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October 13, 2010


Rich Metters

Ethnography is listed as one of the qualitative techniques that is rarely seen in OM journals. However, ethnographic research in OM is commonly done – just not by OM scholars. I believe OM scholars can learn a lot from the perspectives of those who have done ethnographic studies. As noted by Autry and Flint, these people ask different questions than we do, opening up new avenues of research that cannot be approached using traditional OM methods.

We normally think of Anthropologists as tromping through the jungles of New Guinea to observe a tribe still living in the Bronze Age. But, in a style I would call “corporate anthropology,” Anthropologists and Women’s Studies scholars have been performing ethnographic studies of OM for decades.

One approach is that of Freeman (1993): She spent two years in the field, including several months in the offices of one of the first services offshoring ventures of U.S. multi-national firms, observing the clash between the expectations of U.S. management and native employees. Ngai (2005) posed as a worker in a Shenzhen, China factory (with management permission), working in the factory and sleeping in the factory dormitories for nearly six months. Kim (1997) posed as a worker in a South Korean factory (without management knowledge) for three months.

A less personally invasive style involves detailed, lengthy qualitative worker interviews. Kung (1983) interviewed many factory workers over a lengthy time period in Taiwan to get her PhD from Yale. Ong (1987) focused on factory workers in Malaysia.

Personally, I am not inspired to pose as a South Korean factory worker. I think I would be “found out” quickly, and the work does not appeal. The point is not that we as OM scholars necessarily should do this, but we should be open to the different questions that can be asked by these approaches and avail ourselves of their findings.

In general, our methodological approaches allow us to ask questions like “how many?” “yes or no?”. Ethnography allows us to ask “how?” and “why?” As an illustrative example, many OM researchers have pursued the question of “national specificity” for TQM. The operative question is “yes or no”, does the nation that a firm is in affect TQM implementation. Our field has come to mixed results, with half a dozen studies claiming that nationality doesn’t matter, and another half dozen claiming it does (space prohibits listing them). Many of the Anthropologists and Women’s Studies scholars listed above also studied TQM implementation. However, their questions were “how are TQM programs thwarted? What are the precise mechanisms?” or “why does a TQM program not work?”

Many OM scholars balk at qualitative methods in general, and ethnography in particular. Ethnography is just “telling stories” and is “reporting, not research.” We do not see many ethnographic studies in our journals because we routinely reject the few we receive. However, in limiting our field to a set of approved methodological approaches, we succeed in limiting ourselves.

Freeman, C. 1993. Designing Women: Corporate Discipline and Barbados’ Offshore Pink Collar Sector. Cultural Anthropology, 8(2), 169-186.

Kim, S. 1997. Class Struggle or Family Struggle? The Lives of Women Factory Workers in South Korea. Cambridge U. Press, Cambridge, U.K.

Kung, L. 1983. Factory Women in Taiwan. UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, MI, USA.

Ngai, P. 2005. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Duke U. Press, Durham, NC, USA.

Ong, A. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Decline: Factory Women in Malaysia. State U. of New York Press, Abany, NY, USA.

Ken Boyer, Ohio State U

I agree with Rich Metters. There is a lot to be gained in ethnographic techniques. It may not be strictly ethnographic, but Adler and Cole (1991 original, re-published in 2000) used a series of interviews, site visits and immersion to study the NUMMI Toyota-GM joint venture in California. This came at a time when many researchers were trying to sort through the many competing claims regarding just-in-time production (now lean). This study has been cited a few hundred times. I remember several other researchers that worked in JIT plants - and of course the Machine That Changed the World was, I believe, partly ethnographic. And let's not forget that the famous Hawthorne effect was discovered through observation of workers at a factory outside Chicago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorne_effect)

In short, there are many benefits to enthnographic research, and much research that is on "operations" is often published in a wide range of fields and journals.

Adler, PS and Cole, RE, "Designed for Learning: A Tale of Two Auto Plants", in Technology, Organizations and Innovation: Critical Empirical Studies, by David Preece, Iam McLoughlin and Patrick Dawson, 2000.

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