Chapter 3

Building Reality: The Social Construction of Knowledge

Sociologists at Work


Harold Garfinkel

Putting Meaning into Meaningless Situations

People often go to great lengths to establish and preserve meaning, even in situations that may in fact be meaningless.1

Sociologist 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.

The subject 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 learned.

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 contradictory.

For example, 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.

Although many 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

The subjects 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.

By showing 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 further examination.

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.