Ethnomethodology, in simple words, is about the methods people employ to make sense of the everyday world. Something like a casual question asking your friend about how his/her weekend was could turn into an ethnomethodological case study. ScienceStruck explains how.
Norms are the accepted rules of behavior within a group or society. They are also called mores.
Ethnomethodology sounds like a very difficult and ‘heavy-to-digest’ term, at first. I won’t say that it is one of the easiest ones around, but it isn’t rocket science either if we get down to understanding it. Let’s consider an activity: write down all the actions (in a stepwise manner) that you would do if you were to get into your car (in the garage) and start driving. Quite easy a task, you may exclaim. Sure! Now, write down, again in a stepwise manner, your thought-process and actions when you say, “I am hungry”. … Confused? That’s quite expected.
What this field of sociology studies can span across anything and everything happening in our daily lives. The word ‘ethno’ refers to a specific sociocultural group or community; need not be an ethnicity per se. ‘Methods’ concern the patterns that are typically identified mostly in the interactions taking place within such groups or communities. So, let us take a look at what this complex term actually means.
Ethnomethodology Theory in Sociology
Definition and Meaning
Ethnomethodology is referred to as a perspective that centers upon the ‘ways and methods’ we employ to make sense of our surrounding world. It is also described to literally mean studies of ‘peoples’ methods’.
Studying how people gather the features of everyday life in actuality (not hypothetically) through concerted efforts is the mainstay of this discipline. A consensus over the prevalent norms existing in a society is an important assumption for a successful social interaction. If a community does not accord to this given set of standards, interactions would not be sustained, bringing any social activity to a halt. Thus, ethnomethodology strives to prove that there is immense background knowledge that is used by people in daily life, which sustains social processes.
Harold Garfinkel is believed to have coined this term in 1954 at an American Sociological Association meeting. It was curiosity in his mind that led him to undertake research about this topic. An analysis of the jury discussion of a Chicago case in the year 1945 made him wonder about the ‘way those jurors knew how to act as jurors’. He also discovered after his research in ethnomethodology, that the methods used by people to understand their society are rooted in their natural attitudes.
Indexicality is another significant concept in this area of sociological study. Indexicality, as a term in philosophy of language, and also with reference to ethnomethodology, means an (indexical) expression whose meaning changes from context to context. Any question asked can be responded by asking, “What do you mean?”. This reference to a particular context lends the expected meaning to a word.
There are independent social orders existing within the routine concrete activities, and they are not externally dependent. For example, these activities are not always coming from popular social institutions. This orderliness inherent in the actions of people stems from the interpretation they make of any signs, remarks, or actions. Also, phenomenology is considered to be the basis of ethnomethodology. The attempt to describe everyday experiences without any metaphysical speculations is thus, sourced from here.
Real-life Examples of Ethnomethodology
A simple conversation can be an example of a process, which needs observation of certain commonly established ways for it to function in order. These ways may involve different gestures like eye contact, nodding of the head, or any such acts of responding to each other, which keeps the conversation alive.
If you ask a colleague out for a drink, you do that assuming a lot of things. No, it’s not an assumption about what you want (or don’t want) to convey, or about the drinking habits of your colleague. In fact, very petite things like he/she understanding the question you really wanted to ask, as a casual or polite way of social interaction, are the obvious ‘methods’ or realities that are taken for granted. We assume that if I have asked something, the other person would respond, either with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No. What if he/she asks you a very random question instead, or does not respond at all? If that happens, it might bring the dialog to an abrupt end. This is why ethnomethodology is also studied through social norm-breaking experiments. It investigates such routine situations, by ‘breaking the social rules’ which we never usually doubt or think over.
A striking feature of this subject is that, despite being a sociological discipline, it does not attempt to evaluate or judge any kind of socially accepted realities or social ways. It is a descriptive discipline that examines the methods used by people in day-to-day situations.