Using Ethnomethodology to Understand Social Order


  • Ethnomethodology was developed by Garfinkel as a challenge to orthodox sociology.
  • Ethnomethodology’s interest is in how ordinary people make sense of their social world.
  • Ethnomethodology is an approach that stresses the ambiguity of language and action. Rather than assume that we understand what means when they say or do something, “ethnos” argue that we have to struggle for their meaning and that every situation is characterized by the search for common understanding.
  • The social world is therefore built up of arbitrary rules, made up of a dense and often contradictory set of tacit understandings about what is going on.

What Is Ethnomethodology?

Ethnomethodology is an approach in sociology that studies the “common-sense” resources, procedures, and practices through which members of a society interpret their everyday life and how these social interactions, when mutually recognized within particular contexts, create orderliness (Williams, 2001).

The approach argues that human societies construct their organized social structures and constructions of meaning solely through “folk methods” (tacit knowledge, routine practices, and ordinary language) (Lynch, 2001).

Ethnomethodologists examine the research practices of social science and do not consider traditional social science research methods to be a way of gathering knowledge (what philosophers would call an epistemology) of more use than any other.

The practice of Ethnomethodology stems from a tradition of phenomenology. Phenomenology and its descendants, ethnomethodology, both remain widely used and viable sociological traditions and still inform contemporary social research (Clayman, 2001).

Phenomenology is a philosophy of experience and seeks to describe the structures of experiences, consciousness, imagination, relationships between people, and one’s place in society and history (Biberman, 2005).

The first major advocate of phenomenology in the social sciences, Alfred Schütz, sought to reconcile the traditional models of social science with a commitment to studying the “everyday life world” — the world as individuals living their typical, non-scientific lives experienced it: the world of everyday life (Williams, 2001).

However, it was not until 1967 that Harold Garfinkel coined the term “ethnomethodology” while working on a study of how jurors made deliberations in criminal trials. Garfinkel observed that jurors made deliberations with great seriousness but relied on practical knowledge and lived experiences in doing so.

This emphasis on the value of practical knowledge would mean that Garfinkel’s formulation of ethnomethodology, in contrast to Schütz’s phenomenology, would come to represent a radical break from traditional social scientific methods (Lynch, 1988).

Principles of Garfinkel’s Ethnomethodology

Garfinkel termed ethnomethodology after following a diverse path. He had begun his academic career studying business and accounting in Newark and North Carolina but soon switched to sociology, where he read about the action theories of Talcott Parsons and Florian Ananiecki and the phenomenological philosophies of Aron Gurwitscch, Edmund Husserl, and Alfred Schütz.

Although Garfinkel studied under Talcott Parsons – one of the world’s most eminent social theorists — during his graduate degree, he maintained personal contact with both Gurwitsch and Schütz.

In short, Parsons’ action theory advocated for a way to study social action and social order by studying interactions at both the macro and micro level.

Garfinkel admired Parsons’ conceptual analysis of social action for its theoretical thoroughness but opposed how the theorist constructed complicated theoretical frameworks in order to frame the empirical events of the lived world in terms of those theoretical schemata (Ten Have, 2016).

After a series of papers in the late 1950s and 1960s on ethnomethodology, Garfinkel published Studies in Ethnomethodology in 1967. This book established ethnomethodology as a major perspective in sociology but also led to widespread controversy and rejection.

Ethnomethodology is not, above all, a theory of social life nor is it a methodology for the study of social life.

Instead, Ethnomethodology is a way of framing observations and inquiries into social interactions in a way that emphasizes how individuals make sense of their own worlds, rather than theoretical frameworks already created by social scientists.

This mode of inquiry extends as far as anthropology, cognitive science, communication, linguistics, psychology, and the philosophy of social science (Clayman, 2001).

In the preface of Studies in Ethnomethodology, Garfinkel argues that:

“in contrast to certain versions of Durkheim that teach that the objective reality of social facts is sociology’s fundamental principle, the lesson is taken instead, and used as a study policy, that the objective reality of social facts as an ongoing accomplishment of the activities of daily life, with the ordinary, artful ways of that accomplishment being by members known, used, and taken for granted, is, for members doing sociology, a fundamental phenomenon” (Garfinkel, 1967).

That is to say, Garfinkel believes that while traditional methods of social study (such as those of Emile Durkheim) consider the objective, factual existence of the social world to be a principle, ethnomethodology considers the objective and factual existence of the world to be a phenomenon.

People in a society, in Garfinkel’s view, are not subjected to a series of facts about how social realities work but active creators and maintainers of social reality. The social world is in a continuous process of construction and achievement (Ten Have, 2016).

