The De-skilling of Ethnographic Labor: Signs of an Emerging Predicament

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An oft-stated rule in design and engineering is, “Good, fast, cheap: pick two”. The success of ethnography in business has forced this rule into action with a vengeance. As a result, ethnographers now face a threat experienced by many categories of worker over the past two centuries: job de-skilling. Some mechanisms of de-skilling in business-world ethnography are reviewed, including:

  • simplifications that invert the conventional depth-vs.-breadth balance of ethnographic knowledge;
  • standardizations that permit research to be distributed among workers of varying cost;
  • the rise of ethnographic piecework suppliers who rely on pools of underemployed social scientists.

I argue that pressures leading in this direction must be contested, and that only by altering the cost-time-quality paradigm that controls our work can we restore its value to our employers and clients.

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