Ethnomethodology Research Paper

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Ethnomethodology is a mode of inquiry devoted to the study of the practical methods of common sense reasoning used by members of society in the conduct of everyday life. The significance of this seemingly mundane subject matter resides in the fact that practical reasoning is what enables societal members to make sense of the circumstances in which they find themselves, find ways of acting in relation to those circumstances, and thereby contribute to the production and maintenance of an intelligible social world. Ethnomethodology, as the study of such reasoning practices, is thus concerned with the very foundations of social order.

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It should be clear from this brief definition that ethnomethodology is not primarily a theory of social life, nor is it a methodology for the study thereof. It is in the first instance a discipline of inquiry devoted to a distinctive order of phenomena, one that is sometimes understood to be orthogonal to the concerns of mainstream social science. However, these phenomena have important theoretical, methodological, and substantive ramifications, and in the course of elucidating them ethnomethodology has had a major impact across a range of social science disciplines. Although it originated within sociology, ethnomethodology’s sphere of influence extends to anthropology, cognitive science, communication, linguistics, psychology, and the philosophy of the social sciences.

Although a few studies appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the nascent approach crystallized and attracted widespread attention in 1967 with the publication of Harold Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology. This was a time of great intellectual ferment in the social sciences, and ethnomethodology contributed in no small way to the revolutions that challenged prevailing theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. In the domain of sociological theory, ethnomethodology helped end the dominance of the structural functionalist paradigm associated with Talcott Parsons, and led to a major reconceptualization of the theory of action and its relationship to social structure. It was also an important impetus behind the broad-based social constructionist movement that revolutionized theorizing about subjects ranging from deviance to gender. In methodology, ethnomethodological studies challenged the scientistic pretensions of positivistic research methods, and fostered greater sensitivity and self-reflection among methodologists of various stripes. Finally, ethnomethodology inspired numerous research initiatives that revitalized a wide range of social science subfields, including the study of language and social interaction, the inner workings of bureaucratic and people-processing institutions, and the construction of formal scientific knowledge.

1. Intellectual Origins

The origins of ethnomethodology can be traced back to seminal research conducted in the late 1940s by Harold Garfinkel in the course of his graduate work in sociology at Harvard University. Garfinkel was a student of Talcott Parsons and he took Parsons’ voluntaristic theory of action as a basic frame of reference, but he was also deeply influenced by the phenomenological writings of Alfred Schutz and the teachings of Aaron Gurwitsch. (Sometime later, the ordinary language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein would become another source of inspiration.) The phenomenological enterprise directed Garfinkel’s attention to certain fundamental pretheoretical problems posed by Parsons’ theory of action, problems which were not adequately addressed within the Parsonian framework. What would later come to be known as ‘ethnomethodology’ is in large part the result of Garfinkel’s sustained effort to confront these problems by empirical means.

Parsons had sought to develop a theory of social action that would solve the Hobbesian problem of order while retaining purposive human agency within its framework. At the same time, he wished to avoid the limitations and pitfalls of strictly utilitarian thinking, which cannot account for the ends toward which action is oriented, and which treats intrinsic rationality as the sole standard governing the selection of means. Parsons’ solution centered around the role of moral values in social action—he proposed that, through socialization, such values become internalized and incorporated into the actor’s personality, where they guide both the selection of ends of action and the normative means by which they are sought. Insofar as such values are also institutionalized within a society and are shared by societal members, patterned activity and social cohesion will be the natural result.

Parsons’ theory places primary emphasis on the motivational wellsprings of action, and in so doing it has relatively little to say about how concrete actions are managed and coordinated in real time. Thus, as Heritage (1987, p. 228) has observed, it is less a theory of action per se than a theory of the dispositions that give rise to action. Correspondingly, Parsons’ theory fails to give serious consideration to the knowledge and forms of reasoning that actors themselves bring to bear in the course of producing and recognizing actual conduct. This insensitivity to actors’ endogenous perspectives is exacerbated by Parsons’ decision to define rational action in terms of an exogenous standard based on consistency with the application of scientific logico-empirical methods. Any deviation from this standard is regarded as the embodiment of ignorance and error, in which case actors’ own explanations of their actions may be dismissed in favor of a ‘scientific’ explanation cast in the language of norms and values.

