3.7.2 Ethnomethodology

The term "Ethnomethodology" was first coined by Harold Garfinkel. Ethnomethodology refers to the analysis of the ways in which we actively make sense of what others mean by what they say and do. Much of our every day interaction occurs through talk - casual, verbal exchange - carried out in informal conversations with others. Garfinkel analysed these conversations. He showed how these conversations are based on shared understandings and knowledge which are brought into play. He refers to these shared understandings and knowledge as "background expectancies." These organise our conversations.

For example, if you are asked what you did yesterday, it might be a difficult question to answer if you are to account for every minute during these 24 hours. However, you assume that the person wants you to list the different activities you had yesterday. Hence, our everyday life proceeds with a number of conventions which we take for granted as we find in Macionis, when driving on a freeway. Garfinkel uses a technique "Break the rules" to uncover the taken for granted things in our everyday life. For example, he asked his students to engage in conversations with friends and not to leave general comments unprecise. For example, if someone said "I had a nice day," what does he/she mean by "nice"? Or does he/she refer to the whole day or part of the day?

The following is an example of a transcript of an exchange:

"S: How are you?
E: How am I in regard to what? My health, my finance, my school work, my peace of mind, my ............
S: (Red in the face and suddenly out of control) Look! I was just trying to be polite. Frankly, I don't give a damn how you are."

(Garfinkel, 1963, p. 73, in Giddens)

We find here how S gets angry when a minor convention is not followed. What happens is that S's unstated cultural assumptions are not taken into account by E. Our daily social life depends on the sharing of unstated cultural assumptions about what is said and why. Hence, according to Garfinkel, people interact by taking for granted many ideas about how the world operates.