Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

March 20, 2006


Interactionist and Ethnomethodological Approaches to Feminist Analysis



1.  Ethnomethodology


a.  Introduction.  One sociological approach that we have not examined this semester is ethnomethodology or phenomenonology.   These are sociological approaches or methods that emphasize the ordinary practices and activities in which social actors engage.   While these approaches were not originally developed by feminists, some feminist analysts have used and expanded these approaches, incorporating issues related to sex, gender, gender performance, and gender relations.   In particular, the approach of Dorothy Smith has some common features with these approaches.     


Ethnomethodology.  An ethnomethodological approach examines and analyzes social interaction through enacted conduct, what people do in social action and interaction.  It is similar to the perspective of symbolic interactionism, although it focusses more on the activities themselves and how they are conducted in particular contexts, rather than considering how social actors construct meaning and interpretation in interaction.  Writers in the ethnomethodological perspective appear unconcerned with the philosophic underpinnings of social interaction or in developing an all-encompassing theoretical structure that can explain all aspects of social interaction and the institutions and structures that emerges from it.  Rather, they analyze social interaction in particular situations and contexts, attempting to describe and understand the methods, procedures, and considerations that social actors use in carrying out social interaction.  For the ethnomethodologist, social interactions should not be considered as rational or irrational, or subject to “error,” rather social interaction is a set of common sense procedures people use to deal with situations and contexts where there is some flexibility for social action and perhaps some uncertainty about the conduct and outcome of social action.


Heritage defines ethnomethodology as

the study of a particular subject matter: the body of common-sense knowledge and the range of procedures and considerations by means of which ordinary members of society make sense of, find their way about in, and act on the circumstances in which they find themselves.  (Heritage, p. 4).

This body of knowledge is “analytically primary to any theory of social action” and “consideration of these issues can be made an integral part of the theory of action” (Heritage, p. 5).  Harold Garfinkel’s approach is “to detect some expectancies that lend commonplace scenes their familiar, life-as-usual character, and to relate these to the stable social structures of everyday activities” (Garfinkel, 1967, p. 37). 


In common with interactionist approaches, ethnomethodologists look on these everyday interactions, and the practices involved in them, as having a regularity or stability so they form what sociologists term institutions and structures.  These regularities and patterns are always actively produced through interaction among social actors, although not necessarily in a conscious manner or as a result of consciously considering meaning and interpretation.  Rather, social actors are accountable for their actions in the encounters that occur in particular situations and contexts.  This means that “social action in a context is an actively produced accomplishment” (Cohen, p. 90).  The ethnomethodological perspective emphasizes a social interaction that has a rationality of its own and the conduct is one of accomplishment – making sense out of situations and responding in an accountable manner.  That is, this social conduct is not merely adherence to a particular form of rationality imposed by common norms, roles, institutions, and structures of society. 


Ethnomethodology may be more a method of doing sociology than a theoretical approaches.  In this approach, sociologists are to place themselves outside the common understandings of social actors, situations, and social relationships, and examine the commonly accepted understandings that social actors have adopted and, at least implicitly, accepted as they carry on social interaction and social relationships.   Not only does it ask the sociologist to determine and analyze what these are and how they have developed, but also question or critique these, to raise the possibility of whether these are socially proper and just, and to consider alternatives.  


The approach can be connected to a feminist approach by considering the “realities of women’s nature, needs, role, and place in society” and how “systems of ideas constructed in past interactions and sustained by present ongoing interactions” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 241).  A feminist questions “proper” female roles and responsibilities in terms of nurturing, mothering, socialization, and the private sphere.  These approaches could also be useful to those in other situations where they are subordinate – poor, racial/ethnic groups, gay and lesbian individuals.   Again, they lead the sociologist to question the position the individuals occupy and re-examine the taken-for-granted assumptions of their situation.  In this sense, it can be critical, creative, and possibly emancipatory.   


2.  Accomplishment of gender


In the article, “Power, Inequality, and the Accomplishment of Gender: An Ethnomethodological View,” Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker (WF) use an ethnomethodological perspective to examine how people accomplish gender in everyday life.  They provide examples of conversational analysis and participation in daily tasks to demonstrate that analysis of individual characteristics or gender roles “obscures the work involved in producing gender in everyday activities.”  Rather, “gender is an accomplishment: an emergent feature of social situations that is both an outcome of and a rationale for the most fundamental division of society” (WF, p. 151).  In doing this, they demonstrate how power and inequality are associated with sex and gender interaction and comment on the possibilities for changing forms of gender interaction. 


