"Ethnomethodology and Social Theory" by RIchard A. Hilbert

This outstanding article by Richard A. Hilbert appears in the "New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory", edited by Bryan S. Turner (2009)

Ethnomethodology and Social Theory

Richard A. Hilbert

Over the last 40 years, ethnomethodological studies have reported some remarkable discoveries and provided indispensable insights into the workings of society and social systems. At the same time, ethnomethodologists remain ambivalent regarding general conclusions one can properly draw from their studies or how their studies inform general theory. This ambivalence extends not only to how ethnomethodolo- gists might theorize their own empirical investigations but also to what their empiri- cal investigations imply for social theory as practiced by other social scientists. Efforts to resolve the ambivalence are almost always cautious, whether as bold efforts to theorize ethnomethodology or as informed skepticism as to whether eth- nomethodology ought to be theorized at all. Thus a perennial question mirroring classical tensions between empiricism and logical reasoning haunts ethnomethodol- ogy: when can we make general claims about diverse ethnomethodological studies and when are we making up fictions?
Precise answers to such questions are hard to come by. To begin with, “ethno- methodology” does not name a theoretical perspective or a body of substantive claims. The term derives from a collection of investigations conducted by UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel in the 1950s and 1960s published in 1967 under the title Studies in Ethnomethodology, universally taken to be ethnomethodology’s foundational text. The book makes scarce mention of social theory informing the text, and Garfinkel is often inclined toward defining ethnomethodology as no dif- ferent than the corpus of those studies, and studies like them, as though the empiri- cal details of the studies speak for themselves (cf. Garfinkel and Wieder 1992: 205). At the same time, however, Studies is laden with theoretical vision, lengthy dis- courses about social phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, and express indebtedness to Aron Gurwitsch and Edmund Husserl, among others.

Subsequent early studies by Garfinkel’s students and colleagues promoted meth- odological orientations to the social world which one might easily read as theoreti- cal, and they often included outright theoretical commentary both challenging and relevant to general sociology (Bittner 1965, 1967; Pollner 1974; Sudnow 1967;

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Wieder 1970; Zimmerman and Pollner 1970; Zimmerman and Wieder 1970). However, none of this was systematic or put boldly forward as strong theoretical claims, which no doubt contributed to confusion among non-ethnomethodologists as to what ethnomethodologists could possibly be talking about (see Coser 1975 and Zimmerman’s [1976] reply; also Denzin [1969, 1970] and Zimmerman and Wieder’s [1970] reply; cf. Maynard 1986). In response to such confusion, some early enthusiasts of the new scholarship stated outright that “No unifying resolution of these disparate ‘theories’ and ‘methods’ [within ethnomethodology] need be attempted” (Mehan and Wood 1975: 152). Later, accumulating ethnomethodologi- cal studies of the in situ character of practical action began to formalize important reasons why such studies could not, and should not, contribute toward general understandings of the substantive matters they investigate (Button 1991; Watson and Seiler 1992). Also, conversation analysis, perhaps ethnomethodology’s most important sub-specialty, made great strides in revealing counterintuitive practices in the detailed work of ordinary talk that would not have been possible without a disciplined “indifference” (see Garfinkel and Sacks 1970: 345–6) to whatever general claims one might otherwise be inclined to make about the matters at hand for con- versants themselves – roles, statuses, professions, gender, relationships, social orga- nization, structural matters of all sorts, as well as “meaning” and the mind of the actor (Schegloff 1987; Wilson 1991; cf. Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974).

More recently Garfinkel (2002) has restated misgivings about general theory, characterizing “the worldwide social science movement” as multiple variations of what he calls Formal Analysis. Their commonality, he says, resides in their unwill- ingness to see social order in “the concreteness of things.” Rather, they find order as outcomes of methodological procedures by which they transform “the concrete- ness of things” into categorical phenomena legislated by the terms and protocols of their respective disciplines. Thus the “concreteness” of what they study, as well as their own actual real-time methods of transformation, escapes notice. This argument is an extension of one made earlier (Garfinkel 1988), directed specifically at Talcott Parsons, where Garfinkel states that Parsons assumed that “the real and actual society . . . is not to be found in the concreteness of things” but only as the product of theorizing and transforming the real society into an accomplished artifact, a stance he calls, in this earlier article, “formal, constructive analysis” (p. 106; cf. Garfinkel and Sacks 1970: 340).
Yet in the same earlier paper critical of Parsons, Garfinkel (1988: 104) attributes the very origins of ethnomethodology to Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action:
Ethnomethodology has its origins in this wonderful book. Its earliest initiatives were taken from these texts. Ethnomethodologists have continued to consult its text to understand the practices and the achievements of formal analysis in the work of profes- sional social science.
Inspired by The Structure of Social Action ethnomethodology undertook the task of respecifying the production and accountability of immortal, ordinary society.

This in itself came as no surprise to sociologists who knew of Garfinkel’s history with Parsons at Harvard University, including the latter’s supervision of his PhD dissertation. Ethnomethodology’s embeddedness in Parsonian theory had been well

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known, though hardly well published prior to 1984 (but see Cuff, Sharrock, and Francis 1979: 167–8; Garfinkel 1967: ix). But perhaps a few more readers were taken aback to see Garfinkel, in the same later work where he expresses doubts about general theory and worldwide social science, stating that ethnomethodology fulfills Émile Durkheim’s mandate to examine “social facts,” that ethnomethodol- ogy studies “the phenomena of ordinary society that Durkheim was talking about” (Garfinkel 2002: 92–3), and that his own early studies were “working out Durkheim’s aphorism” from the start. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it would have been considered an anathema to suggest publicly that ethnomethodology had anything at all to do with Durkheim’s sociology except by way of contrast, possibly to dis- credit it (see Bittner 1965; Wieder 1974). Indeed, efforts were commonly directed to distancing ethnomethodology from everything that had preceded it, even to the point of speaking of ethnomethodology as opposed to sociology, as though the former were an independent discipline (Mehan and Wood 1975; Wilson and Zim- merman 1979/80).

