LAURIER: Ethnomethodological Geography

Ethnomethodology/Ethnomethodological Geography

E. Laurier, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
& 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
have a superior knowledge over the common sense of societies’ members.
Respecification Rather than building new theories or models of society, ethnomethodology respecifies existing epistopics in the light of ordinary practice. There is a desire to investigate foundational matters in human geography and the social sciences more widely through carrying out empirical studies. Bewilderingly, for social scientists that hope for laws or unchanging rules that govern society, ethnomethodological studies do not lead to generalization, instead they surprise from actuality and, sometimes, a form of therapy for the troubles of generalization in the social sciences.
Skepticism Related to the ironic attitude, ethnomethodology is a response to the skeptical attitude in the social sciences which constantly questions whether members of society see things as they really are or are being duped by other (usually larger) actors or foundational ideologies. Ethnomethodology does not seek to defeat the powerful skepticism of the social sciences, rather to show how it reduces, or just misses, all manner of wonderful sense and sense making in human practice.
Unique Adequacy Worried about the social sciences’ tendency to miss the core of what constitutes numerous practical fields of activity, ethnomethodology suggests that its students should achieve at least a vulgar competence in the skills of the groups they are studying. If students remain incompetent in the practices they wish to depict, or to put it more politely, retain a disengaged perspective, they will miss what the activity consists of in terms of its skills, rules, morals, reason, order, and more.
Accountability All human actions are essentially observable and reportable. What is unusual in ethnomethodology is that, not only can people tell us about their activities, but also that those activities are produced so as to be describable in certain ways; in other words, they are ‘reflexively’ accountable. Epistopics A series of epistemic themes and classical sources of theoretical problems in natural and social sciences such as observation, replication, measurement, imagination, and explanation. Ethnomethodology seeks a return to them as ordinary practices (e.g., birdwatchers observing eagles, neurologists redoing an experiment, economists measuring hospital efficiency, landscape gardeners imagining a new shrubbery, and explaining why one was so upset at work today) and in doing so remove the metaphysical aura of these grand topics.
Haecceity What makes an object uniquely what it is, or, the ‘just thisness’ of a thing. In ethnomethodology, there is a desire to get away from assuming we know what even the most ordinary things are and follow what all the ‘this’ and ‘that’ are of any action, event, conversation, and so on.
Indexicality A long-standing and underpinning term in ethnomethodology. Simply put, the relevance, meaning, appropriateness, and correctness of any expression varies as it is put to use in different settings, by different agents, and at different times. Indexicality causes endless problems for those who would try and replace subjective expressions with objective expressions. Nevertheless, and confusingly to many who would assume otherwise, indexical expressions can, and do, nevertheless have rational properties.
Ironic Attitude A common stance of the social sciences toward members of societies’ understanding of events, that what is happening is ‘not’ what they think is happening; it only seems to be like that. From the point of view of the skeptical social scientist, something else is going on. Such an attitude usually substitutes the intelligibility of action at source with explanations from theory that thereby ironize the words and deeds of members.
Reflexivity Related to accountability and indexicality, the concreteness, sense, and intelligibility of human actions are tied to the settings in which they occur, yet also, whose sense they produce. Ethnomethodology diverges from many of the social sciences who have treated a concern with reflexivity as allowing them to
Ethnomethodology is the study of folk or members’ methods for producing recognizable and reasonable so- cial orders, its title deriving from related terms such as ethnobotany which is the study of folk knowledges of plants. It is as happy studying how street sellers pitch their wares as it is examining how social scientists code interview transcripts. Or, as Garfinkel put it during the Purdue symposium,
[T]here are now quite a number of persons who, on a day-to-day basis, are doing studies of practical activities, of commonsense knowledge, of this and that, and of
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practical organizational reasoning. That is what ethno- methodology is concerned with. It is an organizational study of a member’s knowledge of his ordinary affairs, of his own organized enterprises, where that knowledge is treated by us as part of the same setting that it also makes orderable. (Hill and Stones Crittenden, 1968: 10)
This simple definition belies a long-standing conten- tious relationship with the social sciences and an en- gagement with ordinary practice in the face of theorization and modeling that is as powerful as it is puzzling.