WF define ethnomethodology as follows:

Ethnomethodology proposes that the properties of social life which seem objective, factual and transsituational, are actually managed accomplishments or achievements of local processes.  ...  The aim of ethnomethodological inquiry is to analyze the situated conduct of societal members in order to see how ‘objective’ properties of social life are achieved.  (WF, p. 152). 

While there are commonly expected norms regarding appropriate social action and, in particular, actions consistent with gender expectations, “the ‘meaning’ of these conceptions is dependent on the context in which they are invoked – rather than transsituational” (WF, p. 153).  WF argue that conventional approaches to gender, “including its interpretation as an individual attribute and as a role” (WF, p. 151) are mistaken.  These approaches result in reducing gender to sex and thus imply that gender roles may be natural ones, or at least ones that are relatively fixed after approximately age five (WF, p. 154).  In contrast, WF argue that gender should be understood in an ethnomethodological manner

as an accomplishment: an emergent feature of social situations that is both an outcome of and a rationale for the most fundamental division of society. (p. 151). ... gender is not merely an individual attribute but something that is accomplished through interaction with others. (WF, p. 155)


In order to begin this analysis, West and Fenstermaker begin with three distinctions – sex, sex category, and gender.  These are as follows (WF, p. 152):

·        sex is biologically determined and ascribed at birth

·        sex category is the social classification of individuals into men and women

·        gender is the conduct that is accountable to normative conceptions of womanly or manly natures.

They reject concepts of sex or gender roles because (i) actions appropriate for roles cannot be specified in advance of their occurrence, (ii) almost any action can be regarded as displaying a sex role, (iii) roles imply complementarity of males and females and ignore power differences (WF, p. 154).  In particular, they object to the view that “masculinity or femininity [is] inherent in a person” (WF, p. 153).  Instead, they argue that gender is not a characteristic that is merely attached to individuals, but gender is something accomplished through interactions with others.  This makes their focus of investigation the activity, the types of interaction, and the institutions and structures within which these interactions take place.


While individuals are born with a particular sex – male or female – sex category is socially constructed by others in the new born male or female, often soon after birth and continued through life.  West and Fenstermaker argue that “we treat appearances (e.g. deportment, dress, and bearing) as indicative of underlying states of affairs.” (p. 156). Many could pass for members of the other sex, but in our interactions we use visible characteristics as means of identifying the sex of individuals.


In terms of accomplishing gender, they draw on the concept of accountability.  That is, members of society take notice of activities and place them in a social framework.  These involve both activities that conform to accepted norms and those that might be considered deviant.  In the ethnomethodological framework, all of this is in social interaction, so any accomplishment is “interactional accomplishment” (WF, p. 156) within a social situation and in context (WF, p. 157).  That is, “doing gender consists of creating differences between girls and boys and between men and women – differences that are neither natural nor biological” (WF, p. 159).  But once such differences become established, they are often regarded as natural, become expected of social actors, and are difficult or slow to change. 


Examples from West and Fenstermaker


i. Conversational work.  In conversational analysis, the issue of allocation involves “opening and closing a state of talk, maintaining an orderly exchange of turns at talk, and providing for a steady stream of conversational topics” (WF, p. 159).  In their analysis of exchanges among unacquainted persons, one problem was to maintain the flow of conversation – often the conversation may have stopped without initiation by one or other parties.  In terms of changes in topic, they report that in conversations between men and women men were more likely than women to unilaterally change the topic of conversation.  This was especially the case when women appeared ready to report their point of view on particular topics.  WF consider this as evidence that “the enactment of women’s and men’s essential natures conditions what gets talked about (and by whom)” (WF, p. 161). 


ii. Household work.  Another example they discuss is household labour.  In the case of couples where both husband and wife are in the labour force, the wife may still do the bulk of household work.  This does not indicate a rational or efficient division of household work, or a division based on who is most skilled.  “Rather, it is determined by a complex relationship between the structure of work imperatives and the structure of normative conceptions of that work as gendered” (WF, p. 162).  That is, “household labor is regarded as women's work, but that for a woman to do it and a man not to do it draws on and affirms what people conceive to be the essential nature of each” (WF, pp. 162-163).  This is shown by the actual division of labour and the justifications for it.  A wife may say that it is not the job of the husband, or that the husband is not very good at the job.  In turn the husband may not become skilled at this work, or may even deskill himself.  West and Fenstermaker point out that household work thus is two processes together – production of household goods and services and accomplishment of gender.  In response to the question “What household work does your husband do?” one women said

He never helps me.  I suppose I should say “rarely.”   That’s a better word to describe it.  He hangs up his clothes once in a while.  He puts his dirty socks down the laundry chute.  In extreme circumstances, he makes the bed.  He does nothing.  He doesn’t have to.  It’s not his job.  (WF, p. 162).


