Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 1 of 3)
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. Read More…