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Ethnomethodology (literally, 'the study of people's methods') is a sociological discipline and paradigm which focuses on the way people make sense of the world and display their understandings of it. It focuses on the ways in which people already understand the world and how they use that understanding. In so far as this is key behavior in human society, Ethnomethodology holds out the promise of a comprehensive and coherent alternative to mainstream sociology. The term was initially coined by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s, to signify the methods members of the society use to make and maintain sense of the social world around them.
While sociology seeks to provide accounts of society which compete with those offered by other members, ethnomethodology focuses on how these accounts are organised in the ongoing moment to moment maintenance of social order. Consequently, ethnomethodology employs a documentarian method to read every day events as opportunities by which members of the community use their cultural competence and indexical (contextual) knowledge to make sense of the world. The character of accountability, making one's actions and interpretations mutually intelligible, is reflexive, meaning commonsensical and intuitive to others. Because of this, ethnomethodologists have used research methods in the past that 'breach' or 'break' the everyday routine of interaction in order to reveal the work that goes into maintaining the normal flow of life. Some examples from early studies include: pretending to be a stranger in one's own home; blatantly cheating at board games; or attempting to bargain for goods on sale in stores. These interventions have demonstrated the creativity with which ordinary members of society are able to interpret and maintain the social order.
Ethnomethodology also describes the breaking of gender norms prevalent in today's society.
History and Influence
While ethnomethodology is often seen as removed from more mainstream sociology, it has been extremely influential. For instance, ethnomethodology has always focused on the ways in which words are reliant for their meaning on the context in which they are used (they are 'indexical'). This has led to insights into the objectivity of social science and the difficulty in establishing a description of human behavior which has an objective status outside the context of its creation.
Ethnomethodology has had an impact on linguistics and particularly on pragmatics, spawning a whole new discipline of conversation analysis. Ethnomethodological studies of work have played a significant role in the field of human-computer interaction, improving design by providing engineers with descriptions of the practices of users.
Ethnomethodology has also influenced the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge by providing a research strategy that precisely describes the methods of its research subjects without the necessity of evaluating their validity. This proved to be useful to researchers studying social order in laboratories who wished to understand how scientists understood their experiments without either endorsing or criticising their activities.
Some leading policies and methods
- Ethnomethodological Indifference
- This is a policy of deliberate agnosticism towards social theory. It is a specialised application of the phenomenological technique of bracketing. By deliberately suspending our preconceived notions of how the social order is maintained, we are able to more clearly see the social order in its actual, real-time, moment-to-moment production.
- First Time Through
- This is a practice of treating any social activity as if it was happening for the very first time, in an attempt to discover how that particular activity is put together by those who participate in it.
- Breaching Experiment
- Not really an experiment, but rather an 'aid to the sluggish imagination'. Another way of making clear the work that is done by members to maintain the social order (see above).
- 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. 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 that we 'treat social facts as things'. This is usually taken to mean that we should assume the objectivity of social facts as a principal of study (thus providing the basis of sociology as a science). Harold Garfinkel's alternative reading of Durkheim is that we should treat the objectivity of social facts as an achievement of society' members, thus making this achievement of objectivity the focus of study.
- Garfinkel, Harold. 1984. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Malden MA: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing. (ISBN 0-7456-0005-0) (first published in 1967)
- Garfinkel, Harold. (Hrsg.) 1986. Ethnomethodological Studies of Work, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (ISBN 0-7100-9664-X)
- Garfinkel, Harold. 2002. Ethnomethodology's Program. New York: Rowan and Littlefield. (ISBN 0-7425-1642-3)
- "Lectures on Conversation" by Harvey Sacks 1992 (two volumes) Backwell, Oxford.
- Heritage, J. 1984. "Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology", Cambridge:Polity. (ISBN 0-7456-0060-3)
- Ethnomethodology - An Introduction
- Paul ten Have, The notion of member is the heart of the matter: on the role of membership knowledge in ethnomethodological inquiry. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3(3), September 2002.
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