What is Ethnomethodology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ethnomethodology is a branch of the social sciences which is concerned with exploring how people interact with the world and make sense of reality. It is not designed to provide people with judgments on human behavior or its causes, but rather to explain how people interact with each other and with society at large. Many people engage in a small degree of ethnomethodology every day, even though they aren't aware of it; for example, a parent explaining a concept to a child usually thinks about the way in which the child approaches the world and processes information to put the concept in terms the child will understand.

Ethnomethodology explores how people interact with each other.
Ethnomethodology explores how people interact with each other.

Researchers in this field are often interested in the conventions of society, and the rules which people use to place themselves and others in social contexts. An ethnomethodologist might, for example, look at social cues which people use to determine social class and occupation when interacting with someone for the first time. People in this field are also concerned with general social knowledge and concepts which are widely understood both in larger societies and smaller subsets of society.

This field of study owes much to Harold Garfinkel, the researcher who coined the term in 1967 and started to lay out some of the ground rules and concepts which continue to be used in ethnomethodology today. In addition to being a topic of general interest to sociologists and other social sciences, this field also has a number of very useful applications.

Communication problems between people and organizations, for example, can sometimes benefit from an ethnomethodology analysis. For example, the social conventions at a company which manufactures scientific instruments will likely be very different from those at a government agency which regulates laboratory chemicals. If a conflict arises between the two groups, an analysis of the way these microsocieties work might help both sides work together and reach a state of common understanding. Ethnomethodology can also be useful during cultural exchanges in which people have difficulty understanding the cultural norms of the people they are trying to work with.

People who are interested in studying this field can do so at several colleges and universities around the world. Some may opt to pursue graduate level work so that they have a chance to get involved in ongoing research and for the purpose of attaining a higher degree which will make them more employable. Ethnomethodologists can be employed in settings like government agencies, private consulting firms, and sociological research organizations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@watson42, it's true that many people who know a little about sociology will think that many observations they make are the equivalent of ethnomethology experiments.


I appreciate thatin this article's ethnomethodology definition, it points out that this social theory does not necessarily find answers to the causes of human behavior, merely the ways in which we organize our social structures. I have known many sociology students who believe that they have mastered ethnomethodology, and therefore mastered the way to look at people.

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