orgtheory.net

Posts Tagged ‘ethnography

watercooler democracy: how rumors can democratize information at work – guest post by Katie Sobering

I’m posting this guest post about rumors and workplace democracy on behalf of UNT organizational ethnographer Katie Sobering.  Sobering recently virtually visited my “Organizations, Markets, and the State” grad course to answer questions about her ethnographic research on Hotel BAUEN, a worker recuperated cooperative located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In response to student questions about her published research, Sobering explained how she decided to focus on Hotel BAUEN over other collectivist-democratic forms.  By studying Hotel BAUEN’s trainings, meetings, everyday activities, and involvement in social movement activities, Sobering shows how we can use this case to understand how organizations pursue equality through practices such as job rotation and decision-making by consensus.  Sobering also depicted the challenges confronting the cooperative: securing ownership of the hotel, expensive, specialized maintenance of the facilities, and recruitment and retention of members. During the Q&A, Sobering traced her intellectual lineage and inspirations back to Joyce Rothschild’s seminal work on collectivist-democratic organizations and Rachel Sherman’s research on service work in hotels.  She currently is revising a book manuscript on her research.

Here’s Sobering’s take on rumors’ roles in workplace transparency, based on her research published in Work and Occupations:

“We’ve all heard rumors. Odds are, most of us have spread rumors every now and again. From the family dinner table to anonymous corners of the internet, people share unverified pieces of information to make sense of their social worlds. Rumors are especially common in the workplace, spurring the now well-known idea of the “watercooler effect.”

Managers, consultants, and academics alike have paid close attention to the role and repercussions of such informal communication at work. Much of this assumes that firms keep secrets. Thus, in lieu of access to information, workers pass rumors among themselves.

In the 21st century, transparency has become a buzzword, as work organizations like tech firms and startups flatten hierarchies, embrace informality, and remove barriers that traditionally limited access to information. Some organizations are experimenting with “radical transparency” while others warn that too much transparency can be counterproductive. Worker cooperatives and other participatory organizations often practice democratic transparency, recognizing that information-sharing is key to democratizing power. All this begs the question: in contexts of increased transparency, what is the role of rumors?

In my recent article published in Work and Occupations, I draw on long term ethnographic research in a worker-run hotel in Argentina to go behind the scenes in an organization in which workers enjoy a far more egalitarian environment than most U.S. employees experience on the job: extensive access to information, voice in the organization, and power over their jobs. I find that transparency does not quell the rumor mill. But rumors do have an important impact on the culture and practice of information-sharing.

Democratic transparency in Hotel Bauen

I conducted my research in Hotel Bauen, a twenty-story conference hotel located in the bustling center of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Built in the 1970s, the private owners declared bankruptcy in 2001 and shut down the property, leaving longtime employees out of work. In 2003, thirty former employees joined the growing movement of worker-recuperated businesses by occupying the abandoned hotel and forming a worker cooperative. Since 2004, Hotel Bauen has been open around-the-clock, hosting events, lodging overnight guests, and offering a meeting place and street-side café for passersby. Despite workers’ ongoing efforts to legalize their use of the hotel, the BAUEN Cooperative has grown from thirty founding members to 130 members in 2015. Today, it is one of the most iconic worker-recuperated business in Argentina.

Hotel Bauen is run by a worker cooperative: an organization in which all members are equal owners and govern through direct and representative forms of democracy. Since its inception, the cooperative has adopted formal policies and practices designed to make information widely available to the group. They have sought to create what Archeon Fung calls “democratic transparency,” an informational environment that allows people to collectively control the organizations that affect their lives.

First, in the BAUEN Cooperative, information is formally accessible to all members. Organizational records are kept in open book system that is available not only for managers or decision-makers, but also for members.

Second, the cooperative makes information proportional by sharing details about that which directly impacts the business and its members. While cooperatives in Argentina must hold as least one assembly each year by law, the BAUEN Cooperative organizes quarterly meetings to provide regular financial snapshots and open forums for discussion.

Finally, information is actionable through formal mechanisms that allow members to question and even overturn managerial decisions. With signatures of ten percent of the membership, members can convene an assembly of all workers to address and evaluate any decision or scenario in the cooperative.

Despite the transparency that the workers enjoyed in Hotel Bauen, rumors were part and parcel of daily working life. These whispers were often interpersonal in nature, passing hearsay about coworkers’ personal lives. But other rumors ventured into the inner workings of the organization itself.

I found that these rumors democratized information in two interrelated ways. First, rumors encouraged workers to participate in decisions, moving decision-making out of formal spaces and into the hallways where members of the cooperative could informally deliberate on the issue at hand. Second, rumors allowed members to oversee the managerial authority and empowered them to exercise their ability to hold the organization accountable.

[Check out more about worker influence after the jump]

Read the rest of this entry »

surviving, completing, understanding, engaging, correcting

I tend to speak my mind at parties, especially when I feel like someone has said something inappropriate. I recognize it can get obnoxious and that there’s often not a lot of daylight between the big white guy sticking up for social justice and the big white guy pleased at the sound of his own righteousness. So I try to be careful about this, about the nature of terms like “correction” and “holding accountable” and “entering a dialogue,” all of which can too easily be a mask for a preening sanctimoniousness and, anyway, are a bit too heady when we’re having drinks at someone’s house or at some family thing and really it’d just be easier to talk about what somebody’s kids are up to this summer.

Sometimes when my partner senses I’m about to go off, she asks me to treat the situation like an ethnographer. Instead of disagreeing, ask questions: Why do you think that is? How does that work? Get a sense of how the world works.  It’s a trick I told her about five or six years ago, right when I was starting my first field work project, and it’s a method that makes any conversation interesting.  Everyone has a story, and everyone has a world.

Yet there’s a problem with treating the world we encounter like an ethnographer, and it’s helped me to realize that, as a sociological ethnographer, I have five different ways I can approach the world.  And bear in mind I’m a big white guy married to a woman, with a Ph.D. and a good job in a coastal American city, so privilege obviously affects all my interactions as well.  But I’ll talk about that more below.  So, here are the kinds of interactions I’m interested in: (1) surviving, (2) completing, (3) understanding, (4) engaging, and (5) correcting.  There’s a bit of a scale between them but they all blend into each other as well.

