Two disclaimers:

  1. I sometimes happen to be a bit of a cultural determinist – I see most things as culturally relative.
  2. Perhaps I am drawing too much upon the ethnography as harmful panel from CHI 09, but here goes.

My main problems with some of the ethnomethodological theory espoused in the Smith reading mostly come in two parts.

Ethnomethodology claims to focus on the “learning how members’ actual, ordinary activities consist of methods to make practical action, practical circumstances, common sense knowledge of social structures and practical sociological reasoning analyzable and of disovering the formal properties of commonplace, practical common sense actions ‘from within’ actual settings, as ongoing accomplishments of those settings”  (68).  The foundation of my problems with this passage is the lack of regard for the extreme subjectiveness of the verbiage tossed about here. Words such as “common sense” and “practical” are quite value-laden. What is common sense and practical to one person is not necessarily that for another person. These notions vary within culturally similar groups, let alone between culturally different groups. For instance, a good friend of mine is a spectacular event planner.  What is common sense knowledge for her regarding how to organize workers and put together an event is baffling to me.

I find the notion that one can make common sense knowledge regarding social structures bizarre because social structures are only common sense to those that agree with them. The institution of slavery might have been common sense to many people within a time when slavery was socially acceptable, but the notion of human beings as property is not common sense within American society today. However, there might be places within the world today where women are considered property. Common sense is subjective. This makes ethnomethodology very susceptible to ethnocentric analysis.

My next annoyance with ethnomethodology is the argument that it is necessary in order to examine the common place, the ordinary or the actual. (And this is the part where I acknowledge I’m thinking beyond the Smith article and back to CHI) This annoys me because it gets set against ethnography as though ethnography does not look at the everyday or the actual. Ethnography has a tradition of examining all aspects of phenomena. It is to be a thick description of everyday life. I will grant that at least within anthropology the discipline of ethnography has tended to be correlated with studying the “other” and thus it could be viewed that something different is required to study social structures from within. However, it is my belief that ethnography is a good method for studying the social and the cultural from within and many scholars now are working in such a manner.