Ethnomethodology Research Paper Starter


Ethnomethodology is the study of how members of society use ordinary, everyday interactions to produce social order. Developed in the 1960s by Harold Garfinkel, ethnomethodology challenged traditional sociological approaches that relied on theoretical constructions to answer the question of how social order is produced. Ethnomethodologists use careful description of naturally occurring interactions to investigate the interpretive and constitutive practices of members of society. This article provides an overview of the ethnomethodology approach, its theoretical foundations, and related research practices.

Keywords Conversation Analysis; Ethnomethodology; Indexicality; Garfinkel, Harold; Membership Categorization Devices; Phenomenology; Reflexivity; Qualitative Research; Sequential Analysis; Unique Adequacy Requirement



Imagine a large, oval, outdoor room with thousands of benches arranged on tiered steps rising high into the air. In the center of the room is a square, grassy area with lines painted onto it. On a weekend night, thousands of people file into this room wearing brightly colored clothes. They sit on the seats and look down into the grassy field where groups of young men run into one another on purpose and chase a funny-shaped ball. On what seems like an invisible cue, large numbers of people sitting on the benches start stomping their feet and shouting at the top of their lungs. They are shouting the same things. Sometimes, sections of the people stand and sit quickly, followed by people in the next section doing the same thing. The effect is to create a wave-like motion around the ring of seats. There is nothing special about this group of people. Any group of people entering this room when it is being used for this purpose would do the same thing.

For most Americans, the scene above should be readily recognizable as an evening at a football game. Whether one has been to a live event or seen one on television, there is nothing unusual about how football fans conduct themselves. The behaviors they exhibit — shouting, stomping, doing the wave — are perfectly expected and ordinary for the situation. From an ethnomethodological perspective, this is exactly what makes fans at a football game interesting. How is it exactly that thousands and thousands of people, in any given region of the country, who are of different ages, races, genders, etc. come to behave in such a similar manner without any kind of formal training? What are the people doing that cause us to see this situation as part of a game, instead of say, some kind of tribal war party? What are the cues by which people know what to cheer and when? How in fact, does the wave actually happen?

What is Ethnomethodology?

Ethnomethodology (EM) is the study of ordinary action by ordinary members of society. The definition of “ordinary” is anything that is regularly and recurrently done by people with such automaticity that it is given very little thought. Ordinary behaviors such as crossing the street or filing forms, and practical reasoning such as making the decision that a woman carrying a baby is carrying her own child are the ordinary, taken-for-granted practices on which ethnomethodologists focus. But this definition is still too simple; ethnomethodology's goal is more complex. EM studies these ordinary practices in order to discover how members of society create a sense of objective reality. That is, what do people do that creates the social facts we take for granted? For instance, that fans attend a football game is a social fact in American culture. But outside of the football stadium, if we saw the same people in the stadium now walking down the street on their way to work, we would not call them fans. Their identity as a fan is tied to the context of the stadium and to their actions such as cheering and stomping. What we expect them to do as a fan is part of a commonly held construct in this culture about what being a fan is and the behaviors that role entails. But how did this fact come into being and why does it persist?

Ethnomethodology's goal is to explicate the constitution of such social facts. And the way that EM conducts this explication is by observing the interpretive and constructive practices members of society use to create the taken-for-granted order in the world in which they live (Garfinkel, 1967, 2002).


The principles of EM were established in the 1960s and 1970s by the work of American sociologist Howard Garfinkel. Garfinkel began with an assumption that social order exists at a local level in the shared practices that members must use to achieve mutual intelligibility. That is, Garfinkel believes that members of society regularly produce accountable behaviors and practices. Accountable, from his perspective, means being observable and reportable to all who are present; that individuals have to produce accountable behaviors in order to be understood means, to Garfinkel, that the elements of social order are present in the local scenes in which interactions occurred. Therefore, one can study social order at the local level.

Formal Analytic Approach

At the time, this idea was a radical departure from the way classical sociology had typically approached social order (Rawls, 2002). Although sociology had always been concerned with the "objective reality of social facts" (Garfinkel, 2004, p. 65) as outlined by Emile Durkheim, the traditional approach to studying these facts had been to use what Garfinkel termed the "formal analytic approach." The formal analytic approach views the populations who make up the scenes of life as the creators of those scenes. Therefore, traditional sociology looked at individuals as being representative of populations defined by socioeconomic status, gender, race, or other demographic variables. In order to determine the behavior of the populations, the formal analytic approach required that researchers make hypotheses about the population's behavior, and then study large data sets in order to confirm or disconfirm the shared tendencies that individuals from a specific population exhibit.

Examining an individual, or a small number of individuals alone, from this perspective, could not provide an account of social order, because order could only be witnessed when the behavior of populations were examined as a whole. Garfinkel viewed this position — espoused by his teacher and influential sociologist Talcott Parsons — as one that suggested that "there is no order in the plenum" (Garfinkel, 2002, p. 94), meaning that without a theory of how populations behaved, individual behavior appeared disorderly and chaotic (Garfinkel, 2002; Rawls, 2002).

Garfinkel's approach rejected this position. In contrast to Parsons, Garfinkel said that order is achieved over and over again every time individuals interact. To observe this order, he said, one need only observe the scenes where interactions are taking place and ask one basic question: How are the members in the scene producing social order at that moment in that context? In order to find the answer to this question, the researcher must figure out what questions and problems are motivating the members within the particular scene. To do this, one must not identify the members as part of a population outside the scene. Instead, the researcher must begin with the scene and then define who it is that is bringing the scene into being. For example, instead of looking at traffic and asking how men and women drive differently, the ethnomethodologist would ask, what kinds of populations make traffic such as "slow drivers," "bad drivers," "close-in" drivers, etc. (Garfinkel, 2002, p. 93). Furthermore, the researcher does not need to be concerned about the individual's attitudes, values, beliefs, or experiences in order to understand how order is created. The ordinary actions of society are immortal (a metaphor borrowed from Durkheim), meaning that they occur over and over again regardless of who plays the part of the actor in the scene. In this sense, actors are replaceable; should the actor disappear, a new one would step in and produce the same behaviors in the same way that traffic on a highway continues even though individual cars merge on and off the roadway. Thus, Garfinkel's approach to the social world is a qualitative approach that examines in depth the situated procedures that create ordinary life (Garfinkel, 2002).


The philosophy most often associated with EM is phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophy developed by Edmund Husserl and expanded upon by Alfred Schütz and Aron Gurwitsch that says there is an active relationship between human...

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