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A historiographical account of workplace and organizational ethnography

Simon Down

University of Newcastle

Abstract

The paper argues that the production of past workplace and organizational ethnographies
needs to be better understood in historical context. A programme of research work on the
history of workplace and organizational ethnography is proposed, and a historiographical
discussion outlines the purpose, scope and means by which such a project might be
realised. The article highlights why organizational ethnographers should understand the
history of their research practice. The article suggests that a serious attempt is made to
create a body of historical knowledge about workplace and organizational ethnography.
The value of this would be to deepen the contribution ethnographic research makes to
organization and management studies, and ensure that continuity and change in
ethnographic research practices are better understood.

1  
 

Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2478675

Introduction Since around the mid 1990s workplace and organizational ethnographies have become increasingly popular. The growing popularity of workplace and organizational ethnography has meant that past studies have begun to take on new significance.com/abstract=2478675 . High points in the canon are mobilised to legitimise the budding ethnographer’s own work. This paper argues that in order to assess the impact and implications of these changing practices the production of past ethnographies need to be better understood in historical context. For traditionalists this might be perceived as dilution and a cause for concern. countervailing pressures on the time (non-PhD) researchers have to undertake ethnographies. For others it reflects changing organizational contexts (especially those driven by information technologies) in which the practice of ethnography operates. ritualised quality. and not just to do with the general expansion of business studies research and teaching. The reasons for this success are complex. Even Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845/1987) and Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890/1957) urtexts are sometimes invoked as examples (Zicker and Carter 2010). The deployment of studies by Donald Roy (1954). However. based itself on the success and growth of the Liverpool/Keele Ethnography Symposium and the 2012 formation of the Organizational Ethnography Standing Working Group at EGOS all provide evidence for this claim. suggest that it is the sensibility as much as research practices that are attracting researchers. Michael Burawoy (1979) or Melville Dalton (1959) in contemporary organizational ethnographies has begun to take on an empty. Whilst Bourdieu placed this going back to the original and authentic sources as a generic scholarly strategy (1988). and changes in the nature of workplaces and organizations such that ‘being there’ can mean being everywhere and anywhere (Yanow and Geuijen 2009: 257). particularly those studies associated with the Chicago School of Sociology (Deegan 2001). or to changes in intellectual styles. its use in workplace and organizational ethnography has particular salience. Those now writing or claiming to write ethnographies are expected to follow a well trodden path and are directed to a canon of classic studies stretching back to the early twentieth century. suggesting 2     Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn. The creation of the Journal of Organizational Ethnography.

of its underlying paradigmatic and epistemological force. of course. I explain the purposes such a programme might serve. help those in the past to solve theirs. scope and means by which it might be realised. And. that they did the same as we do. The danger is that with greater popularity studying organizations ethnographically might suffer the same ‘Procrustean’ fate that Stager Jacques (2006: 45. finally. I discuss the means – what should be avoided and what should be done . he argues. The next section discusses the scope. begin that programme with a historiographical discussion of the purpose.by which such a history might be produced. And. I am not simply suggesting that contemporary ethnographers take the specific findings of past ethnographers seriously. First. before concluding. My aim is more generative in proposing a programme of research work on the history of workplace and organizational ethnography. We can’t. in so proposing. and establishes necessary boundaries with which to frame such a programme.that they lie outside history. ahistorical homogeneity rules. As Stager Jacques asks of the organizational historian. Purpose: Why create a history of workplace and organizational ethnography? History can serve many purposes. shorn as it has become. does your history ‘connect to present-day issues in a manner that may lead one to look at these issues differently?’ 3     . This paper asks you to consider whether this is a good way to treat the historical legacy of workplace and organizational ethnography. would be sadly paradoxical given that ethnography is intended to highlight particularities in time and space. The time and place these studies were conducted are effectively compressed into a common territory – let’s call it ethno-land – where a spurious. For Stager Jacques (2006) the history of management and organizational knowledge should have as its key purpose the development of better knowledge and theory to help address contemporary problems. though they should. This putative danger. From this perspective the key purpose of histories of workplace and organizational ethnography should be to better understand the particularities of workplaces and organizing and how they have changed over time – a contemporary purpose. after all. 1996) suggests has befallen ‘qualitative research’.

