Written by Dr Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil
‘Ethnomethodology’ deals with the world of everyday life and issues related to social order by combining experiencing phenomena with sense experience. According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre on the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction.
Ethnomethodology studies the process by which people (subconsciously) formulate and apply certain ‘taken-for-granted’ rules about behaviour which they interpret in an interactive situation to make it meaningful.
Ethnomethodology does not focus on individuals. Its field is the dynamics of social life. The individual is seen and researched as part of a social unit, for example, a community or a group of people who in some way form a coherent unit. Students who study together at a particular university at a certain point in time can be such a coherent unit. Internal processes, emotions, values, beliefs and other psychological phenomena typical of the thought processes of an individual do not form part of ethnomethodology.
Because ethnomethodologists are mainly interested in social settings, data collected through interviewing is less valid than data collected through observation in the workplace; and why old newspapers might provide less valid data than observation of a recent event. Data collected by means of interviewing is regarded as artificial, focusing on your research needs instead of the problem being investigated. Interviewing is data collection where you have control over those being interviewed, when what is needed is the observation of the actions of people under natural circumstances, for example, while doing routine work. Observation of everyday life is said to improve the validity of data that is collected.
Ethnomethodology does not formulate rules, laws or descriptions of practices of social groups that generally apply. Knowledge is seen as relevant to a specific context and time.
Ethnomethodology can be associated with constructivism and, indirectly also with hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology, the common denominator is that they all study social phenomena in one way or another.
Ethnomethodology does not fit in well with transformative research, which shows characteristics of and is regarded by some as yet another paradigm. The reason for this is that transformative research uses intangibles such as intuition, serendipity and unpredictable events whereas ethnomethodology deals with everyday life and real observations.
A deficiency of ethnomethodology, at least in the opinions of some academics, is that the investigation of everyday life is too narrow and limited to provide valid and generally applicable knowledge about social interaction, and hardly any theories about the wider interaction between human beings.