Evidence and Ethnomethodology

As Mason (2018, p. 34) writes, “questions about whether qualitative data can constitute ‘evidence’, and about how the quality of qualitative research can be judged, are particularly fraught ones.” This blogpost looks at one approach to research —ethnomethodology —and considers how “evidence” has been discussed.

Harold Garfinkel developed an approach to the study of social order that he called “ethnomethodology.” Rawls (2002, pp. 4-5) describes how Garfinkel generated the term in 1954. While preparing for a presentation of work on jury deliberations for the American Sociological Association meeting, he came across the Yale Human Area Relations files (with files labelled “ethnoscience”, “ethnobotany” etc.) referring to people. He took “ethno” and added “methodology” – referring to “the theory of corret decisions in deciding the grounds of action and further inference” (Felix Kauffman, cited by Rawls, 2002, p. 5). Simply put, ethnomethodology (EM) refers to the study of “members’ methods.”

Garfinkel’s colleagues questioned him repeatedly about what ethnomethodology treated as “evidence.” This is not unique to EM studies, however, since discussion of what counts as evidence in qualitative inquiry has also been a topic of recent debates. The interest in determining what counts as “evidence” in ethnomethodology is found in the Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology:

HILL: Hal (Garfinkel), you have not told us yet what rules of evidence you accept or employ (Hill & Crittenden, 1968, p. 27).

HILL: You have to be able to tell us how you make such distinctions in terms of decision rules. I believe this illustrates a kind of question many of us have with regard to how one presents a warrant for the evidence that one uses to reach a decision (Hill & Crittenden, 1968, p. 28).

DEFLEUR: How do you reject a thing? What are the rules of evidence on which you reject or accept an explanation? (Hill & Crittenden, 1968, p. 40).

(Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology, Hill & Crittenden, 1968, Also cited by Lynch, 1991, p. 89).

This interest in determining what counts as evidence reflects the centrality of evidence and inferences to the enterprise of doing “scientific research” and why discussions of “evidence” are “fraught” (to quote Mason, 2018). Benson and Hughes (1991, p. 127) write that Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks repeatedly pointed out that “an indispensable feature of any science is to describe its phenomena as faithfully, as rigorously and as formally as possible. It is this which gives the issues of evidence and inference their point.”

Over the last five decades, ethnomethodologists, following the examples provided by Harold Garfinkel, have re-specified topics of research (Garfinkel, 1991), including:

issues of evidence and inference by recognizing these as themselves issues in practical reasoning. ‘Inferring’, ‘providing evidence for’, ‘describing’, and so on, are features of members’ own methods for rendering the sense of activities and, as such, orderly properties of interaction…..what counts as a ‘warranted inference’, ‘evidence for’, and adequate ‘description’, is a matter of investigation for ethnomethodology (Benson & Hughes, 1991, p. 129).

In EM studies, we see demonstrations of practical action and practical reasoning (Garfinkel, 1967), examples of the documentary method of interpretation (Hak, 1998; Smith, 1990) and tutorial problems (Garfinkel, 2002), studies of work (Heath, Knoblauch, & Luff, 2000), and examinations of how members orient to instructed actions (Garfinkel, 1967; 2002). Some of this work has dealt specifically with the work of “doing science”; for example examining in detail the local and contingent work of scientific discovery (Garfinkel, Lynch & Livingston, 1981), coders’ application of coding schemes in social science research (Garfinkel, 1967), or doing the work of physics (Sormani, 2016). In EM, examinations of how people use evidence to accomplish and order activities in their everyday lives – whether in doing the work of the natural and social sciences, or in more mundane tasks – is itself a topic of investigation.

Ethnomethodology is a wide-ranging enterprise, taken up across disciplines in many different ways, including text analysis, conversation analysis (CA) and membership categorization analysis (MCA) (Eglin & Hester, 1999; Jayyusi, 1991), among other approaches. How have researchers taken up EM in education, to take but one discipline among many, including communication studies, applied linguistics and medical sociology? What forms of “evidence” are used?

