Ethnomethodology: A Remarkable Method for Studying Unremarkable Actions

By Peter Gillece

Ethnomethodology was first described by Harold Garfinkel less than fifty years ago, and is a sociological method of conducting research (Garfinkel, 2002). Ethnomethodology is the study of, “how members concert their activities to produce and exhibit the coherence, cogency, analysis, consistency, order, meaning, reason, methods – which are locally, reflexively, accountable ordilessnesses – in and as of their ordinary lives together in detail” (Garfinkel, 1967). Less verbosely put, ethnomethodology is the study of how individuals come to navigate, and even access, their everyday social reality.

Ethnomethodology bears resemblance to Symbolic Interactionism, one of the major sociological paradigms, as they both posit that meaning emerges in interaction between people and does not exist objectively. This sort of emphasis was first explored by phenomenology, a philosophical tradition whose prominent figures contain Edmund Husserl, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Heidegger. There are numerous assumptions beneath any social action, be it body language, verbal communication, or otherwise. In ethnomethodological terms, social reality is reflexively created and individuals contribute through accounting practices. This position is contrary to the dominant scientific trend of the time, positivism, which maintains that reality exists apart from individuals and can be studied objectively.

Similar to symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology is best suited for qualitative research methods. Garfinkel conducted breaching experiments, which involved purposely breaking social norms to see how individuals reacted. Later research concerned conversation analysis and studies of work. In the pages that follow, I will describe ethnomethodology, its philosophical influences, how it relates to other methodologies, and finally some research examples from Garfinkel and others who followed in his footsteps.


Harold Garfinkel


Before going into ethnomethodology specifically, it will be helpful to review some pertinent concepts: epistemology and ontology, positivism, nomothetic and idiographic approaches, and finally some jargon specific to ethnomethodology.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, or how the knower relates to the known; ontology is the study of reality. Positivism–a philosophical movement that informs both ontological and epistemological concerns–puts forth that reality exists apart from individuals and can be studied objectively. As far as epistemology is concerned, this means that the knower functions independently of the known. Ontologically, it means that there is one, true reality that we all access (O’Hear, 1996). Positivistic knowledge is what people typically think of when hearing the word “fact”– bits of information that exist independent of the observer. In sum, previous methodologies functioned on the premise that there is one reality and that people can learn things objectively.

Nomothetic methods center on generalizing: findings are able to apply outside of the original context. Also, findings must be reproducible, which is impossible if one takes the position that every social situation is unique. Nomothetic approaches fall within the positivist camp, and also tend to be macro-level (focused on large groups at once). Idiographic approaches, in contrast, are those that focus on understanding unique traits, and on bringing breadth to one case rather than generalizing for all future cases. Idiographic research is typically micro-level (focused on small groups or individual cases) and its approaches fall within the interpretivist tradition. Interpretivism views reality as unique to each actor experiencing it, and is the logical counterpart to positivism. To give some definite examples: survey research that uses statistics and aims to be free of bias is within the positivist, nomothetic tradition. An ethnographer viewing a hospital for several years, complete with detailed interviews and focus groups, before writing a narrative is idiographic research that falls within the interpretivist tradition.

Ethnomethodology is an interpretivist, small-scale method that uses an idiographic approach. Garfinkel challenges positivism by purporting that social reality is something that must be accessed through specific, unremarkable practices that are learned (Tilley, 1980). This seems illogical at first — we all see the same things, right? Let’s consider an example. If I were to attend a game of cricket, I would be confused for the entire time. I would be able to discern the overall mood from cheers or boos, but I have absolutely no knowledge of how the game is played. My experience, then, would be markedly different from a lifetime cricket player and spectator, who is able to notice and judge situations that would surely escape me. Social reality is unique to humans, the prescribed behaviors involving its creation are taught, and it is not something that can be accessed through empirical investigation.