The first, surviving, is the scariest, and one I rarely have to deal with, especially now that I’m an adult.  These are interactions in which the balance of power means the situation is quite precarious for usually one of the actors but possibly both. Think of a woman dealing with a sexual harasser or an African-American dealing with an aggressive cop.  Or two people meeting each other in a Hobbesian state of nature. Trust isn’t clear and the point is just to get through it alive and with your health and dignity.

The second, completing, is pretty straightforward and is probably the one must studied by Goffman and Garfinkel inspired sociologists.  It’s the regular interactions we have when we meet people, some of which might well give us a kind of Randall Collins style emotional energy, but not necessarily. Thinking about using a cab, checking out at the grocery store, saying hello to coworkers as you walk past each other in the hall. Importantly, these can go in multiple directions. Completing can easily turn into surviving if the situation gets difficult (say the cab driver gets aggressive or says something bigoted).  It can also turn into engaging, which we’ll turn to later.

The third method of interaction, understanding, to some degree exists within each of these (after all, to survive an interaction you have to understand the person you’re surviving). However, for the other four methods of interaction, understanding is a means to an end.  In contrast, understanding as a category of engagement has understanding as its end.  This is what I mean when I talk about “becoming an ethnographer”: the goal is to figure out how people work: why they do what they do, how their multiple value spheres work together, how their networks and organization and institutions interact and build upon each other (or don’t).  That effort at understanding is not necessarily because you support them or agree with them, mind you.  It’s just because you want to understand.

The fourth, engaging, is what we usually talk about when we talk about democratic dialogue and Habermasian coffee shops and that kind of stuff. It obviously depends on understanding, but the goal is to be able to learn from others and an openness to being corrected not just on methods but even on deep commitments.  What’s critical here is that all sides are willing to have their minds changed.  You have to believe the best argument really can win.  Now this gets tricky for a host of reasons, not least ancient debates about sophism vs. the Truth with a capital T. Yet even more important is the question of whether it’s ever possible to have a conversation that’s even relatively autonomous from power.  For what it’s worth, I think it’s too convenient for academics to be completely cynical about this. Of course power colors everything, but if we didn’t believe better and worse arguments do, at least to some degree, matter, then we’ve all chosen a quite peculiar career.  But this is a much larger conversation I don’t have space for here. The point is that engaging is a means of talking in which both sides are willing to be corrected and come from a position of relative equality, if not equality of social position then at least equality as interlocutors.

The fifth, correcting, is pretty clear. It’s telling people they’re wrong. I’m not sure many of us are actually willing to be corrected, especially regarding things that are salient to our moral commitments. But we are willing to tell people they’re wrong, especially on social media. Yet the problem with correction is also an old philosophical one: who corrects the correctors? Also, how do I know what’s a non-negotiable that will bump my goal of completing, understanding, or engaging up to correcting? If you’re doing field work and someone says something offensive, do you just write it down? Do you say something? Do you critique it later when you’re writing up your notes?

And that gets to the tricky part for those of who do ethnography because we might well be doing “understanding” in our field work, but once we write, we’re not really doing “engaging” so much as “correcting”: the way we describe our respondents, in print, doesn’t give them (or folks reading the book who identify with them) much of a chance to write back.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is a tension.

These tensions aren’t just for ethnographers. All five of these kinds of interactions probably happen multiple times a day, maybe even multiple times in a single conversation.  Yet what’s tricky about them for me as an ethnographer (or even just me as a person at a party) is figuring out when to do which, when to lay down my ethnographer habits of understanding and pick up the citizenship work of engagement, and then when to go from engagement to correction, or to drop it all and try to just get by through completing the interactions that I have to do, talking about traffic and TV as I go to get another round.

How do these questions relate to our separate duties as citizens and scholars? It’s tempting to say the answer is that we all need to have a bit more courage to understand, engage, and even correct, especially those of for whom it’s not as common for interactions to suddenly turn into questions of surviving. But that’s also exhausting, and citizenship is a marathon, not a sprint.  And often there is something aesthetically pleasing in just figuring out how things work without always immediately turning a conversation into a moral struggle. (But then, given the inequalities our social world is built upon, those moral struggles are always there to be seen if we’re willing to see them.)

I’m not sure what the correct answer is here (as usual).  But it is something I’m trying to understand, and even, if I can, engage.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

September 24, 2017 at 9:50 pm

on dreamland and the difference between journalism and sociology

What’s the difference between journalism and sociology? (I ask as someone who’s gotten article reviews that said my works reads too much like journalism).

I just finished, at Gabriel Rossman’s recommendation, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is an incredibly ambitious (and beautifully executed) work of journalism by Sam Quinones.  It won the National Book Critics Award for General Nonfiction and has gotten a lot of buzz from all sorts of people.  It really is necessary reading: I feel like I finally have some sense of how and why the opiate epidemic is happening, as well as what we might be able to do about it.

And after I finished the book, I thought, how is what I read not simply a mixed-methods work of sociology, using interview and comparative-historical work? I’m not sure I have an easy answer—this is a loose set of categories—but if I had to make the distinction, I’d say that sociology suggests generalizable categories, mechanisms, or causal accounts.  We’re looking for the logic beneath the story.

This gets to some of the grumbling I’ve heard about Matt Desmond’s book, or Alice Goffman’s, or many other works within the sub sub category of urban ethnography.  These books and articles (but they’re usually books) are often criticized for simply being stories, or, in other words, not having clear theoretical payoffs.  That’s certainly not always true of ethnography, or even urban ethnography.  Iddo Tavory’s recent book, Summoned, is very much a theoretical contribution, and, I think, so is Alice Goffman’s, in that she subtly provides a theory of fugitive life that is, in fact, generalizable to other contexts.  While Desmond can clearly do high level sociological work, his book appears to me a bit less transferrable, but, of course, I don’t think that’s the point. (And it’s clearly not what the National Book Critics Circle Award committee cared about: it gave Evicted the same award it gave Dreamland the year before).

Now not having some generalizable or transferrable theory might not be a problem of course—Andrew Abbot famously defends these forms of “lyrical” sociology, which he (somewhat confusingly) contrasts to narratives. (He doesn’t mean narrative in terms of the story of a particular community but narrative in terms of causal accounts.)

