Special Issue: Ethnomethodology and Ethnography
2022, Vol. 0(0) 1–21
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
conceptual, and methodological
Christian Meier zu Verland
Department of History and Sociology, University of Konstanz, Germany
This text discusses the relationship between ethnomethodology and ethnography and
sketches what can be called an ethnomethodological ethnography. To do so, it shows that
Garﬁnkel and his collaborators work ethnographically in order to adequately describe
social phenomena and make their phenomenal ﬁeld properties noticeable. To highlight
the distinctive features of ethnomethodological ethnography, the text ﬁrst discusses
other ethnographic approaches. Differences between these approaches and the eth-
nomethodological ethnography become apparent through two argumentative steps: ﬁrst,
by discussing Garﬁnkel’sreﬂections on ethnomethodology and ethnography, and second,
by discussing actual ethnographies by Garﬁnkel’s collaborators. The text concludes with a
general reflection on the methodological principles of ethnomethodological ethnography.
Ethnomethodology, ethnography, crisis of representation, methodology, Harold
The writings of Harold Garﬁnkel, the founder of ethnomethodology, deliberately focus on
the methodological and practical foundations of sociology including ethnographic
methodology. Within them, he formulates his own approach to ethnography, which we
Christian Meier zu Verl, Department of History and Sociology, University of Konstanz, Universitatsstrasse 10,
Konstanz 78457, Germany.
shall refer to as ethnomethodological ethnography, although Garﬁnkel himself refers to
The starting point for Garﬁnkel’sreﬂections on the ethnographic method in the 1950s
was an epistemological and methodological problem diagnosed by him within con-
temporary sociology. From our current perspective, this problem could be construed as a
“crisis of representation” avant la lettre, considering the parallels between it and the
subsequent anthropological “crisis of representation” in the 1980s (cf. Clifford and
The core issue with sociology is that the discipline itself forms part of the
object of the discipline. This in turn implies that a method of study borrowed from natural
science, which identiﬁes regularities within the objects of study through external
analysis—regularities that are not accessible to the objects studied—would be meth-
odologically inadequate for sociology. Garﬁnkel draws on a principle endorsed by Alfred
Schütz (1953) according to which sociology generates second degree observations from
ﬁrst degree observations of the object of study, that is, the members of society. From this
starting point, he then seeks to achieve a theory of science position that allows for
congruence between theory and method on the one side and between method and object
on the other side. This constitutes the basis for ethnomethodological ethnography: it must
originate from the social phenomena that are to be inquired into.
With this text, we intend to position the ethnomethodological variant of ethnography
within the spectrum of ethnographic methodologies. So far, this variant has hardly been
noticed and has not been routinely presented in method books (cf. as exceptions Pollner
and Emerson, 2001; Travers, 2001:62–82; Button et al., 2015; Meier zu Verl et al., 2020).
In our view, ethnomethodological ethnography is able to re-present and re-enact the
orderliness of social reality. We therefore position it as an alternative to other variants of
ethnography. As we will elaborate, these other variants methodologically frame the
process of writing as a process of ordering in the ﬁrst place.
In order to understand Garﬁnkel’s position, we will ﬁrst discuss three other variants of
ethnography. These variants are part of the mainstream methodological discourse and are
also presented in current handbooks on ethnography. Subsequently, we present the
theoretical foundations and historical development of ethnomethodological ethnography.
We then go into the practical implementation of ethnomethodological ethnography on the
basis of ethnographies made by Garﬁnkel’s collaborators. In a ﬁnal step, we present the
methodological principles of ethnomethodological ethnography.
Variants of ethnography
In order to contrast ethnomethodological ethnography, we distinguish three other variants
of ethnography that we call here, roughly and in necessarily reduced way, naturalistic
ethnography, textual ethnography, and bodily ethnography. This distinction does not
claim to be exhaustive but serves as a heuristic contrast that allows us to better understand
what we call ethnomethodological ethnography.
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The initial phase of ethnography was characterized by a naturalistic attitude towards the
object of study: natural, social, and cultural worlds were seen as one and were to be
described as they presented themselves to the external observer (cf. Stocking, 1992:12–
59). An attitude that established an epistemological difference between observer and
observed largely persisted in both early founding ﬁgures of anthropological (Malinowski
and Boas among others) and sociological ethnography (Jahoda’s and Lazarsfeld’s“so-
ciography,”the Chicago School’s“ﬁeld study”). They equally took a realist notion of
description, albeit a cautious one, as the basis of their research (Malinowski, 1922: 18;
Boas, 1920;Palmer, 1928:7;Jahoda et al., 1971: 9). However, both the forms of
documentation and the resources they each used to interpret observations varied. Boas
preferred verbatim transcripts or technical documentation of expressive utterances. He
advocated recording discourse data that was as uninﬂuenced as possible (narratives,
chants, etc.) and working with key informants to describe history and cultural life in the
researcher’s own words. He also chose public reenactment as a method of representing
culture (Hinsley and Holm, 1976). Malinowski (1922: 18) recommended participation
experiences during a long-term research stay unburdened by purposive motives (trade,
mission, etc.), as well as language skills, so that the researched society could be described
from “its own perspective”(ibid. 25) and in its own contexts of meaning (ibid. 19). The
consequence of this, however, was that the ethnographer’s personality had a greater role to
play than in other methods (ibid. 20), and thus Malinowski suspects in his diary, “it is I
who will describe them or create them”(1967: 140). The Chicago School particularly saw
familiarity with the ﬁeld as an advantage of sociological ethnography (Palmer, 1928:
163), and the Austrian Marienthal study advocated “immersion into the situation”(Jahoda
et al., 1971: 1) and assuming practical socio-political responsibility in the researched
community (ibid. 5–6).
In these skeptical statements, methodological changes are announced, and subse-
quently a shift away from description and towards interpretation as the central ethno-
graphic task took place.
Textual ethnography accomplishes this transformation, drafting culture as text. Geertz’s
ethnographic project of “thick description”(Geertz, 1973:3–30) consists in reading and
writing down the eloquently pre-formulated text of culture (ibid. 452). The cultural text is
pre-formulated because it is meant and pre-interpreted by the actors in the Weberian sense.
