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Down, S. (2012) A historiographical account of workplace and organizational
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A historiographical account of workplace and organizational ethnography

Simon Down

University of Newcastle

Abstract

The paper argues that the production of past workplace and organizational ethnographies
needs to be better understood in historical context. A programme of research work on the
history of workplace and organizational ethnography is proposed, and a historiographical
discussion outlines the purpose, scope and means by which such a project might be
realised. The article highlights why organizational ethnographers should understand the
history of their research practice. The article suggests that a serious attempt is made to
create a body of historical knowledge about workplace and organizational ethnography.
The value of this would be to deepen the contribution ethnographic research makes to
organization and management studies, and ensure that continuity and change in
ethnographic research practices are better understood.

Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2478675


Introduction

Since around the mid 1990s workplace and organizational ethnographies have become
increasingly popular. The reasons for this success are complex, and not just to do with the
general expansion of business studies research and teaching, or to changes in intellectual
styles. The creation of the Journal of Organizational Ethnography, based itself on the
success and growth of the Liverpool/Keele Ethnography Symposium and the 2012
formation of the Organizational Ethnography Standing Working Group at EGOS all
provide evidence for this claim. However, countervailing pressures on the time (non-PhD)
researchers have to undertake ethnographies, and changes in the nature of workplaces and
organizations such that being there can mean being everywhere and anywhere (Yanow
and Geuijen 2009: 257), suggest that it is the sensibility as much as research practices that
are attracting researchers. For traditionalists this might be perceived as dilution and a cause
for concern. For others it reflects changing organizational contexts (especially those driven
by information technologies) in which the practice of ethnography operates. This paper
argues that in order to assess the impact and implications of these changing practices the
production of past ethnographies need to be better understood in historical context.

The growing popularity of workplace and organizational ethnography has meant that past
studies have begun to take on new significance. Those now writing or claiming to write
ethnographies are expected to follow a well trodden path and are directed to a canon of
classic studies stretching back to the early twentieth century, particularly those studies
associated with the Chicago School of Sociology (Deegan 2001). Even Frederick Engels
The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845/1987) and Jacob Riis How the
Other Half Lives (1890/1957) urtexts are sometimes invoked as examples (Zicker and
Carter 2010). High points in the canon are mobilised to legitimise the budding
ethnographers own work. Whilst Bourdieu placed this going back to the original and
authentic sources as a generic scholarly strategy (1988), its use in workplace and
organizational ethnography has particular salience. The deployment of studies by Donald
Roy (1954), Michael Burawoy (1979) or Melville Dalton (1959) in contemporary
organizational ethnographies has begun to take on an empty, ritualised quality, suggesting

Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2478675


that they lie outside history; that they did the same as we do. The time and place these
studies were conducted are effectively compressed into a common territory lets call it
ethno-land where a spurious, ahistorical homogeneity rules. The danger is that with
greater popularity studying organizations ethnographically might suffer the same
Procrustean fate that Stager Jacques (2006: 45; 1996) suggests has befallen qualitative
research, shorn as it has become, he argues, of its underlying paradigmatic and
epistemological force. This putative danger, of course, would be sadly paradoxical given
that ethnography is intended to highlight particularities in time and space.

This paper asks you to consider whether this is a good way to treat the historical legacy of
workplace and organizational ethnography. I am not simply suggesting that contemporary
ethnographers take the specific findings of past ethnographers seriously, though they
should. My aim is more generative in proposing a programme of research work on the
history of workplace and organizational ethnography. And, in so proposing, begin that
programme with a historiographical discussion of the purpose, scope and means by which
it might be realised.

First, I explain the purposes such a programme might serve. The next section discusses the
scope, and establishes necessary boundaries with which to frame such a programme. And,
finally, before concluding, I discuss the means what should be avoided and what should
be done - by which such a history might be produced.

Purpose: Why create a history of workplace and organizational ethnography?

History can serve many purposes. For Stager Jacques (2006) the history of management
and organizational knowledge should have as its key purpose the development of better
knowledge and theory to help address contemporary problems. We cant, after all, help
those in the past to solve theirs. From this perspective the key purpose of histories of
workplace and organizational ethnography should be to better understand the particularities
of workplaces and organizing and how they have changed over time a contemporary
purpose. As Stager Jacques asks of the organizational historian; does your history connect
to present-day issues in a manner that may lead one to look at these issues differently?

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(2006: 43). It is difficult to disagree. However, historicism can serve different masters, and
I am not sure that I agree entirely. He seems to stress contemporary theoretical ends too
rigidly; too stridently. Histories inevitably serve contemporary purposes in that they are
written and read in the present. A history should resonate with contemporary interests, if
only to be read, but it neednt be a slave to contemporary theorising. Indeed, one of the
tasks of a good history, surely, is to expose the parochialism of present interests.

