Sustaining Stories … In-house, Ethnographic Practice

In 2008, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) was held in Copenhagen.  Unfortunately, global economic and personal circumstances required a last minute change in our travel plans, and my co-author Johann and I were not able to attend. We asked Simon Pulman-Jones (our session curator) to deliver a shortened version of our presentation using this script.  You may also be interested in reading the full paper from the EPIC 2008 proceedings.

Sustaining Stories:  The Versatile Life of Sustained, In-house, Ethnographic Practice in a Global Software Company

This presentation was prepared in collaboration with Johann Sarmiento-Klapper, Ph.D.

Paper Abstract

Ethnographers, in a sense, play the role of story creators and storytellers.  For “in-house” ethnographers engaged in the long-term work of making sense of and contributing to organizations, a challenge emerges: discovering and managing the retrospective and prospective meaning of their storytelling. The narratives produced in these contexts – and the fieldwork from which they emerge – may make visible trajectories of practice for both subjects and researcher alike.  Here we reflect on the challenges and opportunities of sustaining ethnographic inquiry in a large global software company. Reflecting on close to ten years of participant observation, we outline some of our practices related to positioning, re-framing, and expanding ethnographic work, a dynamic that continues to shape our practice and its relevance within this corporate environment.

Session Abstract

This panel was curated by Simon Pulman-Jones
In sight on site: revealing and sustaining valuable knowledge for corporations
For panel participants and details, visit the EPIC 2008 website.


Market Discourse and the Evolution of Corporate Anthropology

Market Discourse and the Evolution of Corporate Anthropology

A man uses a mobile phone in front of an electronic board displaying market indices from around the world, outside a brokerage in Tokyo

Paper Abstract

As anthropologists, we position the value of our perspective and services in the corporate context.  Thus, we both perpetuate and are subject to the discourse of the market.  This paper describes one company’s transformation from a technocratic to market-driven mindset, and how workers are managed – through the proliferation of market discourse internal to the corporation – to become not simply producers, but consumers of the company’s future and their own careers. This paper goes on to argue that these changing patterns of work and worker control have an impact on the corporate form and those individuals – including anthropologists – who survive in its ecosystem.

Session Participants

  • Melissa Cefkin, IBM (Organizer & Chair)
  • Brigitte Jordan. Palo Alto Research Center
  • Melissa Fisher, Columbia University
  • Donna K. Flynn, Microsoft Corporation
  • Martin Ortlieb, Yahoo Corporation
  • Ari Shapiro, Hall and Partners Healthcare
  • Patricia Sachs, Social Solutions Inc.
  • Elizabeth Tunstall, Arc Worldwide
  • Francoise Brun-Cottan, Veri-phi Consulting
  • Rick Robinson, NOP World (Discussant)
  • Jeanette Blomberg, IBM Research Almaden (Discussant)

Session Abstract

Workplace and Consumer Studies: A Dialogue

In this panel consumer and workplace researchers explore the common and different issues raised by their work, addressing their experiences as experts sought out to reveal hidden truths on the one hand, and to provide research-based scientific validation of concepts and programs on the other. We explore how business ideologies and structures, modes of knowledge production, and consumer and workplace practices are impacted by the work of anthropologists within consulting, design, branding, and market research firms. We ask how understandings of consumers are embedded and reified in organizational contexts and market discourses, and how understandings of work and workers come up against orthodoxies of company tools and operations. Finally, we frame questions about the anthropological enterprise itself by considering the practices of anthropologists in collaborative  research teams and in the process of building understanding together with stakeholders in business enterprises.

This dialogue is intended to put the two distinct but interrelated areas of research – workplace and consumer studies – into dialogue in order to challenge and advance this area of practicing anthropology and ideally to deepen the value these areas of work on both the discipline of anthropology and on the social contexts of their practice. Researchers in these areas contend with over-determined notions of scientific rationality while artfully engaged in sense-making endeavors that remain true to the interests and expressions of their study participants. What implications do the differences between these areas of study have for the kind of work that practicing anthropologists do, the questions they ask, and the approaches they use?

Consuming Work, Producing Self – Chapter Summaries

This dissertation will describe the how practices of employee control in the corporation reflect both the changing global context and specific, local forces at play in one U.S. high tech corporation.  The chapters are organized to some degree around Foucault’s four arenas of power (see pages 7 through 10 of the Introduction), though there are almost always multiple dimensions of power enacted simultaneously.