It is difficult to disagree. if only to be read. is to expose the parochialism of present interests. before being hit by the ‘postmodern’ turn and ‘crisis of confidence’ about what the ethnographic text represented. but it needn’t be a slave to contemporary theorising. surely. Histories inevitably serve contemporary purposes in that they are written and read in the present. Jones and Wadhwani 2006). too stridently. 4     . crises and controversies and falls into the trap of thinking that we are the only scholars with complex and difficult methodological and epistemological choices to make. and I am not sure that I agree entirely. The development and growth of management and organizational and business history might suggest greater sensitivity in this regard today. Ahistoricism has been a perennial indictment: Michael Burawoy complained in 1979 that organization theory was too static and lacked a historical dynamic. but calls for more historical sensitivity are still being made (Stager Jacques 2006). historicism can serve different masters. at which point it burst out into a proliferation of textual and fieldwork practices. As Atkinson et al. not how they really were). one contemporary purpose that a history of workplace and organizational ethnography serves is in building better understanding of the fluidity and heterogeneity of ethnographic practice and the variety of research problems addressed through time. A history should resonate with contemporary interests. Thus. However. And. History in this sense serves contemporary needs by showing how others addressed similar organizational problems. (2001: 3) suggest there is a tendency to see the ethnographic past travelling along stable modernist tracks in a landscape of orthodox disciplinary and intellectual harmony. He seems to stress contemporary theoretical ends too rigidly. one of the tasks of a good history. In order to avoid becoming a hapless victim of Procrustes we need to be surer of how things were (but of course.(2006: 43). It is all too easy to assume we know the past and the tidy story it tells us. Indeed. Another way in which such a programme would be of use is in joining with others who feel that business and management needs greater historical memory (Booth and Rowlinson 2006. it is worth noting that contemporary sub-disciplinary fragmentation and ‘gated’ intellectual horizons (Down 2001a) mean that most conversations tend to take place in relative isolation. This teleologically inclined narrative immiserates past problems. Down 2001a.

management and organizing. For Burawoy. serves to propel workplace and organizational ethnography further into mainstream legitimacy. transcending parochialism and sub-disciplinary isolation. one that fixes attention on the quality of research practice. 2004) or deductively derived (Edwards and Bélanger 2008) generalizations. All texts are products of their time. it is the tension between the relative timelessness of observational descriptions of work. each author/ethnographer is caged by commitments to prevailing conversations. 2002. thought and wrote in the way they did. Moribund theoretical allusions of past ethnographies forces their historians to pay due regard to how ideas about work and organizations have changed. of course. Histories can act as a reminder of what good ethnography 5     . would. Burawoy saw that ‘in the period Roy undertook his research. even to those mostly inimical to the underlying philosophical arguments. In so doing another purpose is revealed. A programme fixed on excavating the history of workplace and organizational ethnography. Or.Perhaps this fate might befall the history of workplace and organizational ethnography. I would hope however that the very intellectual datedness apparent in many past studies is a strength in this regard. because it also forms part of the larger project aiming to use ethnographic findings to draw inductively (Hodson 2001. the most natural and important work to respond to was Roesthlisberger and Dickson’s Management and the Worker and the writings of Elton Mayo’ (1979: 34). one that favours a generalist outlook on theory development. the most ‘natural and important work’ was the labour process debate typified by Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capitalism (1974). These generalizing and aggregating initiatives aimed at highlighting the contribution of ethnography will serve to broaden its appeal. rather. A historically oriented programme of research also draws attention to the practice of ethnography over time. to try and understand why those ethnographers of the past observed. Often calls for new programmes of research lack a sense of genuine importance and engagement with social and organizational problems. and the trapped-in-amber quality of the intellectual paraphernalia used to explain it that makes the history of workplace and organizational ethnography such an exciting opportunity. Such histories can serve the purpose of persuading these more sceptical scholars of the ‘discomforting necessity’ (Watson 2011: 204) of ethnography as a way of writing and researching organizations.

