Organizational ethnography on the rise?

While at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Aug., I stopped by a professional development workshop on “producing ethnographies.” As an organizational ethnographer, I was curious to see what fellow ethnographers had to say about the process of conducting observations and participant observations in a context – an organization – that many take-for-granted and comparatively few study in-depth. Most contemporary collective action is channeled via formal organizations, which have become extremely powerful actors – for example, in the US, corporations have more rights and fewer responsibilities than human individuals. These suggest that understanding how organizations work should be a priority both for researchers and for individuals wishing to survive and thrive in organizations (indeed, colleagues constantly confer with me to make sense of the latest puzzling dysfunction of their organizations). However, when colorful or complex activities draw most people’s attention, it’s easy to overlook the organizational underpinnings that enable such activities.

Here, I’ll briefly comment one speaker’s presentation. Anthropologist Karen Ho, who conducted a participant observation study of Wall Street firms, made an impassioned argument for studying the elites and their organizations. As an organizational sociologist, I would not require such convincing – in fact, most people in my field would view studying firms such as an investment bank as legitimate or even more legitimate than studying other kinds of organizations. Based on the various special panels proposed to conferences, it seems that more sociologists are becoming interested in understanding how/why particular groups are rich and/or powerful. In addition, part of the general public is beginning to understand that organizations play crucial roles in shaping individuals’ life chances through the control of resources (for example, mortgages and student loans) and influence in the political process. Hopefully, this signals a trend that supports in-depth, empirical research of organizations.

Are you considering graduate school? Currently in graduate school? Finishing graduate school?

Increasingly, I get more inquiries from students who are interested in completing a masters or doctoral degree. Some believe that these degrees will help them land their dream jobs in an increasingly tight job market. Others aspire to be professors or researchers. Both groups often have erroneous assumptions about what training in the academy involves. For example, would-be PhD students typically don’t understand what a PhD is for – usually, it’s intended as preparation for a career as a professor or a researcher. Or, would-be graduate students underestimate the length of time it may take to complete a doctoral degree (hint: it doesn’t take 1 year – add a zero behind that 1 for some disciplines or departments), misunderstand what the graduate school process is like (hint: it doesn’t just involve reading and taking classes; students have to be self-directed enough to undertake a research project from conceptualization through write-up), and overestimate the availability of tenure-track appointments (hint: in my field, a tenure-track position may get at least 300 applications; I’ve seen figures that estimate as few as 5% of those completing a PhD overall will get a tenure-track position).

Orgtheorist Fabio Rojas has published an ebook Grad Skool Rulz which expands upon a popular series of blog posts. I’ve read an earlier draft of the ebook; it presents no-holds-barred advice on reasons as to why one should or shouldn’t go to graduate school, how to apply for graduate school, how to select a program, and how to thrive in a program. If you are considering getting a masters or doctoral degree, spend the bargain-priced $2 (yes, just two bucks) to think through whether the opportunity cost of spending between 2 to 10 years out (or partially out) of the job market is worth your while.