Harold Garfinkel
Harold Garfinkel was a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Los Angeles
The University of California, Los Angeles is a public research university located in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, USA. It was founded in 1919 as the "Southern Branch" of the University of California and is the second oldest of the ten campuses...

. He is known for establishing and developing ethnomethodology
Ethnomethodology is an ethnographic approach to sociological inquiry introduced by the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel . Ethnomethodology's research interest is the study of the everyday methods people use for the production of social order...

 as a field of inquiry in sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...



Garfinkel was raised in Newark, New Jersey, in the years preceding the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

. His father, a furniture dealer, had hoped his son would follow him into the family business. When the time arrived for Harold to attend college, he studied accounting at the University of Newark. In the summer following graduation he worked as a volunteer at a Quaker work camp in Cornelia, Georgia. This was a horizon-broadening experience for Garfinkel. He worked there with students with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds, and this experience influenced his decision to later take up sociology as a career. In the fall of that same year, Garfinkel enrolled in the graduate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a public research university located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States...

 where he completed his Masters in 1942. With the onset of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, he was drafted into the Army Air Corps and served as a trainer at a base in Florida. As the war effort wound down he was transferred to Gulfport, Mississippi. There he met Arlene Steinbach who was to become his wife and life-long partner.

As a student at Chapel Hill, he was introduced to the writings of Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist who served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1927 to 1973....

. In 1946 Garfinkel went to study with Parsons at the newly-formed Department of Social Relations
Harvard Department of Social Relations
The Department of Social Relations for Interdisciplinary Social Science Studies, more commonly known as the "Department of Social Relations" was an interdisciplinary collaboration among three of the social science departments at Harvard University beginning in 1946...

 at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

. He also became acquainted, during this period, with a number of European scholars who had recently immigrated to the U.S. These would include Aron Gurwitsch
Aron Gurwitsch
Aron Gurwitsch was a Lithuanian-born Jewish American philosopher working in the field of phenomenology. He wrote on the relations between phenomenology and Gestalt psychology...

, Felix Kaufmann
Felix Kaufmann
Felix Kaufmann was an Austrian-American philosopher of law.Kaufmann studied jurisprudence and philosophy in Vienna. From 1922 to 1938 he was a Privatdozent there. During this time Kaufmann was associated with the Vienna Circle...

, and Alfred Schütz
Alfred Schütz
Alfred Schütz was an Austrian social scientist, whose work bridged sociological and phenomenological traditions to form a social phenomenology, and who is gradually achieving recognition as one of the foremost philosophers of social science of the [twentieth] century.-Life:Schütz was born in...

, who introduced the young sociologist to newly-emerging ideas in social theory
Social theory
Social theories are theoretical frameworks which are used to study and interpret social phenomena within a particular school of thought. An essential tool used by social scientists, theories relate to historical debates over the most valid and reliable methodologies , as well as the primacy of...

, psychology
Gestalt psychology
Gestalt psychology or gestaltism is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School; the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies...

 and phenomenology. While still a student at Harvard, Garfinkel was invited by the sociologist Wilbert Ellis Moore to work on the Organizational Behavior Project at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

. Garfinkel was responsible for organizing two conferences in conjunction with this project. It brought him in contact with some of the most prominent scholars of the day in the behavioral, informational, and social sciences including: Gregory Bateson
Gregory Bateson
Gregory Bateson was an English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. He had a natural ability to recognize order and pattern in the universe...

, Kenneth Burke
Kenneth Burke
Kenneth Duva Burke was a major American literary theorist and philosopher. Burke's primary interests were in rhetoric and aesthetics.-Personal history:...

, Paul Lazarsfeld
Paul Lazarsfeld
Paul Felix Lazarsfeld was one of the major figures in 20th-century American sociology. The founder of Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research, he exerted a tremendous influence over the techniques and the organization of social research...

, Frederick Mosteller, Philip Selznick
Philip Selznick
Philip Selznick was professor of law and society at the University of California, Berkeley. A noted author in organizational theory, sociology of law and public administration, Selznick's work has been groundbreaking in several fields in such books as The Moral Commonwealth, TVA and the Grass...

, Herbert Simon
Herbert Simon
Herbert Alexander Simon was an American political scientist, economist, sociologist, and psychologist, and professor—most notably at Carnegie Mellon University—whose research ranged across the fields of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, computer science, public administration, economics,...