Cultures or societies therefore consist of a web of interrelated intentional acts. As a student
of Parsons, Geertz follows Parsons’concept of action and focuses on the systemic
connection of intentional but at the same time normatively oriented social webs of action
(cf. Rawls and Turowetz, 2021). As an anthropologist (and student of Kluckhohn) he is
mainly focused on culture as the system of meanings and symbols that normatively
regulates social actions, thereby ultimately ensuring the latent maintenance and continuity
of society (cf. esp. ibid. 17, 27–28, 44, 351).
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 3
“Thick description”means, ﬁrst and foremost, inscribing the webs of intended
meanings of observed social actions into the ethnographic descriptions produced. Un-
fortunately, Geertz gives us little concrete information on how this should be achieved. In
no case should ethnographers include only “raw social discourse”in the “thick de-
scriptions”because “we are not actors, we do not have direct access”(ibid. 20). To a small
extent, however, ethnographers can gain access through their informants: they need to be
questioned regarding the “intended meaning”behind the “raw social discourse.”As
Geertz himself puts it: “The trick is to ﬁgure out what the devil they think they are up to”
Behind the apparent disorganized plurality of social action, according to Geertz, the
hidden intentional interconnectedness must be identiﬁed, which understands a social
action or utterance as a response to or a commentary on a preceding action. In the course
of their research, ethnographers slowly come to an understanding of the intentions and
goals of those being researched (Geertz 1973: 27), which they then systematize (ibid. 15).
Their aim is not, for instance, to discover an unfamiliar continent of meaning, but to
conjecture meanings in order to formulate explanations (ibid. 20).
In many parts of his work, Geertz vehemently opposes the myth of the empathic
ethnographer endowed with special sensitivities, this chameleon-like “walking miracle of
empathy, tact, patience, and cosmopolitanism”(1983: 56), who understands the strangers
by slipping into their skin and becoming like them (ibid. 9). What Geertz has in mind as
ethnographic method is not psychic closeness and transcultural identiﬁcation through
participation, but understanding without empathy. An ethnographer must rather
develop—and teaching example for this is Claude L ´
evi-Strauss—the ability “to penetrate
the savage mind”by means of epistemological empathy. This means not to enter into an
inner correspondence with one’s informants, but simply to ﬁnd out their intentions (ibid.
58). Any understanding of what the researched are really like, what their inner life is like,
actually comes from the ethnographer’s ability to interpret their expressions and symbols.
Ethnography is more akin to grasping a proverb, catching a hint, getting a joke, or reading
a poem than to achieving psychic communion (ibid. 70). Overall, then, Geertz believes
that embodied participation is of little use in ethnographic research—it is more likely to
create distrust (Geertz, 1973: 20)—and ethnographers should conﬁne themselves to case-
based “thick descriptions”of intentionally structured social webs of action, which they
then analyze and interpret with the aid of theory. The knowledge necessary to identify the
intentions and purposes of the researched is methodologically obtained through inter-
views and conversations with informants. Geertz’s“thick description”has been adopted
by many anthropologists and sociologists as a methodological model, but not infrequently
without adopting his background in Weber’s and Parsons’theories of action and social
Further variants of textual ethnography such as postmodern ethnography, which
emphasizes either polyphonic and dialogical or literary and ﬁctional aspects of ethno-
graphic writing and is highly reﬂexive of the ethnographer’s self, are left out here (but see
Clifford and Marcus, 1986).
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The approach of bodily ethnography differs from Geertz’skeptical attitude towards the
use of the body and its tacit ﬁeld experiences. Drawing on the naturalistic tradition
(Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007:5–10), bodily ethnography explicitly calls for the use
of the researcher’sbodyas main instrument of knowledge creation. Though, in line with
Geertz’s ethnography, writing is characterized as the main ethnographic activity (cf.
Loﬂand and Loﬂand, 1984;Hirschauer, 2006), what is assumedly written up is not the
eloquent text, but, to the contrary, the originally silent social and cultural world of those
researched. Only in the medium of writing can these private and tacit observations of
social situations be made sociologically utilizable.
Howard S. Becker and Erving Goffman, among others, stands for this approach of
bodily ethnography (“Second Chicago School”), in which ethnographers physically
participate in an observed social situation. Becker, who was a student of Robert E. Park,
instructed his students to conduct ﬁrst-hand observation, for which it was important to not
only get one’s hands dirty: “gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research”
(cited in McKinney, 1966: 71). Goffman (1989: 125) emphasized in his methodological
notes that in ethnography data are acquired “by subjecting yourself, your own body and
your own personality, and your own social situation, to the set of contingencies that play
upon a set of individuals, so that you can physically and ecologically penetrate their circle
of response to their social situation, or their work situation, or their ethnic situation.”The
participation or, as is sometimes said today, “immersion”that takes place in ethnographic
research (Emerson et al., 1995: 2) means both entering with the researched into the many
imponderable situations of everyday life and observing how they act, as well as expe-
riencing psychologically and physically oneself their situations and circumstances.
Ethnographers should engage themselves with their whole existence in the ﬁeld. Even
more, ethnographers must act as if they cannot return to the comfortable home of the
academic at any moment, but as if they are as existentially affected by them as the
researched. In addition to pleasant things, ethnographers must therefore especially endure
unpleasant things. According to Goffman, this tunes the ethnographer’s body like a
musical instrument. Only with a body tuned in this way, he argues, are ethnographers able
to meaningfully observe the researched as they act and react in the face of life’sad-
versities. In particular, ethnographers acquire a capacity for empathy with their bodily
participation, for “you’ve been taking the same crap they’ve been taking”(Goffman,
1989: 126). For Goffman, this is the core of ethnography, without which no serious
ethnographic work is possible.
From this perspective, it would be a misunderstanding to assume, like naturalistic or
textual ethnography, that the social and cultural world or even ethnographic experiential
knowledge already pre-exists in data form—naturalistically observable and in direct
correspondence describable in the case of naturalistic ethnography or meaningfully pre-
structured and descriptively condensable in the case of textual ethnography (cf. Loﬂand
and Loﬂand, 1984:71–75). Observation from the bodily ethnography perspective is
ﬁnding words and writing: a process of articulation, which represents a (re)construction of
the object and “sociological artifact”(Hirschauer, 2006: 422). Its quality is determined by
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 5
disciplinary conditions. Writing means transforming something into another form (ibid.
