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“Talk with your family about [Medicare] Part D over Thanksgiving dinner”: How markets require bounded relationality

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Question: What do the following three scenarios have in common?

Scenario A.  Congrats, you’re turning 65 years old!

You’re turning 65 years old.  In the US, if you have worked enough units, you are eligible for Medicare; you must select health insurance by choosing among traditional Medicare and HMO plans.  You also need to choose insurance that will cover  your current or anticipated prescription medications.  Depending on where you live, this could involve comparing around 50 different plans.

You start by consulting the Medicare booklet and wading through the flood of mail from insurance providers.  Despite this information, you’re having difficulties understanding the differences among plans and determining how much plans will charge for your medications.  Moreover, you’re not quite sure which medications that you’ll need in the upcoming year.  Each year after this, you’ll have an almost two-month-long window for making these decisions – a period that is happening now, ending Dec. 7.

If you have a long life, you’ll have plenty of practice working with this market.  How do you select a plan appropriate to your needs right now and then in the future?

Scenario B.  Congrats, you’re getting ready to enter high school!

You are a student at a NYC public middle school.  Since students are not automatically assigned to public high schools, you and your family must choose from among 750 programs and rank order your choices.  (If you are two years old or older, your parents must do the same for public pre-K and kindergarten school programs.)  To learn about your options, you can look at a directory of descriptions of these programs and then research each school online.  If possible, you and your family will also attend information fairs and schools’ open houses and tours, where you might be asked to fill out additional forms or leave your information.

Some schools have different criteria for what kinds of prospective students they prioritize, and most selective programs don’t provide rubrics for how they rank prospective students – information crucial for ascertaining your chances of acceptance.  After you submit up to 12 rank-ordered choices, an algorithm, modelled after a medical residency matching program designed by a economist, will generate a match based on schools’ priorities and your listed options.  And, btw, charter schools and private schools have their own admissions processes and admissions deadlines.

How do you choose and rank public high school programs?  Should you try to maximize your choices by also applying to charter schools and, if you have the financial resources, private schools?

Scenario C.  Congrats, you’re rich!

You have amassed enviable, immense wealth.   But, your mattress is bursting, and you distrust regular banking.  And, for whatever reason, you’re not fond of having the state taking a portion to support the common good, social insurance, military spending, etc.  Thinking ahead, you worry about your family having unfettered access to your financial legacy; relatives might fritter away that wealth!  Also, you have a few relationships that other family members don’t (yet) know about, and you want to make sure that those loved ones are also taken care of after your inevitable passing.  So, what to do?

Answer: Most likely, you’ll need what I call “bounded relationality” to assist you with entering complex markets and making exchanges.   To explain what bounded relationality is, I’ll preview excepts from my advance, online first article “Bounded relationality: how intermediary organizations encourage consumer exchanges with routinized relational work in a social insurance market.”

The bounded relationality concept combines two of my favorite theories: (1) economic sociology’s relational work by Viviana Zelizer, Fred Wherry, and Nina Bandjel* and (2) Herbert Simon’s theory about how organizations compensate for people’s bounded rationality, or difficulties with making decisions.

During several years of my research on organizations that support older adults, I observed workshops and meetings for organizational representatives and professionals, including social workers, on topics such as how to select Medicare insurance plans.

At one of these workshops, a representative from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, described officials’ hopes that families would discuss prescription plans at family get-togethers: ‘We tried to say, “Talk with your family about [Medicare] Part D over Thanksgiving dinner,” but we don’t know if people did.’   His comment revealed how much the market relies upon relational work, or connections formed and sustained with other persons (Zelizer 2012) and organizations.

Using observations of US governmental, advocacy, and human service organizations’ (GAHSOs) talks, I show how these intermediary organizations endorsed “bounded relationality” when teaching conventions for participating in the market of social insurance.  Unlike conventional consumer goods and services markets, insurance options are difficult to evaluate and exchanges are challenging to switch.  Decisions are also consequential, with suboptimal decisions impacting personal well-being and requiring support or intervention by family members, if they are available.

Read more about bounded relationality after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

the meaning of field sites in ethnography

I’ve recently been reading the literature on Victor Turner’s theory of communitas, which is simply a social space where social statuses are leveled. One article pointed out that the reason anthropologists lost interest in communitas, relatively speaking, is that communitas theory was developed mainly to describe things like initiation ceremonies, group prayer, and pilgrimage. Because cultural anthropologists moved away from religion as a dominant concern, they chose different field sites.  For example, anthropologists gravitated toward studying tourism because it reflects globalization and it’s a great way to see how local cultures respond to internationalization.

