Friday, November 9, 2012

Harold Garfinkel - Ethnomethodology and Breaching Experiment

Ethnomethodology and breaching experiment  - blog entry 1:
Harold Garfinkel (October 29, 1917 – April 21, 2011) was a ethnomethodologist, sociologist and a professor at the University of California. Garfinkel is best known for his work on ethnomethodology. Garfinkel became began to notice throughout his study of ethnomethodology that the methods people use to allow them to understand the society they live is, are fixed in individual’s natural attitudes.
By “ethnomethod”, Garfinkel means the means or methods that individuals use in everyday interactions to create a shared meaning. Ethnomethodology is the methods that are used to understand the social orders people use to make sense of the real world; this can be through analyzing their descriptions and accounts through every day activities.  In situations, individuals do not know meanings in advance, but they make sense of meanings as they go along, and mutually discover them from situations and others.

Breaching experiment is defined by Heritage (1987: 233)  “the idea here is to experiment with ordinary social interactions in order to highlight the processes that are at work in rendering them ‘normal’”, overall it is a concept designed to break the rules of an unstated social role in order to study them. Situations that are seen to be ordinary are to be disrupted, and to show how subjects respond, this experiment helps to tell us more about the system rather than observing it in harmony. Garfinkel noted within his concept that to make social interactions within individuals ‘senseless’ was to produce shame, indignation, guilt and anxiety upon the innocent, the unaware who were not part of the experiment. 
The video below shows this concept in practice. This is an interesting video from Nathan Palmer from Georgia Southern University. The sociologist wanted to see what kind of reactions would come from individuals that saw his 262 students standing in public places for 15 minutes “doing nothing”. This is an example of a breaching experiment, it required individuals to have their hands by their side, to be stood completely still, have an expressionless face. If someone came up to one of the individual’s and asks “what are you doing”? The individual must reply with “I am doing nothing” or “nothing”. The individual can’t say any other word’s apart from those. As well as this, it was important that no one that was involved in the experiment could block or stand by exits, as this would affect the results and reactions by other people, and the subjects involved has to be spread out, cannot stand in a line for example, this meant that it wouldn't be as noticeable, but also it would look like it wasn't an organised experiment. The video can be found at

This video was interesting and the reactions from other people that weren't involved in the experiment. The video shows how when individuals break the norms, how much disturbance is caused. It was an affected an experiment, because it looked like there was too many people for it just to be a class of people, but also very random. It shows how we use social sanctions and norms to constantly help create reality.
The breaching experiment requires the subject to break the social norms, these can include space norms, touching a stranger, asking someone “what’s up” in passing and tell them what’s going on. This example will breach the social convention of asking a question in the form of acknowledgement. Breaking social norms can make people feel uncomfortable, to stare, the need to ask questions and anxiety. For example there are no rules against same sex couples walking down the street, but people still stare especially if it is in a small town, a lot may feel uncomfortable, and a many will choose to avoid walking by. Although breaking social norms has no legal consequences, it can have an impact on an individual’s social life, because they can get marked as being weird or different and other individuals may feel uncomfortable being around them.

Photograph one, talking on cell phone, it being upside down is an example of breaking the social norms. Although it doesn't create much disruption, it creates confusion upon other individuals, and the need for them to ask a question, point out the fact that the cell phone is upside down or simply just look. As well, the individual in the photo has started the conversation with “good- bye”, rather than “hello”, not the social norm, therefore creating confusion and disruption in the conversation between the individuals.

Photograph two is an individual sitting on the floor where other individuals are likely to walk by and notice. This photograph aims to confuse other individuals, how they walk past the individual and if they ask anything. There is two photographs as part of this, one to see from behind, and one where if a person came in through the door,  facial expression looks slightly scared, and confused. Arms being crossed, shows that I am “doing nothing”, but from the individual they won’t be entirely sure.

Photograph three, an individual eating food from the floor outside, and using the knife in the right hand and the fork upside down in the left hand. This is not the social norm in the way we are meant to eat food.
Photo four, the individual in the picture is eating in the accommodation building, lying down, whilst eating food, with the fork the wrong way round.

Photo four, the individual in the picture is eating in the student accommodation building, lying down, whilst eating food, with the fork the wrong way round. 

Photo five talking to a wall, being completely still but using hand gestures, and making noises. This breaks all social norms, as firstly nobody “normally” talks to a wall. Using hand gestures shows that anyone who can’t see or exactly what is happening, can tell the individual is talking or saying something to the wall. The use of noises attracts attention, and the individual becomes marked as being “weird” or “unusual” by individuals that are not aware that it’s just an experiment. 

Heritage, J  'Ethnomethodology', in Giddens, A and Turner, J  (eds)  (1987) Social Theory Today,Cambridge: Polity Press.

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