So. however rabidly or obliquely to leftist. but what is the rationale of studying ethnographies in relative isolation? When researched. emancipatory and utopian political sensibilities.g. ensuring that potential proponents understand that their research and writing needs to be ‘rigorously conceived and practised’ (Watson 2011: 214). see also Van Maanen 1988: 5 for a similar point). This might be especially powerful if some of the histories emphasised popular appeal alongside analytical purpose. academic salaries. There is something about describing the particularities of working lives . Histories that show contemporary decline might precipitate a broadening of emancipatory reactions and initiatives. Many workplace and organizational ethnographies attach themselves. research funds. with Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford (1973) and Gideon Kunda’s Engineering Culture (1997)? Why workplace and organizational ethnography? Is this an appropriate boundary? 6     . countries and research projects? What really connects Augusta Clawson’s (1944) Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder.that lends itself to progressive political aspiration. cutting a slice through eras. In this sense. What is the justification for partitioning this research activity. and career structures all affect the various cultural performances of the ethnographer’ (1993: 62. written and debated they were part of broader currents of intellectual traffic.should be. many purposes. historical analyses can show us how what we now might be losing was won and enjoyed. The variability of practice that histories will show is not simply a matter of shifting scholarly norms and fashions. Karen Ho’s 2009 popular account of Wall Street). It is here that histories of our craft have an opportunity to become popular social science (Down 2001b). Unlike much academic output ethnographies have the potential to break through into the open space of public debate (e. Historical studies will inevitably address issues of quality.that intimate connection to everyday tyrannies . Histories will also show the impact of academic institutional contexts in shaping what gets produced: as Dick Hobbs has written ‘Educational policy. at a time when working conditions taken for granted in the mid to late twentieth century are eroding for many. Then there are some broader purposes attached to what we today call the critical study of business and management.

One is limited to work. Aspiring historians of workplace and organizational ethnography must make boundary choices – about where relevant sources (conceptual and empirical) start and end . The difference between what is common and what isn’t in these two lists raises the issue of how we are to define workplace and organizational ethnography. Budding historians can also find a list of published organizational ethnographies in Geuijen’s (2009) annotated bibliography. compiled and managed by Randy Hodson. departments. supervisors. This self-awareness makes the work of setting boundaries relatively easy. boundary setting highlights context by placing the specific object in relief.edu/rdh/Workplace-Ethnography-Project. the other. Rather. There is also a list of workplace ethnographies and a searchable textual resource at the Workplace Ethnography Project (http://www. the former is based in sociology and anthropology and the latter in management and organizational studies. examiners and doctoral candidates over successive generationsi and what counts as workplace and organizational ethnography becomes clearer still.html). However.between object and context like everyone else. and is a problem all social scientists need to address: the setting of boundaries for specific consideration for particular research problems needn’t obliterate context. Crudely put. If there were a nominal case against the historical study of workplace and organizational ethnography. 2009: 4). broader fields of organizing (Ybema et al.sociology.ohio- state. Both reflect subtlety different disciplinary priorities. The historical imperative in workplace and organizational ethnography is already an established and self-conscious element of the genre: Michael Burawoy serendipitously finding himself in exactly the same plant as Donald Roy 30 years later in the mid 1970s wasn’t the reason why he felt compelled to make historical connections. This is a matter of appropriate contextualisation. whilst Yanow and Geuijen (2009: 258) state of Hodson’s list that ‘most of the entries did not meet 7     . it would be that it risks disconnecting the original research from the contemporary conversations the ethnographer was responding to. Add to this the tangible personal and intellectual connections between scholars.Scope: How distinct is the object of study? There will always be arguments about whether and where to delineate boundaries around objects of study.