History in this sense serves contemporary needs by showing how others addressed similar
organizational problems. Thus, one contemporary purpose that a history of workplace and
organizational ethnography serves is in building better understanding of the fluidity and
heterogeneity of ethnographic practice and the variety of research problems addressed
through time. In order to avoid becoming a hapless victim of Procrustes we need to be
surer of how things were (but of course, not how they really were). It is all too easy to
assume we know the past and the tidy story it tells us. As Atkinson et al. (2001: 3) suggest
there is a tendency to see the ethnographic past travelling along stable modernist tracks in a
landscape of orthodox disciplinary and intellectual harmony, before being hit by the
postmodern turn and crisis of confidence about what the ethnographic text represented,
at which point it burst out into a proliferation of textual and fieldwork practices. This
teleologically inclined narrative immiserates past problems, crises and controversies and
falls into the trap of thinking that we are the only scholars with complex and difficult
methodological and epistemological choices to make.

Another way in which such a programme would be of use is in joining with others who feel
that business and management needs greater historical memory (Booth and Rowlinson
2006; Down 2001a; Jones and Wadhwani 2006). Ahistoricism has been a perennial
indictment: Michael Burawoy complained in 1979 that organization theory was too static
and lacked a historical dynamic. The development and growth of management and
organizational and business history might suggest greater sensitivity in this regard today,
but calls for more historical sensitivity are still being made (Stager Jacques 2006). And, it
is worth noting that contemporary sub-disciplinary fragmentation and gated intellectual
horizons (Down 2001a) mean that most conversations tend to take place in relative
isolation.

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Perhaps this fate might befall the history of workplace and organizational ethnography. I
would hope however that the very intellectual datedness apparent in many past studies is a
strength in this regard. All texts are products of their time. Burawoy saw that in the period
Roy undertook his research, the most natural and important work to respond to was
Roesthlisberger and Dicksons Management and the Worker and the writings of Elton
Mayo (1979: 34). For Burawoy, of course, the most natural and important work was the
labour process debate typified by Bravermans Labour and Monopoly Capitalism (1974);
each author/ethnographer is caged by commitments to prevailing conversations. Moribund
theoretical allusions of past ethnographies forces their historians to pay due regard to how
ideas about work and organizations have changed; to try and understand why those
ethnographers of the past observed, thought and wrote in the way they did. Or, rather, it is
the tension between the relative timelessness of observational descriptions of work,
management and organizing, and the trapped-in-amber quality of the intellectual
paraphernalia used to explain it that makes the history of workplace and organizational
ethnography such an exciting opportunity, one that favours a generalist outlook on theory
development, transcending parochialism and sub-disciplinary isolation.

Often calls for new programmes of research lack a sense of genuine importance and
engagement with social and organizational problems. A programme fixed on excavating
the history of workplace and organizational ethnography, would, because it also forms part
of the larger project aiming to use ethnographic findings to draw inductively (Hodson
2001; 2002; 2004) or deductively derived (Edwards and Blanger 2008) generalizations,
serves to propel workplace and organizational ethnography further into mainstream
legitimacy. These generalizing and aggregating initiatives aimed at highlighting the
contribution of ethnography will serve to broaden its appeal, even to those mostly inimical
to the underlying philosophical arguments. Such histories can serve the purpose of
persuading these more sceptical scholars of the discomforting necessity (Watson 2011:
204) of ethnography as a way of writing and researching organizations.

A historically oriented programme of research also draws attention to the practice of


ethnography over time. In so doing another purpose is revealed, one that fixes attention on
the quality of research practice. Histories can act as a reminder of what good ethnography

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should be; ensuring that potential proponents understand that their research and writing
needs to be rigorously conceived and practised (Watson 2011: 214). Historical studies
will inevitably address issues of quality. The variability of practice that histories will show
is not simply a matter of shifting scholarly norms and fashions. Histories will also show the
impact of academic institutional contexts in shaping what gets produced: as Dick Hobbs
has written Educational policy, academic salaries, research funds, and career structures all
affect the various cultural performances of the ethnographer (1993: 62; see also Van
Maanen 1988: 5 for a similar point).

Then there are some broader purposes attached to what we today call the critical study of
business and management. Many workplace and organizational ethnographies attach
themselves, however rabidly or obliquely to leftist, emancipatory and utopian political
sensibilities. There is something about describing the particularities of working lives - that
intimate connection to everyday tyrannies - that lends itself to progressive political
aspiration. In this sense, at a time when working conditions taken for granted in the mid to
late twentieth century are eroding for many, historical analyses can show us how what we
now might be losing was won and enjoyed. Histories that show contemporary decline
might precipitate a broadening of emancipatory reactions and initiatives. This might be
especially powerful if some of the histories emphasised popular appeal alongside analytical
purpose. Unlike much academic output ethnographies have the potential to break through
into the open space of public debate (e.g. Karen Hos 2009 popular account of Wall Street).
It is here that histories of our craft have an opportunity to become popular social science
(Down 2001b).

