Ethnomethodology (EM) and practice theory (PT) should pay more attention to each other. This might sound like a strange, even preposterous claim. After all, both strands of scholarship currently have a respectable academic following and are in no need to expand their territory, so to speak. Moreover, a newcomer to either of these traditions might struggle to see any fundamental differences between them. Garfinkel, after all, contemplated the name “neo-praxeology” before eventually landing on the mouthful that is ethnomethodology. There are also many publications within the PT literature that discuss and praise the relevance of EM (e.g. Nicolini 2013). Experiences at recent conferences have, however, left me wondering about the relationship between EM and PT.

Having both personal and academic roots in the UK as well as Germany, I try to switch back and forth between academic debates in both places as much as I can. My interest in EM is motivated in part by its prominence in the UK and the English-speaking world more generally. Two conferences on EM taking place in Germany gave me reasons to wonder about the constraints of national and institutional contexts to debates of EM and PT. In 2017, the 50thanniversary of Studies in Ethnomethodologyinspired a large conference in Konstanz gathering academics from all over Germany, as well as German-speaking scholars from abroad. In 2019, Mannheim hosted another high profile EM conference: The “International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis” (IIEMCA) held its bi-annual conference inviting an even larger, genuinely international crowd of scholars. Still a relative newcomer, I expected both conferences to deal with similar issues and ideas. Those more familiar with debates in EM might find it less surprising that that was not the case. 

There has long been a rift over how compatible EM is with contemporary research done in conversation analysis (CA). Most recently, a debate on “epistemics in conversation” (c.f. Heritage 2013; M. Lynch and Wong 2016; Heritage 2018)solidified these lines with scholars arguing over the degree to which knowledge claims in social interaction are observable phenomena. At IIEMCA 2019, many of the more methodological and theoretical debates seemed heavily influenced by issues that followed from discussions around this rift. They are not the kind of disputes I am concerned with here, though. The debate I would like to focus on is between EM and PT. A debate that – for some reason – barely seems to exist.

The IIEMCA 2019 conference would have been an ideal place to have this debate, given its theme: “Practices”. The non-EM scholar might expect significant engagement with the main proponents of sociological practice theories, Bourdieu, Giddens, Schatzki and maybe some of the contributors to this blog. That did not happen. Only one of the 63 panels explicitly referred to practice theories. It is not surprising, maybe, that this panel was organised by three German researchers. This made me wonder: where are all the German sociologists? There were plenty of young colleagues at the conference but the professors were missing. At the 2017 Konstanz conference, almost all contributions came from established professors (itself a potentially problematic decision, but that is a separate issue). In 2019, I could hardly spot any of them. 2017 had 23 high-profile contributors in Konstanz, but only five showed up in 2019. Of the 15 professors from German universities that came in 2017, only three returned in 2019. While there are an infinite number of good reasons not to go to a conference, the extent of their absence struck me. It seemed to reflect something about these two conferences. The IIEMCA 2019 conference was, to my mind, the much more impressive affair with many more participants, topics and types of data. The English-speaking world also seemed to give it much more weight and the conference hosted many of the most widely discussed scholars in the field today. If German scholars thought it worth coming to Konstanz, why did they stay away two years later?

The before-mentioned rift over the role of CA cannot explain this in a straightforward way. After all, both sides of the divide were in Mannheim and it would have been easy to choose panels depending on your allegiance. In the past, such debates have also taken place in German practice-based sociology, maybe most prominently between Meyer/Schareika (2009)and Hirschauer (2009). What distinguished that exchange from the “epistemics” debate, however, is that it took place within a sociological institutional context. Much of what, in my opinion, is valuable about EM – notions of accountability, situational reflexivity, and analytic indifference – has entered German sociological debates. Phenomenological, hermeneutic, ethnographic traditions, and even systems theory (Vogd 2007)have engaged with EM. Such company might make some English-speaking EM scholars want to run to the hills, but they should at least recognise that EM’s self-description as a unique “incommensurably asymmetrically alternate sociology”, distinct from the “world-wide social science movement” simply is not true in the German context (Garfinkel 1990).

However, large parts – probably the majority – of the 2019 conference’s speakers are not affiliated with sociology departments. EM, for various reasons, has found a greater following within linguistics and communication departments in the English-speaking world. While I am over-simplifying here, something like the “epistemics debate” is maybe more of an unacknowledged debate between disciplines, than a fruitful debate within EM. My quick and dirty explanation for the “missing sociologists” at the 2019 conference lies here. Even sociologists within the English-speaking EM community who are critical of linguistically-minded CA research tend to get entangled in controversies that have already been decided on an institutional level through a disciplinary divide. As a result, conflicts often hark back to founding figures, worried about the “true” identity of EM.

As far as I can see, there is little to no resonance of the EM vs. CA rift in German scholarship today, and questions concerning the identity of EM find no resonance at all. Maybe the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions have allowed EM to be normalised within a multi-paradigmatic sociology keen to embrace various modes of Verstehen. Maybe historical disciplinary and institutional contexts do not allow this elsewhere.  However, I believe it is here that practice theories could come into play. My hope for EM scholars would be that they engage in debates with scholars working with social theories of practice more broadly. PT scholars tend to engage more genuinely sociological topics, such as work, organisations, consumption or cultural sociology, rather than turn-designs, phonetics or repair mechanisms. None of these is intrinsically better or more important, but some will lend themselves to more sociological discussions, while others are more likely to happen around linguistics departments. Mike Lynch has probably done most in this respect in the past. With EM’s hyperbolic self-expulsion from sociology, it is no coincidence that Lynch could establish himself within STS – which is itself situated awkwardly at the edge of several disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. It is no wonder again that throughout his career he engaged with authors from the PT tradition in a broad sense (e.g. Michael Lynch 1992; 1997; 2000). Nobody expects EM scholars to convert to a different set of theoretical or methodological principles, but who you engage with will likely determine where you stay relevant.