The first major statement about ethnomethodology in broad theoretical terms was John Heritage’s (1984) Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Here was a direct challenge to anyone who saw few connecting links between disparate ethnometh- odological studies or knew no reasons to articulate them. Heritage reviews Garfin- kel’s life as a graduate student, specifically his intellectual ties to Parsons and how “he sought to dig still deeper into the basic problems in the theory of action which had been raised, but incompletely dealt with, in The Structure of Social Action” (1984: 9). Heritage shows how Garfinkel sought help from phenomenologists Schutz and Gurwitsch, whom he had the good fortune to brush shoulders with at Harvard, to solve the Hobbesean problem of social order, which had been Parsons’s major preoccupation. Finding complementary weaknesses in phenomenology, Garfinkel struck out on his own, launching his now famous empirical studies.

By the early 1990s, there was a growing sense in some quarters that ethnometh- odology had something general to offer the social sciences on their own terms, not simply as an accumulating set of studies of interest only to ethnomethodologists (see Boden 1990; Maynard and Clayman 1991). In 1992 I published The Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology, which sought to supplement Garfinkel’s ties to Parsons with the latter’s ties to classical theorists Durkheim and Max Weber, particularly the way in which Parsons derived the foundations of functionalist theory (“volun- tarism”) from the classics. The argument was basically that Parsons’s derivations, through logical necessity, included deliberate negations and suppressions of selected classical themes, which, as far as Parsons was concerned, were corrections and diagnosed falsehoods to be supplanted by Parsons’s own theory. The result was not only Parsonian theory, but also some uniquely American orthodoxies concerning Durkheim and Weber that cannot be defended by consulting the original texts, a dynamic transparent in detailed review of the texts and of The Structure of Social Action. That this was known already, by diverse scholars of the classics including even Parsons’s new advocates as expressed in “neo-functionalism,” was part of the argument. The argument also re-examined Garfinkel’s intervention into the resulting weak spaces in Parsonian theory as described by Heritage (1984). My main offering was how, in negating Parsons, Garfinkel had negated Parsons’s negations back to their positive forms, returning us to classical observations which Parsons had
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expressly driven out of sociology as error. Resonance between lost classical themes and accumulating ethnomethodological discovery seemed, to me, quite striking (see also Hilbert 1986, 1987, 1989). Altogether I found near 20 such themes (1995: 160).
Not all ethnomethodologists were happy to consider even the possibility of his- torical links between ethnomethodology and classical theory. Informal feedback to Classical Roots expressed concern that such arguments would undermine Garfin- kel’s claim to originality or contribute to an impression that “it had all been done before.” Coulter (1993) criticized the book on its face simply for drawing the con- nections, rhetorically wondering whether Garfinkel ought to be thought of as a sociologist at all. Whatever ethnomethodology is, Coulter suggests, it cannot be reconciled with classical theory except as a sort of self-validating synthesis project or as a “legitimization exercise” on behalf of something that needs no justification.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Anne Rawls published arguments linking detailed read- ings of Durkheim’s sociology of ritual to Garfinkel’s studies of social practices (Rawls 1996a, 1996b). Shortly thereafter, she and Garfinkel entered into a collabo- ration which resulted in some of Garfinkel’s most succinct theoretical renderings to date. These include unpublished work from the late 1940s which heretofore have been the province of students and colleagues in the form of mimeographed copies (Garfinkel 2006). They also include new statements and updates concerning ethno- methodological studies since the early 1980s (Garfinkel 2002). It is this latter work that is subtitled Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. This is by no means the final word on the matter, but it does suggest that Garfinkel himself is, for the time being, with appropriate qualifications, satisfied that not all theorizing violates sociology’s scientific mandate to be concrete and empirical.

But is he really? One may be forgiven for concluding that Garfinkel waffles on the relationship between studies and theory (see Garfinkel 2002: 97). Yet such a conclusion probably misreads cautious ambivalence as inconsistency. Most ethno- methodological commentaries about this relationship, even those which appear on the surface to be on opposite sides of a debate (Hilbert 1990; Pollner 1991), are nuanced in ways that display finely tuned compatibilities that erase “sides” and move them into a common effort to appreciate matters that are difficult to explicate in so many words. If anything expresses common ethnomethodological attitudes toward theory, including Garfinkel’s (2002: 164 n.23), it is, in a manner Weber would appreciate, a determination not to reify the topics of sociological study (Hilbert 1987, 1992: 104–60; Maynard and Wilson 1980). In the mid-1970s, stu- dents in Garfinkel’s seminars were reporting that Garfinkel had “turned against” one of his own most compelling phraseologies, “indexical expressions,” because “indexicality,” in their rendition of his complaint, had been turned into a thing. I have heard him express similar amazement even about the very term “ethnometh- odology” – that it has become a thing, something “out there” in the world, an evolving worldwide profession that he can both witness and participate in, much as Erving Goffman used to sit on panels jointly discussing with others what “Goff- manesque sociology” might be. Most disputes internal to ethnomethodology – Does conversation analysis turn up practices central to ethnomethodology or has it reverted to standard canonical social science? Can ethnomethodologists ignore their own participation in what they produce, in the tradition of the natural sciences, or

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does that compromise the vision of “radical reflexivity” at the heart of ethnometh- odology? – revolve around questions of reification.

