Ethnomethodology is a method for understanding the social orders people use to make sense of the world through analysing their accounts and descriptions of their day-to-day experiences. It is an alternative to the American sociological approach to data analysis born in the 1960s with its theoretical and epistemological importance being that it is a radical breach from traditional sociological modes of thinking. The term itself was originally coined by Harold Garfinkel in 1954, but the discipline itself has changed from Garfinkel's original programme to the point where it is no longer recognisable.
Ethnomethodology is a descriptive discipline and does not engage in the explanation or evaluation of the particular social order undertaken as a topic of study. As a method, it is used in ethnographic studies to describe people's methods that they use in everyday situations.
The term's etymology can be broken down into its three constituent parts: ethno - method - ology, for the purpose of explanation. Using an appropriate Southern California example: ethno refers to a particular socio-cultural group [think a particular, localized community of surfers]; method refers to the methods and practices this particular group employs in its everyday activities [related to surfing]; and ology refers to the systematic description of these methods and practices. The focus of the investigation used in our example is the social order of surfing, the ethnomethodological interest is in the "how" [the methods and practices] of the production and maintenance of this social order. In essence ethnomethodology attempts to create classifications of the social actions of individuals within groups through drawing on the experience of the groups directly, without imposing on the setting the opinions of the researcher with regards to social order, as is the case with sociological studies.
Investigating the conduct of jury members, an ethnomethodologist would seek to describe the common sense methods through which members of a jury produce themselves in a jury room as jurors: methods for establishing matters of fact; methods for developing evidence chains; methods for determining the reliability of witness testimony; methods for establishing the hierarchy of speakers in the jury room; methods for determining the guilt or innocence of defendants, etc. (see Garfinkel:1967). Such methods, taken individually, or in combination, depending on the scope of the investigation, would serve to constitute the social order of being a juror for the participants, and researcher(s), in that specific social setting [see below: "Some leading policies...": "Social Orders"]. For the ethnomethodologist, participants bring order to social settings - make them orderable - through the sense making activities of their shared methods and practices as witnessably enacted in those settings.
In this way, ethnomethodology points to a broad and multi-faceted area of inquiry. John Heritage writes, “In its open-ended reference to [the study of] any kind of sense-making procedure, the term represents a signpost to a domain of uncharted dimensions rather than a staking out of a clearly delineated territory.”
The approach was originally developed by Harold Garfinkel, based on his study of the principles and practices of financial accounting; traditional sociological theory and methods (primarily Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons); traditional sociological concerns (the Hobbesian "problem of order"); and the phenomenologies of Aron Gurwitsch, Alfred Schutz, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Theory and methods
|This section possibly contains previously unpublished synthesis of published material that conveys ideas not attributable to the original sources. (June 2012)|
One of the most perplexing problems for those new to ethnomethodology is the discovery that it lacks both a formally stated theory and a formal methodology. As serious as these problems might appear on the face of it, neither has prevented ethnomethodologists from doing ethnomethodological studies, and generating a substantial literature of "findings".
John Heritage has noted the, "off-stage role of theory", in ethnomethodological writings, and the concern that there is nowhere in the ethnomethodological corpus a systematic theoretical statement that would serve as a touchstone for ethnomethodological inquiries.
Instead, we are given oblique references to Ludwig Wittgenstein (Ordinary Language Philosophy), Husserl (Transcendental Phenomenology), Gurwitsch (Gestalt Theory), and, most frequently, the works of the social phenomeonologist Alfred Schutz (Phenomenology of the Natural Attitude), among others. A multiplicity of theoretical references by Anne Rawls along with the work of Emile Durkheim suggests Durkheim's aphorism regarding the achieved character of social facts.
The authors and theoretical references cited in Garfinkel's work do not themselves serve as a rigorous theoretical basis for ethnomethodology, in whole or in part. Ethnomethodology is not Durkheimian, although it shares some of the interests of Durkheim; it is not phenomenology, although it borrows from Husserl and Schutz's studies of the Lifeworld (Lebenswelt); it is not a form of Gestalt theory, although it describes social orders as having Gestalt-like properties; and, it is not Wittgensteinian, although it makes use of Wittgenstein's understanding of rule-use, etc. Instead, these borrowings are only fragmentary references to theoretical works from which ethnomethodology has appropriated theoretical ideas for the expressed purposes of doing ethnomethodological investigations.
