Ethnomethodology and symbolic interaction perspectives differ in their approach

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1 March 2016

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Ethnomethodology and symbolic interaction perspectives differ in their approach. Explain how these perspectives differ Ethnomethodology and Symbolic interaction are both sub-categories in the social theory of interaction. Interactionism focuses on the details of people’s everyday lives and how people use symbolism to communicate but also to maintain our character and the impression others have of us as individuals.

Both perspectives study similar parts of social interaction and look at behavioral and social norms in modern society. However they differ slightly in both their approach to analyzing social norms but also have different perspectives on the basis of modern social norms.

Symoblic interaction studies and theorises the way in which individuals in society act towards each other based on the meaning that they have for different actions and processes. The meaning we attach to certain actions is the product of the individual’s previous social interaction and therefore the individual continues to handle and modify their own interpretation during all their social encounters. One of the founding theorists of the symbolic interaction was Herbert Blumer and he suggested that we attach meaning to the actions of other individuals and therefore we do not only respond to the actions of the individual but also to the meaning we attach to that action. Therefore people behave and react, in social interaction, because of what they believe and not by what is taking place at the time. Thus the construction of society is based on human interpretation of social action and therefore social bonds are only formed through two individuals interpretation of behaviour.

The theory and meaning of Ethnomethodology can be formed by breaking down the word into its component parts. Ethno meaning people, method meaning method and ology meaning the study of makes Ethnomethodology the study of the method of people. A better definition of the theory is the study of society in everyday life and the analysis of the use of knowledge, actions and interpretations in social situation. Ethnomethodlogists are interested in understanding how an individual makes sense of the social world and is linked to phenomenology. Harold Garfinkel emphasised the use of language and communication as way of analysing the way people make sense of their environment.

This focus on language and communications gives us one of the key differences in the approach of both theories. Whilst Ethnomethodology puts emphasis on the role of language and communication, symbolic interaction puts greater emphasis on actions and interpretations of the individual in social interaction.

The nature of meaning of social interaction is fundamental in both symbolic interaction and ethnomethodology. The definition of meaning and how it used and analysed is considerably different between the two perspectives. In symbolic interaction meaning is the interpretation given by the actor to the setting they are in therefore the meaning is the product of the individual’s social interactions but is interpreted on during the interaction. Blumer says ‘meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters’1. Despite ethnomethodologists agreeing with symbolic interactionists that meaning is formed in social interaction they differ in the fact that they insist that meanings only exist in certain circumstances and that developing and changing through differing forms of social interaction.

This difference in the interpretation of meaning results in different views on certain types of research method and what data is used and the validity of that data. In ethnomethodology the focus is put on the social interaction or communication, they are studying, whilst it takes place and therefore video recording, live observation and audio recordings are used as the key methods of research and analysis. However in symbolic interaction there is much more focus put on field notes and post social interaction recollections such as interviews and group discussions which in the field of symbolic interaction is valid enough to gain the point of view of the actor. This is in stark contrast to ethnomethodology who believe that the actor’s point of view is irrelevant in sociological study. There is much criticism of the symbolic interactionist method as there is no set structure in their methods and they rely heavily upon the actor to give his or her point of view which is considered not valid by the ethnomethodologists.

Both the theories have different perspectives on the role of the actor in a social interaction and he or she makes sense of their setting. Symbolic interactionists believe that the individual is the fundamental part to the processes and meaning of social interaction. Roles and identities are therefore attributed by the actor in social interaction and the social interaction happens in an internalised orientation where the actor can also take on the role of the other and has appreciation for the role of the other. Ethnomethodology has an alternative theory to the role of the actor and disagrees entirely with the role of the actor that is given by symbolic interactionists. Counter to symbolic interaction theory, ethnomethodology suggests that is not the actor that dictates the setting and meaning of a social interaction rather that the setting is self-organised and that organisation gives the roles of the actors and the others rather than it being chosen by their own consciousness. As well as this ethnomethodologists rarely refer to the “actor” in social interaction but rather chose to refer to each individual as a “member”. As such the “members” in a social interaction do not build it themselves rather they become a product of the interaction, this is in contrast to symbolic interaction where the actor builds the interaction from the inner self.