Suffice it to say that ethnomethodology is endlessly creative and adaptive to cir- cumstances, with an ability to reconstitute what it has been up to for the last 40 years in light of new directions and new studies. Its “central claims” can be expected to remain in dispute among its many practitioners who otherwise recognize merit in one another’s concrete findings. Some of these disputes concern the proper rela- tionship between empirical studies and general theoretical claims, but this does not make ethnomethodology itself atheoretical. The problem would be in trying to come to ethnomethodology for the first time through theory as though it were fundamen- tally a theoretical enterprise. Whatever general statements anyone is inclined to make on behalf of ethnomethodology, none of them are “true” or even intelligible independently of the empirical studies that inspire them.


Ties between ethnomethodology and Parsonian functionalism are probably the least controversial theoretical entry to ethnomethodology. The ties are plainly biographi- cal and historical (Heritage 1984). Functionalism as a wellspring of ethnomethod- ological vision was often obliquely referenced by early proponents of the new discipline (for example, Wieder 1974; Wilson 1970; Zimmerman and Wieder 1970). Charles Lemert, also a student of Parsons, describes Garfinkel’s unusual qualities as a graduate student this way: “What separates Garfinkel from others is that, unlike me, he was not taken in and, unlike others, like C. Wright Mills, he was not obses- sively critical of Parsons” (Lemert 2006: ix). This nicely summarizes Garfinkel’s attitude toward Parsons: certainly not hostility, indeed great admiration, but an admiration tempered by a radically empirical attitude in the form of “Well, let’s see.”

The great Parsons project was solving the “problem of social order” put in the form of a question, “How is society possible?” He conceived the problem as origi- nating in Hobbes, and he conceived existing society in Hobbesean ways: a strictly behavioral order that can be witnessed by any competent observer but one neverthe- less difficult to explain or to account for. The order initially on display is non-con- troversial. Parsons called it “factual order” (Parsons 1968: 91–2) – patterned and repeating behavioral routines that are both structural and predictable by their regu- larity. Why are they there, he wondered, and how might we account for them as opposed to the randomness that utilitarian actor theory would predict?
Parsons eventually explained social order as caused by a second order, an order he called “normative order” (1968: 91–2), an order he believed is just as empirical as the behavioral order but one which takes special skills to observe. This is the order of “norms and values,” the heart of Parsons’s voluntaristic theory, which was the subject of so much functionalist elaboration in later decades. This is culture, the “body of rules” (1968, passim) which precedes and survives the lives of all societal actors, but which internalizes to the subjectivity of actors during the process of socialization. This is the order that becomes, through internalization, no different than actors’ points of view. Thus anyone born into a society already in progress – and that includes virtually everyone – has to adapt to real culture as well as subscribe
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to it voluntarily. Factual order results from social actors’ voluntary compliance with normative order and behavioral conformity to its prescriptive demands. Factual order “mirrors” normative order, in that sense, as though every standardized behav- ior were deductively linked to a rule that prescribes it (Wilson 1970).
Parsons’s solution thus sets up a definite ontology: a factual order, a normative order, and a deductive relationship between them. Of special importance to Parsons was that his solution also account for actors’ subjective states, for such was the stated utilitarian problem in the first place. Without subjectivity, actors’ patterned behaviors might be written off to biological instinct or environmental conditioning, an objectionable position Parsons calls “radical positivism” (1968: 60–9). Parsons saves actors’ subjectivity as internalized culture, a “body of rules,” and thus definite mental content. In that actors all internalize the same culture, Parsons’s theory also explains intersubjectivity, known historically to philosophers as the problem of other minds. People know each other’s subjective orientations because they share the same subjective orientations. This makes communication possible via common language, and it provides for the stability of both face-to-face interaction and higher social organization ultimately known by everyone as the society itself. So we add these additional elements to Parsons’s ontology: subjectivity as definite content and intersubjectivity as overlapping subjective material.

Garfinkel’s experiments were set up as though he were looking for empirical verification of Parsons’s analytically derived theory. His failure to validate Parsons’s ontology was Garfinkel’s first major achievement, for in the process he turned up “an immense, hitherto unknown domain of social phenomena” (Garfinkel 1967: ix), phenomena he called “members’ methods,” the study of which, as a topic in their own right, became the basis for his new coinage to name these studies: ethno- methodology. Partly because of the internal ecology of Parsons’s theory, and partly because of some natural features of the social world, any of Garfinkel’s studies can be seen as addressing Parsons’s theory in its entirety. But for explanatory purposes, it is possible to break it down into specifics, which I will do here.

The most counterintuitive of Garfinkel’s revelations challenged the very existence of what practically everybody, until then, took for granted as an indisputable given: factual behavioral order, social structure, the society at large in all of its micro and macro manifestations. A good example derives from a study carried out at a mental health clinic, where Garfinkel assigned student researchers the task of discovering the standardized routine whereby patients were processed through various treat- ment stages (Garfinkel 1967: 18–24). His initial request was not much different than holding students to the highest standards of traditional social research. He asked them to consult files and to code real clinic events to find objective evidence of factual order. In the day-to-day workings of the clinic, both clinic members and coders themselves took the standardized order for granted, could understand it, could see it and appreciate it. Coders were nevertheless unable to document it without grounding their documentations in “loose” knowledge of clinic routines that was itself uncoded. Every effort to capture the uncoded knowledge with precise methodological criteria depended in turn for its adequacy on yet further uncoded knowledge of the clinic for determining that coded versions were coded correctly. When coders were asked to disregard their loose knowledge in order to code clinic events objectively – as though commonsense knowledge corrupts or biases objective
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renderings – they found the requests incomprehensible. Thus no matter how the objective renderings turned out, the actual work of the clinic (as well as the work of the coders) remained undescribed. It escaped detection even as it was counted on to produce the objective renderings. Garfinkel called this work “ad hoc” practices.