iii. Parenting.  Another example WF cite is parenting in cases where parenting is shared more equally.  The normal expectation of others is that the mother is the primary care giver.  For those couples where parenting was more or less equally divided as a responsibility, both the mothers and the father argued that each parent could provide emotional closeness to the child.  For couples where the women took greater responsibility, the explanation they used was that there are essential sex differences in ability to parent.  In addition, all couples regarded themselves as accountable for the parenting arrangements, that is, accountable to others.  One father who took his young children to public places was told that it was so good to see fathers taking on these responsibilities – thus making him a generic liberated father rather than an individual.   One father complained of

constantly going shopping and having women stop me and say “Oh it’s so good t see you fathers.”  I was no longer an individuals, I was this generic father who was not a liberated father who could take care of his child. (WF, p. 164).


iv. Emotional labour .  West and Fenstermaker also cite Hochschild’s findings about airline attendants, noting that “the job of a flight attendant is something quite different for a woman that it is for a man.  women flight attendants served as airline ‘shock absorbers,’ placating and soothing mishandled passengers” (WF, p. 165). “By contrast, men flight attendants were used as authority figures” (WF, p. 165).  


Conclusion.   In this approach, “Gender ... is a situated accomplishment: the local management of conduct in relation to normative conceptions of appropriate attitudes and activities for particular sex categories” (WF, p. 156).  Each situation in which we find ourselves means we may relate to these norms, or accountable to these norms, but “we cannot determine the relevance of gender to social action apart from the context in which it is accomplished. ... While sex category is potentially omnirelevant to social life, individuals inhabit many different social identities that may be stressed or muted, depending on the situations.” (WF, p. 157).   In this approach, there are no fixed male and female roles, but rather people have the view that “women and men possess essentially different natures, for which they will be held accountable in human affair.” (WF, p. 159).

In light of this, the ethnmethodologist studies particular situations and the activities associated with them.  This study is not so concerned with the meanings of the situation, as the interactionist would, but with the activities and work that make meanings possible.   The actual set of actions and behaviour that is undertaken is what is important in this approach. 


3.  Goffman – Gender Advertisements.  The approach of WF has some similarities to that of Goffman in Gender Advertisements – see the notes of Goffman for February 15, 2006 at


Goffman considers the natural sex differences to be significant “only because the culture makes them so” (Adams and Sydie).  There are natural and biological differences between males and females but it is social definition and social codes “which also establishes the conceptions individuals have concerning their fundamental human nature” (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 201).  As an example, Goffman argues

Clearly on biological grounds, mother is in a position to breastfeed baby and father is not.  Given that recalcitrant fact … father temporarily but exclusively takes on such tasks as may involve considerable separation from the household.  But this quite temporary biologically-grounded constraint turns out to be extended culturally.  A whole range of domestic duties come … to be defined as inappropriate for the male to perform; and a whole range of occupations away from the household come to be defined as inappropriate for the female.  (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 201). 

When considering social situations and gender performance, Goffman argues that it is not fruitful to search for natural expressions, since it is not clear what these might be.  As individuals relate to each other, what is expressed “is the capacity and inclination of individuals to portrary a version of themselves and their relationships as strategic moments” (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 222).  For Goffman,

what the human nature of males and females really consists of, then, is a capacity to learn to provide and to read depictions of masculinity and femininity and a willing ness to adhere to a schedule for presenting these pictures, and this capacity they have by virtue of being persons, not females or males.  One might just as well say there is no gender identity.  There is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender.  of the practice between the sexes of choreographing behaviorally a portrait of relationship.  (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 224). 


4.  Ephiphanic moments – Denzin’s interactionist approach


The examples in the handout come from an article by Norman Denzin on sexuality and gender in everyday “postmodern” life (Denzin, 1993).  Denzin combines several approaches, and argues that the symbolic interaction approach is useful for examining what sex and gender mean, how they are defined, and how the gendered identity is an interactional production.  For Denzin, there are material practices related to sex and gender relations in the home, at work, in the family, etc. that give meaning to ordinary experiences (eg. in conversations: “Honey, I need a cup of coffee,” “Hey, big fella, give me a hand here”).  These produce “gendered sexual versions of the human being” (Denzin, p. 201).  Ideology, or the beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be, is an important aspect of this, creating myths, beliefs, desires, etc. in people's heads.  These operate at the material level though the interactional structures and cast people in gendered identities.  Denzin argues that all this is a product of history and culture, and

the sexually gendered human being in late twentieth-century America is a social, economic, and historic construction, built up out of the patriarchal cultural myths that have been articulated in American popular culture for the last two hundred years.  (Denzin, p. 201).