In symbolic interaction each social interaction happens in a particular context and this can either be a lay context or a professional context. All contexts in symbolic interaction can be defined using ethnographic investigation by studying the context features of that interaction. Ethnomethodologists on the other hand believe that context is a product of the interaction and that any contextual features of an interaction are not clear beforehand but become clear during the interaction. Ethnomethodoligists such as Garfinkel do not believe that the symbolic interactionism’s view of context does not give and accurate description of every form of interaction and therefore the use of context in Ethnomethodology is merely an extra interactional feature.

Ethnomethodologists study behavioural norms not only by looking at the individual interactions, like symbolic interaction, but by attempting to break these norms and studying how society and the individual react. Through this theory Ethnomethodologists believe you get a clearer consensus of what is the norm as people find it difficult to describe what is the norm as most of it is in the sub-conscious.

Ethnomethodlogists believe that it is only when these norms and behavioural patterns are broken that the norms become more apparent as people are not become accustomed to react to the new form of behaviour. A famous example of this method was when college students in the US were asked to act like guests in their own homes. They were told to be impersonal but formal and to study the reaction of their parents and family. After explaining the experiment to their parents many parents described different reactions. Some parents believed they wanted something, others thought it was a joke and some believed they were hiding things. This experiment allowed the students to see that even informal norms that we take for granted in the home are carefully structured and by disrupting these norms they become clearer.

However Ethnomethodology and Symbolic Interaction do have their similarities and despite their different approaches they do study the same area from similar perspectives. Both theories study the micro world of interaction theory and despite the fact that both are criticised for having a very narrow field of research they do look at very similar things. Although there is one area in which symbolic interaction is studied in the macro world and that is in Goffman’s study of ritual. Despite the fact that both theories study the perspective from the micro world, Ethnomethodology is rarely studied outside of two areas, the first being the household and the second being conversational. Ethnomethodology puts great emphasis on the role of communication in social interaction and therefore limits the field of study they can look at. Symbolic interaction covers a much broader field of study in the micro world. It does not only look at communicational interaction but also at the action and interpretation of the forms of social interaction.

In conclusion it is obvious that these perspectives differ on how they approach the subject of social interaction but there differences do not mean that they are not very similar fields of study. Mary Gallant suggests that both ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism share a ‘verstehen’2 approach and that they both ‘interpret behaviour by taking actors’ meanings into account’3. However where they differ is in their approach to the topic of social interaction and therefore they gain different kinds of understanding due to the fact that they are seeking answers to different questions. This is due to the fact that Ethnomethodology studies social interaction from a largely ‘phenomenological’4 viewpoint and looks at how individuals look at the real world with particular focus on communication and speech. Whereas symbolic interactionism is part of the ‘critical tradition’5 and looks more at how people give meaning to the world around them. Despite the fact that as Dennis suggest the Ethnomethodological approach means that the symbolic interactionists focus on actor, meaning and context is ‘unnecessary’6 it does see it as a ‘valid sociological perspective’7. So although there are many differences in the perspectives the theories have on social interaction they do have similar ways of looking at the world and they do both study the same micro field of sociology.

Word Count 1675

1. Blumer, Herbert. Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Univ of California Press, 1986.

2. Dennis, Alex. “Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnomethodology.” Symbolic Interaction 34.3 (2011): 349-356.

3. Denzin, Norman K. “Symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology: A proposed synthesis.” American Sociological Review (1969): 922-934.

4. Gallant, Mary J., and Sherryl Kleinman. “SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM VS ETHNOMETHODOLOGY.” Symbolic Interaction 6.1 (1983): 1-18

5. Goffman, Erving. Interaction ritual: Essays in face to face behavior.
Aldine Transaction, 2005.

6. Mead, George Herbert. Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Vol. 1. University of Chicago press, 2009.

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"Ethnomethodology and symbolic interaction perspectives differ in their approach" StudyScroll, 1-Mar-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 5-Dec-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Ethnomethodology and symbolic interaction perspectives differ in their approach. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 5-Dec-2023]

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