423, 427), which is primarily a matter of opening up phenomena that are not yet available
in linguistic form in the ﬁrst place, of putting them into words and writing them down.
In regard to the objects of study, this is directed ﬁrst and foremost at those “events [that]
occur in the life of a social group and the experience of an individual so regularly and
uninterruptedly, or so quietly and unnoticed, that people are hardly aware of them […]; or
they may never have become aware of them at all and be unable to answer even direct
questions. Other events may be so unfamiliar that people ﬁnd it difﬁcult to put into words”
(Becker and Geer, 1957: 30). Becker and Geer thus draw attention to the ethnographic
task that Hirschauer later refers to as “verbalizing silent knowledge”(Hirschauer, 2006:
In order for a verbalization of the social to succeed, ethnographers must use their own
person and body with all its sensory apparatus as instruments of research and personal
recording apparatuses. During ﬁeldwork, opportunities inscribe themselves “into re-
searchers and authors”(ibid. 437). Thus, a surplus of embodied knowledge emerges, of
which only a part ultimately makes its way into verbal notes.
These three variants of ethnography discuss the role of the ethnographer and the
process of ethnographic writing epistemologically in different ways. Nevertheless, they
follow a correspondence-theoretical view that conceptualizes the relationship between
ethnographic description and social reality as one of representation. The empathetic
ethnographer, the “meanings-and-symbols”ethnographer, or the bodily sympathetic
ethnographer is engaged in the process of writing to put the phenomena he or she observes
into words. As a result, the orderliness of phenomena emerges only through the process of
ethnographic writing. This correspondence-theoretical view is problematic for ethno-
methodology and its concept of ethnography. In the following sections, we discuss
ethnomethodological ethnography in its similarities and differences to the three variants
of ethnography presented so far.
Garﬁnkel’s theory of science and epistemological position and
the role of ethnography
In his writings, Garﬁnkel developed a methodological position from different theoretical
sources including phenomenology (Husserl, Gurwitsch, Schütz, and Kaufmann), phi-
losophy of language (Wittgenstein), and praxeology (Kotarbinski). He used this as a
foundation for an ethnomethodological ethnography that in some respects departed from
other ethnographic approaches in terms of goals, interests, and methodological approach.
For example, phenomenology-based ethnography (vom Lehn and Hitzler, 2015) em-
phasizes the methodological relevance of subjective participant knowledge and draws on
Schütz. Garﬁnkel’s philosophical starting point, however, is less Schütz’s egological, but
Gurwitsch’s non-egological theory of object constitution (Garﬁnkel, 2021;cf.Meyer,
2022). And unlike other phenomenological approaches in sociology, Garﬁnkel fur-
thermore draws on Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmic philosophy of the invisible (Garﬁnkel 1967:
182; Wiley, 2019) and on Wittgenstein’s theory of language games (Garﬁnkel, 2019).
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Familiar with the Chicago School, Garﬁnkel started to engage with the ethnographic
method at an early stage. Whilst still a student he published the article “Color Trouble”
in which he describes social practices of explaining and making understandable
(what he later called “accounting practices”) within an everyday USA characterized by
Garﬁnkel describes an event he witnessed on a bus journey from
Washington D.C. to Durham, North Carolina, where he was studying. At a bus stop in
Peterburg, Virginia, two black passengers objected to discriminatory actions of the white
driver and two white police ofﬁcers: they were attempting to reseat the two passengers in
the segregated area of the bus reserved for blacks. Within his ethnographic description,
Garﬁnkel provides a highly detailed insight into the speciﬁc sequences of events
comprising the interactions through which the co-participants generated and negotiated
social phenomena such as racial segregation and racism.
In the Second World War, Garﬁnkel served in the US Air Force and was responsible for
training recruits in Florida, whom he instructed to practice attacking tanks using pho-
tographs (rather than real tanks). During this period of service, he engaged in considerable
depth with phenomenological literature and—drawing on the practical problems asso-
ciated with training recruits—the epistemological and methodological problem of ade-
quately representing social reality (cf. Rawls, 2002: 15). This “crisis of representation”
experienced by Garﬁnkel not only in methodological terms as a sociologist but also in
practical terms as a training instructor—how can the picture of a tank adequately represent
a real tank?—was also a characteristic feature of the work that he continued in the
Department of Social Relations at Harvard University from 1946 onwards. Garﬁnkel’s
PhD thesis, “The Perception of the Other”(1952), was supervised by Talcott Parsons and
also inﬂuenced by Alfred Schütz. It provides a theoretical and methodological contri-
bution to the sociological theory of science and knowledge in relation to the question of
adequate representation of ﬁndings (cf. vomLehn, 2014: 20).
Garﬁnkel criticized contemporary sociology for precisely not considering the fact that
in sociology the observers are part of what they observe and the main tool for representing
the object—language—is part of the object. As epistemological basis he used Felix
Kaufmann’s (1944) critique of the correspondence theory of truth, which acts as if
external observers represent facts in direct, realist equivalence between object and
representation. Garﬁnkel directed his criticism above all at the contemporary canon of
applicable methodological rules in sociology, which transformed speciﬁc everyday actors
into abstract representatives of sociological regularities. This, he argued, assumes a
correspondence between the observed actions of individuals, which were methodo-
logically purged of all lifeworld features, and the principles of the social order as rep-
resented by the resulting abstract regularities.
In his PhD thesis (1952), Garﬁnkel laid bare the difﬁculty in transferring to science the
criteria of meaning applicable within everyday practices and in representing them with
scientiﬁc criteria of meaning without loss. Under the correspondence theory model of
sociology, scientiﬁc assertions are generated by changing or removing the criteria of
meaning of the social phenomena studied which are rooted in everyday practices. In order
to purify itself of the lifeworld within which it was created—both as regards the empirical
as well as the investigating theorists themselves—sociology must formulate abstract
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 7
theories about both. However, these theories cannot exhaustively clarify, pre-empt, and
determine empirical manifestations. They remain necessarily vague and indeterminate
and inevitably refer to something that is absent. Garﬁnkel later brands this feature in-
dexicality. They can thus no longer be converted back to their empirical context and are
reliant on permanent life-worldly supplementing practices, which (Husserl, 1929;Schütz,
1945) termed “et cetera.”This results in an inﬁnite regress fueled by the ascription of
meaning through language that necessarily follows formalization. This in turn entails new
lifeworld categories, which for their part need to be formalized again.
