Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, 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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Documentary method

core definition

Documentary method refers to a process of reasoning in which particular examples or evidence is used to document underlying patterns.

explanatory context

The documentary method is a term specific to ethnomethodology.


Despite its name it is neither a process that makes use of written documents nor is it a specific method of working (such as a survey).


The documentary method should not be confused with the analysis of documents in other fields such as linguistics, history, or literary criticism. Nor should it be confused with techniques such as content analysis or semiotics. It is not the same as 'documentary methods', which refers to the close examination of documents designed to reveal the social circumstances in which the documents are produced


Documentary method is also sometimes referred to as the retrospective-prospective interpretive method.

analytical review

According to Garfinkel (1962):

The method consists of treating an actual appearance as ‘the document of,’ as ‘pointing to,’ as ‘standing on behalf of’ a presupposed underlying pattern. The method is recognizable for the everyday necessities of recognizing what a person is ‘talking about’ given that he does not say exactly what he means, or in recognizing such common occurrences and objects as mailmen, friendly gestures, and promises.

Moss (2008) wrote :

According to Garfinkel, individuals apply a psychological process, called the documentary method, to identify patterns and order in the social world. That is, they identify features of a social setting that seem to conform to some pattern. They then attempt to understand how these features relate to this underyling pattern. They apply this pattern to appreciate the significance of additional features or facts that arise.

To demonstrate this method, Garfinkel asked studies in the psychiatry department to participate in a study about a novel form of psychotherapy. The students [n=10] were encouraged to discuss their personal issues over intercom with someone who was veiled behind a screen, called the "advisor" who could answer only yes or no. Unbeknownst to the students, these responses to the questions were random.

Although the responses were random, the students were able to extract meaning and patterns from these answers. In general, they felt the advice was helpful. Regularities were extracted even though some of the responses might inevitably have contradicted other answers. That is, the responses to almost the same question were often different. Garfinkel maintained that students were somehow able to extract some patterns from a chaotic situation. If the responses were especially bizarre, the advisor was regarded as antisocial-to ensure that some pattern could be established.

Garfinkel identified a series of processes, under the rubric of the documentary method, that individuals apply that generate this meaning. The patterns we construct direct our subsequent attention. We might not notice an event that violates these patterns-like the husband who does not notice when his wife has changed her hairstyle.

Thus, according to ethnomethodology, the meaningful, regular, and orderly nature of collectives demands constant work to achieve. In these contexts, individuals develop shared methods and procedures to maintain this order. Hence, social order is identical to the procedures that members of a society or collective, such as footballers, apply to manage a particular setting. In other words, social orders are generated within a specific setting or context and manifested through observable accounting practices of the group members to maintain this order.

associated issues


related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section


Garfinkel, H., 1962, 'Common Sense Knowledge of Social Structures: The Documentary Method of Interpretation', in Manis, J and Meltzer, B (1972) Symbolic Interaction: A Reader in Social Psychology, 2nd edition, Boston; Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Moss, S., 2008 , 'Ethnomethodology' in Psychlopedia, available at , accessed 22 January 2013, still available 17 December 2016; last update 16 June 2016 but the quoted section does not appear to have changed. No longer at this address 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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