Ethnomethodology as a distinctive approach is commonly accepted to have been initiated by Harold Garfinkel in the 1950s in response to a series of problems he had come upon in the 1930s and then in pursuing his PhD in the 1940s under the supervision of Talcott Parsons. His initial work was contemporary with that of Ludwig Wittgenstein and C. Wright Mills, sharing their concerns with the limitations of rules, references, and individualism that had been handed on as solutions to the problem of meaning and intelligibility. It was the publication of ‘Studies in ethnomethodology’ in the late 1960s that really brought what had by then already become a congregation of practitioners (including Egon Bittner, Ed Rose, and Aaron Cicourel) to the attention of the social sciences more widely. At this stage it was centered around the University of California’s campuses and attracted a reputation for being both a committed community of scholars, and something of a cult, that it has never quite lost. It was also at this stage that Harvey Sacks was collaborating with Harold Garfinkel, a fruitful partnership that led to the initiation of conversation analysis as a fraternal twin of ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology caught the atten- tion of a number of young scholars who went on to be- come significant figures in sociology, such as David Sudnow, Lawrence Wieder, Don Zimmerman, Wes Shar- rock, Peter McHugh, Jeff Coulter, and Rod Watson. During this period it also spread beyond the Anglophone academy, becoming established in France and Japan.
While ethnomethodology does not appear to have been adopted as an approach by any particular human geographers during its inception, it was, and remains, congruent with the contemporary concerns of humanistic and phenomenological practitioners in the discipline. Indeed, with the return to prominence of cultural geography within human geography, there has come a renewed commitment to, and concern with, place over more abstract conceptions of space. Human geography today has a still deeper affinity with the early and later concerns of ethnomethodology in its attendance to the conjointness of human practices and particular places.
Moreover, they are both concerned with how it is that similar forms of agency or subjectivity or identity emerge differently in each and every place.
Key Concepts
One should be slightly, no ‘very’, cautious, about pro- ducing headings that would count as a list of ‘key concepts’ in ethnomethodology. A central pursuit in ethno- methodological studies is respecification of concepts in the light of detailed investigations of particular cases and settings. Notionally, any concept is therefore liable to respecification in the same way that concepts from social or cultural theory are open to their deconstruction by Derrideans. In that light, we should note the further har- monies with a human geography influenced by post- structuralism, in its many shapes and forms, that has sought to replace singular and overarching grand theory with more modest and plural theories. Ethnomethodology diverges from many of the more philosophically grounded post-structural geographies by prioritizing detailed in- quiries into practice. This empirical commitment and fo- rensic investment in the details is not to everyone’s tastes.
What is ‘methodological’ about ethnomethodology is the focus on the logic of methods, or in more familiar terms, the logic of practice. This focus is applied across the board from ordinary social situations such as queuing for a bus to social scientists doing standardized surveys. The lack of acceptance of an in-principle distinction between social science methodologies and other more mundane practices had led to some hostility toward ethnomethodology. It has been taken to be bringing the social sciences down from their privileged epistemo- logical position into the muddle of ordinary affairs, whereas what it was doing was raising mundane methods up to the level of more formal methodologies.
In providing a brief list here, the aim is not to limit the concepts; it is instead to offer a flavor of the sorts of concepts that have already been the subject of rigorous study by ethno-inquirers.
Where we might be used to thinking about accountability as definitively characteristic of institutions such as gov- ernments and professional bodies to have to provide justifications of their collective actions, ethnomethod- ology explores accountability as an accomplishment, background expectation, and ongoing concern of human action. It is used somewhat interchangeably with the compound word observable–reportable. What we do be it as, for instance, a local councilor or Simon’s girlfriend, has the characteristic of being always observable and reportable. All human practices, be they of the
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investigator or the member of cultures, are taken to be more, or less, accountable to those involved in them. How we ‘see’ and speak of the reason, morality, and motives of others (and of ourselves) is thoroughly bound up with the observability and reportability of those practices and equally our seeing and speaking has its observable and reportable characteristics.
Where we left off with accountability is where we take up reflexivity. In the social sciences the dominant view of re- flexivity is that it is a privileged maneuver of social scientists that allows them one step up above na ̈─▒ve uses and understandings of language. The social sciences are aware of how certain words or images are ideologically loaded, incorporate hidden meanings, and investigate their speech and writing for similar investments. Ethnomethodology puts reflexivity at the heart of its study of human affairs by treating it as incarnate in those human affairs. In line with raising members’ practices onto the level with the social sciences, members are equally capable of taking one step up and commenting on their and others modes of expression. Ethnomethodology cuts itself adrift by taking social order as locally produced in whatever settings, descriptions (or representations) of particular courses of action which are reflexive to those self-same settings. Reflexivity thus over- laps with accountability in the ongoing production of order in each and every place in the world.