For Garﬁnkel, the contemporary concept of social structure offered a prime example of
a line of research that had remained stuck in a rut with the correspondence theory as-
sumption. Under this concept—and here he had, amongst others, Parsons’concept in
mind—the actor was, as Garﬁnkel later argued, construed as a genuine “cultural dope”
(1967: 68). This is because, according to Garﬁnkel, on Parsons’account only the so-
ciologist can identify the ordering mechanisms and structures of society with reference to
scientiﬁc methods, whilst these mechanisms and structures are not apparent to the actors
themselves. Garﬁnkel branded the assumed basic population of society, comprised of
rule-following actors unaware of this status of theirs, as “Parsons’Plenum”(Garﬁnkel,
1988: 104). This notion can also be found in bodily and textual ethnography, which either
puts the social into words and thus orders it, or orders an already textual social from a
sociological perspective. In both cases, order ﬁrst emerges in the process of ethnographic
Garﬁnkel termed his alternative perspective, drawing on Schütz (1953),ascongruence
theory. It posits that the constructs and types of social science must be congruent with the
constructs and typiﬁcations of everyday actors. A social theory must acknowledge that it
is empirically rooted in second degree observations—observations made by actors who
are themselves observing and interpreting the social world. The worldviews (“attitudes”)
of observers are therefore no less in need of clariﬁcation than the worldviews of actors.
This implies that sociological knowledge cannot be obtained from the outside, as it can
within the natural sciences; on the contrary, it must be gleaned from within society.
Garﬁnkel argued, drawing on Schütz, that social phenomena were already ordered in and
by themselves. This is because participants themselves are confronted with the challenge
of making their speciﬁc circumstances known and understandable to others. According to
Garﬁnkel, it is fundamentally necessary to consider the perspective of members of a
collectivity, their ethno-theories and ethno-scientiﬁc practices, which in the 1950s were an
object of interest in particular for anthropologists. Harvard University, where anthro-
pology and sociology were represented within the Department of Social Relations, hosted
ground-breaking research into the knowledge stocks and internal perspectives of the
objects of study. Ultimately, the preﬁxethno within ethnomethodology was inspired by
The scientiﬁc reality and the social reality that is to be described must therefore be
considered to be deeply related, albeit with different interests in knowledge. Science and
everyday practice interact with and inﬂuence each other. Therefore, it is necessary to
enquire into scientiﬁc forms of representation where language is used both within ev-
eryday practice and science, remaining inextricably indexical and vague in both. Having
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rejected the correspondence theory approach, the aim can no longer be to depict the social
reality as if through a mirror. On the contrary, the people studied must be taken seriously
as ﬁrst-order observers also within scientiﬁc representations.
This is where the ethnographic method becomes central, since it is the method of
choice to comprehensively investigate the meaning-generating processes within everyday
practices themselves. It is at this point that Garﬁnkel draws not on Schütz, but on
Gurwitsch, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein. For him, meaningful social objects are not
constituted by an empirical, biographical ego that ascribes meaning to objects of ex-
perience (as in Schütz). Rather, social objects self-organize through ongoing practices by
socialized and encultured members (as in Gurwitsch and Merleau-Ponty; cf. Garﬁnkel,
2021;Meyer, 2022). Social phenomena, or objects—as “Durkheimian Things”(Garﬁnkel
2002: 124)—are thus primarily “organizational things”(Garﬁnkel and Wieder 1992:
192), produced as “gestalt contextures”(Garﬁnkel 2002: 281) through “details”that are
interactionally provided by the actors. Being meaningful, social objects are intrinsically
“observable-reportable”(Garﬁnkel 1967: 1) and explainable, that is, they are what
Garﬁnkel calls “accountable”(ibid.). Ethnomethodological ethnography therefore re-
quires to become familiar through participation with these practices of “producing”but
also of “seeing”and “recognizing”organizational things within “phenomenal ﬁelds”
(Garﬁnkel 2002: 73) in the social world.
Ethnomethodological ethnography is therefore in this sense “phenomenal ﬁeldwork”
through which the ethnographer becomes a competent member able to produce and
recognize the details of this ﬁeld. Part of this is to be able to appresent invisible and absent
aspects (sequential or inferential) that are indexed by what is given in these ﬁelds. Here,
Garﬁnkel refers to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the invisible (Garﬁnkel 1967: 182).
Since, moreover, a great portion of phenomenal ﬁelds consists in talk (and various forms
of talkability) and much of the appresentation work occurs in the form of indexical
expressions, a second part of member’s competences is the “mastery of natural language”
(Garﬁnkel and Sacks 1970: 342). The ability to participate in natural language practices
and in language games—here Garﬁnkel draws on Wittgenstein (ibid.: 348–350;
Garﬁnkel, 2019)—has to be acquired by the ethnographer.
Partly, Garﬁnkel derived the second element of the term—methodology—also from
the praxeology of Kotarbinski (cf. Garﬁnkel, 1956: 191–192; Hiz, 1954). This focuses on
identifying and describing methods of action. Garﬁnkel later increasingly referred to
practices rather than methods (and for a short period even considered re-baptizing
ethnomethodology as “neopraxiology”). The key point is that, for him, practices al-
ways generate social order and structures in a methodological fashion—which means
above all practically and recognizably. This implies that rules must in principle be ac-
cessible to and comprehensible for actors (or, as Garﬁnkel prefers to term them,
members). Moreover, according to Kotarbinski rules do not in any sense emerge in an
abstract manner, but rather through everyday forms of instructions, maxims and rules of
Meaning-generating criteria and practices must also be incorporated in the ethno-
graphic study by establishing a congruent relationship between that work and the ev-
eryday criteria that generate meaning in relation to it. One solution for this proposed by
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 9
Garﬁnkel is that scientiﬁc reports—to put it in today’s language—should become per-
formative: ethnomethodological studies no longer represent social phenomena, but rather
bring to life their speciﬁc form of reality. They reproduce them, thus making them
comprehensible as a genuine aspect of the lifeworld. On a methodological level this again
implies that, in conducting ethnomethodological research, the ethnographer must at the
same time be a competent member of the collectivity whose ordered phenomena he is
studying. This is because the ethnographer’s own understanding of the lifeworld studied
must be based on the implicit practices of members of the collectivity; similarly, the
methods of (scientiﬁc) representation must be consistent with the methods of (practical)
accomplishment of meaning.
