Harold Garfinkel introduced the term “ethnomethodology” (by analogy to “ethnoscience”) in the 1950s and 1960s and gave the approach its fullest explication in his widely influential Studies in ethnomethodology (1967). Ethnomethodology consists of the effort to discover and analyze generic practices – methods – found across different occasions by which people in concert with one another deal with the concrete particularities of their circumstances and actions. Though initially misrepresented and trivialized in some corners (owing to a range of factors, including the chaotic state of social theory in the 1960s and, to a lesser extent, Garfinkel’s complex writing style), ethnomethodology is now widely recognized as having provided a radically transformed basis for a science of social life. Garfinkel’s theoretical writings furnished social scientists a powerful alternative approach to a core set of issues that underpin any social theory: the organization of social action; the social constitution of knowledge; and how two or more people develop and sustain a shared – or intersubjective – grasp of the world and each other’s actions (Heritage 1984). Garfinkel laid out his profoundly novel approach to social life in series of papers that involved studies of mundane settings (such as record keeping, jurors’ methods for making decisions, and the like) and reports on the results of his now famous breaching experiments.
Nature Of The Approach
Ethnomethodology entails a fundamentally different approach to understanding the orderly character of social life. Beginning with Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and others, and with few exceptions since then, the sine qua non of a scientific approach to social life has entailed the development of (a) deterministic model(s) of actor and society. In this view, the difficulty of grasping the complex particularity and apparently chaotic messiness of actual conduct in concrete situations of action can be overcome by attending to patterns of social life that emerge in aggregated populations, aggregated interactions, or historical periods that have been (in different ways) abstracted from the particulars of singular episodes of interaction. Once aggregated (or viewed through the lens of theoretical constructs), such patterns can then be explained by reference to whatever variables have been formulated explicitly in the social scientists’ model.
As Garfinkel argued, however, such deterministic accounts are pursued at the cost of treating social actors’ concrete experience, knowledge, and capacity for choice and reason as irrelevant, except insofar as they correlate with what has been formulated explicitly in the model. In Garfinkel’s terms, deterministic accounts of social actions render actors as “judgmental dopes,” since how actors recognize, interpret, and reason about their situations, the basis on which they select and design courses of action, and their justifications for acting, are (at best) only marginally relevant to such explanations. Indeed, the tenability of such deterministic theories of social action depends on forms of reductionism that render them inherently problematic (Wilson 1971). Instead of focusing on actors’ motivations for acting, Garfinkel argued that social scientists should investigate the procedures by which members of society produce and recognize actions, and by virtue of this, explicate the “knowledgeable ways in which, whether consciously or not, social actors recognize, produce, and reproduce social actions and social structures” (Heritage 1987, 245).
Ethnomethodology simultaneously introduced a novel approach to understanding the role of social knowledge in social life. Although ethnographers and interviewers routinely exploit the fact that actors can explain their own actions, social scientists had long struggled over the status this ordinary rationality should be accorded. As had emerged in the “debates on rationality,” mainstream social science approaches argued that insofar as the explanations that actors provide for their actions differ from those developed by social scientists, such “lay theories” and the commonsense knowledge they embody could be ignored as a flawed or distorted form of (proto)scientific knowledge. Garfinkel rejected this view, arguing instead that such commonsense knowledge was the stuff of social reality itself – not because the social world is as actors describe it, but because such commonsense understandings are the fundamental bases for their actions. Garfinkel summarized these views in his recommendation that “the activities whereby members produce and manage settings of organized affairs are identical with members’ procedures for making those settings ‘accountable’ ” (Garfinkel 1967, 1). Thus, in one elegant theoretical maneuver Garfinkel “integrated the analyses of action and knowledge” (Heritage 1987, 229). Instead of either accepting actors’ accounts, tout court, or rejecting them as flawed, such formulations could be analyzed as one more form of action, especially insofar as they tend to be preoccupied with moral matters such as justifying, blaming, and the like.
