Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.3 Phenomenology

2.3.1 The Development of Phenomenological Social Science Ethnomethodology, Postmodernism and Hermeneutics Ethnomethodology Conversation analysis Postmodernism Hermeneutics Ethnomethodology, Postmodernism and Hermeneutics
Phenomenological approaches encompass an wide array of perspectives and approaches in the attempt to establish meaning. Ethnomethodology attempts to establish the nature of everyday activity at a micro level and this is narrowed down even further by conversation analysis with its focus on naturalistic conversation. Postmodernism, by contrast, has a broad social concern, notably deconstructing the rationalism of capitalism. Hermeneutics is principally concerned with history and the reconstruction of the historical meaning of events rather than modern reinterpretation.

Top Ethnomethodology
The ethnomethodological perspective is associated with the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel who aimed to reveal the ways in which people construct meanings for themselves in their everyday activities. Whereas symbolic interactionists focus upon shared meanings, ethnomethodologists focus upon the ways in which people arrive at those shared meanings, that is they focus on process.

Garfinkel was influenced by phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz as well as linguistic philosophers. Reflecting this heritage, ethnomethodology does not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that people must continually build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions.

Ethnomethodology is concerned with detailed analysis of interaction on a small scale between individuals or within small groups.

Rather than treating ordinary members of society as simply reacting to social requirements (as being 'cultural dopes', as Garfinkel referred to it) ethnomethodology attempts to reveal the methods and practices that are used by people as they create the taken-for-granted-world. Indeed, ethnomethodology means the study of people's practices or methods.

The focus of ethnomethological analysis is on language, which is considered to be the fundamental resource for micro-social interaction. However, the concern is not the language in itself but what the use of language reveals about the shared understandings that actors have. That is, ethnomethodology is fundamentally concerned with taken-for-granted elements of social interaction.

Garfinkel, (1967) involved his students in 'breaching' experiments in which the students were asked to breach the normal 'rules' of behaviour by asking 'what do you mean?' in response to straightforward questions, or act like guests in their own homes, or haggle for fixed price goods in shops. Garfinkel and his students discovered that people get rather angry with this sort of behaviour but nevertheless they also try to make sense of it.

Imagine that you have just come out of an examination and you ask your friend 'how did it go?' to which you receive the reply 'how did what go?', you would probably feel irritated. If you then asked 'did you finish the paper?' and received the reply 'what do you mean, "the paper"?' your reflections on this reply might lead you to assume that your friend has been affected by the stress of examination.

This process of making sense of things in specific contexts is what Garfinkel refers to as 'indexicality'. The concepts of indexicality and essential reflexivity, the term Garfinkel used for these reflections, summarise the ethnomethodological view of language. They refer to the way in which the meanings of words depend on the context in which they are used and on their relationship to other words and events.

Maynard (1984) uses ethnomethodology to demonstrate the ways in which descriptions of defendants in court help to establish the justifications for the court recommendations. Maynard tape-recorded plea-bargaining sessions in American courts.

Hester and Eglin (1992, p. 220) state that Maynard's analysis demonstrates the following:

  • both public defender and district attorney use defendant attributes such as sex, age, marital status, number of children, religiosity, occupational status and ethnicity, along with other features of the circumstances of the case, to determine what offence, if any, took place, and thus to justify proposed dispositions;
  • the meaning of any attribute depends on its relationship to the collection of others;
  • both these matters are assessed in terms of how the cases would look in court before a jury.

Law is a popular theme for ethnomethodological study. Max Travers (1997) undertook an ethnographic study of a radical law firm in the North of England. The study was an account of the ‘everyday activities’ of a legal practice. Using interviews as well as ‘participant’ and ‘non-participant’ observation it demonstrated how ethnomethodology ‘can be applied to the study of law and legal phenomena, and to provide an insight into the sort of issues that arise for members of this tradition when pursuing a piece of empirical research’ (Travis, 1997, p.xi).

Suicide: the shift from interactionism to ethnomethodology

In the previous section (2.2) we used Durkheim's study of suicide as an exemplar of positivistic sociology. We are now going to briefly examine two other studies on the same topic, one that employs an interactionist approach (Douglas, 1967) and another that employs an ethnomethodological approach (Atkinson, 1977).

