Harold Garfinkel's Ethnomethodology. The Theory and Empiricism of Analyzing Everyday Structures in Society

Term Paper, 2015

14 Pages, Grade: 2.0




Harold Garfinkel
Phenomenology & Ethnomethodology

Main part
Fundamental Assumption
Basic objective
Breaching Experiments
Critical View




In this essay I would like to look at the Ethnomethodology founded by Harold Garfinkel more closely. This term was raised in the 1950s and in his book ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’, published 1967, he describes the origin of this field of research on the basis of theoretical deliberations and presents some empirical studies regarding this topic. The attraction that this theory is quite new and not yet self-contained is determining for me to choose this book for my seminar paper. Harold Garfinkel is not speculating about purposes neither psychologizing about the intention of human action. The formal structures of practical action matters. Therefore I would like to give an impression of his theory and take a closer look on some of his empirical studies.


Harold Garfinkel

Harold Garfinkel was born in 1917 and died in 2011. He was a sociologist, an ethnomethodologist and a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. The term ethnomethodology, a special field of research, was developed and established by him, in 1954. Since 1952 he studied at Harvard University and was a sophomore of Talcott Parsons. At this university he also met Alfred Schütz, who took great influence on his further work. This makes its present felt in his dissertation thesis. Therein is a detailed study on the different action-theoretical basic ideas and mental backgrounds of Talcott Parsons and Alfred Schütz. The book ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’ was published in 1967.


Ethnomethodology is part of the sociology, the teaching of shape and evolution of humans’ social life. Harold Garfinkel created a countermovement to the structural functionalism with his basic approach of ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology concerns with the world we usually do not appreciate. This raises further question: Why do we not take notice of it? It is not merely because the world is too sophisticated and far afield, but rather it is nearby and taken for granted. The term ‘ethnomethodology’ can be explained by separating the word in two parts. The first is ‘ethno’, which Garfinkel describes as the common sense knowledge of society members and in which way single members know about it. The term ‘ethno’ is attributed to ethnos and ethnography. This means the practice of common humans. The Second part: ‘methodology’ refers to the methods of the society members used during the interaction as subject-matter of studies. The term ‘methodology’ is attributed to ‘methods’, which describes the structure of practical activity. Accordingly ethnomethodology wants to reveal knowledge and methods whereby members of society accomplish the quantity of everyday behavior.

It is also important to mention that there were no sociological terms to have recourse to. For that reason Harold Garfinkel coined this phrase. “Ethnomethodological studies analyze everyday activities as members’ methods for making those same activities visibly-rationaland-reportable-for-all-practical-purposes, i.e., ‘accountable,’ as organizations of commonplace everyday activities.” (Garfinkel, 1967, p. Preface vii). Action and interaction is based on common sense knowledge. This knowledge has to be seen definitely and as a matter of course to be able to operate. One of the main points of ethnomethodology therefore is to expose the knowledge and methods which society member use for daily routines. “Their study is directed to the tasks of learning how members’ actual, ordinary activities consist of methods to make practical actions, practical circumstances, common sense knowledge of social structures, and practical sociological reasoning analyzable; and of discovering the formal properties of commonplace, practical common sense actions, ‘from within’ actual settings, as ongoing accomplishments of those settings.” (Garfinkel, 1967, pp. Preface vii-viii).

Phenomenology & Ethnomethodology

Edmund Husserl established the term phenomenology using it to define philosophy as a serious applied science. Phenomenology is the theory of phenomena in the sense of pure eidetic vision. It describes all items given as phenomena. Husserls says, that the sense is on a different plane, not approachable. For that he used the avoidance of neuropsychological perceptions. To discern the genuine essence of a matter one has to undertake a phenomenal reduction, which allows us to achieve a neutral glance on the facts of life. Husserl’s work

developed to phenomenological psychology. Phenomenology posits all objects existing, because of the assumption and construction of human beings. This idea was furthermore developed into phenomenological sociology by Alfred Schütz. His basic idea is that everything is based on a lived-in world characterizing it by using the term ‘Lebenswelt’. Actors create their own world by assembling life experience. One of the main points in this theory is to describe fundamental characteristics of the social world (Fuchs-Heinritz, Lautmann, Rammstedt, & Wienold, 2013). Moreover, how it is constituted and understood by ordinary human beings in everyday life, concerning their daily routines. In this case it is not about the analyzation of objects - Ethnomethodology is based on lfred Schütz’ basic idea. It is an enhancement of it. Harold Garfinkel argues that mentioned lived-in world is not only constituted and understood by humans. In his opinion humans produce and reproduce social structures, therefore also social worlds. Forethoughts of ethnomethodology were characterized by phenomenology.

Main part

Fundamental Assumption

The fundamental assumption of social sciences and therefor also for ethnomethodology is the position of humans to the environment: Humans are not only objects of natural environment, which is observable by academics and scientists, but also producers and creators of the cultural world. Permanent interaction embosses their own world. Everyday interaction as everyday occurrence between humans stands in the center of this theory. Interaction produces occasions and matters of fact. “The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical study, and by paying to the most commonplace activities of daily life the attention usually accorded extraordinary events, seek to learn about them as phenomena in their own right.” (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 1). The action, i. e. the interaction within society is only possible on basis of common sense knowledge. Humans acting relating to this common sense knowledge, understanding and being understood are basic elements of everyday life. Accordingly humans can possess knowledge about the subjective environment of other humans. For that reason humans assume mutual knowledge about subjective environments in everyday life. “With respect to the problematic character of practical actions and to the practical adequacy of their inquiries, members take for granted that a member must at the outset ‘know’ the settings in which he is to operate if his practices are to serve as measures to bring particular, located features of these settings to recognizable account.” (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 8). Common knowledge is primarily concerned with different layers of unconscious routine knowledge. It is less concerned with reflective body of knowledge. The area of conscious contemplation is only reached in crisis situations. “In the actual occasions of interaction that accomplishment is for members omnipresent, unproblematic, and commonplace.” (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 9). The body of thinking and acting which influences the acting of society members is created by daily routine, used during it and therefore in progressive diversification. The existential fear of humans requires the construction of sense in everyday life. This random sense is transmitted and proceeded by fellow human beings. “The properties of indexical expressions and indexical actions are ordered properties. These consist of organizationally demonstrable sense, or facticity, or methodic use, or agreement among ‘cultural colleagues.’ Their ordered properties consist of organizationally demonstrable rational properties of indexical expressions and indexical actions. Those ordered properties are ongoing achievements of the concerted commonplace activities of investigators.” (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 11). It is assumed that the social reality contains all occurrences and facts influencing the interaction of members of society.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Harold Garfinkel's Ethnomethodology. The Theory and Empiricism of Analyzing Everyday Structures in Society
LMU Munich  (Soziologie)
Funktionalismus und Gesellschaftstheorie
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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915 KB
Ethnomethodologie, Ethnomethodology, Harold Garfinkel, Gesellschaftstheorie, Funktionalismus, Krisenexperimente, Phenomenology, Studies in Ethnomethodology, 1967, Alfred Schütz
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Louisa Jonuscheit (Author), 2015, Harold Garfinkel's Ethnomethodology. The Theory and Empiricism of Analyzing Everyday Structures in Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/309576


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