We have here a depository of ethnomethodology in its fullest original form. In 1975, George Psathas invited Professor Garfinkel to Boston University to offer a summer course on ethnomethodology as well as an advanced seminar for senior scholars in the field. Garfinkel was in his prime, and the guidance he offers in these lectures is seminal. He accepted George Psathas’s invitation largely because Harvey Sacks was also participating and offering a seminar of his own, a situation that led to a synergy of concentrated energy. The level of clarity that these extended inquiries reach is remarkable; even more importantly, they are the perfect vehicle for moving beyond an initial familiarity with ethnomethodology to a practitioner’s hold upon its main themes. In fact, that is the purpose for which I used my own copy of these readings – given to me by Prof. Garfinkel – when I returned to graduate study in 1979 after my doctoral field research with Aboriginal people in central Australia.

Although at first the “Seminar” on ethnomethodology and the “Course” on ethnomethodology” were designed for different levels of students, once Prof. Garfinkel embarked upon any productive exegesis, his habit was to dive into the material at hand as deeply as he could, just so long as his deep-sea investigations kept providing him with new discoveries about how people orient to the intelligibilities of their world. The result is that there is little difference in the level or intensity of the sociological scholarship in these two courses. Moreover, many of the students were the same, as a collection of (then) young ethnomethodologists appreciated the uniqueness of the occasion and were reluctant to miss an hour of it. It is certain that the interest and ability of these students helped to provoke the remarkable insights to which Garfinkel’s inquiries found their way. In addition to Professors Psathas, Jeff Coulter and Harvey Sacks, the participants included Tim Anderson, Jay Meehan, David Helm, Gary Fine, Eric Livingston, Michael Lynch, Anne Rawls, and Earl Taylor, among others. David Sudnow arrived with Harold Garfinkel, at the latter’s invitation, but his differences with Garfinkel caused him to leave within a week of the beginning of the courses.

George Psathas writes of the occasion in Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, (Ed.), The Social History of Language and Social Interaction Research, Hampton Press, 2010, pp. 179-213:

From 1975 the sponsorship of the Boston University Summer Session was drawn on in order to hold three consecutive years of summer courses in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis. The first summer program of 1975 recruited Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks to teach two courses, one undergraduate and one graduate. They also had to agree to present a university lecture... Sacks's courses in Conversation Analysis, a heretofore unheard of field on the East Coast, produced low enrollments, and the undergraduate and graduate seminars were combined.

A weekend conference that would invite scholars and researchers to come from other places and present their work, drawing on the presence of Garfinkel and Sacks, was organized to nest in with the summer courses. The first conference, which was called the Summer Institute (later to become the International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis, IIEMCA), brought Max Atkinson, John Heritage, Rod Watson, Charles and Marjorie Godwin, Mark Fishman and Jim Schenkein among others to Boston... This conference resulted in the published collection Everyday Language: Studies in Ethnomethodology (1979).

In the second year, 1976, Emanuel Schegloff and Melvin Pollner came to teach in the summer program, and in the third year, Eric Livingston and James Schenkein. Garfinkel was invited to move to Boston University and had worked out an official appointment with the administration, commencing in the fall of 1979, but instead in early 1979 he accepted an invitation to teach at Oxford, where he invited me to join him. I came to Oxford from Australia, where I had just completed three years of field research, but after only two weeks, Harold, myself, and my wife had become unhappy with the social environment there and wished to leave. Harold departed for Cologne, Germany, and then returned to UCLA. My wife and I returned to Encinitas, California, early to enjoy the late spring and summer there before the restart of my final period of graduate studies at UC, San Diego. Harold may have given me the tapes as a consolation prize for missing out on the planned summer of working with him.

It was 1977 when Garfinkel asked my good friend and colleague Richard Van de Water to transcribe The Boston Seminar, which Rich was eager to do as a means of better mastering Garfinkel’s thinking. Rich and I spent many revelatory hours together listening to and discussing these tapes. It took Rich nearly a year to complete his work, and it is thanks to his efforts that we have in our hands this fabulous transcript, which will provide valuable assistance to any student who wants to master ethnomethodology by listening to The Boston Seminar. In 2014, Rainar Rye Larsen from the University of Southern Denmark, SDU-Design, edited the transcription, re-transcribed parts of it and used state of the art transcription tools to clear up many instances of bad or earlier impossible hearing.

Students from non-English speaking countries especially will benefit greatly by using the transcript together with the audio recording. Listening to the recordings of Garfinkel’s live reflections is what is most important. Garfinkel’s lecturing, including its rich humor, draws in no small part from a grammatical deep structure that is derived from Yiddish (this accounts for a number of its idiosyncrasies), so even native English speakers can benefit by using these transcripts. The least beneficial way to study this material would be to only read the transcript. The tapes were digitized by the Digital Collections Librarian at the University of Oregon. The transcript was digitized at the SDU-Design/DigHumLab of the University of Southern Denmark. It is hoped that volunteers will be found to transcribe and index The Boston Course as well; for now we have only its audio record.

Garfinkel’s preferred medium was not writing; rather, it was the live seminar, during which he drew richly from the energy of his devoted and interested students. He once told me that he could think and write best while he was immersed in giving an active seminar. Much like George Herbert Mead, the unpublished records of his classes (the secretaries at UCLA’s Department of Sociology transcribed Garfinkel’s lectures for years, a practice that Harvey Sacks followed as well, to everyone’s benefit) dwarf his published work, which amounted to two principal books and about a dozen seminal articles. Also like Mead, it is astonishing how widely influential the thinking of such a relatively unpublished scholar has been, and I have collaborated with scholars in India, China, Japan, Brazil, Australia, and Europe who are still actively engaged with Garfinkel’s thinking. My hope is that these audio recordings and transcripts will assist them and their students in their efforts. Occasionally I am asked how it was that Garfinkel came to have such worldwide influence when the published record is so modest. These recordings offer an effective answer to this query, and they afford interested scholars an opportunity to appreciate first-hand how Garfinkel’s students came to be as influenced as deeply as we were.

Kenneth Liberman

Kolding, Denmark, 2014


The work on the manuscript was made possible by resources from SDU-Design (www.sdudesign.sdu.dk, led by Jacob Buur) and The Danish Digital Humanities Lab, project 3 (dighumlab.com; mobile-labs.net, led by Johannes Wagner).


The Boston seminar files consists of the following parts:

  • Seminar 1: 90 minutes. Available
  • Seminar 2: 160 minutes. Available
  • Seminar 3: 110 minutes. Available
  • Seminar 4: Not available. This seminar contains only a short recapitulation by professor Garfinkel and a lecture by Mike Lynch.
  • Seminar 5: 152 minutes. Available
  • Seminar 6: Not transcribed yet.
  • Seminar 7: Available
  • Seminar 8: Available

All seminars are available as mp3 audio files. All transcriptions are available as PAGES files, as PDF files, and CLAN files where sound and transcription have been linked. The CLAN files can be downloaded (needs installation of CLAN) or run through a browser (preferably a modern browser as Firefox or Safari, newest version.