Douglas begins by questioning the 'facts' of suicide as given in the official statistics utilised by Durkheim. He assumes that the statistics are inaccurate. Rather than focusing on causal analysis, Douglas argues that it is more interesting to examine the meaning of deaths, described as suicide, to those who had taken their lives. To do this, it would be necessary to examine suicide notes and family reactions. In this way a more accurate figure of suicide may be established. Thus, Douglas focuses on the meaning of suicide to individuals.

Atkinson's study of suicide began in a positivistic fashion but during the course of his study his focus shifted, first from positivism to interactionism and second from interactionism to ethnomethodology. Atkinson's study differs from that of Douglas because his main focus ends up being on coroners' reports. The key question for Atkinson was how do deaths come to be constructed as suicide in the coroners' proceedings. Atkinson, unlike Douglas, makes no attempt to find a more accurate rate of suicide as he sees this as a useless and impossible task. It is not suicide that is of sociological importance to Atkinson, rather it is the way in which individuals make sense of particular circumstances surrounding such deaths. Atkinson, therefore, does not focus so much upon individual meanings but on social processes.

Study Point
How do you think that an ethnomethodologist would approach official crime statistics?

Top Conversation analysis
Conversation analysis developed from the work of Garfinkel. Conversation analysts take the ethnomethodological view that social interaction is a skilled accomplishment by competent actors and that this nowhere better exemplified in conversations. Although we have separated conversation analysis from ethnomethodology (not least for ease of presentation of the ideas), others see it as a strand of ethnomethodology (see below).

Conversation analysts undertake detailed study of the social organisation of conversation. They make precise transcriptions from recordings of conversations, including accentuation and hesitations.

In essence, conversation analysts reverse the usual approach to sociological enquiry. As Boden and Zimmerman (1993) suggested, for conversation analysts, the question is not how people respond to the constraints of social order but how that order is brought about in a specific setting.

Conversational analysts argue that understanding social order is not achieved through abstract theorising but through close analysis of how order is established in a specific situation. The requirement is then to look in detail at instances of conversation and examine how it is sequentially organised, that is, how the relationships embodied in the conversation are established and the accomplishment of the conversation is played out.

The notion of sequence is important for conversation analysts (indeed conversation analysis is also called sequential analysis). The sequence of a conversation reveals the meaning that derives from the interaction encapsulated in the conversation. The sequence shows how the participants continually display to each how they are interpreting what is going on as the interaction unfolds.

The key theorist is Harvey Sacks who believes that the analysis of conversations is an ideal way of discerning the ways in which people construct meanings. However, it has been suggested that there was a degree of serendipity in the focus on conversation as the subject of analysis. Surprisingly, given the ethnomethodological roots of conversation analysis, Sacks was concerned with identifying precise social data to inform theoretical analysis. Sacks (1984, p. 26) noted that:

When I started to do research in sociology I figured that sociology could not be an actual science unless it was able to handle the details of actual events, handle them formally, and in the first instance be informative about them in the direct ways in which primitive sciences tend to be informative, that is, that someone else can go and see what was said is so. It was not from any large interest in language or from some theoretical formulation of what should be studied that I started with tape-recorded conversation, but simply because I could get my hands on it and I could study it again and again, and also, consequentially, because others could look at what I had studied and make of it what they could, if, for example, they wanted to be able to disagree with me.

So, analysis of conversations was made possible by the recording technology and was seized upon as a convenient way to examine social data. In this respect, conversational analysis, despite its phenomenological roots, reflects the empiricist concerns of inductive positivism (see section

However, there is a second element of conversational analysis that is 'distinctly phenomenological' (Slembrouck, 2006), which is that organisational constructs are those of the subject not the analyst. Conversation analysts tend to permit only categories originated by participants in the conversation, either directly or that emerge via analysis of the sequential flow of interaction. This is not incompatible with the inductivist position except that the process is not 'external facts' that lead to theoretical conjecture but subjects' categories that lead to a grasping of the way social order is constructed.

There is debate about whether conversation analysis reflects the philosophical base of ethnomethodology (Clayman and Maynard, 1995; Livingston, 1987; Lynch, 1993; Lynch and Bogen, 1994); and others have explored the relationship of conversation analysis with Goffman's work (Watson, 1992; Giddens, 1998). Michael Lynch (2000), for example, argued that the practical foundations of conversation analysis lay in ethnomethodology.

