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Contributions of Critical Realist Ethnography

in researching the Multinational Organisation.

Stream 4: Critical Perspectives on Researching and Theorizing the Multinational

Dr Diana Rosemary Sharpe

Monmouth University
School of Business Administration
West Long Branch,
New Jersey 07764, USA
Tel: +1 732 571 3435
Fax: +1 732 263 5518

This paper examines the contribution that critical realist ethnographic research can make to the
field of international business and international management (IB/IM) research. Focusing
specifically on the multinational organization as a site of much theoretical and empirical interest,
the paper outlines the relevance of critical realist ethnographic research approaches to an
understanding of practices and processes within the multinational organization. In carrying out
research on the comparative study of organizations in a cross-national context a number of
methodological issues are faced. Issues raised include the relation between structures and
processes, the connection between the micro level and the macro level and the treatment of
time in addressing research questions concerning changes in organizations and institutional
contexts. The paper argues for a methodology for the comparative study of economic
organizations that is sensitive to process. Process is seen as being influenced by structures but
not determined by them. Critical realism is seen to be helpful as a sensitizing tool and means of
conceptualizing the phenomenon studied.
Whilst ethnographic studies in the hermeneutic tradition work with an ontology encouraging
focus on agents conceptualizations, critical realist ethnographies set out from the premise that
subjects own accounts are the starting point but not the end of the research process. Realist
ontologies seek to go beyond agents conceptualizations of events and seek to look at social
structures. Within a realist ontology social phenomenon are seen as a result of a plurality of
structures. Human action is conceived as both enabled and constrained by social structures, but
this action in turn reproduces or transforms those structures (Bhaskar 1979). Ethnographic
investigations within this context can be used to explore the relationship between structure and
agency. A realist approach to ethnography aims not only to describe events but also to explain
them, by identifying the influence of structural factors on human agency. Explanation also
focuses on how agency maintains or transforms these structures. The paper draws on a critical
realist ethnography of the transfer of management practices within a multinational



A key player in the field of international business is the multinational enterprise (MNE), having
headquarters in one country but operations in other countries. Interest in the management of the
MNE has been a significant area of developing research within the field of IB/IM. Management
practices, work organization and control strategies within the MNE and the nature of subsidiary
headquarter relations are examples of areas that have received significant research and
theoretical attention in the field. It is interesting to note however, that the vast majority of
research publications in the field do not draw on qualitative research methods. For example in a
review of articles published in six leading IB journals in the 1991-2001 period Andersen and
Skaates (2004) found that only 10 per cent of published articles used qualitative methods.
Research publications based on qualitative research methods have in turn drawn primarily on
case study research and interviewing. Within handbooks of qualitative research methods for
international business (Marschan- Piekkari and Welch 2004) ethnographic research approaches
can be found under the section on alternative methods and methodologies.

In the inaugural issue of the journal Ethnography, Willis and Trondman (2000) refer to
arguably the first ethnographer Herodutus who said in possibly the first ethnography
The History ( trans. 1987:171).. So far it is my eyes, my judgement, and my searching that
speaks these words to you. In this way This-ness and lived- out-ness is central to the
ethnographers account.
Willis and Trondman (2000: 5) outline ethnography as a family of methods involving direct
and sustained social contact with agents, and of richly writing up the encounter, recording,
respecting and representing at least partly in its own terms the irreducibility of human
experience. Ethnography is the disciplined and deliberate witness cum recording of human
Ethnography is an established practice within a variety of disciplines with their own histories,
most notably in anthropology for which it serves as a specific method and rite of passage. As
noted by Hammersley and Atkinson (1997) ethnography is in many respects the most basic form
of social research. Not only does it have a long history, it also bears a close resemblance to the
routine ways in which people make sense of the world in everyday life. Some commentators see
this as its basic strength, others see it as a fundamental weakness.
Within the field of IB/IM, the dearth of research drawing on ethnographic approaches can be
seen as the outcome of researchers prior exposure to and socialization into, particular intellectual
traditions and social traditions, mores, norms and values which in turn shape researchers
philosophical assumptions regarding what constitutes warranted knowledge in the field. As noted
by Rosen (1991) an individual conducts ethnography because the problems that interest him or
her are believed to be best mined by the machinery o f ethnography, and conveyed in its product.
Organizational Ethnographies and Hermeneutic Traditions
An underlying premise guiding much qualitative research including ethnographic research in the
hermeneutic tradition is that the subject matter of the social sciences is fundamentally different to
that of the natural sciences. Human action has an internal logic, which must be understood in
order to make action intelligible. Further, the social world cannot be understood in terms of
causal relationships that do not take into account that human actions are based on actors
interpretations of events, intentions, motives, attitudes and beliefs. In this way research in the
social sciences is seen to require emic analysis in which the meanings and interpretatio ns of
those being studied is important rather than placing an etic external logic on the behavior. In this
way the task of the social scientist is to understand the framework of meaning out of which
behavior arises. The nature of the social world must be discovered and this can only be
achieved by first hand observation and participation in natural settings.
In this way ethnography can be described as a longitudinal research method, that is geared
towards a process based understanding of organizational life. Ethnographic studies in the
hermeneutic tradition tend to follow the thesis of Winch (1958) that a set of behaviors can be
termed an action if it is given, or could be given, a meaning by those carrying out the action.
Meaningful behavior is to be explicated as governed by rules. For Winch, analysis of reasons,

