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Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter

Reflections on Research in and of Corporations

Edited by Melissa Cefkin

262 pages, 26 figures, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-84545-598-9 $120.00/£75.00 Hb Published (July 2009)

ISBN  978-1-84545-777-8 $34.95/£22.00 Pb Published (March 2010)

eISBN 978-0-85745-535-2 eBook

Hb Pb
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This book will, I am sure, be regarded as a vital contribution to the process of ongoing re-orientation by academia towards a not-so-new breed of practitioners within corporations. But it will also help inform the practice of corporate ethnographers already plying their trade in corporate jungles.”  ·  Anthropology in Action

"[This book] will, I am sure, be regarded as a vital contribution to the process of ongoing re-orientation by academia towards a not-so-new breed of practitioners within corporations. But it will also help inform the practice of corporate ethnographers already plying their trade in corporate jungles."  ·  The Ideas Bazaar

“For anyone interested in ethnography and its corporate application…Highly recommended.”  ·  Choice

It is amazing to see how and what anthropologists see when they look at the complex, broadly cast problems (and opportunities) of such mammoth organizations… Cefkin’s work is a delightful contribution to the field of ethnography for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it is a scholarly work that bridges the field of applied anthropology and the business sector, demonstrating the theoretical and practical connections between them. Second, with contributions from anthropologists and business practitioners, Cefkin persuades the reader that corporate ethnography is a legitimate form of ethnography for unearthing and answering complex business problems. In turn, these answers can be used in the process of building and advancing business theory.  ·  The Qualitative Report

“This is a deeply thoughtful and nuanced account of the most celebrated and contested of our contemporary field sites. The authors touch all of the relevant bases - the articulation of theory and practice, the ethical dimension of methodological commitment, the role demands of researchers in a commercial context - that a cultural construal of ethnographic work requires. The volume appeals to readers of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ persuasions alike, and offers timely insight into ethnography as a vocation.”  ·  John F. Sherry, Jr, University of Notre Dame

“In an increasingly vibrant arena of corporate anthropology - or the anthropology of corporations - this is the first volume that successfully closes the gap between practicing/applied anthropologists working as consultants, corporate employees, or within applied programs, and anthropologists working within university departments, who increasingly define their research in the same corporate domains. Each essay offers conceptual resources that will define terms for active collaborations among all ethnographers who enter this arena.”   ·  George Marcus, University of California-Irvine

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.

Melissa Cefkin is a cultural anthropologist with experience in research, management, teaching, and consulting for business and government. Currently based at IBM Research in the area of services research, she earned her PhD from Rice University and remains dedicated to pursuing a critical understanding of the intersections of anthropological practice within business and organizational settings.

Series: Volume 5, Studies in Public and Applied Anthropology

LC: GN302 .O884 2008

BL: YC.2010.a.1550

BISAC: SOC002000 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Anthropology/General; SOC002010 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Anthropology/Cultural; BUS097000 BUSINESS & ECONOMICS/Workplace Culture

BIC: JHMC Social & cultural anthropology, ethnography; KC Economics

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Business, Anthropology, and the Growth of Corporate Ethnography

This book explores anthropological relations within organizations for whom, and with whom, ethnographic work is conducted. Examined from the perspective of anthropological researchers engaged to influence organizational decisions and actions, the volume explores how sites of research are construed and experienced as well as how practitioner-researchers confront questions of their own positioning. The authors reflect on their struggles to prompt different ways of thinking, knowing, and doing in these organizations. Proceeding by way of descriptions of particular projects, practices, and subjects of the researchers' work, the volume also broadens the aperture to consider how ethnographic work in industry is in dialogue with broader social and cultural discourses.

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"My Customers are Different!"

Identity, Difference, and the Political Economy of Design

As someone who is both an active agent within (as employee) and an active analyst of (as anthropologist) those political processes within a product development company, I explore questions around how competitions and cooperation are reproduced within the organization and ways in which they become both embedded in processes of design and projected onto the outside world of customers. Weaving together strands of organizational analysis, cultural analysis, and material culture, I shine an ethnographic lens on an ethnographic effort within a corporate context of product development. Cultural meanings imbue boundaries of power and difference that are entrenched and scattered across layers of people, processes, and products that comprise so much of organizational structure.

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Participatory Ethnography at Work

Practicing in the Puzzle Palaces of a Large, Complex Healthcare Organization

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 of workplace 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. How we do this work — using a participatory mode in the ethnographic phase as well as in the design phase — and how our principal clients assess its value, are the main themes of this chapter.

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Working in Corporate Jungles

Reflections on Ethnographic Praxis in Industry

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. At the same time, among anthropologists and the many ethnographers from other disciplines who work in corporate settings there is a new recognition that major changes are occurring in the investigative methods we employ, the representations with which we convey what we see and hear, the relationships we maintain with funders, how we position our projects and ourselves — all these have a somewhat different ring. Representational forms and tools, such as experience models (Jones 2006; Blomberg, Burrell, and Guest 2003; Beers and Whitney 2006), opportunity maps, or representations of economic ecosystems (Thomas and Salvador 2006) are clearly a step beyond conventional ethnography; digital ethnography.

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Writing on Walls

The Materiality of Social Memory in Corporate Research

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 angst ridden hand-wringing about researchers' moral and political complicity." This chapter will reflect on the use of project rooms — a physical, three dimensional 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 in industrial contexts.

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The Anthropologist as Ontological Choreographer

For current purposes, I am concerned with situations in which anthropologists are hired, as employees or consultants, to observe and analyze the activities of third parties (in collaboration with other people from other disciplines, or not) with the objective of informing issues the employer has stipulated: designs, product development, marketing strategies, and so on. Difficulties arise around questions concerning: Who gets told what and why? Who has a stake in the method and findings in the ethnographic enterprise? What obligations do anthropologists have to study participants and informants? How does what gets shown or said get selected and what relationship does it have to what is being depicted?

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Emergent Culture, Slippery Culture

Conflicting Conceptualizations of Culture in Commercial Ethnography

This chapter looks at changing perceptions about conceptualizations of culture in the commercial world. Companies have now generally accepted that culture — "manifested" in their customers' behavior — is important to their bottom line in a globalized economy (see also Melissa Cefkin's Introduction [chapter 1] to this volume). However, how should culture be conceived? Is culture simply something difficult to pin down, "slippery" but tangible? Or is culture inherently shifting and elusive yet perceptible, emerging ephemerally out of time- and place-bound contextuality?

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Insider Trading

Engaging and Valuing Corporate Ethnography

Returning to the three themes that organized my commentary, insight and action through engagement, valuing ethnography, and situating ethnographic projects, we might rightly conclude that corporate ethnographers who actively engage with those who stand to gain (or lose) from their projects, who recognize the value in changing the terms of the debate inside corporations, and who find ways to participate in discourses that expand our understandings and not simply corporate profits should be encouraged and applauded. In response to Cefkin's question "What are we doing there?," the authors in this volume can say they are doing exactly that.

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Emergent Forms of Life in Corporate Arenas

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 "second order 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.

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Index (Free download)

Contributors (Free download)