Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Ethnomethodology is an approach within sociology that focuses on the way people, as rational actors, make sense of their everyday world by employing practical reasoning rather than formal logic.

explanatory context

Ethnomethodology is concened with taken for granted aspects of the social world. It concentrates on how people make sense of the everyday aspects of their world and how they make their social environment accountable to themselves.


Social actors adopt different roles and different frameworks of meaning in different situations and in so doing construct a variety of rationalities for different situations.


Ethnomethodologists argue that in order to understand the actor’s conception of objects and events, the sociologist must examine the routine, practical activities of everyday life.

Bogdan and Taylor (1975) thus state that ethnomethodology is about the process by which people make sense out of the situations in which they find themselves. For ethnomethodologists the meanings of actions are always ambiguous and problematic for people in specific situations. Ethnomethodologists examine the ways people apply abstract rules and commonsense understandings in situations in order to make actions appear routine, explicable and ambiguous. Meanings are then practical accomplishements on the part of members of a society.

Douglas (1967) has studied how coroners designate deaths as suicides. This requires the use of commonsense understandings by coroners to establish intention on the part of the victim. Coroners put together certain clues and come up with a 'suicide for all practical purposes'.

Ethnomethodologists bracket or suspend their own commonsense assumptions to study how common-sense is used in everyday life. (e.g. Garfinkel's experiments). Through an examination of commonsense the ethnomethodologists hope to understand how people ‘go about the task of seeing, describing, and explaining order in the world in which they live’ (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975, p. 17).


Ethnomethodology is a development from symbolic interactionism, particularly Goffman. It attempts to bring together the phenomenology of Schutz and the sociology of Talcott Parsons. Garfinkel introduced the term ethnomethodology and published his first book ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’ in 1967. Ethnomethodology can be located very specifically. It started in the 1960s in Berkeley through a series of seminars. Growing out of ‘late’ symbolic interactionism it was more influenced by Goffman than the ageing and less influential Blumer.


Ethnomethiology uses a variety of ethnographic tequniques. Usually direct observation is via non-participant observation. Conversational analysis, the ‘documentary method’ and ‘ethnomethodological experiments’ are also used.


Ethnomethodology has tended to use ‘experiments’ to establish its premises. Such ‘experiments’ have been designed to challenge people’s taken-for-granted views (such as bargaining for fixed price items in a chain store). The aim of the experiments were to show that (a) people interacted on the basis of a shared set of presuppositions; (b) they became frustrated when these did not operate; (c) the world was made accountable to the subject in terms of these taken-for-granteds; and (d) people operated with different rationalities in diffferent contexts, i.e. the notion of muliple rationalities. See Researching the Real World for an outline of Garfinkel's breaching experiements.


The majority of the empirical work done by ethnomethodologies uses other techniques and tends to be descriptive of the everyday social settings and of actors’ reflexivity.




analytical review

Sociology Guide.Com (2011) states:

The accumulated commonsense of generation results in pattern of behavioral topicalities. Social order is dependent upon people behaving in a commonsense way. Thus, social interaction must be interpreted in terms of these commonsense meanings, however for ethnomethodologist the basic problem of Sociology goes back even further than this. They begin with the assumption that society exists only in so far as members perceive its existence. So member's view of social reality must be understood. But sociologists must also be concerned with processes by which people come to establish meanings in social phenomena. They say that the aim of sociology should not be simply to identify and record the meanings that people have ascribed to situation but to understand the ways in which they generate those meanings in the first place. The idea that it is important to understand how the world looks to those who live in it is approved of by these sociologists, but they argue that the final emphasis should be on the ways in which the members of society come to see their world in the ways they do. Harold Garfinkel and Circourel are some of the important Ethnomethodologists.Since most meanings are transmitted through symbols, sociologists who want to study the interpreted procedures which members of the society use to attribute meaning typically focus their attention upon speech exchanges in which the participants are involve in making sense of each other talk.

The emphasis is upon the study of ways in which people in actual situation of interaction come to see what the other person is meaning. Circourel's study of Juvenile Delinquency is an example where he traces the way in which young people come to be categorized as juvenile delinquents by the police, probationary officers and courts so on.

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines ethnomethodology as:

A form of ethnography that studies activities of group members to see how they make sense of their surroundings.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines ethnomethodology as:

The study of members of society in the everyday situations in which they find themselves with a focus on the ways in which they use extraordinary methods to produce ordinary social reality.

Have (1990) explained ethnomethodology as follows:

Ethnomethodology proposes the study of social order as it is constituted in and through the socially organized conduct of the society's members (7). Harold Garfinkel has derived the problem of social order and the notion of membership from Talcott Parsons' theory of action. But the way in which he has tackled it is mainly derived from the phenomenological tradition, especially 'the constitutive phenomenology of the natural attitude' as conceived by Alfred Schutz. In ethnomethodology, whatever is the case for members may be studied in a procedural fashion. The central idea is that members are continuously, in every moment of their waking life, engaged in establishing what may be reasonably assumed to exist, by connecting whatever presents itself to their attention with elements of their stock of knowledge. This knowledge consists, as Schutz has argued, of typifications and recipes, such as action-types, person-types and course-of-action types (c.f. Schutz, 1962). Members demonstrate their competence by showing that and how they know what is the case by connecting 'indexical particulars', context-specific information, in a reasonable manner with generally available knowledge, 'what any competent member knows'. So by fitting 'cases' to 'types', a reasonable world is constituted (Garfinkel, 1967, especially p. 78).