Hopefully there will now be some familiarity with the ethnomethodological drift when it is added that a series of topics related to the study of mind such as motives, rea- sons, intentions, perceptions, imagination, memory, and cognition are taken by ethnomethodology to be locally observable–reportable features of human action. Setting itself against ‘mental’ explanations of how people re- member, reason, imagine, see, and so on, ethnomethod- ology is concerned with how such apparently ‘private’ processes are publicly available. Not only are they publicly available, it is our ongoing concern to make them so.
A recent collection of Garfinkel’s papers was entitled ‘The ethnomethodological program’; it might have been better expressed in the plural. Since its inception, ethno- methodology has sired a number of more or less legitimate offsprings. To begin, once again, where we left off, with the concept of mind, this run of studies is concerned centrally with practical action and practical reasoning. In some ways it has had the longest run given that it begins with Gar- finkel’s famous ‘breaching experiments’ which were
designed to cause the collapse of social order. Therein Garfinkel had his students carry out experiments which disrupted the intelligibility of various places, such as act- ing as lodgers within their own home or refusing to pay the display price of items in shops. Rather than social order collapsing, as certain social theories had posited, it was kept in place, though not without all manner of trouble, complaints, and some pleasing discounts for Garfinkel’s students in department stores.
As noted earlier, the most famous offshoot of ethno- methodology is conversation analysis. Its concern is with the ways in which those who converse are also analysts of the conversation they are ongoingly having with one another. The name of this approach is in a classic ethnomethodological manner the study of the analysis done in, by, and with conversation rather than a pro- fessional and/or scientific abstraction of conversation. However, and somewhat confusingly, conversation an- alysis has also ended up becoming a technical study of language in interaction that in various ways supplants the methods of members with its own more technical lexicon.
Conversation analysis began with Harvey Sacks looking at the detailed methods used by speakers during phone calls. His studies were unusual at the time for making extensive use of audio recordings of actual phone calls to a suicide helpline and between friends, along with other sources of conversation on the phone. Drawing on these materials he respecified a number of major philosophical topics such as measurement, observation, and, once again, mind. Of great importance were how speakers relied on and put to use membership categorization devices and the sequential properties of conversation. This work led ultimately to one of the most cited papers of all time in the social sciences on the turn-taking mechanism. For analyzing transcripts con- versation analysis has been taken up in human geography as an alternative to software-assisted coding. Where the latter is driven by content alone, the latter is a meeting point be- tween content and process. Conversation analysis helps us grasp not only what people have said but how they said it and what they were trying to achieve at the time.
A third branch of ethnomethodology, and one that is perhaps the most obviously geographical, is workplace studies which takes as its concern the production of order in each particular setting of work. While these range across scientific laboratories, truck garages, martial arts studios, court rooms, classrooms, banks, and air traffic control centers, they have a common concern with the routine features of each workplace as they are produced ongoingly, day by day. These features are not merely routine; they are also taken to be the objective, if disputable, phenomena of these workplaces. The constitutive gap between their ob- jective qualities and their indexicality remains the sig- nificant focus for workplace studies.
For a while it seemed like ethnomethodology, with its ethos of having its practitioners become their phenomena
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(e.g., to study law become a lawyer, to study jazz learn to play jazz piano), might disappear into other professional fields entirely. However, in two interdisciplinary realms it has reappeared as a significant school: computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) and science and technology studies. Whether ethnomethodology will become an es- tablished program in geography is not yet clear.
The grounds for the establishment of an ethno- methodological program in geography would at first glance be its harmonies with the archeological approach of Michel Foucault, the underpinnings it has provided in social studies of science and technology, and its ways of accessing and describing everyday life and the ordinary. There are at least two further passages from ethno- methodology to human geography. The first is in its treatment of speech as part and parcel of human action which allies it with the nonrepresentational work of Thrift and others. The second is in its revivification of empirical work and field studies which are there to respecify and put to rest a number of theoretical prob- lems that beset human geography.