Sacks attempted to set out the rules of conversation and these along with the methodological approach are examined in Section 6. Sacks, himself undertook ethnometodological study before turning to conversation analysis. An unpublished paper by Sacks entitled ‘The Lawyer’s Work’, written about 1961, it is a series of observations on the locally organised nature of lawyers’ activity. It dates from before Sacks developed conversation analysis and reveal how he was influenced by Garfinkel.

Top Postmodernism
Postmodernism is a term used to characterise a way of perceiving late 20th Century culture. It has been developed, in particular, in relation to art, music, television and film. It has also been used as a tool for sociological analysis and it has been claimed as an alternative perspective for analysing the social world.

Postmodernism has a wide variety of 'roots' including linguistics and semiology, ethnomethodology, conversational analysis, psychoanalysis, Marxism (especially critical theory) structuralism and post-structuralism, hermeneutics, feminism, media analysis and film theory (see also Section 5). However, despite certain reasonably consistent elements, postmodernism is not a single approach and covers a variety of related perspectives. Further, postmodernism is somewhat predatory and the label of postmodernism has been retrospectively applied to approaches to sociology.

It might be argued that postmodernism is a critical (see Section 2.4) rather than a phenomenological approach to sociology. There is some superficial resemblance, which is discussed below, but in essence, postmodernism lacks the critical, dialectical approach of critical social research.

Postmodernism, despite a critical dimension, rapidly became dominated by an approach that attempted to re-interpret capitalism as a fragmented social structure in which rationality no longer provided a way of understanding the world. Theorists such as Michel Foucault (1977), Jaques Lacan (1968) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) argued that capitalism provides a cultural context in which we live rather than a social structure that provides a set of constraints or rules that we must take into account, as Durkheim had proposed (see Section 2.2). This culture is not dependent on social structure but rather on ideology and social discourse and that people have considerable freedom of choice even within the ideological framework of capitalism.

As with other phenomenological perspectives, postmodernism has the following characteristics:

  • it questions the positivist notion of causal science, especially its ability to determine universal truths independent of the interpretive process of individuals;
  • it does not regard so-called scientific methods as value neutral;
  • it considers language to be an active medium for shaping our interpretation of the world, rather than neutral process of representing the world.

In addition, postmodernism, in one form or another, develops further some aspects of phenomenology. Postmodernism:

  • sees the 'self' as unstable rather than rational. Mead's notion of the self, for example, as tempering the different requirements of the 'I' and the socialised 'me' implies a self-reflective process that postmodernists consider unrepresentative of the individual in a fragmented and complex society;
  • does not see knowledge as neutral and based on rational thought, instead it sees it as reflecting particular interests: this effectively restates Husserl's transcendental phenomenology which attacks the essence of scientific rationality (but, in dispensing with Hussel's transcendentalism, postmodernism also discards any way of knowing);
  • tends to see knowledge as 'relative' rather than 'absolute' and, as a result, is opposed to any type of grand theorising about the social world.

A principal approach of interpretive postmodernism is to 'deconstruct texts'. Deconstruction, in this sense, mean 'to break down' texts in order to grasp the implicit meanings. These implicit meanings are grasped when the underlying assumptions in the text are exposed. A 'text' is 'any form of symbolic representation of meanings' such as writing, film, recorded speech or even shop displays (Russell and Tyler, 2002).

So, for example, Gregory Matoesian's (1993) analysis of the discussions and exchanges in American rape trials attempts to reveal underlying sexist attitudes in the prosecution and defence of rape cases. Reflecting the ethnomethodological influences on interpretive postmodernism Matiesian undertook a conversational analysis of the exchanges in the courtroom, which he tape-recorded and transcribed in detail, including the pauses, hesitations and inflections on different words. He expected that a detailed analysis of the transcripts would help him expose underlying assumptions.

Arguably, postmodernist deconstruction approximates Husserl's first level of 'reduction' (or époché), that is, it sets aside 'scientific' preconceptions about what constitutes reality, evidence or truth. However, it rarely approaches the transcendental level of the double époché to determine the essence of a text.