, and John von Neumann
John von Neumann
John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician and polymath who made major contributions to a vast number of fields, including set theory, functional analysis, quantum mechanics, ergodic theory, geometry, fluid dynamics, economics and game theory, computer science, numerical analysis,...

. Garfinkel's dissertation, "The Perception of the Other: A Study in Social Order," was completed in 1952.

After leaving Harvard, he worked on two large research projects, one conducting leadership studies
Leadership studies
Leadership studies is a multidisciplinary academic field of study that focuses on leadership in organizational contexts and in human life. Leadership studies has origins in the social sciences , in humanities , as well as in professional and applied fields of study...

 under the auspices of the Personnel Research Board at Ohio State University
Ohio State University
The Ohio State University, commonly referred to as Ohio State, is a public research university located in Columbus, Ohio. It was originally founded in 1870 as a land-grant university and is currently the third largest university campus in the United States...

 and the American Jury Project for which he did fieldwork in Arizona. In 1954 he joined the sociology faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles. During the period 1963-64 he served as a Research Fellow at the Center for the Scientific Study of Suicide. Garfinkel spent the ’75-’76 school year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences
The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences is an American interdisciplinary research body in Stanford, California focusing on the social sciences and humanities . Fellows are elected in a closed process, to spend a period of residence at the Center, released from other duties...

 and, in 1979-1980, was a visiting fellow at Oxford University. He retired from UCLA in 1987.

The Roots of Ethnomethodology

Parsons sought to offer a solution to the problem of social order
Social order
Social order is a concept used in sociology, history and other social sciences. It refers to a set of linked social structures, social institutions and social practices which conserve, maintain and enforce "normal" ways of relating and behaving....

 (i.e., How do we account for the order that we witness in society?) and, in so doing, provide a disciplinary foundation for research in sociology. Drawing on the work of earlier social theorists (Marshall
Alfred Marshall
Alfred Marshall was an Englishman and one of the most influential economists of his time. His book, Principles of Economics , was the dominant economic textbook in England for many years...

, Pareto
Vilfredo Pareto
Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto , born Wilfried Fritz Pareto, was an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist and philosopher. He made several important contributions to economics, particularly in the study of income distribution and in the analysis of individuals' choices....

, Durkheim, Weber
Max Weber
Karl Emil Maximilian "Max" Weber was a German sociologist and political economist who profoundly influenced social theory, social research, and the discipline of sociology itself...

), Parsons postulated that all social action could be understood in terms of an “action frame” consisting of a fixed number of elements (an agent, a goal or intended end, the circumstances within which the act occurs, and its “normative orientation”). Agents make choices among possible ends, alternative means to these ends, and the normative constraints that might be seen as operative. They conduct themselves, according to Parsons, in a fashion “analogous to the scientist whose knowledge is the principal determinant of his action.” Order, by this view, is not imposed from above, but rather arises from rational choices made by the actor. Parsons sought to develop a theoretical framework for understanding how social order is accomplished through these choices.

Schütz, like Parsons, was concerned with establishing a sound foundation for research in the social sciences. He took issue, however, with the Parsonsian assumption that actors in society always behave rationally. Schütz made a distinction between reasoning in the ‘natural attitude’ and scientific reasoning. The reasoning of scientists builds upon everyday commonsense, but, in addition, employs a “postulate of rationality.” This imposes special requirements on their claims and conclusions (e.g., application of rules of formal logic, standards of conceptual clarity, compatibility with established scientific ‘facts’). This has two important implications for research in the social sciences. First, it is inappropriate for sociologists to use scientific reasoning as a lens for viewing human action in daily life, as Parsons had proposed, since they are distinct kinds of rationality. On the other hand, the traditionally assumed discontinuity between the claims of science and commonsense understandings is dissolved since scientific observations employ both forms of rationality. This raises a flag for researchers in the social sciences, since these disciplines are fundamentally engaged in the study of the shared understandings that underlie the day-to-day functioning of society. How can we make detached, objective claims about everyday reasoning, if our conceptual apparatus is hopelessly contaminated with commonsense categories and rationalities?

