The god in small things: Ethnomethodology takes ethnography to the details [Syllabus as Essay Series] [guest contributor]

Our June guest contributor is an inter-disciplinary ethnographer, Barry Brown, who is well known for his work in Human-Computer-Interaction, Sociology, and Communications. He pioneered the study of leisure and entertainment in social computing and has applied it to research on augmented reality video games, mixed-reality museum visiting, mobile collaborative tourism, and transportation.  Barry recently joined Mobile Life at University of Stockholm as the center Co-Director.

We’ll do an interview with Barry in another post about his career as an ethnographer who has worked in many  industrial and academic settings. For today, we asked Barry to talk to us about something that very few ethnographers talk about – ethnomethodology.

When I first heard of the word,  I cringed because it just sounded boring and unsexy. It’s hard enough to explain to people what ethnography is. Luckily, Barry was the first person to not only introduce me to ethnomethodology, but mentor me in the techniques of and wonders of ethnomethodology.

So what’s the best best way we can do our  first post on ethnomethodology at Ethnography Matters? A curated reading list!

We asked Barry to curate the first post in our Syllabus as Essay reading series.  In this post, Barry explains how ethnomethodology helps us answer questions that sociological theories just can’t. He also suggests reading Mike Lynch, an author I blogged about a while back on Cultural Bytes. Barry covers Garfinkel and  guides us through Harvey Sack’s writing by recommending specific chapters in his oeuvre. He then ends with the  philosopher, Wittgenstein, who inspired thinkers across multiple disciplines. 

If you would like to contribute to the Syllabus as Essay series, please reach out ethnography matters [at] gmail [dot] com.

Enjoy! Tricia and team.


I work with ethnography and the design of technology – a not uncommon role for contributors to this blog.  It’s something of a truism to say that, when working with computer systems, the details matter.  Not just in the case of a semi colon versus a full stop, your ‘p’s and ‘q’s all in the right place, but in the ways in which the right font here or a well designed feature can turn a computer system from useless to must have.  This attention to detail – ‘sweating the small stuff’ is based on the assumption that what we see as ‘big things’ naturally and unavoidably rest upon the small.

For that reason I’ve always thought there’s something of a natural affinity between computer science – or the design of technology more broadly – and my particular favourite flavour of ethnography.  “Ethnomethodology” is a particularly odd branch of sociology, obsessed to a quite unhealthily degree with ‘the details’ of social life and social interaction.  It is an ‘-ology’ that looks at the methods whereby people live their lives – how we interact (Sacks 1995), talk (Atkinson and Heritage 1984), walk (Ryave and Schenkein 1974), work (Button 1993), travel (McHugh, et al. 1974), break the law (Sacks 1972) or cry (Beach and LeBaron 2002). So, for example, when we converse we do not usually all talk at once – there is structure in our turn taking activity (Sacks, et al. 1974). When we offer an invitation there are certain ways of refusing that avoid rudeness (Sacks 1995).

Our activities are structured yet not simply determined by these structures. Rather structures are seen and used in the everyday organization of this activity. These are the structures that ethnomethodology has studied – something of an inversion of the notion of ‘structure’ as it is commonly deployed in the social sciences (Garfinkel 2002).

The argument, so it goes, is that if we want to understand the ‘big things’ – the ‘troubles’ of race, gender, class, inequality, crime, rudeness, technology, whatever – that we’ll get uselessly confused if we try and start with the ‘big things’, better to start with something more manageable and see where that gets us.  And if our purposes are in how we might design a particular technology, or how something might or might not work, then this focus on the details dovetails with a concern.  For all that Marx, Weber and Durkhim can give you –  they don’t help you work out if the ‘OK’ button should be on the left or the right.

The picture is complicated a little by conversation analysis (CA) – a field that owes much of its theoretical take to ethnomethodology, but through the work of Harvey Sacks focuses (as one would expect from the name) on ‘talk in interaction’ – and perhaps with a little irony this focus has enabled CA to grown much larger than ethnomethodology.  Ethnomethodology meanwhile has been beset with struggles and challenges, maintaining a somewhat problematic relationship with the rest of sociology.  Ethnomethodology’s founder (Harold Garfinkel) even went as far as to describe ethnomethodology as a complete alternative to sociology, dismissing the rest of sociology (rather presumptuously) as mere ‘formal analysis’.  One way of thinking about ethnomethodology is ‘sociology after Wittgenstein’ – applying his deceptively complex philosophy to social research.

