A once-fashionable approach to the social sciences, ethnomethodology emphasises a phenomenological approach to its subject matter, and forgoes, in the main, use of the terms and explanations of the structuralist, functionalist and materialist schools, preferring to use where possible the "members' terms" - the language used by the members of the society or subculture it studies.

In other words, it disputes the validity of an attempt to produce an overarching "grand unified theory of society" (functionalism, etc. being such) regarding this as misplaced "scientism", and seeks instead to cast light on the operation of particular social situations, by elucidating the sometimes unobvious terms, procedures and rules used by the participants, following a pluralistic, pragmatic, approach, less ambitious, but not subject to the artificial and superficial "clarity" engendered by characterising something as complex and variegated as society in a few simple principles.

Taken to its extreme, this produced the unedifying spectacle of academic sociologists producing papers drawing profound conclusions such as that in a prison subculture it is in general bad to kiss ass but that exceptions may be made if the ass-kisser is secretly motivated by getting privileges.

In fact this type of endeavour is a travesty of ethnomethodology, in much the same way that the ordinary language school of philosophy is a travesty of the later Wittgenstein.

As conceived by its originator Harold Garfinkel, who was influenced by the philosophy of Husserl and the work of Schutz, ethnomethodology arose out of the observation that social behaviour is rule-based. Garfinkel demonstrated this to his students quite effectively by assigning breaching experiments for their homework.

For example, one such breaching exercise was for the student, from the time they arrived home from class, to respond to every utterance only by asking a question, never giving an answer. Quite definite and tangible differences in behaviour ensued within the social groups, demonstrating conclusively the existence of social rules, or ethnomethods. Regardless of their validity as sociology or sociological materials, the writeups of some of these assignments are amusing reading in themselves.

A 'breaching' example nearer to home would be our own dear editors' efforts during April Trolls Day.

It can easily be seen that conducting such experiments may be challenging, even actually dangerous, for both experimenter and subjects, and the stability of their social group. Watching the fabric of the social reality disappear before one's eyes is an unsettling experience, as the daylogs for April 1, 2001 and other writeups attest.

In ethnomethodological jargon, these writeups would be called members' accounts.

The term indexicality is used to refer to the context-dependence of our actions in and descriptions of this social reality (or intersubjectivity, to use the modern term.) Expressions like 'this' and 'now' are indexical because they cannot be understood without a knowledge of the context they occur in (we would need to know what the utterer was pointing at, or when the utterance took place, respectively.)

The term reflexivity is used to refer to the necessity of 'bootstrapping' a shared understanding of the social world out of the indexical and at first often incomprehensible set of social interactions we are presented with from the point of our entry into the social group. The social use of language is seen as critical in enabling this transition (from newbiehood to citizenship, if you like) to take place.

When you hear the words 'you had to be there', this is generally a reference to the indexicality or reflexivity of an utterance or situation.

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