Ethnomethodology – A Provocative Research Method Missing the Point?


***This blogpost is adopted from an earlier blog I wrote as part of an assignment during my master’s degree, I have slightly altered and adapted it.***

A big organisation. People do their work. One man doesn’t fit in. He is watching, observing, analysing. That’s Mark Rouncefield’s job. He is an ethnomethodologist.

During my master’s I had a very valuable course that thought me how to do research in academic contexts and introduced me to the different kinds of methods out there. One particular lesson I remember was that on Ethnomethodology, a very interesting and provocative qualitative research method, taught by Mark Rouncefield of Lancaster University. This lesson really challenged everything what I had read, learned and believed in the past. And it particularly challenged grand narratives and theories such as the ideas of modernity and postmodernity. For these reasons I find it quite important to revisit this subject in this methods blog, though it is a much more philosophical and less hands-on post than usual. So, if you are interested in the philosophical discussions behind doing research, this post is for you!

Sociologists argue that there are underlying social constructs that shape society which influence our work, home, the technologies we use, our understanding of our identity – capitalism being one of them (e.g. as discussed by sociologists such as Richard Sennet in his book “Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism” – I highly recommend it). This is just one side of sociology though. There are many different streams. A very prominent one that I have strongly identified with recently is that of social constructivism which argues that everything is socially constructed including technologies, gender identities etc. (e.g. Bjiker & Law, 1992 in “Shaping Technology/Building Society”; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999 in “The Social Shaping of Technology”). Theories are a fundamental element of such approaches to sociology in their attempt to untangle the grand narrative that builds our society and civilization.

Mark Rouncefield on the other hand is an ethnomethodologist; another fancy word with probably a purely academic meaning and most likely not much controversy, so it may seem at first sight, but bear with me as I will explain how it relates to sociology and why I find it fascinating and relevant!

According to Wikipedia ( ethnomethodology is the study of everyday methods that people use for the production of social order. This method aims to understand how and through what practices people make sense of their world.

While this definition doesn’t seem to be too radical at first sight, when Rouncefield explained it, it became clear quickly how fundamentally different his approach is to that of sociology (even though strictly spoken ethnomethodology is considered a part of sociology). Even more drastic than merely being the opposite of conventional sociology, he aggressively rejects anything that has to do with it, especially when it comes to actively designing artefacts. He completely discards the idea of having a theory and a grand narrative as he considers these all to be “made-up speculations.

As I understood, he believes that claiming to look for underlying causes in society and meanings in our behaviour is a waste of time and only a sociologist imposing his or her theory on the world: he basically considers sociologist assuperfluous. Instead he proposes that it makes a lot more sense to actually go out and study what people do by documenting every step of their actions and how they do it. He looks at the daily processes that people engage in and tries to discover routines and exceptions to these routines. That way his ethnographic accounts of how people live can then inform design decisions.

For design, he believes, looking at the grand narrative is no more than a mere distraction and not helpful in producing something useful to make people’s lives better. In that way sociology is highly impractical, and again superfluous.

Ethnomethodology – the best way to design?

Wow! What a drastically different approach to what I had known so far and seen in academia. Fascinating. What do you think? It definitely got me thinking! I can clearly see his point, for a general theorization of why society is how it is is not directly or visibly constructive in designing artefacts. Yet, I also feel that he is missing a crucial point in completely rejecting grand narratives of society. From the point of view of a constructivist – the vantage point I have come to identify with the most – one tries to understand why our society is how it is, which includes an analysis of power structures. Our norms and behaviours are shaped by underlying values of our cultural background and this background is also reflected in the artefacts we use as our designers shape and are shaped by our society. In this way society advances and brings about innovation.

Another aspect of design I have recently come across is the widespread tendency of designers to infer that their own preferences will also be liked by other people. One example of such “egocentrism” (this is how it is officially called as I learnt from behavioural science literature), I came across recently in the use of email. We automatically assume that people understand emails as we do while writing them; yet often this is not so, leading to misunderstandings (Derks & Bakker, 2010, have a really good paper on this topic). This can also be a problem for designers of new technologies, another example being computer games that often exclude women as most game designers are still mainly young men.

My point is then, if we don’t question the underlying hierarchies and power relationships at play and only observe the existing processes, how do we identify inequalities and how do we hear the voice of the marginalized not present in such ethnographic studies?

More inclusive alternatives

An interesting approach, again something Rouncefield would reject, is that of Standpoint Theory (which I read about for the first time in Haraway (1988) and it made a lot of sense to me) which says that the voice of the unheard needs to be considered in the design process as well in order to be truly objective and hence to bring about innovation for everybody. Where is the criticality in his approach that could lead to social change and advancement? How can disruptive technologies evolve (for me disruptive meaning that they are disruptive to society in terms of change for the better), if we only manifest what we already know? How can the marginalized be heard and how can designers help them and give them a voice if they are absent from the places where ethnographic studies take place?

