How do we know how to interact in a given situation? What rules do we follow? Ethnomethodologists are interested in the answers to these questions. Ethnomethodology is the study of the commonsense knowledge that people use to understand the situations in which they find themselves (Heritage, 1984: 4). Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1967) Initiated this approach and coined the term: ethno for "people" or "folk" and methodology for "a system of methods" Garfinkel was critical of mainstream sociology for not recognizing the ongoing ways in which people create reality and produce their own world. Consequently, ethnologists examine existing patterns of conventional behavior in order to uncover people's background expectancies- that is, their shared interpretation of objects and events-as well as their resulting actions. According to ethnologists, interaction is based on assumptions of shared expectancies. For example, when you are talking with someone, what expectations do you have that you will take turns? Based on your background expectancies, would you be surprised if the other person .talked for an hour and never gave you a chance to speak?
To uncover people's background expectant, ethnologists frequently break "rules" or act as though they do not understand some basic rule of social life so that they can observe other people's responses. In a series of breaching experiments, Garfinkel assigned different activities to his students to see how breaking the unspoken rules of behavior created confusion. The ethnomethodological approach contributes to our knowledge of social interaction by making us aware of subconscious social realities in our daily lives. However, a number of sociologists regard ethnomethodology as a frivolous approach to studying human behavior because it does not examine the impact of macrolevel social institutions-such as the economy and education-on people's expectancies.' Women's studies scholars suggest that ethnomethodologists fail to do what they claim to do: look at how social realities are created. Rather, they take ascribed statuses (such as race, class, gender, and age) as "givens,"not as socially created realities. For example. in the experiments that Garfinkel assigned to his students, he did not account for how gender affected their experiences. When Garfinkel asked students to reduce the distance between themselves and a non relative to the point that "their noses were almost touching," he ignored the fact that gender was as important to the encounter as was the proximity of the two persons. Scholars have recently emphasized that our expectations about reality are strongly influenced by our assumptIons relating to gender, race, and social class (see Bologh, 1992).