Ethnomethodology Essay

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Ethnomethodology is a sociological paradigm (perspective) that views the social world as a phenomenon that individuals must constantly construct and reconstruct in thought, process, and action. It is a micro-analytic perspective that focuses on breaking taken-for-granted rules.

History and Definition

In the United States in the 1960s, Harold Garfinkel first coined the term and developed the school of eth-nomethodology. The term means the study (ology) of people (ethno). Its foundation lies in Europe, generally based on the work of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz. Schutz’s writings redevelop Max Weber’s verstehen (sympathetic introspections or understanding behavior from the perspective of those engaged in it). Phenomenology is the counterpart to scientific positivism, which views the social world as objective reality. Positivism perceives society as external to, and dominant over, the individual. In ethnomethodology, nature and culture influence human experiences in an intersubjective manner, given that interaction with others creates social worlds. Early ethnomethodological studies involved college students “bargaining” in a grocery store by insisting on paying more for jelly beans than the sale price indicated and pretending to be boarders in their own homes.

Focus and Application

Although ethnomethodology links symbolic interaction and dramaturgy, it differs in methodology and focus. It requires that the researcher shed preconceived notions of how social order is maintained and instead focus on the fluidity, the constantly changing nature of social structure. Social order occurs through member interaction and cooperation; it is not something detached from, and imposed on, members.

People tend to share the manner in which they experience the social world. Our culturally shared understanding of how social life is conducted facilitates interaction. Interaction rests not on anonymous relationships but on the subjectivity of membership categories (e.g., mother, employer, female, white, etc.) that identify those engaged in the interaction.

In human interaction, nothing in the interactive process is completely objective or subjective. Explanations individuals provide result from their cultural and personal experiences and expectations (biographies).

Ethnomethodology thus focuses on the documentary evidence (accounts) that members provide by questioning the taken-for-granted to reveal the norms that help maintain social order. Ethnomethodologists analyze mutually related factors regarding the interrelations of actors in a given situation in everyday life. These factors refer to the indexical and reflexive character of the interaction process. Indexicality is a term used to explain the interpretive nature of human interaction. The context in which, or vantage point from which, to view an individual or social situation impacts the “construction” of the “reality.” The term reflexivity refers to the intuitive nature and common-sense component of interaction. Based on the appropriateness of manner and circumstance, individuals are accountable for engaging in socially acceptable behavior.

Communication in general, and the use of language in particular, play important roles in ethnomethodology, as these reveal the organization of people’s ideas. Words have meaning in the context of their use; that is, individuals use words that fit their circumstances and the language patterns of those with whom they interact. Labels attached to behavior are given symbolic meaning through the subjective understanding of situations in everyday life.

Two rules help to process and categorize information: consistency and economy. Once a person or situation receives a category or label, individuals will perceive, construct, and reconstruct past and future situations so that the definition of the situation seems “objective” and “real.” Using ethnomethodology, the researcher must provide a logical analysis (a reasonable account) of the individual by interpreting the information provided in the given interaction in conjunction with physical appearance, official records and reports, and standard categorizations or typifications (i.e., homeless, manic depressive, homosexual, felon, etc.).

Ethnomethodologists see past records and labels solely as products of social structure, or indicators of organizational norms, not as the reality of the social problem. To understand social order, the researcher should also identify the members of the society who have the daily responsibility for maintaining that specific component of social structure. For example, if

the problem is homelessness, the researcher would seek out social workers to uncover the social norms and manner prompting the typification “homeless.”

Some may question how a generally classified micro-method perspective can provide an understanding of macro-sociological issues. It is important to note that the context in which the phenomenon occurs determines the categorization (micro or macro). What is a micro phenomenon in one situation is macro in another. To determine whether or not an ethnographic study is appropriate, the researcher must clearly delineate the goals of the research; the major goal of the research should drive the methodology. Once the research goal is identified, researchers can use an eth-nomethodological approach to analyze poverty, social welfare, homelessness, pregnancy, alcoholism, crime, or any social problem or form of deviant behavior.

Bibliography:

  1. Francis, David and Stephen Hester. 2004. An Invitation to Ethnomethodology: Language, Society, and Interaction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Garfinkel, Harold and Anne Rawls. 2007. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Expanded and updated ed. New York: Paradigm.
  3. Liska, Allen. 1987. Perspectives on Deviance. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Pfohl, Steven. 1994. Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological History. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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