How could a historical assessment of the immediate post-war research environment not discuss Donald Roy? When do the lists imply workplace and organizational ethnography began? The oldest study Hodson’s list is Augusta Clawson’s (1944) Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder (not cited in Geuijen 2009). They also specify an organizational criterion such that studies focusing on the ‘characteristics of work absent in an organizational context’ (2009: 255) were excluded. a typing pool. It is nevertheless worth considering the criteria Hodson and Yanow and Geuijen’s use to distinguish these genres. The latter suggest that to be counted as organizational ethnography studies need to (1) ‘rely on ethnographic methods’. Hodson’s criteria included studies (both lists are limited to books) if there was: ‘(1) the use of direct ethnographic methods of observation over a period of at least six months. also cited in Hodson. (2) that ‘writing […] be in narrative form. These exclusions would fundamentally stymie the historian. with data details more or less thickly described’. who. a task group. reflecting the intermingling and borrowing of past studies into respective canons. or some other identifiable work group’ (2004: 12). and (3) ‘the text needed to express the ethnographic sensibility that would convince the reader of the trustworthiness of the author as well as the findings s/he presented’ (Yanow and Geuijen 2009: 254). miss the vital connections and affinities between the two.our criteria for organizational studies’ there is a broader overlap in spirit. (2) a focus on a single organizational setting. A simple limiting of investigations to studies at the intersection would inevitably somehow miss the point. if their aim were comprehensiveness. This is clearly inadequate for the historian. and (3) a focus on at least one clearly identified group of workers—an assembly line. The oldest in Geuijen’s bibliography (2009: 279) is William Foote Whyte’s Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry (1948). would want 8     . Historical studies of workplace and organizational ethnography would need to address the particularities of continuity and discontinuity between the two disciplines depending on the topic being addressed. Both wisely stress the unavoidable incompleteness of their lists. Clearly there will be books and important studies in the broader genre of workplace and organizational ethnography that both these criteria exclude. Donald Roy’s influential work is not present since he did not write a book.

attempts to pin down such a changing and overlapping array of research works and genres. Historical studies of the Chicago school itself (Bulmer 1984. will constrain historical analysis. In addition to analyses of specific studies. Atkinson et al. Deegan 2001). anthropology and sociology would also play an important role and are already considered in many an ethnographic handbook or textbook (see Van Maanen 1988: 13-21. Any history would use material and sources selectively and build particularising and/or generalising historical narratives reflecting the purpose of the specific project. Means: How (not) to study the history of workplace and organizational ethnography? I have purposively avoided a tight definition of workplace and organizational ethnography. which seeks to create patterns in intellectual and practical enquiry as it unfolds over time. How these narratives look would depend on choices made about how to render and portray the production of the ethnographies: the rich variety of method and methodology. the ebbs and flows in popularity and fashion. As I imply above. Roy Jacques Manufacturing the Employee (1996) exemplifies what can be achieved by examining the historical development of scholarly thinking about work.to start further back. and broader histories of the intersection of ethnography. Similarly. the impact of the 9     . This is reflected in a study by Zickar and Carter (2010) who extend the relevant work back into the early part of the Twentieth century. Then there are of course many others that write histories about workplaces and organizing more generally. We now need to discuss how we might go about studying it. management and organizations. and by Edwards and Bélanger (2008) who point to Mathewson’s classic 1931 study. the different disciplinary connections. of particularly influential ethnographic studies such as the ‘Hawthorne experiments’ (Gillespie 1991). 2001). it would be inappropriate to prescribe how histories should be conducted and written. These then are the basic stepping off points which establish the object of study. the need for historical contextualization implies a requirement to look at broader historically relevant material. The above characterisation gives a clear enough picture of the possible scope of enquiry.

