“Certain rules are in charge of social situations.”
Whenever I show the above image, some students immediately let me know that I have the image upside down. I politely correct them and tell them that the image is properly oriented (I expect this reaction). Click on the image and it will enlarge. After enlarging it, see if you still think it is upside down?
Harold Garfinkel (October 29, 1917 – April 21, 2011) (American)
Ethnomethodologists begin with the assumption that certain rules are in charge of social situations. That is, people “make sense” of events in terms of preconceived order. Very much in line with W.I. Thomas’s “definition of the situation.” As was the case with the ethnomethodologists’ predecessors: the phenomenologists, ethnos (short for always using the long version ethnomethodologits) examine how people create an “ordered social world” by using preconceived social definitions.
Ethnomethodologists expand on this logic, yet in order to measure what is going on, they use an unorthodox method called a “breaching experiment.” Sociologists “breach” a person’s sense of social reality; then they step back and watch their subjects attempt to recreate the missing “social order.” Let’s take a look at how this works using an example from class.
As the instructor, I begin the ethno exercise as follows. First I ask for a volunteer; this way no student can say that I was “messing with them.” After a student voluntarily agrees to be part of the exercise, I then tell them that I am going to ask them a question. I go on to explain that if they can provide me with a correct answer, I will give them extra credit (this works well as an incentive to participate).
Next, I set the ground rules and tell the student that after I ask the question, they are allowed to ask for one point of clarification. That is, they can ask me one question in order to clarify any aspect of the question they feel is unclear. After the student acknowledges this caveat, I precede to ask them the following question:
“If you are going down main street in your two-wheeled canoe, and your left, rear wing falls off, … how many pancakes does it take to fill a manhole cover?”
After I am finished asking the student this odd question, I can see visible evidence that the question is confusing to them as a look of bewilderment creeps across their face. I then quickly let them know that they have permission to ask for a point of clarification. Let’s take a look how students process this ethno question.
“If you are going down main street,
… in your two-wheeled canoe,
… and your left, rear wing falls off,
Left Rear Wing
… how many pancakes does it take to fill a manhole cover?”
When students attempt to answer the question, their minds grasp for meaning. You can view their facial expressions as they grasp for meaning; their confusion is that obvious. People can’t identify with a two-wheeled canoe, or to “rear left wings falling off,” but their minds mind CAN relate to the size of a normal pancake or the general dimensions of a manhole cover. So they normally ask, “How big are the pancakes?”
The logic they use to attempt to figure out an answer to the odd question is to first find out how big the pancakes are. They already know generally how big a manhole cover is. So, if they can figure out how big the pancakes are, they can “do the math” in their heads and take a stab at figuring out how many pancakes that size would fit over a standard manhole cover. Armed with this vague information, the student will attempt an answer.
I then tell the class “a correct” answer would be something like: “Yes, because the little boy had a red balloon.”
Remember that when we were discussing the ground rules, I had asked the student to come up with “a correct” answer. I never asked for THE “correct” answer. And as you can probably guess, there is no one “correct” answer.
Any “correct” answer would be another string of words that were random and really “made no sense.” A correct answer could be something like, “OK, if men jump at noon into upside-down ceilings.” Or, “Sure, I’m a close personal enemy of the manner keeper.”
I merely assembled some common symbols (words) by stringing them together in a random order like popcorn on a string. When put together in this fashion, these symbols seemed to almost “make sense.” In reality, these words, assembled in this order, never “made sense.” But because they were common symbols that were easily recognizable, the students attempting to answer imputed their own meaning into them and then tried their hand at giving me an answer.
Magicians and con men are ethnos at heart. They realize that their potential victims operate on a taken-for-granted definition of the situation. They use these preconceived social conditions and thus use their slight-of-hand to gain an advantage.
On the TV hit show THE CARBONERO EFFECT, Micheal the magician uses this type of ethnomethodology to his advantage. The show is similar to CANDID CAMERA and the shenanigans on both shows uses people’s preconceived notions of “reality” to their advantage.
IS ETHNOMETHODOLOGY A SCIENCE?
By using this logic, the ethnomethodologists had discovered a way to empirically measure an actor’s sense of social structure. Ethnomethodology could thus claim to be a science. This separated it from phenomenology which still remained a philosophy; existing only in people’s minds with no way to measure how people were thinking. In other words, by observing people’s reactions to the breaching experiments, ethnos were now able to observe how people were attempting to “make sense” out of their social experiences.
Ethnomethodology then can be considered a science. Because it is able to measure behavior, and it can do so without necessarily informing those being observed, it is a scientific evolution of Alfred Schutz’s ideas on phenomenology.
Source: Wallace, Ruth A. and A. Wolf. 1980 Contemporary Sociological Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Picture source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Garfinkel
ETHNOMETHODOLOGY – EXAMPLES
ETHNOMETHODOLOGY “BREACHING EXPERIMENTS”
A Breaching Experiment at the drive through.
A Breaching Experiment with “door manners.”
As you can see from the various examples above, ETHNOMETHODOLOGY is everywhere. As soon as you enter a social scene, there are perhaps many different definitions of the situation. If people actually stopped and thought about this, it has the potential to be a little scary. So in order to minimize the potential of perpetual confrontations, as a society (we tend to be social), we agree to operate on some common “definition of the situation.” Actors are allowed to improvise a role to some extent, but generally not so much as to render the role unrecognizable; that would create “definition” problems. People want to play their roles and move on. Not to mention, interruptions in the social order cause stress. In order to teach ethnomethodology, I could have merely discussed it with words like most textbooks do, however, by taking you on an “ethnomethodological journey,” not only were you able to learn about ethno, but were also able to see it in action from various points of view.
FUTURE EXAMPLES of: ETHNOMETHODOLOGY
 Flipping Coins in Panama (hot coins)
 ASU Oktoberfest (Pedro)
 Christmas Songs in Greeley (July)
 Mrs. Didinger (Marines at the door)
 Rich & Rita (Pedro vs Dr Padilla)
 Doorbell in the Attic (Tempe house)
 No One Believes that I Date Denise (that pic came w the frame)
 Mom & Andy Freezing in Greeley (no one knew my address)
 Candid Camera Episode (job offer)
 Professor Installs a New Stove (Pedro vs Dr Padilla)
 Dude in the Pink Shirt at ASU (gay?)
 Turkey Baster (ASU gay)
 Evita Party (2 glasses of wine)
 Taking Miriam to a Lesbian Party (chicken)
 Vesting Cory at Prison (who are you?)
 “I see You Have Friends Over.” (Gil Sr.)
 Your Mom is a Dog (exercise)
 Mrs. Catany and the Identical Twins (one is pregnant)
 Sex Cramp (Why do you take so long?)
 Shopping at Ross and Mickey Mouse (rats are dangerous)
 Acting as Historian for LP (naked women???)
 Eric and the Rockies Tickets (beggars can’t be choosers)
 Travieso Jumps on the Table (Arturo)
 The White Horse Bar (Custer anyone?)
 Crush on a Student (fake)
 My Sister’s Cat in the Fridge (fake)
 The Elna Rae “Clicker” Incident (Esmeralda)
 SMCC Security Guard (even if you know better)