Given that there are few explicit guidelines in the work of Garfinkel for how EM should be undertaken, and that his own body of work is varied in topic and approach, it is perhaps not surprising that the greatest application of ethnomethodological principles in education has been via CA – an area in which much methodological advice has been published. Various reviews of ethomethodology and conversation analysis in the field of education have outlined topics studied (Baker, 1997; Gardner, 2013; Heap, 1997; Hester & Francis, 2000; Watson, 1992), and examples of studies are found in the literature (e.g., Bullough Jr., 2010; Kim & Silver, 2016; MacBeth, 1990, 1991, 1992; McHoul, 1978, 1990; Mehan, 1979). These include analyses of classroom talk, post-observation conferences, and assessment of pre-service teachers’ work samples.

Data displays in publications from this research demonstrate researchers’ preference for:

(1) studies of naturalistic settings — actual events in institutional or naturally-occurring settings, rather than researcher-generated data such as interviews;

(2) studies focusing on mundane and everyday activities; and

(3) detailed transcriptions of audio- and/or video-recorded talk-in-interaction that is

(4) presented in sequential context.

A smaller number of studies show the use of descriptive procedures and other sources of data to demonstrate worksite practices (e.g. Livingston’s (2000) use of origami to examine instruction in mathematics; and Austin, Dwyer & Freebody’s (2003) examination of texts as well as classroom interaction to investigate the enactment of childhood in schools). Although some work also relies on ethnographic fieldwork (see for example, (Hemmings, Randall, Marr, & Francis, 2000), Heap (1997, p. 220) cautions that ethnographic fieldnotes

are of use primarily to identify speakers and to record any features of the setting which may be expected to bear on the adequacy of the description and resulting analyses, e.g., off-camera events to which speakers display an orientation. Fieldnotes are of no use for recording data. Information about research settings that is not available to the data themselves, e.g., speakers’ mental states or scores on standardized tests, is not to be used by analysts, unless it can be shown that parties to the interaction apparently orient to this information.

Still, Pollner and Emerson (2001) take a more positive view of the relationship between EM and ethnography, suggesting that former boundaries are now “blurred” (p. 118).

Not mentioned here is the research interview as evidence. Although EM scholars typically do not examine interview data, that does not mean this has not been done. Garfinkel (1967), in his study of “Agnes”, a male-to-female transgender person, drew on interview data among other data. Other scholars have also examined the construction of research interviews — including standardized and qualitative interviews (e.g., Baker, 1983; Suchman & Jordan, 1990; for a review, see Roulston, 2006). A growing body of research on interaction in research interviews is deserving of another blogpost.

To reiterate, ethnomethodological analyses focus on locating evidence in the data to show how members to the interaction understood and oriented to events and actions. That is, what do parties to the interaction show this activity to be? What resources did they use to accomplish this activity? Given that researchers use transcriptions in conjunction with audio- and video-recordings, their claims are open to checking by others. Watson (1992, p. 262) argues that naturalistic data of this sort allow for “rigorous, exhaustive, repeated and reduplicable analytic inspection which in turn could sustain systematically demonstrated statements that were amenable to ‘checking out’ by others.” Analysts produce descriptions of the resources by which people involved in social interactions routinely structure their activities that provide understanding of the possible ways people organize them (Heap, 1984).

Yet, given the procedures described above, there is still an open-ness in ethnomethodological work to allow for different ways of doing things. Lynch (1991, p. 105), for example, cautions against attempts to “delimit what scientific methods must be in order to be scientific.” He adds, that ethnomethodology “warns against the kind of self-imposed exile from interesting phenomena entailed by too ‘rigorous’ an adherence to preconceptions about what ‘data’ must look like in order to stand as records of ‘actual’ social activities, or what ‘analysis’ must involve in order to surpass mere ‘intuition’” (Lynch, 1991, p. 105).

Following the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology, Hill and Crittenden noted in their Epilogue that “one recurrent theme in the discussions stemmed from lack of consensus regarding rules of evidence” (1968, p. 258). Fifty years on, in the social sciences, there is still a lack of consensus. Perhaps things are just as they should be.

Kathy Roulston


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