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Accounting in the Ethnomethodological Context

People are diverse in every sense of the word. Their cultures, languages, cognitive abilities, and the manner in which they make sense of the events that occur around them support this assertion. In fact, if individuals from the same ethnic group or clan are observed, it will be seen that even within these smaller social groupings, there are distinct differences in how they handle their day-to-day activities or respond to various occurrences (Linstead, 2006).

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These differences that exist in the manner in which different individuals make sense of occurrences or situations in which they find themselves are what led Harold Garfinkel to develop the concept of ethnomethodology (Pollner, 2012). In the light of this background, this essay attempts to make sense of the way people interpret the occurrences that take place around them and how this interpretation fits within the framework of ethnomethodological theory. It further analyzes a real life occurrence in which different people gave differing accounts of the same event to establish whether the scenario agrees with ethnomethodological theory.

In developing the concept of ethnomethodology, Garfinkel and other proponents of his idea came up with the concept of accounting. Accounting in this context refers to the tendency of people giving varying descriptions of the same occurrence (Pollner, 2012). The culture, beliefs, and values of individuals were found to influence how they account for occurrences. These accounting practices are beneficial in some cases, but are also harmful in other cases.

One of the benefits that can be drawn from the accounting practices within the context of ethnomethodology is that they provide a basis for the analysis of different accounts of the same occurrence to find out where the truth lies (Winship & Muller, 2011). This benefit is of significance to the criminal justice system because judges or jurors are able to pick out the truth based on the analysis of different accounts of an event from witnesses.

The second benefit of the concept of accounting insofar as ethnomethodology is concerned bases on the explanation of the divergence of opinions among people (Winship & Muller, 2011). It helps people to understand each other within a context that was initially out of the reach of human knowledge. The concept helps people to understand each other better as they engage in their day-to-day interactions thereby eliminating the chances of unnecessary conflict.

The third benefit that society can draw from ethnomethdological accounting is in helping people to the thinking patterns of different individuals (Winship & Muller, 2011). For instance, in the experiments where college students were asked to behave as if they were guests in their own homes, the confusion that ensued in some cases can be used to explain the confusion that arises when the normal social order is disrupted. Therefore, accounting can be used to explain the confusion that characterizes emergency situations.

Despite the outlined benefits, accounting has its shortcomings. Taking into account the fact that people’s interpretation of situations is influenced by their social beliefs and societal norms rather, a strict focus on facts leads to the distortion of the truth (Winship & Muller, 2011). The number of accounts of an event an inquirer gathers does not matter, because each of them is normally distorted due to the background and beliefs of the giver.

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Therefore, although it is an inherent part of human behavior, accounting may serve to drive the truth further from an inquirer rather than bringing it closer. Additionally, in cases of emergency where an inquirer needs to establish the facts within a short period, analyzing different accounts of an occurrence may be time wasting and discouraging (Winship & Muller, 2011). If, for example, the information was to be used to facilitate a rescue mission, the mission may delay or turn out to be fatal if the unauthenticated information is used. Therefore, in this sense, the concept of accounting within the context of ethnomethodology is harmful.

How Accounting Fits within the Ethnomethodological Theory

As previously mentioned, ethnomethodology is a theoretical concept that was developed by Garfinkel in an attempt to explain why people interpret life situations in different ways. The theoretical framework of ethnomethodology has several tenets, which denote the contexts within which it is applicable. In the overall sense, the main idea behind the concept of ethnomethodology is that human beings interact within the confines of societal expectations such that if the established order is disrupted, no interaction can take place (Pollner, 2012).

Accounting analysis or the documentary method, as Garfinkel initially called it, was the core concern of ethnomethodology when it emerged. Using several experiments, Garfinkel sought to find why people react the way they do in various life situations. He discovered that, if the normal social order were disrupted, these reactions would be more conspicuous. According to Garfinkel, accounting is a result of ‘indexicality’ and ‘reflexivity’ (Pollner, 2012).

In the context of ethnomethodology, indexicality refers to the use of thorough explanation (illustration) to drive a point home (Pollner, 2012). Reflexivity, on the other hand, refers to the use of tangible examples to make sense of a situation (Pollner, 2012). A combination of the two gives what came to be known as accounting. Thus, it forms the core of the ethnomethodological theory because other concepts such as conversation analysis and the study of institutions are based on it.

Over the years, ethnomethodology has evolved considerably. It currently focuses on conversation analysis and the study of institutions to make inquiries. This trend shows an attempt to depart from the Garfinkel’s approach. However, an important point to note is that accounting still forms the foundation for these new approaches.

Analysis of a Real Life Example of Accounting

In 2013, terrorists besieged the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya (Howden, 2013). The incident was characterized by bizarre killing. At the end of the incident, it is estimated that over 60 people lost their lives and about 200 were wounded (Howden, 2013). Some crucial differences are observable in the manner in which the mall attack was reported by the Guardian (UK edition) and the New York Times. A witness informed to the Guardian that the assailants were armed with M-16 rifles while the New York Times identifies the rifles as Ak-47s and G-3s (Gettleman & Kulish, 2013; Howden, 2013). Intriguingly, the witness who told the Guardian that the rifles used by the assailants were M-16s was a Kenyan Navy officer who cannot be excused for having limited knowledge about rifles (Howden, 2013).

Another key area of difference is that the Guardian estimates the death toll at 67 people while the New York Times places it at 62 people. It may not be possible to establish the exact number of the people who lost their lives in the attack, but clearly, it emerges that the New York Times took a conservative approach in giving its figure.

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While it cannot be said that any of the newspapers attempted to underplay the incident, it is clear that the New York Times took an approach that sought not to blow the matter out of proportion. Further, the Guardian delves into plenty of details with a number of images to relate the incident while the New York Times only uses a single image and is somewhat conservative with the details.

Nonetheless, some areas of similarity also exist in the two accounts. Although the New York Times appears to have taken an approach that sought to make the incident sound slightly soft, it clearly captures the somber mood that characterized the incident. The Guardian also captured the somber mood, albeit with plenty of details. This attribute shows that both newspapers appreciated the fact that the incident was an attack on the social order that exists in a normal society.

Relevance of the Analysis to Ethnomethodology

The examples given above clearly show that different people can narrate one incident differently. As pointed out in the benefits of accounting, this concept helps in ascertaining whether a claim is true or not. For instance, using the death toll as an example, there was no generally accepted figure for the number of people who died in the attack. Additionally, the fact that different accounts of the rifles that were used by the assailants exist shows that in the confusion that prevailed no one cared to find out with certainty the exact kind of rifles that were used.

This reaction is natural because at the time, only survival mattered to the victims of the attack. Therefore, ethnomethodological accounting opens a window of insight into the way people think. As such, it is an important area of study that needs to be developed further.


Gettleman, J., & Kulish N. (2013). Gunmen Kill Dozens in Terror Attack at Kenyan Mall. The New York Times. [New York]. Web.

Howden, D. (2013). Terror in Westgate mall: the full story of the attacks that devastated Kenya. The Guardian [London]. Web.

Linstead, S. (2006). Ethnomethodology and sociology: An introduction. Sociological Review, 54(3), 399-404. Web.

Pollner, M. (2012). Reflections on Garfinkel and ethnomethodology’s program. American Sociologist, 43(1), 36-54. Web.

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Winship, C., & Muller, C. (2011). Ethnomethodology and consequences: Comment on Emirbayer and Maynard’s ‘Pragmatism and Ethnomethodology’. Qualitative Sociology, 34(1), 283-286. Web.

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