Ethnography and organizational processes

M.. van Hulst, S.B. Ybema, D. Yanow

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In recent decades, organizational scholars have set out to explore the processual character of organizations. They have investigated both the overtly ephemeral and sometimes dramatically unstable aspects of contemporary organizing and the social flux and flow of everyday organizing hiding beneath organizations’ stable surface appearances. These studies manifest a range of different approaches and methods. In this chapter, we evaluate the use and usefulness of one of these – ethnography – for studying organizational processes. As ethnographers draw close enough to observe the precariousness of such processes, stay long enough to see change occurring, and are contextually sensitive enough to understand the twists and turns that are part of organizational life, ethnography is well suited for such study. Ethnographers are commonly aware that ‘… incremental shifts and repositioning are the rule, not the exception, in organizational life’ (Morrill and Fine, 1997: 434). ‘By virtue of its situated, unfolding, and temporal nature’, then, as Jarzabkowski et al. (2014: 282) put it, ethnography ‘is revelatory of processual dynamics’.
Ethnography or, to emphasize the processual nature of doing ethnography itself, ethnographying (Tota, 2004; de Jong, Kamsteeg, and Ybema, 2013), typically means three things: (i) doing research (fieldwork), (ii) understanding the world with an orientation towards sensemaking (sensework), and (iii) articulating and presenting those understandings (textwork). The first of these refers to research done through prolonged and intensive engagement with the research setting and its actors, combining different fieldwork methods (observing, with whatever degree of participating; talking to people, including interviewing; and/or the close reading of researchrelevant documents). Second, ethnography embraces a sensibility towards meaning and meaning-making processes, and this shapes the ways its observations and interpretations are carried out. Third, ethnographic analyses are commonly presented through a written text presenting data that give voice to the minutiae of everyday life, in their social, political, and historical contexts, thereby conveying to readers a sense of ‘being there’. This fieldwork, sensework, textwork trio may remind one of other treatments of field research methods (e.g., fieldwork, headwork, and textwork in Van Maanen, 1988; 2011; fieldwork, deskwork, and textwork in Yanow, 2000), which Wilkinson (2014) supplements with preparatory legwork. We replace the middle term with ‘sensework’ to encompass a broader range of analytic activity that is sensitive towards organizational actors’ meaning making, the complexities of the everyday, and the tacitly known and/or concealed dimensions of organizational life. More is involved, in our view, than just the ‘headwork’ of theory-informed interpretation and distanced analysis.
Although previous work has typically not made a process focus explicit, the history of organizational studies shows ethnographic research being sensitive to a key feature of organizing processes unfolding over time: the intersubjective processes of ‘social reality’ construction. Ethnography has commonly required a prolonged period of researcher immersion in the research setting in which fieldwork is being carried out. This has inspired many influential organizational studies, both in the discipline’s early days and in more recent years (Fine, Morrill and Surianarain, 2009; Ybema, Yanow, et al., 2009; Yanow, 2013). Earlier studies delved into the dynamics of, for instance, bureaucratic control and resistance (e.g., Selznick, 1949; Blau, 1955; Kaufman, 1960; Roy, 1960; Crozier, 1964; Kunda, 1992), organizational performances and dramatics (Goffman, 1959), and the unofficial workarounds brought into play through processes of power struggles and local meaning making of labour relations (Dalton, 1959). Some of these studies also covered longer-term developments, such as Gouldner’s follow-up account of worker–management relationships in a gypsum mine (Gouldner, 1954). Although these studies show that an ethnographic approach is well equipped for doing process analyses, processes themselves were not often their explicit concern. More recent ethnographic studies, however, have taken a more explicit ‘process turn’, focusing on the instability and dynamics of organizational life on the ground (e.g., Feldman, 2000; Jay, 2013; Lok and de Rond, 2013).
We begin this chapter with a sketch of studying organizational processes which provides the conceptual footing to argue for the relevance of ethnographying for this kind of study. To bring the processual qualities of ethnographic work into sharp focus, ethnography can be seen as ‘following’ actors, interactions, and artefacts over time and space. Ethnographers go along with actors, interactions, and artefacts on the move or stay in one place observing things that move around them. Next, we explain in more detail what ethnographic fieldwork, sensework, and textwork entail, and how these relate to process. We discuss two different foci in process analysis – long-term developments and microdynamics – and present two recent examples of ethnographic work which illustrate what ethnography can do for the study of process. We conclude with a few suggestions as to how ethnographers could become more processsensitive in their field-, sense-, and textwork. That is, although ethnography has something to contribute to process studies, ethnographers could themselves learn from taking the issues engaged in this handbook into consideration.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Sage Handbook of Process Organization Studies
EditorsH. Tsoukas, A. Langley
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9781446297018
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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