Garfinkel recognized that Parsons’ motivational solution to the Hobbesian problem of order implicates an analytically prior cognitive problem of order, one that cannot be resolved without due consideration to the common sense knowledge and practical reasoning employed by actors themselves. How do actors analyze their circumstances, determine which features are relevant for present purposes, and grasp what those features ‘mean?’ How do they know what forms of behavior will be recognized as normatively appropriate under those circumstances? How in other words is the fundamental intelligibility of action and circumstance accomplished? It is questions like these that Garfinkel sought to answer.

2. Garfinkel’s Classic Studies

Although Garfinkel’s central analytic questions were inspired by phenomenology, his way of addressing them was distinctively his own. He eschewed highly interpretive methods involving introspection or freewheeling verstehen in favor of a rigorously empirical approach based on close observation of social behavior. Since the methods of reasoning of interest are those embodied in social activities, they are publicly available to both lay members of society and professional analysts and are, at least in principle, eminently observable.

Analyzing such methods of reasoning-in-action, however, is intrinsically difficult because they are so deeply taken for granted. As an omnipresent resource for the management of social life, practical reasoning is not ordinarily an object of conscious reflection in its own right. Its very familiarity renders it elusive and resistant to analysis.

Garfinkel’s ingenious solution to this problem entailed seeking out extraordinary situations in which the sense-making process is foregrounded, exaggerated, and hence rendered conspicuous. For the most part, these situations were engineered by Garfinkel and his associates through a series of experiments and quasi-experimental demonstrations. The situations often involved social actors encountering anomalous events—typically, particular social actions—that are incongruous with a pre-existing or default ‘definition of the situation.’ In one such experiment, subjects were engaged in a game of tic-tac-toe by experimenters who would erase and reposition the subjects’ mark before placing their own mark on the grid. In another experiment, subjects were told to ask yes no questions of a counselor but, unbeknownst to them, the ‘answers’ were given according to a random schedule. Elsewhere the focus shifted to incongruities that arise naturalistically rather than experimentally, and to the practices of social actors rather than observers—an example is the study of ‘Agnes,’ a person whose masculine genitalia and biography were at odds with her claim to female status. Across these examples, incongruity and its management served to throw processes of practical reasoning into sharp relief.

The results revealed that interactants would strive to render the situation as coherent and intelligible, invoking a wide range of background assumptions, contextual knowledge, and other elements of common sense—often in the form of natural language accounts—to this end. Three patterns of response were recurrent. Subjects would either (a) ‘normalize’ the anomalous event by reinterpreting it as consistent with the prior definition of the situation, (b) ‘demonize’ the event by treating it as a motivated and morally suspect departure from normality, or (c) reconstitute the environing situation so as to make it congruent with what is ostensibly taking place.

These outcomes demonstrate forcefully that interactants make sense of a given action by considering not only the intrinsic properties of the action itself, but also its relationship to the broader social environment in which it is embedded. The meaning and import of any particular action is thus thoroughly contextdependent. This would be a trivial matter if contexts were autonomous and stable—‘the’ context of an action could then serve as an archimedian vantage point from which to disambiguate that action. Contexts, however, do not have such transcendent properties—the relevant context at any given moment is derived primarily from the actions through which it is composed, and even a single incongruous action can dramatically alter the context that is understood to be in play. Practical reasoning is thus a dynamic and reflexive process whereby the sense of particular actions and environing social situations are ongoingly adjusted and reconciled with one another. By implication, the experiential reality and temporal persistence of any social situation—whether a game of tic-tac-toe, a course of counseling advice, or a person’s sexual status—rests upon a foundation of such reasoning practices.