Could we generalize from Quinones’s book? Not really except inasmuch as we get access to a careful analysis of how various organizational structures happened, wholly unintentionally, to lead to one of the worst public health crises our country has ever seen. It’s a story of how drug marketing, changes in medical practice, adaptations of Mexican drug production and distribution, and the hollowing out of middle America all came together.  Yet this isn’t all that different from a certain way of doing comparative historical work, which is to start with a neat empirical puzzle (why is the opiate epidemic so terrible?) and then provide a compelling empirical answer. The difference from sociology is that there’s usually some theorist we’re modifying as part of that answer, something like, well, Tilly would have said X and Sahlins would have said Y, but if you combine them with a little bit of our own magic, you get what explains this social outcome.  That’s not what we get in Quinones: we just get the stories.  This is another difference from urban ethnography: even if the authors aren’t as explicit about their sociological upbringing, even if they’re the most unrepentant grounded theorists who just figure it out as they go, you can always sense the Goffman (or any other theorist) just a little bit below the surface.

You don’t get that sense of a theorist lurking somewhere beneath the stories in Quinones.  It makes the book easier to read, of course, and it makes it—sure—more lyrical too.

*

I sent the above to Gabriel Rossman, and he pointed out that there is underlying theory in Quinones about, among other things, unintended consequences and social capital. It’s a good point, and it makes me wonder about the difference between evidence of a theory (or even of a theory’s influence) and articulation and development of a theory.  So I guess I have to restate  what I write above: there is a sense of a theorist somewhere in Quinones—quite a few of them actually, as Gabe pointed out in his thoughts on the book at his blog, but it’s not an implicit theorist we see so much as data that, because it is so well documented, is easily theorized or related to theory.

Gabe argues that “every detail of the book illustrated and illuminated another aspect of sociology” and I think that’s right: it’s part of why I found the book so captivating as well.  You really should read his post: it’s an excellent list of evidence of all sorts of sociological theories. Gabe describes themes in his post and I think he’s right to do so , so but themes aren’t the same as theoretical arguments, or, if they are, they’re implicitly there. Of course these distinctions don’t actually matter all that much: we could all agree it’s a great book that helps us understand the opiate epidemic, and just leave it at that.  But figuring out the boundaries of a particular category is something both emic and etic within sociology, and, as scholars of boundaries point out, it’s a helpful way to determine (and maintain) who we are and what we do.

 

 

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

March 31, 2017 at 4:04 pm

forrest stuart and the public good of ethnography

Forrest Stuart has a great piece in the latest issue of Chicago magazine, “Dispatches from the Rap Wars.”  You can read the whole thing here, and here’s a good pull quote:

There are hundreds of gangs in Chicago these days, a splintering that occurred in the wake of the collapse of the traditional “supergangs” like the Black Disciples and Vice Lords in the ’90s. As dangerous as their predecessors, they operate as block-level factions, making the city a complicated patchwork of warring territories. In a relatively recent phenomenon, many of these gangs produce drill music—a Chicago-born low-fi version of gangsta rap, full of hyperviolent boasts and taunts. (Think NWA, but grittier and without the hooks.)

By keeping their ears open, these kids I was interviewing can quickly figure out whose territory they are in. If they are walking through a neighborhood and hear a certain kind of drill coming from a passing car or a phone speaker, they know that corner belongs to the gang Diddy Grove. If they’re in Diddy Grove territory and notice songs by O-Block, that tells them Diddy Grove and O-Block are likely cliqued up.

After I’d been talking with these kids for months, one of them told me his older brother, Zebo, is a member of the drill gang Corner Boys Entertainment. (Zebo, CBE, and subsequent names in this story have been changed, as have a few identifying facts. As a sociologist, I granted anonymity to my subjects so that they would open up to me without fear of being prosecuted. The National Institutes of Health has certified this approach to my study, and that prevents law-enforcement authorities from compelling me to provide information on illegal activity.) I knew CBE’s music—the gang is one of the best-known drill-rap outfits in the city—so I was interested in talking to Zebo. His brother offered to make an introduction.

I met Zebo the next day, and we talked for hours. He told me how drill perpetuates gang wars, how it’s an engine of both truces and feuds. He told me how CBE members will retaliate violently if a song by another gang insults their friends or relatives. He kept returning to a refrain, one I would hear many times during my field research: ‘This is not just music. It’s not just a game. This shit is for real.”

What’s striking about Forrest’s work–and you see it in his book as well–is his ability to communicate some pretty compelling arguments about inequality and other social problems (homelessness, violence, gangs, police harassment) via straightforward and approachable narratives. It’s a way to do ethnography I really admire, and it can sometimes be lost in an effort to use ethnography for a certain kind of positivist knowledge production or a kind of theoretical problem solving.  I don’t have a problem with the latter method, of course, and it probably describes me, or at least it’s how I’d like to describe myself.  But I think it’s fair to say that if you want to use sociology to change the world, it’s best to keep the theory to a necessary minimum and show very concretely how (and to the extent possible, why) the social problem at hand works the way it does.  Forrest is really good at that (so, of course, are Alice Goffman and Matt Desmond, as well as Allison Pugh, Katherine Newman, and dozens of other great ethnographers). Which isn’t to say those folks can’t do theory (indeed, many of them have great writing on theory as well); it’s just to say  these specific arguments are generally not directed towards that narrow branch of knowledge known as “sociological theory.”  They of course *are* doing theory inasmuch as they’re making arguments about why and how a certain social problem exists and maintains itself.  But they’re also–and that’s why Forrest’s article is so good here–telling stories. It’s a really important way to do social science, and it can too often be lost, as Abbot talks about in his call for a lyrical sociology.  Storytelling really does matter.  It can even make a difference.

Written by jeffguhin

September 20, 2016 at 1:02 am

what has to be true about humans for sociology to work?

Because we start at the level of the social, sociologists tend to think questions of human universals are either irrelevant or wrong-headed. It’s empirically obvious that what appears to be universal usually is not and what might well be fundamental to all humans is generally pretty banal.

Often, but not always. And even if the first few steps in a proof are crushingly obvious, they’re still necessary for the later, more interesting stuff. So what do we need? And why does it matter? I’d suggest four starting points. First, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally self-interested? Second, to what degree can we understand them as tribal? Third, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally habituating? And beneath all of these, do we have a right to assume human life is fundamentally social?