Central Misunderstandings
Ethnomethodology seems to have been beset by more misunderstandings than most approaches in the social sciences. Had ethnomethodology come into being now rather than in the midst of the post-war positivist dom- inance in the social sciences, there might have been far fewer. To mention three here:
  1. Ethnomethodologists collect and document various sorts of ‘folk wisdom’ that either underlie or distort more scientific knowledge of the world. From the Purdue Symposium:
    ANDERSON: y There is still the question of whether your concern is that of an outsider studying folk wisdom.
    GARFINKEL: NO! Once and for all, no! We are not studying folk wisdom in an ironic way. I am not saying that I know better. I am not armed with resources that would permit me to say, no matter how discreetly, ‘‘Look, does the botanist believe there are salt water fish in a fresh water lake? Get that!’’ Nor am I saying things like, ‘‘The Catholics believe that whatever it is; the Jews have the inside track on that one.’’ There is no irony. (Hill, 1968: 28)
    An ethnomethodological geography would not supply ‘folk geographies’; to do so would be to ironize how knowing certain things constitutes certain com- munities and equally how certain communities make sense of their actions.
  2. Ethnomethodology is a method. Unsurprisingly, given the positioning of methodology in its title many as- sumed that ethnomethodology is a methodology of
the social sciences or is a variant on ethnography. It is neither. As noted at the beginning of this article, it is the study of methodologies, be they those of members of a queue at a bus stop or members of a neuroscience lab examining images from electron microscopes.
3. Ethnomethodological studies are microstudies. Be- cause ethnomethodology remains stubbornly attached to studying the details of diverse local sites of action, such as looking for a book in a library, a conversation among teenagers, or learning to playing piano, it is often taken to task for missing structures that operate at a larger scale. However, the idea of how a larger context or scale exists in ethnomethodological studies is the same as the treatment of scale or context in actor-network theory. Large-scale structures are, in their haecceities, inevitably and reflexively en- countered locally. The questions raised in ethno- methodology and actor-network theory are: how do they go about ‘localizing’ themselves and how do they go about ‘extending’ themselves into other places. More specifically the concern is whether, and how, larger contexts are made locally available and locally recognizable in any particular course of action.
Future Directions
To maintain its vigor ethnomethodology has always hy- bridized with other disciplines and crafts. As noted earlier the meeting of computing science with ethnomethod- ology in the interdisciplinary zone of CSCW gave fresh impetus to its workplace investigations. The craft skills of writing software and building prototypes required the forms of detailed description of work practice that ethnomethodologists were exceptionally good at offering. Equally, the marrying of science studies and ethno- methodology in the work of Lynch, Livingston, Bjelic, and others has brought a number of new concerns such as, to name but three, epistemology, evidence, and equipment.
Where human geography might entwine with ethno- methodology is, firstly, in its epistopics, some shared with the other social sciences and humanities, and others less so; context, observation, representation, and imagination to name but a few. Second, there are a number of ‘wild geographies’ which are of interest to human geographers and ethnomethodologists. The vernacular geographical knowledges emergent in endless varieties, such as what neighbors know about their neighborhood, how tourists find their way around cities, how browsers search for books in libraries, and how people formulate their location during mobile phone calls. Ethnomethodology could offer a way for human geography to draw succor from these wild variants rooted in other life-worlds than the academy.
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Over the years Bruno Latour has grown increasingly sympathetic to ethnomethodology. His initial responses were somewhat more critical than we now find him. In particular he was uneasy about the lack of a ‘big picture’ or, rather, finding small things rendered large. Here, commenting on an ethnomethodological study of a laboratory.
In reading the book, one has the same feeling as reading a newspaper through a microscope. Somehow the focus does not seem right, and one is tempted to ask, ‘Please, Mike, couldn’t you zoom a bit the other way, I can’t see a damn thing here’. (Latour, 1986: 545)
Latour is not suggesting that the details are not im- portant. What he wants is the ethnomethodologist to travel away from the local worksite to see how it is connected to other worksites. There is no strong reason why ethnomethodologists do not follow chains of con- nection between worksites, though they would be looking for a group of some sort whose daily business is to follow those sorts of connections rather than trying to invent a new methodology for the social sciences that provides a privileged perspective on the action.
