organizational ethnography and pseudonyms: at what cost?
‘Tis the season to talk about behind- the-scenes techniques and public presentation of ethnography.
At the Eastern Sociological Society meeting this past spring, Colin Jerolmack gave a compelling talk about the convention of ethnographic pseudonyms, based on a paper he’s writing with Alexandra Murphy, slated for a special issue of Sociological Methods and Research. They find much to criticize about the practice of making up names for people and places: that using pseudonyms creates a false sense of generalizability (‘Middletown is every town”), impedes the accumulation of knowledge by preventing revisits, and flat out is ineffective in many cases. They also argue that it is presumptuous of the researcher to assume s/he knows better than those in the field site if their own identities should be concealed. A key take-away is that pseudonyms should not be our default; we should have good justifications for using them.
While the talk/paper focuses on small group and community ethnography, some unique issues arise with naming organizations and organizational participants. At the talk, Fred Wherry raised the point that non-profit organizations risk losing funding if certain practices are revealed. Other issues arise. People’s jobs may be on the line. Potentially the researcher could be liable for defamation? Using the real name of the organization but pseudonyms for individuals is not ideal; we often are discussing people vis-a-vis their offices and positions, so it would be very easy for readers to identify them.
In my ethnography of diversity management at “Starr Corporation” a Fortune 500 multinational corporation, my written agreement with the company stipulated that I would disguise the identity of the company and individual employees. This made it easier for me to gain access initially. I think it also made employees more likely to open up to me, but then again, I’m not so sure how much comfort they took in my assurances of their anonymity.
Although disguising an organization’s identity can help us get in the door, it can create frustrating limitations for the final written product. In my book, I discuss managerial and corporate power dynamics, but I could have made a stronger point if I had been able to explain just how large and powerful Starr Corporation is. The real name would have gone a long way. Crucially, concealing the company’s identity meant I could not elaborate the type of products the company sells, which is relevant for its diversity management strategies. There were some images from Starr’s annual corporate report I would have liked to include in my book, to illustrate the changing meanings of race and gender alongside shifts in corporate logic and goals. I don’t think any of this prevented me from doing a serious analysis, but the constraints have been irritating.
And how can we represent an organization’s public discourse while keeping its identity concealed, given how easy it is to search specific text on the internet? I set as my standard whether a sentence could be a) searched on Google and b) associated with the company c) at the time I wrote the book. In my writing, I have used only short phrases from Starr’s job advertisements. For the company’s business case for diversity, I used the internal policy and a version from the late 1990s pre-internet days that I got from the company’s private corporate archives; the message hadn’t changed in any meaningful way. But often it’s difficult to come up with those kinds of work arounds.
What do you think about using pseudonyms for organizational ethnography? Does it not make a difference to you—as the researcher or a reader—or do you find that something meaningful is lost in translation?