In terms of the question of ethnomethodological methods, it is the position of Anne Rawls, speaking for Garfinkel, that ethnomethodology is itself not a method. That is, it does not have a set of formal research methods or procedures. Instead, the position taken is that ethnomethodologists have conducted their studies in a variety of ways, and that the point of these investigations is, ' ...to discover the things that persons in particular situations do, the methods they use, to create the patterned orderliness of social life.' 
Ethnomethodology is not a methodology, but rather a study of methodology, because it does not have a formal methodology, but is the study of, "member's methods", the methods of others. Michael Lynch has also noted that: "Leading figures in the field have repeatedly emphasised that there is no obligatory set of methods [employed by ethnomethodologists], and no prohibition against using any research procedure whatsoever, if it is adequate to the particular phenomena under study."  (Wieder/Garfinkel:1992:175-206).
Again, as perplexing as this position might seem to a traditional social scientist, such a proposition is consistent with ethnomethodology's understanding of "member's methods", and has philosophical standing when looked at in terms of certain lines of philosophical thought regarding the philosophy of science (Polyani:1974; Kuhn:1996; Feyerabend:1975/2010), and the study of the actual practices of scientific procedure.
Some leading policies, methods and definitions
- The Fundamental Assumption of Ethnomethodological Studies. As characterised by Anne Rawls, speaking for Garfinkel: "If one assumes, as Garfinkel does, that the meaningful, patterned, and orderly character of everyday life is something that people must work to achieve, then one must also assume that they have some methods for doing so". That is, "...members of society must have some shared methods that they use to mutually construct the meaningful orderliness of social situations." 
- Ethnomethodology is an Empirical Enterprise. Rawls states: "Ethnomethodology is a thoroughly empirical enterprise devoted to the discovery of social order and intelligibility [sense making] as witnessable collective achievements." "The keystone of the [Ethnomethodological] argument is that local [social] orders exist; that these orders are witnessable in the scenes in which they are produced; and that the possibility of [their] intelligibility is based on the actual existence and detailed enactment of these orders." 
- Ethnomethodological Indifference. This is the policy of deliberate agnosticism, or indifference, towards the dictates, prejudices, methods and practices of sociological analysis as traditionally conceived (examples: theories of "deviance", analysis of behavior as rule governed, role theory, institutional (de)formations, theories of social stratification, etc.). Dictates and prejudices which serve to pre-structure traditional social scientific investigations independently of the subject matter taken as a topic of study, or the investigatory setting being subjected to scrutiny. The policy of ethnomethodological indifference is specifically not to be conceived of as indifference to the problem of social order taken as a group [member's] concern.
- First Time Through. This is the practice of attempting to describe any social activity, regardless of its routine or mundane appearance, as if it were happening for the very first time. This is in an effort to expose how the observer of the activity assembles, or constitutes, the activity for the purposes of formulating any particular description. The point of such an exercise is to make available and underline the complexities of sociological analysis and description, particularly the indexical and reflexive properties of the actors', or observer's, own descriptions of what is taking place in any given situation. Such an activity will also reveal the observer's inescapable reliance on the hermeneutic circle as the defining "methodology" of social understanding for both lay persons and social scientists.
- Breaching Experiment. A method for revealing, or exposing, the common work that is performed by members of particular social groups in maintaining a clearly recognisable and shared social order. For example, driving the wrong way down a busy one-way street can reveal myriads of useful insights into the patterned social practices, and moral order, of the community of road users. The point of such an exercise---a person pretending to be a stranger or boarder in his own household---is to demonstrate that gaining insight into the work involved in maintaining any given social order can often best be revealed by breaching that social order and observing the results of that breach - especially those activities related to the reassembly of that social order, and the normalisation of that social setting.
- Member's Methods. [Coming Soon].
- Sacks' Gloss. A question about an aspect of the social order that recommends, as a method of answering it, that the researcher should seek out members of society who, in their daily lives, are responsible for the maintenance of that aspect of the social order. This is in opposition to the idea that such questions are best answered by a sociologist. Sacks' original question concerned objects in public places and how it was possible to see that such objects did or did not belong to somebody. He found his answer in the activities of police officers who had to decide whether cars were abandoned.