Groups walking on UCSD campus

But where to start if you take an interest in this self named ‘bastard’ offshoot of sociology?  One gentle introduction I enjoy is Ryave’s and Schenkein’s  (1974) ‘Notes on the Art of Walking’ in Ethnomethodology  by R. Turner (pp. 265-74).

  • Turner, R. (Ed.). (1974). Ethnomethodology (Penguin modern sociology readings). Penguin (Non-Classics).

This piece introduces one of the cutest things about ethnomethodological work.  The paper analyses in a fairly straightforward way how we walk.  One of the things it touches on is how to walk down a busy sidewalk one needs to avoid bumping into people, and one important part of that is seeing who is ‘together’ so you don’t split up couples or groups.  It turns out that walking – something surely very physical, relies upon the ability to see who is with who, and that relies on all sorts of categorical analysis.  What’s cute about this is that when I used to teach from this paper I would collect a random video of people walking on campus and play it before and after the class.  At the beginning you just see people walking, but after you start to see all the groups forming and people navigating around those groups.  You have something ‘seen but un-noticed’ – you used it every day but never thought to see it.  Moreover, this simple skill is quite awesome in its generality – walk just about in any sidewalk in any country in any place and you’ll see this practice unfold.  To some this observation might turn trivial, but turing it another way it is quite awesome in its generality –  and this is a prevalent feature of ethnomethodological work, it explains how some feature of our life works.  One can argue conceptually or practically about generality or relevance, or methods, but I just enjoy the pleasure of something simple and obviously prevalent.

Harvey Sacks (1992) Lectures on Conversation. Volumes 1 and 2.

This leads me to my second reference.  An impossible one to read quickly – but in its 2000 odd pages you would find much of interest.   Harvey Sacks published little in his life but lectured extensively, and it was in his lectures where he worked out much of his argument and analysis – the transcripts of his lectures are surprisingly readable and full of insight and observations that span a vast range of social phenomena.

 It’s something of a rite of passage to read them – but I would suggest bringing them up in Google Books (or online if your library is kind enough to subscribe) and jumping in.  If pushed I could suggest some specific lectures – “on doing being ordinary” is a personal favourite.  But also:
  • p26, 1964, Part 1, Lecture 4, ‘An impromptu survey of the literature’, where Sacks, in a very one off lecture positions himself with respect to ethnography, linguistics and Wittgenstein.
  • p469, 1966, Part iii, Lecture 30 ‘Various Methodological Issues’ where Sacks talks about doing descriptions and then analysing how descriptions can be done.
  • p515 1967, Part iv, Feb 16th, ‘Omnirelevant devices’ where sacks deals with indexicals, context and devices
  • p619, Fall 1967, Part vi, ‘General Introduction’ where Sacks compares his work to Goffman
  • p693, 1967 Part vii, ‘Paradoxes’ a nice example of Sacks messing around between philosophy and ordinary conversation. Solving the problem of paradox by switching instead to its uses.

Two final more contemporary pieces.  The first is Eric Livingston’s book: Ethnographies of reason.  A quite absurd and wonderful book, it takes it start on how you could study our ordinary reasoning through setting a range of puzzles and exercises to do.  Through actually doing the different exercises you learn yourself about how you reason – your ‘taken for granted expectations’.

  • Livingston, E. (2008). Ethnographies of Reason (Directions in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis) (p. 282). Ashgate.

A second piece is Mike Lynch’s (2000) “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge” [pdf download] in the Journal of Theory, Culture & Society.  Here Mike Lynch takes aim at the ways in which certain sorts of sociological insight are used to argue for a ‘higher’ position of insight over and above those involved in the situation itself.  Lynch argues that we are often studying experts at practice, and before we can seek to do anything that looks like a critique it pays to establish that we really know what we’re looking at more than those participating.

  • Lynch, M. (2000). Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 17(3), 26-54.

Extended Bibliography

Philosophy contingencies

Methods: The problem with interviews

Ethnomethodology & Garfinkel

  • page 1-104 & 186-208 in Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • introduction & chapter on practical reasoning Garfinkel, H., & Rawls, A. (2002). Ethnomethodology’s Program . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Lynch, Ethnomethodology and the logic of practice from the practice turn in contemporary social theory

Studies of members methods

  • chapters 1-3  in Have, P. T. (2007). Doing Conversation Analysis (Introducing Qualitative Methods series) (p. 264). Sage Publications Ltd.

Wittgenstein and ordinary life

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Categories: Guest posts, Syllabus as essay

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