Whilst a boundary might reasonably be set around workplace and organizational ethnography . The criss-crossings of the careers. Sebald recognised another truth of historical representation: reflecting on seeing a panoramic mural monumentalising the battle of Waterloo he wrote ‘This then. And. 2009. a growing understanding of the historiographical possibilities available to management and organizational scholars (see Down 2001a. At its worse. and the response by Toms and Wilson 2010 for instance). Stager Jacques and I (Down 2001a) rightly castigate the likes of Moore and Lewis (1999) for suggesting that ancient Phoenicians practiced international management. G. Stager Jacques 2006).the section above explained why . the theoretical and intellectual legacies (both legitimate and bowdlerised). thanks in particular to a succession of articles in the journal Management and Organizational History (see Taylor et al. W. and latterly management and organizational scholars should also not be read as part of an ‘teleological’ evolving whole either (Stager Jacques 2006: 42). are just a few important themes. reading back and reconnecting might hold contemporary ethnographers and organizational theorists to account. anthropologists.historiographically we need to be aware that we are likely creating a greater sense of coherence around past events than would have been apparent at the time. there is now. They tell of us and them. All histories are of the present. as 10     . the debates and fallings-out. the trajectories of individual scholarly careers and their influence. Evans 1997) have percolated through to us and provide a clear guide to what is possible. Equally however we should be wary of throwing our hands in the air at the impossibility of framing a period and an activity: postmodern doubts ‘in the possibility of objective knowledge or unified interpretation’ that have ‘convulsed and undermined’ scholars (Hobsbawm 1997: 195) in a variety of disciplines should not paralyse us. I thought. Here is not the place to rehash debates over what organizational history is or might become. this can be called ‘antihistorical anachronism’ (Stager Jacques 2006: 41). books and articles of all the amateurs. Then there are different means by which relevant recovery. Engels and Riis most emphatically did not wittingly practice ethnography. sociologists. There are however a couple of aspects that I do think are worth discussing. Debates from within history itself (Jenkins 1995.books on organizational policies and management practices. projects.

doing better ethnography and doing better organization. and still we do not know how it was’ (2002:125). The tone he adopts is perhaps quite traditional. we might do worse in looking for positive guides than look to how others have created histories of analogous intellectual and disciplinary fields. 1995). but knowing how it was should not be the primary objective: knowing better how to act now is. in that he strives ‘to be as interpretively suggestive as possible without knowingly doing violence to historical 11     . It’s cool to be able to say you really experienced what it’s like to be a woman welder or Ford worker or student doctor. the survivors. It requires a falsification of perspective. We. The historian of workplace and organizational ethnography needs to reconstruct the research of the past as everyday projects. but it does place the knowledge produced in its context: we will understand the work. Showing you were accepted by your respondents is a pass to having your work accepted as an authentic and respected account. is the representation of history. see everything at once. Along with false perspectivisation the historian of workplace and organizational ethnography also needs to avoid sentimentalising what they research. I think he meant that the fame and glory that are now attached to the illustrious proponents of the past take us away from the mundane reality of the problems and compromises these researchers faced (Smith 2001). or cool even. He stresses the need for ‘multiple contextualisation’ (1987: xiii) and plays down the linear or chronological unfolding of intellectual history. its impact and its connections to our own worlds of work and research all the better. To take a look en masse at the history of workplace and organizational ethnography must falsify in this way. The ethnographer of work and organizations too gains professional respect and admiration for being a worker or getting close to workers and managers. Having avoided these traps. Stocking’s historical analyses of Nineteenth and Twentieth century British anthropology can serve as a historiographical guide (1987.I looked round me. This inevitably sentimentalises our understanding of work and organizing. see everything from above. It is not difficult to see how anthropologists gain a boys own explorer kudos from rubbing shoulders with exotic natives in faraway places. John Van Maanen suggests that ethnography has a somewhat ‘glorified’ history (1988: 13). This doesn’t stop what these ethnographers achieved from being impressive or influential.