As Garﬁnkel (1967:208–261) argues in an investigation into practices of coding
within quantitative sociology, professional sociologists implicitly build on practices of lay
sociologists (a term Garﬁnkel uses to refer to everyday actors). However, this occurs
without reﬂection, not to speak of any explanation, within the sociologist’s methodo-
Garﬁnkel concludes that the main task of a sociology informed by
ethnomethodology must be to turn this everyday practice of knowing, explaining, and
interpreting—within which also professional sociology implicitly operates—into the
object itself (“topic”), rather than using it unreﬂectively as an analytical instrument
(“resource”) (ibid. 31).
From the 1970s onwards, Garﬁnkel studied the congruence between methods for
generating meaning and methods for representing in Hybrid Studies of Work (cf.
Garﬁnkel, 2002: 100). The descriptions contained in these studies are characterized in
strictly praxeological terms by their relevance for members of the collectivity who are
being ethnographically studied as such in speciﬁc situations and who are not often
particularly interested in ethnomethodological descriptions. For Garﬁnkel (ibid.: 100–
103), the requirement of congruence is only met where the ethnomethodological studies
of competent members can be read as practical instructions. The quality of an ethno-
methodological description is thus established with reference to whether the members of a
collectivity can use it to validly recognize ordered phenomena and subsequently create
such phenomena themselves in practice (ibid. 101).
Thus, for Garﬁnkel, ethnography, as a method, provides solutions to the speciﬁc
situation of sociology as a science that it is part of its own object of inquiry. In sociological
research, the phenomena studied are always already methodically and practically or-
ganized and ordered in and by themselves by competent members of society. Sociologists,
being among these members, therefore need to constantly reﬂect upon their resources of
inquiry and interpretation, transforming them into a topic of research in its own right. The
solutions ethnography provides especially concern its interpretive resources and mo-
dalities of scientiﬁc representation. For Garﬁnkel, social phenomena can only be de-
scribed practically and reﬂectively using the ethnomethods speciﬁc to the phenomena. In
this stance, ethnomethodological ethnography differs from all three ethnographic variants
discussed in the previous section, as it systematically integrates the fact that (a) the
assumption of a direct correspondence between object and representation is ﬁctitious, (b)
sociological descriptions must genuinely, and reﬂectively, relate to resources provided by
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their objects of study, and (c) the validity of these descriptions cannot be determined
sociologically, but must be proven practically (as practical instructions).
Ethnographies of Garﬁnkel’s collaborators
Over the years in which he worked as a professor at UCLA, Garﬁnkel provided guidance
to several ethnographies of his collaborators, who implemented in practical terms the
socio-theoretical results and methodological implications of ethnomethodology within
their own empirical studies. Garﬁnkel demanded three things: (1) they were required to
acquire the competences of members, even so far as going native; (2) they should ex-
perimentally develop appropriate forms of representation for their ﬁeld; (3) they should
not fabricate an “ethnography of sentences”(Liberman, 2004: 40) whereby they only
“stumbled around”in the ﬁeld and collected in an isolated fashion whatever matched up
with their research interests. The ethnomethodological ethnographies we present in this
section are not comprehensive and do not claim to be. Rather, we want to make some of
Garﬁnkel’s concepts visible through examples. How do his collaborators make their
research intelligible as ethnomethodological ethnography? How do they deal with
concepts such as congruence and from within? How do they learn practical skills in the
course of their ethnographies? How do they make their descriptions performative and
readable as instructions for practice?
For his study “The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice”(1968), Aaron Cicourel
conducted research for more than 3 years as an ethnographer in two young offenders’
institutions, working as a probation assistant in one of the two institutions (cf. Cicourel,
1968: VIII). In order to give the reader an insight into the invisible background ex-
pectations of the members studied, which would otherwise remain “seen (but unnoticed)”
(ibid. 15), he used recorded ethnographic data (written reports from the authorities and
recorded conversations), which he then subjected to a process of “re-writing”(ibid. 18).
His aim was “[to] enable the reader to understand how the participants and observer made
sense of their environments as portrayed by the researcher”(ibid.). Cicourel’s ethnog-
raphy methodologically puts into practice key elements of an ethnomethodological
ethnography. It is an exemplar of a congruence-theoretical representation of the phe-
nomena under study. In order to ensure adequate understanding by the reader, Cicourel
takes into account their resources of understanding, which must also be made available
through his ethnography. In this methodological sense, the translation process that
Geertz’s textual ethnography frames as part of ethnographic writing is reversed. It is not
the phenomena studied that have to be translated into sociological language, but the
sociological reader must be enabled by the ethnography to practically understand the
phenomena that are described.
In his thesis “The Convict Code”(1969), Larry Wieder studied the practices of staff
and inmates at an open prison as well as, self-reﬂexively, his own practices when in-
teracting with staff and inmates at the facility. In doing so he demonstrated how he was
performatively induced by inmates, although also by staff, within discussions to interpret
the actions of inmates as the expression of a “convict code”—a type of prisoner’s code
including obligations of conﬁdentiality (cf. Wieder, 1969: XIII). In his ethnography,
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 11
Wieder makes the practices of narrating the “convict code”sociologically observable in
making his own ethnographic enculturation the topic of his study. This way of ethno-
methodological ethnography makes speciﬁc interactional resources observable that are
relevant to accomplish social order within halfway houses.