 I don’t have space here to get into all of these, but I hope it’s clear that these arguments have real stakes. For example, much of the hubbub over  Jerolmack and Khan’s provocative article, “Talk is Cheap” came from their situationalist assumption about human nature (and, to be clear, even though I disagree with the article, I appreciate the conversations it encouraged, and I’m a big fan of both authors’ projects). The problem with situationalism is that it’s a nuclear bomb to sociology’s structuralist assumptions, including, ironically enough, Khan’s own argument in Privilege. If it’s true that human behaviors are basically situationally contingent (to which ethnographers, fairly enough, have the best access), then we have no idea what St. Paul’s is like the year after Khan left his fieldsite, nor do we have any reason to believe that the students he profiles will maintain the formation they have received. The Bourdieusian architecture his book depends upon would be blown to smithereens.  Jerolmack and Khan might respond that their argument is not against habituation so much as that talk is poor evidence of habituation, and it’s a fair enough point that there’s a difference between behaviors and verbal self-descriptions. Yet that difference is not nearly as clean as it appears (what is a verbal self-description but a kind of behavior?) and much of their evidence for their argument is a series of situationalist critiques that are pretty devastating to any form of habituation, however it’s revealed (not to mention that much of the evidence in ethnography is, well, talk, albeit talk within situations in which the ethnographer has an interpretive understanding).

To be clear, social psychologists have been thinking about these questions for a long time, and the “Talk is Cheap” conversation originated in Steve Vaisey borrowing an argument about human universals from Jonathan Haidt. That’s a welcome development (even if I’m not at all convinced by those particular human universals), and it would be helpful to see more sociologists interested in larger (socially contingent) structures thinking about our social psychological assumptions of human action. You could easily think of similar assumptions about humanity that undergirds all sorts of sociological arguments, including boundary-work (tribalism), field position (self-interest, whatever that means), and sociology itself (sociality). Chris Smith has already started thinking about these things in Moral Believing Animals and the much longer What is a Person? (for my money the former is a sharper, cleaner argument). More importantly, the often criminally under-read subfield of social psychology has been asking these questions all the way back to Mead. So it’s not as though these conversations aren’t happening. But I think we would benefit from having more of them.

Written by jeffguhin

May 10, 2016 at 4:50 pm

where are all the anthropologists who do management research?

Alex Stewart and Howard Aldrich have published a thought-provoking piece about anthropologists and ethnography in management research.   In “Collaboration Between Management and Anthropology Researchers: Obstacles and Opportunities” in Academy of Management Perspectives, the authors discuss several ethnographies and the institutional environment of the business school.

While anthropologists are employed at corporations, the authors claim that anthropologists are underrepresented among management researchers:

“To document the limited business school market, we examined the doctoral disciplines of faculty in “top” business schools. We found 751 tenure track faculty members in management in the 44 schools that are listed in the “top 25” by at least one of Business Week, The Economist, Financial Times, or U.S. News. Of these faculty members, about 60% obtained their doctorate in management; 16 % did so in psychology; 10 % in economics; and 7 % in sociology; but only 0.1% — one person — in anthropology.” (174)

The authors posit 8 barriers to the inclusion of anthropologists:

“To explore the possible reasons for anthropology’s surprisingly small impact, we draw on recent writings on applied anthropology and the emerging fields of business anthropology and practicing anthropology. Scholars in these fields work on the boundary between management and anthropology and experience the benefits and challenges of an anthropological approach. On the basis of these readings, we identify eight properties of anthropological scholarship that might limit anthropology’s integration into management scholarship. These are: (1) expertise about the remote and exotic, (2) sympathy for the remote and the less powerful, (3) ethnography as a primary data source, (4) challenges of fieldwork access, (5) lengthy fieldwork duration, (6) a tendency to solo authorship, (7) complex, contextualized findings, and (8) a higher value placed on monographs than on journal articles.” (175)

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

July 18, 2015 at 6:51 pm

a warm welcome to guest blogger Ellen Berrey

Please join us in welcoming sociologist Ellen Berrey, who will be guest blogging about her hot-off-the-press book The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Diversity and the Limits of Racial Justice  (2015, University of Chicago Press).

Here’s the blurb for the book:

Diversity these days is a hallowed American value, widely shared and honored. That’s a remarkable change from the Civil Rights era—but does this public commitment to diversity constitute a civil rights victory? What does diversity mean in contemporary America, and what are the effects of efforts to support it? 

Ellen Berrey digs deep into those questions in The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press, May 2015). Drawing on six years of fieldwork and historical sources dating back to the 1950s, and making extensive use of three case studies from widely varying arenas—affirmative action in the University of Michigan’s admissions program, housing redevelopment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and the workings of the human resources department at a Fortune 500 company—Berrey explores the complicated, contradictory, and even troubling meanings and uses of diversity as it is invoked by different groups for different, often symbolic ends. In each case, diversity affirms inclusiveness, especially in the most coveted jobs and colleges, yet it resists fundamental change in the practices and cultures that are the foundation of social inequality. Berrey shows how this has led racial progress itself to be reimagined, transformed from a legal fight for fundamental rights to a celebration of the competitive advantages afforded by cultural differences.

Powerfully argued and surprising in its conclusions, The Enigma of Diversity reveals the true cost of the public embrace of diversity: the taming of demands for racial justice.

Berrey’s other publications on this and related topics are available here.

Written by katherinechen

May 10, 2015 at 10:40 am

ethnographers looking back

One on-going aspect of ethnographic work is the never-ending reflection and re-evaluation of conclusions made months, years, or decades prior. Retrospection invites extended analysis of findings that were otherwise cut short; it also facilitates shift from a worm’s eye to a bird’s eye contextualization of a case. Michael Burawoy’s “Ethnographic Fallacies: Reflections on Labour Studies in the Era of Market Fundamentalism” offers one such contemplation.*

In this research note, Burawoy re-examines several decades of his participant-observations in workplaces in various nations; he reveals the actual names of his most famous disguised field sites. Looking back, he summarizes six revelations while imparting a warning to those overly invested in the merits of particular methodologies:

