Maynard: Garfinkel, Sociologist for the Ages

Editors’ Choice

Memorial Essay

Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011): A Sociologist for the Ages

Douglas W. Maynard

University of Wisconsin

Harold Garfinkel, the founder of Ethnomethodology, died at home on April 21, 2011 of congestive heart failure. A major sociologist of the twen- tieth century, his contribution to many fields will undoubtedly continue to be felt for years to come. In this essay, I will discuss the origins of the term ‘‘ethnomethodology,’’ briefly explore ethnomethodology’s rela- tionship with symbolic interactionism, provide a biographical overview of Garfinkel’s oeuvre, list some ways in which the work has had a massive influence, and end with a short discussion of Garfinkel’s legacy. Keywords: Ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, sociological theory


By his own account, Garfinkel invented the term ‘‘ethnomethodology’’ (EM) just after he had been working collaboratively in analyzing tape recordings and inter- viewing jurors from the American Jury Project directed by Fred Strodtbeck at the University of Chicago. Garfinkel (1974:16) noticed that the jurors were often preoccupied with ‘‘magnificent methodological things:’’
... like ‘‘fact’’ and ‘‘fancy’’ and ‘‘opinion’’ and ‘‘my opinion’’ and ‘‘your opinion’’ and ‘‘what we’re entitled to say’’ and ‘‘what the evidence shows’’ and ‘‘what can be demonstrated’’ and ‘‘what actually he said’’ as compared with ‘‘what only you think he said’’ or ‘‘what he seemed to have said.’’ You have these notions of evidence and demonstration and of matters of relevance, of true and false, of public and private, of methodic procedure, and the rest.
So the jurors, investigating their own ways of deliberation, were concerned with issues that can be characterized as ‘‘methodological.’’ Moreover, their investigations

Direct all correspondence to Douglas W. Maynard, Department of Sociology, Conway-Bascom Professor, University of Wisconsin; Madison, WI 53706; e-mail:

Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 35, Issue 1, pp. 88–96, ISSN: 0195-6086 print/1533-8665 online. © 2012 Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. All rights reserved.

DOI: 10.1002/SYMB.4
Memorial Essay: Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) 89
were not like those of the proverbial ‘‘anthropologist from Mars’’, who might operate from the outside to determine the intelligibility of what they were doing and the adequacy of their strategies for determining a verdict. The jurors’ methodological investigations were part of the very same setting in which they were working to render a verdict: their methodological statements did not derive from an imposed metric but from the organized relationship of these statements to other local actions and activities in which they were engaged. In a very serious manner, jurors were making inferences about who did what, when and to whom, and who was at fault, thereby deciding guilt and innocence, or liability, or rendering other consequential verdicts.

Garfinkel (1974:16) states that while writing up the jury materials, he was working with the Yale Human Relations Area Files, a cross-cultural, ethnographic database for educational and research purposes, when he came upon such terms as ethnob- otany, ethnophysiology, and ethnophysics, which describe folk ways of addressing matters of botany, physiology, and physics. Voila! ‘‘Ethnomethodology’’ could be the term applied to jury members’ folk ways of addressing methodological matters for deciding, in a given legal case, between fact and fancy, what actually happened and what appeared to have occurred, lies and truth, credible and not credible statements and stories, and the like. Once coined, the term ‘‘Ethnomethodology’’ came to have a life of its own — to the extent that Garfinkel at times felt like abandoning it in favor of some other appellation for what he and his colleagues were doing as sociologists.


This is not the place to explore in detail the relation between EM and SI. Some symbolic interactionists have wanted to absorb EM as part of their tradition, but the fact is that the intellectual roots, programmatic origins, and analytic thrusts of EM and SI are very different. EM has been strongly influenced by continental philosophy including phenomenology, as well as Parsonian sociology, while SI is embedded much more in the American tradition of pragmatism and the writings of James, Dewey, Mead, and the so-called ‘‘Chicago School’’ of sociology. 

Probably the strongest point of convergence between EM and SI would reside in a mutual interest in Goffmanian sociology, although Garfinkel was critical of Goffman’s work, and Goffman seemed to avoid intellectual dealings with EM. As one who works in the areas of EM and conversation analysis (CA), I believe that there could be more joining of interests between EM and SI (Emirbayer and Maynard 2011), but we are still some distance from seeing that happen in any strong sense. With EM’s longstanding focus on the production of local order, and SI’s interest in the interactional accomplishment of meaning, it seems obvious that they share basic orientations. Moreover, I am confident that Garfinkel would feel honored by an essay in the premier SI journal celebrating his accomplishments and contributions to sociology. He was deeply flattered and grateful when he won the Cooley-Mead award from the Social Psychology section of the American Sociological Association in 1995.