3. Theoretical Implications

Garfinkel’s findings amount to a major reconceptualization of the fundamental locus of social order. Most social science theories view social life as organized by structural entities (e.g., social institutions, cultural symbol systems, structures of race, class, and gender, etc.) that stand outside of the flow of events in everyday life and exert a more or less determining influence on the course of those events. Such theories embody what might be thought of as a top-down conception of social order. Garfinkel, in contrast, offers a thoroughly bottom-up conception, and this theoretical inversion is a natural consequence of his decision to treat social order as a cognitive rather than a Hobbesian problem—not a problem of how conflict is avoided and solidarity maintained, but a problem of how the social world, whatever its character, becomes intelligible and accountable to its members. From this vantage point, every orderly feature of social life is an ongoing contingent accomplishment, the result of members’ concerted effort to make those features recognizable to one another and the basis for subsequent action.

This theoretical inversion has further implications for the theory of action, and in particular for the role of social norms (as well as rules, conventions, etc.) in the conduct of action (Heritage 1984, 1987, Wilson 1971). In the traditional Parsonian view, norms regulate action by specifying what courses of action are appropriate under given circumstances. This view presupposes that situations, norms, and actions are independent entities, with each situation standing outside of the actions contained within it, and predefined norms constraining those actions to unfold along situationally appropriate lines. However, Garfinkel’s findings about the nature of practical reasoning suggest that this viewpoint is fundamentally misguided. Far from being independent entities, situations, actions, and norms stand in a co-constitutive or reflexive relationship to one another. Correspondingly, actors are knowledgeable agents at the very center of this process, with the capacity to alter or transform the ‘definition of the situation’ through their actions, and to decide upon the sense and applicability of the norms deemed relevant to that situation. Thus, the experiential reality of social norms, like every other organized feature of social life, rests upon a foundation of practical reasoning where- by action is produced and rendered intelligible in normative terms. This does not mean that norms are inconsequential for social organization, but their primary significance is constitutive rather than regulative—norms play a crucial role as a resource for imputing meaning and motivation to situated behavior.

4. Contemporary Research Initiatives

Following Garfinkel’s classic studies, ethnomethodological research developed in a number of fruitful directions. While some researchers continued to elucidate the generic properties of practical reasoning (e.g., Pollner 1987), most shifted toward examining such reasoning as it is applied in various specialized domains of social life. At the same time, the predominant research methods employed by ethnomethodologists underwent a corresponding shift away from quasi-experimental designs and toward more naturalistic methods involving the direct observation of ordinary conduct. The resulting corpus of studies resists easy summary, but three prominent lines of work will be distinguished.

4.1 People-Processing Institutions

Ethnomethodologists first explored various organizational environments involved in people processing: schools, public welfare offices, police departments, and so on (e.g., Cicourel 1968, Sudnow 1965, Wieder 1974). These studies repeatedly documented the inadequacy of codified rules, formal procedures, and informal norms as explanations of organizational conduct. Rules and allied phenomena fail to capture the elaborate judgmental work necessary to implement the rules in concrete circumstances, and more generally to perform competently the tasks intrinsic to each setting. These previously unexamined professional competencies and discretionary judgements became the focus of close scrutiny and sustained analysis, shedding new light on the complex inner workings of people-processing institutions.

The findings have important implications for our understanding of organizational decision-making and its products. The institutions under examination routinely generate official designations of persons (e.g., ‘criminal,’ ‘juvenile delinquent,’ ‘qualified welfare recipient,’ etc.) and their actions (e.g., ‘burglary,’ ‘assault,’ etc.). Such designations do not result from workers mechanically applying clearly defined criteria to each case, but involve various ad hoc considerations guided by common sense knowledge of what outcome would be normal and reasonable under the circumstances. Insofar as the resulting designations form the basis for calculations of official statistics (on rates of crime, mortality, poverty, etc.), these studies also cast doubt on the validity of official statistics and their value for social scientific research.