Ad hoc practices were a major focus in Garfinkel’s early work, and while he developed other names for them (including “glossing” [Garfinkel and Sacks 1970], “let it pass,” “et cetera,” “unless,” and “factum valet” [1967: 3, 20–1]), they became almost synonymous with “members’ methods,” or ethnomethods, as the designated topic of ethnomethodology. These same practices essential for sustaining a Parsonian factual order were equally implicated in other Parsonian notions. Most commonly cited is Garfinkel’s treatment of rule-governed behavior, the very essence of Parsonian explanation. As opposed to clear deductive linkages between rules and behavior, Garfinkel found a chronic incompleteness in rules, in terms of both their number and their clarity. When playing tic-tac-toe, experimenters would erase opponents’ marks, replacing them with their own (Garfinkel 1963). Subjects would see that as a rule violation even though nobody could document the rule either as written someplace or as learned sometime in the past. Likewise in chess, replacing an opponent’s piece with an identical piece from the box was cited as a violation even though it did not affect the outcome of the game and no proscription could be found in any of the published volumes about chess. Students cited such rules anyway – as “known in the first place” and “there all along” – even though they were producing them for the very first time, in effect making them up, to cover a precise contingency.

Indeed Garfinkel found people can appeal to rules even without the “game” premise that some sort of rules are in play (cf. Bittner 1967). During conversations with others, he would reveal a portable tape recorder in the “record” mode hidden in his pocket (Garfinkel 1967: 75). Here his fellow conversants invoked a sense of there having been a prior “agreement” that the conversation was private and should not be recorded. (This was before the proliferation of small tape recorders and well before Watergate.) It did Garfinkel no good to point out that he had never entered into an agreement at all. At the same time, however, Garfinkel found that people can sometimes violate presumably existing institutional norms with surprisingly little consequence. When bargaining for store merchandise in department stores, in apparent violation of the “institutionalized one price rule” (so named by Parsons), students were surprised to learn that they could secure lower prices and said they planned on engaging their newly acquired skills in the future (Garfinkel 1967: 68– 70). Here Garfinkel concludes that standardized society and standardized expecta- tions “could consist of an attributed standardization that is supported by the fact that persons avoid the very situations in which they might learn about them.” He adds, “the more important the rule, the greater is the likelihood that knowledge [of the nature of rule-governed actions] is based on avoided tests” (1967: 70).

In general, Garfinkel found that people do not so much follow rules as use them, manipulate them, ignore them, invoke them, or invent them whole cloth for practi- cal purposes – to instruct others, to explain behavior in retrospect, to anticipate behavior, to normalize behavior, to restore temporarily disrupted order, to find fault, to repair damaged rapport, or, most generally, simply to describe behavior as

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the behavior-that-it-is, that is as factual in the first place (see comments on “reflexiv- ity” in Garfinkel 1967: 7–11, and in Wieder 1974). At the same time, people are not patient with others who call forth rules, no matter how deeply respected, that are not seen as relevant to the actual circumstances in which they are invoked, no matter how compellingly one can argue that, in general or from a theoretical stand- point, they should be relevant (cf. Garfinkel and Sacks 1970: 363). Hence people appealing to rules that might apply from a disinterested categorical standpoint, but do not apply in the immediate here and now as a practical matter, run risks of being viewed as obstructionist (see Zimmerman 1970, 1974). That people eschew obstruc- tionism may account for how easily Garfinkel’s students were able to negotiate ways around apparently institutional rules such as the one-price rule.

Garfinkel’s studies also addressed shared understanding, revealing that subjectiv- ity is not definite “content” and neither is intersubjectivity a matter of material in common between two minds (Garfinkel 1967: 24–31). He started off tendentiously assuming that Parsons was correct on this point, and, in that spirit, went looking for shared material. He did this by asking participants in a conversation to write down what they had said in one column, in the manner of a transcript, and what they had “understood they were talking about” in a second column, in the manner of detailed clarification of the transcript. The transcript could then be read as short- hand for what was intended in the actual conversation but unnecessary to delineate in real time. Yet Garfinkel could show conversants that the clarified version required further clarification in order for an independent auditor to know exactly what the conversants originally had in mind, and he asked them to write it as a third column. Predictably, their renditions of the original conversation increased in length with every new clarification. They eventually gave up on the task of “finishing” this ongoing clarification process, complaining that it was impossible. For Garfinkel, the impossibility resided not in the massive complexity of intended material but in the “branching texture” of the experiment itself, the writing, which in each case pro- duced the “more” that needed to be clarified. As he put it, “The very way of accomplishing the task multiplied its features” (1967: 26). Garfinkel concludes that intersubjectivity or “shared agreement” is not content or material at all – it is “an operation [a procedure] rather than a common intersection of overlapping sets [mental material or content]” (1967: 30).