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EM represents an effort to study the methods in and through which members concertedly produce and assemble the features of everyday life in any actual, concrete, and not hypothetical or theoretically depicted, setting. EM’s proposal, one that is ‘‘incommensurate’’ with respect to other sociological theory (Garfinkel 1988), is that there is a self-generating order in concrete activities, an order whose scientific appreciation depends upon neither prior description, nor empirical generalization, nor formal specification of variable elements and their analytic relations. Moreover, ‘‘raw’’ experience—the booming buzz of William James—is anything but chaotic, for the concrete activities of which it is composed are coeval with an intelligible organization that actors ‘‘already’’ provide and that is therefore available for scientific analysis. Members of society achieve this intelligible organization through actual, coordinated, concerted, procedural behaviors or methods and practices.

Garfinkel was a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations where he went to study with Talcott Parsons in 1946, after completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Newark, a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina, and a stint in the army during World War II. Much as Garfinkel (1967:ix) appreciated the ‘‘penetrating depth and unfailing precision’’ of Parsons’s ‘‘practical sociological reasoning on the constituent tasks of the problem of social order and its solutions,’’ his own developing concerns with the empirical detail of ordinary life and activity came to be at odds with Parsons’s emphasis on conceptual formulation and theoretical generalization. While at Harvard, Garfinkel deepened his knowledge of phenomenology—an interest that had been sparked at the University of North Carolina—by meeting with Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch, who were both European philosophers in exile at the New School for Social Research. Consequently, there is a strong influence of phenomenology on EM, but Garfinkel came to deemphasize perceptual knowledge as a mental process or activity in favor of a concern with embodied activity and the practical production of social facts as that production resides in lived experience, whether that experience involves rhythmic clapping, responding to a ‘‘summoning’’ phone, traveling in a freeway traffic wave, standing in a service line, or any other ordinary matter.

After Garfinkel finished his degree at Harvard while he was an Instructor at Princeton (1950 to 1952). Next was a research position at Ohio State University (1952 to 1954), when he also spent a brief time at Kansas as a result of Strodtbeck’s invitation for him to help with the jury project. In the fall of 1954, Garfinkel joined the faculty at UCLA, where he remained for the rest of his career. While there, he trained several generations of students and produced his best-known work, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967). However, he continued working until and after retirement, which occurred in 1987. In 1998, Garfinkel received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nottingham. In recent years, at the urging, and with the aid, of Anne Rawls, to whom I am indebted for biographical information (Rawls 2002), he published three subsequent volumes (Garfinkel 2002, 2005, 2008), although two contain material from the late 1940s and early 1950s.

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Examples of Breaching

To obtain access to members’ methods in a variety of settings, Garfinkel (1962, 1963) introduced his famous ‘‘breaching demonstrations,’’ which reversed the usual sociological preoccupation with factors that contribute to social stability. Breaching involves asking what can be done to make for trouble in everyday events, and shows that troublesome events are themselves revelatory of the ordinary practices whereby stability is achieved.

A tic-tac-toe1 exercise, for example, involves the experimenter inviting a subject to play the game. After the subject starts the game by placing an ‘‘X’’ in a square formed by the tic-tac-toe matrix, the experimenter puts an ‘‘O’’ on a line of the game matrix rather than in a square. The trouble thereby created brings members’ methods to the fore as sources of order. These methods are manifest in the restorative or reparative efforts of participants. When a subject protests to the experimenter, ‘‘Is this a joke?’’, it shows that an ordinary game is to be engaged seriously and by respecting commonsense practices for placing Os and Xs—not any placement will do. And, while playing the game may otherwise be fun, it is not to be done as a prank. When, as they frequently do, subjects invoke the rules of tic-tac-toe to restore order, it shows that the rule usage is ordinarily taken for granted and that the rules become articulated or voiced only in special circumstances. Concrete behaviors may be accountable to rules, but engaging in embodied practices for accomplishing tic-tac-toe is an orderly matter in its own right, not explained or provided for in the rules that these practices may momentarily make visible.
Garfinkel (1967:42) also instructed students ‘‘to engage an acquaintance or a friend in an ordinary conversation and . . . to insist that the person clarify the sense of his commonplace remarks.’’ Here is one of those cases:

The subject was telling the experimenter, a member of the subject’s car pool, about having had a flat tire while going to work the previous day.