but it reflects a subtle and sensitive regard for the need for contextualisation. Stocking also highlights the need to investigate paradigmatic continuities and discontinuities in intellectual discourses and fashions. We need the context of their production too. and imply an unfashionable confidence about what the historical record might tell us. the most important’ (1987: xv). his desire to contexualise and avoid narrow intellectual or disciplinary histories that simply seek to trace ‘ideas backwards in time in order to establish lineages […] for contemporary theoretical viewpoints’ (1987: xiii). Jenkins 1995)..particulars’. However. Why was the research commissioned or undertaken? What organizational problems prompted the research? What specific local events and ‘longer-run historical forces’ (Stocking 1987: xiii) connect and shape the ethnographies and their reception. is something that I feel workplace and organizational ethnography history should also avoid. and feels that ‘historical generalizations must grow out of and directly relate to concrete historical materials’ (1987: xii). using enumerative or discourse analytic logics in isolation. It is not sufficient to limit the history to textual analyses of published ethnographies. but that past present and its antecedent past.g Taylor et al. it also reflects my greater appreciation of the manifold ways in which the historical understanding “presupposes a continuing tension between past and present – not only between an historian’s present and the past he [sic] studies. if only for the moment. and between that same past present and all of its consequent futures” – among which our own present is. This stance may lack the anxieties demonstrated by more postmodern historiographers (e. What does and doesn’t connect Watson (1994) to Burawoy (1979)? And what does that tell us about problems of management and organizing and how we currently view and ethnographize them? How have workplace and organizational ethnographers behaved in the face of changing intellectual fashions? When have they been part of the advant garde vanguard? When part of the conservative rearguard? What were the reasons for these intellectual choices? 12     . It is worth citing him at length (he is citing from one of his own earlier essays): ‘Although the present structure of contextualisation reaffirms my commitment to an historical understanding that emphasises a contexts prior to or contemporary with the phenomenon being studied.

123). and blend the advantages of both (thus. There are of course many other more detailed questions and decisions about the conceptual and methodological means needed that will have to wait for another time. between priorities given between ‘Space and Time’ and ‘Big and Little’ (Geertz 2000: 119). Geertz advocates this blending. well-bounded communities’ (ibid. would be wise to conceptually and methodologically meander between these stances.).Stocking also makes us aware of the tensions to be made between reconstruction/refamiliarization and deconstruction/defamiliarization: choices to make about representation and critique. and action of people who lived in worlds which. glorying in the detailing of the unimportant. Historians accuse anthropologist of ‘nuancemanship’. These then are some of the traps to avoid and some preliminary guides to the writing of histories of workplace and organizational ethnography: a historiographical sketch. oral history and documentary archives). For instance. scope and means by which histories of workplace and organizational ethnography might be written. The historian of workplace and organizational ethnography. Clifford Geertz would also add much. and ‘seek to understand the context and modes of thought. being neither historian nor anthropologist. But historians might take a variety of approaches that would inevitably and profitably draw upon a range of contrasting historiographical principles. ignoring the feel of everyday life (ibid. and anthropologists accuse historians of ‘schematicism’.). expression. though continuous with. Historians (Time and Big) address the ‘broad sweep of thought or action’. Secondly I have suggested that this project is chiefly necessary in order to protect the 13     . were rather different from [our] own’ (1995: xvii). seek to make the generalizations about work. it has been to set out the purpose. and anthropologists (Space and Little) study ‘small. but to do it using the detail and feel for how life and the research might have been. Conclusion The aim of this paper has been twofold. That is. He points to the tension between the historical and anthropological sensibilities. organization and management. First. exhorting us to look back and to look sideways (2000: 121. Like Stocking I would tend more towards the former than the latter.

in other words. Practices. The institutional higher education context – government priorities. As a response. often virtual. shifting disciplinary spaces. and should continue to mean. and so forth – is also continually changing. But such discontinuities are often overplayed. philosophical and methodological fashions. it is in this respect that greater historical understanding reminds us of what the practices and sensibilities have meant. placing pressure on the community being formed by the Journal of Organizational Ethnography to exercise its interests through constraints. funding regimes. And. are enabled and constrained by such contexts. It would be sadly ironic if the Journal of Organizational Ethnography marked the debasing of the currency. This is not the same as using history to catalogue and lament a passing chimerical era where researchers were blessed with more resources.practice of ethnography from becoming the victim of its own success in organizational and management studies. especially to expose those mundane. In order to avoid such degradation a better sense of the field is needed. The nature of work and organizing has changed greatly in recent years. 14     . For many people in factories and offices around the world traditional ethnography is still a practice worth pursuing. university careers. workplace and organizational ethnography inevitably focuses on new problems. everyday tyrannies. realities. research or otherwise. and key to this is a greater historical sensibility. and adapts research practices to suit novel. We should. be wary of sacrificing our ‘rigorously conceived and practised’ (Watson 2011: 214) craft on the altar of expedience and a fixation on the most novel organizational and employment trends.

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