This chapter focuses on Ethno-Methodology (EM) which Nicolini characterizes as practice-oriented much like the earlier praxeology of Bourdieu, but more interested in description and less in theory building and particularly the correctness of the descriptions. Garfinkel (1967) is cited as codifying EM around the idea of accountability or making activities legible to others. It’s interesting that Garfinkel originally went to school to study accounting, at least according to Wikipedia. There are several characteristics of accountability:

  • social activities have an order
  • the order is public (observable)
  • the order is mundane, banal, witnessed by anyone
  • orders are oriented to each other
  • the order makes sense to the people performing
  • experts in the order can describe it, they have language for it

This attention to rules is borrowed from some extent from Husserl and Schutz, but comes very close to Wittgenstein’s notion of rules, and rule following. His idea of relexivity is different from Bourdieu and Giddens in that reflexivity is connected with accountability: people make their practices accountable by making them reflexive. Similarly Garfinkel uses the idea of indexicality to talk about the way meanings are embedded in actions, and much of EM’s work can be found in the study of how people work with this indexicality when it pushes up against the way things work in the world: How do people do it?

EM is also concerned with how people perform their competency in an activity, and their membership in a group of other competent people. EM inspired two lines of research: work studies and conversation analysis. It’s interesting and curious that Nicolini says that these ideas of accountability, indexicality, membership and reflexivity are used just to open the space for research, and are abandoned as concepts when it comes to doing the work of EM.

It is important for the descriptions to embody just-thisness or haecceity (a new word for me) – they are told from the perspective of the people involved in the action, using their distinctive words and motivations. To do this the researcher must immerse themself in the domain under study. They must become a legitimate participant to understand the language, rules and activities. This idea is known as unique adequacy. It can require the researcher to dedicate their life to becoming a proficient member of a community. Mehan & Wood (1975) goes so far as to claim that EM isn’t so much a method or a theory but a form of life (recalling Wittgenstein again). This strong version of EM can lead to researchers giving up their research as their membership in the community under study takes over. It feels like there must be some pretty strong parallels with this approach to Bourdieu’s habitus.

EM was apparently the subject of fierce debate in the sociology community, and EM practitioners found it difficult to get academic jobs. In the 1990s EM practices got new life in the work of Suchman, Dourish (who are on my reading list for later in the semester) and others who conducted workplace studies, examining the effects of technology in order to inform design.

EM-orientated workplace studies are not limited, in fact, to claiming in principle—as other theories do—that actors are bricoleurs, that they improvise and construct their world, that there is power and hierarchy. Rather, such studies go to great length to present living instances of bricolaging, improvisation, and power and hierarchy making and unmaking. They are not limited to claiming that organizations and society are socially constructed, that decisions and conducts are context-dependent, and that knowledge is practical and situated. Instead, they set out to provide evidentiary empirical substantiation to these claims, describing in detail how ordered and organized scenes of action are accomplished, how members build on contextual clues for accomplishing their activities, how knowing is visibly exhibited in what members actually do or refrain from doing. (p. 148)

EM feels like the most humanistic of the practice theories reviewed so far. It doesn’t attempt to make a theory, but instead embodies a sensibility, or a set of questions, and a way of approaching study, rather than a formula for conducting the research. EM is data driven and at the same time it is a literary genre.


Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Prentice Hall.
Mehan, H., & Wood, H. (1975). The reality of ethnomethodology. John Wiley & Sons Inc.