(S): I had a flat tire.
(E): What do you mean, you had a flat tire?

She appeared momentarily stunned. Then she answered in a hostile way: ‘‘What do you mean? What do you mean? A flat tire is a flat tire. That is what I meant. Nothing special. What a crazy question!’’
From these case demonstrations, Garfinkel argues that there are ‘‘accounting practices’’ that make what one person says both intelligible and warranted. One of these practices is formulated from the work of Alfred Schutz as adhering to a ‘‘congruency of relevances’’ whereby participants are to assume that differences of perspective in individual biographies are irrelevant for understanding one another. Although in the exchange above, S did not have access to E’s experience with the flat tire, S was to operate under the mutual expectation about assigning meaning to remarks just what a speaker intends by those remarks. Both E and S should furnish

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whatever unstated understandings are required, so that much that is being talked about is not mentioned while being understood at a tacit level. When these accounting practices are denied, as by asking the meaning of commonplace terms used in talk, it is a severe violation of trust or the deep moral order undergirding everyday life and experience. The violation is extremely disorienting, and immediately other accounting practices must be brought to bear on the situation, such as calling a questioner or the question (as above) ‘‘crazy.’’

Naturally Occurring Breaches

Garfinkel also went beyond experimental breaches to examine more naturally occurring disruptions to everyday life. In his influential Studies in Ethnomethodology chapter on Agnes, a male-to-female transsexual, he set the agenda and tone for many subsequent investigations into the accomplishment of ‘‘gender.’’ Garfinkel’s extensive interviews and observations concerning Agnes provide access to something that is utterly routine in everyday life — the achievement of one’s visible and objective status as a man or woman, boy or girl. Because Agnes did not experience her gender visibility as routine or taken for granted, Garfinkel was able to document how she—and, by extension, all members of society—regularly employ tacit means for securing and guaranteeing the rights and obligations attendant upon being seen as a normal, natural, adult female (or male, as the case may be). Agnes was a ‘‘practical methodologist’’ and artfully displayed what is required of anyone who claims to be a bona fide woman. This study has been cited again and again in the literature on gender, and as the field of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender studies has developed, has assumed even more canonical importance.

Garfinkel notes that he initially attempted to use a game metaphor in order to comprehend the various occasions on which Agnes had to ‘‘pass’’ or come across as the normal female person. But he realized that Agnes’ passing eluded attempts to reduce it to playing a game by the rules. There are, he argued, ‘‘structural incongruities’’ between playing a game and sexual passing. Unlike a game, there are no ‘‘time outs’’ and no exits from the work of passing, and only limited capacity for planning one’s strategies for passing because of the ubiquity of unanticipated happenings. Agnes could not be a strategic actor in the way that Goffman portrays the matter, because she could never know in advance exactly what would be required of her, in any given interaction, for displaying herself as a natural female. She was learning what it took to be a woman even as she acted as if she were nonproblematically a woman in the first place.


In 1959, while on sabbatical from UCLA, Garfinkel met Harvey Sacks, who was pursuing his law degree at Yale but would eventually move to the Department of Sociology at Berkeley for graduate work. While at Berkeley, Sacks remained
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in touch with Garfinkel, who brought him to Los Angeles in 1963. Sacks’ lectures and thinking (together with his collaborative relationships with Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson) formed the beginning of what would become the field of CA. The mutual influences between Garfinkel and Sacks are of considerable interest. Their collaborative endeavors are partially embodied in a joint publication, ‘‘On Formal Structures of Practical Actions’’ (Garfinkel and Sacks 1970), in which they argue that sociological reasoning has often aimed to distinguish between ‘‘indexical’’ expressions whose sense derives from their relation to aspects of the immediate context in which participants use them, and objective expressions, whose sense is purportedly context-free. Garfinkel and Sacks argue that the quest for objective expressions, as in science or any other official activity, is endless, because such expressions always depend upon an orderliness that necessarily ties them to the situation of their use. Accordingly, Garfinkel and Sacks recommend a policy of ‘‘ethnomethodological indifference,’’ whereby investigators abstain from judging the status of objective expressions in terms of their adequacy, value, or consequentiality. Instead, the orderliness of any and all human expressions—the practical means by which those expressions attain their sense—is to be brought under study. The orderliness that Sacks, Schegloff, Jefferson, and collaborators in CA began to pursue existed in the sequential organization of everyday talk and interaction, although there is also a stream of conversation analytic work on ‘‘membership categories’’ as devices that are deployed for purposes of making interactional sense.