Accepting Schütz’s critique of the Parsonian program, Garfinkel sought to find another way of addressing the Problem of Social Order. He wrote, “Members to an organized arrangement are continually engaged in having to decide, recognize, persuade, or make evident the rational, i.e., the coherent, or consistent, or chosen, or planful, or effective, or methodical, or knowledgeable character of [their activities]”. On first inspection, this might not seem very different from Parsons’ proposal. Their views on rationality, however, are not compatible. For Garfinkel, society’s character is not dictated by an imposed standard of rationality, either scientific or otherwise. Instead, rationality is itself produced as a local accomplishment in, and as, the very ways that society’s members craft their moment-to-moment interaction. He writes:

Social order arises in the very ways that participants conduct themselves together. The sense of a situation arises from their interactions. Garfinkel writes, “any social setting [can] be viewed as self-organizing with respect to the intelligible character of its own appearances as either representations of or as evidences-of-a-social-order.” The orderliness of social life, therefore, is produced through the moment-to-moment work of society’s members and ethnomethodology’s task is to explicate just how this work is done.

A vital thread throughout Garfinkel’s inquiries was derived from Aron Gurwitsch’s studies of the phenomenal field. This interest led Garfinkel to investigate many non-concept driven modes of local organization, investigations that may be witnessed in his studies of the legally blind woman Helen, inverting lenses, freeway traffic flow, and pedestrian crossings. Ethnomethodology has distanced itself from many of the customary epistemologies of rationalism, positivism, and concept-driven inquiries, and has placed increasing emphasis on the practical ways that parties concert their activities in local settings. This interest is derived from both Schütz and Gurwitsch, but the embodied analyses of Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger in addition to being closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir...

 also offered important direction.

Garfinkel regarded indexical expressions as key phenomena. Words like here, now, and me shift their meaning depending on when and where they are used. Philosophers and linguists refer to such terms as indexicals because they point into (index) the situational context in which they are produced. One of Garfinkel’s contributions was to note that such expressions go beyond "here", "now," etc. and encompass any and all utterances that members of society produce. As Garfinkel specified, “The demonstrably rational properties of indexical expressions and indexical actions [are] an ongoing achievement of the organized activities of everyday life”. The pervasiveness of indexical expressions and their member-ordered properties mean that all forms of action provide for their own understandability through the methods by which they are produced. That is, action has the property of reflexivity whereby such action is made meaningful in the light of the very situation within which it is produced.

The contextual setting, however, should not be seen as a passive backdrop for the action. Reflexivity means that members shape action in relation to context while the context itself is constantly being redefined through action. The initial insight into the importance of reflexivity occurred during the study of juror’s deliberations, wherein what jurors had decided was used by them to reflexively organize the plausibility of what they were deciding. Other investigations revealed that parties did not always know what they meant by their own formulations; rather, verbal formulations of the local order of an event were used to collect the very meanings that gave them their coherent sense. Garfinkel declared that the issue of how practical actions are tied to their context lies at the heart of ethnomethodological inquiry. Using professional coffee tasting as an illustration here, taste descriptors do not merely describe but also direct the tasting of a cup of coffee; hence, a descriptor is not merely the causal result of what is tasted, as in:
Nor is it an imperialism of a methodology:
Rather, the description and what it describes are mutually determinative:
The descriptors operate reflexively by finding in the coffee what they mean, and each is used to make the other more explicit. Much the same may be said about rules-in-games or the use of accounts in ordinary action. This reflexivity of accounts is ubiquitous, and its sense has nearly nothing to do with how the term “reflexivity” is used in analytic philosophy
Analytic philosophy
Analytic philosophy is a generic term for a style of philosophy that came to dominate English-speaking countries in the 20th century...

, in “reflexive ethnographies” that endeavor to expose the influence of the researcher in organizing the ethnography, or the way many social scientists use "reflexivity" as a synonym for "self-reflection." For ethnomethodology reflexivity is an actual, unavoidable feature of everyone’s daily life.

Garfinkel has frequently illustrated ethnomethodological analysis by means of the illustration of service lines. Everyone knows what it is like to stand in a line. Queues are a part of our everyday social life; they are something within which we all participate as we carry out our everyday affairs. We recognize when someone is waiting in a line and, when we are "doing" being a member of a line, we have ways of showing it. In other words, lines may seem impromptu and routine, but they exhibit an internal, member-produced embodied structure. A line is “witnessably a produced social object;” it is, in Durkheimian terms, a “social fact.” Participants' actions as "seeably" what they are (such as occupying a position in a queue) depend upon practices that the participant engages in in relation to others' practices in the proximate vicinity. To recognize someone as in a line, or to be seen as "in line" ourselves requires attention to bodily movement and bodily placement in relation to others and to the physical environment that those movements also constitute. This is another sense that we consider the action to be indexical—it is made meaningful in the ways in which it is tied to the situation and the practices of members who produce it. The ethnomethodologist's task becomes one of analyzing how members' ongoing conduct is a constituent aspect of this or that course of action. Such analysis can be applied to any sort of social matter (e.g., being female, following instructions, performing a proof, participating in a conversation). These topics are representative of the kinds of inquiry that ethnomethodology was intended to undertake.