Garfinkel’s concern with the actors’ point of view extended to his conception of intersubjectivity. In the prevailing approach in the 1950s, Parsons argued that the values internalized by actors would lead them to interpret the world in roughly similar ways. In such situations, actors also sharing a common system of symbols (i.e., a language) could communicate with each other. This approach treats intersubjectivity as a relatively uninteresting problem by handling it as an all-or-nothing affair that is guaranteed, in principle, by shared values and overlapping symbols systems. Garfinkel argued that, in fact, shared understanding is a thoroughly contingent accomplishment that is sustained only through actors’ persistent efforts in actual situations – thus, two or more actors’ struggle to establish for all practical purposes an intersubjective grasp of a situation (including each other’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions) step by step, through their use of a common set of procedures for building and interpreting action. Garfinkel’s concern with the “problem of intersubjectivity” led him to consider the ways in which ordinary understandings are contextual (Heritage 1987) and the complex and detailed ways in which the contexts of events furnish resources for their interpretation. Two concepts, in particular, proved especially important: the Documentary Method of Interpretation and the Indexical Property of Social Action.
The Documentary Method Of Interpretation
To describe how social actors recognize their situations and bring to bear relevant background knowledge in making sense of them, Garfinkel borrowed a key concept from the Sociology of Knowledge, the Documentary Method of Interpretation (DMOI). According to Mannheim, the DMOI involved the search for “an identical, homologous pattern underlying a vast variety of totally different realizations of meaning” (Garfinkel 1967, 78). Thus, actual appearances are treated as the document of, or as pointing to, a presupposed underlying pattern. Rather than relying on the DMOI as a research methodology, however, Garfinkel appropriated the formulation to describe the fact that humans unavoidably interpret individual appearances in light of an underlying pattern that is imputed to them. Moreover, Garfinkel added that “not only is the underlying pattern derived from its individual documentary evidences, but the individual documentary evidences are in their turn interpreted on the basis of ‘what is known’ about the underlying pattern” (Garfinkel 1967, 78). Thus, according to Garfinkel, the underlying pattern, and the documentary evidences through which it is grasped, are co-constitutive; each is used to elaborate the other. As Garfinkel argued, the use of this circular process of reasoning is unavoidable – there is no privileged position from which the underlying pattern can be understood apart from the individual particulars, and vice versa. In fact, the DMOI is the only way meaningful phenomena can be understood.
The Indexical Properties Of Language And Social Action
To describe how actors make concrete sense of the contextual specificity of concrete situations while using a set of generic resources to construct them, Garfinkel appropriated and radically extended the concept of “indexical expressions,” which had emerged in the Philosophy of Language. Language philosophers had long recognized that in order to make sense of sentences containing so-called indexical expressions such as pronouns (I, she, he, etc.) and other pro-terms (it, this, that, etc.), one must inspect the context of their production. Garfinkel borrowed this expression (and the contextual character of meaning it highlighted), arguing that, in fact, all language use, and indeed all action, has indexical properties. As Garfinkel and Sacks (1970, 341) observe, “the understandability of any utterance rather than being fixed by some abstract definition, depends on the circumstances in which it appears . . . [and] because any linguistic usage is indexical, the effort to remedy the circumstantiality of one statement by producing a more exact rendition will preserve that very feature in the attempt”. While language philosophers treated indexical expressions as a barrier to analysis, Garfinkel suggested that attending to how actors make definite sense with such indefinite resources would offer critical insight into the ways that social structures and collective forms are reproduced in concrete situations. Instead of providing a basis on which mutual understanding can be guaranteed, such forms and structures – and the order they afford – could be approached as “an ongoing, practical accomplishment of every actual occasion of commonplace speech and conduct” (Garfinkel & Sacks 1970, 341).
