In face-to-face communication there are many layers of signals to decipher before meaning can be ascribed.   Whereas in electronic ‘talk’ we have eliminated all but the actual text to find meaning through.


Conversational analysis focuses on the actual performance as it is realized in the social context. Language to CA theory sees the communicative means as a social goal which
holds the human social systems and cultures together (e.g., Sacks 1992).   



Garfinkel suggests that the way individuals bring order to, or make sense of their social world is through a psychological process, which he calls "the documentary method". This method firstly consists of selecting certain facts from a social situation, which seem to conform to a pattern and then making sense of these facts in terms of the pattern. Once the pattern has been established, it is used as a framework for interpreting new facts, which arise within the situation.

To demonstrate the documentary method in action, Garfinkel set up an experiment in the Psychiatry department of a university. He asked a number of students to take part in the experiment, telling them that it involved a new form of Psychotherapy. The students were invited to talk about their personal problems with an ‘advisor’ who was separated from them by a screen. They could not see the advisor and could only communicate with him via an intercom. They were to ask him a series of questions about their problems to which he would respond by answering either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. What the students didn’t know was that these responses were not authentic answers to the questions posed but a predetermined sequence of yes and no answers drawn from a table of random numbers.

Garfinkel found that although there was no real consistency in the answers given to the questions asked the students nevertheless managed to make sense of them, discerning some underlying pattern in the advice they were being given. Most found the advice reasonable and helpful. This was so even when, as must inevitably happen when answers are given randomly, some of the advice was contradictory. Thus in one case a student asked: "so you think I should drop out of school then?" and received a ‘yes’ response. Surprised by this he asked, "You really think I should drop out of school?" only to be given a ‘no’ answer. Rather than dismissing the advice as nonsense, the student struggled to find its meaning, looking back for a pattern in the advisors' responses, referring back to previous answers, trying to make sense of the contradiction terms of the advisors’ knowledge of this problem. Never did it occur to the student to doubt the sincerity of the advisor.

What the students were doing throughout these counselling sessions, Garfinkel argues, was constructing a social reality to make sense of an often-senseless interaction. By using the documentary method they were able to bring order to what was in fact a chaotic situation.

One important aspect of the documentary method to which Garfinkel draws attention is "indexicality". This means simply that people make sense of a remark, sign or particular action by reference to the context in which it occurs; that is they index it to particular circumstances.

Thus for example, the answers given by the advisors in the counselling experiment made sense to the students only in the context of the experiment. The setting of the experiment, the information they were given about it and so on led them to accept the situation as authentic. Had the interaction taken place in the students’ own rooms with fellow students acting as advisors, for example, the interpretation put upon the answers would have been completely different.

Garfinkel suggests that we are all constantly making use of the documentary method in our daily lives to create a "taken-for-granted" world which we feel we "know" and can be "at home" in. We perceive our social world through a series of patterns we have built up for making sense of and coping with the variety of situations that we encounter everyday. Sometimes we know (or think we know) something so well that we do not notice when it changes. For example a wife may become angry when her husband does not notice her new hairstyle or new dress. The pattern of her appearance and behaviour has which the husband carries in his mind has become so fixed that it is incapable of accommodating new facts. The taken-for-granted world we all inhabit is to some extent necessary in order to avoid confusion which would be experienced if we saw everything as if it were the first time.

A favoured technique among ethnomethodologists is to disrupt temporarily the world which people take for granted and see how they react. The point of this is to expose background assumptions that have been accepted as reality for a long time. In one of his experiments Garfinkel asked students to behave as visitors in their own homes, and record the bemused reactions of their parents as they struggled to comprehend the sudden disruption of their informal relationship built up over many years with their children.


As we have seen ethnomethodology tends to ignore the information actually transmitted during interaction, concentrating purely on how interaction was performed. This is because the stance of ethnomethodology suggests that all meanings are and can only ever be subjective and that the only objective social reality, and therefore the only thing worth studying, is the reality of commonly understood methods of communication.

It is this kind of near – relativism that is often used to criticise ethnomethodology. Although it can be said to be a reaction to the structuralist views of sociology in the 1960s, and the dangers of totalitarianism, in taking a relativist stance ethnomethodology cannot make moral judgements about meanings. Therefore it cannot address problems such as inequality and power. It can be argued that ethnomethodology is not purely relativistic in that it must provide rules for itself to work. That is the ethnomethodologist must assume that others will understand the meaning of his or her work, in the same way that I am assuming that the reader will understand this text.

It could be said that the human capacity to produce order out of chaos is the only worthwhile capacity in the eyes of the ethnomethodologist. For them other human capacities, such as moral judgement, would be seen as subjective only and therefore perhaps containing no real truth. However ethnomethodology is a very good method for seeing how individuals make sense of the social world for themselves, in effect creating their own reality from precious little real information provided.