These questions I started to think about while listening to his ideas and they remained unanswered as he simply said it didn’t matter to him why society was how it was. Don’t you also think he should try to answer these questions?

Again, I totally see his point that for design it is important to observe the existing, as new emerges from the old, just like Schumpeter already argued in his notion of creative destruction. Yet, I argue that to detect and mitigate social inequalities, one also has to have a look at the grand narrative and the underlying causes for power hierarchies. Together, I believe these two approaches could become very powerful indeed in their attempt to create truly innovative and inclusive designs.

Bjiker, W.E. & Law, J., 1992. Shaping Technology/Building Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Derks, D. & Bakker, A.B., 2010. The Impact of Email Communication on Organizational Life. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 4(1), [online] Available at: <>  [Accessed on 31/01/2013].

Haraway, D., 1988. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies,  14(3), pp.575–599.

MacKenzie, D. & Wajcman, J., 1999. The Social Shaping of Technology. 2nd ed. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Sennett, R., 1998. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, New York: WW Norton & Company.


3 thoughts on “Ethnomethodology – A Provocative Research Method Missing the Point?

  1. bennicraftPaul

    Enjoying your posts Isa. You are right via-a-vis power dynamics. The problem with numerous naturalising approaches is that they assume their is a pure everyday life, in a place not affected by other places.

    Also we do not I think need to choose between the micro and the macro. We need to deny it. There are many ways to do this through approaches like various complexity fads, ANT, Foucault, Delueze and Guttiari, multi site ethnographical, Activty theory, Schatzki and others.

    They keys are how does one site affect another? How do designers across Silicon Valley with investments from Wall Street produce tech for surveillance on people buying plane tickets in London or Karachi? Many sites designing each other.

    Which of these is the naturalised site for an ethnomethodologist?

    Keep up the interesting blogs 🙂


  2. Mark Rouncefield

    I am Mark Rouncefield – and I must admit its rather strange to be the subject of somebody else’s blog.. and, incidentally, I tend to think of myself more as an ethnographer rather than an ethnomethodologist ..

    So.. some comments.. firstly ethnomethodology is not a research method.. it is an analytic approach.. that is, it offers a way of analysing data produced by a wide range of data collection methods like observation, interviews etc.. ethnomethodologists don’t tend to fetishize any particular data collection method.. but they do like things that can be recorded since it enables others to check and agree or disagree with your analysis..

    Secondly.. whilst many people/Sociologists like theory or theories. ..(I used to be very fond of Marxism).. ethnomethodologists tend to ask serious questions of theory, questions they are usually unable to answer very satisfactorily like ‘what work does this theory do?’ ‘what analytic work does it accomplish? ‘How does the data support the various theoretical statements? Can you point to a piece of data to support each statement?.. and if not (and its usually not) isn’t this just a made up argument? Isn’t the sociological account simply a version, another version, that is offered in contrast to that of the participants? – as if people lived the lives they do and did the things they do merely to satisfy the Sociologists theoretical inclinations? And why should we prefer the Sociologist’s version? Furthermore it seems to me that the point of Sociology is to try to understand the social world, to understand what is ‘social’ about the social world.. why do you need a theory to do that? Surely, as Wittgenstein might argue an adequate description would do and would invalidate the need for a ‘theory’..

    Thirdly, when you say things like “Our norms and behaviours are shaped by underlying values of our cultural background and this background is also reflected in the artefacts we use ..” how do you know that?.. shouldn’t this be the ‘topic’ for research?.. how and in what ways is this the case? rather than an unexplicated ‘resource’ that you use to do your theoretical work? Similarly when you decide you want to explain an activity or an artefact – like washing dishes or the education system as an example of bourgeois hegemony or patriarchal society, don’t you first need to understand it as ‘washing dishes’ ‘going to lessons’ etc first? Understanding it as an activity or artefact is primary.. and maybe negates the necessity for theory..?

    Fourthly, and finally, and with particular relevance to my interest in design (I am after all situated in a Computing department).. the value of the kind of ‘ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic approach’ that we use is that it is immediately available and sensible to designers of various kinds.. they don’t for example, need to understand the wilder shores of post-modernism or post-marxism or post-feminism in order to grasp its relevance to the design of systems of various kinds..

    If you want to hear more of my critique of mainstream Sociology watch the first 10 minutes of this talk –


    • Hi Mark, thanks for your comment! It is much appreciated. With respect to your uneasy feelings about being the subject of one of my posts on my blog, you have to thank HighWire for that! During my master’s there we were asked to write blog posts about the lectures we attended and you gave one lecture to my cohorte in 2012/2013. I hope you didn’t feel offended by it. Rather I was intrigued by your lecture and thought it was worth writing a post about it, also because it did puzzle me quite fundamentally at this point in time. So again thanks for your comments and insights.


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