Ethnography Matters is happy to start the new year with a series of posts from guest writer, Sam Ladner. In this piece, Sam examines the different temporal conceptions of ethnographic fieldwork in industry and academia.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Sam’s discussion where she discusses how corporate ethnographers can avoid compromising research.
Sam is a sociologist specializing in the social aspects of technological change. She mixes private-sector consulting work with academic research and teaching. Primarily an ethnographer, Sam is founder and principal with Copernicus Consulting, a social research company that consults on digital and industrial product design, organizational change, and consumer culture. She is also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Time & Society and The Canadian Journal of Communication. She is currently managing the Mobile Work Life project, which is investigating smartphones and work/life balance.
Part 1: A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography
Corporate ethnography’s emergence ignited criticism that its quality and rigour was not as good as the ethnography practiced by academics. Academically trained social scientists have argued that private-sector practitioners are often not trained in anthropology or sociology, much less in the actual method of ethnography. Academics have argued that using ethnography for marketing and advertising is just more evidence of underhanded marketers attempting to dupe people into consumerism (Caron & Caronia, 2007).
And they are right.
Much of private-sector ethnography is as banal as it is ironic. In its bland quest to “understand the consumer,” it reduces culture to mere consumerism and thereby fails to achieve its own stated goal of understanding. This cynical veneer of cultural research disregards the truly transformative effect of “going native,” which is the first step to deriving both deep insight and innovation. Private-sector “ethnographers” are frequently ignorant to what ethnography actually is. The real essence of ethnography is the study of culture or as Geertz would say, the “webs of significance” or the meaning individual social actors ascribe to objects, events, or people. “Ethno” derives from the Greek word “ethnos” meaning folk or culture, while “graphy” derives from “grapho” or “to write.” Most corporate ethnographers neither study culture nor write about it. Instead, ethnography is simply as “on-site research,” such as an in-home interview, and “written up” as a series of meaningless video clips or as the truly stupefying Power Point presentation.
But these critical academics are also wrong.
Academics frequently criticize corporate ethnography simply as “too short.” But this is just as shallow an insight as is the idea that culture=consumerism. Academics, of all people, should know that culture drives practice. The rapid pace of contemporary corporate life clearly and reasonably demands shorter time horizons for any research project. It is more than obvious that time differs in academia. Time is what Kluckhohn (1953) calls a fundamental “value orientation,” or a universal feature of all cultures. A culture can be past oriented, meaning it reveres the past through symbolic gestures and everyday behaviours. A culture can be present oriented, by focusing on what is immediately temporally present.
Academia is a past-oriented society, with its obsession with paying homage to past greats of the literature and constant “reviews” of what others have previously found. The private sector, by contrast, worships the present (though it may portray itself as future-oriented, this is often stymied by a relentless focus on the near future). Both “cultures” mark time differently, making it completely natural to do rapid research in the private sector, and perfectly ethnocentric for academics to criticize such research based on normative assumptions of “appropriate” time frames. Symbols of time in academia are typically longer, not “better.”
Take the notion of a “year,” for example. “September” is a perennial ritual in which streams of undergraduates and graduates begin their studies at universities. It may indeed explain the obligatory one-year’s fieldwork unspoken guideline in anthropology. The typical rationale for one year is that so the ethnographer can witness the entire season, but in effect, it may be because it conveniently dovetails with the academic year itself.
There is no equivalent to “September” in industry. Work begins again when the accounting department “closes the books” at month-end. It begins again when a new directive from the C-Suite sends the organization scurrying. It begins once more when a new email arrives. Life in the private sector has nothing like “September,” much less the luxury of thinking in terms of a full year. This shorter time cycle is evident in the tenure of executives. The average CEO is at the helm for just 6 years. The average tenure of a Chief Marketing Officer is even shorter — just 28.4 months (Kirdahy, 2008). This is not to say that “one year” means nothing in the corporate context, but just that it means comparatively less than it does in the academy. Academic social researchers may judge these shorter time horizons as lacking in rigour, but it may have more to do industry’s normative assumptions of time reckoning. Instead, it is more a rejection of the calendar year than it is a rejection of rigour itself.
In my next post, I will review methods to match this shorter time horizon in the private sector, without compromising the quality of the research.