purposes and rules is more appropriate to the study of social processes than cause, effect and law,
thereby requiring a study of the culture in which these are embedded. For Geertz (1973: 21)
ethnography is microscopic, involves thick description, it is interpretive, the ethnographer
inscribes social discourse, writing it down. Further the essential task of theory building is not to
codify abstract regularities but to make thick descrip tion possible, not to generalize across cases
but to generalize within them.
Some classic organizational ethnographies for example of Lupton (1963), Roy (1952, 1955),
Burawoy (1979) and Kamata (1982) have demonstrated the contribution that ethnographic
approaches can make in gaining insights into social processes in organizations. For example the
work of Kamata and Roy provided detailed analysis of manufacturing companies shop floor
processes in specific contexts by focusing on worker behaviour within factory settings.
In the field of IB/IM, research on the multinational organization for example has only
occasionally been based on ethnographic approaches. Research questions posed in the field and
the underlying assumptions about organizations have arguably discouraged the adoption of
ethnographic approaches. Taking, for example, dominant approaches to the study of
internationalization and multinational firms, much research has been shaped by an economic
view of the world that includes assumptions of rationality, goal- directed action and the
determinant nature of market processes. Research has tended to leave unexamined or
unproblematic a huge part of the social life of firms and multinationals in favor of model
building based on assumptio ns of rationality and efficient market mechanisms (Morgan 2001)
Boddewyn et al (2004) consider the notion that international management is a socially
constructed activity in which managers involved in cross cultural activity encounter unique
problems and situations that require some social construction. Problems and situations may be
interpreted differently by distinct types of managers. For example locals, expatriates and third
country nationals. Therefore their solutions to problems and their ways of handling situations
will differ. For Bartlett and Ghoshal (1993) a key component of what is seen as international
management is the ability to work with two or more sets of experiences. Ethnographic
approaches are well suited to capture these processes of management as socially constructed
The need to learn the culture of those we are studying is most obvious in the case of societies
other than our own. Here we may not know why people are doing what they are doing, or even
when they are doing it. The relevance of an ethnographic approach to research in such a context
is highlighted. In the field of international business and international management research the
potential opportunities for ethnographic research have not been fully realized. For example a
large amount of research on multinational organizations has used survey style research and
structured questionnaires to address research questions of what management practices and work
systems have been transferred from headquarters to subsidiaries within the multinational. Framed
within positivist epistemologies and nomothetic research designs such surveys often are pitched
at top management and require an acknowledgement of whether a practice has been transferred.
For example whether quality circles or teamworking has been introduced. Such analytical survey
design is less suited to an understanding of how management practices are introduced, received,
responded to, adapted, resisted or transformed in different contexts. Ethnographic approaches

