Ethnomethodology Theory

By Ayesh Perera, published Feb 11, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Originally developed by Harold Garfinkel, ethnomethodology is a sociological approach that studies how the process of social interactions produces social order (Garfinkel, 1974).
  • In order to analyze how individuals account for their conduct, ethnomethodologists may intentionally unsettle communal norms to evaluate how such individuals respond and strive to restore order to the community (Crossman, 2020).
  • Ethnomethodology examines resources, practices and procedures via which a society’s members interpret their daily lives, and the mutual recognition of which within certain contexts engenders orderliness (Nickerson, 2021)(Williams, 2001).


The ethnomethodological approach focuses on the capacities of people as members of a collective rather than their individuating traits as distinct persons. It is primarily not a theory seeking to analyze social life (Nickerson, 2021).

On the contrary, ethnomethodology frames inquiries and observations into communal interactions, underscoring various individuals’ understanding of their worlds, rather than any theoretical frameworks utilized by social scientists.

Furthermore, according to ethnomethodology human interactions are enabled by, and occur within a consensus which comprises various norms for conduct (Crossman, 2020). These values accompany the members of a society and facilitate its cohesion.

Ethnomethodology assumes that those norms are both uniform and shared, and that violations thereof can unveil for analysis dynamics of a community as well as the manner of its members’ reactions to such transgressions.

Additionally, ethnomethodologists hold that their particular discipline strives to unveil a society’s behavioral norms which its members may otherwise remain unconscious of, and incapable of articulating.


A simple conversation among acquaintances can be construed as a social interaction governed by certain implicit standards of decorum (Crossman, 2020). The partakers in the discussion may nod their heads to communicate agreement, look at each other, and raise and answer questions.

An ethnomethodologist may strive to uncover the norms ruling this interaction by disrupting the conversation [e.g., interrupting the speaker]. Such an intrusion would likely breakdown the previous interaction and replace it with another social situation.

Another example stems of a well-known set of ethnomethodological experiments (Crossman, 2020). Herein, college students were directed to act like guests in their homes without informing their families that this dissimulation was part of an experiment.

The students were to be impersonal and polite. They would employ terms of formal address and talk only after being talked to. Following the experiment, the students reported that the reactions of their families had ranged from humor and bewilderment to shock and anger.

Meanwhile, the students themselves had been accused of being mean, inconsiderate and impolite. However, the students were able to see via the experiment how even informal norms, such as those governing homes, could remain structured, and if broken, could become evident.

Pros and Cons

Ethnomethodology functions as an effective descriptive tool at a micro level. It can unveil group dynamics and communal norms which exert a potent influence upon society while simultaneously escaping notice.

In fact, when individuals encounter difficulty in identifying the very communal norms they themselves live by, the unconventional approach of departing from decorum, inspired by ethnomethodology, can be immensely enlightening (Crossman, 2020).

However, at the same time, ethnomethodology is not a sound explanatory tool capable of accounting for phenomena at a macro level. It avoids normative judgements and has been criticized for wanting a tenable epistemological foundation (Lynch, 2001).

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, Feb 11). Ethnomethodology theory. Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

Crossman, Ashley. (2020). Using Ethnomethodology to Understand Social Order. Retrieved from

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs.

Garfinkel, H. (1974) 'The origins of the term ethnomethodology', in R.Turner (Ed.) Ethnomethodology, Penguin, Harmondsworth, pp 15–18.

Lynch, M. (2001). Science and Technology Studies: Ethnomethodology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 13644-13647). Oxford: Pergamon.

Nickerson, C. (2021). Using Ethnomethodology to Understand Social Order. Simply Psychology.

Williams, J. (2001). Phenomenology in Sociology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 11361-11363). Oxford: Pergamon.