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Ethnomethodology Essay, Research Paper

Ethnomethodology is a recently developed sociological approach that seeks to analyze the full range of rules that people follow in everyday social interaction. According to ethnomethodologists, all common social interaction between members of a group is governed by certain ?folk? rules. The members of the group (?ethno?) have available to them a body of common sense knowledge and assumptions about the world (?methods?), which they use to make sense of their world.

Harold Garfinkel coined the term ?ethnomethodology? when he was studying jury deliberation in 1945. In his book Rules, Garfinkel wondered how jurors could work together and reach decisions without having known each other before and without understanding the technical rules of law. He decided that there must be a set of rules called ethnomethods that we all share and that we can call on for knowledge of how to behave in novel situations, as on a jury. ?These ethnomethods, in other words, are a sort of shorthand that allow people to communicate and interact effectively? (Wallace & Wolf p.258).

Ethnomethodologists share with Goffman and the dramaturgical approach an interest in the techniques that people use to create impressions in social situations, but they ask a different question about techniques. They ask: ?How do such techniques or rules help form a common sense of reality, a feeling among people that their meanings are shared?? In common with symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists focus on the process of social interaction, rather than on larger social structures. While symbolic interactionists see the rules by which we interact as an outcome of the process of interaction, however, ethnomethodologists aren?t really interested in the origins of these rules. ?Rather, they are interested in the way people draw on the rules to know how to interact in a given situation?(Wallace & Wolf p.321).

The folk rules that govern social interaction involve a great many

implicit understandings and expectations, or background assumptions, that

people have about one another. These background assumptions are

generally so taken for granted that they are rarely even noticed. Yet when

the assumptions are disrupted, their influence on social behavior becomes

evident. A man who wears work clothes to a wedding has not followed the

generally assumed role of ?dressing for the occasion.? His disruption of the

rule may only puzzle some guests; others may shun his company.

Ethnomethodologists point out that even casual meetings are based

on shared assumptions. To show just how true this is, Garfinkel

devised what he called breeching experiments. In these experiments, people

act as though they simply do not understand the basic, unspoken

assumptions behind a conversation. The following is an exchange that

occurred between the subject (S) and the experimenter (E):

(S): Hi, Ray. How is your girlfriend feeling?

(E): What do you mean, ?How is she feeling?? Do you mean physically or mentally?

(S): I mean how is she feeling? What?s the matter with you? (He looked peeved.)

(E): Nothing. Just explain a little clearer, what do you mean?

(S): Skip it. How are your Med School applications coming?

(E): What do you mean, ?How are they??

(S): You know what I mean.

(E): I really don?t.

(S): What?s the matter with you? Are you sick?


Not only did these two people have trouble communicating, but the

person who did make assumptions was upset by the other person?s refusal to

share his assumptions.

In another experiment, students were asked to interact with their

families for a period of up to one hour as though they were not familiar

with the family?s shared assumptions. None of the assumptions the family

usually based its interaction on was to be taken for granted. Strict formality

was observed, for example with Mom and Dad being addressed as

?Sir? and ?Madam.? The result was a breakdown in communication, with

the family members becoming annoyed and upset. In attempting to restore

the normal situation, the student could clearly see the family?s shared


Ethnomethodologists also use participant observation to try and learn

the codes that underlie people?s interactions. D. Lawrence Wieder, who for

instance, reports on a study of inmates at a halfway house (designed to help

prisoners who are about to be released adjust to life outs side of prison). He

discovered a complex unspoken code that governed inmate behavior. It did

not allow taking advantage of other inmates, having dealings with the staff,

or informing (?don?t snitch?). It also promoted sharing and loyalty among

the inmates. As an example of the operation of the code, Wieder points to an

inmate going to a staff meeting who remarks ?Where can I find that meeting

where I can get an overnight pass??(p.160). According to Wieder, the

inmate is letting his fellows know that the only reason he wants to go to the

meeting is to get a pass. He does not intend to break the code by

cooperating with the staff.

Ethnomethodologists are less interested in the substance of the codes

or the background assumptions than in the rules that people use to indicate

that the codes and assumptions are shared. Here are two easily understood

rules that ethnomethodologists have identified.

If people sense a lack of clarity when another is conversing, they will

make gestures to signal the other to return to what is ?normal? for a given

situation. They might frown, or smile in a sarcastic way, or motion

negatively with their arms. The meanings of these gestures are widely

shared and quickly understood. They usually result in getting a

conversation back on a normal course. Another easily understood rule is the

?etcetera? principle. Much is left unsaid in actual interaction. People must

?fill in? or ?wait for? information necessary to make sense of another?s

conversation. When they do this, they are using the etcetera principle. They

are agreeing not to stop the communication by asking for the needed

information. For example, somebody using the phrase ?you know? expects

the other person to follow the etcetera principle: the other person is not to

disrupt the conversation with a response such as, ?No, I do not know.?

These rules may seem obvious, even trivial. But try to converse

without them! People must follow rules in their everyday behavior, just as

scientists must follow them in their experiments and players must in a


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