As we shall see (Section 2.4), deconstruction and reconstruction is an essential element of critical social research. It is tempting to see postmodern deconstruction as the same thing. However, critical deconstruction, means taking things apart so as to discover how it is that they are as they are. Deconstruction, for interpretive postmodernism, is premised on the idea that we can not theorise about why, or how come, the social world is as it is, besides which the social world is so heterogeneous that theorising can only be superficial. Deconstruction, for the interpretive postmodernist, is more akin to mapping how discourses reveal inequalities and injustices.

Postmodernists often refer to 'discourses' but they use the term in two different ways. In one sense it refers to micro 'discourses', such as a conversation, and means much the same as 'text', as in Matiesian's study of courtrooms. In another sense, a discourse is a body of ideas, knowledge and beliefs. In that case, it is similar to a 'world view'. A 'discourse' can be seen as a way in which (dominant) culture is transmitted through religion, education, media and arts. It parallels, to some extent, the notion of 'culture'; that is, as a term to imply that there is a set of expectations expressed via speech, secular and religious teaching, media, literature and the arts that embody appropriate behaviour in a given social setting.

For example, Foucault explored how madness became constructed as a discourse that changed over time as different conceptions based on religion and medicine became dominant.

A discourse, in this sense, is not a 'theory' but a set of interrelated conceptualisations that not only attempt to account for madness but also affect the way in which people react to, and perceive, madness.

Postmodernism thus attempts to reinterpret the social system exposing injustices and inequalities that are embedded in discourses. What interpretive postmodernism is attempting to do is to question taken-for-granteds about the social world by showing how dominant 'discourses' are established and maintained. In some usages, this kind of analysis of discourse, is similar to the analysis of ideology.

There is, for example, one element of feminism, particularly that which draws on psychoanalysis, that sees itself as closely allied with the concerns of postmodernism (Kristeva, 1984). This can be seen in film theory. Feminist critics, for example, have used psychoanalytic processes to argue that the classic Hollywood films are made in such a way that the viewer is given the view of male onlooker rather than that of a female. Feminist film, they argue needs to 'deconstruct' this dominant way of seeing (women) and provide a new cinema that abandons a dominant perspective altogether. In this way, instead of a male view being replaced by a female view the viewer would be able to actively interpret the film from an array of perspectives.

Postmodernism differs from critical social research in three ways.

First, postmodernism is reluctant to develop theories. Lyotard, for example, was opposed to what he called grand narratives, which he maintained merely legitmated the status quo. (See CASE STUDY, Grand Narratives)

Second, it is apolitical, and acts as sceptic rather than critic. Postmodernism, has been described as 'playing radical games with the system' but as being 'more a clever commentary on capitalism than an analysis of the system' (O'Donnell, 1993, p. 522). Indeed, postmodernism has been criticised for not being critical in the sense of providing a fundamental critique of society. Instead it rejects 'grand narratives' in favour of 'mini-narratives'. O'Donnell, for example, regards postmodernism's failure to critique the increasing concentration of wealth and power evident in the international capitalism as irresponsible.

Third, postmodernist deconstruction does not lead to an alternative reconstruction (see Section 2.4).

Top Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics is very important phenomenological approach. It has complex roots and has developed in various ways, (see Ramberg and Gjesdal, 2005 and Wildman 1994–2010 for alternative detail on the development and nature of hermeneutic theory and philosophy)

In some forms hermeneutics goes beyond the phenomenoloical concern with interpretation and becomes a critical social research approach, as for example in the critical hermeneutics of Jürgen Habermas and other 'critical theorists'.

Hermeneutics, in its original/traditional form, was an approach that sought to interpret written texts in the way that aimed to reproduce the meanings intended by the author.

Early applications of hermeneutic method were focused on interpreting the bible.

Hermeneutics is an approach to history that attempts to recreate the meaning of historical events from the available textual data.

The core of the hermeneutic approach is what is known as the hermeneutic circle. This is a complex reflective process that involves:

  • reading a historical text;
  • trying to identify what it meant in the context of the time it was written;
  • using that understanding to reread the text and reinterpret it;
  • going round the circle again. (see Section XX for further details)
    Eventually an understanding of the historical meaning and significance emerges from (or is distilled out of) this process.

Thus, a hermeneutic analysis uses the evolving understanding of history to develop an holistic understanding of the wider context: it places the specific events (or parts) in the context of the whole.


Next 2.3.2 Elements of the phenomenological approach