The aim of my contribution was simply to clearly state this wish and explain how, in my opinion, it is based on the institutional contexts of conceptual debates. I cannot foresee how more engagement between EM and PT would turn out. It would be unfair, however, not to at least try to give my own take on the way I relate EM and PT in my own work. Fundamentally, I propose a more explicit focus on the distinction between three conceptual debates:

Firstly, there is a social theory debate: What do our most basic concepts mean? What, e.g., is a practice, a method, a “lifeform”, a concept? Social research might use many of these terms in an ordinary, non-problematic way. Certainly PT and EM scholars, who tend to be well versed in the writings of Wittgenstein, will not suggest that social theory should “fix” ordinary language or should provide a great amount of specialist insight. Taking a deflationary, Wittgensteinian position is, of course, itself a theoretical one: It appears within debates on social theory, as a theoretical argument against other positions. The social theory debate is not an exhaustive translation of social phenomena into theoretical language, but it is an engagement over concepts already used in existing debates. It is, then, as much a debate over the correct use of terms, as it is about how far this debate can actually go in abstractly clarifying the meaning of those terms. EM scholars would most likely take a much more deflationary position than many of their PT colleagues. At the same time, simply rejecting conceptual debates altogether runs the risk of leading scholars into naïve positivism that would be less reflective about their own language than many of the field sites they observe. 

Secondly, there is a methodological debate: While the social theory debate is general in the sense that it addresses anyone who is willing to listen, the audience of the methodological debate is smaller. It is directed at those who have a scientific interest in a social affair. Which concepts make the social accessible to observation, and where do we turn for empirical evidence? Only those with an interest at scientific observation will need this debate. As a result, it does not directly involve any ontological commitments. The most useful distinction, in my opinion, derives from Knorr-Cetina’s division between methodological individualism, situationalism and collectivism (Knorr-Cetina 1981). My own sympathies – informed by EM – lie very much with methodogical situationalism. Both individualism and collectivism, however, are options for scholars committed to PT. For example, you may believe that – on the level of a social theory debate – actors are always contextualised through their practices. At the same time, you might think that the best way to learn something about that contextualisation is to sit down with them and carry out in-depth interviews (methodological individualism). 

Thirdly, there is a methods debate: While methodological reasons constrain your choices, every research project has many other mundane and pragmatic reasons to consider when choosing and adapting methods. Making explicit that this is a separate debate should also warn from too much method opportunism, i.e. the idea that each method is unique for each field site. To choose your method means to be open to debate on that choice, thereby rendering your case relatable to other social research with similar theoretical and methodological commitments. 

I believe EM and PT could have a range of fruitful debates along these lines. I could envisage, for example, one general line of contention concerning the very relation between these three debates. I could imagine EM scholars turning many of the PT’s social theory concerns into issues of methodology (perhaps even method) in a procedure known as “respecification” (cf. Garfinkel 1991). Such debates could be very fruitful for PT and EM scholars. They would situate EM firmly within sociological debates. Maybe most importantly, they would help to alleviate newcomers from some of the confusions I have been grappling with over the past three years of my postgraduate education.

Johannes Coughlan

Research fellow, Humboldt University Berlin, Institute of Social Sciences



Garfinkel, Harold. 1990. ‘The Curious Seriousness of Professional Sociology’. Réseaux8 (1): 69–78.

———. 1991. ‘Respecification: Evidence for Locally Produced, Naturally Accountable Phenomena of Order, Logic, Reason, Meaning, Method, Etc. in and as of the Essential Haecceity of Immortal Ordinary Society (I) – an Announcement of Studies’. In Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences, edited by Graham Button, 1st ed., 10–19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heritage, John. 2013. ‘Epistemics in Conversation’. In The Handbook of Conversation Analysis, edited by Jack Sidnell and Tanya Stivers, 370–94. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

———. 2018. ‘The Ubiquity of Epistemics: A Rebuttal to the “Epistemics of Epistemics” Group’. Discourse Studies20 (1): 14–56.

Hirschauer, Stefan. 2009. ‘Praxisforschung ist mehr als Interaktionsaufzeichnung. Ein Kommentar zu Meyer/Schareika’. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie134 (1): 103–6.

Knorr-Cetina, Karin. 1981. ‘Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macro-Sociologies’. In The Micro-Sociological Challenge of Macro-Sociology: Towards a Reconstruction of Social Theory and Methodology, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Aaron V. Cicourel, 1–47. Boston; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lynch, M., and J. Wong. 2016. ‘Reverting to a Hidden Interactional Order: Epistemics, Informationism, and Conversation Analysis’. Discourse Studies18 (5): 526–49.

Lynch, Michael. 1992. ‘Extending Wittgenstein: The Pivotal Move from Epistemology to the Sociology of Science’. In Science As Practice and Culture, edited by Andrew Pickering, 215–65. Chicago/London: Chicago University Press.

———. 1997. ‘Theorizing Practice’. Human Studies, no. 20: 335–44.

———. 2000. ‘Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge’. Theory, Culture & Society17 (3): 26–54.

Meyer, Christian, and Nikolaus Schareika. 2009. ‘Neoklassische Feldforschung: Die mikroskopische Untersuchung sozialer Ereignisse als ethnographische Methode’. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie134 (1): 79–102.

Nicolini, Davide. 2013. Practice Theory, Work, and Organization: An Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Vogd, Werner. 2007. ‘Empirie Oder Theorie? Systemtheoretische Forschung Jenseits Einer Vermeintlichen Alternative’. Soziale Welt, 295–321.