Ethnomethodology was not designed to supplant the kind of formal analysis recommended by Parsons. Garfinkel stipulated that the two programs are “different and unavoidably related.” Both seek to give accounts of social life, but ask different kinds of questions and formulate quite different sorts of claims. Sociologists operating within the formal program endeavor to produce objective (that is to say, non-indexical) claims similar in scope and to those made in the natural sciences. To do so, they must employ theoretical constructs that pre-define the shape of the social world. Unlike Parsons, and other social theorists before and since, Garfinkel’s goal was not to articulate yet another explanatory system. He expressed an “indifference” to all forms of sociological theorizing. Instead of viewing social practice through a theoretical lens, Garfinkel sought to explore the social world directly and describe its autochthonous workings in elaborate detail. Durkheim famously stated, "[t]he objective reality of social facts is sociology’s fundamental principle." Garfinkel substituted ‘phenomenon’ for ‘principle’, signaling a different approach to sociological inquiry. The task of sociology, as he envisions it, is to conduct investigations into just how Durkheim’s social facts are brought into being. The result is an “alternate, asymmetric and incommensurable” program of sociological inquiry.

Influence on later research

A substantial corpus of empirical work has developed exploring the issues raised by Garfinkel’s writings. Directly inspired by Garfinkel, Harvey Sacks
Harvey Sacks
Harvey Sacks was an American sociologist influenced by the ethnomethodology tradition. He pioneered extremely detailed studies of the way people use language in everyday life. Despite his early death in a car crash and the fact that he did not publish widely, he founded the discipline of...

 undertook to investigate the sequential organization of conversational interaction
Conversation analysis
Conversation analysis is the study of talk in interaction . CA generally attempts to describe the orderliness, structure and sequential patterns of interaction, whether institutional or in casual conversation.Inspired by ethnomethodology Conversation analysis (commonly abbreviated as CA) is the...

. This program, pioneered with colleagues Gail Jefferson
Gail Jefferson
Gail Jefferson was, along with Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff, one of the founders of the area of research known as Conversation Analysis . She is particularly remembered today for the methods and notational conventions she developed for transcribing talk...

 and Emanuel Schegloff
Emanuel Schegloff
Emanuel Abraham Schegloff is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles. He was born in 1937 in New York. With Harvey Sacks and Gail Jefferson, Schegloff was one of the principal creators of the field of Conversation Analysis...

, has produced a large and flourishing research literature. A second, smaller literature has grown out of another of Sacks' interests having to do with social categorization practices. Early on, Garfinkel issued a call for ethnomethodologically-informed investigations into the nature of work. This led to a wide variety of studies focusing on different occupations and professions including, jurisprudence, police work, scientific research, medical practice, jazz improvisation, mathematical proof, philosophizing, and classroom instruction. Lucy Suchman
Lucy Suchman
Lucy Suchman is a full Professor of Anthropology of Science and Technology in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom...

, an anthropologist, did an ethnomethodologically-informed analysis of learning to use a copy machine. It served as an important critique of theories of planning in Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence is the intelligence of machines and the branch of computer science that aims to create it. AI textbooks define the field as "the study and design of intelligent agents" where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its...


Selected publications

The bulk of Garfinkel’s original writings came in the form of scholarly articles and technical reports most of which were subsequently republished as book chapters. To appreciate the sequential development of Garfinkel's thought, however, it is important to understand when these pieces were actually written. Seeing Sociologically, for example, which was published relatively recently, was actually written while Garfinkel was a graduate student. It is an annotated version of a draft dissertation proposal prepared two years after arriving at Harvard. Toward a Sociological Theory of Information was also written while Garfinkel was a student. It was based on a 1952 report prepared in conjunction with the Organizational Behavior Project at Princeton. Some of Garfinkel’s early papers on ethnomethodology were republished as Studies in Ethnomethodology. This volume is considered a classic by those working in the area. Later, Garfinkel edited an anthology showcasing examples of early ethnomethodologically-informed research. A selection of his later papers were republished as Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim's Aphorism. This collection, together with Studies, represent the definitive exposition of the ethnomethodological approach.

External links

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