From: H. Garfinkel (1967) Chapter 3: Common sense knowledge of social structures: the documentary method of interpretation in lay and professional fact finding. In Studies in Enthnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice-Hall, pp.79-88.

"Ethnomethodological studies analyze everyday activities as members methods for making those same activities visibly-rational-and-reportable-for-all-practical-purposes, i.e., 'accountable', as organizations of commonplace everyday activities" (1967, p.vii).

An experiment

Ten undergraduates were solicited by telling them that research was being done in the Department of Psychiatry to explore alternative means to psychotherapy ''as a way of giving persons advice about their personal problems" (sic). Each subject was seen individually by an experimenter who was falsely represented as a student counselor in training. The subject was asked to first discuss the background to some serious problem on which he would like advice, and then to address to the "counselor" a series of questions each of which would permit a "yes" or "no" answer. The subject was promised that the "counselor" would attempt to answer to: the best of his ability. The experimenter-counselor heard the questions and gave his answers from an adjoining room, via an inter- communication system. After describing his problem and furnishing some background to it, the subject asked his first question. After a standard pause, the experimenter announced his answer, "yes" or "no." According to instructions, the subject then removed a wall plug connecting him with the counselor so that the "counselor will not hear your remarks" and tape-recorded his comments on the exchange. After these were completed, the subject plugged the microphone in and asked his next question. After he received [end 79] the answer, he again recorded his comments, and thus proceeded through at least ten questions and answers. The subject had been told, "Most people want to ask at least ten questions."

The sequence of answers, evenly divided between yes's and no's, was predecided with a table of random numbers. All subjects asking the same number of questions were administered the same series of yes and no answers. Following the exchange of questions and answers the subject was asked to summarize his impressions of the entire exchange. An interview followed.

The following are illustrative unedited protocols.


SUBJECT: Ok, this is the situation that I am presented with. I happen to be of the Jewish faith and I have been dating a Gentile girl now for about two months. My dad is not directly opposed to this situation, but I feel at the same time that he is not exactly pleased with it. Mother feels that as long as Dad is not directly opposed to this situation that I should go ahead and continue dating until he makes some direct statement to the contrary. My reason for feeling why he is not too pleased with this is that he has never said don't date her, but at the same time he will come up with digs and sayings that make me feel very ill at ease about dating the girl. My question is, do you feel under the present circumstances that I should continue or stop dating this girl? Let me put that in a positive way. Do you feel that I should continue dating this girl?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: No. Well, that is kind of interesting. I kinda feel that there is really no great animosity between Dad and I but, well, perhaps he feels that greater dislike will grow out of this. I suppose or maybe it is easier for an outsider to see certain things that I am blind to at this moment. I would like to ask my second question now.


SUBJECT: Do you feel that I should have a further discussion with Dad about this situation or not? Should I have further discussion with Dad over this subject about dating the Gentile girl? [end 80]

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: Well I feel that is reasonable but I really don't know what to' say to him. I mean he seems to be not really too understanding. In other words he seems to be a£raid really to discuss the situation. I mean at least it appears that way to me so far. But I guess if it is worthwhile to me, if I really want to continue to date her that I will go on and have this discussion with Dad. I really don't know what to say because I mean I am dating her. I am not in love with her or anything but I really never know what is going to come out. I guess we should have a discussion based on what the future possibilities might be and how he would feel about that. He may not be too strongly opposed now because we are only dating, but perhaps he sees future complications that he ,would really like to get off his chest at the moment. I am ready for my third question now.

If after having my conversation with Dad and he says to continue dating her, but at the same time he gives me an impression that he is really not, he really does not want me to date her, but he is only doing it because he wants to be a good Dad, should under these conditions, should I still date the girl?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: Well I am actually surprised at the answer. I expected a no answer on that. Perhaps this is because you are not quite aware of my dad and his reactions and he seems to be the type of person that is sensitive and therefore he is very careful in the way that he will handle things. Even though he might have said go ahead and date her I perhaps would feel guilty in knowing that he really did not want me to continue to date her. Though I don't know that it would actually help the situation any. So, well, perhaps we will look into this further and that is another question. I am ready for the fourth question now.

If after having this discussion with Dad and getting a positive answer from him but at the same time felt that this was not his honest opinion do you think that it would be proper for me to have my mother have a serious talk with him and therefore try and get a truer reaction to Dad's opinion on the situation?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: Well this seems fair to me. I feel perhaps that he would be honester with Mother about the situation. of course that might present a problem. Would Mother come back and be completely [end 81] honest with me? She seems to be more liberal than Dad, not to say that Mother would lie about it, but she would be a little more liberal about things like this and perhaps in her course of conversation with Dad she would try and present my side to him and therefore once again I get two answers. If I look at it that way I don't think that I am going to get to first base anyway, but at least I feel that we are moving along some way. I am ready for my fifth question now.