Have (1990) suggests a typology of the solutions that have been tried in ethnomethodology

The first strategy is especially prominent in Garfinkel's early work (1967). This strategy consists of the close study of sense-making activities in situations where they are especially prominent. Such situations are those in which sharp discrepancies, between on the one hand existing expectations and/or competencies, and on the other practical behavioral and/or interpretive tasks, necessitate extraordinary sense-making efforts by members. Such situations may occur naturally - as in the case of a 'transsexual' studied by Garfinkel (1967: 116-85) - or they may be created on purpose - as in the 'breaching' experiments, mentioned before.

In order to escape some of the practical and ethical problems generated by such experiments, a second strategy was developed. In this the researcher studies his own sense-making work by putting himself in some kind of extra-ordinary situation. This may be a situation where routine sense-making procedures are bound to fail, or where one has to master a difficult and unknown task, or where one is instructed by a setting's members to see the world in a way that is natural for them but not for oneself. Mehan & Wood (1975) use the expression 'becoming the phenomenon, while Schwartz & Jacobs (1979) recommend strategies of becoming The Stranger or The Novice. Out of many possible examples I would like to mention David Sudnow's (1978) study of becoming a jazz piano player, and Lawrence Wieder's (1974) study of his being instructed in the use of 'the Convict Code' as a general interpretive and explanatory device in a half-way house for paroled addicts.

The third strategy is the one that most resembles traditional fieldwork. It consists of closely observing situated activities in their natural settings and discussing them with the seasoned practitioners, in order to study the competences involved in the routine performance of these activities. To further this close study, or to be able to study these activities after the fact, recording equipment may be used. Examples of this kind of study can be found in Garfinkel's (1967) work on juries and coroners, Zimmerman's (1969) study of case-workers in a welfare agency, and Lynch's (1985) research on laboratory scientists.

The forth strategy is the one I have already described as CA's[conversation analysis] way. It involves the study of ordinary practices by first mechanically recording some of their 'products', by the use of audio or video equipment. These recordings are then transcribed in a way that limits the use of common sense procedures to hearing what is being said and noting how it has been said. The transcriptions are used to locate some 'orderly products'. It is the analyst's task, then, to formulate a 'device' which may have been used to produce that 'product' and phenomena like it (c.f. Sacks, 1984a).

In actual practice, these strategies tend to be combined in various ways. In examples of the first three types, a tendency exists to use literal quotes from what was said by the research subjects, as in Garfinkel's (1967) reports of his 'experiments', while in more recent studies recordings and transcripts tend to be used, as in Garfinkel et al (1981) and Lynch (1985). There is a major difference, however, between the first three strategies - ethnomethodological studies in the stricter sense - and the fourth - CA. In the first set, specific circumstances are created or sought out, where sense-making activities are more prominent and consequently easier studied. In this way ethnomethodology displays a strategic preference for the extra-ordinary (9). In contrast to this, CA tends to focus on the utterly mundane, the ordinary chit-chat of everyday life. While in ethnomethodology the 'visibility problem' is - in part - solved by the creation or selection of 'strange' environments, in CA this 'estranging' task is performed by the recording machine and the transcription process.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section


Bogdan, R. and Taylor, S.J., 1975, Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods: A phenomenological approach to the social sciences. New York, Wiley.

Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 3 February 2013, still available 20 December 2016.

Douglas, J.D., 1967, The Social Meanings of Suicide, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Garfinkel, H., 1967, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.

Have, P. ten, 1990, 'Methodological issues in conversational analysis', Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 27(June), pp. 23–51 available at, accessed 19 March 2013, still available 20 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

Mehan, H. and Wood, H., 1975, The Reality of Ethnomethodology, New York: Wiley.

Sacks, H., 1984a, 'Notes on methodology', in Atkinson, J.M. and Heritage, J. (Eds.) 1984, Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21–27.

Schutz , A., 1962, Collected Papers I: The problem of social reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Schwartz, H. and Jacobs, J., 1979, Qualitative Sociology: A method to the madness. New York: Free Press

Sociology Guide.Com, 2011, 'Sociology as interpretative discipline' available at, accessed 24 January 2013, still available 20 December 2016.

Sudnow, D., 1978, Ways of the Hand: The organization of improvised conduct. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Wieder, D.L., 1974, Language and Social Reality: The case of telling the convict code. The Hague: Mouton

Zimmerman, D.H., 1969, 'Record-keeping and the intake process in a public welfare agency' in Wheeler, S. (Ed.) On Record: Files and dossiers in American life. New York: Russell Sage, pp. 319–45

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