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24. Ethnomethodology


Diagram from the seminal 1988 study on air traffic control by Hughes, Shapiro, Sharrock and Anderson.

Ethnomethodology is a way of studying everyday life ‘on its own terms’ by observing and understanding the unwritten rules of everyday activities, such as getting to grips with a new smartphone, walking down a busy street or filling in a form. It started in California, and Manchester has been one of the leading institutions for ethnomethodology outside the US since the sixties. Ethnomethodology at Manchester originated in attempts by John Lee and Wes Sharrock to find a relationship between social action theory and fieldwork investigation. At that time there were a number of higher education institutions in Manchester, including Salford University, Manchester Polytechnic and some teacher’s colleges which were all recruiting young sociologists who wanted doctoral degrees and enrolled at Manchester, which explains why the ethnomethodology circle at Manchester has always had a wider constituency than the University’s Sociology department. Rod Watson and Max Atkinson (the latter briefly) added to ethnomethodology’s strength on the staff. John, Wes and Rod thereafter remained at Manchester until John’s and Rod’s retirement – Wes is currently in place.

Though there had been some prior familiarity with ethnomethodology through scattered writings by  Egon Bittner and Aaron Cicourel, it was Erving Goffman’s vigorous commendation (during a visiting fellowship) of the work of Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks that led to the realisation that much of what  John and Wes had been trying to work out had already been anticipated – Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology was conveniently published in 1967, but Harvey Sacks’ writings and those of many others involved in ethnomethodology in the US were available only as unpublished mimeographs and had, often with a fair degree of trouble to be tracked down. The work by Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson made a tremendous impression which resulted in Gail Jefferson spending several years as a research officer at Manchester and playing a key role in promoting the use of conversation analysis in the UK.

Peter Winch’s The Idea of a Social Science had a powerful effect on John and Wes prior to awareness of ethnomethodology, and though the latter’s policy of (to put it simplistically)  taking an unprejudiced look at what is patently before one was a welcome move in dealing with the issues involved, they continued to accept that sociology is less a science than a branch of philosophy and that some, even many, of sociology’s apparently perennial problems are conceptual, not empirical, in character, artefacts of the way they are set up rather than arising from the puzzling character of the phenomena involved. This tendency has been expressed in a long standing campaign against mentalism in sociology and neighbouring disciplines (given exemplary exposition in the work of Jeff Coulter – Manchester 1969 -74).  It is not possible to list the numerous local colleagues and graduate students who have contributed to the ‘Manchester school’ of ethnomethodology, since the attention is on the department’s contribution, but a few works can be mentioned, such as the study of air traffic control (which is regarded as a key study in the field of Computer Supported Cooperative Work) was a collaboration with John Hughes and others at Lancaster University, the book Computers Minds and Conduct involved John and Wes as well as Jeff Coulter and Graham Button (postgraduate, Manchester 1969 – 73), whilst Rod Watson’s work can be accessed through his book Analysing Practical and Professional Texts. There are probably several hundred  publications sourced in part or whole from within the  ethnomethodology wing of the department.

More about ethnomethodology

See the methods@manchester website for a short introductory video on ethnomethodology by Wes Sharrock, and a longer talk, also by Wes: ‘What is ethnomethodology?’

Wes Sharrock in conversation with David Calvey, as part of our 50th anniversary video interview series.


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