Meanwhile, Garfinkel’s own interests developed in the direction of scientific and work practice, contributions that have been taken up in sociological studies of technology and science. In the 1980s, Garfinkel and his students turned to the examination of technical competencies in mathematics and the natural sciences, including astronomy (Garfinkel, Lynch, and Livingston 1981). These studies probe the details of ‘‘shop work and shop talk’’ that form the tangible fabric of scientific practice. There is always ‘‘something more’’ to methodological practice than can be provided in highly detailed instructions, formalized guidelines, or accounts of inquiry. The ‘‘something more’’ includes routine practices at the workbench in laboratories and other settings of work. Ten years ago, Garfinkel (2002) became more preoccupied with what he calls the ‘‘shop floor problem,’’ having to do with how generic descriptions of work settings, which attempt to specify the constituents of practice within those settings, confront ‘‘details in structures’’ or coherences in embodied practices that cannot be anticipated by, and utterly defy, the generic descriptions.

In Ethnomethodology’s Program, Garfinkel (2002) makes more explicit the central claim of EM — namely, that it is in the business of working out Durkheim’s aphorism, ‘‘the objective reality of social facts is sociology’s fundamental phenomenon.’’ Rather than claiming that order can only be revealed by aggregating across large sets of data and replacing the concrete, witnessable detail of ‘‘immortal ordinary society’’

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with concepts, EM claims that there is a plenitude of order that is lost to formal analytic theorizing as such theorizing exists in sociology, and elsewhere in the human sciences. Indeed, EM ‘‘respecifies’’ Durkheim’s aphorism in a way that formal analytic techniques do not and cannot. Garfinkel is careful to emphasize that EM is not proposing itself as an alternative to formal analysis, as if it were possible to escape from the search for objective expressions by engaging in a more interpretive endeavor. Rather, EM proposes alternates that are not only coeval but also autochthonous, that is, grounded practices that spring up and exist alongside formal analytic inquiries whenever and wherever participants or members pursue investigations of any kind. The ethnomethodological alternate is however, asymmetrical to formal analytic theorizing, meaning that EM—but not formal analysis—makes it possible to investigate how members of any grouping achieve, as practical, concerted behaviors, the sense of formal truth and objectivity as this sense is necessarily embedded in their everyday casual and work lives.


EM has profoundly and persistently inspired most areas of the discipline. We could add many other examples to Gender Studies, CA, and the Sociology of Science and Technology.
One can hardly read a major social theorist without seeing some attention to Garfinkel and EM. While theorists such as Jeffrey Alexander, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jurgen Habermas are critical of EM, the extensiveness of their remarks shows them to take the enterprise very seriously. Anthony Giddens’ ‘‘structuration’’ theory has taken up EM more sympathetically and systematically, as has Bruno Latour in his ‘‘actor-network’’ theory. So too have Randall Collins and Jonathan Turner. Dorothy Smith, the feminist theorist, draws on Garfinkel and other ethnomethodological writings; ‘‘standpoint epistemology’’ as a form of feminist theory in science studies and other areas reflects Smith’s writings and, by way of that, ethnomethodological concepts having to do with the importance of local, situated practices for the analysis of human conduct. Mustafa Emirbayer incorporates EM in his theorizing about agency and relational sociology. Charles Camic and Neil Gross, in an influential 1998 Annual Review of Sociology article, include EM as among the less formalized but elaborating and developing theoretical projects in contemporary sociology.

Sociology of Social Problems

In this area, a significant research tradition is known as the Social Construction of Social Problems. Although EM did not invent this area, it is one of the most impor- tant influences on it—in particular through the work of Malcolm Spector and John
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Kitsuse in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, James Holstein and Gale Miller rejuvenated this theoretical line with an edited volume (Reconsidering Social Constructionism, 1993) including prominent chapters by ethnomethodologists. Starting in 1989, Hol- stein and Miller also edited a JAI series, calling it Perspectives on Social Problems, which included EM contributions with great regularity. Recently in 2005, as editor of the journal Social Problems, James Holstein commissioned a special section devoted to language, interaction, and social problems, which has papers that highlight various facets of the ethnomethodological program.

