Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Making the Case for Cases, Part 2: Pathmaking


(This post follows Making the Case for Cases, Part 1)

Unlike the research stories shared in the past, making a dedicated space for Case Studies at EPIC signals it’s time for us to evolve cases as a genre. Summarizing last year’s conference, the EPIC Board writes:

…reflecting on the first 10 Years of EPIC, Jeannette Blomberg asked for fewer “just-so stories and more accounts of what is broken and what we can learn from it”—a reminder that while it is nice to celebrate our successes and tell interesting narrative case studies, we only push our practice and knowledge forward by dissecting that which fails and that which we do not understand. (The EPIC2015 Conversation)

Indeed, even the best EPIC cases have sometimes come across as straightforward histories of inestimable success. We understand few people come to conferences motivated to air their failings (even when failure, in some quarters, is “the new success”). However, we can make it easier (and more compelling) to do so if we create a platform for such honest, open interchange. This is one of the main aims of creating the new EPIC Case Studies as a core part of the conference & community.

Case writing can also result in story structures which flatten out the complexity of what occurred; in the work, and its contexts. Where research projects and business initiatives are a “messy, engaged romp with uncertain outcomes” (Blomberg 2009), we tend to portray them as linear, thought-out endeavors. We can do better.

Why Now?

With the 2016 conference jointly hosted at the University of Minnesota by the Department of Anthropology and the Carlson School of Management, it feels like an especially good moment for EPIC to collectively re-imagine case studies.

The theme of EPIC2016 is Pathmaking – in that spirit we ask, is it possible for us to take case studies to new places and higher ground? We wish to tackle the  challenge of creating case studies showing how ethnography can play an essential role in bringing transformational initiatives to fruition; case studies that bring the complexities of ethnographic pathmaking to life – the pitfalls, dead ends, difficulties, and mistakes experienced along the way.

Business schools use ‘the case study method’ to deliver a significant proportion of MBA teaching. We ask, how would anthropologists write case studies for an MBA class?  Likewise, how would MBAs (and their Professors) account for the role of ethnography (and the ‘facts’ or ‘patterns’ it brings to light) to influence the success, failure, or direction of a business engagement? This is the hybrid space we want EPIC cases to occupy; and we want you to turn these “how woulds?” into published case studies.

Therefore, we urge you to draw upon, explore, and expand the structural, stylistic, and evidential conventions of B-school case study genres (as described in our first post on this subject).

As Part 1 also mentioned, there is an opportunity for ethnographic case studies to find a new audience in business schools, and for ethnographic researchers (and ethnographic research) to become the basis for ‘credible’ business case studies (that could make it onto the HBSP website).

So from the Case Studies panel to you, our imperative is this:

To work through and around existing models to re-imagine what case studies taking full account of ethnographic theory & data can become…then make it so!

A Catch 22?

Authors of ethnographic case studies are in something of a Catch 22. We want to prove the singular value of our contribution – that’s only natural. Yet we don’t want to communicate a naïve belief that ethnographic research can, on its own, solve complex problems.

However, like our business schools colleagues (writing with us) we are often tempted to invoke a problem-ethnography-solution narrative. In this storyline the complexity of the organizational worlds our work traverses can get washed out. This results in what Blomberg, (following Kipling) calls a ‘just so’ story…just a little too good to be true.

Take a case study exploring how a multinational company solves a long period of decline and falling sales. We posit a new understanding of its customers or a cultural phenomenon as the critical factor in solving the problem. In so doing, we obscure the multitude of other problems, factors, and contextual considerations also at play. We drop parallel initiatives and workstreams from our accounts. Our work – the ethnographic research – emerges as the hero. Is that always plausible?

The result, according to Andrew Hill, Management Editor of the Financial Times, is that we “Fail to demonstrate the link or relative contribution of [our] own methods to corporate success. When studying business turnarounds, many factors are at work and correlation is not causation” (Jack, 2014). We enlist you to help us write our way out of this Catch-22. Show that we can both say enough about ethnography to accurately describe its value; while at the same time not overhyping it.

Our Invitation (for taking cases ‘beyond’)…

In this first year of EPIC Case Studies we invite you to:

  1. Engage with the various case genres as established within business schools – what’s useful or missing? How could you extend or develop it? (see Part 1 of this post for more)
  2. Think about what stories of failure, or partial success, could do to extend or enhance the case study method
  3. Reflect on the high level conceptual frameworks (or models) to apply alongside the ‘in the weeds’ activities that contribute to results
  4. Consider all the concrete ‘factors’ and ‘actors’ that combine to make an impact (e.g. multiple causality)
  5. Think globally, not just at the micro level of the client or team you are engaged with

Most importantly, remember this is a new initiative. Surprise us. Be inventive. Be genre-bending.

Read the full EPIC2016 Call for Participation


Jack, Andrew. How Lego Took to Anthropology,The Financial Times

Blomberg, Jeanette. 2009. Insider Trading: Engaging and Valuing Corporate Ethnography, in Cefkin, M (Ed.) Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations. Berghahn Books.



Simon Roberts, (Stripe Partners)

Gary Gebhardt, (HEC Montréal)

Mark Bergen, (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), EPIC2016 Program Committee – Case Studies