ARTICLE 48: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Ethnomethodology

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Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I guess the times in which are living is everything but funny.

Even so, I just watched a real-life incident on television that I found hilarious.

It is snowing rather hard in and around this city.

Next to a road in town a good number of homeless people erected tents in which they slept the previous night.

It was still dark when the cops arrived.

“I give you ten minutes to dismantle your tents before I start dismantling them!’, a cop shouted.

Absolute silence.

After a while, the policeman shouted again: “If you don’t dismantle your tents now, I am going to start writing out fines!”

A woman’s voice shouted from one of the tents: “I thought you said you were going to dismantle the tents for us!”

This is a good example of a situation that can be researched by making use of ethnomethodology.

Hello, my name is Hannes Nel and I discuss ethnomethodology in this post.

What is Ethnomethodology?

Ethnomethodology deals with the world of everyday life.

According to ethnomethodologists, theoretical concerns centre on the process by which common sense reality is constructed in everyday face-to-face interaction.

Issues related to social order are investigated by combining experiencing phenomena with sense experience.

Those of you who follow my posts and saw the previous one, will now already notice that ethnomethodology is associated with empiricism –

both paradigms believe that knowledge is gained through sense experiences.

Ethnomethodology studies the process by which people subconsciously formulate and apply certain ‘taken-for-granted’ rules about behavior which they interpret in an interactive situation to make it meaningful.

Ethnomethodology does not focus on individuals.

Its field of study 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.

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 old books and newspapers often provide less valid data than observation of a recent event.

Data collected by means of interviewing is regarded as artificial, focusing on research needs instead of the problem being investigated.

Interviewing is data collection where you have control over those being interviewed, and that is not what ethnomethodologists want.

The observation of the behaviour of people under natural circumstances is considered as the best source of data.

For example, when doing routine work.

Observation of everyday life is said to improve the validity of the 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.

Except for empiricism, ethnomethodology can also be associated with constructivism, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology.

All these paradigms study social phenomena in one way or another.

Ethnomethodology does not fit in well with transformative research, which I discussed in a previous post as a research method.

Transformative research uses intangibles such as intuition, serendipity and unpredictable events whereas ethnomethodology deals with everyday life and real observations.

Some academics are of the opinion 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.


Ethnomethodology is used in the investigation of everyday life.

Social issues are investigated by analyzing sense experiences.

Groups are researched rather than individuals.

Thought processes are not taken into consideration.

Observation is used to collect data rather than interviewing or any other sources that are not current.

Knowledge gained through ethnomethodology applies to a specific context and time.

Ethnomethodology is mostly associated with interpretive paradigms.

It is also associated with empiricism, which leans more towards the technicist paradigms.

Ethnomethodology does not fit in well with transformative research.

Some academics regard research making use of ethnomethodology as too narrow and limited to provide validity and general applicability.

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