- Durkheim's Aphorism. Durkheim famously recommended: "...our basic principle, that of the objectivity of social facts." This is usually taken to mean that we should assume the objectivity of social facts as a principle of study (thus providing the basis of sociology as a science). Garfinkel's alternative reading of Durkheim is that we should treat the objectivity of social facts as an achievement of society's members, and make the achievement process itself the focus of study. An ethnomethodological respecification of Durkheim's statement via a "misreading" [see below] of his quote appears above. There is also a textual link/rationale provided in the literature. Both links involve a leap of faith on the part of the reader; that is, we don't believe that one method for this interpretation is necessarily better than the other, or that one form of justification for such an interpretation outweighs its competitor.
- Accounts. Accounts are the ways members signify, describe or explain the properties of a specific social situation. They can consist of both verbal and non-verbal objectifications. They are always both indexical to the situation in which they occur [see below], and, simultaneously reflexive - they serve to constitute that situation. An account can consist of something as simple as a wink of the eye, a material object evidencing a state of affairs [documents, etc.], or something as complex as a story detailing the boundaries of the universe.
- Indexicality. The concept of Indexicality is a key core concept for Ethnomethodology. Garfinkel states that it was derived from the concept of indexical expressions appearing in ordinary language philosophy (1967), wherein a statement is considered to be indexical insofar as it is dependent for its sense upon the context in which it is embedded (Bar-Hillel:1954:359-379). The phenomenon is acknowledged in various forms of analytical philosophy, and sociological theory and methods, but is considered to be both limited in scope and remedied through specification [operationalisation]. In ethnomethodology, the phenomenon is universalised to all forms of language and behavior, and is deemed to be beyond remedy for the purposes of establishing a scientific description and explanation of social behavior. The consequence of the degree of contextual dependence for a "segment" of talk or behavior can range from the problem of establishing a "working consensus" regarding the description of a phrase, concept or behavior, to the end-game of social scientific description itself. Note that any serious development of the concept must eventually assume a theory of meaning as its foundation [see Gurwitsch:1985]. Without such a foundational underpinning, both the traditional social scientist and the ethnomethodologist are relegated to merely telling stories around the campfire.
- Misreading [A text]. Misreading a text, or fragments of a text, does not denote making an erroneous reading of a text in whole or in part. As Garfinkel states, it means to denote an, "alternate reading", of a text or fragment of a text. As such, the original and its misreading do not, "...translate point to point", but, "...instead, they go together."  No criteria are offered for the translation of an original text and its misreading - the outcome of such translations are in Garfinkel's term: "incommensurable."  The misreading of texts or fragments of texts is a standard feature of ethnomethodology's way of doing theory, especially in regards to topics in phenomenology.
- Reflexivity. Despite the fact that many sociologists use "reflexivity" as a synonym for "self-reflection," the way the term is used in ethnomethodology is different: it is meant "to describe the acausal and non-mentalistic determination of meaningful action-in-context." (See also reflexivity (social theory).)
- Documentary Method of Interpretation. The Documentary Method is the method of understanding utilised by everyone engaged in trying to make sense of their social world - this includes the ethnomethodologist. Garfinkel recovered the concept from the work of Karl Mannheim and repeatedly demonstrates the use of the method in the case studies appearing in his central text, Studies in Ethnomethodology. Mannheim defined the term as a search for an identical homologous pattern of meaning underlying a variety of totally different realisations of that meaning. Garfinkel states that the documentary method of interpretation consists of treating an actual appearance as the "document of", "as pointing to", as "standing on behalf of", a presupposed underlying pattern. These "documents" serve to constitute the underlying pattern, but are themselves interpreted on the basis of what is already known about that underlying pattern. This seeming paradox is quite familiar to hermeneuticians who understand this phenomenon as a version of the hermeneutic circle. This phenomenon is also subject to analysis from the perspective of Gestalt theory [part/whole relationships], and the phenomenological theory of perception.
- Social Orders. Theoretically speaking, the object of ethnomethodological research is social order taken as a group members' concern. Methodologically, social order is made available for description in any specific social setting as an accounting of specific social orders: the sensible coherencies of accounts that order a specific social setting for the participants relative to a specific social project to be realised in that setting. Social orders themselves are made available for both participants and researchers through phenomena of order: the actual accounting of the partial [adumbrated] appearances of these sensibly coherent social orders. These appearances [parts, adumbrates] of social orders are embodied in specific accounts, and employed in a particular social setting by the members of the particular group of individuals party to that setting. Specific social orders have the same formal properties as identified by A. Gurwitsch in his discussion of the constituent features of perceptual noema, and, by extension, the same relationships of meaning described in his account of Gestalt Contextures (see Gurwitsch:1964:228-279/2010). As such, it is little wonder that Garfinkel states: "you can't do anything unless you do read his texts."