Closely related to this study are the experiments in which Garfinkel (1967: 42–4) had students act on the assumption that what is said “refers” to what is meant and that it should be possible to get at the latter by clarifying the former. Hence students would ask people to explain what they meant by such utterances as “I had a flat tire,” “How’s your girlfriend feeling?” “I’m sick of him,” and “How are you?” That students would even seek such clarification was met with confusion and hostil- ity, especially when offered clarification prompted requests for more clarification in kind. It is as though students were violating a background premise of any conversa- tion before its inception: “We will know what each other is talking about (unless there are shared, recognizably accountable reasons for breakdown subject to repair through further clarification, which will be understood).” Anyone who has found himself nodding to another’s talk without a clue as to what the person might be saying will appreciate this tactic, even though it is not restricted to those kind of interactions and is indeed invariant even in the most concerted and vigorous produc- tions of “shared agreement.”
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The last example above brings us to a subtle matter that may have confounded efforts to come to terms with ethnomethodology, especially in its early days, and that is the sense in which ad hoc practices are productive of impressions about the social world that social science cannot strictly ratify empirically: that there are standard and repeating behavioral routines (cf. Zimmerman and Pollner 1970), that society is rule-governed (Zimmerman and Wieder 1970), that people “mean” things by what they say (Wieder 1970), and that commonsense knowledge consists of mental content shared between subjective actors (Wieder 1974). These impressions, for societal members, are difficult to “see through” and are experienced almost in the manner of incorrigible axioms (see Pollner 1987) by the very people who are producing them. The subtlety consists in the fact that these commonsense axioms of everyday life are also the axioms of Parsonian sociology. It is a simple matter, then, to demonstrate how functionalist scholars are themselves implicated in the production of the very phenomena they present to the world as objective discovery (Hilbert 1992: 165–87). Nevertheless, unless Garfinkel intended major criticism of human beings for doing what they do and thinking what they think, in what sense did his studies, in reducing Parsons’s ontology to social practices, “overthrow” Parsons’s theory?
No doubt this little paradox figures into Garfinkel’s ability to mix dynamic criti- cism and deep admiration with respect to his famous teacher. In Ethnomethodolo- gy’s Program (2002), he claims nothing less than enthusiasm for the discoveries and accomplishments of “the worldwide social science movement” even as he character- izes their common unwillingness to see order in the “concreteness of things.” His introduction to Studies states that “there can be nothing to quarrel with or to correct about practical sociological reasoning” (1967: viii; cf. 2002: 121). Early ethnometh- odologists bundled Parsons with all pre-Garfinkel sociology as “traditional sociol- ogy,” seeming to fault the way it embraces everyday commonsense axioms as resources, as unquestioned premises, for further study – as they put it, “confusing topic and resource” (Zimmerman and Pollner 1970; Zimmerman and Wieder 1970). Even here, though, there is no overt claim that the traditional sociologies have got it, specifically, wrong. More to the point, standard social scientists are ignoring something, something perhaps substantively irrelevant to their own work, but nevertheless something essential to the production of their studies as well as the perceived stability of everyday life. Hence the term “folk science,” or science-from- within-that-which-it-studies, to describe traditional sociology.

In his seemingly more critical mode, Garfinkel characterizes standard social science as a preoccupation with replacing ad hoc social practices with methodologies and standard vocabularies that lack the natural ambiguities of everyday language, a process he calls the “substitution of objective [context-free] for indexical [context- dependent] expressions” (1967: 4–7). Analogizing this program with tearing the walls of a building down to see what holds the roof up, Garfinkel notes that the long-term project is doomed to failure, because, as he puts it, all expressions are indexical, including the meaning of “context.” Members’ practices are irremediable, in that sense, and invariant to anyone’s recognition of social order, including profes-

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sional sociologists’ efforts to nail down the nature of society scientifically. Social scientists always encounter a familiar “gap” between their general accounts and what they have on hand empirically, a gap they artfully ignore or only acknowledge in anticipation of closing the gap in future studies. This includes efforts to “opera- tionalize” concepts or turn natural categories into variables or scales (cf. Benson and Hughes 1991; Lynch 1991), and it includes footnoted acknowledgments of the gap, or discussions about it in methods appendices, where again a gap appears and is likewise artfully ignored. In other words social scientists have to allow whatsoever they have on hand to count as evidence of presupposed patterns or theoretical prin- ciples, even while using these same principles as instructed ways of seeing what, exactly, they have on hand. This is a practice they share with everyday members of society, a practice Garfinkel calls, following Karl Mannheim, “the documentary method of interpretation” (1967: 77–9; cf. pp. 101–3). Examples Garfinkel cites in everyday life include recognizing mailmen, friendly gestures, promises, and what somebody is talking about. Examples from professional sociology include recogniz- ing “Goffman’s strategies for the management of impressions, Erikson’s identity crises, Riesman’s types of conformity, Parsons’ value systems, Malinowski’s magical practices, Bales’ interaction counts, Merton’s types of deviance, Lazarfeld’s latent structure of attitudes, and the U.S. Census’ occupational categories” (1967: 78–9).

