Sociological Theory/Ethnomethodology

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The Theory[edit]

Ethnomethodology is a perspective within sociology which focuses on the way people make sense of their everyday life. People are seen as rational actors, but employ practical reasoning rather than formal logic to make sense of and function in society. The theory argues that human society is entirely dependent on these methods of achieving and displaying understanding. The approach was developed by Harold Garfinkel, based on Alfred Schütz's phenomenological reconstruction of Max Weber's verstehen sociology.

Like Durkheim, the fundamental sociological phenomenon for ethnomethodologists is the social fact. But, unlike Durkheim, the social fact is not external of the individual. The social fact is the product of the social member's methodological activities; it is their understanding of their everyday world. Members, here, are understood not simply as individuals but any social entity (i.e., individuals and organizations) that can produce a social fact. In short, members of society (individuals and organizations) make sense of and function in society by creating social facts or understandings of how society works. In this sense, ethnomethodology is at the same time both macro and micro oriented in that members can produce social facts at either level, for either the personal structure (the individual's level of everyday meaning) or the organizational/institutional structure (the organization's level of everyday meaning).

One of the key points of the theory is that ethnomethods or social facts are reflexively accountable. Accounts are the ways members describe or explain specific situations. Accounting is the process of describing or explaining social situations or how members make sense of their everyday world. Ethnomethodologists are interested in both the account and the method by which the account is made meaningful to the recipient of the account, and tend to emphasize the latter. The interest is not in determining if the account is accurate or otherwise judging the account but rather in exploring how the account is conveyed. For example, the explanation given by a husband for arriving home late at night is an account. The ethnomethodologist is interested in both the account and the methods used to convey that account to the recipient, in this case, the wife. Whether the account is factual or not does not interest the ethnomethodologist.

Sociology, generally, seeks to provide accounts of society. Ethnomethodologists view such accounts - sociological ones - the same way they view the account given by the husband above. In other words, ethnomethodologists break down the accounts given by other sociologists (and other scientists, for that matter) the same way they break down the accounts of interpersonal interaction in romantic relationships. Ethnomethodologists are not interested in whether or not the accounts given by sociologists are accurate but rather are interested in the accounts that are given and the methods used to develop and convey those accounts.

The accounts people use to explain their behavior or help them understand social interactions are generally taken for granted (e.g., you don't have to ask permission to use the restroom in your own home). To illustrate how these accounts are usually taken for granted, ethnomethodologists have used research methods in the past that 'breach' or 'break' the everyday routine of interaction in order to reveal the work that goes into maintaining the normal flow of life. Some examples include:

  • pretending to be a stranger in one's own home
  • blatantly cheating at board games
  • attempting to bargain for goods on sale in stores

In most of these situations, the individuals who are unaware that the researcher is intentionally breaching social norms attempt to explain the breacher's behavior by providing accounts for them. These interventions demonstrate the creativity with which ordinary members of society are able to interpret and maintain the unspoken social order that ethnomethodologists study.

Impact of Ethnomethodology[edit]

While ethnomethodology is often seen as being removed from more mainstream sociology, it has proven to be influential. For instance, ethnomethodology notes that words are reliant for their meaning based 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 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 conducted their experiments without either endorsing or criticising their activities.

Ethnomethodology has had an impact on linguistics and particularly on pragmatics. Ethnomethodological studies of work have played a significant role in the field of human-computer interaction, informing design by providing engineers with descriptions of the practices of users. Additionally, ethnomethodologically informed management and leadership studies are newly emerging fields.

Worthy of separate mention, ethnomethodology has developed what is often considered a sub-field or perhaps an entirely new discipline, conversation analysis, which has its own chapter.


The Greek roots of Ethnomethodology literally mean the methods people use.


  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1984. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Malden MA: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0745600050
  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1986. Ethnomethodological Studies of Work. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 071009664X
  • Garfinkel, Harold. 2002. Ethnomethodology's Program. New York: Rowan and Littlefield. ISBN 0742516423
  • Sacks, Harvey. 1992. Lectures on Conversation. Oxford:Blackwell. ISBN 1557867054

This chapter draws heavily from the following Wikipedia articles: