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super secret ethnography

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Thomas J. Roulet, Michael J. Gill, Sebastien Stenger and David James Gill have a new article in Organizational Research Methods about the possible value of covert field work.The abstract:

In this article, we provide a nuanced perspective on the benefits and costs of covert research. In particular, we illustrate the value of such an approach by focusing on covert participant observation. We posit that all observational studies sit along a continuum of consent, with few research projects being either fully overt or fully covert due to practical constraints and the ambiguous nature of consent itself. With reference to illustrative examples, we demonstrate that the study of deviant behaviors, secretive organizations and socially important topics is often only possible through substantially covert participant observation. To support further consideration of this method, we discuss different ethical perspectives and explore techniques to address the practical challenges of
covert participant observation, including; gaining access, collecting data surreptitiously, reducing harm to participants, leaving the site of study and addressing ethical issues.

The article is very thorough in terms of reviewing the relevant issue. This is especially important for org studies people as ethnographers often sign up as employees of firms to study them and they don’t tell the other workers. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 27, 2017 at 4:35 am

is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

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The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.

Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.

Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.

And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.

But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.

Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.

The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.

At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.

 

Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

the best footnote in matt desmond’s evicted

One of the nice things about summer is getting to read stuff you don’t have to read. Matt Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City was excellent, and deserves the great deal of attention it received. The sociology is largely implicit, but it is absolutely there, and Desmond paints a compelling portrait of flawed but comprehensible individuals caught in a web of exploitative institutions from which it is very, very hard to escape.

But you know the good stuff is always in the footnotes, right? And my favorite footnote is not about Lamar, the neighborhood father figure whose legs froze off when, high on crack, he passed out in an abandoned house; or Lorraine, who tries to find a little joy in her otherwise grinding poverty by spending her food stamps on lobster.

No, my favorite footnote, found on page 404, is about the Moving to Opportunity experiment, which I wrote about last year:

According to Google Scholar, there are more than 4,800 scholarly articles and books in which the phrase “Moving to Opportunity” appears in the text. This neighborhood relocation initiative designed to move families out of disadvantaged neighborhoods was a bold and important program—which served roughly 4,600 households. In other words, by now every family who benefited from Moving to Opportunity could have their own study in which their program was mentioned.

Ouch. Point very much taken.

Written by epopp

July 28, 2016 at 6:27 pm

Appetite for Innovation: Creativity & Change at elBulli (To be published by Columbia University Press on July 12, 2016)

How is it possible for an organization to systematically enact changes in the larger system of which it is part? Using Ferran Adria’s iconic restaurant “elBulli” as an example of organizational creativity and radical innovation, Appetite for Innovation examines how Adria’s organization was able to systematically produce breakthroughs of knowledge within its field and, ultimately, to stabilize a new genre or paradigm in cuisine – the often called “experimental,” “molecular,” or “techno-emotional” culinary movement.

Recognized as the most influential restaurant in the world, elBulli has been at the forefront of the revolution that has inspired the gastronomic avant-garde worldwide. With a voracious appetite for innovation, year after year, Adrià and his team have broken through with new ingredients, combinations, culinary concepts and techniques that have transformed our way of understanding food and the development of creativity in haute cuisine.

Appetite for Innovation is an organizational study of the system of innovation behind Adrià’s successful organization. It reveals key mechanisms that explain the organization’s ability to continuously devise, implement and legitimate innovative ideas within its field and beyond. Based on exclusive access to meetings, observations, and interviews with renowned professionals of the contemporary gastronomic field, the book reveals how a culture for change was developed within the organization; how new communities were attracted to the organization’s work and helped to perpetuate its practice, and how the organization and its leader’s charisma and reputation were built and maintained over time. The book draws on examples from other fields, including art, science, music, theatre and literature to explore the research’s potential to inform practices of innovation and creativity in multiple kinds of organizations and industries.

The research for Appetite for Innovation was conducted when Adria’s organization was undergoing its most profound transformation, from a restaurant to a research center for innovation, “elBulli foundation”.  The book, therefore, takes advantage of this unique moment in time to retrace the story of a restaurant that became a legend and to explore underlying factors that led to its reinvention in 2011 into a seemingly unparalleled organizational model.

