Chapter 13: Unobtrusive Research: Qualitative And Quantitative Approaches

13.6 Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis

Though not unique methods of data collection per se, ethnomethodology and conversation analysis are unique enough, and prominent enough in sociology, that they warrant some dedicated attention in this text.


Ethnomethodology is a term that was developed by the sociologist Harold Garfinkel in his 1967 publication, Studies in Ethnomethodology. According to Heritage (1984, p. 4), Garfinkel developed the term to encompass a range of phenomena that are associated with how members of society utilize mundane knowledge and reasoning. Today, ethnomethodology is defined as the study of the ordinary: the routine and the details of everyday reality (Patton, 2015; Saylor Academy, 2012). It is different from ethnography (see Chapter12) in that ethnography is a research method, while ethnomethodology is an alternative approach that seeks to describe the methods humans utilize to create social order (Heritage, 1984). An ethnomethodologist investigates how people construct, prolong, and maintain their realities (Saylor Academy, 2012). It asks the question, how do people make sense of their everyday activities in order to behave in socially acceptable ways (Patton, 2015)? Ethnomethodology’s emphasis on the everyday, and on ordinary people’s methods for producing order in their social worlds, is perhaps its most distinctive characteristic (Saylor Academy, 2012).

Conversation analysis

Conversation analysis is a more formal approach to ethnomethodology (Schutt, 2012). It arose from the fact that some categories (i.e., the meaning of gender), are socially constructed terms that lead to verbal interaction (Schutt, 2006). Specifically, it is a qualitative method for organizing and analyzing the details of conversation (Schutte, 2006). Similar to ethnomethodology, conversation analysis focuses on how reality is constructed, as opposed to what it is.

Conversation analysis is premised on three points:

  1. Interaction is sequentially organized, and talk can be analyzed in terms of the process of social interaction rather than motives or social status.
  2. Contributions to action are contextually oriented. Interaction both shapes and is shaped by the social context of that interaction.

The preceding processes are inherent in the details of the interaction, and therefore, no details can be dismissed as being disorderly, accidental or irrelevant (Gubrium & Holstein, 2000; Heritage, 1984, p. 241).


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