by PATRICIA ENSWORTH, Harborlight Management Services LLC & New York University
In the months since the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting everyone’s lives, people and organizations worldwide have adapted quickly for the sake of survival. This is a matter of long-term intellectual interest for ethnographers – but also, sometimes urgently, of short-term solvency.
Some jobs, we now notice, really are essential for the ongoing functioning of a civilized society. Others…well, recently Bloomberg News published an Opinion article entitled “Coronavirus: Anybody Need a Management Consultant? Thought Not.” The industries we serve are in the midst of a whiplash pivot: A sports stadium becomes a field hospital. A restaurant becomes a general store. Physical workplaces are entirely redesigned. And so we might ask ourselves, Are there ways in which ethnographers can contribute to these efforts, repurposing our practices and expertise, especially as organizations plan for fundamental, lasting changes in their operations?
by MERITXELL RAMÍREZ-I-OLLÉ
When my boss asked me to carry out an employee opinion survey in our company, I had to overcome my ingrained prejudices against surveys in general. Once I did, I learned how valuable an ethnographic approach to surveys can be.
In my previous academic work, I had embedded myself into a scientific community for more than three years and I disregarded surveys as a comparatively superficial research technique. In my consultancy work, I have also encountered sharp criticism of the way surveys are used in practice: Erica Hall calls surveys “the most dangerous research tool,” and Sam Ladner’s fabulous guide to doing ethnography in the private sector (2012:17), emphasizes the value of ethnography that captures the perspectives of research participants, as opposed to tools like surveys that reflect the “etic” position of researchers. Yet, if there’s something I am learning about my ongoing transition to the private sector, it is that I must be flexible about methods and become more creative about...
by RITA DENNY, EPIC
We support the protesters. Black lives matter.
Working at my desk in the past few days, a fairly constant thump of helicopters and aggressive wail of sirens has forced me to parse space in new ways. Here, in the US, the rights of protestors to claim space is contested by presidential rhetoric and ruthlessly cynical uses of force for political ends. We are feeling the reverberations wherever we are sitting—in cities or not, in the US or not—as we bear witness. As we act and speak as citizens, families, neighbors and cities, it is worth a moment to be thoughtful about how we, as ethnographers in industries and organizations, choose to participate.
As ethnographers we observe life as lived on the ground, as it unfolds, embodied or ephemeral, with affect and purpose, in relation to material systems and systems of meaning. The ground is where change happens—is practiced, performed, and contested in acts small and large, messy and often with contradiction. Our practice is also framed within larger organizational...
by JENNIFER COLLIER JENNINGS & RITA DENNY, EPIC
“There’s a lot of talk about us ‘being there’, and what that means for our practice and what that means for the type of work that we say we do. The ground has shifted. How do we respond to that? It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re temporarily working remotely, let’s just gather some new tools.’ We’re actually responding to a shift in the ground underneath us. And we still want to be able to ask questions in depth and gather data in a way that makes meaning for us.”
Ethnographers are recalibrating the spaces we inhabit with people. We can’t physically go into homes, workplaces, stores, cars, hospitals; we’re adjusting interview protocols to online environments, exploring software for remote diary studies, and creating virtual workshops. But as we onboard new tools for ‘being there’ with people, let’s think about what it means to be there in the first place.
For decades ethnographers have pushed businesses and organizations to pay attention...