Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology


Phenomenology emerged out of Husserl's work.  Husserl was a mathematician who became concerned with describing how we experience the objects of the external work and with giving an explanation of how we construct objects of experience.  Husserl's ideas were further develop by others, including, Schutz, Merleau-Ponty and Gurwitsch. 


In phenomenology, the investigator suspends his or her belief in the objective existence of the objects he or she perceives in order to investigate, describe and understand how these objects are experienced. 

Phenomenology posits that all objects exist because people perceive and construct them as such.

Husserl's work developed into Phenomenological Psychology. 

Alfred Schutz developed these ideas into Phenomenological Sociology.  His beliefs were based on the idea that all human reflection is grounded in the mundane world of lived experience or Lebenswelt.  This world of lived experience exists as the product of actors, but it is taken fore granted and, therefore, unnoticed.  Without reflection on this constitutive process, we mistakenly come to see reality as objective.

Schultz's goal was to describe the fundamental features of the social world as it is constituted and understood by ordinary people through their everyday routines.

Ethnomethodology emerged from Schutz's phenomenology and is an extension of these ideas. 

Developed by Harold Garfinkel in response to his dissertation advisor -Talcott Parson's - theory of action, Ethnomethodology focuses on the world of 'social facts' as accomplished or co-created through peoples' interpretive work.  

Garfinkel posited that social reality and social facts are constructed, produced and organized through the mundane actions and circumstances of everyday life.

Garfinkel set out to empirically explore how people accomplish, establish, produce and reproduce a sense of social structure.

Conversation Analysis is often linked to Ethnomethodology by a common interest in understanding the methodical construction of social action.  Conversation analysis takes communication or talk-in-interaction as one of the fundamental ways that people co-construct or collaboratively produce social action and social lives.  Conversation analysts have developed an empirical approach to study talk-in-interaction 

Common Methods used Phenomenological and Ethnomethodological Studies

Participant Observation. This involves the researcher immersing him or herself in the daily lives and routines of those being studied.  This often requires extensive work in the setting being studied.  This is called fieldwork. 

The observer adopts a phenomenological stance while doing observation.  This is a position that questions the objectivity of lived experience in order to explain how the people being observed construct this experience together.

Observing some aspect of social life and the communication between actors that construct that lived experience may also be accomplished by video-recording the interaction between actors.  This is a common data collection method used in Conversation Analysis.

Interviewing. Phenomenologists and Ethnomethodologists may also learn about how a particular aspect of social life is constructed or perceived by people by speaking with informants or members of a particular social group.  Talking with informants is called interviewing.  Interviews vary in degree of formality (informal interviews to semi-structured to structured interviews).

Collection of Artifacts and Texts. Phenomenologist and Ethnomethodologist may learn how social experience is organized and accomplished by examing how artifacts (e.g. written protocols, charts, flowsheets, educational handouts) or materials are used by members of a group in daily life.

Phenomenologist and ethnomethodologist may also conduct small experiements designed to reveal our taken fore granted assumptions regarding social life.  See Garfinkel (1967) for some examples.


Drew, P. & Heritage, J. (1984). Talk at Work: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Giorgi, A. (1985). (Ed.). Phenomenology and Psychological Research. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Gurwitsch, A. (1966). Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.  Chapters 1-3 provide an excellent background.

Holstein, JA & Gubrium, JF. (1994). "Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology and Interpretive Practice" In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 262-272.

Jasper, MA. (1994). Issues in phenomenology for researchers of nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 19, 309-314.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Phenomenology of Perception. (trans. G. Smith), London: Routledge-Kegan Paul.

Moustakad, C. (1994). Phenomenological Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Parsons, T. (1937). The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw Hill.

Schutz, A. (1962). Collected papers, volumes 1-3, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff.

Schutz, A. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

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