Posts Tagged ‘ethnography’
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.**
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).