From the ethnographer’s curse, therefore, I turn to the ethnographic fallacies that limited my vision of market fundamentalism. First, there are three traps that await the ethnographer who seeks to comprehend the world beyond the field site: the fallacies of ignoring, reifying and homogenizing that world. Second, there are three traps awaiting the ethnographer who fails to give the field site a dynamic of its own: the fallacies of viewing the field site as eternal or, when the past is examined, the danger of treating the present as a point of arrival rather than also as a point of departure; and finally the danger of wishful thinking, projecting one’s own hopes onto the actors we study.
I describe these six fallacies not to indict ethnography but to improve its practice, to help ethnographers grapple with the limitations of their method. No method is without fallacies, it is a matter of how honestly and openly we approach them. Being accountable to the people we study requires us to recognize our fallibility and, thus, to wrestle with that fallibility. The methodological dogmatists, who declare they have found the flawless method and spend their time condemning others for not following the golden trail, are the real menace to our profession.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

February 7, 2015 at 6:39 pm

high risk, high reward? kunda’s reflections on ethnography and organizational studies

While catching up on some reading during spring break, I ran across an Journal of Organizational Ethnography article by organizational ethnographer Gideon Kunda.  In this article, Kunda’s reflections about his development as an organizational ethnographer seem pertinent to the on-going orgtheory discussion of ethnography.  Kunda not only describes how he became drawn to organizational studies (hint: questioning a figure of authority about the differential treatment of patients based on class), but also how he arrived at his topic and research site, generating the now iconic study Engineering Culture.

During his training, Kunda worked on several projects using other data collection methods (i.e., surveys), during which Goffman’s work on Asylums was instructive:

Here once again was a science that starts with ready-made theories, selectively uses them in accordance with interests unrelated to (or even opposed to) the logic and spirit of scientific inquiry, collects data using a method that assumes it knows what and how to ask before encountering the world of its subjects, and disrespects or ignores their complex realities, or for that matter, their feelings about who is studying them and why. What factors effect quality is a legitimate question, if one takes the managerial perspective (although this is not the only perspective that could and should be taken). But in order to answer it, in fact in order to even know how to go about studying it, I began to realize, one has to find ways to collect valid data. And the data, if that was what the facts of life should be called, were found in the richness of the stories I heard and the complexity of the interactions I observed, in people’s sense of who they were and what they were up to, and in their willingness to convey it to an interested outsider. Whether or not all this could or should be ultimately reduced to numbers and statistically analyzed seemed much less important than finding ways to collect, understand and interpret evidence that was respectful of its complex nature. If this was the case, it seemed to me, then the scientific system I was enmeshed in, even by its own standards – the norms of science that demand respect for the empirical world – was woefully inadequate. And worse – its procedures and output were embarrassingly boring, to me at least, when compared to the richness of the world it set out to comprehend.

In conclusion, Kunda states:

Over the years I have continuously noted and wondered about the extent researchers in the early stages of their careers, and graduate students in particular, feel, or are made to feel, that while they are granted the methodological license, and sometimes looseness, of “qualitative methods” (a phrase that often replaces or refers to a watered down version of ethnography), the academic authority system (in terms of funding, supervision, publication requirements and career options) compels them to limit their questions, choice of theory and writing style to those that enhance the chances of approval, funding and quick publication. I encounter again and again the ways that this commitment comes at the expense of a willingness to let fly their own sociological imagination, to cultivate and trust their own interpretive resources and analytic instincts, to respect and develop their innate language and authorial voice, or, for that matter, to risk long-term ethnographic fieldwork.

The issue then is not, or not only, one of competing methods, and to overstate such distinctions is, I believe, to miss my point.  Rather, I see my story as an invitation to acknowledge and explore the shared conditions of all scientific claims to knowing and depicting social reality, organizational and otherwise, under whatever theoretical and methodological guise, that together place limits on the depth, insightfulness and indeed the validity of interpretation: the endless complexity of data, the incurable subjectivity of the observer, the fundamental flimsiness of formal method and the prevalence of unsubtle yet often disguised institutional pressures to confirm to standards and ways of thinking outside and often against the pure logic of scientific inquiry.

If I am to formulate a conclusion, then, it is this: the continuing need to devise personal and collective ways – and I have suggested and illustrated some of mine – to release “discipline” from its misguided equation with an institutionally enforced a priori commitment to hegemonic theoretical discourse and methodological frameworks, and to apply it instead to its legitimate targets, the questions for which there can never be a final, authoritative answer, only continuing exploration and debate: What is data, what is a valid and worthwhile interpretation, how does it come about, what are and how to cultivate the personal sources of imagination that make it possible, how to report it and, not least, to what end.

Another major take-away for budding researchers is that peers can offer support.  That is, scholarly development is not necessarily a hierarchical transmission of information from mentors to mentees, but the co-production of knowledge with peers.

Written by katherinechen

April 16, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Becker and Faulkner’s Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All That Jazz now available in print

Today, I met with first year grad students who wanted to know how sociologists develop research questions and studies while navigating grad school, academia, and other contexts.  Although sociologists do give retrospective accounts in their publications and presentations, it’s not easy to fully convey the “back stage” behind the research.  Rarely do readers get to see how a study unfolds.  Luckily, Howie Becker and Bob Faulkner‘s latest book is now available both as an ebook and print book (update: corrected link), for those of us who like to read old school-style.   According to Franck Leibovici,

the paperback version produces a different experience [from the ebook]. for example, it has an index which allows you to visualise how many people, scholars, musicians, anonymous people, have been mobilized to produce this investigation.

For those who like the ebook format, see our earlier post, which includes a summary by Becker himself.

Here’s the official summary of Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All That Jazz:

· edited by Dianne Hagaman
· preface by Franck Leibovici

When Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker, two sociologists who were also experienced professionals in the music business, decided to write something about this other part of their lives, they lived at opposite ends of the North American continent: Faulkner in Massachusetts, Becker in San Francisco. They managed the cooperation writing a book requires through e-mail. Instead of sitting around talking, they wrote e-mails to each other.

And so every step of their thinking, the false steps as well as the ideas that worked, existed in written form. So, when Franck Leibovici asked them to contribute something which showed the “form of life” that supported their work, they (helped along by a timely tip from Dianne Hagaman), they sent him the correspondence.

The result is one of the most complete and revealing records of scientific collaboration ever made public. And one of the most intimate pictures of the creative process in all its details that anyone interested in that topic could ask for. Investigative writing is not only about formulating chains of rational ideas (as the usual format of scientific articles would like us to believe), but also mixes plays on words, stories, and arguments in new arrangements.

this book is a contribution to the art project (forms of life)—an ecology of artistic practices, paris, 2011-2012, by franck leibovici.

curated by grégory castéra and edited by les laboratoires d’aubervilliers and questions théoriques, with the support of fnagp, la maison rouge, le fonds de dotation agnès b. see www.desformesdevie.org.