As surely as Garfinkel makes his case, such commentary surely fed impressions that he “had it in” for the social sciences, that he wanted to discredit the whole enterprise. But just as surely, ethnomethodologists are not out to discredit anyone. If they were, they would have to begin by discrediting the entirety of the human species. By extension, their studies would then seem to undermine and discredit whatever institutionalized ways of acting and knowing have come within their purview, including: the natural sciences (Bjelic and Lynch 1992; Garfinkel 2002: 263–85; Garfinkel, Lynch, and Livingston 1981; Lynch 1985, 1993), police prac- tices (Bittner 1967; Whalen and Zimmerman 1987, 1990; Whalen, Zimmerman, and Whalen 1988; Zimmerman 1992), professional media practices (Clayman and Heritage 2002; Fishman 1980; Jalbert 1999), professional medicine (Atkinson and Drew 1979; Heritage and Maynard 2006; Maynard 2003; Sudnow 1967), deductive logic and other forms of reasoning (Coulter 1991; Livingston forthcoming), math- ematics (Livingston 1986), legal argument (Maynard 1984; Pollner 1987; Sudnow 1965), and all manner of professional work (Boden and Zimmerman 1991; Drew and Heritage 1992). In none of these studies, though, have ethnomethodologists sought to discredit (or affirm) the work of practitioners even as their studies reveal how the work of practitioners is made real and accountable in practitioners’ own terms. For the most part this much is apparent to any capable reader of ethnometh- odological studies. Yet this same transparency is far less obvious where studies reveal the methodogenic foundations of the social sciences. Indeed sociologists have sometimes found themselves under such discrediting assault that they have sought refuge in caricatures of ethnomethodology that make it seem easy to dismiss – trivial, commonsensical, subjectivist, idealist, neo-positivist, reactionary, liberal, relativis- tic, mentalistic, or ridiculous (see Maynard 1986; cf. Sharrock and Anderson 1991). Why is this?
The answer lies partly in the fact that sociologists’ own studies of like settings are competitive with Garfinkel’s in that Garfinkel is himself a sociologist. More
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importantly, a tacit obligation to read ethnomethodology and somehow come to terms with it pervades sociology in ways that it does not pervade other professions, again precisely because Garfinkel is a sociologist. And it is not altogether uncommon for members of a setting undergoing ethnomethodological investigation to suspect hostile intent or some kind of discrediting project, to wit: students asked to behave as guests in their own family homes, to behave deferentially and politely, found family members upset and annoyed, sometimes explosively so, even when the point of the experiment was divulged and the period of experimentation was over (Gar- finkel 1967: 47–9). People asked to explain exactly what they mean by what they say generally find such probings rude, annoying, or hostile, and they respond in kind (1967: 42–4). Garfinkel’s efforts to get jurors to talk about their actual prac- tices of deliberation, as opposed to the way they describe them in idealized accounts, “rapidly used up interview rapport” (1967: 113). And astronomers, after reading what ethnomethodologists had reported on their work by examining tape recordings of their pulsar discovery (Garfinkel, Lynch, and Livingston 1981), joked that Gar- finkel was a dangerous man.
Such outcomes shed light on one of the earliest named properties of social prac- tices, their character as “uninteresting” (Garfinkel 1967: 7–9). One indicator of practical success in any social occasion is the artful cover-up, the active camouflage, of these practices, and that certainly includes not talking about them. They are not proper topics of discussion. Although “known” by virtually everybody, there is almost a taboo against topicalizing them. There are some loosely delimited excep- tions, the most obvious being jokes, comedic routines, or settings – such as argu- ments or political debates – where people are indeed trying to discredit one another, yet even here ad hoc practices are treated not as invariant but as momentary, cir- cumscribed, unusual, cynical, or the antithesis of good faith. Ethnomethodology proposes social practices as a topic in their own right – practices without alternative or remedy. Hence the conundrum for sociologists: while other professions can rightly shrug off these studies as irrelevant to their trade, sociologists find ethno- methodology directly in their midst, commenting on them in every literature review, which seemingly makes them endless subjects of an endless breaching experiment (cf. Hilbert 1989 on Durkheimian anomie and ritual crime production). How to deal with ethnomethodology? Isolate the culprit. Bag it.
For the most part, such marginalization efforts have failed. Exactly why they failed would make a lengthy sociohistorical study in itself. There was nothing fore- seen about ethnomethodology’s fortunes, nothing forgone on the basis of merit alone. In the early 1970s, informal speculation among graduate students about ethnomethodology’s future ran the gamut of possible outcomes – it was a mere flash in the night, better have a backup plan; it would be the hottest thing on the job market in a few years, you can name your salary; under political pressure it would be absorbed by social psychology and lose its identity; it would be institutionalized by prominent universities competing to establish independent Departments of Eth- nomethodology. So what happened? As Garfinkel might put it, people just kept doing studies.

Forty years after Studies we might still ponder ethnomethodology’s future, but “flash in the night” speculation has been put to rest. The number of publications, around 20 in 1972, has proliferated into the thousands, including individual and
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collected articles, books, and other monographs. Ethnomethodology has inspired generations of diverse research around the world in at least six languages, with special concentrations at various campuses of the University of California, Univer- sity of Manchester, Boston University, University of Wisconsin, University of London, and the Palo Alto Research Center. Ethnomethodology has influenced vir- tually every substantive area of sociology as well as cognate disciplines such as communications, education, medicine, law, and cognitive science. Every year it is the focus of professional conferences and workshops all over the world. Ethnometh- odology and conversation analysis is now an independent section of the American Sociological Association. Ethnomethodological studies are increasingly honored by the wider profession as exemplary sociology, such as Michael Lynch’s (1993) Sci- entific Practice and Ordinary Action: Ethnomethodology and Social Studies of Science, which received the 1995 Robert K. Merton Professional Award from the ASA Science, Knowledge and Technology section. News of ethnomethodology’s practical relevance even to “applied” sociology and other professions is spreading, such as Maynard, Houtkoop-Steenstra, Schaeffer, and van der Zouwen (2002) on survey research, Maynard (2003) on diagnostic news in medicine (see Frederic W. Platt’s 2003 review in the Journal of the American Medical Association), and Lucy Suchman (1987, 1994) on computer applications. Clearly, as Deirdre Boden knew as far back as 1990 (p. 185), “Ethnomethodology is here to stay.”


If “ethnomethodological theory” sets some ethnomethodologists back a few paces, “ethnomethodological ontology” should really set their teeth on edge, due to a marked reluctance to state, outright, “what is” – mostly eschewing misleading resemblances to philosophical statements about reality and what it contains. Eth- nomethodology is clearly not a philosophy about “what is.” But no more is Par- sons’s sociology a philosophy of “what is” other than derivative rephrasings of what Parsons, in his stated manner of discovery, asserts is empirically the case: there are social structures, there are norms and values, there are internalized common mean- ings and shared expectations. What might be appropriate “there are” statements concerning what ethnomethodologists find in their empirical studies?
One thing ethnomethodologists do not find in their studies is a macro-order as reported by macro-oriented sociologists – conceived as social structure, class rela- tions, interest group competition, conflict, power struggles, cooperation, or products of structuration activities. But neither do they find micro-order as reported by micro- oriented sociologists – conceived as small group interaction, role-taking, role- making, subjective interpretation, conformity to status rules, rational decisionmaking, or structuration activities. Instead, ethnomethodologists assert that wherever in the society one looks, wherever one turns one’s attention to the concrete activity empiri- cally on display, one will find, right then and there, social practices productive of, by and for the members, all of the micro/macro matters of relevance for those members in that specific setting (Hilbert 1990). None of it is constructed as stable products exportable from the immediate setting as constraint at a later time except insofar as whatever it “is” for members can be reconstituted as something altogether different in terms of the contingencies at that “later time” (see Zimmerman and

ethnomethodology 171
Pollner 1970). In that sense, both micro and macro sociological matters, in whatever terms, are always embedded in the immediate here-and-now settings of their produc- tions and are not recoverable at a later date as what-they-really-are either by members of other settings or by professional sociologists.

