The Real Problem: Rhetorics of Knowing in Corporate Ethnographic Research

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This paper explores discourses of the ‘real’ in commercial ethnographic research, and the transitions and transformations those discourses make possible and impossible. A common strategy to legitimize industrial ethnography is to claim a special relationship to ‘real people’, or argue that one is capturing what is ‘really’ happening in ‘natural’ observation. Distancing language describes ‘insights’ into a situation somehow separate from ourselves, ‘findings’ and ‘quotes’ that we seemingly extract from one context and plunk in another. Whether it is chimps (in Jane Goodall’s case) or consumers (in ours); we know what is going on or not. This model of ethnographic knowing has adopted the naturalistic science discourse of the behavioralist—the neutral observers in an environment. Here we explore how this epistemic culture has been created and its ‘real’ consequences. What we do not attempt is an assertion of the merits of one kind of ethnography over another, or a rehash of tired squabbles about ethnography as method versus ethnography as episteme. In fact, the authors themselves have been utterly complicit in producing discourses of ‘real people’ while holding epistemic allegiances elsewhere. Rather, we are more concerned to investigate the conditions, both within companies and for research agendas, that this way of talking effects. In our experience this language abdicates authorial responsibility, unduly reduces ethnography to ”butterfly collecting” at the expense of other business opportunities.

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