4.2 Science And Technology

Ethnomethodologists have also ventured into the laboratory to explore the highly technical competencies that underlie the creation of scientific and mathematical knowledge, and the production and use of technological artifacts. This line of research is most closely associated with the later work of Garfinkel himself and his immediate associates (e.g., Livingston 1986, Lynch 1993). It is reminiscent of Edmund Husserl’s later writings on the European sciences in that a primary objective is to elucidate the unexplicated foundations of scientific knowledge. However, where Husserl’s enterprise was essentially philosophical in character and retained a phenomenological concern with transcendental consciousness, the ethnomethodological approach proceeds empirically by examining publicly available details of situated ‘workbench’ practices.

Much research in this vein is concerned with the genesis and reproduction of technical discoveries ranging from physical objects to mathematical theorems. Such discoveries are arrived at, accountably validated, and made intersubjectively available through complex courses of practical reasoning and embodied activity that receive scant attention in scientific texts. This may seem surprising, given that scientists are supposed to document their own methods so as to permit replication, but scientists’ methodological descriptions—like all abstracted accounts of situated action—are necessarily incomplete. Ethnomethodologists thus seek to recover the mundane praxiological foundations of discovering work, and in so doing they re-specify discovered objects as locally produced and naturally accountable achievements. Furthermore, the very concept of discovery is transformed by this research. If physical and mathematical objects are unavoidably intertwined with situated practices, then the discovery of any such object is at the same time the discovery of a substrate of practices through which that object may be accountably produced and reproduced within concrete situations.

Ethnomethodological studies of science and technology hold the promise of yielding findings that represent recognized contributions to the various technical disciplines being studied. Indeed, the practical value of ethnomethodology is increasingly recognized in computer science, software engineering, and human–computer interaction (Suchman 1987, Button 1993).

4.3 Talk And Social Interaction

Perhaps the most widespread contemporary variant of ethnomethodology is what has come to be known as conversation analysis. This burgeoning field was developed by Harvey Sacks, originally Garfinkel’s student and colleague, in collaboration with Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson (e.g., Sacks 1992, Atkinson and Heritage 1984).

Conversation analysis (henceforth CA) involves the study of practical reasoning as it is put to use in the conduct of spoken interaction. The domain of interaction—what Erving Goffman referred to as the interaction order—is more general than any of the specialized institutional domains investigated by ethnomethodologists, for interaction lies at the heart of virtually all of these institutions and extends as well to informal encounters between persons. Moreover, in the history of the human species, interaction developed long before other societal institutions came into being, and is in this respect ‘the primordial site of sociality’ (Schegloff 1988).

CA differs from other lines of ethnomethodological research not only in substance but in methodology. Conversation analysts rely exclusively on audio and video-recordings of interactional data, and transcripts that capture the details of interaction as it actually occurs. Such data have numerous advantages—they can be examined repeatedly, analyzed at an unprecedented level of detail, and reproduced in published works so that readers can independently assess the validity of analytic claims.

The resulting research enterprise has generated an impressive array of interlocking and cumulative findings on a wide range of subjects. These include the organization of turn taking, action sequences, lexical choice, the relationship between talk and nonvocal activities, and the collaborative management of various interactional activities (e.g., giving advice, delivering good and bad news, telling troubles, etc.). More recently, researchers have applied the analytic resources of CA to various phenomena that intersect with, and can be informed by, the study of talk-in-interaction. These include how talk is organized in various institutional settings, and how it serves as a medium for the accomplishment of occupational tasks such as medical examinations, classroom lessons, journalistic interviews, trial examinations, and so on (e.g., Boden and Zimemrman 1991, Drew and Heritage 1992). Researchers have also begun to explore how the study of talk-in-interaction can illuminate linguistic phenomena such as grammar (Ochs et al. 1996), as well as medical disorders such as aphasia that manifest themselves at the level of speech (Goodwin 1995, Heeschen and Schegloff 1999).


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