can make a significant contribution in this regard by providing an indepth insight into how
management practices translate across different social contexts and the ways in which different
social groups and individuals may make sense of and respond to the practices. It can be argued
that the how questions are of much significance for an understanding of why particular
management strategies within a subsidiary may have unintended outcomes and why performance
may be less than anticipated.
Ethnographic stud ies in the hermeneutic tradition seek to provide thick descriptions of the
context in which management practices are introduced and examine the ways in which different
groups may make sense of and respond to the practices. In this way ethnographic approaches
provide an opportunity to study and portray the diversity of cultures in an organizational context
and to provide a rich appreciation of the organization as a social and political arena. Rather than
seeking to identify discrete taxonomies of control systems, such approaches seek to for example
examine the social relations and social processes surrounding the control systems, including
workers commitment and / or resistance and authority relations through the researcher providing
a a thick description of the cultures studied.
As Van Maanen outlines (1979: 539) ethnographic research is more than a single method and
can be distinguished from participant observation in that it has a broader aim of achieving an
analytical description of a culture. In an or ganizational setting the ethnographic question of what
it is to be, rather than to see, a member of the organization, is faced by the researcher.
Critical Realist Ethnographies
Whilst ethnographic studies in the hermeneutic tradition work with an ontology encouraging
focus on agents conceptualizations, there is a relatively smaller number of studies in the field of
organization studies/ IB/IM premised on a critical realist ontology (for example, Porter 1993,
Reed 2001, Delbridge 1998). Critical realist ethnographies set out from the premise that subjects
own accounts are the starting point but not the end of the research process. Realist ontologies
therefore seek to go beyond agents conceptualizations of events and seek to look at social
struc tures. Within a realist ontology social phenomenon are seen as a result of a plurality of
structures. Human action is conceived as both enabled and constrained by social structures, but
this action in turn reproduces or transforms those structures (Bhaskar 1979). Ethnographic
investigations within this context can be used to explore the relationship between structure and
agency. A realist approach to ethnography aims not only to describe events but also to explain
them, by identifying the influence of structural factors on human agency. Explanation also
focuses on how agency maintains or transforms these structures. The focus on structures as
well as agents conceptualizations distinguishes critical realist ethnographies from ethnographies
in the hermene utic tradition.
An Example of Researching the Transfer of Management Practices within a Multinational
Structures and processes in studying cross border interactions within multinationals.
Research, on the transfer of management practices within multinationals, (eg. Oliver et al 1994),
note how organizations adopting similar structures may have different outcomes which requires
an understanding of process as well as context. In this way a processual study of the transfer of
practices will look for the ways in which practices are not simply reproduced in different sites of

the multinational, but are open to a process of experimentation and adjustment over time in the
light of responses in the subsidiary context. Smith and Elger (1996) note how multinationals are
important media for the transmission of innovations in the organization of production and the
regulation of labor, but that the very character of such model practices as embedded, evolving
and incomplete recipes, means that they are never simply reproduced at any specific production
site, at home or in a foreign context. In this way corporate managers and local managers are seen
as drawing on different cultural repertoires of organisational practices and are engaged in the
more or less skilful selection, adaptation and development of these practices. This takes place
within the specific and evolving role of the plant within the wider company, distinctive
configurations of suppliers, customers and sister plants and the environmental institutions for
example of state regulation, labor supply and industrial relations (Smith and Elger 1996:27). It
can be argued that measurements of structure provide static sensitizing explanatory frameworks
whereas a study of process involves looking at continuity and change in organizational practices
over time.
In researching the transfer of management practices within a multinational organization I was
interested in researching how control systems were introduced and sustained in different
contexts. Comparative ethnographic case studies across subsidiaries of a Japanese manufacturing
organization in the UK examined how managerial control systems were introduced and adapted
and with what outcomes. Methodologically the research aimed to look at the implementation of
management practices as ongoing social processes and in this way move from analysis solely of
structures to an analysis of processes within and across structures. This was believed to be
important in addressing the theoretical question of under what conditions and how
managerial practices may be transferred, sustained, resisted and adapted within the context of the
multinational organization.
Survey style research of the nature of management practices, whilst describing certain practices
does not help to unravel how management practices may be applied differently, for example,
according to the experience or individual considerations of a subsidiary manager. Therefore how
a practice is introduced and the responses from employees is an important focus for analysis in
its own right. The focus on process enables a view of the organisation as a political arena in
which social interaction, power and political games become more central in the analysis and
understanding of organizational life. These in turn are shaped by the wider institutional context.
The above example of research on the transfer of managerial control systems across contexts has
sought to defend the raising of research questions that address the how as well as the what in
studying change within the context of the multinational organization, and to highlight the
contribution that critical realist ethnographies can make in addressing the research questions
posed above.
Methodological issues: linking macro and micro level analysis, the relation between
structures and processes in the study of multinationals. In carrying out research on the
comparative study of organizations in a cross- national context a number of methodological
issues are faced. Issues raised include the relation between structures and processes, the
connection between the micro level and the macro level and the treatment of time in addressing
research questions concerning changes in organizations and institutional contexts. This paper

argues for a methodology for the comparative study of economic organizations that is sensitive
to process. Process is seen as being influenced by structures but not determined by them.
Critical realism is seen to be helpful as a sensitizing tool and means of conceptualizing the
phenomenon studied. This can be considered through reflection on the study of the transfer of
management practices within a multinational. In this study the research sought to examine the
importance of context and contingencies in influencing the implementation and evolution of shop
floor managerial control systems across two Japanese subsidiaries in the UK. The research began
with an awareness of the ideal typical Japanese and English work organization and control
systems and how these were embedded in broader social and institutional arrangements. The
research was interested in examining the following issues:
-the various means of managerial control on the shop floor within the UK subsidiaries of the
Japanese multinational, including formal and informal, social and technical.
-In addressing process as well as structure the research also wanted to learn how the control
systems were sustained, adapted and resisted in the local context over time.
-the implications of these processes for the outcomes including the experience of work and
organizational performance.
Such research questions therefore required micro level and macro level analysis and a link
between the two in studying cross border interactions within the firm. The research questions are
also put forward from the standpoint that the study of the experience of changes in organizations
and institutional contexts at the level of the individual are important both for theorizing about
change and for developing policy implications on change. Such a standpoint takes the position
that as researchers we can also inform policy makers and other stakeholders in reflecting on
organizational and institutional change. The specific research questions were addressed by
adopting critical realist ethnography, which enabled the micro level study of processes to be
linked to underlying structures, generative mechanisms and contingencies influencing outcomes.
In researching the multinational as an organization that crosses over institutional and national
divides, the notion of a transnational social space that is created by the flows of people, ideas,
resources and practices provides an interesting context in which to consider the potential
contribution of ethnographic research to capturing the meanings of practices and actions for the
actors involved, and the ways in which these meanings are themselves shaped by the realities of
work for different actors in this transnational social space. The concept of transnational social
space (Morgan 2001) provides a lens through which to look at social processes within the arena
of the multinational, and provides a conceptual framework for researchers that is accessible to a
processual study of the experience of individuals and communities that engage within the social
space. The concept of transnational social space links the experience of actors to the internal
managerial control strategies of firms and managers and to the transnational communities that
cut across the boundaries of the firm and connect the individual into social groupings that span
institutional contexts.
The connection between the shaping of internal processes within the transnational social space of
a multinational and wider institutional structures at a local, national or international level (Djelic
and Bensedrine 2001) sensitizes the researcher to the importance of connecting the micro level
analysis of actors experiences with macro level structures in which they have been shaped and
influenced (and seek to influence). This encourages analysis that moves beyond agents own

conceptualizations. As Porter outlines: exclusive concentration on and uncritical acceptance of

