix;2002:15,63,84,176,257-258).
Varieties of ethnomethodologyAccording to George Psathas (Psathas:1995:139-155), five types of ethnomethodological study can be identified. These may be characterised as
- The organization of practical actions and practical reasoning. Including the earliest studies, such as those in Garfinkel's seminal Studies in Ethnomethodology.
- The organization 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.
- Talk-in-interaction within institutional or organizational 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.
- 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.
- 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 the policy of deliberate agnosticism, or indifference, towards the dictates, prejudices, methods and practices of sociological analysis as traditionally conceived (examples: theories of "deviance", analysis of behavior as rule governed, role theory, institutional (de)formations, theories of social stratification, etc.). Dictates and prejudices which serve to pre-structure traditional social scientific investigations independently of the subject matter taken as a topic of study, or the investigatory setting being subjected to scrutiny (Garfinkel:1967:33;2002:170-171).
The policy of ethnomethodological indifference is specifically not to be conceived of as indifference to the problem of social order taken as a group (member's) concern.
- First time through. This is the practice of describing any social activity, regardless of its routine or mundane appearance, as if it were happening for the very first time. This in an attempt to reveal how the observer of the activity assembles, or, "constitutes", the activity for the purposes of formulating any particular description. The point of such an exercise is to make available and underline the complexities of sociological analysis and description, particularly the indexical and reflexive properties of the actors', or observer's, own descriptions of what is taking place in any given situation. Such an activity will also reveal the observer's inescapable reliance on the documentary method of interpretation (aka hermeneutic circle) as the defining "methodology" of social understanding for both lay persons and social scientists (see Okrent:1988:157-172).
- Breaching experiment. A method for revealing, or exposing, the common work that is performed by members of particular social groups in maintaining a clearly recognizable and shared social order. An extreme example: driving the wrong way down a busy one-way street can reveal myriads of useful insights into the patterned social practices, and moral order, of the community of automobile drivers ... and police. The point of such an exercise is to demonstrate that gaining insight into the work involved in maintaining any given social order can often, best be revealed by breaching that social order and observing the results of that breach - especially those activities related to the reassembly of that social order, and the normalization of that social setting (Garfinkel:2002:8,32).
- 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. Recommendation: If you want to understand how a particular social order is maintained, or a particular social activity is accomplished, go to the source: the actual people who do the actual work of maintaining and constructing those social structures. In some, many, most cases, a "traditional sociologist" is the last person that you would consult regarding such matters.
- Durkheim's aphorism. Durkheim famously recommended that we, "...treat social facts as things" (Durkheim:1895/1982:S.45). 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). Garfinkel's alternative reading of Durkheim is that we should treat the objectivity of social facts as an achievement of society's members, and make the achievement process itself the focus of study (Garfinkel:2002:117-118).
- Indexicality. The concept of Indexicality is a key core concept for Ethnomethodology. It is derived from the concept of indexical expressions appearing in ordinary language philosophy, wherein a statement is considered to be indexical in so far as it is dependent for its sense upon the context in which it is embedded. The phenomenon is acknowledged in various forms of analytical philosophy, and sociological theory and methods, but is considered to be both limited in scope and remedied through specification [operationalization]. In ethnomethodology, the phenomenon is universalized to all forms of language and behavior, and is deemed to be beyond remedy for the purposes of establishing a scientific description and explanation of social behaviour (Garfinkel:1967:4-7;2002:204-207). The consequence of the degree of contextual dependence for a "segment" of talk or behavior can range from the problem of establishing a "reasonable consensus" regarding the description of a phrase, concept or behaviour, to the end-game of social scientific description itself. Note that any serious development of the concept must eventually assume a theory of meaning as its foundation [see Gurwitsch:1985]. Without such a foundational underpinning, both the traditional social scientist and the ethnomethodologist are relegated to merely telling stories around the campfire (see Brooks:1974).
- Documentary method of interpretation. The Documentary Method is the method of understanding utilized by everyone engaged in trying to make sense of their social world - this includes the ethnomethodologist. Garfinkel recovered the concept from the work of Karl Mannheim (1993), and repeatedly demonstrates the use of the method in the case studies appearing in his central text, Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967). Mannheim defined the term as a search for an identical homologous pattern of meaning underlying a variety of totally different realizations of that meaning. Garfinkel states that the documentary method of interpretation consists of treating an actual appearance as the "document of", "as pointing to", as "standing on behalf of", a presupposed underlying pattern (Garfinkel:1967:78). These "documents" serve to constitute the underlying pattern, but are themselves interpreted on the basis of what is already known about that underlying pattern. This seeming paradox is quite familiar to hermeneuticians who understand this phenomenon as a version of the hemeneutic circle (Okrent:1988:157-172). This phenomenon is also subject to analysis from the perspective of Gestalt theory [part/whole relationships], and the phenomenological theory of perception (see Gurwitsch:1964:202-227).
- Ethnomethodology's field of investigation. For ethnomethodology the topic of study is the social practices of real people in real settings, and the methods by which these people produce and maintain a shared sense of social order (Garfinkel:2002:117).
- Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Malden MA: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing. 1984. (ISBN 0-7456-0005-0) (first published in 1967). The classic original statement of the ethnomethodological program.
- Harold Garfinkel, Ethnomethodology's Program, New York: Rowman and Littlefield. 2002.(ISBN 0-7425-1642-3). A turn of the century review, assessment and extension of the ethnomethodological program.
- William Blattner, Heidegger's Being and Time, Continuum, 2006. The most accessible of the quality introductions to Heidegger's central text currently available.
- Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, Free Press, (1895)/1982.
- Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, Yale UP, 1994. The most accessible of the quality introductions to hermeneutic philosophy currently avaialble.
- Aron Gurwitsch, The Field of Consciousness, Duquesne University Press, 1964 [out-of-print]. Ethnomethodology's Urtext.
- Aron Gurwitsch, "Outlines of a Theory of 'Essentially Occasional Expressions'", in, Marginal Consciousness, Duquesne University Press, 1985 [out-of-print]. The defining document for the concept of Indexicality.
- Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Harper and Row, 1962. Division One: ppgs. 13-269. The context for the concept of "social practices", and the foundation for "breaching experiments" [the broken hammer analogy] are to be found here.
- John Heritage, Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology, Cambridge:Polity. (ISBN 0-7456-0060-3). A history of, and commentary on ethnomethodology by one of its leading exponents.
- Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern UP, 1970. The classic statement of the phenomenological project by the father of transcendental phenomenology.
- Karl Mannheim, "On the Interpretation of Weltanschauung",in, From Karl Mannheim (ed. Kurt Wolf), Transaction Publishers, 1993. The defining document for the concept of the Documentary Method of Interpretation.
- Mark Okrent, Heidegger's Pragmatism, Cornell University Press, 1988. The section cited above is essential reading for all those engaged in "interpretive sociology" - not just ethnomethodologists.
- George Psathas, "Talk and Social Structure", and, "Studies of Work", in, Human Studies, 18: 139-155. 1995.
- Alfred Schütz, Collected Papers Vol. I: The Problem of Social Reality, Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1962. Classic essays on phenomenological social theory utilized by ethnomethodologists of all stripes.
- Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, Cambridge UP. 2000. The most accessible of the quality introductions to Husserlian phenomenology currently available.
- Ethno/CA News A primary source for ethnomethodology and conversation analysis information and resources.
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