David Sudnow’s study “Ways of the Hand”(1978) shows the difﬁculties associated
with the ethnographic presentation of practical, embodied skills, focusing on jazz im-
provisation on the piano. His way to ensure an adequate description of this phenomenon
was to build it up like a set of instructions—if they are followed in practice—for jazz
improvisation: “My description is meant to be a guide to the looks of improvisatory
hands”(Sudnow, 1978: 154). Sudnow therefore focuses on re-creating the orderly
phenomenon of jazz improvisation and the practical resources it requires. His ethnog-
raphy makes these implicit bodily skills explicit. As an ethnographer, he is no longer
concerned with a bodily observation of others who play jazz, but with his own bodily
participation in playing jazz. Sudnow’s ethnography is therefore fundamentally different
from Becker’s ethnography, for which he observed and interviewed musicians without
directly investigating the bodily practices of music-making (cf. Becker, 1951). In this way
Sudnow ended up devising a highly successful and ﬁnancially lucrative method for
teaching how to play the piano (“The Sudnow Method”).
For his thesis “Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science”(1985), Michael Lynch
participated in the activities of a neuro-biological laboratory as an ethnographer. As part of
this process, Lynch attended informal laboratory experiments in order to become himself a
competent member of the laboratory he was investigating. Although Lynch—by his own
admission—never attained the skills of a competent biologist within the neuro-biological
laboratory, during his ﬁeld studies he acquired technical and analytical skills in dealing
with the images produced by an electron microscope (cf. Lynch, 1985:1–2). Lynch made
these practical skills—such as being able to identify artifacts in these images—
comprehensible for his readers by providing written transcripts of shop talk amongst
biologists in the laboratory. As a follow-up to Lynch, Philippe Sormani’s PhD thesis
“Respecifying Lab Ethnography”(2014) can be consulted. For this ethnography, Sormani
spent over 3 years in an experimental physics laboratory. His “reﬂexive ethnography”
makes observable the practices by which ﬁrst degree constructs are transformed into
second degree constructs. In doing so, reﬂexive ethnography serves to provide readers
with a practical basis for the video analyses gathered in the book (cf. Sormani, 2014: 99).
Thus, practical skills of experimental physics are taught in the form of a respeciﬁed lab
In his thesis “The Ethnomethodological Foundations of Mathematics”(1986) Eric
Livingston went even further and not only made the mathematical skills that he acquired
through his own study of mathematics understandable but also offered a practical guide to
readers for how to acquire these skills. Livingston made these skills understandable not by
providing written transcripts of the technical practices of mathematicians, but rather with
reference to in incremental genesis of mathematical equations as the most important
element of mathematical practice (cf. Livingston, 1986:7–20). Livingston extends his
ethnography of mathematical reasoning into an “Ethnography of Reason”(2008). In
doing so, he makes phenomena of a “reasoning in the wild”tangible not only as
12 Qualitative Research 0(0)
descriptions of playing checkers, tangram, doing puzzles, etc., but as instructions for
doing them. The ethnographic, therefore, is not found in the book itself, but in the
practical accomplishments of readers who close Livingston’s book and begin to do
puzzles or play checkers. Nevertheless, this book describes the basics of practical
“reasoning in the wild,”and as an instruction, reasoning becomes a hands-on experience
for readers. “We look at skill and reasoning in activities such as playing checkers, working
on jigsaw puzzles, making origami models, conducting experiments, and proving
mathematical theorems. […] All these activities are ones in which skill and reasoning are
witnessable features of people’s participation in them”(Livingston, 2008: 9). Livingston’s
book encourages us to participate in order to witness phenomenal ﬁeld properties of
reasoning through our own skillfull bodies. In this sense, as readers, we literally become
To complete her thesis “Making Settlement Work”(2000), Stacy Burns ﬁrst graduated
in law (Yale University) in order to be able to conduct sociological study of legal practice
thereafter as a competent member of the legal science community. Her thesis does not
examine actual legal practices or present itself as a guide to such practices; on the contrary,
she presents the implementation of legal practice in action both inside and outside the
courts on the basis of recorded material and then makes legal skills and practices apparent
to the reader with reference to these transcripts (cf. Burns, 2000: 8).
Kenneth Liberman has spent over 6 years learning the Tibetan language for his re-
search on monks’reasoning and has conducted 3 years of ﬁeldwork at a monastic
university to understand the phenomenon by being able to perform it practically himself.
This has enabled him to participate in debates between Tibetan monks as a competent
member. In his book, “Dialectical Practice in Tibetan Philosophical Culture”(2004), he
guides his readers to witness reasoning as a social phenomenon. To do this, Liberman not
only presents transcripts of debates and guides readers to understand them, but he also
makes these debates audio-visually observable in their elusiveness with an accompanying
CD-ROM. The Tibetan culture of philosophy thus becomes comprehensible from the
inside, as Liberman puts his readers in the practical position of being able to (partially)
adopt even the ways of reasoning and to recognize, for example, inconsistencies in the
reasoning of individual speeches. Liberman’s book is not only a description of the way
Tibetan monks argue, but also pedagogy that encourages readers to cultivate his or her
own skills of Tibetan reasoning while reading.
We have seen that the studies mentioned above of some of Garﬁnkel’s collaborators
use ethnography in methodologically different ways in order to achieve adequate de-
scriptions of social phenomena. The descriptions convey implicit knowledge concerning
the skills and practices through which the ordered phenomena investigated are generated
practically by actors themselves. Whilst early ethnomethodological ethnographies fre-
quently engaged in non-participatory observation—albeit with reﬂexive references to
their methodological shortcomings—subsequent ethnographies shifted this approach
towards active, and in time competent, participation in the practice being investigated. As
a result, the skills and practices acquired through participation shifted to the methodo-
logical center of ethnomethodological ethnography. Their descriptions are therefore
formulated by researchers also in terms of instructions for putting into practice the ordered
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 13
phenomena investigated by them. These instructions use the full repertoire of ethno-
graphic methods (participant and non-participant observations, conversations and in-
terviews, analysis of documents and artifacts, audio, and video recordings). As we have
seen in relation to Sudnow (1978),Livingston (1986,2008) and Burns (2000), they also
frequently involve autoethnographic elements.
Methodological principles of ethnomethodological ethnography
We have discussed above the relationships between ethnography and ethnomethodology
on the basis of Garﬁnkel’s studies and those of his collaborators. In this section we shall
now discuss the methodological principles of ethnomethodological ethnography as
developed by Garﬁnkel.