Garfinkel’s insights into the cognitive underpinnings of social order have been massively influential: he articulated a radically novel approach to social action, the nature of shared understanding, the bases of social organization, and the relation between individual action and collective forms. The persuasiveness of his arguments rested in no small part on his ingenious demonstrations of their empirical reality through a series of “breaching experiments”. Describing the genesis of these experiments, Garfinkel noted that instead of asking what variables contribute to the stability of persistent patterns of action, “an alternative procedure would appear to be more economical: to start with a system with stable features and ask what can be done to make trouble. The operations that one would have to perform . . . should tell us something about how social structures are ordinarily and routinely being maintained” (Garfinkel 1963, 187). In considering how to make “trouble,” Garfinkel had observed that in coordinating actions with one another, each actor “trusts” that the other will use the same set of procedures and commonsense knowledge as a basis for inference and action. In “perceivedly normal environments,” that trust is validated. The aim of the breaching experiments was to violate this trust by creating specifically senseless situations, for example, by refusing to fill in “what anyone knows” (by having experimenters repeatedly ask “what do you mean”), or by designing senseless actions (such as inviting subjects to play tic-tac-toe, erasing their first move and placing it in a different place on the grid).
According to Heritage (1984, 78 – 84), the cumulative results of the breaching experiments demonstrated three highly significant and previously unknown aspects of how order is maintained. First, the studies demonstrate that there is a staggering range of assumptions and contextual features that people draw on to sustain a particular documentary version of a sequence of events. Second, maintaining a continuing sense of the situation was not done through a set of rule-governed procedures; instead, subjects assumed an underlying pattern from the beginning and used it as the basis on which the appearances should be interpreted – giving that underlying pattern the benefit of the doubt at every possible point. Finally, people treat the use of interpretive resources for “filling in” what anyone can see, as well as the suspension of doubt concerning “what the appearances” amount to, as deeply moral matters.
Ethnomethodology opens up a vast domain of ever-present, but systematically overlooked, human activity for investigation: the generic methods by which people in concert with one another deal with the concrete particularities of their circumstances. While the import of this perspective can be described as “post-structuralist” insofar as it casts social structure as a product of social actors’ concerted efforts rather than as the basis for them, it does not entail a rejection of social structure, per se. From an ethnomethodological perspective, social scientists remain committed to understanding objective social facts; however, instead of privileging their own understanding of such facts, analysts attempt to “rigorously explicate the phenomenon as an accomplishment of actors’ concerted work in making social facts observable, and accountable to one another in their everyday lives” (Maynard & Clayman 1991, 387).
Since its inception ethnomethodology has contributed to a range of fields, including the study of gender, studies of work, studies of science, ethnographies of “normal environments”, and studies of cognition, epistemics, and discourse. This article has focused on Garfinkel’s classic statement of ethnomethodology, which has had the widest impact on the conduct of social science research (Wilson 2003). Garfinkel and his colleagues have continued to develop his transformative vision of social science, advancing a “radical ethnomethodology.” The influence of this later work will await a further assessment as it becomes more widely known and applied.
- Garfinkel, H. (1963). A conception of and experiments with “trust” as a condition of stable concerted actions. In O. J. Harvey (ed.), Motivation and social interaction. New York: Ronald Press, pp. 198–238.
- Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Garfinkel, H., & Sacks, H. (1970). On formal structures of practical action. In J. C. McKinney & E. A. Tiryakian (eds.), Theoretical sociology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, pp. 337–366.
- Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity.
- Heritage, J. (1987). Ethnomethodology. In A. Giddens & J. Turner (eds.), Social theory today. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 224 –272.
- Maynard, D., & Clayman, S. E. (1991). The diversity of ethnomethodology. Annual Review of Sociology, 17, 385 – 418.
- Wieder, L. (1974). Language and social reality: The case of telling the convict code. The Hague: Mouton.
- Wilson, T. (1971). The normative and the interpretive paradigm. In J. Douglas (ed.), Understanding everyday life. Chicago: Aldine, pp. 57–79.
- Wilson, T. (2003). Garfinkel’s radical program. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 36, 487– 494.