Ethnomethodologists’ strong preference for empirical studies should remedy impressions that ethnomethodological assertions are made on the basis of logical necessity, such as a philosophy of radical context-embeddedness might dictate. Right there, in that concrete setting, is all any analyst needs to know about the micro/macro order that is of relevance to members of the setting. Setting members display the relevance in the immediacy of the here and now. There is no necessity, then, to account for local activity in terms of something not present – either inter- nalized meaning or the culture at large. This is so whether we are witnessing a transient production of “immortal, ordinary society” (Garfinkel 2002) in common- sense situations in everyday life, or whether we are witnessing sociologists doing whatever they need to do to publish, for the world, the convincingness of their formal theories, their data-based claims about what kind of a thing society is “overall.”

As Sharrock and Button put it, “ethnomethodology makes no attempt to con- struct a conception of the social whole” (1991: 143). They also note how easy it is to misread ethnomethodology as thereby “denying existence of any such whole.” And indeed, this makes for endless mischief, for sociologists can easily and unceas- ingly display the convincingness of macro-sociological matters, matters which, for them, ethnomethodologists simply “refuse” to recognize. Obviously, they say, there are large-scale institutional phenomena that ethnomethodologists refuse to recog- nize, and they can produce the evidence, and the evidence is astonishingly convinc- ing. But somebody is doing that, is the ethnomethodological reply, and that somebody is: professional sociologists themselves. That they are doing it does not discredit the activity, and that they are doing it so well is what attracts Garfinkel’s great admira- tion. But that they are doing it is a phenomenon in its own right, the phenomenon to which ethnomethodology directs our attention.

If anything is axiomatic to ethnomethodology, then, it would be that “there are” social practices available for the seeing, and that wherever one finds them, social order will be right there. That these practices are not subjective or “interpretive” is indicated by their very empirical availability. That they are not individualistic is indicated by the fact that nobody is ever “free” to do just anything and have it count as competent membership. There is just as much constraint, on everyone, as Durkheim imagined (Hilbert 1992: 27–82), and trouble with the constraint leads to just as much anomie (Hilbert 1992: 83–103). But the constraint is observable in the very work being constrained. Members constrain one another, in that sense, though collectively they often experience the constraint as coming from outside the immediate setting – as policy, as tradition, as culturally mandated, as structural. This is a powerful impression, so powerful – and likewise so often cited in everyday discourse as “what society requires” – that it feeds directly into the very foundations and premises of most social research.

In teaching ethnomethodology I have had some success with an analogy to a jazz band jamming together, an improvisational session producing music known by none of the players in advance of playing. They “go along” with each other. None of them is free to play just any old thing. They are listening to one another as they
172 richard a. hilbert
play. They riff, they shift from key to key, they pass melody lines off to each other. What they play is not laid out in advance by composition, yet, if they are any good, the outcome will be something that deserves to have been written. They are satisfied in the end, but should they consult with one another and discover that every one of them was constrained during the playing, they might, in this ambitious analogy, be amazed by an impression that there was “something else” constraining all of them at the same time. Maybe the piece was actually composed by somebody after all, maybe they only recognized it as they played it but once recognizing it had no choice but to play it. Maybe God wrote it. Maybe they had heard it as small chil- dren. Maybe they had all dreamed it the night before. But they were certainly “going along” with something. Must be something big.

Naturally, jazz musicians would never be puzzled by the way I have described them, and they would not reach such conclusions about the origins of musical con- straint. But this analogy suggests the kind of impressions people produce for one another all the time – something constrains all of us simultaneously. We experience it together. It must be reality. It must be society. It must be rules. It must be . . . some- thing big. And when we want to, or if we need to – or if we are developing a social theory – we can find what it is and name it. As Durkheim cautioned in The Elemen- tary Forms of the Religious Life, sociologists should not view this as superstition or deluded thinking. When people experience moral principles, religious truths, stable bureaucratic policy, or objective reality, they are experiencing something tangibly real: social constraint. That this constraint is concrete – real, not imagined; local, not “somewhere else”; empirical, not theoretical – is one of ethnomethodol- ogy’s most distinctive offerings.
Probably the most counterintuitive ethnomethodological studies are those deriv- ing from some early initiatives by Harvey Sacks in the 1960s and 1970s, then carried on by others in the tradition known as conversation analysis (see Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974). Conversation analysis is taken up by John Heritage in chapter 15, but I will comment on it briefly here. Conversation analysts have turned up empirical social practices whose detailed coordinations are measured in units of time down to tiny fractions of a second. These coordinated events are obviously not noticeable by conversationalists in cognitive ways, and in a certain sense they know nothing about them. But conversationalists nevertheless seem to “experience” them in embodied ways, at least to the extent that they are able to produce them collaboratively and respond to them in kind. More intriguingly, they appear to experience them as the same trans-contextual phenomena otherwise non-empirical but simply assumed as matters of common sense, that is as social structure – gender roles, for example, or status differences (West and Zimmerman 1977; Zimmerman and West 1975). Because of these embodied doings, Schegloff is able to speak of “doing being doctor” and “doing, and displaying doing, doctor” as opposed to conformity to exogenous demands of the doctor role – more generally “the doing of talk” or “doing the interaction” (Schegloff 1987: 219–20) – in explaining why sociologists do not have to resort to external structures beyond the here-and-now interaction to describe how it is that somebody is a doctor or somebody is a patient (cf. Wilson 1991). It is in that sense that the entire structural integrity of society, including whatever its members take to be factual reality (Hilbert 1992: 66–82), is ongoingly reproduced in ongoing behavior, not something external to the behavior