Throughout Studies in Ethnomethodology, Garfinkel continues to make contrasts between the practices of traditional social science methodology and ethnomethodology.

For example, when describing “judgmental dope,” Garfinkel argues that the traditional social sciences cultivate a view that social realities are only so orderly insofar as they fit into established concepts and social theories.

Social scientists who have this view — such as Garfinkel’s former advisor, Talcott Parsons — disregard the importance of the “common sense rationalities”: considerations that members of a society make on a local or situated level in performing actions.

The aim of ethnomethodological investigations is to understand these “common sense rationalities” by making these considerations and practices observable and thus able to be studied by social scientists.

In Garfinkel’s own words, “Ethnomethodological studies analyze everyday activities as members’ methods for making those same activities visibly-rational-and-reportable-for-all-practical purposes, i.e., ‘accountable,’ as organizations of commonplace everyday activities” (Garfinkel, 1967).

To Garfinkel, being ‘accountable’ is not a moral term but a way of describing the ways in which people make their actions seem sensible relative to the situation and context where they take place (Ten Have, 2016).

Garfinkel’s use of the term “member” to refer to what others may refer to as people or individuals is not insignificant.

Ethnomethodology is not interested in individuals, but in the so-called competencies involved in being a member of a collective (Ten Have, 2016).

To paraphrase Garfinkel, the concept of being a “member” refers to the capacities that people have as members of society: such as speaking, knowing, understanding, and acting in ways considered sensible relative to the society and situations they find themselves in.

By being a member of a collective, they can communicate that they are taking sensible action in the interpretation of the people belonging to that collective.

Harvey Sacks: Membership Category and Conversational Analysis

Conversational analysis is one of the most widespread practices that rely heavily on the principles of ethnomethodology. In short, conversational analysis involves studying and making explicit the practical reasoning that people use when they participate in spoken interactions.

This scope of interaction, in general, is broader than those examined by many others in ethnomethodology, as interactions are central to the institutional domains studied by ethnomethodologists as well as the informal encounters people have with each other (Schegloff, 1988; Clayman, 2001).

Harvey Sacks was an important associate with Garfinkel in the 1960s, having studied law and sociology and worked with Garfinkel at the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center (Ten Have, 2016).

Sack’s dissertation involved studying calls to the Suicide Prevention Center and analyzing common statements, such as clients arguing that they had “No one to turn to” (Sacks, 1972).

Sacks later shifted his research to patterns in conversation in general, such as turn-taking and sequences.
Sack’s paper on turn-taking would come to become a foundational text in a field known as conversational analysis (Sidnell and Stivers, 2012).

Whether or not conversational analysis is a way of conducting ethnomethodology or a pursuit in itself is a controversial one. Generally, papers on conversational analysis are “collection studies,” which collect similar conversations but present general results that go beyond any singular case.

In contrast to Garfinkel’s emphasis on the uniqueness of individual events in a situational and societal context, conversational analysis allows itself to draw generalizations (Ten Have, 2016).

In drawing these generalizations, conversational analysis has generated a number of cumulative findings regarding a large array of subjects.

Besides Sack’s papers on turn-taking, conversational analysis has led to insights on action sequences, lexical choice, the relationship between talk and nonvocal activities, and how participants collaborate in various interactions such as giving advice, delivering bad news, and telling of troubles (Clayman, 2001).

Researchers have applied the methodology and findings of conversational analysis to study how tall is organized in institutions and can serve as a way to accomplish various tasks, such as medical exams, teaching in the classroom, interviews by journalists, and trial cross-examination (Boden and Zimmerman, 1991; Drew and Heritage, 1992).

Examples of Ethnomethodology

“The Convict Code”: Ethnomethodology at a Halfway House

In his 1974 book, Approaches to Semiotics: Language and Social Reality: The Case of Telling the Convict Code, D. Lawrence Wieder provides an ethnographic account of the society of a halfway house for paroled drug addicts and how such a halfway house “failed” to resocialize its residents.

Wieder argued that this failure to resocialize inmates was due to the residents’ following of a “convict code” of non-adherence to the program that the halfway house staff expected the inmates to follow.

This is a normative theory that fits the methodology of traditional ethnography and social sciences.

However, in the second half of his book, Wieder switches from focusing on a theoretical, explanatory framework to one focusing on the practical ways that both the inmates and staff of the halfway house told the “convict code” by explaining the behaviors and incidents that took place at the halfway house in terms of that code (Wieder, 2015).