Appetite for Innovation is primarily intended to reach and be used by academic and professionals from the fields of innovation and organizations studies. It is also directed towards a non-specialist readership interested in the topics of innovation and creativity in general. In order to engage a wider audience and show the fascinating world of chefs and the inner-workings of high-end restaurants, the book is filled with photographs of dishes, creative processes and team’s dynamics within haute cuisine kitchens and culinary labs. It also includes numerous diagrams and graphs that illustrate the practices enacted by the elBulli organization to sustain innovation, and the networks of relationships that it developed over time. Each chapter opens with an iconic recipe created by elBulli as a way of illustrating the book’s central arguments and key turning points that enable the organization to gain a strategic position within its field and become successful.

To find a detailed description of the book please go to: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/appetite-for-innovation/9780231176781

Also, Forbes.com included Appetite for Innovation in its list of 17 books recommended for “creative leaders” to read this summer:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/berlinschoolofcreativeleadership/2016/05/15/17-summer-books-creative-leaders-can-read-at-the-beach/#7ac430985cef

 

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Written by M. Pilar Opazo

June 8, 2016 at 4:46 pm

special issue on democratic organizations in The Sociological Quarterly

Interested in recent research on democratic organizations?

The Sociological Quarterly has just published a special issue, organized by Joyce Rothschild, on “The Logic of A Co-Operative Economy and Democracy 2.0: Recovering the Possibilities for Autonomy, Creativity, Solidarity, and Common Purpose.”  The articles cover findings, drawn from ethnographic research, interviews, and archival research, about how collectives engage in consensus-based decision making; how decentralization, storytelling, and communication help growing groups; how participatory practices obscure versus reveal inequality; how collectives redress gender inequality; how collectives dampen or harness emotions.  Even better: All articles are free!  Happy reading!

Here’s the line-up, which includes myself and other researchers:

Written by katherinechen

January 14, 2016 at 9:48 pm

new book Handbook of Qualitative Organizational Research Innovative Pathways and Methods (2015, Routledge) now available

At orgtheory, we’ve had on-going discussions about how to undertake research.  For example, I’ve shared my own take on dealing with the IRB, gaining access to organizations, undertaking ethnography , timing and pacing research, writing for wider audiences, and what is ethnography good for?  Guest blogger Ellen Berrey elaborated her thoughts on how to get access to organizations, and we’ve had at least three discussions about the challenges of anonymizing names and identities of persons and organizations, including guest blogger Victor Tan Chen’s post, guest blogger Ellen Berrey’s post, and Fabio’s most recent post here.

Looking for more viewpoints about how to undertake organizational research?  Preparing a research proposal?  Need a new guide for a methods or organizations class?  Rod Kramer and Kim Elsbach have co-edited the Handbook of Qualitative Organizational Research Innovative Pathways and Methods (2015, Routledge)

HandbookQualitativeOrgResearch

In the introduction, Kramer and Elsbach describe the impetus for the volume:

There were several sources of inspiration that motivated this volume. First and foremost was a thoughtful and provocative article by Jean Bartunek, Sara Rynes, and Duane Ireland that appeared in the Academy of Management Journal in 2006. This article published a list of the 17 most interesting organizational papers published in the last 100 years. These papers were identified by Academy of Management Journal board members—all of whom are leading organizational scholars cognizant of  the best work being done in their respective areas. A total of 67 board members nominated 160 articles as exceptionally interesting; those articles that received two or more nominations were deemed the most interesting. Of these exceptional articles, 12 (71%) involved qualitative methods.

This result strongly mirrors our own experience as organizational researchers. Although both of us have used a variety of methods in our organizational research (ranging from experimental lab studies and surveys to computer-based, agent simulations), our favorite studies by far have been our qualitative studies (including those we have done together). One of the qualities we have come to most appreciate, even cherish, about qualitative research is the sense of discovery and the opportunity for genuine intellectual surprise. Rather than merely seeking to confirm a preordained hypothesis or “nail down” an extrapolation drawn from the extant literature, our inductive studies, we found, invariably opened up exciting, unexpected intellectual doors and pointed us toward fruitful empirical paths for further investigation. In short, if life is largely all about the journey rather than destination, as the adage asserts, we’ve found qualitative research most often gave us a road we wanted to follow.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

December 18, 2015 at 5:27 pm

To Anonymize, or Not to Anonymize

The Journalist and the Ethnographer textMy responses to the comments on my post about ethnography and journalism were getting way too long (apologies), so I thought I’d throw them into a separate post, and also encourage more people to chime in. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks, which brought up new issues from provocatively different vantage points. (If you haven’t read their comments, I’d encourage you to do so!)