One of the songs that helped the two authors work on their cases of how musicians build their repertories:

Written by katherinechen

November 13, 2013 at 4:43 am

book spotlight: No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America

While attending a Burning Man-related event in NYC during the mid-2000s, I ran into a group of well-dressed “advocates” who satirically called themselves “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore).”  Using personas like Ivy League Legacy (aka Melody Bales) and Phil T. Rich (Andrew Boyd), this troupe has deployed humor, irony, and satire to underscore the weakening of democracy by moneyed interests and the resultant growing inequality.  According to the NYT, this group was one of many that were under surveillance by the New York Police Department (NYPD) during the months leading up to the the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC.

Rutgers anthropologist Angelique Haugerud‘s (2013) No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America delves into this irrepressible and well-organized social movement group.  The book kicks off slowly, with the obligatory carnival analysis that characterizes many academic studies of festivals and performance.  Nonetheless, the book excels in contextualizing larger social issues, including the erosion of American safety net policies and the ascendency of the financial sector.  Using interviews and observations, Haugerud reveals how this social movement group has secured an audience and media presence: building up a recognizable brand (“Billionaires for X” – or in the case of Mitt Romney, “Multi-Millionaires for Romney”), storytelling to rally the troops around co-optations of various political candidates’ messages, hustling for resources (i.e., bartering a canoe for 100 tuxedos to dress “Billionaires”), and using humor and impression management to deflect public stereotyping of demonstrators as militant, “angry,” and “smelly.”  This book neatly captures the challenge of how to get social movement messages out via corporate media, which for the most part, have eschewed careful analysis of complex phenomena, while sidestepping barriers to free assembly and free speech.  In addition, the book depicts the difficulties of coordinating local chapters whose members may have their own ideas about acceptable practices and messaging that could muddy the social movement brand.

Although Haugerud adopted the name of Billionaire persona, she didn’t fully immerse in Billionaire character, opting for a primary identity as a resident anthropologist who overtly took notes while at meetings and events.  How she negotiated access isn’t entirely clear, although the troupe seemed to appreciate being the focus of an anthropological study.  In all, this book offers a vivid depiction of the strategy and tactics of a contemporary social movement.  Those who are involved in social movements will find the practices depicted useful for expanding the organizing toolkit.

Written by katherinechen

October 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm

storytelling in organizations, the state of the field of organizations and values, and a freebie article

I’ve recently published two articles* that might be of interest to orgheads, and Emerald publisher has ungated one of my articles:

1. Chen, Katherine K. 2013. “Storytelling: An Informal Mechanism of Accountability for Voluntary Organizations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 902-922.**

Abstract

Using observations, interviews, and archival research of an organization that coordinates the annual Burning Man event, I argue that storytelling is a mechanism by which stakeholders can demand accountability to their needs for recognition and voice. I identify particular frames, or perspectives and guides to action, articulated in members’ stories. Deploying a personalistic frame, storytellers recounted individuals’ contributions toward a collective endeavor. Such storytelling commemorated efforts overlooked by official accounts and fostered bonds among members. Other storytellers identified problems and organizing possibilities for consideration under the civic society or anarchist frames. By familiarizing organizations with members’ perspectives and interests, stories facilitate organizational learning that can better serve stakeholders’ interests. Additional research could explore whether (1) consistent face-to-face relations (2) within a bounded setting, such as an organization, and (3) practices that encourage participation in organizing decisions and activities are necessary conditions under which storytelling can enable accountability to members’ interests.

2. Chen, Katherine K., Howard Lune, and Edward L. Queen, II. 2013. “‘How Values Shape and are Shaped by Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations:’ The Current State of the Field.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 856-885.

Abstract

To advance understanding of the relationship between values and organizations, this review synthesizes classic and recent organizational and sociological research, including this symposium’s articles on voluntary associations. We argue that all organizations reflect, enact, and propagate values. Organizations draw on culture, which offers a tool kit of possible actions supported by institutional logics that delineate appropriate activities and goals. Through institutional work, organizations can secure acceptance for unfamiliar practices and their associated values, often under the logic of democracy. Values may be discerned in any organization’s goals, practices, and forms, including “value-free” bureaucracies and collectivist organizations with participatory practices. We offer suggestions for enhancing understanding of how collectivities advance particular values within their groups or society.

3.  In addition, one of my previously published articles received the “Outstanding Author Contribution Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2013.”  Because of the award, Emerald publisher has ungated this article (or, as Burners like to say, contributed a gift to the gift economy :) ) to download here (click on the HTML or PDF button to initiate the download):

Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34: 135-164.

Abstract:

Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.

* If you don’t have access to these articles at your institution, please contact me for a PDF.

** Looking for more storytelling articles?  Check out another one here.

Written by katherinechen

October 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm

new ebook by Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner: Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz

New ebook by Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner

New ebook by Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner

What does it take to pull together a collaborative research project?  Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner reveal all, via a reconstruction of their prolific email correspondence collected in a new ebook Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz.  Prompted by the puzzling observation that younger musicians didn’t know the same repertoire of songs shared among older musicians, Becker and Faulkner, who are both practicing musicians, muscle through hammering out a research design and theoretical explanation for how musicians, including ones who have never practiced together before, can collectively perform.*  Their exchanges evidence the gradual refinement of categories with plenty of links to songs, descriptions of illustrative experiences, and recounting of interviews with fellow musicians while practicing in the field.  Here’s a blurb penned by Becker:

Would you like to know how people really think their way through all the problems of doing research and writing a book? Watch two old pros in action as they do that in the e-mail correspondence between sociologists Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker as they wrote Do You Know? The Jazz Repertoire in Action.

The book Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz shows the authors exchanging ideas and modifying them as the conversation proceeds. It shows them extracting ideas from their experiences in the field: performing in public, collaborating with other musicians, interviewing, using their field notes to generate ideas and test them, to elaborate theories as they go, all the thinking that goes on when you actually do research. No review of the literature—it’s replaced by the two of them drawing in work that seems relevant, that gives them something they can use to explain what they’ve seen and heard: using a study of Mexican witchcraft, for instance, to develop a research strategy, and painfully realizing that they have some substantial musical prejudices that they have to turn into a kind of historical sociology.