At the heart of ethnomethodological ethnography there are the conceptual views that:
(a) the phenomena to be studied are always already organized in and by themselves; (b)
this order is created methodically by competent members of a collectivity; and (c) these
phenomena can only be described practically and reﬂectively using the (ethno-)methods
speciﬁc to the phenomena. Ethnomethodological ethnography derives ﬁve core meth-
odological principles from this, which will be explained below: “ethnomethodological
indifference,”the “rendering theorem,”the “unique adequacy requirement of methods,”
at least two forms of adequate description, and the “praxeological validity of instructed
The principle of “ethnomethodological indifference”(Garﬁnkel and Sacks, 1970: 345–
346) is directed against the practice of mainstream sociology of establishing phenomena a
priori and thus generating scientiﬁc order that is not the order known to members. In terms
of philosophy of science, then, it is not a matter of sociology of discovering reality as an
ordered reality, but of re-creating an understanding of a reality that is always already
ordered by members’practices. Indifference means that no phenomena are excluded ex
ante, no prior assumptions are fed into the material and no appraisals or even normative
assessments are carried out. From the viewpoint of ethnomethodology, all social phe-
nomena are ordered phenomena and are thus sociologically interesting.
The “rendering theorem”brings to light problems associated with the application of
established methods of professional sociology. According to Garﬁnkel and Wieder
(1992), these methods ﬁrst isolate social phenomena and thereafter produce objects
that are characterized by the methods. As a result, the authors developed two tutorial
problems in order to enable students to appreciate in practical terms the loss of speciﬁc
ordered phenomena (cf. ibid. 189–200; Garﬁnkel 2002: 264–269). By holding these
practical tutorials, the crisis of representation is thereby practically generated and re-
ﬂexively experienced by participants. On a methodological level, they imply that the
ethnomethodological ethnographer must always ﬁnd forms of ethnographic represen-
tation that preserve and present the social phenomena studied in their speciﬁc mani-
festation (such as Sudnow or Livingston, who instruct readers to practically produce the
phenomena under study themselves).
Garﬁnkel and Wieder (1992: 182) refer to the fact that this applies not only for
representation but also for the research methods used as the “unique adequacy
14 Qualitative Research 0(0)
requirement of methods.”This requirement can be construed as a praxeological attempt to
establish symmetry between science and everyday practice, as formulated by Schütz
(1953: 34) in his postulate of adequacy—albeit in relation to typiﬁcations and not
practices. The basis for ethnomethodological reformulation is the insight that phenomena
that are ordered for competent members of a collectivity are always only accessible in full
as part of local production of meaning and within their “natural accountability”situated in
this context (Garﬁnkel and Wieder, 1992: 184). The principle of the “unique adequacy
requirement of methods”proposes ethnography as a solution to the crisis of representation
that is based on the congruence of and reciprocal reﬂexivity between methods for
generating meaning and representation. It follows from this that it is the speciﬁc attributes
themselves of the social phenomena being studied that determine the methods suitable for
studying it. The research goal of the ethnomethodological ethnographer is to recognize
and describe order from within social phenomena (cf. also Garﬁnkel, 2002: 124). A
distinction is drawn between two interpretations of the “unique adequacy requirement of
(a) the “weak”interpretation requires that researcher must have their own knowledge
as members concerning the ordered phenomena to be investigated (becoming a
member). This means that the researcher must be competent in dealing with the
local production of meaning and “natural accountability”of the phenomena and
also have the skills to (re-)produce them. The knowledge embodied in this manner
enables the researcher to methodologically discover, identify, and describe im-
plicit practices as ordered phenomena.
(b) The “strong”interpretation also requires symmetry between the methods applied
in order to ensure adequate description. The researcher must not only be a
competent member in order to identify and describe ordered phenomena. In
addition, in his ethnomethodological presentations he must also explicitly use the
practices that competent members also use in order to make their actions un-
derstandable to one another (Garﬁnkel and Wieder, 1992: 182).
Garﬁnkel (2002) claims that there are two forms of adequate description of ordered
phenomena: (a) description as instruction and (b) description as an aid to memory.
(a) Description as instruction does not transform the phenomena studied into written
text; on the contrary, it performatively directs exercises through which the reader
can—if he carries them out—acquire practical skills in order to himself com-
petently bring about the social phenomena studied, and in doing so, follow the
ethnomethodological argumentation in the description. These texts quite certainly
direct sociologists to acquire newly embodied social skills through practical
exercise according to the instructions. The instructions should also be hybrid,
being practically comprehensible both to competent members of a collectivity
(experts) as well as for sociologists (novices) (cf. Sudnow, 1978;Livingston,
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 15
(b) Descriptions as aids to memory are preferably used in the form of audio and video
recordings and related transcripts. These enable researchers ﬁrst to remember in
practical terms the embodied skills and implicit practices acquired in the eth-
nography in which they have participated. It is these skills and practices that
generate the ordered phenomena investigated. Accordingly data within ethno-
methodology serve as “aids to a sluggish imagination”(Garﬁnkel, 1967: 38) and
“a source of insight into what we ‘already know’” (Lynch, 2002: 535). Second,
they not only make ordered phenomena rememberable but also empirically
referenceable while making the knowledge intersubjectively understandable.
Third, their preparation in the form of transcripts gives rise to an alienating effect,
which makes it easier for researchers to distance themselves from the ordered
phenomena with which they are practically familiar (cf. Lynch, 1985;Liberman,
With the “praxeological validity of instructed action,”Garﬁnkel (2002: 105) for-
mulates a criterion for ethnomethodological descriptions. On this view, a description is
always adequate if it can be read not only as a description of a phenomenon but also as an
instruction for how to practically reproduce the phenomenon studied. Praxeological
validity is controversial within the ﬁeld of practitioners. On the one hand, Sudnow was
able to translate his ethnographic insights into a unique method of learning how to
improvise jazz. On the other hand, Livingston’s insights into mathematical practice were
not directly accessible to mathematicians and were therefore hardly noticed.
The principles of ethnomethodological ethnography set out here are the solution
proposed by Garﬁnkel for the sociological crisis of representation. Ethnomethodological
ethnographers put the accomplishment of implicit practices for generating ordered
phenomena at the center of their descriptions. In some cases, the phenomena at which they
are directed are also predicated for methodological reasons on a doing in order to ensure
that the work on creating them is also kept conceptually visible.