subjects own accounts is the Achilles heel of phenomenological ethnography. Understanding
actors viewpoints may be a necessary condition for social knowledge, but it is not a sufficient
one. For critical realists the ontological assumption that individual interactions and
interpretations are ultimately all there are leads to analytical superficiality. (Porter 1993: 596). A
realist ontology considers social reality as the result of a plurality of structures with human
action being both enabled and constrained by social structures. This action in turn reproduces or
transforms those structures (Bhaskar, 1979). A realist framework thereby provides a sensitizing
tool and means of conceptualizing how the actors experience within the transnational social
space can best be examined by a macro regress to the social structures shaping and constraining
individual action.
Explanation and the role of agency in maintaining and transforming structures.
A realist ethnography aims not only to describe events but also to explain them, by identifying
the influence of structural factors on human agency. Explanation also focuses on how agency
maintains or transforms these structures. Critical realism thereby provides an epistemology and
ontology for examining changes in institutional structures and the relationship between structures
and agency in processes of change. Ethnographic investigation within this context can be used to
explore the relationship between agency and structure and to explore the changing nature of
generative mechanisms that impact on the transnational social space of the multinational.
In the research work I conducted on the multinational outlined above, adopting a critical realist
epistemology allowed for the recognition of the role of structure and human agency in the
analysis of shop floor practices under changing forms of managerial control. The structures
referred to in the realist analysis can be considered as sets of internally related objects or
practices. The manager, trainer, associate internal relations in the Japanese work organization
form a social structure for example. Even though social structures exist only where people
reproduce them, Sayer (1992, 2000) outlines how in the case of internally related objects (for
example team leader and team member), emergent powers are created because this type of
combination of individuals modifies their powers in fundamental ways. Thus, although social
structures exist only where people reproduce them, they have powers irreducible to those of
individuals. In this way, explanation of the actions of individuals in my comparative study of
managerial contro l systems required supplementing of agents conceptualizations with a macroregress to the social structures in which they are located.
Critical realist ethnography provides a means of examining and theorizing about the connections
between micro-practices and macro-structures. Realists note that research in the social world has
to acknowledge the nature of social systems as open systems and that theory development cannot
be approached in the same way as in closed systems. (Sayer 1992, Layder 1993). For realists, the
impossibility of constructing the conditions of closure in the social sciences means that the social
sciences are primarily explanatory and not predictive. Explanation and prediction are
symmetrical only under conditions of closure. For the critical realist ethnographer the intellectual
journey in the field moves on two tracks (Tsoukas 1989). On the first hand it is up in the
clouds, dealing with abstract and theoretical conceptualization of the issue at hand. By contrast,
the second track is down to earth looking for the specific differences within and across cases,

investigating the existing contingencies and their interaction with the postulated mechanisms.
Empirically, ideographic studies help elucidate the specific, contingent manner in which a certain
mix of causal powers has been formed and activated.
Issues raised in the Practice of Ethnography in International Business Research and in
researching the multinational
One key issue that requires reflection in any ethnographic research project is the issue of
representation. Whilst this is not specific to research in IB/IM, consideration of this issue is
central in the context of IB/IM research
Representation of and relations with those we research. In the opening article in the first
edition of the journal ethnography, Willis and Trondman (2000) speak on the knowledge
produced in social science, arguing that too much of the knowledge produced has become more
or less irrelevant to the nitty gritty of how social actors experience and attempt to penetrate and
shape their conditions of existence. Whilst ethnographers seek to delve into and share with the
reader of the ethnographic text this nitty gritty of social life, there is considerable debate over the
ways in which representation is made in the text (for example Abu-Lughod 2000). The nitty
gritty of everyday life cannot be presented as raw unmediated data argues Willis and Trondman
(2000), this is the empiricist fallacy- that data in some way speaks for itself. The principle of
reflexivity recognizes that texts, do not, simply and transparently report an independent order of
reality. Rather the texts themselves are implicated in the work of reality construction. In this
way the ethnographic text requires a reflexive awareness of its own writing, the possibilities and
limits of its own language and a principled exploration of its modes of representation.
Ethnographic writing (Clifford/Marcus 1986) is determined contextually (it draws from and
creates meaningful social mileux), rhetorically (it uses and is used by expressive conventions),
institutionally (one writes with and against specific traditions, disciplines and audiences)
generically (an ethnography is usually distinguished from a novel or a travel account), politically
(the authority to represent cultural realities is unequally shared and at times contested) and
historically (all the above constraints and conventions are changing).
Wray-Bliss (2002) in commenting on critical interpretive organizational research raises the issue
of the researcher, as interdependent, rather than independent of the researched.
Here there is the ethical issue of the researcher as critiquing and commenting on, rather than coconstructing and contributing to the lives of those researched, giving a problematic effect of the
authorization of the expert academic and subordination of the researched. Wray Bliss notes for
example that methodology in empirical critical management studies texts tends to be limited to
minimal, technical, descriptions which rarely extend beyond listing formal methods, duration of
the researchers stay in the field and brief backgrounds to the organization in which the research
was conducted.
As Van Maanen (1988) notes, such technical/ temporal de tails reinforce the impression of the
expert researcher deploying the latest formal research methods and technologies. Here there is
the issue of the writer presenting argument as though she or he has tacit superiority and can see
something the researched cannot or at least cannot find a way not to reproduce it in their labor
and identities. There is the issue of the researcher choosing what to select for a write up and in
choosing what to hear- the issue of interpretation/ re- interpretation by the researcher - what