As put by Nicholas Tilley (1980), “we cannot be certain that the set of meanings through which we interpret others corresponds to those others’ set of meanings.” Since the lenses through which we view social reality are unique to each individual, and the combination of lenses in any social situation is unique, it is illogical to generalize findings from one social situation to another. Garfinkel sounds postmodern here in saying that social interactions are inimitable because all social interactions have unique constituent elements such as location, language, actors, time, and mood that can never be recreated exactly as observed.

Reflexivity is a postmodern concept, and is central to ethnomethodology.  Reflexivity is the idea that people are in constant outward and inward analyses that continually redefine the situation that they are involved in.


Garfinkel’s breaching experiments, where people purposely break norms to see the reactions of others, relies on people reflexively redefining situations. One famous breaching experiment from Garfinkel is placing an “x” or “o” during a game of tic-tac-toe on the lines that define the playing board, rather than the space between them (Ritzer, 2010). After viewing this practice, the other person playing the game reflexively redefined the situation as a separate practice from an average game of tic-tac-toe. Questions such as, “Do you not know the rules?” or, “Why aren’t you playing the game properly?” both exemplify this practice. In the first case, social order was maintained through the assumption that the other person is ignorant of the rules of the game. In the second case, the situation was reflexively redefined as a joke being played by the other player. Both of these redefinitions also constitute acts of what Garfinkel termed “accounting”, which refers to people offering logical explanations of individual situations. Accounting is a seminal feature of ethnomethodological inquiry, as this is the primary medium through which individuals repair and maintain their social realities.

Garfinkel introduced four preliminary sorts of breaching experiments in his early work: breaching the congruency of relevances, breaching the interchangeability of standpoints, breaching the expectancy that knowledge of a relationship of interaction is a commonly entertained scheme of communication, and breaching the grounds of “what anyone knows” to be correct grounds of action of a real social world (Ritzer, 2010). Any of the four above breaches breaks an assumption of social reality so fundamental that its rupture renders the viewer utterly stupefied. Breaching the congruency of relevances can be performed by asking someone what is meant by a common expression, such as “How are you?” A person conducting a breaching experiment might ask “In what manner? Physically? Psychologically? Professionally?” Breaching the interchangeability of standpoints can be exemplified by people treating other customers in a store as employees. The third sort, which breaches the expectation that a relationship maintains some common elements, can be performed by acting as a guest in one’s own home. And, lastly, one can beach the grounds of “what anyone knows” to be correct grounds of action by treating a prospective medical student who acted as a complete buffoon in medical school interviews as if here were a perfect candidate. In all four situations, what was expected by the actors engaged in the social situation was did not occur, and thus the individual’s social reality was broken down (Ritzer, 2010). Accounting is then practiced as the individual attempts to reflexively redefine the situation, and the breach is thus repaired.

Garfinkel’s breaching experiments, at the surface, seem to be little more than impish attempts to understand social life through irritation but, at closer inspection, Garfinkel did much, much, more. As put by Allan, “The powerful implication of this point is that everything we need to understand how society works is present in the observable situation” (Allan, 2011; Emphasis original). This displays the large difference between Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnomethodology: for a symbolic interactionist meaning is emergent, but for an ethnomethodologist meaning is reflexively created and maintained. This is exemplified well by commonplace, but both vague and ambiguous, expressions such as “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” which all native English speakers understand implicitly, the meaning is not negotiated between the asker and the respondent, it is a meaning that is accessed through the phrase being used and the context in which it is used. These meanings, termed incorrigible assumptions, are assumed and “incapable of being changed or amended.”