This got me thinking. What does the choice of field sites say about how sociology sees the world? In other words, what is sociology’s implicit model of the world if we look at its prominent ethnographies? For example, we could look at thee the ethnographic works from the ASA book award, such as Love, Money and HIV by Sanyu Majola and Paying for the Party by Armstrong and Hamilton.  We could also look at ethnographies that have become popular, like Desmond’s Evicted and A. Goffman’s On the Run. Three out of four are directly about stratification. I think Majola’s work is a hybrid of many topics, but it is hard to classify it as a classic study of racial or gender stratification.

If you search through ASR from 2016 to 2017 you get 15 articles containing the word “ethnography.” At least 10 are not ethnographies and just mention the word. If ASR publishes maybe 40 articles per year, then that means about 5/80~ 6% of articles use this method. How many deal with stratification as its main topic? I count Rosen 2016 (poor families/neighborhoods), Seim 2017 (poverty and social control/health), Sullivan 2017 (low income housing), and Levine 2016 (politics of poor neighborhoods).   How many other topics? Just one – Brayne 2017 on police use of big data. What if we do the same exercise but use the search term “field work?” An additional item appears, but it is not an ethnographic article.

What does this admittedly brief exercise suggest about the role of ethnography in elite sociology? It’s mainly about stratification and, within that sub-field, mainly about poverty.

Two additional empirical comments: 1. This is only an examination of the most elite outlets for ethnography in the last two years. I hypothesize that we’d see the same pattern, a heavy tilt toward stratification and a more specific emphasis on poverty/low income people. We’d probably see that the non-poverty/stratification ethnographies will be internally diverse. and 2. This suggests that ethnography is used by the profession at the elite level to signal concern about income inequality. I am sure that these articles are good, but any science that has a laser focus on one tail of the distribution is surely missing something.

Post script: What would happen to our journals if there was a “budget” for studies of poverty? In other words, what if the editors of ASR, AJS and SF put a cap on inequality studies – accept the top couple each year and then re-allocate the space to other topics? How would that affect the careers of ethnographers or historical scholars who do qualitative work on non-inequality topics?

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Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2018 at 4:01 am

book spotlight: freedom from work by daniel fridman

Fridmanbookcover

Daniel Fridman’s Freedom from Work is an ethnographic account of people trying to create economic mobility in Argentina and the United States. The core of the book is a study of people using various “self-help”strategies to improve their economic position. This may include reading self-help books, forming entrepreneur clubs, and, interestingly, playing board games that teach skills that one needs to run a business.

Theoretically, the book is interesting because it is a contribution to a genre that one might call “studies of the self under capitalism.” The phrase comes from Foucault, but it is really a sort of Bourdieusian style habitus study. The idea is that people have a specific set of attitudes and beliefs about the nature of success and mobility. The interesting thing about Freedom from Work is the way these ideas are shaped and reshaped through these self-help activities. Normally, you’d think these activities are uninteresting and frivolous, but they reveal how people understand the nature of success and what individuals can do to affect that.

So what do we learn from the ethnography? A few things. First, from a very basic point of view, is that extracting economic success from a market system requires very specific skills that many (most?) most people do not have. Perhaps a lesson for students of entrepreneurship is that economic actors must be socialized in a specific way. Second, we learn how market logics are applied to individual behavior, which Fridman calls the construction of a neoliberal self.  I normally hate the word “neoliberal,” but I’ll let it slide here. Understanding how market-oriented calculability is applied to daily life and how it transforms the self is a worthwhile topic.

I found the book to be well written and engaging. I think economic sociologists, entrepreneurship scholars, and cultural sociologists will like this book. I also think it is interesting  to those in a Foucauldian tradition, who have a taste for very late Foucault. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2018 at 12:55 pm

remaking higher education for turbulent times, wed., march 28, 9am-6pm EDT, Graduate Center

For those of you in NYC (or those who want to watch a promised live webcast at bit.ly/FuturesEd-live  http://videostreaming.gc.cuny.edu/videos/livestreams/page1/ with a livestream transcript here: http://www.streamtext.net/player?event=CUNY), the Graduate Center Futures Initiative is hosting a conference of CUNY faculty and students on Wed., March 28, 9am-6pm EDT at the Graduate Center.  Our topic is: “Remaking higher education for turbulent times.” In the first session “Higher Education at a Crossroads” at 9:45am EDT,  Ruth Milkman and I, along with other panelists who have taught via the Futures Initiative, will be presenting our perspectives on the following questions:

  1. What is the university? What is the role of the university, and whom does it serve?
  2. How do political, economic, and global forces impact student learning, especially institutions like CUNY?
  3. What would an equitable system of higher education look like? What could be done differently?

