Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new years with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Suck?” In Part 1, she proceeded to dissect this divisive question with a cultural analysis of academics critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate forms of ethnography. Her post incited a lot of great discussions and surfaced many tensions that have long been difficult to articulate in both communities.
In this second post of her three part installment, Sam extends the cultural analysis from her first piece and offers methods that are more fitting for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In her final post, Sam will discuss how to maintain reflexivity in the both the private and academic settings.
Sam points out that research output can be compromised regardless if the ethnography is working in corporate or academic settings. What methods do you use to avoids compromising research in private-sector ethnography or academic setting ethnography? Please share in the comments!
A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography
“The fact that there is no such thing as a perfect anti-sepsis does not mean that one might as well do brain surgery in a sewer.”
— Robert Solow
Robert Solow was an economist, but he could tell anthropologists a thing or two about how to deal with real constraints on the research process. Solow became famous for the “Solow Residual,” or contribution to productivity growth that remains “unexplained” even after careful, empirical analysis. Solow asserted that this unexplained residual was due to technological change.
Is it possible that Solow was wrong? Certainly. Economic growth during that period was accompanied by several other significant shifts, including but not limited to a rise in homeownership, more women entering the workforce, and the elimination of “separate but equal” education systems. Solow could have been wrong in so many ways, but the relevant question is not whether he was right, but whether he contributed insight to an empirically observed phenomenon.
This anecdote is a roundabout way of addressing the question: is rapid ethnography possible? Of course it’s possible. Will it provide us with unequivocal evidence of a given social phenomenon? Will it provide as deep insight as traditional ethnography? Will it be “perfect”? No, no and definitely no. But, again, the relevant question here is whether it will give us meaningful insight into an empirically observed phenomenon.
How do we ensure this result? Like Solow, we must aspire to have a “sterile operating room,” as it were, by eliminating whatever potentially “contaminating” conditions we encounter. The major “contaminators” corporate ethnographers face isn’t so much a lack of time (see my earlier post) but a lack of theoretical context and a lack of systematic method. When researchers add a robust theoretical framework to their corporate ethnography, short time horizons can be mitigated. By adopting a rigourous, systematic practice, corporate ethnographers can also improve the chances of producing insightful results.
Putting Theory Where It Belongs: In Our Research!
On Day 1 of my research methods classes, I tell my students that research without theory is not research at all, but merely “asking people things” or “noticing things.” These are both useful skills, to be sure, but they mean little without the explication of theory. We must situate your questions within established theories in order to cohere our results.
Academic researchers, of course, take this to the extreme, and tend to reject any research that has not paid sufficient homage to a given set of literature. But I’m with sociologist Herbert Blumer when he says, “Let us renounce the practice of taking in each other’s washing” (Blumer, 1954). By this he means, talking about theory alone is not enough – we must engage with the existing social world through a robust empirical research agenda.
So let us not be slaves to our theory and our theorists. But we must read them. We must know them. And above all, we see our results through their eyes. Corporate ethnographies of social networks are not meaningful unless they understand “the strength of weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973). Studies of luxury brands are meaningless unless they illustrate the concept of distinction (Bourdieu, 1984). Research into consumer packaged goods are empty without a robust understanding of gender performativity (Butler, 1990). Corporate ethnographers will eliminate the “laundry list syndrome” if they refer to theory. This practice of theory also has a happy coincidence of shortening your time in the field and analysis.
We can also improve the “sterility” of our research if we aspire, as much as possible, to follow established and systematic research methods. All too often, qualitative research of all types appears to be simply “asking people things,” but in reality, it involves specific steps. For in-depth interviewing, I typically use Miles and Huberman’s (Miles & Huberman, 1994) techniques for visualizing data, as noted below, there offer 15 different ways of summarizing qualitative data.
For ethnography in particular, corporate researchers will be delighted to learn that some academics have heard their call to speed up the techniques of ethnography. Rapid assessment (S. C. M. Scrimshaw, Carballo, Ramos, & Blair, 1991; S. Scrimshaw & Hurtado, 1987) emerged out of health research, and is designed to tightly target a given sample of people, and barrage that sample with a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques (yes, ethnographers do quantitative research too). The idea behind rapid assessment is to triangulate by asking the same question in many different ways with a very specific sample. Corporate ethnographers can adapt this method by including surveys and focus groups in the research design, and by carefully assessing the recruitment criteria.
By including theory and adopting systematic approaches, we can improve corporate ethnography. We may never “take in each other’s washing” to the degree that academics would consider sufficient, but we will – at the very least – not be conducting surgery in a sewer.
How can we be sure we are not in a sewer? In my next post, I’ll discuss ways for corporate and academic ethnographers to practice reflexivity, and to ensure that they are continually aspiring to improve their work.
Blumer, H. (1954). What’s Wrong with Social Theory? American Sociological Review, 19(1), 3-10.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of The Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.
Miles, M., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Scrimshaw, S. C. M., Carballo, M., Ramos, L., & Blair, B. A. (1991). The AIDS Rapid Anthropological Assessment Procedures: A Tool for Health Education Planning and Evaluation. Health Education & Behavior, 18(1), 111-123. doi:10.1177/109019819101800111
Scrimshaw, S., & Hurtado, E. (1987). Rapid assessment procedures for nutrition and primary health care: anthropological approaches to improving programme effectiveness. United Nations University. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=phqFQgAACAAJ