Thursday, December 6, 2012

Garfinkel - Indexicality

Garfinkel - Indexicality 

Turner (1974) defines indexicality as “the intelligibility of what is said rests upon the hearer’s ability to make out what is meant from what is said according to methods which are tacitly relied upon by both speaker and hearer. These methods involve the continual invocation of common – sense knowledge and of context as resources with which to make definite use of indefinite descriptive terms”. In other words, it is the way an individual uses a particular word for a specific meaning.

Indexicality is a concept in which Garfinkel argues that even if there is shared meaning, either attached to an object, within conversation, gestures etc, the individual meanings may still help and shape the emergent meanings. In a conversation, an individual would understand a description with a meaning for the speaker – who which then assumes that the meaning is the same for the listener. Garfinkel argues that these meanings people use may not be the same between the two or more individuals involved within social interaction.

Bloch (n.d.) within his blog about Garfinkel and indexicality gives us the idea of how images have different meanings. The American flag for example shows different meanings that can come from each individual. Using this example we can go further to show how indexicality is read differently from each individual. Bloch (n.d) “perhaps the American flag has a similar meaning for two people, but if one had a son or daughter who died in battle, the meaning might be somewhat different for this individual”. The differences in meanings attached to the flag may reveal itself within conversation.

Also if we were to read the text or if someone was going to talk about America within conversation, this again is an example of indexicality, rather than an individual seeing an object and picking the meanings attached to it, they are aware of the meanings within conversation, these meanings need to be picked up by both the speaker and the listener, for the conversation to pursue and for each other to make sense of what is going on. As Garfinkel has argued that the resources people use within conversation is the knowledge and the context at which it is used.

Garfinkel moves on to the “etcetera principle” noted by Bloch (n.d), which is a kind of shortcut within conversation. For example if an individual meets their friend every Thursday night to go to the movies, at the start the conversation between the two individuals may have been quite long, such as “are you available tomorrow night? If so, do you want to go to the movies”? Garfinkel argues that the “etcetera principle” cuts this out, and after it because a regular thing, one might just say “hey, Thursday night?”  Garfinkel notes that ethnomethodologists need to understand this “etcetera principle”, in order to achieve this, many would have to listen to conversations many times to understand and to notice that this action is taking place. This is shows how individuals understand each other through shared meanings and the presence of “shared identity”, noted by Bloch (n.d).

Pickering (1992: 282) refers to Bloor (1967) who takes Garfinkel’s discussions of indexical expressions differently and argues that “we can never reach the ideal of pure objectivity in which meanings are made totally explicit and formulated in a wholly context- free way”. In other terms Bloor states that the use of words, utterances, expressions and rules are not just part the way in which individuals make sense of communicative actions, which is what Garfinkel argued. Bloor argues that these actions, these indexical expressions are what “enable us to speak plainly as well as elusively, to explain what we mean as well as to obscure it, and to speak “objectively” no less than to express a personal point of view”, noted by Pickering (1992: 282)

Garfinkel refers to the ‘indexicality of everyday life’, which noted by Kirby et al (2000: 535) is “the meanings of particular words can be understood only in the particular context in which they appear”. Garfinkel argues that through the process of “glossing” – we have to become more aware and engage fully in every word used by individuals, from there we can then construct a relevant meaning to it.  The process of “glossing” ,  Kirby et al (2000: 535) notes is “the way human society is constructed through the active construction of meanings through interactions, and that people are ‘reflexive’, to use Garfinkel’s term”.

Although Garfinkel’s view has been questioned, it is still a useful concept to show how ethnomethodologists make sense of individual’s meanings attached to words, objects, gestures etc. As well as this, how each individual have their own meanings to words for example and talking to a stranger will be different to an individual talking to their friend, because of shared identity, and shared meanings. As well as these ethnomethodologists as mentioned before have to take into consideration, the etcetera principle to achieve a full insight into the way each individual uses words, of shorted sentences, which for one would not be understandable, but for another would make sense.
The photo represents different meanings depending on the individual. Within Garfinkel’s concept of indexicality he argues that individuals see the meanings behind something differently. Using the example of the American flag – one can perceive it as having an entirely different meaning compared to another. If one was to see the American flag, one could argue that it reminds them of a relative dying in battle and therefore sees it as a negative image, icon. Another may see it as meaning something different, such as to do with money, wall street, capital, the white house, the president for example.

Bloch, Jon P. (n.d.) “Harold Garfinkel”. Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Retrieved 28 November 2012. ( )
Kirby, M, Kidd, W et al (2000), Sociology in perspective (Oxford, Heinemann Educational Publishers: UK) Retrieved 6 December 2012. (
Pickering, A. (1992)  Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Turner, Roy 1974 (ed.), Ethnomethodology (Middlesex:  Penquin,). Retrieved 28 November 2012. (

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