Garfinkel, Sacks and Formal Structures: Collaborative Origins, Divergences and the History of Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis

  • Michael LynchEmail author
Theoretical / Philosophical Paper


In this essay, I discuss the relationship between Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology and subsequent developments in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (CA). I argue that a point of continuity in ethnomethodology and CA, which marks both as radically different from long-standing traditions in Western philosophy and social science, is the claim that social order is evidently produced in ongoing activities, and that no specialized theory or methodology is necessary for making such order observable and accountable. In the half-century following the publication of Studies, Garfinkel explicitly aimed to radicalize ethnomethodology’s stance toward what he called “formal” or “classical” treatments of social order, while much of CA pursued the path of an empirical social science that became increasingly integrated with other branches of social science. Nevertheless, I argue, Garfinkel’s radical initiatives are not completely out of play in ethnomethodological conversational analysis, and the potential remains for further elucidating, exemplifying, and developing them.


Harold Garfinkel Harvey Sacks Ethnomethodology Conversation analysis Formal structures of practical actions 



A version of this paper was delivered at the 2017 meeting of the International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis (IIEMCA) at Otterbein College, Westerville, OH, 10–13 July 2017. I am grateful for comments and criticisms from Doug Macbeth, Jean Wong, and many others who attended the meeting. I am also heavily indebted to Anne Rawls and Jason Turowetz for suggestions and assistance in locating documentary materials from the Garfinkel archive.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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