Ethnomethodology – everyday and commonsense talk? Really?

“How to exit an elevator” flickr photo by ekurvine shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Another of the areas that I was advised to take a look at during my last doctoral supervision meeting was that of ethnomethodology. I guess that was on the basis of how I was describing my unfolding approach. I have to confess that, other than being aware of the term, I knew little else about ethnomethodology, so here’s a brief summary of what I’ve found.

Ethnomethodology examines the world of everyday life and the ways people make sense of their worlds. It was largely brought forth by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s and grew out from the symbolic interactionist work of Erving Goffman and phenomenology as described by Alfred Schutz. Adopting this kind of approach requires us to attend to how social activities are enacted through talk and how people ‘construct, maintain and prolong their realities’ (Blackstone, 2016). Ethnomethodology seeks to understand the skillful accomplishment of social reality through an unwavering commitment to studying the routines of everyday life (Prasad, 2005). Clearly then social reality here is not viewed as being fixed and immutable, but potentially in a state of construction or reconstruction. In this I begin to see the prehistory of sociomaterial approaches with which I’m more familiar. Some of the the language of ethnomethodology mirrors that of sociomateriality, where reality is produced, enacted, accomplished, manufactured or realised. Although this ontology feels familiar, I can’t help wondering how ethnomethodology accommodates the material? Where is the stuff?

Before proceeding further, we need to set out some of the terms which have rather specific meanings within ethnomethodology, different from their more common usage:

  • Accounting – the process through which social order is constructed when describing, analysing and critiquing different events and stories and the ways in which accounts are accepted or rejected by others (Ritzer, 1983).
  • Reflexivity – the accounts which are provided are reflexive in the sense that they adapt and are modified in response to the unfolding and changing understandings and situation. Not only do the accounts change, but they change the reality they are constructing.
  • Indexicality – talk and action are embedded within social contexts and their meaning depends on those local circumstances (ten Have, 2005)

Ethnomethodologists pay attention to the accounts people produce together, how they perform that accounting, how the accounts are received and the contexts within which the accounts are being provided. We begin to see here the linguistic orientation of ethnomethodology, but we need to take this in the widest sense; yes the talk, but also other symbolic forms like facial expressions, gestures, pauses and uh hums.

There are two distinct strands in ethnomethodology: linguistic ethnomethodology, now distinguished as conversational analysis (CA), focuses on how conversations are structured, use indexical expressions and are often peppered with with ‘taken-for-granted’ meanings. Situational ethnomethodology requires us to cast our view over a wider range of social activity and seek to understand the ways in which people negotiate the social contexts in which they find themselves (Cohen et al, 2000). I suspect CA is likely to be less useful for me, attending so closely as it does to the minutiae of natural conversational exchanges, turn-taking, patterns of speech and particularly detailed conventions of transcription. Within my data, much of it already gathered, only tweets might be considered natural ‘talk,’ with interviews and blog posts not being amenable to this form of analysis. Situational ethnomethodology might therefore be more appropriate, resembling as it does more traditional ethnographic techniques; observing situated activities in their natural setting and discussing them with the practitioners concerned (ten Have, 1990). It is important here to outline the differences between ethnomethodology and ethnography. Although both seek to explore how people live and make sense of their worlds, the ethnographer is more interested in the people, the group, the community and the shared cultural norms and values. The ethnomethodologist is more interested in the scene and the processes through which the group operates. Whilst both methods require the researcher to adopt a naturalistic stance, ethnography draws its roots from anthropology and produces its ‘thick descriptions’ from lengthy immersion in the field. On the other hand, the similarly detailed descriptions in ethnomethodology rely on microscopically close attention to the exchanges under study.

Ethnography and ethnomethodology need not be mutually exclusive, as Crabtree et al (2000) showed. They identify the shortcomings in those analyses which codify and categorise ethnographic records using predefined taxonomies and analytical frameworks. Since real-world practices are only discoverable, ethnomethodology’s ‘unconstructive’ enterprise to build rich descriptions of situated actions and practice becomes much more appropriate. The endeavour is much more about describing “…describe the ‘lived production’ of the work – the actions and practices in and through which the work ‘gets done.’ … Ethnography in an ethnomethodological mode is about understanding the world as it is produced by participants in situ and in action. As such, it is non-judgmental – EM tells you what is, not what ought to be.” Now this is an approach which is more consistent with the one I am already adopting, especially given the focus I have elected to make, based on how people discuss Twitter for professional learning, rather than look for evidence of professional learning based on criteria in the literature.

When the activity in which people are engaged is online, specifically within and through Twitter, a little more thought is needed when justifying one’s approach. Annette Markham (2013) is quite clear that participant observation, as conducted in physical contexts cannot be transferred to a mediated social space like Twitter, [At some point I need to attend to that assertion in the context of my research] and as McAuley (2010) noted, the reduced social cues, predominantly text-based exchanges and asynchronicity inhibit the application of ethnomethodology. McAuley also contends that the fundamental principles of ethnomethodology, accountability and reflexivity, are heavily influenced by the introduction of a medium. I’m inclined to agree, but wonder whether the ‘medium,’ in whatever form(s) it takes, can be considered an actor also involved in the exchange? Can we not examine the medium and its nonhuman actors as being involved in the accounting? As I move forward and begin to work more deeply with my data, I need to consider how best to address some of these criticisms, comments and shortcomings.

Note to self – bottom line

My study is exploring the activity in which people are engaged. That activity is conducted on and through an online platform, one which is both text and talk … and neither. To explore the people and their activity, an ethnographic approach seems to make sense, but since my attention is at least partly drawn to the accounts they provide, an ethnomethodological perspective might also prove informative. I worry however, that this might marginalise the materiality; it’s this aspect which I feel has already been overlooked in the emerging research into this topic of study. A fine line to tread?



Blackstone, A. (2016). Principles of Sociological Inquiry–Qualitative and Quantitative Methods.
Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2000). Research methods in education (5th Edition). Routledge.
Crabtree, A., Nichols, D. M., O’Brien, J., Rouncefield, M., & Twidale, M. B. (2000). Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography and information system design. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51(7), 666-682.
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology.
Have, P. t. (1990). Methodological Issues in Conversation Analysis. Bulletin of Sociological Methodology/Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 27(1), 23-51.
Have, P. t. (2005). The notion of member is the heart of the matter: On the role of membership knowledge in ethnomethodological inquiry. Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 28-53.
Markham, A. N. (2013). Fieldwork in Social Media. Qualitative Communication Research, 2(4), 434-446.
McAuley, J. (2010). Virtual Ethnomethodology? A study of the relation between ethnomethodology and CMC. [Unpublished]
Ritzer, G. (1996). Sociological theory. Tata McGraw-Hill Education.

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