Incorrigible assumptions, when threatened, are protected through secondary elaborations of belief, which are pre-defined arguments used to defend incorrigible assumptions (Allan, 2011). For example, the author’s friend lost her car keys this past week. The keys were found in a place that she had previously searched. She did not, however, assume that the keys phased out of corporeal form or that they were moved by some supernatural being, that is, she assumed the permanence of objects (which is an incorrigible assumption), and in her assumption she reified the widespread belief that objects retain their physical form. Also, after finding the keys, she proclaimed “I guess I didn’t look hard enough the first time.” This proclamation is a secondary elaboration of belief for her incorrigible assumption that objects retain physical form over time. Thus accounting, reflexivity, incorrigible assumptions, and secondary elaborations of belief are all present in this seemingly unremarkable situation.


Deviance lies at the heart of breaching experiments. The goal behind these experiments is to see how social reality is structured or, more precisely, how normative social reality is structured. An individual offering a secondary elaboration for their incorrigible assumptions is at once restoring normative order, helping to define what is deviant, and declaring their position on this specific aspect of deviance (Allan, 2011).

One more important ethnomethodological issue needs explained in order to apply the method to deviance: indexicality. Indexicality “focuses attention on the sense we make of a particular situation or activity being a product of our personal biographies (the experiences and expectations we bring to the situation) and the contingent elements of the situation.” (Keel, 1999)  This means that all social acts are bound to the situation in which they occurred, or to quote Jacques Derrida “there is no meaning without [con] text” (Allan, 2011).  The relative deviance of an action is dependent on the situation in which it occurred, the actor engaging in the behavior, and the viewer watching the behavior. These three elements are widely understood as three aspects of the constructivist view of deviance (Henry, 2009).

A twenty-two year old being intoxicated in a bar at one in the morning is not very deviant at all, whereas a seventy-five year old man who is intoxicated at one in the afternoon walking around a college campus is quite deviant indeed, and if that elderly man is a priest he enters an entirely new echelon of deviance. Taking the idea that social reality is constantly, reflexively, negotiated and created, it is possible to see the relativity of deviance across different situations. Two homosexual men kissing passionately may be deviant to those around them, depending on the country in which it occurs, but to them their actions are completely normal. Further, if a heterosexual couple were to kiss passionately in a men’s homosexual nightclub they would be classified as deviant according to the situation and to the men at the establishment, but again, not to themselves for this is an everyday practice.

Defining normativity is a dialectic practice, or one which “contains different elements that are naturally antagonistic to one another.” (Allen, 2011) One half is represented by the thesis, and the other half by the antithesis, and these ideas eventually combine into a synthesis, which then ruptures to begin the process anew. Moving forward with this idea, defining what is normative and what is deviant is actually the same process. This sounds obtuse on the surface, but the idea is that defining something as normative is also defining disparate practices as deviant, and these processes are intertwined inexorably.  For example, if someone were to account that a purple-haired man wearing a dress was a “cross-dressing, crazy haired, freak” the account-er would be reifying several things: first, traditional gender roles which enforce that only women wear dresses, second, that men who wear dresses or have purple hair, or both, are “freaks” and, third, that normative sanctions will be imposed on men who dare to upset the normative order of gender. This comment not only serves to punish the deviant so that he may be brought back to acting “normal,” but also to remind men operating according to gender roles that, if they were to wear a dress, the same punitive fate would await them.

Ethnomethodology also fits in well with other theories of deviance: particularly Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy. While Goffman compares social activity to a staged performance, Garfinkel extends this to include every social situation —  Garfinkel emphasized that everything needed to study social action is present in everyday settings. Indexicality adds to this conception: since certain social actions are relevant only to their immediate context–”that’s a nice one!” for example–their meaning emerges and terminates within a local context (Allan, 2011). While Goffman would view this as as meaning emerging in context, Garfinkel expands this by adding that there is a reflexive element as well. It is not only that meaning emerges in interaction, but it is created through interaction. Since individuals are involved in constant outward and inward analyses, then there is a certain phenomenological quality that is present. Allan describes this process well:

“However, indexical expressions are reflexive for another reason….Mehan and Wood (1975) give us the example of ‘Hello.’ What have you done? You have initiated or created a social situation through the use of a greeting. When you said ‘Hello,’ you immediately drew a circle around us, identifying us as a social group distinct from the other people around us. That social situation, which we can call an encounter, interaction, or situated activity system, didn’t exist until you said ‘Hello.’” (Allan, 2011, p. 348).


