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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

book forum: the conversational firm by catherine turco, part 2

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This month, we are reviewing Catherine Turco’s Conversational firm. Earlier, I summarized the contents. The book is an ethnographic account of a tech firm that uses social media for internal communication. Turco’s main goal is to advance the argument that social media has substantially altered communications and hierarchy inside firms. Now, I’ll highlight some strong points of the book and next week I will raise critiques.

First, the book correctly points out that the interactional order of firms is now quite different in the social media age than before. In a world of paper based communication and face to face meetings, it was relatively easy to control who knew what. In contrast, it is now possible for modern firms to have much more wide ranging discussions. The project manager really does have (some) direct access to the CEO. This is truly remarkable.

Second, the book discusses the possibility that authority may be redefined in this situation. If everyone at work has a wiki where they can discuss the firm’s issues, then managers may end up giving away power to others.

For me, these two lessons point to an important issue in organizational design – the importance of social media as a tool for “flattening out” the organization. This has gotten a lot of attention among business writers and management scholars. The lesson I take from Turco’s book is that the story is complex. On the one hand, yes, social media democratizes the culture of many firms. But on the other hand, this is not straightforward or even desirable in many cases. The “internal” public sphere of a firm may not be the best place to settle policy. By allowing the middle of the organization to define issues, it may or may not be valuable or constructive.

Next week: Why didn’t Turco talk about laziness?

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Written by fabiorojas

March 24, 2017 at 3:12 pm

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

bookstores aren’t dead yet – an example of the artisinal organization

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bookstore.PNG

A few years ago, people predicted the end of bookstores. Major chains were closing – Borders, Waldenbooks, and many more. Amazon ruled the world. But a funny thing happened. The independent bookstore business refused to die. Recently, it seems to be expanding.

The chart about is taken from a business data website called Statista and it indicates that the independent bookstore is carving out a niche. How can this happen? My guess is that bookstores are now “artisinal organizations” – entities that create value through service, curating products, and providing an “experience.”

This is made possible by the technology of the book itself. A paper book, with pictures and an attractive cover, is still a highly desirable product. At its best, the physical book draws you into its world in a way that different than the computer screen. And there is the social aspect of reading, of hanging out with other book worms.

The physical independent book store – or any other artisinal organization  for that matter – will not bounce back and replace it’s high tech or mass produced counterpart. But in a large economy, it is now possible for subcultures to pop up around niche businesses that provide an “artisinal” version of a product, much as it has happened in food. And that’s a good thing.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized

open borders – in foreign affairs!!

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Nathan Smith, an economist as Fresno Pacific University, has an article in Foreign Affairs about open borders. It was a pleasure to read. Well written, judicious and provocative. A few choice clips from “A World Without Borders: Richer, Fairer, and More Free“:

These advocates, including the author, call for a regime of nearly complete freedom of migration worldwide, with rare exceptions for preventing terrorism or the spread of contagious disease. Borders would still exist in such a world, but as jurisdictional boundaries rather than as barriers to human movement. Ending migration controls in this way would increase liberty, reduce global poverty, and accelerate economic growth. But more fundamentally, it would challenge the right of governments to regulate migration on the arbitrary grounds of sovereignty.

And:

The open borders position may sound new and radical, but it is simply a call for the return of lost liberties. When the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886, most of the world’s borders could be freely crossed without passports. Passport requirements had sometimes existed before and were still in place in backward tsarist Russia, but the more liberal governments of advanced European nations regulated migration, as modern democracies regulate speech, only rather lightly and in exceptional cases, if at all. Comprehensive restrictions on international movement, which almost everyone today regards as a normal and necessary government function, are really an innovation of the twentieth century, which emerged as liberalism gave way to nationalism and socialism in the wake of World War I.

Read the whole thing!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 15, 2017 at 12:56 pm

i am a new abolitionist

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A few years ago, Tyler Cowen remarked that open borders activists were too reckless, similar to abolitionists of the past. A fervent passion for migration would trigger backlash. In response, his co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok, responded by saying that history goes to the passionate. The great changes in history are driven by groups of people who were not interested in marginal change but instead pushed for radical change:

When in 1787 Thomas Clarkson founded The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade a majority of the world’s people were held in slavery or serfdom and slavery was considered by almost everyone as normal, as it had been considered for thousands of years and across many nations and cultures. Slavery was also immensely profitable and woven into the fabric of the times. Yet within Clarkson’s lifetime slavery would be abolished within the British Empire. Whatever one may say about this revolution one can certainly say that it was not brought about by a “synthetic and marginalist” approach. If instead of abolition, Clarkson had settled on the goal of providing for better living conditions for slaves on the voyage from Africa it seems quite possible that slavery would still be with us today.

This leads me to our situation today. We face a modern form of domination, the system of prisons and detention centers. This system is responsible for imprisoning and deporting millions of people. Like the abolitionists of the 19th century, we have to ask whether there is any justice to this system. When I ask myself if there is there any ethical difference between a “patrol” that picks people up based on their race and a border patrol that deports people from the wrong nation, I say no. It is simply a system of violence leveraged against disliked groups. Confronted with this conclusion, I recognize that abolitionism is the answer. It is the only ethical answer.

So that brings me to Tyler’s point. Yes, the advocates of open borders are the new abolitionists but open borders advocates should be proud to belong to a longer tradition of freedom. If that makes people feel uncomfortable, that’s fine with me. I’m on the right side of history.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 13, 2017 at 12:29 am

eleventh house is the only house you need

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Written by fabiorojas

March 12, 2017 at 12:06 pm