This is the way research really gets done, what you do after you write the research proposal and start working and find out that none of your plans are going to work because things were more complicated than you thought they were.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

September 19, 2013 at 10:13 pm

lifting the crimson curtain: Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education

As a grad student, I always found crossing the bridge over the Charles River from Harvard University to the Harvard Business School (HBS) to be a bit like approaching Emerald (or more appropriately, Crimson) City. On the Allston side, the buildings seemed shinier (or, as shiny as New England vernacular architecture allows), and the grounds were undergoing constant replantings, thanks to a well-heeled donor. In addition, HBS has loomed large as an institution central to the dissemination of organizational theory and management practices, including Elton Mayo’s human relations.

HBS has certain peculiarities about teaching and learning, like the use of case studies which follow formulaic structures as the basis for directed class discussion.* Moreover, instructors follow a strict grading break-down: mandatory “III”s assigned to the lowest-performing students of classes – a source of concern, as students with too many IIIs must justify their performance before a board and possibly go on leave.** To help instructors with grading, hired scribes document student discussion comments.***

Such conditions raise questions about the links, as well as disconnects, between classroom and managerial leadership, so I was delighted to see a new ethnography about business school teaching at the UChicago Press book display at ASAs.

With his latest book, Michel Anteby lifts the crimson curtain from HBS with his new book Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

anteby-jacket

Here’s the official blurb:
“Corporate accountability is never far from the front page, and as one of the world’s most elite business schools, Harvard Business School trains many of the future leaders of Fortune 500 companies.  But how does HBS formally and informally ensure faculty and students embrace proper business standards? Relying on his first-hand experience as a Harvard Business School faculty member, Michel Anteby takes readers inside HBS in order to draw vivid parallels between the socialization of faculty and of students.

In an era when many organizations are focused on principles of responsibility, Harvard Business School has long tried to promote better business standards. Anteby’s rich account reveals the surprising role of silence and ambiguity in HBS’s process of codifying morals and business values. As Anteby describes, at HBS specifics are often left unspoken; for example, teaching notes given to faculty provide much guidance on how to teach but are largely silent on what to teach. Manufacturing Morals demonstrates how faculty and students are exposed to a system that operates on open-ended directives that require significant decision-making on the part of those involved, with little overt guidance from the hierarchy. Anteby suggests that this model-which tolerates moral complexity-is perhaps one of the few that can adapt and endure over time.”

Check it out! And while you’re at it, have a look at Anteby’s previous book, Moral Gray Zones (2008, Princeton University Press).

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

August 27, 2013 at 10:43 pm

burning man round table discussion at the society pages

Several sociologists (Matt Wray, Jon Stern, and myself) and an anthropologist (S. Megan Heller) have a round table discussion on Burning Man at the Society Pages. We’ve all done research at Burning Man, an annual temporary community in Nevada that has inspired events and organizations worldwide.

Have a peek at our discussion, which includes ideas for future studies. We discuss answers to questions such as:

Why might the demographics of the Burning Man population be of interest to researchers? For instance, there is a cultural trope that people who go to Burning Man are often marginalized individuals—outsiders in some way. Could the festival’s annual Census be used to measure this rather subjective characteristic of the population? Is there a single “modal demographic” (that is, a specific Burner “type”) or are there many? What else does the Census Lab measure (or not measure)?

and

Burning Man sometimes gets portrayed as little more than a giant rave—a psychedelic party on the playa. It is like a party in many ways, but those of us who go know that the label doesn’t begin to capture the full experience. What larger phenomena does Burning Man represent in your research? In other words, how do you categorize the event and why should we take it seriously?

Going to Burning Man? Check out the un-conference schedule. Looking to volunteer? Start with this post.

A 2003 San Francisco billboard ad for a voluntary association references Burning Man.  As Burning Man's popularity and legitimacy have increased, other organizations and individuals have sought to expropriate the Burning Man name, imagery, and output for their own use.  Photographer unknown.

(Unfortunately, this photo didn’t make it into my book because the image quality wasn’t sufficient for a black and white reprint.) A 2003 San Francisco billboard ad for a voluntary association references Burning Man. As Burning Man’s popularity has increased, other organizations and individuals have sought to expropriate the Burning Man name, imagery, and output for their own use. Photographer unknown.

Written by katherinechen

August 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm

when is data collection (ever) over?

In a previous post’s discussion, Graham Peterson kindly shared a great link of videos with Howie Becker’s thoughts about conducting research, specifically at the graduate level.  I found the last video clip of particular interest.  In “10. Savoir finir : Comment achever une thèse alors que les données de terrain ne cessent d’affluer ? [Knowing how to end: how to finish a thesis when field data keeps arising?],” Becker discusses the issue of knowing when to end data collection.  Some signals make this clear – the funding runs out, the return ticket’s date shows up, or less frequently, the field site closes.  (For historians, the re-closure of an archive is the equivalent.)

I would add another possibility – sometimes the data collection doesn’t end, and a researcher continues to analyze, write, and publish along the way, particularly if the phenomena under study changes and sparks additional areas of inquiry.  New research questions may arise, or the researcher may add other field sites for comparison.  As I tell grad students who are deciding among research projects, it’s likely that a researcher will live with an ethnographic research project for years beyond the dissertation’s completion, particularly if s/he writes a book and needs to publicize it.  Of course, out of expedience or boredom, some researchers will quickly move onto another research project.  However, with ethnographic research, the researcher who can return to the same field site faces the dilemma of sunk costs – forming relations with informants and developing expertise and local knowledge all take time, and it may be difficult to give all that up, especially when the passage of time starts to reveal dynamics not readily apparent before.

Written by katherinechen

July 8, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Posted in research

Tagged with , ,

democracy and direct action according to David Graeber

For those of us who wish to consider the implications of recent worldwide events, three of anthropologist David Graeber‘s books offer a deeper understanding of relatively unfamiliar organizing practices and their relationship with democracy:

(1) Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009, AK Press)

(2) Revolution in Reverse (or, on the conflict between political ontologies of violence and political
ontologies of the imagination)
(2007)

(3) The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013, Random House)

Fabio’s previous posts covered one of Graeber’s most famous books Debt. For those of us who teach and practice orgtheory, Graeber’s work on direct action and criticisms of bureaucracy offer much-needed insight into how collectivities can gel in taking action. In particular, his in-depth account of how groups make decisions by consensus offers rich examples that can help students and practitioners understand the steps involved, as well as the pitfalls and benefits of these alternatives to topdown orders. (Other examples in the research literature include Francesca Polletta’s research on SDS and my own work on Burning Man – see chapter 3 of Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event).