So, greetings create a social space while also initiating social activity. Garfinkel’s most important contribution is acknowledging the unique psychological elements that go into every social situation.


Contemporary ethnomethodology has many critics (Atkinson, 1988) as well as staunch believers (Maynard and Clayman, 1991) and is a research field marked by a lack of coherence. Several methods under use in modern ethnomethodology include conversation analysis, membership categorization analysis, literacy research (Davidson, 2012), studies of work (Maynard and Clayman, 1991) and philosophy of science (Tilley, 1980).

Ethnomethodology offers itself to conversation analysis quite well, due to concepts such as reflexive acts, accounting, accounting practices, and secondary elaborations of belief which are primarily communicative in nature. Conversation analysis is seen by many as a prime movement in ethnomethodology (Maynard and Clayman, 1991) that focuses on “the methodological construction in and through talk of member-productive and analyzable social action and activity” (Maynard and Clayman, 1991). In other words, conversation analysis is concerned with how everyday communication is accomplished, and why human beings tend to communicate in certain patterned ways, such as taking turns when speaking for example. This is perhaps the truest implementation of Garfinkel’s theory — common conversation is analyzed in the belief that there are complex assumptions lying beneath.

Membership categorization analysis was a precursor to conversation analysis developed by Harvey Sacks (Davidson, 2012) as a way to analyze social categories in order to better understand both the constituent elements and the overarching structure. For example, the membership categorization device “fraternity” involves brothers, new members or “pledges,” and various leadership roles. Sacks argued that these fundamental types of categories help children to help to learn to organize and navigate their social worlds. Davidson posits that ethnomethodology should be employed in literacy studies because of its ability to elucidate underlying assumptions which may contribute to hegemonic processes in education. One study analyzed “disadvantaged” and “non-disadvantaged” classrooms to see how teachers account in instructing situations, and how their accounting practices may affect students. For example, a student’s inability to answer a question posed by the teacher was seen as “daydreaming” in one classroom and “poor attention” in another, the possibility that the student was paying attention but failed to understand is ignored. This displays a possible negative effect of accounting practices and incorrigible assumptions, the assumption here being that lower class families produce intellectually inept children. This particular account reeks of labeling theory where a person is labeled as deviant unfairly, and then begins to act in accordance with the newly affixed label as it is perceived to be inescapable (Henry, 2009). Studies of work in ethnomethodology seek to understand how bureaucratic practices are negotiated, and how these enterprises continue to progress despite there “always [being] “something more” to methodological practice than can be provided even [in]  highly detailed instructions and formalized guidelines” (Maynard and Clayman, 1991).  Thus, these studies want to understand how work is accomplished despite there being unavoidable knowledge gaps within every field. Finally, ethnomethodology bears on studies of epistemology as well. Tilley attempts to use theories originating in Karl Popper’s theory of objectivity to delineate how ethnomethodology can produce objective knowledge, just not in its original sense (1980).

Some famous works have been influenced by ethnomethodology as well: Matthew Desmond, in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, details how actors in Milwaukee navigate their social reality and make sense of their experiences. Many impoverished people in Milwaukee spend over 60% of their income on housing, which is astronomical, but since it is normal for these citizens who commonly associate with one another, this reality is understood as normal, expected (Desmond, 2015). Annette Lareau also had some ethnomethodological trends in his book, Unequal Childhoods, which studied children and parents of various social classes (Lareau, 2003). In this work, Lareau notices two major and separate parenting styles: concerted cultivation and the accomplishment of natural growth. Concerted cultivation is present in upper-class families and refers to the careful control of behaviors and time to which upper-class children are exposed. It is common for privileged children to have most of their time allocated to tasks beforehand. This is possible because upper-class families have the necessary resources. Disenfranchised families, in contrast, have much less free time and access to resources, which creates a different kind of social reality.