Do you think that I should tell this Gentile girl who I am dating the problem that I am having with my folks at home or should I wait until, well that is another question. Do you feel that I should tell the girl that I am dating the problems that I am having at home over her religion?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUB JECT: Well once again I am surprised. Of course, that might depend on how much you care for the girl and how much longer I feel that I am going to be dating her. But I personally feel that it is only right to tell her for if she is perhaps thinking more serious than I am, she might, it might be best for us to understand the full situation and if she feels that this will be a block then I feel perhaps that would end the situation right there without telling her. I feel that perhaps I am going to show this in different ways and she will be unaware of what the real situation is and perhaps react back to me in a certain way spoiling our dating and everything else like that. I am ready for my sixth question.

If I was to fall in love with this girl and want to make plans for marriage do you feel that it is fair that I should ask her to change her religion over to my belief?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: Well, no. Well, this has me stymied. No. Well, I honestly feel that I have been brought up in a certain way and I believe that she has too, and I feel pretty strong about the way that I believe. Not that I am completely orthodox or anything, but of course there is always family pressure and things like that. And I am quite sure that she feels, unfortunately I have never seen a family with a split in religion that really has been able to make a success out of it. So I don't know. I think that perhaps I would be tempted to ask her to change. I don't think that I would be able to really. I am ready for number seven. [end 82]

Do you feel that it would be a better situation if we were to get married and neither one of us were willing to talk about the religious difference or to give in on either one side, that we bring our children up in a neutral religion other than the two that we believe in?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: Well perhaps this would be a solution. If we could find a religion that would incorporate our two beliefs to a certain extent. I realize that perhaps this might be literally impossible to do. Perhaps in a sense this neutral religion might be something almost made up by ourselves because I honestly feel that religious training no matter which belief it is if not carried to extremes is good, for everyone should have a certain amount of religious training along these lines. Perhaps this might be a solution to the problem. I guess I should follow this along a little bit further and see exactly what happens. I am ready for number eight.

If we were to get married would it be best for us to live in a new community where we will not be in contact with our parents if we were getting a lot of family pressure over religious differences?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: Well, I kinda tend to agree with this answer. I feel that you wouldn't be accomplishing too much by running away from the issue and that perhaps it would be one of those things in life that eventually you would just be willing to accept it and that the families and we would get along harmoniously together. At least I hope it would work out if that situation comes about. I think it would be best for both families together that we are not going to work it out if we run away from our problem. So we best remain there and try and work it out. I am ready for number nine.

If we did get married and were to raise our children do you think that we should explain and tell our children that we once had this religious difference or would we just bring them up in this new religion, that is their religion, that we talked about, and let them believe that that is what we originally believed in?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: Once again I kinda agree with this. I think they should be told because undoubtedly they will find out. And if they did find out that there was this difference that we once had they would [end 83] feel that we were sneaking or trying to hide something from them and this would not be the best situation either. So I believe this would be the best situation. I am ready for number ten.

Do you feel that our children, if there were any, would have any religious problems themselves because of us the parents and our difficulties?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: Well I really don't know if I agree with that or not. Perhaps they would have trouble if confusion set in and they were to feel that they did not know which is right and which is wrong or what side to pick if they did not want to stick with their religion. But I kinda feel that if their religion was a wholesome one which supplied the needs of a religion and that which a religion does supply that there would not be any problems with them. But I suppose that only time will tell if such problems would come about. I am finished with my comments now.

EXPERIMENTER: Okay, I will be right in.

The experimenter appeared in the room with the subject, handed him a list of points that he might comment on, and left the room. The subject commented as follows.

SUBJECT: Well the conversation seemed to be one-sided because I was doing it all. But, I feel that it was extremely difficult for Mr. McHugh to answer these questions fully without having a complete understanding of the personalities of the different people involved and exactly how involved the situation was itself. The answers I received I must say that the majority of them were answered perhaps in the same way that I would answer them to myself knowing the differences in types of people. One or two of them did come as a surprise to me and I felt that the reason perhaps he answered these questions the way he did is for the reason that he is not aware of the personalities involved and how they are reacting or would react to a certain situation. The answers that I received were most of them I felt that he was for the most part aware of the situation as we moved along in that I was interpreting his answers even though they were yes or no answers as fully meditating over these situations that I presented to him and they had a lot of meaning to me. I felt that his answers as a whole were helpful and that he was looking out for the benefit to the situation [end 84] for the most part and not to curtail it or cut it short in any means. heard what I wanted to hear in most of the situations presented the time. Perhaps I did not hear what I really wanted to hear but perhaps from an objective standpoint they were the best answers because someone involved in a situation is blinded to a certain 'gree and cannot take this objective viewpoint. And therefore ese answers may differ from the person who is involved in the :uation and the person who is outside and can take an objective ewpoint. I honestly believe that the answers that he gave me, at he was completely aware of the situation at hand. Perhaps I less that should be qualified. Perhaps when I said should I talk to Dad for instance he was not positive. When I said should talk to Dad for instance he was not positive what I was going to talk to Dad about. In a full capacity. He knew the general topic but he is not aware how close I am to Dad or how involved the conversation might get. And if his saying "do talk" in knowing that Dad will not listen, well this perhaps isn't best, or if Dad is very willing to listen he says it may not help. Or don't talk. Well this once again is bringing in personalities which he is not aware of. The conversation and the answers given I believe had a lot of meaning to me. I mean it was perhaps what I would have expected from someone who fully understood the situation. And I feel that had a lot of sense to me and made a lot of sense. Well I felt that the questions that I asked were very pertinent and did help in understanding the situation on both sides, that is myself and the answerer and my reaction to the answers like I have stated before were mostly in agreement. At times I was surprised but understood that because he is not fully aware of the situation and the personalities involved.