Ruth and I will base our comments on our experiences thus far with teaching a spring 2018 graduate course about changes in the university system, drawing on research conducted by numerous sociologists, including organizational ethnographers.  So far, our class has included readings from:

We will discuss the tensions of reshaping long-standing institutions that have reproduced privilege and advantages for elites and a select few, as well as efforts to sustain universities (mostly public institutions) that have served as a transformational engine of socio-economic mobility and social change.  More info, including our course syllabus, is available via the Futures Initiatives blog here.

Following our session, two CUNY faculty and staff who are taking our class, Larry Tung and Samini Shahidi will be presenting about their and their classmates’ course projects.

A PDF of the full day’s activities can be downloaded here: FI-Publics-Politics-Pedagogy-8.5×11-web

If you plan to join us (especially for lunch), please RSVP ASAP at bit.ly/FI-Spring18

Written by katherinechen

March 21, 2018 at 4:53 pm

new book spotlight: approaches to ethnography

New book alert!  For those prepping a methods course or wanting additional insight into ethnography as a research method, sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan*  have co-edited an anthology Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (2017, Oxford University Press).**

ApproachestoEthnographyCoverPhoto

In Approaches to Ethnography, several ethnographers, including myself, have contributed chapters that delve into our experiences with ethnography across the subfields of urban sociology, poverty and inequality, race and ethnicity, culture, political economies, and organizational research.  For example, in his chapter, Douglas Harper explains how he integrated visual ethnography to get farmers to discuss experiences of farming past and present, capture the itinerant lives and transitory relations among tramps, and document food traditions in Bologna, Italy.

My own chapter “Capturing Organizations as Actors” was particularly difficult to write, with several major chunks jettisoned and sections rewritten several times to incorporate feedback from an ever-patient Khan.  Eventually, I realized I was struggling with how to advocate what is taken-for-granted among organizational researchers.  Normally, organizational researchers write for audiences who readily accept organizations as the unit of analysis and as important and consequential actors worthy of study.  However, for sociologists and social scientists who are not organizational researchers, the organization falls into the background as static, interchangeable scenery.  Given this anthology’s audience, I had to make an explicit argument for studying organizations to readers who might be inclined to ignore organizations.

With this in mind, my chapter focused on explaining how to use ethnography to bring organizations to the foreground.  To illustrate how researchers can approach different aspects of organizations, I drew on my ethnographic data collected on the Burning Man organization.  Most of the vignettes tap never-before-seen data, including discussions from organizers’ meetings and my participant-observations as a volunteer in Playa Info’s Found.  With these examples, I show how organizational ethnography can help us understand:

  • how informal relations animate organizations
  • how organizations channel activities through routines and trainings
  • how organizations and its subcultures communicate and inculcate practices
  • how organizations handle relations with other actors, including the state

Here is Approaches to Ethnography‘s table of contents:

Introduction: An Analytic Approach to Ethnography
Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan

1. Microsociology: Beneath the Surface
Jooyoung Lee
2. Capturing Organizations as Actors
Katherine Chen

3. Macro Analysis: Power in the Field
Leslie Salzinger and Teresa Gowan

4. People and Places
Douglas Harper

5. Mechanisms
Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans

6. Embodiment: A Dispositional Approach to Racial and Cultural Analysis
Black Hawk Hancock

7. Situations
Monica McDermott

8. Reflexivity: Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument-Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity
Forrest Stuart

* Jerolmack and Khan have also co-authored a Socius article “The Analytic Lenses of Ethnography,” for those interested in an overview.

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Written by katherinechen

January 13, 2018 at 4:55 pm

don’t make ethnography anonymous – new article by jerolmack and murphy

In Sociological Research and Methods, Colin Jerolmack and Alexandra K. Murphy ask if we should use people’s names in quantitative research. We’ve discussed this idea before and now you can read the final article. The abstract:

Masking, the practice of hiding or distorting identifying information about people, places, and organizations, is usually considered a requisite feature of ethnographic research and writing. This is justified both as an ethical obligation to one’s subjects and as a scientifically neutral position (as readers are enjoined to treat a case’s idiosyncrasies as sociologically insignificant). We question both justifications, highlighting potential ethical dilemmas and obstacles to constructing cumulative social science that can arise through masking. Regarding ethics, we show, on the one hand, how masking may give subjects a false sense of security because it implies a promise of confidentiality that it often cannot guarantee and, on the other hand, how naming may sometimes be what subjects want and expect. Regarding scientific tradeoffs, we argue that masking can reify ethnographic authority, exaggerate the universality of the case (e.g., “Middletown”), and inhibit replicability (or“revisits”) and sociological comparison. While some degree of masking is ethically and practically warranted in many cases and the value of disclosure varies across ethnographies, we conclude that masking should no longer be the default  option that ethnographers unquestioningly choose.

Check it out!!!

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Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2017 at 12:01 am

super secret ethnography

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