Ethnomethodology is an oddball sociological methodology which is micro-oriented, linguistically charged, and ubiquitously relevant. Garfinkel’s explanation of ethnomethods, or unremarkable interactions, brought to light how often social reality is mediated, accessed, repaired, and ruptured through everyday actions. Garfinkel felt that even banal conversations have deep roots that can help explain society and its fundamental rules.

Goffman gave sociology the metaphor of the stage for social interactions, but Garfinkel redefined the stage as “any social situation” and thus opened this metaphor to explain more than cynical and candid actions but all of social action. Through primary socialization, actors are given myriad scripts which will later be used to access and navigate the social world. Secondary socialization furthers this, creating a unique actor that sits at a unique social location. Studying some ethnomethods can prove difficult, as refusing to reify the current social reality is taken as an affront by people. For example, one of the first breaching experiments involved a student acting like a border in their family home, and this person’s family felt betrayed. There are some ethical concerns in breaching experiments: since signing a release before the breach occurs would make it no longer a breach, one must choose between strong ethics or perhaps questionable ethics that provide richer data. This problem may be addressed somewhat, however, by having people informed of the impending breach far in advance, thus there would be some candid moments before the actor realizes that the breach was planned.

The implications for this method to studies of deviance are innumerable as well, as the very definition of reflexive acts means that any normative or deviant act serves to reify the system within which it was performed. Socialization provides more than just prescribed behaviors, but teaches about value judgments that are associated with them as well. For example, as a man, if someone mistakes me for a woman, I was taught to be offended and correct their error. Otherwise, I am not adequately invested in my masculinity. Ethnomethodology can help paint a clearer picture of labeling theory and differential association as well: if one is labeled deviant by other actors, this is a new social reality that other actors and the person in question will reify. Deviance is noticed, created, and maintained in this set of actions. As for differential association, actors are surrounded by individuals different from them, who have different value systems, and are thus supplied with new methods of meaning-making that are unique to a new social circle.

Ethnomethodology has been used for study in fields such as studies of work, epistemology, conversation analysis, membership categorization analysis, and literacy research. The methodology has been largely relegated to linguistic studies so far, but the author hopes, and urges, that this method be further employed to study social deviance due to its unique understanding of social phenomena.


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Atkinson, Paul. 1988 “Ethnomethodology: A Critical Review.” Annual Review of Sociology 14(1)441-465.

Davidson, Christina. 2012 “Ethnomethodology and Literacy Research: A Methodological “Road less Travelled”.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11(5):26-42.

Desmond, Matthew. 2015. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Archetype: New York, NY.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Garfinkel, Harold. 2002. Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham, MD.

Henry, Stuart. 2009. Short Introductions: Social Deviance. Polity Press: Malden, MA.

Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal Childhoods. University of California Press: Los Angeles, CA.

Maynard, Douglas and Steven Clayman. 1991. ‘The Diversity of Ethnomethodology.” Annual Review of Sociology 17(1)385-418.

O’Brien, Jodi . 2006. The Production of Reality. pp. 370-382 Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage publications.

O’Hear, Anthony. 1996. Karl Popper: Philosophy and Problems. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pollner, Melvin . 1991 “Left of Ethnomethodology: The Rise and Decline of Radical Reflexivity.” American Sociological Review 56(3)370-380.

Ritzer, George . 2010. Contemporary Social Theory & its Classical Roots. Pp. 150-154 New York, NY. Mcgraw-Hill publications.

Salerno, Roger. 2012. Contemporary Social Theory. pp. 51-52, 54 New York, NY. Pearson Education, Inc.

Tilley, Nicholas . 1980. “Popper, Positivism, and Ethnomethodology.” British Journal of Sociology 31(1) 28-45.



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