we perceive as researchers is selective- to re-affirm prior expectations/ theories. In representing

the Other one strategy to avoid such concerns is to provide the opportunity for those being
researched to write their own texts or to make a contribution to shaping the texts produced by the
ethnographer, reading through drafts and giving voice to their own interpretations of events. In
research on the multinational organization concepts from postcolonial analysis can also sensitize
the researcher and writer to the issues of power relations between researcher and researched as
discussed in the following section.
Conceptual tools to support analysis of processes within and across the boundaries of
multinationals. In introducing the concept of the transnational social space of the
multinational, Morgan (2001) provides a lens though which to study the movement of ideas,
people, resources and practices across national boundaries and around different institutional
contexts, highlighting in analysis the ways in which the transnational social space of the
multinational is embedded in a transnational political economy and transnational regulatory
system. This in turn encourages sensitivity to questions of power and control within the
multinational. It is in this conceptual space that I wish to argue that the analysis may draw on
conceptual tools taken from postcolonial theory to sensitize the analysis of process. It can be
argued that writers coming from a postcolonial tradition provide an entry point and foci of
analysis into the study of multinationals that privilege specific concerns and questions in the
study of processes surrounding management practices and control systems. Similarly to Burawoy
(2000) in his extended case method discussed later, analytical concepts from postcolonial theory
can enrich the analysis of control within organizations by sensitizing the analysis of control
systems to the dynamics and processes of domination and resistance within and across the
fields of the multinational, and the hegemony of one group over another within the
transnational space of the multinational. It encourages attention to the discursive processes by
which headquarter-subsidiary relations are played out through the expatriate managers and
subsidiary employees. It encourages attention to the ways in which the subsidiary is readied for
the transfer of management practices and the ways in which various constituents of the
subsidiary hybridize, transform and indiginize demands from the headquarters so as to create a
space for local agency. It also encourages attention to the ways in which processes of
ambivalence to headquarter control play out in day-to-day resistance, and sensitizes the
researcher to the contested terrain in which the internationalizing organization operates. (Bhabha
1994, Prasad and Prasad 2003).
Within the transnational social space of the multinational, headquarter processes of control over
the subsidiary may be conceptually compared with the deep ambivalence of colonial discourse.
As Bhabha (1994) notes what characterizes colonial discourse is not monolithic homogeneity,
but heterogeneity, fragmentation, contradictions, inconsistencies and incongruities. Consequently
colonial discourse fails to establish hegemonic control and opens up spaces for resistance in the
oppositional space on the part of the colonized. In my own research within the subsidiary of a
Japanese multinational a postcolonial reading sensitizes analysis to the discursive processes by
which the he adquarters sought to persuade local managers and workers to adopt new control
systems and work practices. The ethnographic study within work teams highlighted the ways in
which the teamleader is placed between the shop floor and the expatriate managers in the
demand for narrative by which the managers seek to ascertain the extent to which new values
have been adopted. From the shop floor it was clear that whilst the team leader may engage in