- Ethnomethodology's Field of Investigation. For ethnomethodology the topic of study is the social practices of real people in real settings, and the methods by which these people produce and maintain a shared sense of social order.
Differences between sociology and ethnomethodology
Since ethnomethodology has become anathema to certain moral sociologists, and since those practicing it like to perceive their own efforts as constituting a radical break from prior sociologies, there has been little attempt to link ethnomethodology to these prior sociologies. However, whilst ethnomethodology is distinct from sociological methods, it does not seek to compete with it, or provide remedies for any of its practices. The Ethnomethodological approach differs as much from the sociological approach as sociology does from psychology even though both speak of social action. This does not mean that ethnomethodology does not use traditional sociological forms as a sounding board for its own programmatic development, or to establish benchmarks for the differences between traditional sociological forms of study and ethnomethodology as it only means that ethnomethodology was not established in order to: repair, criticize, undermine, or 'poke fun' at traditional sociological forms. In essence the distinctive difference between sociological approaches and ethnomethodology is that the latter adopts a commonsense attitude towards knowledge 
In contrast to traditional sociological forms of inquiry, it is a hallmark of the Ethnomethodological perspective that it does not make theoretical or methodological appeals to: outside assumptions regarding the structure of an actor or actors' characterisation of social reality; refer to the subjective states of an individual or groups of individuals; attribute conceptual projections such as, "value states", "sentiments", "goal orientations", "mini-max economic theories of behavior", etc., to any actor or group of actors; or posit a specific "normative order" as a transcendental feature of social scenes, etc.
For the Ethnomethodologist, the methodic realisation of social scenes takes place within the actual setting under scrutiny, and is structured by the participants in that setting through the reflexive accounting of that setting's features. The job of the Ethnomethodologist is to describe the methodic character of these activities, not account for them in a way that transcends that which is made available in and through the actual accounting practices of the individual's party to those settings.
The differences can therefore be summed up as follows:
- While traditional sociology usually offers an analysis of society which takes the facticity [factual character, objectivity] of the social order for granted, ethnomethodology is concerned with the procedures [practices, methods] by which that social order is produced, and shared.
- While traditional sociology usually provides descriptions of social settings which compete with the actual descriptions offered by the individuals who are party to those settings, ethnomethodology seeks to describe the procedures [practices, methods] these individuals use in their actual descriptions of those settings
Links between Ethnomethodology and Phenomenology
Even though ethnomethodology has been characterised as having a "phenomenological sensibility", and reliable commentators have acknowledged that "there is a strong influence of phenomenology on ethnomethodology..." (Maynard/Kardash:sociologyencyclopedia.com:1484), orthodox adherents to the discipline - those who follow the teachings of Garfinkel - know better than to represent it as a branch, or form, of phenomenology, or phenomenological sociology.
The confusion between the two disciplines stems, in part, from the practices of some ethnomethodologists [including Garfinkel], who sift through phenomenological texts, recovering phenomenological concepts and findings relevant to their interests, and then transpose these concepts and findings to topics in the study of social order. Such interpretive transpositions do not make the ethnomethodologist a phenomenologist, or ethnomethodology a form of phenomenology.
To further muddy the waters, some phenomenological sociologists seize upon ethnomethodological findings as examples of applied phenomenology; this even when the results of these ethnomethodological investigations clearly do not make use of phenomenological methods, or formulate their findings in the language of phenomenology. So called phenomenological analyses of social structures that do not have prima facie reference to any of the structures of intentional consciousness should raise questions as to the phenomenological status of such analyses.
Garfinkel speaks of phenomenological texts and findings as being, "appropriated", and intentionally, "misread", for the purposes of exploring topics in the study of social order. These appropriations and methodical "misread[ings]" of phenomenological texts and findings are clearly made for the purposes of furthering ethnomethodological analyses, and should not be mistaken for logical extensions of these phenomenological texts and findings.
Lastly, there is no claim in any of Garfinkel's work that ethnomethodology is a form of phenomenology, or phenomenological sociology. To state that ethnomethodology has a, "phenomenological sensibility", or that, "there is a strong influence of phenomenology on ethnomethodology", is not the equivalent of describing ethnomethodology as a form of phenomenology (see Garfinkel/Liberman:2007:3-7).