Perhaps the most substantial critique comes from Alan Blum and Peter McHugh whose school of analysis grew out of ethnomethodology. Theirs remain, like Latour’s, an understanding of ethnomethodology that is sympathetic, informed, and respectful. What formed their point of departure from ethnomethodology was a disinterest in doing field studies and a return to theo- rizing which, at first brush, appears antithetical to the spirit of ethnomethodology. Yet, the sense of being a respecificatory response to theorists in the social sci- ences is retained. Their critique of ethnomethodology resides in an argument more complex than be rehearsed here on whether irony is always invidious, what the nature of theorist and member relationship is, and the limits of convention. Ethnomethodology, argue Blum and McHugh, reaffirms convention when it could question it and refuses to exercise its authority to for- mulate excellence for members.
See also: Actor-Network Theory/Network Geographies; Ethnography; Non-Representational Theory/Non- Representational Geographies; Regional Geography I.
Further Reading
Bjelic, D. (2004). Galileo’s Pendulum: Science, Sexuality and the Body-Instrument Link. New York: State University of New York Press.
Blum, A. and McHugh, P. (1984). Self-Reflection in the Arts and Sciences. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Brown, B. A. T. and Laurier, E. (2005). Maps and journeys: An ethnomethodological investigation. Cartographica 4(3), 17--33.
Button, G. (ed.) (1991). Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Carlin, A. P. (2003). Pro forma arrangements: The visual availability of textual artefacts. Visual Studies 18(1), 6--20.
Crabtree, A. (2003). Designing Collaborative Systems: A Practical Guide to Ethnography. Heidelberg: Springer.
Crabtree, A., Nichols, D. M., O’Brien, J., Rouncefield, M. and Twidale, M. B. (2000). Ethnomethodologically informed ethnography and information system design. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51(7), 666--682.
Garfinkel, H. (1963). A conception of and experiments with trust as a condition of stable, concerted actions. In Harvey, O. J. (ed.) Motivation and Social Interaction, pp 187--238. New York: Ronald Press.
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Garfinkel, H. (ed.) (1986). Ethnomethodological Studies of Work. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Garfinkel, H. (2002). Ethnomethodology’s Program, Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
Harrison, P. (2008). Corporeal remains: Vulnerability, proximity and living-on after the end of the world. Environment and Planning A 40(2), 423--445.
Hill, R. J. and Crittenden, S. K. (eds.) (1968). Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethdology. Institute for the Study of Social Change, Purdue.
Latour, B. (1986). Will the last person to leave the social studies of science turn on the tape recorder. Social Studies of Science 16, 541--548.
Latour, B. (2003). Paris: Invisible City, Paris, virtual/EN/index.html, Photos by Emilie Hermant, Web Design by Patricia Reed.
Laurier, E. (2001). Why people say where they are during mobile phone calls. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 19(4), 485--504.
Laurier, E. and Philo, C. (2004). Ethno-archaeology and undefined investigations. Environment and Planning A 36, 421--436.
Laurier, E., Whyte, A. and Buckner, K. (2002). Neighbouring as an occasioned activity: Finding a lost cat. Space and Culture 5(4), 346--367.
Livingston, E. (1986). The Ethnomethodological Foundations of Mathematics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Livingston, E. (1987). Making Sense of Ethnomethodology. London: Routledge.
Luff, P., Hindmarsh, J. and Heath, C. (eds.) (2000). Workplace Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lynch, M. (1993). Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action: Ethnomethodology and Social Studies of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McHugh, P., Raffel, S., Foss, D. C. and Blum, A. F. (1974). On the Beginning of Social Inquiry. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Mondada, L. (2007). Deixis spatiale, gestes de pointage et formes de coordination de l’action. In Barberis, J.-M. & Manes-Gallo, M. C. (eds.) Parcours dans la ville. Descriptions d’itine ́raires pie ́tons, pp 211–230. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A. and Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language 50, 696--735.
Thrift, N. (1996). Spatial Formations. London: Sage. Weilenmann, A. (2003). ‘‘I can’t talk now, I’m in a fitting room’’:
Formulating availability and location in mobile phone conversations.
Environment and Planning A 35(9), 1589--1605.
Wylie, J. (2005). A single day’s walking: Narrating self and landscape in

the South West Coast Path. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30(2), 234--247.
Relevant Websites
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The International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis.
Australian Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation
Analysis, School of Media Communication & Culture.
Information on Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis, University of Amsterdam.
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