Building Reality: The Social Construction of Knowledge
Putting Meaning into Meaningless
go to great lengths to establish and preserve meaning, even in situations that may in fact
Harold Garfinkel designed an experiment in which subjects were led to believe they were
taking part in a study of a new approach to counseling.2
Each subject was paired with a person who was portrayed as a trainee counselor.
was escorted to a room and told to formulate a series of yes/no questions about a personal
problem he or she had. The subject then asked the "counselor" the questions and
received either a "yes" or "no" response. After each response, the
subject was instructed to comment privately into a tape recorder about what he or she had
The catch was
that the answers provided by the "counselor" were completely random and had
nothing at all to do with the questions being asked. Some answers were confusing and
a subject might be told "yes" in response to a question about whether someone
would make a suitable mate. But a short time later, when the subject asked whether to
continue dating this person, the answer was no.
subjects expressed tremendous frustration and anger, they kept struggling to find a
pattern of meaning in the replies. Some subjects thought the counselor had learned
something new about them between the two contradictory replies or had discovered some sort
of deeper meaning.3
were always able to come up with a "sensible" explanation for the confusing
responses they received. If the counselor advised against continuing to date a desirable
mate, the subject might have concluded that the counselor was telling him or her to
"test" his or her love for the other person.
how people can give meaning to an intrinsically meaningless situation, Garfinkel provided
insight into the creation and maintenance of reality in everyday life. One of the
taken-for-granted assumptions we make in social interaction is that events are relatively
orderly and predictable. Thus even confusing developments "make sense" to us on
1McHugh, P. 1968. Defining the
situation. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. Also Watzlawick, P. 1976. How real is real?
Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
2Garfinkel, H. 1967. "Common sense knowledge of social
structures: The documentary method of interpretation in lay and professional fact
finding." In H. Garfinkel (Ed.), Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
3Wooton, A. 1975. Dilemmas of discourse. London:
Allen & Unwin.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.