An assessment of sources and principles

This book sketches the history, and outlines the character, of ethnomethodology, a distinctive approach to the study of the social world that emerged in U.S. sociology in the 1950s and 1960s.It examines one of its main sources, the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz, and its similarities to and differences from the work of Goffman. In addition, there is an assessment of its relationship to sociology and other disciplines, and its central principles are interrogated in detail. Attention is also given to its influence on social research methodology.

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The history of ethnomethodology is outlined, along with the context in which it arose. Responses to it from conventional sociologists are noted. The character of ethnomethodology is sketched, and the question of whether or not it constitutes a methodology is addressed. Summaries of later chapters in the book are provided.

in The radicalism of ethnomethodology
Comparing the reception and inception of his work

The phenomenology of Alfred Schutz was a major influence on ethnomethodology, and on some other developments in sociology during the 1950s and 60s, notably the work of Cicourel and Berger and Luckmann. The character and reception of Schutz’s work is examined, and it is suggested that there are significant respects in which it has been misinterpreted. The context in which he began his studies is documented, and in particular his relationship to Austrian economics. Schutz’s aim was to resolve a problem that had been at the heart of this economic tradition: the grounding of its basic theoretical principles. And he identified much the same gap in the interpretive sociology of Max Weber. Schutz drew on the work of Bergson and Husserl in an attempt to clarify the nature of the lifeworld that underpins social and economic action. Two key questions are addressed here: whether his work served as a fundamental challenge to the positivism of the dominant sociological tradition in the 1960s; and whether Schutz regarded his work as part of social science or of philosophy, and therefore whether he was, in fact, aiming to build a phenomenological sociology, as seems to have been assumed by Garfinkel and many others.

in The radicalism of ethnomethodology
Parallels and divergences

This chapter compares the orientations of Garfinkel and Goffman. Their work is often regarded as similar, being concerned with the study of mundane patterns of social interaction. However, ethnomethodologists usually insist that there are fundamental differences between them. Their orientations are examined via a comparison with the work of a third sociologist, Georg Simmel, who was an important influence upon Goffman. While Garfinkel does not seem to have drawn on Simmel’s work, there are interesting parallels: in particular, they share a concern with the constitutive role that social interaction plays in social life. It is argued that, despite similarities between the orientations of Garfinkel and Goffman, the differences are more significant. For Goffman, the aim is to generate conceptual frameworks that illuminate everyday behavior, whereas ethnomethodologists resist the bringing in of new concepts, being concerned instead with explicating the processes by which social phenomena are produced in their own terms. Other differences relate to what is taken to be the context of social interaction, with Goffman treating the interaction order as mediating the effects of outside factors, whereas ethnomethodologists insist that the context of any process of social interaction can only be what is constituted as context within it.

in The radicalism of ethnomethodology

The disciplinary status of ethnomethodology is uncertain. It has been presented as a radical internal reform movement, aimed at re-specifying the focus of sociology; as an ‘alternate’ or supplement to it; as a discipline in its own right; or as a source of hybrid studies that complement various forms of practice. The cogency of each of these positions is considered. It is argued that ethnomethodology’s critique of social science, while salutary, seems to imply abolition rather than reform; and the proposal of its complementary relationship to conventional social science leaves open the question of why such a supplement is required. As regards ethnomethodology as a discipline, there are strong grounds for claiming that conversation analysis has provided a significant cumulative development of knowledge, but there are questions about whether its ethnomethodological character was essential to, or even compatible with, this. The ethnomethodological tradition of ‘studies of work’ has been less successful in this respect, and while it has made a practical contribution to some fields, once again it is not clear that this stems from the ethnomethodological character of the investigations. In conclusion, I suggest that the ambiguous status of ethnomethodology is built into its very nature.

in The radicalism of ethnomethodology

This chapter assesses the key theoretical presuppositions of ethnomethodology: that social order – interpreted as the intelligibility of coordinated patterns of action - is the central focus of sociological (and perhaps even of all social scientific) inquiry; that Parsons’ ‘analytical realism’ is false because order is observable routinely in everyday situations; that the meanings of social actions are locally variable and context-dependent (‘indexical’ and ‘reflexive’), rather than being determined by a semantic code; and that they are intelligible because they are self-identifying – their meaning is displayed and recognised by actors via shared methods or practices, in other words they are ‘accountable’. Ethnomethodology also involves some important methodological commitments: that for inquiry to be rigorous it must avoid reliance upon unexplicated resources, appealing only to what is observable or intersubjectively available; and the aim of rigorous social analysis must be literal description, rather than explanation or the production of theory: the task should be to ‘make visible’ members’ methods for the production of social phenomena. The conclusion reached in examining these arguments is that, while they relate to significant issues for social science, they exaggerate the intractability of the problems they identify. Moreover, ethnomethodology itself does not escape them.

in The radicalism of ethnomethodology

This chapter considers the influence of ethnomethodology on qualitative research methodology, one of the main areas of mainstream social science where it has had an impact. The reception of Cicourel’s (1964) book Method and Measurement in Sociology is discussed, and also how conversation analysis shaped the work of many discourse analysts and some ethnographers. Cicourel’s argument is outlined: that sociology needs to be re-founded methodologically on an empirical theory that respects the complex and contingent character of human action and communication, along lines suggested by ethnomethodology. His early work encouraged the rise of qualitative research and reflexive attention to the processes by which data are produced; though these developments often tended to go in directions that were at odds with his conception of rigorous analysis. Later, conversation analysis encouraged the use of electronic recordings and transcriptions as data, raised doubts about the traditional uses of interviews, and encouraged the micro-analysis of patterns of social interaction. Furthermore, like Cicourel’s work, it facilitated the spread of social constructionism. It is argued that these effects have been beneficial in many respects but more negative in others.

in The radicalism of ethnomethodology
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This chapter begins by summarising what have been identified in the book as the main principles guiding ethnomethodological work: rigorous analysis, meaning as indexical, reflexive, and accountable; the socially constituted character of the world; capturing the phenomenon, its haeccicity; an appreciative stance; naturalism; foundationalism. While these are open to different interpretations and by no means uncontested, they have influenced much ethnomethodological work and the rationales presented for it. There is then a discussion of the problems associated with these principles, as they relate to ethnomethodology’s criticisms of conventional sociology and the alternative form(s) of work it proposes. A series of antinomies that appear to be intrinsic to ethnomethodology are identified. The chapter concludes with an assessment of the prospects for resolving the debates between ethnomethodologists and conventional sociologists.

in The radicalism of ethnomethodology