While there are various ideological and cultural beliefs of myths, it is at the level of lived experience that the gender identities are produced and reproduced as actors are involved in social interaction with other actors.  Through interactional, lived experience cultural meanings may be forced on people.  But there are times when people question or reflect on their situation, social relationships, and habitual forms of interaction.  Denzin labels these epiphanies or turning-point experiences, “moments of existential crisis when a person’s sexuality and gender identity are forcefully and dramatically called into question.  in these epiphanic moments the gender order is revealed in ways that are normally not seen” (Denzin, p. 206).  Such moments are similar to Dewey’s periods of reflection or to the fateful or pivotal moments of Giddens, or perhaps even to the rational decisions of RCT.  At these times, reflection can lead to a continuation of previous forms of social interaction or, where reflection leads to a questioning of earlier forms of social interaction, a changes in the way the individual acts.  Denzin argues that “a given epiphanic moment ... can deepen the person's internalized oppression to a gendered sexual identity, lead to open rebellion, or produce a deeper commitment to it.” (Denzin, pp. 211-212).  From the symbolic interaction perspective, reflection, interpretation, and meaning are important aspects of each action (or inaction).  These are means that individuals, in social interaction with others, both express and create the self. 

In Denzin's examples, in each case (perhaps with the exception of the first example dealing with children) individuals explicitly and consciously carry out this reflection and interpretation.  Previous patterns of action lead to reflection and interpretation, and the individual may develop a new understanding of his or her situation. The five examples illustrate Denzin's argument and some aspects of interaction.

i. A young boy being a woman illustrates the manner in which an "incorrect" gender identity is criticized and the boy enacts a culturally approved masculine sexual identity.

ii. Gazing on the male body illustrates confusion over identities, with no action appearing to have occurred, so that the longer term effects cannot be determined here.  Note the explicit mention of reflection, interpretation and the resulting confusion.

iii. Doing sex for pay leads to a decision on the part of the prostitute to continue, but obtain a more adequate exchange on the market.  Here the action of being a prostitute is continued, so action appears to be repetitive and regular – in fact, considerable reflection went on before the prostitute decided to continue, but at the same time increasing the exchange value of her sexual acts.

iv. Being a battered wife shows the contradictions involved in role and gender identity. In this case reflection led to a positive change in the woman’s life and social relationships, although not without negative consequences with respect to memories and evaluation of self.

v. Gay lovers shows the change in meaning associated with certain aspects of sexuality for gay men.  In this case, reflection resulted in a change in what the gay man regarded as sexually erotic, and associated with this was also a change in behaviour.

Each of these illustrates how gender and sexual identity is maintained through ordinary day-to-day activities and experiences.  These examples provide exaggerated examples of experiences associated with mythical beliefs and ideologies within popular culture.  These examples were selected by Denzin to illustrate ways of “uncovering the inner worlds of sexually gendered experience” (Denzin, p. 215).

From the symbolic interaction point of view, what is important is not only that gender identities exist in our culture, but that these are maintained through the forms of interaction that are part of daily life.  Each of these interactions reinforces or casts doubt on these identities, with these examples highlighting points where major changes either took place or could have taken place.  In order to understand sexual and gender identities, it is necessary to look at the variety of lived experiences, and examine (read and analyse) these.  From this, it may be possible to see the ways in which the myths are maintained, and if change in these is to be accomplished, understanding each aspect of these daily interactions is necessary.



Cohen, Ira J.  2000.  “Theories of Action and Praxis,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Blackwell Publishers, Malden Massachusetts

Denzin, Norman K.  1993.  “Sexuality and Gender: an Interactionist / Poststructural Reading,” in P. England, ed., Theory on Gender / Feminism on Theory, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, pp. 199-221

Farganis, James.  2000.  Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, third edition, McGraw-Hill, Boston.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967.  Studies in Ethnomethodology, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Goffman, Erving. 1976.  Gender Advertisement, Harper Colophon Books, New York.

Heritage, John. 1984.  Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Lemert, Charles and Ann Branaman, editors.  1997. The Goffman Reader, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf.  1995.  Contemporary Sociological Theory:Continuing the Classical Tradition, fourth edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

West, Candace and Sarah Fenstermaker (WF).  1993.  “Power, Inequality, and the Accomplishment of Gender: An Ethnomethodological View,” in Paula England, editor, Theory on Gender / Feminism on Theory, New York, Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 151-174.


Last edited March 26, 2006