ethnomethodology 173
which is causing it or making people experience it the way they do. That these sense-making practices are embodied but not cognitive – and in that sense social but not cultural – is fascinating. That they could be species-specific behavior is even more fascinating.
Conversation analysts have also expressed interest in the distribution of conver- sational events across myriad settings and interactions (Whalen, Zimmerman, and Whalen 1988). Wilson (1991) raises this question to address a “which is which” problem internal to the dynamics of conversational interaction: If “doing doctor” and “doing patient” are demonstrable productions of the here and now, what determines which participant does doctor and which does patient? Eschewing struc- tural explanations, Wilson nevertheless argues that conversationalists bring to local settings certain foundational presuppositions of structure derived from previous exchanges. That these impressions are endogenously produced in every case does not prevent members from orienting to them subjectively as belief objects in the production of further here-and-now status differences. But as these structural impressions are not in themselves empirical, they ought not to be invoked by social science in accounting for here-and-now displays of doctor/patient identities.

I have commented at length about how ethnomethodology’s focus on endogenous local practices has resulted in its being mistyped as one of several microsociologies (Hilbert 1990). But ethnomethodological interest in the distribution of these prac- tices might just as easily cause it to be mistyped as a kind of macrosociology. This is instructive in itself in that it points, by contrast to common impressions, to a generic ethnomethodological indifference (Garfinkel and Sacks 1970) to structure at any level, favoring neither micro nor macro phenomena (Hilbert 1990). Whatever a distribution of local practices across space-time is, or however such a distribution might be conceived, it is not a “social whole” which Sharrock and Button (1991: 143) point out has no place in ethnomethodological studies. Local practices exhaust all possible sense of what “whole society” could possibly be. Nevertheless, social practices are themselves empirically distributed in space and time, somewhat as a quasi-ecology of events whose impacts on one another are biographical, temporal, and sequential. For example, a conversational exchange between an employer and an employee might have a bearing on conversations later that evening between a father and other family members, and it is little more than a mapping problem to show how someone moves from one conversational setting to another. Indeed an entire biography, from birth to death, could be conceived as a series of interactional exchanges linked in space-time by a body’s motion from one local setting to another. A biography could be “drawn,” in that sense, on a map (Hilbert 1990).

What might this overall distribution “look like” and how is it not macrosocio- logical? To begin with, an ecology of sense-making activities is not indexed or ref- erenced by investigations intended to describe society. It is uninteresting, as members’ practices are themselves uninteresting. It occupies space-time in the manner of a population occupying territory, but it is not the society theorized via commonsense or professional methods of inquiry or description. It is not ordered, and it is neither acknowledged nor referred to in or through order-making practices, nor it is pro- duced by those practices. It is the distribution of those practices. It is not social but exhibits social practices in concrete manifestations across space-time. While it is theoretically empirical, it is not stable and will not sit still for fly-over photography
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in the manner of macro-photographical maps. Its pieces and constantly shifting ecology are biographical, temporal, and sequential – and they are in principle empirical even if inaccessible for reasons quite different than why a “social whole,” or “society in general,” is inaccessible. A distribution of social practices is empirical, but not even the most dedicated of macro-sociologists will try to theorize it.

These considerations bear some momentary resonance with what Randall Collins calls “Interaction Ritual Chains” (1981, 1987), which he characterizes as empirical linkages between sites where myths of sacred objects are re-celebrated and sustained in the sense of Durkheim. Herein is the “ritual” of Interaction Ritual Chains, includ- ing their linkages across space-time as a distribution of Durkheimian ritual settings, places and moments where “the society” and everything equivalent to it are end- lessly reproduced (Hilbert 1990). Collins allows that these ritual sites may be con- versations. But the contrast between Collins’s idea and ethnomethodology is just as illuminating. Collins uses his concept to forge a micro–macro link, wherein the details of local practices are conceived as micro-structure (thus connected to the misleading impression that ethnomethodology is microsociological) and their dis- tribution is conceived as the “stuff” that gets reified by local practices (thus con- nected to the misleading impression that what gets theorized locally “exists” somewhere else in a pre-theoretical state). Ethnomethodology allows a more precise vision, distinguishing between what empirically (actually) and what theoretically (supposedly) is the case.

Thus ethnomethodologists can allow that “there are” social practices and “there are” distributions of these practices. Social practices happen simultaneously, all at once, no matter the cacophony of white noise one would pick up trying to record all of it. There is no order to be found there. Distributions of practical sense-making sites and the bodies that occupy them might be understood to be shifting and mor- phing in a never-ending state of flux, but there are no repetitions or naturally occur- ring categories – there are no natural patterns. Whatever relevance ritual chains have for sense production in an instance is no different than whatever conceptual resources local members bring from other instances, such concrete connections being empirical, embodied, temporal, and sequential. In any case, sense-making in an instance is a fully enacted accomplishment in that very instance – sometimes referred to as its “first time through” character – and whatever topics members orient to in an instance, those topics do not include the distribution of social prac- tices any more than they include social practices themselves.


I began by noting ambivalence among ethnomethodologists concerning social theory as it relates to ethnomethodology. Some boldly theorize ethnomethodology, others eschew all contact with theory; nearly all are cautiously nuanced in their renditions. I conclude with this same ambivalence, repeating that that ethnomethodology is not accessible as a program of research in fulfillment of a theoretical orientation, or a philosophy, no matter how compellingly the latter can be stated. Ethnomethodologi- cal studies are first and foremost empirical. Whatever can be said about ethnometh- odology is no better than, and no different than, the quality of those studies. At the same time, though, ethnomethodologists are increasingly challenged to “say more”

ethnomethodology 175 about what their studies offer the social sciences and to say it in ways that do not
compromise the empirical integrity of the studies.


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