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

June 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm

discussing the irb, human subjects, and qualitative research

Recently, at a faculty meeting of professors and graduate students from several disciplines, discussion turned to the IRB’s interpretation of human subjects guidelines and the implications for students’ efforts to document phenomena for class assignments. Participants pointed out a variety of problems, including changes over the years in IRB decisions about whether results of projects could be publicly shared – in this case, whether students’ videorecorded interview of a retired elected official could be publicly shared under today’s IRB guidelines. Faculty and graduate students also described delays in getting feedback from their IRBs, raising concerns about how the lack of accountability on the part of some IRBs increases the uncertainty of planning class research, students’ timely graduation, and faculty productivity.

At orgtheory, we’ve discussed how researchers face challenges concerning the IRB here and here. Although the IRB offers detailed guidelines that can protect human subjects in medical research, how the IRB and human subjects concerns can contribute to the conduct of qualitative research, particularly organizational ethnography, is less clear.

Several recent publications offer researchers’ experiences with these issues.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

December 27, 2012 at 12:01 am

working through retirement

What are your plans for retirement?  Do you hope that your retirement investments will comfortably support you and your loved ones in a life of leisure?  Or, do you hope to work as long as possible – work until you drop!  As life expectancies expand and the cost of living increases, some will work as long as possible, either out of necessity or choice.  Increasingly, workplaces seek to retain such employees, as demonstrated by efforts to redesign work processes at Germany’s BMW plants for aging workers.

Speaking of post-graduate school ethnography, cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch has just published Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory (2012, ILR Press), which sheds insight into the experiences of an aging workforce.  This intriguing ethnography follows the workers powering the family-owned factory Vita Needle in Needham, Massachusetts.  Vita Needle manufactures a wide variety of needles, including those used for medical care and industrial applications.  Its workers range in age from teens through their late nineties; some have advanced degrees.  Some work for the sheer pleasure or to stay active per their doctors’ orders; others work because their retirement savings were insufficient to cover expenses.

Besides life-long employees, workers include a smorgasbord of past professions, including engineering, physics, architecture, education, and accounting.  The company’s owner feels that these workers are especially dependable and devoted.  They are less costly since Medicare serves as their medical insurance.  Furthermore, he opines that this invested and experienced workforce offers a competitive advantage over other companies.

Most of Vita’s employees work part-time.  Lynch’s interviews reveal that they enjoy the flexible work schedule, camaraderie, and meaning-making. Lynch’s participant-observations describes the banana-time like games that workers play to stay alert and engaged in repetitious tasks – the most sleep-inducing machine work is rotated among employees in one hour shifts.  Some workers will cover for one another; a few will gently urge laggards to resume work. Lynch also notes the benefits of violating Taylorist practices of efficiently rearranging workspace.  Having to walk to get tools or materials in the tight factory space keeps workers active and connected with co-workers.  In addition, Lynch devotes a chapter to employees’ responses to the flurry of media attention, as well as an analysis of how domestic and foreign media have depicted the firm.  In all, this book is an informative addition to courses on the workplace, organizations, and work and occupations.

Written by katherinechen

July 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Posted in books, culture

Tagged with ,

ethnography revisited – timing and pacing

In prior posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography, I discussed various questions and challenges of conducting ethnography.  In this post, I want to turn to the topic of timing and pacing ethnographic research, particularly during post-graduate years.  When considering what research projects to undertake while in graduate school, I realized that conducting intensive ethnography would be more difficult later in my career.  I thus chose a field site where I knew I could devote my efforts.  Like other ethnographers, I moved to another city for months at a time and regularly conducted up to 12-hour-long observations on weekdays and weekends.

Now, I am working with more constraints.  These include managing increased responsibilities, as well as navigating hurdles that didn’t exist in prior decades, such as explaining research methods that are unfamiliar to a campus Institutional Review Board (IRB).  In addition, disseminating the findings of previous research, as Diane Vaughan wrote about in this AJS article, can cut back time available for on-going projects.

Over the years, I have noticed that some colleagues have switched from ethnography to other research methods.  They may focus on interviews only or engage in archival research, content analysis of publicly available material, quantitative analysis of existing datasets, and theoretical work, all of which are more amenable to less flexible schedules.  Some of these methods don’t (yet) involve writing a lengthy proposal to the IRB or spending months negotiating access to a field site that might ultimately decline.  In addition, some of this research can be conducted from the office or scheduled around other responsibilities.

For those who continue to conduct ethnographic research as a professor, juggling research with increased responsibilities is a challenge. With increased teaching, service, and family commitments to aging parents and/or children, researchers have slimmer blocks of time and energy to undertake observations, write field notes, and analyze and prepare the results for publication.  For those who are eligible, a sabbatical or a course release can free up some time during the school year.  Teaching online, evening, or weekend classes can also facilitate research during the weekdays.  Careful selection of research projects and sites allow some to do research whenever they can travel.

Like researchers who use other methods, ethnographers may train undergraduate and graduate students to help with a larger research project as part of a class assignment or research assistantship.  Because of their relative youth and diverse ethnic and class backgrounds, student researchers may find it easier to enter certain field sites, and they may uncover details that the lead researcher cannot access.  Even though most students will not pursue research as a career, they gain a deeper understanding of the difficulties of conducting such studies.  Moreover, some researchers enjoy mentoring students, and these studies benefit from multiple perspectives.

When conducting observations with an elongated schedule or particularly complex, changing phenomena, researchers may have a harder time determining whether they have reached theoretical saturation such that they are no longer learning something new from observations.  The desire to gather more research is hard to resist.  One colleague has semi-jokingly compared field immersion with becoming a “field junkie.”  Other colleagues have worried whether time spent on various responsibilities away from the field means missing a crucial development.  Eventually, competing commitments or diminishing stamina or interest may force researchers to move onto the next stage.

For readers who are undertaking ethnographic research or have colleagues who do so, what are your tips for sustaining an active research project?  Alternatively, please post your recommendations for relevant readings on this topic below.

Written by katherinechen

July 23, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

Tagged with