Harold Garfinkel, 1917-2011

According to reliable, but not official, sources, Harold Garfinkel passed away yesterday. Garfinkel was a major influence on Sociology and on my own development as a sociologist. Garfinkel founded a peculiar school of sociological thought known as “ethnomethodology“, an approach that focuses on the methods people use (hence the name) to account for their own actions, and how our ability to act in accountable ways is connected to the actions we take. In Garfinkel’s words, ethnomethodology is “…directed to the tasks of learning how members’ actual, ordinary activities consist of methods to make practical actions, practical circumstances, common sense knowledge of social structures, and practical sociological reasoning analyzeable; and of discovering the formal properties of commonplace, practical common sense actions, ‘from within’ actual settings, as ongoing accomplishments of those settings” (Garfinkel 1967:vii-viii). Garfinkel’s major text, Studies in Ethnomethology is still the main source for trying to grapple with his ideas. That book discusses several fantastic case studies (“‘Good’ organizational reasons for ‘bad’ clinical records” might be my favorite), and introduces key concepts like indexicality (that language makes sense only under some assumptions about share concrete references, that no language can ever be “context-free”), ad hocing and many others.

Garfinkel published extraordinarily little, and ethnomethodology never blossomed into a dominant approach (in part, perhaps, because of the practice of its early practitioners of circulating papers through their own UCLA-based network rather than attempting to publish in mainstream journals)*. Still, ethnomethodology had tremendous influence on at least two major branches of research in very different fields: the “doing gender” approach of West and Zimmerman (a sociological cousin to Judith Butler’s work on the performativity of gender), and on science studies through the work of Lynch and Woolgar, and most famously, Woolgar’s co-author Latour. Actor-network theory in many ways starts from Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology and its rejection of the distinction between macro-structures and micro-interactions. Instead, both approaches hold that “big” things have to be made “big”, nothing starts out that way. In ANT’s terms, macro-actors are micro-actors sitting atop a lot of stabilized relationships (black boxes). I think there is a lot of similarity here to Garfinkel’s reading of Durkheim’s aphorism, which asserts that “the objective reality of social facts is sociology’s fundamental phenomenon” (see Garfinkel 2002). What ANT does that Ethnomethodology does not is to add a symmetry between humans and non-humans – in other words, ANT often finds that society is stabilized through things, that “technology is society made durable“.

On a more personal note, I was fortunate to first study Garfinkel’s works with one of his former students, Bud Meehan, in a class on politics and language. The experience changed how I thought about my own work, and led me towards science studies as well as towards Goffman and an appreciation of so-called “microsociology”.

As you might be able to guess from that quote, Garfinkel had a very peculiar writing style that alienated many readers while delighting others (including myself). So I think it’s fitting to end with a big chunk from Garfinkel own writings, from the beginning of Studies in Ethnomethdology:

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.

* I read a paper on the history of Ethnomethodology that makes this claim, about how the subfield became balkanized in part through its publication practices, but I can no longer locate it. Does anyone know the paper?



  1. Thomas

     /  April 22, 2011

    What I find most innovative in ethnomethodology is the ability to take phenomenological concepts and actually put them to work. I took a seminar where we read Alfred Schutz extensively, and wondered what in the world I was going to do with it. I was really pleased that someone could do so without significantly sacrificing philosophical rigour.

    I’ll follow suit: my favourite Garfinkel quip, also from Studies, is found on page 37:

    “Procedurally it is my preference to start from familiar scenes and ask what can be done to make trouble.”

  2. Nice tribute Dan, but count me as one who is annoyed by his writing style.

  3. dk.au

     /  April 23, 2011

    “It would be fairly accurate to describe ANT as half Garfinkel half Greimas” – Latour, Reassembling the Social fn54

    • Right! I knew I’d seen Latour make that connection explicit somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. Thanks!

  4. Brian A. Pitt

     /  April 23, 2011

    I really like your tribute Dan. I agree with Bishop, here, though. I have never been able to think deeply about Garfinkel because his writing style was just too turgid for my taste.

  5. Russ

     /  April 23, 2011

    The paper:

    Mullins, Nicholas C. 1973. The Development of Specialties in Social Science: The Case of Ethnomethodology. Science Studies 3 (3):245-273.

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