Ethnomethodology grounds the principles of the ethnographic method reﬂexively and
practically within the phenomena of order themselves that constitute its object. In this
respect, ethnomethodological ethnography differs from all other variants of ethnography
in fundamental ways. It is not conceptualized as an orderly process of writing but as one of
re-presenting and re-enacting already orderly phenomena. For Garﬁnkel, due to its
preference for acquiring member skills and as well as its versatility, ethnography is one
way to meet the requirement of congruence between scientiﬁc and everyday methods
within the self-reﬂexive discipline of sociology. In order to methodologically implement
the congruence theory, research into how members produce descriptions and solve
problems within everyday practice and science, along with their necessary limitations,
must always be part of ethnomethodological ethnography. Ethnomethodological eth-
nography solves the methodological problem of adequate description thanks to the
“unique adequacy requirement of methods.”This requires that descriptions be generated
16 Qualitative Research 0(0)
using the same ethnomethods as those that are used in practice by competent members to
generate the phenomena of order studied. Thus, from the viewpoint of ethnomethodology,
the ethnographer must therefore always be a competent member who can recognize and
adequately describe the phenomenon of order. This enables readers to shift into the hybrid
position desired, which is necessary for sociological research, in order to comprehend the
phenomena of order described both practically as well as scientiﬁcally (“praxeological
validity”). This requirement might appear at ﬁrst sight to be highly demanding. However,
it must be regarded above all as an instrument of necessary self-clariﬁcation in ac-
knowledging that the epistemological resources and instruments of sociology are in-
separably intertwined with the epistemological resources and instruments of the ﬁeld of
This text was supported by the “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration”Centre of Excellence at
the University of Konstanz, established in the framework of the German Federal Initiative for
Excellence. We would like to thank Clemens Eisenmann, Sandrine Gukelberger, Ya ¨
Frank Oberzaucher, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and Thomas Roberts for
help with translating.
Declaration of conﬂicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Christian Meier zu Verl https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4611-5984
1. In an unpublished paper, Garﬁnkel also distinguishes between ethnomethodology and “analytic
ethnography.”Analytic ethnography, in his view, might draw attention to certain dissatisfactions
in practice, but without producing hybrid descriptions that are valuable for the social sciences
and for practitioners at the same time (Garﬁnkel et al., 1988:10–15, 51–53). Garﬁnkel introduces
analytic ethnography as a way of combining conversational and observational techniques. But by
speaking only of analytic ethnography, he disregards those variants of ethnography that require
participation, learning and performing practical member skills, that ethnomethodology also
requires (Garﬁnkel and Wieder, 1992). For us, however, skills and their learning and performing
are central to many variants of ethnography and it seems methodologically consistent to speak of
ethnomethodological ethnography in order to highlight differences and similarities between the
Meier zu Verl and Meyer 17
2. In his introduction to “Writing Culture,”Clifford conﬁrms that the crisis in sociology that is
reﬂected in methodological terms within ethnomethodology has parallels with the writing culture
debate in anthropology (cf. Clifford, 1986: 23). This is not surprising, also as some proponents of
the writing culture debate (including amongst others Stephen Tyler) were inspired by Aaron
Cicourel, an early collaborator of Garﬁnkel.
3. Other ethnographic approaches such as, e.g., postmodern ethnography, performance ethnog-
raphy, autoethnography or phenomenology-based ethnography are left out here.
4. For this variant of ethnography, the term bodily emphasizes the bodily-participatory and
knowledge incoporative dimension of social research. In this way, the ethnographer’s body and
its senses become the primary research instrument.
5. The term “Color Trouble”(which Garﬁnkel always places between inverted commas) was used
by employees of transportation companies to refer to incidents that arose when black passengers
insisted on their “rights and privileges as free citizens”(Garﬁnkel, 1940: 144) for instance
choosing a free seat on the bus.
6. The text is often incorrectly referred to as a ﬁctional short story engaging with everyday political
issues in the USA at the end of the 1930s. This impression is increased by its inclusion in the
collection “The Best Short Stories 1941”. However, “Color Trouble”originally appeared in the
journal Opportunity, the publication organ of the civil rights organization the National Urban
League, which was directed in sociological and socio-political terms at an African American
readership. It printed the text along with the comment that Garﬁnkel was an eyewitness to the
story’s event. Also Garﬁnkel’s teacher Guy B. Johnson (University of NC) addressed the status
of “Color Trouble”in “The Negro and Crime”:“For a detailed account of a Virginia episode
leading to the arrest of a young Negro couple, see Harold Garﬁnkel, ‘Color Trouble,’Op-
portunity […]. Incidentally, this ‘story’was selected for inclusion in O’Brien’s Best Short Stories
of 1940. Perhaps truth is stronger than ﬁction!”(Johnson, 1941: 96, fn.)
7. According to Garﬁnkel (1967:76–103), one core method in both areas is the “documentary
method of interpretation”, a reference which he takes over from Mannheim and modiﬁes.
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Christian Meier zu Verl is a research associate at the Department of History and Sociology
at the University of Konstanz, Germany. He is co-speaker of the network Dis-/Abilities
and Digital Media, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). His recent
publications include Daten-Karrieren und epistemische Materialit¨at (2018), Die alternde
Migrationsgesellschaft (2020), and the special issue Ethnomethodology and Ethnography
(Ethnographic Studies, 2020).
Christian Meyer is a professor of sociology at the Department of History and Sociology at
the University of Konstanz, Germany. He is the director of the Binational Center for
Qualitative Methods of the University of Konstanz and the Thurgau University of Teacher
Education, Switzerland. Most recent publications include “The Phenomenological
Foundations of Ethnomethodology’s Conceptions of Sequentiality and Indexicality.
Harold Garﬁnkel’s References to Aron Gurwitsch’s ‘Field of Consciousness’”,
Gespr¨achsforschung 23 (2022): 111-144, and “Semiotic and asemiotic practices in
boxing”, Semiotica 248 (2022): online ﬁrst (with Ulrich v. Wedelstaedt).
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