Understanding Qualitative Research and Ethnomethodology

Have, Paul Ten
Sage Publications, London

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Cover of book A recently retired professor of sociology from the University of Amsterdam, Paul ten Have is also the author of Doing Conversation Analysis: A Practical Guide (Sage, 1999). His most recent book,Understanding Qualitative Research and Ethnomethodology, is an inspiring and practical introduction of the approach created by Harold Garfinkel (born in 1917), although this new book was not meant to be just a mere introduction to ethnomethodology (p. 29). Linking methodology and ethnomethodology, as the author states it, "the basic strategy of this book [is] to confront the research practices and logics of these qualitative colleagues with the ones available in ethnomethodology, in order to elucidate both" (p. 15).

The first three chapters present ethnomethodology's perspective and its methods, partly rooted into phenomenology, centred on "the uptake, interpretation and understanding of apperceivable elements of the surround, and much less on their production" (p. 25). Not surprisingly, the definitions and quotes often refer faithfully to Harold Garfinkel's works, including his most recent book, Ethnomethodology's program: working out Durkheim's aphorism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). But other ethnomethodologists and sociologists' works are also included here and there, from Erving Goffman to Michael Lynch.

The Chapter 4 on "Interviews" and the concept of the "interview society" in which we seem to live shows how accurate the ethnomethodological approach can be in conversation analysis. Chapter 4 states that when ethnomethodologists study interviews, they use the sentences and emerging points of view accordingly to their own theoretical perspective: persons, seen as 'members', can situate and explain in their own terms the situations in which they live. Talking about the interview, Paul ten Have explains that "these are taken as a topic rather than as a resource, that is, interviews may be studied as objects in themselves, to see how they are produced, but rarely in order to collect information on phenomena 'outside' the interview context." (p. 56).

Chapter 5 on "Natural documents" is also quite original, referring to the possible analysis of documentation such as photographs, graffiti, and even collections of complaint letters sent to institutions, that can be used (and sometimes reframed) as evidence in research although they were not produced for that usage (contrary to interviews) (p. 89).

I liked mostly Chapter 8 about "Doing ethnomethodological studies", maybe because it gathers many different learning situations and can inspire teachers of sociology. Accurate remarks are made about observation methods, the use of camera for assignments or workplace studies. It contains the book's main argument: "in order to understand what can go wrong when users work with pre-planned action systems, one should study their actual situated activity in detail, i.e. the local rationality of users' activities, rather than see it as faulty operation based on misconceptions regarding a rational system." (p. 166). The final (9th) chapter presents an apologetic defense and a convincing illustration of the ethnomethodological approach, written as a possible response to the many critics made in the last four decades. Ten Have argues that "ethnomethodology is only selectively aloof, indifferent and at a distance from everyday life" (p. 179). He does not see ethnomethodology as a replacement but rather as a complement to other methods, revealing valuable discoveries 'from within' the society (p. 179).

Since there are quite a number of students and scholars who use interviews, natural documents, visual evidence, ethnography and field methods in general in their research, Understanding Qualitative Research and Ethnomethodology will be an useful book, not only as a clear introduction piece to a specific theorical approach (that is "ethnomethodology"), but mainly as a practical companion for various research projects linked to everyday life, including MA and PhD thesis.

Yves Laberge
Université Laval