Frames of reference
Pages 6

We often only realize that ground rules exist when someone breaks them. I remember first becoming aware of this from reading about the work of the sociologist Harold Garfinkel.19 Garfinkel encouraged students to carry out what he called ‘breaching experiments’, of which an example was to go home to their parents’ houses and, without saying anything in explanation, behave as if they were boarders rather than members of the family. This difficult activity offers insights into the ways in which the students felt it necessary to modify their behaviour to be lodger-like (such as by asking for permission to use the telephone, rather than simply taking its availability for granted). It is also interesting to note how relatives reacted: Garfinkel’s students were asked ‘Are you sick?’, ‘What are you being so superior about?’, ‘Are you out of your mind or are you just stupid?’ In this way, it is possible to see beneath what Garfinkel calls ‘the obstinate reality of everyday life’, the taken-for-granted assumptions that underpin almost all conversations and which we use every day as foundations for the joint creation of new knowledge.