Harold Garfinkel, 1917-2011

I was sorry to see, on The Global Sociology Blog, that Harold Garfinkel, founder of ethnomethodology, died last Thursday, according to a report in the French blog LienSocio.

Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments

Photo of Harold Garfinkel pausing to think
Harold Garfinkel, 1917-2011

Garfinkel is best known, at least to introductory sociology students, as the originator of breaching experiments.  Garfinkel’s experiments were subtle – changing styles of speech for instance – and designed to elicit norm-reinforcing behavior. This groundbreaking research method revealed just how powerfully we depend on the norms of everyday behavior. One of his students found that the relationship with his family was strained and never fully recovered when he persisted in maintaining the persona of a lodger with his parents.  The assignments given by intro sociology instructors now result in brash breaking of norms – stares result, but they do not uncover the controlling dynamics of Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology.

Garfinkel’s works are difficult to read – it is easy to capture only the top level of meaning and miss the rest.  Yet so many of the findings and methods of the qualitative approach to research derive from his work, a contribution that will not be forgotten.

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  1. Oh :( I’m here from BADD, and hadn’t heard that Garfinkel had died. Sorry to read that, he was one of my old favourites! His work was my first foray into ethnomethodology, which still has so much to offer us all. I loved his Studies book and the story of Agnes was such an insight for me in social constructionism. So, sorry to hear he died!

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