Social Psychology

As mentioned earlier, Garfinkel was given the Cooley-Mead award by the ASA Social Psychology Section in 1995, and his address was published in Social Psychology Quarterly as ‘‘EM’s Program’’ (1996), serving as the precursor to the subsequent book. Edited collections in social psychology contain many EM contributions. The movement known as Discursive Psychology, initiated in Britain, by Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter, draws heavily on Garfinkel’s EM.
Other subfields could be mentioned, including computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), sociology of work and occupations, sociology of education, sociology of medicine, deviance and law, and media. In short, there are few, if any, contem- porary sociologists who have had Garfinkel’s towering influence. His writings also have found their way around the globe, particularly in Western Europe, China, and Japan. Gazing into the crystal ball, it is safe to say that his oeuvre will continue to be massively recognized and used in a variety of domains for untold years to come.


Harold Garfinkel also maintained a huge archive of unpublished written materials, lectures, presentations, and recorded conversations with prominent sociologists as well as students and colleagues. This archive, under the direction of Anne Rawls at Bentley University in Boston, is being housed in preparation for making its contents available to the scholarly community. There are also facets of his very original dissertation (Garfinkel 1952) and other unpublished manuscripts that are deserving of publication. While we are fortunate to have all that came into print during Garfinkel’s lifetime, we can look forward to even more gems from this great theorist and empirical genius in future years. Scholars will have a deep trove of materials for further explorations. Much as it is already widely recognized and used, EM as a field may be in its very infancy.


Parts of this essay were previously published with Elizabeth Weathersbee in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
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1. Knownas‘‘noughtsandcrosses’’intheUKandsomeotherAnglophonecountries.


Emirbayer, Mustafa and Douglas W. Maynard. 2011. ‘‘Pragmatism and Ethnomethodology.’’ Qualitative Sociology 34:221–261.
Garfinkel, Harold. 1952. ‘‘The Perception of the Other: A Study in Social Order.’’ Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
. 1962. ‘‘Common Sense Knowledge of Social Structures: The Documentary Method of Interpretation in Lay and Professional Fact Finding.’’ Pp. 689–712 in
Theories of the Mind, edited by Jordan M. Scher. New York: Free Press.
. 1963. ‘‘A Conception of, and Experiments with, ‘Trust’ as a Condition of Stable Concerted Actions.’’ Pp. 187–238 in Motivation and Social Interaction, edited by O. J. Harvey. New York: Ronald Press.
. 1964. ‘‘Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities.’’
Social Problems 11:225 – 50. . 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
. 1974. ‘‘On the Origins of the Term ‘Ethnomethodology’.’’ Pp. 15–18 in Ethnomethodology, edited by R. Turner. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
. 1988. ‘‘Evidence for Locally Produced, Naturally Accountable Phenomena of Order, Logic, Reason, Meaning, Method, etc. in and as of the Essential Quiddity of Immortal Ordinary Society (I of IV): An Announcement of Studies.’’
Sociological Theory 6:103–109.
. 2002. Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
. 2005.
Seeing Sociologically: The Routine Grounds of Social Action. Boulder, CO: Paradigm. . 2008. Toward a Sociological Theory of Information. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Garfinkel, Harold, Michael Lynch, and Eric Livingston. 1981. ‘‘The Work of a Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar.’’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11:131–158.
Garfinkel, Harold and Harvey Sacks. 1970. ‘‘On Formal Structures of Practical Actions.’’ Pp. 337–366 in Theoretical Sociology, edited by J. D. McKinney and E. A. Tiryakian. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.
Rawls, Anne Warfield. 2002. ‘‘Editor’s Introduction’’. Pp. 1–64 in Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism, edited by Harold Garfinkel. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.


Doug Maynard is Conway-Bascom Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is co-editor (with Hanneke Houtkoop-Steenstra, Nora Cate Schaeffer, and Hans van der Zouwen) of Standardization and Tacit Knowledge: Interaction and Practice in the Survey Interview (New York: Wiley Interscience, 2002), co-editor (with John Heritage) of Communication in Medical Care: Interaction between Primary Care Physicians and Patients (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), and author of two monographs: Inside Plea Bargaining: The Language of Negotiation (New York, Plenum Press, 1984), and Bad News, Good News: Conversational Order in Everyday Talk and Clinical Settings (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003). Current work in ethnomethodological conversation analysis includes studies of the survey interview, autism diagnosis, and police interrogation.