SUBJECT: I would like to know whether or not I should change my major at the present time. I have a physics major with quite a deficit in grade points to bring up to get my C average in physics. would like to switch over to mathematics. I have a little difficulty in it, but I think maybe I could handle it. I have failed several ath courses here at U.C.L.A., but I have always repeated them [end 85] and had C's. I have come close to getting a B in math in one specific course because I studied a little more than in others but my question is still should I change my major?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: Well he says no. And if I don't then I will have to make up my deficit in grade points which will be awfully difficult because I am not doing too well this semester. If I pull through this semester with seven units of A then I can count on possibly going on to get my degree in physics in February, but then I have this stigma of nuclear physics facing me. I thoroughly dislike the study of nuclear physics. Nuclear Physics 124 will be one of my required courses to get a degree in physics.

Do you think I could get a degree in physics on the basis of this knowledge that I must take Physics 124?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: He says yes. I don't see how I can. I am not that good of a theorist. My study habits are horrible. My reading speed is bad, and I don't spend enough time in studying.

Do you think that I could successfully improve my study habits?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: He says that I can successfully improve my study habits. I have been preached to all along on how to study properly, but I don't study properly. I don't have sufficient incentive to go through physics or do I?

Do you think I have sufficient incentive to get a degree in physics?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: He says my answer is yes. I think possibly so if I didn't have a bad scholastic record behind me to follow me up. It would be awfully difficult to get that degree.

Do you think I could successfully do my studying while trying to keep happy relations at home with my wife and still get my work done? I don't do my studying well at school and I don't have much incentive to study when I am at home. But when my wife comes home, I like to study. Yet this keeps us from doing things, and whenever she doesn't do things, it gets on my nerves because there is all this work piling up. Do you think I could successfully do my studying at home?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no. [end 86]

SUBJECT: He says no. I don't think so either.

Should I come to school every night after supper and do my studying?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: He says I shouldn't come to school and study. Where should I go? Should I go to the library on campus to do my studying?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: He says I should go to the library to do my studying. Which library? They may not have all the references there that I may need but that is not always necessary. I need at least three more questions. Do you think I can develop sufficiently good study habits and incentive to actually achieve developing those habits such that I wouldn't have to stay up late at night and not get the work done in the first place?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: He says no. I can't develop the study habits properly to be able to pull myself through. If you don't think that I can develop the proper study habits and carry them through to reach my goal do you on the basis of this still believe that I can get a degree in physics?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: According to that I won't get a degree. What should I do? Are you still there?


SUBJECT: If you don't think I will make the. ..achieve the necessary goal of improving my study habits and getting a degree in physics do you recommend that I quit school?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: He says I should quit school. Are you still there?


SUBJECT: I have one more question. I would like to get a commission in the Air Force. I have completed the Air Force R.O.T.C. training program but to get a commission I need a degree. If I don't get the degree the chances are very strong that I may not get the commission although there are in's and out's that there is still some possibility that I may still get a commission without a degree, although this is not desirable. The question is, will I get a commission in the Air Force? [end 87]

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: He says I will get a commission in the Air Force and that is what I am looking forward to, but will I ever get a degree? If I get a commission without a degree will I ever get a degree in anything?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: This leaves me somewhat unhappy although I don't really need a degree in the type of work that I desire to do. Are you there? Come back in.

The subject commented as follows.

Well, as far as what I got from the conversation, it is rather foolish for me to pursue my work any further as far as getting a degree in anything. Actually I have felt all along that the type of work I am interested in which is inventing is not something that requires a degree necessarily. It requires a certain knowledge of math and physics but it doesn't require a degree to do inventing. From the conversation I gather that I should just quit school and go ahead and get my commission but how I don't know. But it would be awfully nice to have a degree. That degree would be able to get me into other schools. Otherwise I will have the statement that I went through college but I never got out. I also get the impression that my study habits will never improve as much as I would like them to anyway. I will not get a degree. I will get a commission and it is fruitless for me to study either at home or at school. Especially in the evening. I wonder if I should do any studying at all, or if I should learn to do all my studying at school. What to do? I have the feeling that my parents would be very unhappy and also my wife's parents would be very unhappy if I never did get a degree or at least especially right now. I have the feeling that this past conversation is based on what one should have learned to do years ago, that is, as a growing child. To ask themselves questions and give himself an answer of some type, yes or no, and to think out reasons why either yes or no holds or might hold and upon the validity or the anticipation of the validity of that answer what one should do accomplish his goal or just exist. I personally think I can do better in math than I can in physics. But I won't know until the end of the summer. [end 88]