Organizational ethnography

Tuomo Peltonen
Tampere University of Technology
The role of ethnography in organization
Other early organizational ethnographies
Recent ethnographies
Recurrent questions in organzational
In general: used as a form of data and method to
understand organizations as cultural
Closely linked to the use of anthropology as a
way to view modern organizations
Is used to enable a rich description of the
everyday life, symbols and the cultural norms
and values of a workplace, together with an
understanding of the social relations and
structures of the community
Application of ethnography has varied to some
extent as understanding of organizations has
undergone changes. (cf. Peltonen, 2010)
The first large-scale application of
observational method
Part of a big research programme in the
Hawthorne works of Western Electric near
Chicago (1924-32)
Was an integral part in the development of
the so called Human Relations school and a
broader Cultural-Functionalist systems theory
of organization (Mayo, Barnard, Merton)
◦ Emphasis on the contested relations between the
formal and the informal organization
1) Rely assembly test group
2) Bank wiring test room
Hawthorne ”findings”
◦ 6 woman; a natural group of women
◦ Observer watched reactions to changes in working time
◦ A group of men in a larger work space
◦ Observer followed communication patterns and social
relations within the test room group
◦ The role of social environment and empathic attitude for
work motivation (relay assembly room)
 Observer as an empathic listener, effects of surveillance
◦ The informal organization of employees (cliques, which
have their own distinct networks and norms) (bank
wiring room)
 Norms: don’t work too hard, don’t work too slowly; don’t
babble about group’s internal matters to foremen/outsiders
Women in the Relay Assembly Test Room, ca. 1930
The supervisor/researcher's desk is visible in the background.
From: Rothlisberger & Dickson (1939): Management and the Worker.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business University Press.
Gouldner (1954) (Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy):
field study on the social relations and different
attitudes towards bureaucracy in a gypsum plant
◦ A combination of interviews, observation (participant
observation) and documental materials
◦ ”We spent a good deal of time just walking around or
standing with a worker and talking with him casually as he
Dalton (1959) (Men Who Manage): worked as a
manager in a company, whose leaders were engaged
in a constant polishing of their own image and who
spent most of their energy in various power struggles
Roy (1958) : worked as a machinist – learned the
informal code of communication among the workers
+ small entertaining instances of humor and irony
(“Banana Time”!), acting as self-motivation in the
middle of monotonous work processes
A rational systems theory replaced the
cultural theory (contingency theory, decisionmaking, etc.)
Methodological attention oriented towards
quantitative data and statistical analysis
Qualitative approaches, including
ethnographic field work, were marginalized
1980- : the surge of organizational culture,
rise of alternative paradigms  renaissance
of organizational ethnography
An understanding of organizations as social
and symbolic constructions – focus on
processes of organizing
Attention to language, narratives, aesthetics,
materiality and image in the unfolding of
organizational interpretations and
Critical view on the nature of organizational
life – power, control and struggle as endemic
properties of organizational experiences
Jackall (1988) (Moral Mazes) : a cynical study of
manager’s world: how moral principles get converted
into ruthless politics; discusses also the problems of
access and what they signal (managers don’t trust an
outside researcher)
◦ ”Some of the fundamental requirements of managerial work
clash with the normal ethics governing interpersonal
behavior, let alone friendship in our society. As a former
vice-president of a large firm says: ’ What is right in the
corporation is what the guy above you wants from you.
That’s what morality is in the corporation’.”
Kunda (1992) (Engineering Culture) : looks at the
conscious attempts to ”engineer” culture, its
appearence and human consequences in a company
known for its strong culture. Reveals the
contradictory and ironic responses of employees
(engineers) to the claims of the codified culture.
Barley (1983) (ASQ): semiotic codes in the
structuring of a funeral home
Barley & Kunda (2004): observation of contract
engineers in staffing agencies; changing forms of
work identity and how engineers constructed
their commitment and psychological contract to
the company
Watson (1994) (In Search of Management) : the
life of managers in the controversy of calls for
”excellence” and simultaneous search for
efficiency and exploitation of labour; a look at
the ways in which managers were ”managing”
their own lives at the same as they were
managing the work of the others.
The degree of participation of the researcher?
◦ Total detachment (observer)  complete
involvement (participant)
Covert or overt role?
The length of stay in the field? (2 weeks-2
◦ What can be called ”ethnography”?
Problems related to access (e.g. Jackall)
Fears about business secrets (?)
Credibility in the eyes of management/ employees
Gaining trust and legitimacy among key informants
The ethics of covert participant role (e.g. studying
the organization where one is employed)
How is participant observation data combined
with other qualitative materials?
◦ Is field work data merely ”extending” the insights gained
from the interviews or vice versa?
◦ The use of documents, archives, photography,
shadowing in connection to ethnography
 E.g. visual ethnography, photo elicitation, architectural
 More specific methodological operations
New ethnographic modes for a changing world
◦ The rise of global organizations and work processes
Emergence of global and multi-site ethnography
- The ethnographer follows the internationally mobile
professionals and communities
- Ethnography is not restricted to one local place, but is
carried out in a number of locales connected to each
other through transnational flows of money, ideas and
- Requires teams of researchers
Schwartzman (1993) Ethnography in
organizations. Sage.
Prasad (2005) Crafting qualitative research. ME
Van Maanen, J. (2007) Ethnography: In:
International Encyclopedia of Organization
studies. Sage.
Kostera, Monika (2007) Organisational
ethnography . Lund: Studentlitteratur AB.
Bate, S.P. (1997) ‘Whatever happened to
organizational anthropology?’,Human Relations,
50(9): 1147–75.
E. Sharpe. Ybema, S., Yanow, D., Wels, H. and
Kamsteeg, F. (Eds) (2009) Organizational
Ethnography: Studying the Complexities of
Everyday Life, Sage, London.
[email protected]