Chapter 2: Control from the Core describes technologies of power – the bureaucratic framework that is in place to manage the corporation, with a particular focus on global management of the U.S. subsidiary.  Global policies and programs seek to reinforce the authority of the parent company.  This chapter explores how experiences and perceptions of the global organization vary widely within the diverse populations of the subsidiary.  The chapter also explores how and where local understanding diverges from the global.

As computing technology and technical literacy become more prevalent in corporations, computing technologies play an increasing role in the lives of workers.  This is especially true in the high tech industry.  Does (or how does) the experience vary for employees who are physically or strategically proximate to the core?  How are computing technologies used in tandem with other means to elicit the desired behaviors from employees?  Chapter 3: Trouble Tickets and Time assesses the way(s) in which employees are constituted as part of the socio-technical systems in which they work, and how they co-construct the technologies of power and production to which they are subject.

Given that corporations are dispersed around the globe and that many working teams are no longer co-located, Chapter 4: The Ant Farm explores the significance of space in relation to corporate values and priorities.  What meaning does a headquarters building have in this context, how do understandings of space differ, and why?  In general, how does placement in space (relative to the core) or even absence of space have significance?  In other words, how is space a technology of power, and what form does the Panopticon take in this new work context?

In order to ensure employee compliance in the attainment of corporate objectives, mechanisms of control must be personalized in such a way that they constitute the worker as subject.  Chapter 5 seeks to explain how this transpires in the high tech corporation.  What forms of discipline – including technologies of the self – are at work in corporations today, and what discourse frames them?  As global markets expand and contract and as mergers and acquisitions alter the competitive landscape, the free market system demands increasing differentiation (Leslie 1995:403).  Chapter 5: ‘Outside In’: Personalizing the Market further explores how the corporate discourse evolves in response to these pressures.  Internally, do new more totalizing mechanisms emerge as Foucault, Burrell (1988) and others would suggest?  Do or how do these new practices build on the old?  How do both sign systems and the relationship with external audiences evolve, and what impact does this have on employees?

Chapter 6: Organizing and Re-organizing also explores what happens when theoretical concepts of management theory meet the realities of corporate life.  Building on the legacy of Weber and others, management theorists argue for a progression of corporate forms and practices; these are the primary analysts of corporate practices today.  But can these theories account for the complexities and human concerns of everyday reality as experienced by employees?  Do (or how do) employees make sense of rapidly changing categories in the high tech corporate setting?  In exploring these and other questions, Chapter 6 furthers the case for ethnographic approaches in the study of corporations.

In conclusion, Chapter 7: Conclusion evaluates how the ethnography of TechSoft America furthers our understanding of the current practices of high tech corporations, what this means for the lived experiences of employees, and for the future of work in a globally dispersed corporate context.  It closes by assessing the larger implications of this research and suggesting areas that warrant further exploration.


You can download my complete dissertation, or use the links below to download just the sections that are of the most interest to you.  You can also watch my dissertation defense here.

Table of Contents
01 Introduction
02  Control from the Core
03  Trouble Tickets and Time
04  The Ant Farm
05 ‘Outside In’: Personalizing the Market
06  Organizing and Re-organizing
07  Conclusion
References Cited

Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work

This page provides video clips and a short summary of my dissertation defense, which I delivered as part of the requirements for my Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology in June 2004.  You can also read Chapter Summaries and download my dissertation if you’re interested.  

Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work

Presentation Video

0 Introduction (1:48 min, 3.1 mb)

1 Research Site (15:06 min, 21.5 mb)

2 Argument Summary (1:41 min, 5.1 mb)

3 Forms of Power (10:30 min, 16.6 mb)

4 Technologies of the Self (15:33 min, 24.8 mb)

5 Methodology, Studying Up (6:45 min, 10.7 mb)

Presentation Summary

In the Introduction, I briefly describe the challenges in formulating a meaningful and appropriate research question.  After a couple of false starts, I really became focused on what was so compelling about my work environment, and why I thought it was an important arena for study.  I realized that a growing focus on the customer – and the resulting market discourse – was resulting in internal transformation activities at ‘Techsoft‘ which I felt were worth exploring.