This having been said, one should also note that even though ethnomethodology is not a form of phenomenology, the reading and understanding of phenomenological texts, and developing the capability of seeing phenomenologically is essential to the actual doing of ethnomethodological studies. As Garfinkel states in regard to the work of the phenomenologist Aron Gurwitsch, especially his, "Field of Consciousness" (1964/2010: ethnomethodology's phenomenological urtext): "you can't do anything unless you do read his texts."
The relationship between ethnomethodology (EM) and conversation analysis (CA) has always been somewhat contentious in terms of boundaries. The clearest single statement appearing in the literature, from an orthodox EM perspective.
Unpacking Rawls' statement, we can note two essential distinctions:
- In as much as the study of social orders is "inexorably intertwined" with the constitutive features of talk about those social orders, EM is committed to an interest in both conversational talk, and the role this talk plays in the constitution of that order; think indexicality / reflexivity here and the essential embeddedness of talk in a specific social order, and the role of the reflexivity of accounts in the constitution of that order. It is in this sense that Rawls states that, "Conversational Analysis is not separate from Ethnomethodology."  Such a position is wholly consistent with the orthodox EM literature, and posts as nothing new to any orthodox ethnomethodologist - one who follows the teachings of Garfinkel.
- On the other hand, where the study of conversational talk is divorced from its situated context, and de-linked from its reflexive character in terms of constituting a specific social order - that is, as it takes on the character of a purely "technical method", and, "formal analytic enterprise in its own right."  - it is not a form of ethnomethodology understood in any orthodox sense. The "danger" of misunderstanding here, as Rawls notes, is that CA in this sense, becomes just another formal analytic enterprise, like any other formal method which brings an analytical toolbox of preconceptions, formal definitions, and operational procedures to the situation/setting under study. It might further be noted that when such analytical concepts are generated from within one setting, and conceptually applied (generalised) to another, the (re)application represents a violation of the orthodox EM position regarding the ethnomethodological description of a given social order, as it ignores the essential/fundamental EM principle of the embeddedness of talk in a specifically situated social order.
In general, we can say the following:  Both EM and CA are independent forms of investigation;  There is no necessary connection between EM and CA studies in terms of principles or methods;  EM and CA studies may overlap in terms of interests and projects;  CA studies must adhere to the foundational tenants of EM studies in order to be considered properly ethnomethodological;  EM studies may utilise CA methods, as anecdotal descriptions, as substantive findings (when in conformity with foundational EM principles), or as supplemental findings germane to the in situ findings of a particular EM study; and,  Both disciplines can function very well without the other, but in as much as their interests coincide in any given instance, both can profit from the understanding of the others investigational methods and findings.
According to George Psathas, five types of ethnomethodological study can be identified (Psathas:1995:139-155). These may be characterised as:
- The organisation of practical actions and practical reasoning. Including the earliest studies, such as those in Garfinkel's seminal Studies in Ethnomethodology.
- The organisation of talk-in-interaction. More recently known as conversation analysis, Harvey Sacks established this approach in collaboration with his colleagues Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.
- Talk-in-interaction within institutional or organisational settings. While early studies focused on talk abstracted from the context in which it was produced (usually using tape recordings of telephone conversations) this approach seeks to identify interactional structures that are specific to particular settings.
- The study of work. 'Work' is used here to refer to any social activity. The analytic interest is in how that work is accomplished within the setting in which it is performed.
- The haecceity of work. Just what makes an activity what it is? e.g. what makes a test a test, a competition a competition, or a definition a definition?
Further discussion of the varieties and diversity of ethnomethodological investigations can be found in Maynard & Clayman. Article is available online.
Reference Work: "Garfinkel", Sage "Masters" series (2003:4Vols:approx.1500 pages). Compendium of theoretical papers, ethnomethodological studies, and discussions, edited by M.Lynch & W. Sharrock. Table of contents is available on the publisher's website.
Reference Work: "Ethnomethodology", Sage "Research" series (2011:4Vols:approx. 1500 pages). Compendium of theoretical papers, ethnomethodological studies, and discussions, edited by M.Lynch & W. Sharrock. Table of contents is available on the publisher's website.
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- AIEMCA.net The Australian Institute for Conversation Analysis and Ethnomethodology.