What is Ethnomethodology?


    The US sociologist Talcott Parsons launched a project to coalesce the various concepts of sociology in an exclusive theory in the 1930s. He combined ideas from Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and others in his book The Structure of Social Action published in 1937. This book tried to provide a compendious, yet universal methodology for sociology. Plenty of people supported Parson’s ideas in the years after WWII.

    Harold Garfinkel was one of the great expounders of Parson’s ideas. He was his student at Harvard University. Unlike others who were intrigued by the idea of a Grand Theory of sociology, Garfinkel chose Parson’s idea of examining the roots of social order (a phenomenon in which institutions and individuals work in cooperation to maintain stability in society), rather than social change (change in culture and institutions caused by interactions among individuals living in society), and in particular his method of researching the subject.

    According to Parson, the foundations of social order can be analyzed in a bottom-up fashion, not top-bottom fashion. That is to say, if one wants to know how social order is achieved in a society, one should pay more attention to interactions and exchanges taking place at the individual level, rather than at the institutional level. This approach was at variance with the traditional sociological methodology which stated that understanding the underlying rules of society helps us to understand people’s behaviour. Garfinkel put across this idea even further and formulated a new sociological approach, an alternative to the conventional approach. This was called ethnomethodology.

    According to Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Sociology, ethnomethodology is an approach to understand how individuals interact in the real world and thereby form social order in society. It represents an effort to study the methods in and through which members concertedly produce and assemble the features of everyday life in any actual, concrete, and not hypothetical or theoretically depicted setting. That is to say, the way to decipher the underlying rules of the society is to observe how people behave in reaction to different situations, and how they interact among themselves on daily basis. This practice can supply us with good insights into the social order of society.

    Besides ethnomethodology, Garfinkel broached a new category of experimental methods, called breaching experiments. The purpose of this method was to unveil social norms which are expected and unnoticed rules of behaviour in society. For instance, a person calling his parents formally like Mr. X or Mrs. X would make them ask what’s wrong with their kid. As the bedrock of the social order was challenged, these breaching experiments often provoked aggravation and exasperation.

    Apart from being an alternative approach to sociological research, ethnomethodology identified a downside of conventional methodology. Garfinkel asserted that sociologists apply theories to explain observations or phenomena and contemporaneously support their theories with the evidence drawn from those observations or phenomena. That is to say, both the observations and theories are interdependent. A kind of catch-22 situation. He suggested that they should rather examine a particular phenomenon independently, and refrain from looking for a pattern or theory. According to Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Sociology, there is a self-generating order in concrete activities, an order whose scientific appreciation depends upon neither prior description, nor empirical generalization, nor the formal specification of variable elements and their analytic relations.

    Besides, to explain what he meant by day-to-day interactions form the social order, he refers to jury deliberation and standing in service lines as familiar scenes. That is to say, people organize “intelligibly” in “recognizable ways”.

    According to Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Sociology, intelligible organization that actors already provide and that is therefore available for scientific analysis. Social settings are self-organizing based on the intelligible character of the situation, for instance, an orderly line that is based on unspoken rules of social interaction in a public sphere; its meaning is produced and negotiated by participating individuals.

    All the niceties of Garfinkel’s approach were spelled out in his book Studies in Ethnomethodology in 1967. By the dint of his momentous and distinctive work, Garfinkel garnered huge support. At first, his ideas were defenestrated by mainstream sociologists, but later by the end of the 20th century, his ideas were widely accepted. Garfinkel’s approach was bought as an additional approach instead of an alternative approach to sociological methodology.

Phenomena of the order are identical with procedures for their endogenous production and accountability 

–Harold Garfinkel 

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