I agree with @krippendorf’s comment that the use of anonymity can make it possible to exploit our respondents and twist their words, and that’s probably the biggest problem that my inner journalist has with this prevalent practice that ethnographers (myself included) engage in. (A caveat: there is clearly variation in how ethnographers do their work, as @olderwoman pointed out, which would even include the degree of anonymity we use. I’ll get into this more in a second.) At the same time, it’s interesting how journalism opens itself up to pernicious forms of exploitation of a different kind—what I think Janet Malcolm was getting at—in terms of using people and not considering more carefully the consequences of quoting them in a story. So it seems both fields have their own Achilles heels, and perhaps we just need to accept they go about things in different ways that are ethical on their own terms (though I do think that both fields can learn from the other and maybe find a happier middle ground).

Thomas Basbøll makes a good point that an ethnographer needs to be very cautious in making claims because of the inability in many cases to prove that what you wrote is, without a doubt, true. (Of course, in part that’s not even up to you, because of the ethical/IRB need or norm of protecting respondent identities that we’ve been talking about.) However, I do think one of the strengths of ethnography is its ability to stumble across unexpected situations or outcomes, which in turn can help refine or challenge our theories (with all the caveats that the sample is almost always small and unrepresentative, etc.). But those findings will naturally lead to skepticism because they don’t fit with people’s preconceptions—and, if they’re unflattering to certain people or groups, they may also lead to vicious pushback, however unwarranted it is.

As a former newspaper reporter, I would add that print journalism, as it is practiced from day to day, operates routinely with a pretty low standard of verifiability. Yes, sources often get recorded on tape or video, providing documentary evidence, but most of the time reporters are just writing things down in their spiral notebooks. They simply don’t have the time to do much else, given deadline constraints. Also, recording an interview changes the dynamic—encouraging the source to use her bland “on the record” voice—and journalists don’t want that. As a result, they typically reserve taping for remarks by politicians or other elites. But the result is that, in many stories, they quote people who then go on to say they were misquoted, and it becomes a he-said-she-said situation. (That happened to me once: a low-level government official made an off-the-cuff comment that he later regretted, and afterward started telling people I made up the quote. I called him and chewed him out for doing that, but there was no way for me to “prove” to other people he had lied because I hadn’t recorded him.) Nevertheless, this is something that happens more often than you’d think, and that’s because journalists (like ethnographers) are dealing with messy real-world constraints.

Now, to bring us back to that earlier point about variations in the practice of ethnography: it’s interesting how many different approaches you can find among the most ethical of ethnographers—all of whom, let’s stipulate, are trying to do right by both their respondents and their research. As @olderwoman pointed out, some people just use pseudonyms, some people change details (but only a little), and some people go all out and create composite characters. I can see the ethical rationale for all these approaches. (And in any case, I can’t imagine a room full of ethnographers could be forced to pick any one strategy as the professional best practice, even under pain of death.)

On the other hand, as one of the commenters in the Alex Golub piece that Thomas recommended wrote, perhaps we’re kidding ourselves that any of these strategies truly do protect our respondents’ confidentiality. Even if you create composites and change certain details, I think you’re still divulging a pattern of data that someone close to the respondent would recognize, and that person would therefore be able to figure out that their friend, etc., provided at least some of those details to the ethnographer.

Also, as another commenter discussed in the Golub piece, respondents are often disappointed to learn their real names won’t be published. When I was working as a journalist, I found that people would divulge sensitive details to me or other reporters—for example, about some trauma they’d experienced—and afterward they would tell us they were happy to see their name in print. It gave them a sense of validation to see their story out there and have other people know they actually experienced this. Sometimes, they were contacted afterward by people who related to their story or wanted to help them, and they said they were grateful for that opportunity.

Now, it’s also very true that many people need a promise of confidentiality in order to feel comfortable telling their story completely and truthfully. And it goes without saying that sources—even nonelites—will exploit the fact that their real names are being used in order to profit from the attention in some way. For example, a few times I had the hunch that someone was telling me a sob story in order to garner sympathy and get donations from the newspaper’s readers.

I suppose my overall, personal stance on the conundrums we’ve been talking about is that it’s important to recognize the various ethical and practical tradeoffs of all these approaches—and not just the distinct practices of journalism and ethnography, but also the different ones used within each tradition. I know that’s wishy-washy of me, but life, as they say, is multivariate.

Written by Victor Tan Chen

September 24, 2015 at 4:35 pm

Posted in ethics, ethnography