acts of sly civility and evasions (Bhabha 1994) to the demand for narrative, the team workers
acts of resistance took on a more direct and active form of confrontation. The team meetings
provided an interesting event in which to examine hybridity, the process of cultural
translation in which messages from the expatriates are translated by local managers and fed
down by the teamleader to the shop floor. The role of the expatriate manager in readying the
subsidiary for the transfer of management practices can be seen. Processes of ambivalence to
headquarters hegemonic control play out in the day-to-day social relations within the
transnational social space.
The above short discussion seeks to illustrate how a postcolonial lens can contribute conceptual
tools for the analysis of social relations within the transnational social space of the multinational.
It encourages attention to the subjective experiences of individuals and socialized aspirations of
groups and communities who engage with or interface with the multinational. It encourages
attention to the transna tional and often gendered cultural differences and the significance of
different forms of knowledge for different communities. In the analysis of processes the lens
encourages examination of the ways in which race, gender, class and ethnicities, shape both
identities of self and the experience of work within the multinational.
The Possibilities of Ethnography Future Directions and Challenges
Linking the local to the global within a critical realist framework
Burawoy (2000) discusses the role of ethnography in seeking to understand global issues and
begins by asking how ethnography can be global. How can it be anything but micro and ahistorical? How can the study of everyday life grasp lofty processes that transcend national
boundaries? This paper builds on the ideas of Burawoy in arguing that there is a place for
ethnography in understanding and explaining comparative processes of change and inertia within
organizations within a global context. Burawoy (2000: 2) notes that working from the top down
Meyer et al (1997) have argued that the modern world society causes the diffusion of common
institutional models and patterns of legitimacy among nation states but say little on the link
between models and norms on the one hand and concrete practices on the other. Instead of
theorizing the link between models and practices they talk of their decoupling making it
difficult to understand concrete variation within the same formal structures. Similarly Burawoy
argues that whilst neo- institutionalists do not deny the diversity between forms of democracy,
they leave ethnographers who work from the ground upwards without theoretical tools to delve
into the connections between micro-practices and macrostructures. In this way Burawoy argues
that ethnographers appeared to have no theoretical hoist out of the local.
However global ethnographers cannot be outside the global processes they study. In this way
global ethnographers have to rethink the meaning of fieldwork, from being bound to a single
place and time. As noted by Burawoy (2000: 4) even when our participants (ethnographers) do
not themselves stretch across the globe, and it was only the participants imaginations that
connected them to the global, our ethnography was no less multi-sited we sought to
understand the incessant movement of our subjects.
Within a critical realist framework the depthful ontology encourages a focus on structures and
mechanisms within open systems. Global forces of change within and across institutional


contexts become part of the research study in examining the link between micro- level
experiences and practices and macro level contexts
In a study of Japanese and Korean expatriate managers as members of transnational communities
the expatriate managers provided a window into the complex set of social relationships that
existed between head office and subsidiary and the ways in which this transnational social space
was a field where the interplay of rival groups within the firm took place. The groups in turn
drew on resources embedded in local, national and supranational institutional contexts such as
capital, skills and knowledge, networks, access to scarce resources and political influence.
(Morgan 2001). In depth interviews with expatriates provided insights into the meaning of the
expatriate assignment for them and the ways in which they perceived themselves as part of social
structures that cut across the boundaries of the firm and nation.
For Burawoy (2001: 148) global ethnography speaks first and foremost to those left behind on
the ground, whilst more privileged academic communities may through their jet setting paint a
picture of a new community of transnational connections and of globalization as a veritable
force of nature as juggernaut sweeping up everything lying in its path. For these cosmopolites,
ethnography the focused attention to detail and process is replaced by tourism, tripping around
from site to site. In global ethnography there is a commitment to showing that time space
compression or time-space distanciation are not universal as the cosmopolites would claim. It
shows globalization to be a very uneven process, and most important an artifact manufactured
and received in the local. Globalization is produced and consumed not in thin air but in real
organizations, institutions and communities. From this point of view the global becomes
ethnographic. Burawoy argues that the global can become ethnographic in two ways
(2001:149). Firstly, through its experience, reception or consumption. Here one studies the
experience of globalization, to insist that the effects of globalization are not homogeneous and
ubiquitous but specific and concrete. Secondly from the standpoint of its production,
globalization can be researched through the way it is constituted in the local, in specific
institutions, agencies and organizations such as multinationals and international regulatory
In global ethnography, multi- sited research aims not to contrast the perspectives from each site
but to build a montage, that lends greater insight into the whole. Differences amongst cases can
show different perspectives or epistemologies. From different sites you may get divergent
visions of globalization, for example from the headquarters of the multinatio nal, the foreign
subsidiary local workers in a rural community, and the international regulatory agencies. Global
ethnography seeks to understand how the experience of globalization is produced in specific
localities and how that productive process is a contested and thus a political accomplishment.
Gille and ORiain (2002) note that place still provides a foundation for global ethnographers, but
as a location from within which ethnographers can explore the socio -political projects that are
remaking soc ial relations and places. Methodologically there is a re-conceptualization of place
in light of the multiple connections cutting across places for example of immigrants, migrants,
expatriate managers and transnational entrepreneurs within the multinational.
The local site is historically produced in interaction with a variety of external connections. Places
do not have the kinds of boundaries that warrant a simple counter-position to the outside. The
identity of a place is not homogeneous and yet places are unique, their specificity residing in the