Rather than creating his own explanatory theory of why the inmates failed to reintegrate into conventional society, Wieder studied the ways that those in the halfway house created explanatory theories (Ten Have, 2016).

People-Processing Institutions

Ethnomethodologists beginning in the 1960s, have examined various institutions, such as schools, welfare offices, and police departments, which are intended to “process people” (Clayman, 2001).

In general, these studies have found that the formal rules set forth by these institutions fail to capture the judgment that individuals who are acting in what is considered to be a sensible manner must undertake to implement the rules concretely.

That is to say, this discrepancy between formal rules and the activities undertaken by members of these institutions can have important implications for understanding how these people-processing institutions often make consequential official designations of people (e.g., ‘criminal’ or ‘welfare recipient’) and how these correspond to actions (e.g., “burglary).

Rather than resulting from the criteria set forth by the rules of these organizations, ethnomethodological studies reveal that members of people-processing institutions undertake a number of considerations guided by their “lived-world” knowledge of what outcome would be reasonable and necessary for a particular situation (Clayman, 2001).

“Studies of Work”

Garfinkel studied “the work” involved in the practices of various professional and scientific disciplines. One example of this examination of work favored by Garfinkel is in Sudnow (1978).

Here, David Sudnow describes his “hands-on” work of playing the piano and its contrasts with how sociologists study music — speaking about group relations and status issues but not the actual experience of playing an instrument with one’s body.

Studying the “work” of the professional activities that one is not an expert in, in Garfinkle’s view, brings about a variety of problems (Ten Have, 2016).

To be able to study some practice that requires specialized knowledge, a researcher has to be “vulgarly competent” in that practice (Garfinkel and Wieder, 1992).

Manifesting this belief, Garfinkel required his graduate students in the 1970s and 1980s to learn the activity they were about to study as an ethnomethodologist.

To study the sociology of a specialized activity from the perspective of the people who do that activity, one has to make themselves as much like a “member” of that activity as possible.

Simultaneously, however, one has to create a degree of distance between themselves and the world where the activity takes place so that the ethnomethodologist can observe what members of that activity take for granted (Ten Have, 2016).

One example of social scientists attempting to immerse themselves into an activity per Garfinkel’s framework is Kenneth Liberman (2007). He attempted to acquire the membership knowledge necessary to understand the philosophical debates of Tibetan monks but simultaneously made video recordings of the disputes to understand how monks organized the debates themselves.

Libermann simultaneously attempted to gain a working competency as a monk while also keeping distance between himself and the monk group so that he could make observations about an organization that would otherwise be taken for granted (Liberman, 2007).

Suchman’s Workplace Studies

Lucy Suchman (1987) published Plans and Situated Action: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication, which would come to be considered the foundational work of a number of “workplace studies.”

In short, “workplace studies” analyze local work practices in technologically complex environments (Ten Have, 2016). Here, Suchman investigated how users attempted to operate copy machines according to the instructions given to them by the machines themselves.

To make an otherwise internal process of reasoning observable, she studied participants in pairs, asking one participant to operate the machine and the other to relay the instructions for doing so given by the machine.

While users used formal instructions as input for their own reasoning, the explanations that they gave to their partner operating the machine and the actions of the person using the machine themselves departed from the actions intended to be communicated by the machine program.

This created a dynamic where the machine “misunderstood” the actions of the users, and the users “misunderstood” the actions of the machine (Ten Have, 2016).

Generally, when conducting workplace studies, researchers use a variety of methods, such as video recordings and fieldwork, as well as a level of immersion in the work that is being studied that assists researchers in understanding the discussions that are made about the subject. This observation of discussion often uses the methodology of Sack’s conversational analysis (Ten Have, 2016).

Workplace studies often happen outside of and are funded by companies rather than academic institutions. Thus, many of those conducting workplace studies do not have a formal social sciences education.

However, these studies have proved to be a common input for reconstructing locally organized and cooperative work at the workplace level (Ten Have, 2016).


Typically, scholars have criticized ethnomethodology for its lack of an epistemological foundation and commitment to finding normative theories about social interactions, but proponents of ethnomethodology argue that the understandings and judgments ethnomethodologists create about society have a basis in communal life rather than a theoretical, epistemological foundation given by an academic school or method (Lynch, 2001).

For example, a review symposium in the American Sociological Review (vol. 33. issue 1, pp. 122-130) spoke of both the amount of importance ascribed to Studies in Ethnomethodology and that “exasperation if not rejection” that the book inspired in the reviewer (Ten Have, 2016).


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Williams, J. (2001). Phenomenology in Sociology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 11361-11363). Oxford: Pergamon.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.