Sunday, May 8, 2011

How to read Garfinkel

Harold Garfinkel died a couple of weeks ago.  (See obituaries here and here.)  And since I've never done a post on him on this blog - despite the fact that discovering him was tremendously important for my research - perhaps this is the appropriate time to pay tribute.  I don't claim to understand Garfinkel fully - his prose is notoriously opaque** - but I hope to suggest some kind of reading guide to "Studies in Ethnomethodology," his magnum opus - in the hope that it may be useful to other novices like me - who are just starting out.

I first heard of Garfinkel when I read Paul Dourish "Where the Action Is" and then Lucy Suchman's "Plans and Situated Actions."  The field of ethnomethodology had a big impact on me - and was one of the reasons why I decided I wanted to study social science rather than design technology.  In a way, the building assumption of both Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks fed into the reductionist part of me.  I understood them to be saying: Fine, you want to investigate social life?  Then don't start with the big things: class, gender, conflict, revolutions.  Start small, let's first understand how day-to-day interaction is structured and constituted.  Then - once we have a better understanding of this - only then, let's go on to understanding the big things.  This fit in well with the part of me that liked physics and mathematics: in physics, you start off by understanding the motion of bodies in space - but that helps you explain planetary motion as well.

It's debatable whether this reductionist stance can be applied to social life - do we need to understand micro-social interactions in order to understand macro-social phenomena?  I don't know - but I don't believe in this as strongly as I did before, when I first heard of ethnomethodology***.  But let me get back to where I originally wanted this post to go: a novice's reading guide to Garfinkel for other novices. 

First, don't read Garfinkel at all at the beginning.  (Ha!)  I suggest reading the following texts in this order:

John Heritage's essay on Garfinkel in "Key Sociological Thinkers."  This is a simple, easy-to-read, and accessible introduction to Garfinkel's key sociological insights.  [Email me if you want a pdf.]

Then read John Heritage's (again!) review essay on ethnomethodology in "Social Theory Today."  [pdf]  These two should be enough. 

But at this point, it might be good to dip into Heritage's book-length exposition of Garfinkel: "Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology."  This is, in its own way, a difficult text to read - and it's a whole book.  But I'd say concentrate on chapters 4 and 5. 
  • Chapter 4 is titled "The Morality of Cognition" and among other things, has an account of Garfinkel's famous "breaching experiments."  My own favorite example is on pages 94-94 that contains a transcript of a conversation between a husband and wife - which shows how much is taken-for-granted, and therefore incomplete in seemingly ordinary conversations. 
  • Chapter 5 is titled "Actions, Rules and Contexts" and is pretty dense. However, it is a good introduction to how Garfinkel goes against the typical notion of "rules" as driving action.
And now - finally - read Garfinkel himself, "Studies in Ethnomethodology."  I think it's important to read him because Studies is worth reading and reading again.  But don't read the book in sequence (and definitely don't start with Chapter 1 which is deceptively titled "What is Ethnomethodology?" and has some of the densest prose).  Instead, use the following order: 
  • Read Chapter 3 first - titled "Common sense knowledge of social structures: the documentary method of interpretation in lay and professional fact finding."  This chapter gives - with vivid examples - a nice account of the work that goes on in day-to-day social interactions. 
  • Then read chapter 8 titled "The rational properties of scientific and common sense activities." 
  • Then read chapter 2 titled "Studies of the routine grounds of everyday activities" - again, there are some funny breaching experiments here - but more importantly, these experiments serve to ground what Garfinkel is trying to point out.
  • And finally - yes! - read chapter 1, "What is Ethnomethodology?"   I don't guarantee that this will help you understand this chapter but it does help to place it in context. 
  • And finally, after all this, read the remaining chapters in whatever order you like.  Don't miss Chapter 5, "Passing and the management achievement of sex status in an 'inter-sexed' person, part 1" which concludes with an almost fantastic revelation that would rival the sting-in-the-tail stories of O'Henry.

** For example, here is how Garfinkel outlines his key notion of "account-ability":
The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical study, and by paying to the most commonplace activities of daily life the attention usually accorded extraordinary events, seek to learn about them as phenomena in their own right. Their central recommendation is that the activities whereby members produces and manage settings of organized everyday affairs are identical with members’ procedures for making those settings “account-able.” The “reflexive,” or “incarnate” character of accounting practices and accounts makes up the crux of that recommendation. When I speak of accountable my interests are to such matters as the following. I mean the observable-and-reportable, i.e. available to members as situated practices of looking-and-telling. I mean, too, that such practices consist of an endless, ongoing, contingent accomplishment; that they are carried on under the auspices of, and are made to happen as events in, the same ordinary affairs that in organizing they describe; that the practices are done by parties to those settings whose skill with, knowledge of, and entitlement to the detailed work of that accomplishment – whose competence – they obstinately depend upon, recognize, use, and take for granted; and that they take their competence for granted itself furnishes parties with a setting’s distinguishing and particular features, and of course it furnishes them as well as resources, troubles, projects, and the rest.
John Heritage, whose book on ethnomethodology is really really good, has this to say about Garfinkel's writing style: 
These studies are discussed in a difficult prose style in which dense thickets of words seem to resist the reader's best endeavours, only to yield, at the last, forceful and unexpected insights which somehow remain obstinately open-ended and difficult to place.
To be fair, Heritage also mentions that Garfinkel's short story was anthologized in the 1941 "Best American Short Stories" volume -- so the man could clearly write!

***That said, my sense is that the guiding principle of ethnomethodology is also the guiding principle of Science and Technology Studies.  In Science Studies, we like to show the work that goes on, even in the most routine, taken-for-granted situations - for example, the notion of "transmitting" knowledge, especially scientific knowledge is not as simple as it seems.  There are pedagogic practices (for example, the instructor solving problems and then setting examples for students to solve on their own), exam structures (what kinds of questions are students tested for?), and most importantly, the background understandings these create when scientists schooled in one discipline interpret the work of others.  Garfinkel's analysis of the work that goes on even in the most day-to-day social encounters is tremendously useful here.


Anonymous said...

Hey! Very interesting advices! I'm taking my chance: do you still have the pdf of the two articles of Heritage you mentionnned? Here is my email address:, I'm working on Garfinkel in France, Lyon :-).

Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

This was very helpful as I am just beginning to delve into the writings of Garfinkel. I am in a psychology graduate program in Canada. I am part of a group of students who, with the help of a prof well versed in these ideas, have started reading Garfinkel together in order to understand him. These articles will be very helpful as the book we are starting with is the Heritage one. Would you be able to send me the pdf of the first article? My email is



Franco said...

Thank you! These were very useful suggestions!

Inge Kalle-den Oudsten said...

Very helpful, thanks a lot!

Unknown said...

Dear Shreeharsh Kelkar,

im a theaterstudent from germany and im really interested in the work of Garfinkel.
I would appreciate it if would send me some ebooks that can help me to have a good introduction.


Email : faraz157(at)hotmail(dot)com

Faraz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angelique O. said...

Hi! I am a student of anthropology tasked with getting through Garfinkel. It is such a relief to know it isn't just me who has had difficulty with his writing. Would you mind sending the pdf of the first article mentioned? Many, many thanks!!