distinct mixture of local and wider social relations. Thus places matter in global ethnography, but
instead of a comprehensive account of a self- contained set of social relations, the ethnographer
uses the location to also understand the social relations that extend beyond it. An ethnographic
approach to globalization requires the understanding of locally, socially and culturally specific
ways in which people understand the place of their locality in the global scheme of things, and
the actions they take to shape that place. Gille and ORiain (2002) note how key questions facing
the ethnographer include the choice of sites to study and the choice of which events and
processes to use in shaping the ethnographic narrative. Conceiving of ethnographic sites as
internally heterogeneous and connected to other places by a myriad of social relations requires
that the ethnographer examine the character of the social relations in the field itself.
Becoming part of a site remains a critical part of ethnography the issue of gaining entry but
the very nature of that membership changes for the ethnographer as it changes for those around
her or him. Place becomes a launching bad out into networks, backwards into histo ry and
ultimately into the politics of place itself. A key challenge in ethnographic research across
multiple sites arises if the sites are themselves in tension with each other. An example in
international management research could be in research focusing on the sites of two firms about
to merge during a takeover by the stronger partner. Negotiating multiple access and managing
relationships in such contexts can take their toll and highlight the ethnographic concern of for
whom the ethnographer should speak. On representation Burawoy (1991) notes that the purpose
of fieldwork is not to strip ourselves of our biases, for that is an illusory goal, nor to celebrate
these biases as the authorial voice of the ethnographer, but rather to discover and perhaps change
our biases through interaction with others. In this way an I-You relation between observers and
participants replaces a we relation of false togetherness and an I- they relation in which the I
often becomes invisible. In the extended case method Burawoy argues in the terms of C. Wright
Mills (1959) sociological imagination, to connect the personal troubles of the milieu, to the
public issues of social structure. In this way participant observation can examine the macro
world through the way the latter shapes and in turn is shaped and conditioned by the microworld.
The paper argues that the potential of critical realist and global ethnography to contribute in the
field of IB/IM remains relatively untapped. As Burawoy (2000) notes the ethnographer has the
possibility of gaining a privileged insight into the lived experience of globalization whether it
be for the migrant factory workers around the subsidiaries of the multinational, or the salaried
expatriates from the headquarters. The relevance of such research in the study of the
multinational is significant, in terms of the importance of an understanding of global
processes, the link between the local and the global, and the processes within the transnational
social space (Morgan 2001) of the multinational in which ideas, people, resources and practices
cross national boundaries and institutional contexts with corresponding conflicts and struggles.
The experience of change for example in business systems, internationalization of organizations
and globalization is an empirical question that requires the researcher to be sensitive to the
ways in which for example gender, race, ethnicity, and status for example as colonizer or
colonized also shape the unders tanding and experience of social relations within the
transnational social space of the multinational. Ethnographic approaches have the potential to


provide a processual understanding that brings into focus such issues to increase understanding
of conflict, tension, and the experience of work within firms in the new global context.
The sociological imagination of the critical realist ethnographer sensitizes the researcher to look
at the relation between micro level experiences and outcomes of actors and the macro level
structures and processes of continuity and change.

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