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Disrupting Social Norms To Understand Social Order


Ethnomethodology is a theoretical approach in sociology based on the belief that you can discover the normal social order of a society by disrupting it. Ethnomethodologists often deliberately disrupt social norms to see how people respond and how they try to restore social order.

Ethnomethodology is based on the belief that human interaction takes place within a consensus and interaction is not possible without this consensus. The consensus is part of what holds society together and is made up of the norms for behavior that people carry around with them. It is assumed that people in a society share the same norms and expectations for behavior and so by breaking these norms, we can study more about that society and how they react to broken normal social behavior. Ethnomethodologists argue that you cannot simply ask a person what norms he or she uses because most people are not able to articulate or describe them. People are generally not wholly conscious of what norms they use and so ethnomethodology is designed to uncover these norms and behaviors.

Ethnomethodologists often use ingenious procedures for uncovering social norms by thinking of clever ways to disrupt normal social interaction. In a famous series of ethnomethodology experiments, college students were asked to pretend that they were guests in their own home without telling their families what they were doing. They were instructed to be polite, impersonal, use terms of formal address (Mr. and Mrs.), and to only speak after being spoken to. When the experiment was over, several students reported that their families treated the episode as a joke. One family thought their daughter was being extra nice because she wanted something, while another’s believed their son was hiding something serious. Other parents reacted with anger, shock, and bewilderment, accusing their children of being impolite, mean, and inconsiderate. This experiment allowed the students to see that even the informal norms that govern our behavior inside our own homes are carefully structured. By violating the norms of the household, the norms become clearly visible.

Ethnomethological research teaches us that society behaves as if there were no other way to do so. Usually people go along with what is expected of them and the existence of norms only becomes apparent when they are violated.


Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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