In the section about my dissertation Research Site, I describe ‘the field’ as a globally dispersed corporation and the industry in which it resides.  However, this is not a ethnography about a well-bounded physical space.  Rather, I argue that the research site is a corporation bound by a common discourse.  I also situate that discourse in the major economic industry trends in the US during my research period.  Techsoft is a company with headquarters in Europe and offices worldwide, so I also discuss the experience of US employees in being managed by a foreign parent company, and how various understandings of what constitutes ‘the core’ leads to intra-organizational challenges.

In the dissertation title ‘Consuming Work, Producing Self’, work is both something to consume (verb), but also something that is consuming (adjective).  The Argument Summary, states that management practices have had to evolve in response to the changing nature of work today, as well as an increase in service and knowledge work.  Corporations have to find ways to get employees to internalize corporate values – they consume the messages of the corporation and in turn produce themselves as corporate citizens.

In Forms of Power, I use a theoretical framework from Foucault to show how different mechanisms of control work in concert to exercise power over employees.  In this passage I provide some short examples from my fieldwork about the different types of control described by Foucault.  For example:

  • I look at how call centers encourage employees to self-manage, in addition to (or in spite of) the many technologies that are used to measure and manage them.
  • I share examples of the market discourse and it’s critical role in the evolution of Techsoft, including an internal and external-facing branding campaign.
  • I look at the various ways that internal practices have evolved to change employee behavior, including the performance management and employee rewards processes.
  • I look at the physical space, how it was constructed and why, as well as how that has evolved as the corporation has evolved.

At the heart of the dissertation is the notion of Technologies of the Self.  Based on the work of Foucault, I argue that due to the nature of dispersed knowledge work, the only constant, local point to exercise control is the individual.  Technologies of the self ensure the institutionalization of employees well beyond the apparent boundaries of the corporation.

The remainder of this section is devoted to exploring the core themes of Consuming Work and Producing Self.  Work in the corporation today is demanding (and some might even argue destructive) at a number of levels. Work consumes time that might have otherwise been spent with family, and career growth itself often demands a variety of sacrifices.  It alters the boundaries of work and home, dictates the rhythms of life at and outside of work, and demands mobility.  At the same time, workers must willinglyconsume work, and demonstrate both their satisfaction with and commitment to corporate life in order to succeed.

Consumer culture and market discourse inside the corporation are part of a larger economic trend called the culture of enterprise.  This trend is not just about the changing nature of free markets and corporate practices, it also has to do with changes in individual behavior, and the way that producers are subordinated to the needs of consumers.  But what happens when we consider that employees are producing their own careers?  To whose interests are they subordinate?  I argue that workers are producingthemselves as commodities to be consumed in the job market.

In the Methodology & Studying Up section, I discuss some of the challenges I’ve face in conducting research in one’s own place of work, especially a high-tech company like Techsoft, which has a very strong focus on controlling both intellectual property and market perception.

Across the Wall: Ethnographers and Technologists at Work Together

Across the Wall: Ethnographers and Technologists at Work Together

Panel Participants

  • Natalie Hanson, SAP (Organizer & Chair)
  • Jill Boncek and Jeff Pierce, Pitney Bowes
  • Brigitte Jordan and Richard Tyo, Intel
  • Tracey Lovejoy and Nelle Steele, Microsoft

Session Abstract

More and more, corporate decision makers and technologists recognize the value of ethnographic insights. As a consequence, there is an ever-increasing demand for ethnographic expertise in corporate settings.  This Roundtable is comprised of three ethnographer-technologist teams who have been involved in the design and development of new technologies, processes, products and services.  All of us are struggling with the issues that arise in the high-tech arena, where traditional ethnographic methods are expected to drive business objectives.

At our Roundtable we propose to share some of our recent experiences and engage with the audience in exploring the kinds of issues that turn up routinely in our work. Among the questions that we expect to address are the following:

  • What led up to the engagement between ethnographer(s) and technologist(s)?  This will serve as an introduction to Roundtable participants. What were the mutual expectations?
  • How have those expectations evolved?
  • How have team structure and process evolved over time, why, and what impact have these changes had?  How do different perspectives impact collaboration?
  • What preliminary lessons can we draw at this point?  How can we increase the value of anthropology in technical and business applications?  How can we help technologists and their managers better understand the true potential of ethnography?

Given the salience of these topics on both sides of The Wall, we expect a lively exchange among rroundtable participants that, with major audience participation, should substantially advance the dialogue between ethnographers and their corporate sponsors.