In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Theoretical and Philosophical Background

Sociology Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis
Michael E. Lynch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0216


Ethnomethodology (literally people’s methodology) is the study of practices through which members of a society collectively organize and sustain their activities. As the term suggests, ethnomethodology treats methodology as a widespread social phenomenon in addition to being a specialized set of practices in a science or other professional undertaking. Consequently, for ethnomethodology, the development and practical use of methods is a topic of sociological investigation rather than an exclusive disciplinary resource. Harold Garfinkel (b. 1917–d. 2011) coined the term “ethnomethodology” and founded the field that goes by that name. He studied under Talcott Parsons (b. 1902–d. 1979), but radically transformed the structural-functionalist theory of action that Parsons developed in the 1930s and 1940s. Garfinkel’s distinctive empirical approach to social action and interaction drew upon Edmund Husserl’s (b. 1859–d. 1938) phenomenological analysis of the everyday life-world, which Alfred Schutz (b. 1899–d. 1959) developed for sociology. Garfinkel gave relatively little mention of the philosophy of ordinary language arising from the later philosophical work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (b. 1889–d. 1951), and developed in reference to the social sciences by Peter Winch (b. 1926–d. 1997), but others have drawn linkages between them. Ethnomethodological research describes the organization of situated activities, including commonsense reasoning and ordinary language use, as well as more specialized practices of playing music, solving mathematics problems, or performing scientific experiments. Although ethnomethodology initially developed as part of sociology, and is still recognized as a sociological subfield, it has made inroads into philosophy of social science, social anthropology, communication and information studies, education studies, and science and technology studies. The allied field of Conversation Analysis, founded by Harvey Sacks (1935–1975) and developed by his students and colleagues, has also made strong inroads into sociolinguistics and related areas of research on social interaction.

General Overviews

Garfinkel 1967 is the founding text and most significant position statement for ethnomethodology. Garfinkel 2002 presents more recently developed studies and conceptual themes. For intellectual biographies of Garfinkel and overviews of his contributions see Rawls 2000 and vom Lehn 2014. For summary accounts on various approaches to ethnomethodology, see Benson and Hughes 1983, Heritage 1984, Sharrock and Anderson 2011, and Maynard and Clayman 1991. For a critical review and comparison of ethnomethodology, conversation analysis (CA), and constructivist studies, see Lynch 1993. For exemplary studies, see Livingston 1987 and Liberman 2013.

  • Benson, Douglas, and John Hughes. 1983. The perspective of ethnomethodology. London: Longman.

    An early introduction and overview that was especially important for establishing interest in ethnomethodology in the United Kingdom at a time when some of the leading British sociologists had denounced the field.

  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    The definitive introduction to ethnomethodology. Early chapters outline the approach and its key conceptual treatment of language, action, and the production of social order, followed by chapters that focus on the “achievement” of gender identity, the organizational production of bureaucratic records, and other significant phenomena.

  • Garfinkel, Harold. 2002. Ethnomethodology’s program: Working out Durkheim’s aphorism. Edited by Anne Rawls. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    A collection of studies, most of which were written after Garfinkel initiated the “studies of work” program, presents more recently developed conceptual themes and exemplary studies of “instructed actions” in specialized and everyday activities. The editor’s introduction by Rawls (pp. 1–64) provides biographical details and reflections on Garfinkel’s legacy.

  • Heritage, John. 1984. Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

    A widely cited secondary source on ethnomethodology. Heritage clearly presents how Garfinkel’s approach to social action differs from previous sociological theories of action.

  • Liberman, Kenneth. 2013. More studies in ethnomethodology. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

    Based in part on the author’s notes taken while attending Garfinkel’s seminars, and includes studies and exercises derived from those that Garfinkel developed. Includes a forward by Harold Garfinkel (p. ix).

  • Livingston, Eric. 1987. Making Sense of Ethnomethodology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    A clearly written and faithful summary of Garfinkel’s key ideas, with exemplary exercises and examples.

  • Lynch, Michael. 1993. Scientific practice and ordinary action: Ethnomethodology and social studies of science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A critical review of philosophical and social-theoretic treatments of scientific practice in relation to ordinary activities and commonsense reasoning. The book also discusses the distinctive empirical treatments of social action and interaction in ethnomethodology and CA.

  • Maynard, Douglas, and Steven Clayman. 1991. The diversity of ethnomethodology. Annual Review of Sociology 17:385–418.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A review article that gives a comprehensive account of the main lines of research in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.

  • Rawls, Anne. 2000. Harold Garfinkel. In The Blackwell companion to major social theorists. Edited by George Ritzer. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

    An intellectual biography of Garfinkel that ties together different phases of his education and wartime experiences with ideas and methodological strategies developed during his lengthy academic career. See also Rawls’ editor’s introduction to Garfinkel 2002.

  • Sharrock, Wes, and Bob Anderson. 2011. The ethnomethodologists. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Although this book is a brief and readable introduction to ethnomethodology, it provides a well-informed and sophisticated grasp of the ideas and implications of the field. Originally published in 1986.

  • Vom Lehn, Dirk. 2014. Harold Garfinkel. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    A short, readable intellectual biography that presents an overview of Garfinkel’s contributions to social theory and social science research.

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