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Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]

Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new year with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Ethnography Suck?” where she described academics’ critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate. In her second post, Sam proffered methods for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In this, her final post, Sam discusses how to maintain reflexivity in ethnographic practice.

Maintaining Research Quality Through Reflexivity

In his wonderful short book On the Internet, Hubert Dreyfus (2009) argues that online learning differs from face-to-face in one significant way: online learners are physically removed from the learning environment, making it hard for them to feel their discomfort physically. Dreyfus argues that this discomfort is a key aspect to learning; we must be uncomfortable to learn.

If discomfort is learning, then ethnography offers a wealth of learning opportunities!  Ethnography necessarily entails becoming immersed in that which you study. This immersion presents a wonderful – if sometimes uncomfortable – opportunity to continuously improve research. Immersion means you are “out of your element” and a guest in someone else’s location, be it their home, office, garage, or local grocery store. You are going to make mistakes. But these very mistakes provide an opportunity for both corporate and academic ethnographers to reflect on their practice. Read More…

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Is rapid ethnography possible? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 2 of 3) [guest contributor]

Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new years with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Suck?” In Part 1, she proceeded to dissect this divisive question with a cultural analysis of academics critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate forms of ethnography. Her post incited a lot of great discussions and surfaced many tensions that have long been difficult to articulate in both communities. 

In this second post of  her three part installment, Sam extends the cultural analysis from her first piece and offers methods that are more fitting for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In her final post, Sam will discuss how to maintain reflexivity in the both the private and academic settings.

Sam points out that research output can be compromised regardless if the ethnography is working in corporate or academic settings. What methods do you use to avoids compromising research in private-sector ethnography or academic setting ethnography? Please share in the comments!

A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography

“The fact that there is no such thing as a perfect anti-sepsis does not mean that one might as well do brain surgery in a sewer.”

— Robert Solow

Robert Solow was an economist, but he could tell anthropologists a thing or two about how to deal with real constraints on the research process. Solow became famous for the “Solow Residual,” or contribution to productivity growth that remains “unexplained” even after careful, empirical analysis. Solow asserted that this unexplained residual was due to technological change.

Is it possible that Solow was wrong? Certainly. Economic growth during that period was accompanied by several other significant shifts, including but not limited to a rise in homeownership, more women entering the workforce, and the elimination of “separate but equal” education systems. Solow could have been wrong in so many ways, but the relevant question is not whether he was right, but whether he contributed insight to an empirically observed phenomenon.

This anecdote is a roundabout way of addressing the question: is rapid ethnography possible? Of course it’s possible. Will it provide us with unequivocal evidence of a given social phenomenon? Will it provide as deep insight as traditional ethnography? Will it be “perfect”?  No, no and definitely no. But, again, the relevant question here is whether it will give us meaningful insight into an empirically observed phenomenon. Read More…

Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography (Part 1 of 3)

  Ethnography Matters is happy to start the new year with a series of posts from guest writer, Sam Ladner. In this piece, Sam examines the different temporal conceptions of ethnographic fieldwork in industry and academia. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Sam’s discussion where she discusses how corporate ethnographers can avoid compromising research.   

Sam is a sociologist specializing in the social aspects of technological change. She mixes private-sector consulting work with academic research and teaching. Primarily an ethnographer, Sam is founder and principal with Copernicus Consulting, a social research company that consults on digital and industrial product design, organizational change, and consumer culture. She is also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. She  has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Time & Society and The Canadian Journal of Communication. She is currently managing the Mobile Work Life project, which is investigating smartphones and work/life balance.

Part 1: A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography

Corporate ethnography’s emergence ignited criticism that its quality and rigour was not as good as the ethnography practiced by academics. Academically trained social scientists have argued that private-sector practitioners are often not trained in anthropology or sociology, much less in the actual method of ethnography. Academics have argued that using ethnography for marketing and advertising is just more evidence of underhanded marketers attempting to dupe people into consumerism (Caron & Caronia, 2007).

And they are right.

Much of private-sector ethnography is as banal as it is ironic. In its bland quest to “understand the consumer,” it reduces culture to mere consumerism and thereby fails to achieve its own stated goal of understanding. This cynical veneer of cultural research disregards the truly transformative effect of “going native,” which is the first step to deriving both deep insight and innovation. Private-sector “ethnographers” are frequently ignorant to what ethnography actually is. The real essence of ethnography is the study of culture or as Geertz would say, the “webs of significance” or the meaning individual social actors ascribe to objects, events, or people. “Ethno” derives from the Greek word “ethnos” meaning folk or culture, while “graphy” derives from “grapho” or “to write.” Most corporate ethnographers neither study culture nor write about it. Instead, ethnography is simply as “on-site research,” such as an in-home interview, and “written up” as a series of meaningless video clips or as the truly stupefying Power Point presentation.

But these critical academics are also wrong. Read More…