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Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter

Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations

Edited by Melissa Cefkin
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 262
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  • Book Info
    Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter
    Book Description:

    Businesses and other organizations are increasingly hiring anthropologists and other ethnographically-oriented social scientists as employees, consultants, and advisors. The nature of such work, as described in this volume, raises crucial questions about potential implications to disciplines of critical inquiry such as anthropology. In addressing these issues, the contributors explore how researchers encounter and engage sites of organizational practice in such roles as suppliers of consumer-insight for product design or marketing, or as advisors on work design or business and organizational strategies. The volume contributes to the emerging canon of corporate ethnography, appealing to practitioners who wish to advance their understanding of the practice of corporate ethnography and providing rich material to those interested in new applications of ethnographic work and the ongoing rethinking of the nature of ethnographic praxis.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-535-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction: Business, Anthropology, and the Growth of Corporate Ethnography
    (pp. 1-38)
    Melissa Cefkin

    A relentless quest for innovation, improvement, and change—in short, “the new”—characterizes the steady march of corporate and organizational efforts of all kinds. In the latter part of the twenty-first century, a confluence of social, economic, and cultural dynamics, glossed by such terms asglobalization,thenew economy, knowledge work, customer-centered business, mass customization,and theinformation age,cast a particular hue on that quest. A pursuit desiring of a more nuanced grasp on the varieties of human experience both exposed by and driven through these dynamics, within this context anthropological perspectives and the application of ethnography to business...


    • Chapter 2 “My Customers are Different!” Identity, Difference, and the Political Economy of Design
      (pp. 41-58)
      Donna K. Flynn

      There has been a growing literature over the past two decades on the complex dynamics of organizational culture, examined from both within and outside of anthropology. Critical questions around definitions of organizational culture, analytic and disciplinary approaches to understanding it, and the complex social interactions that shape it have been explored (Baba 1989; Jordan 1989, 1994; Ortlieb chapter 7, this volume). Large organizations are complex checkerboards of boundaries defining social groups, missions, loyalties, and individual success. Tomoko Hamada has suggested that the study of organizational culture “is in a way an inquiry into the political processes of social relationships from...


    • Chapter 3 Participatory Ethnography at Work: Practicing in the Puzzle Palaces of a Large, Complex Healthcare Organization
      (pp. 61-94)
      Christopher Darrouzet, Helga Wild and Susann Wilkinson

      For the past ten years the authors of this chapter have been conducting what are often called “action research and learning projects” in large organizations. Our work maps onto the broad landscape ofworkplace consulting,of which there are nearly as many varieties as consultants. We work on invitation from management within an organization to assist on special initiatives and projects.

      We have made the “ethnographic impulse” one of two key impulses driving both our methods and the practical phases of the intervention process we stage in most of our projects (the second impulse is participatory design). In this respect...

    • Chapter 4 Working in Corporate Jungles: Reflections on Ethnographic Praxis in Industry
      (pp. 95-134)
      Brigitte Jordan and Monique Lambert

      Though anthropologists and ethnographers have been working in global companies for a long time, they have recently attained an unaccustomed prominence. “Corporate ethnography,” “ industrial ethnography,” and “business ethnography” have become buzz words in corporate circles and among business journalists. Even the American Anthropological Association, long based in and beholden to theoretically oriented academic anthropology, has begun to pay attention to this trend. Professional associations have begun to feature corporate ethnography in their official meeting programs. “Shadowing” (an offspring of anthropological participant observation) has become a fashionable household word in corporate research organizations.

      At the same time, among anthropologists and...


    • Chapter 5 Writing on Walls: The Materiality of Social Memory in Corporate Research
      (pp. 137-157)
      Dawn Nafus and ken anderson

      This chapter explores the materiality of ethnographic practice within a large technology firm. As with the other chapters in this volume, it seeks to articulate a ground that is neither prescriptive of “best practices” in uses of ethnography, nor, as Cefkin (chapter 1) describes it, “one of angstridden hand-wringing about researchers’ moral and political complicity.” This chapter will reflect on the use of project rooms—a physical, threedimensional space to write, display artifacts and media, and draw. Though used differently in different places, the practice of writing on the walls has become an everyday part of life as an anthropologist...

    • Chapter 6 The Anthropologist as Ontological Choreographer
      (pp. 158-182)
      Françoise Brun-Cottan

      Ethnographers—anthropologists, sociologists, social scientists, and others trained in using ethnographic techniques—encounter a myriad of difficulties when they go into the “ field”¹ and attempt to understand and then describe the behaviors of the people they are studying in terms both meaningful to the people studied and relevant to other people interested in the understandings gleaned. In this chapter several problematic elements intrinsic to conducting and reporting about activities studied in anthropological fieldwork will be considered and some of their most trenchant causes noted.

      For current purposes, I am concerned with situations in which anthropologists are hired, as employees...


    • Chapter 7 Emergent Culture, Slippery Culture: Conflicting Conceptualizations of Culture in Commercial Ethnography
      (pp. 185-210)
      Martin Ortlieb

      As many Europeans who have traveled to the United States will tell you, when Americans greet someone casually, they generally just say “hi.” They don’t normally shake hands. Similarly, visitors to Germany will report that in German etiquette one does shake hands and says“Guten Tag.”And before my visit to Sicily, I was told that “male friends greeting each other lightly touch cheeks but without ‘sound,’ whereas when men greet women or women greet women, the ‘sound’ of a kiss accompanies the gesture.”

      In most cases, once we are aware of these traditions, we’ll be able to get through a...


    • Chapter 8 Insider Trading: Engaging and Valuing Corporate Ethnography
      (pp. 213-226)
      Jeanette Blomberg

      Melissa Cefkin, in her introduction to this volume, frames the discussion by asking the rhetorical question, “What are we doing there?” The readers of this collection of essays are provided a glimpse into the “what” of her question through the reflexive ethnographic accounts of the authors. The equally important and often hotly contested “we” and “there” of Cefkin’s question are also offered up for our scrutiny. Undoubtedly something is going on in corporate arenas by people who variously refer to themselves as ethnographers or user researchers or experience modelers or a myriad of other designators, and they toil in a...

    • Chapter 9 Emergent Forms of Life in Corporate Arenas
      (pp. 227-238)
      Michael M. J. Fischer

      Corporate arenas form one of the key sites—along with cousin-sites in the technosciences (biological, informatic, material sciences), financial arenas, environmental understandings, and media environments—for the development of new anthropologies and ethnographic practices to reflect upon, inform, and reconstruct the changing worlds and emergent forms of life in which we live. Sometimes referred to with “tags” such as “secondorder modernization,” “reflexive social institutions,” “flexible” labor and production forces, “learning organizations,” and multiple, flexible, and continually retrainable selves, macro-social theory has long been sketching large and small shifts for which corporate arenas are key ethnographic production sites.

      These “production sites”...

  10. List of Contributors
    (pp. 239-241)
  11. Index
    (pp. 242-253)