Ethnomethodology II: What the heck is Ethnomethodology and why should speechwriters bother examining what we take for granted?

Ethnomethodology is concerned with the methods (the “people-methods”) by which that social order is produced and shared in different settings.

It seeks to describe the practices individuals use in their descriptions of different settings. It examines in minute detail the ways in which people participate in a taken-for-granted world and raises questions about how this is accomplished.

GalileoThis might strike some people as asking questions about the bleedin’ obvious. But wasn’t it asking questions about the “obvious” that got Newton, Galileo, Copernicus and others started? Their insights came as a result of asking questions about the very things others took for granted.

Ethnomethodology claims we are all constantly making use of unstated “methods”? in our daily lives to create a “taken-for-granted” world which we feel we “know” and can be “at home” in. We perceive our social world through a series of patterns we have built up for making sense of and coping with the variety of situations that we encounter everyday.

These patterns are often repetitive, confining even.

We use patterns to define ourselves in contrast to another: the presenter vs. the audience; the speaker vs. the listener; the same-old same-old conversation between husbands and wives, parents and children, executives and staff. Some call this their “comfort zone”. People new to public speaking feel discomfort and fear when they step out of their comfort zone and stand on the podium. It’s not part of their pattern.

As Adi Da Samraj writes in his poetic parable The Mummery Book:

Mummery Book Feb 2007
(c) 2007 The Avataric Samrajya of Adidam Pty Ltd

The Mummery of life-and-world-and-death is a constant Melodrama—made of opposites and contraries. And life is always “self-and-“other”?—in a Growling! pit.

There is only a pattern. Patterning, in Clicks! and Clacks! Appearance, Shift, and Change. Always repetitions—and, yet, never the same.

The countless pairs are not Recognized, As Is, by the always ego-“I”—in its waking, dreaming, and sleeping, here. The oblivious little play of twos—never exactly Founders, in their One. Forever—there is only “she” or “he” or “it” or “that”?, and the always-remaining “I”. The “I” and the “other”—forever waiting, for the One-and-Only One. The One That Always Already Is—Infinitely Expanded, Beyond the persistent point of ego- “I”. Beyond the egg of attention, and its Klik-Klak visions of eternal “difference”?.

— Adi Da Samraj, The Mummery Book

The creation of social order by a group of benighted egos minimizes the chaos of random human interaction and the confusion which would be experienced if we saw everything as if it were the first time. When that order breaks down you get the social interaction typical of the insane asylum. There’s value in the comfort zone, but also limitation.

Executive Communications Lessons:

By examining how a stable social order is created out of the independent actions of individuals Ethnomethodology has value for someone creating a presentation that’ll be given to a group of individuals assembled into an audience.

Knowing more about the glue that holds everything together provides insight for the savvy speaker.

The question is what level of understanding we want. Is it enough to know the big picture rules (when to kiss, bow or shake hands) or do we need a more detailed grasp the the minutia of social order.

Yes, we do, say the Ethnomethodologists.

By conducting a microscopic analysis of the ‘technology of interaction’ – the structures that underlie conversations – we have a framework to understand:

  1. The setting of a talk (which could be a face-to-face discussion between two people or a presentation to a large audience by an executive) and how that “affects the shape, form, trajectory, content or character of the interaction”?.
  2. The form of the institution where the talk is delivered and how that dictates the type of presentation delivered and the ‘turn-taking’ mechanisms enjoyed by presenter and audience member. (Think about the unstated assumptions that dictate when it’s “OK to ask a question” and when it’s “rude to interrupt”. Realize that this differs between, say, a small group of C-level executives meeting in the Boardroom and a mass of techies in the audience at a Conference.)
  3. The ways in which the participants ‘conspire’ to create the context and constantly reaffirm the fact that they are participating as an audience member at a public presentation (This might sound weird at first, but think of all the unstated assumptions that a good grade school teacher, or seminar leader, leverages to ‘impact’ their audience.)

One limitation: In taking a relativist stance ethnomethodology cannot make moral judgments about meanings. Therefore it cannot address problems such as inequality and power. But, realistically, this isn’t a big problem. There’s not a lot of mileage in revealing how centers of power and inequality affect communications within corporations. Everyone is pretty clear on who has the chops by Grade Level and Title when it comes to communicating. It’s obvious that people pander more the CEO’s sense of humor and are more willing to laugh at his jokes than they are with people of lesser status in the organization. Dictators go mad because everyone agrees with them. Get over it.

Next time I’ll consider some specific lessons from ethnomethodology around what is called situated actions. Being aware of this will sharpen your capability as a public speaker to think on your feet — to anticipate alternative courses of action and their consequences while in the middle of a presentation.

2 Comments so far
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Well written. In fact, so well written that it says so much, yet speaks nothing. Its like telling some one how good the supper smells, except telling him whats there for supper!

Thanks to @Edward_Reynolds for tweeting a reference to Max Atkinson’s blog on communications theory.

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