So, many purposes, but what is the rationale of studying ethnographies in relative
isolation? When researched, written and debated they were part of broader currents of
intellectual traffic. What is the justification for partitioning this research activity, cutting a
slice through eras, countries and research projects? What really connects Augusta
Clawsons (1944) Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder, with Huw Beynons Working for
Ford (1973) and Gideon Kundas Engineering Culture (1997)? Why workplace and
organizational ethnography? Is this an appropriate boundary?

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Scope: How distinct is the object of study?

There will always be arguments about whether and where to delineate boundaries around
objects of study. If there were a nominal case against the historical study of workplace and
organizational ethnography, it would be that it risks disconnecting the original research
from the contemporary conversations the ethnographer was responding to. This is a matter
of appropriate contextualisation, and is a problem all social scientists need to address: the
setting of boundaries for specific consideration for particular research problems neednt
obliterate context. Rather, boundary setting highlights context by placing the specific
object in relief. Aspiring historians of workplace and organizational ethnography must
make boundary choices about where relevant sources (conceptual and empirical) start and
end - between object and context like everyone else. The historical imperative in workplace
and organizational ethnography is already an established and self-conscious element of the
genre: Michael Burawoy serendipitously finding himself in exactly the same plant as
Donald Roy 30 years later in the mid 1970s wasnt the reason why he felt compelled to
make historical connections.

This self-awareness makes the work of setting boundaries relatively easy. Add to this the
tangible personal and intellectual connections between scholars, departments, supervisors,
examiners and doctoral candidates over successive generationsi and what counts as
workplace and organizational ethnography becomes clearer still. Budding historians can
also find a list of published organizational ethnographies in Geuijens (2009) annotated
bibliography. There is also a list of workplace ethnographies and a searchable textual
resource at the Workplace Ethnography Project (http://www.sociology.ohio-
state.edu/rdh/Workplace-Ethnography-Project.html), compiled and managed by Randy
Hodson.

The difference between what is common and what isnt in these two lists raises the issue of
how we are to define workplace and organizational ethnography. Both reflect subtlety
different disciplinary priorities. Crudely put, the former is based in sociology and
anthropology and the latter in management and organizational studies. One is limited to
work, the other, broader fields of organizing (Ybema et al. 2009: 4). However, whilst
Yanow and Geuijen (2009: 258) state of Hodsons list that most of the entries did not meet

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our criteria for organizational studies there is a broader overlap in spirit, reflecting the
intermingling and borrowing of past studies into respective canons. Both wisely stress the
unavoidable incompleteness of their lists. Historical studies of workplace and
organizational ethnography would need to address the particularities of continuity and
discontinuity between the two disciplines depending on the topic being addressed. A
simple limiting of investigations to studies at the intersection would inevitably somehow
miss the point; miss the vital connections and affinities between the two.

It is nevertheless worth considering the criteria Hodson and Yanow and Geuijens use to
distinguish these genres. The latter suggest that to be counted as organizational
ethnography studies need to (1) rely on ethnographic methods, (2) that writing [] be in
narrative form, with data details more or less thickly described, and (3) the text needed to
express the ethnographic sensibility that would convince the reader of the trustworthiness
of the author as well as the findings s/he presented (Yanow and Geuijen 2009: 254). They
also specify an organizational criterion such that studies focusing on the characteristics of
work absent in an organizational context (2009: 255) were excluded. Hodsons criteria
included studies (both lists are limited to books) if there was: (1) the use of direct
ethnographic methods of observation over a period of at least six months, (2) a focus on a
single organizational setting, and (3) a focus on at least one clearly identified group of
workersan assembly line, a typing pool, a task group, or some other identifiable work
group (2004: 12).

Clearly there will be books and important studies in the broader genre of workplace and
organizational ethnography that both these criteria exclude. Donald Roys influential work
is not present since he did not write a book. These exclusions would fundamentally stymie
the historian. How could a historical assessment of the immediate post-war research
environment not discuss Donald Roy?

When do the lists imply workplace and organizational ethnography began? The oldest
study Hodsons list is Augusta Clawsons (1944) Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder (not
cited in Geuijen 2009). The oldest in Geuijens bibliography (2009: 279) is William Foote
Whytes Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry (1948), also cited in Hodson. This is
clearly inadequate for the historian, who, if their aim were comprehensiveness, would want

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to start further back. This is reflected in a study by Zickar and Carter (2010) who extend
the relevant work back into the early part of the Twentieth century, and by Edwards and
Blanger (2008) who point to Mathewsons classic 1931 study.

In addition to analyses of specific studies, the need for historical contextualization implies
a requirement to look at broader historically relevant material. Historical studies of the
Chicago school itself (Bulmer 1984; Deegan 2001), of particularly influential ethnographic
studies such as the Hawthorne experiments (Gillespie 1991), and broader histories of the
intersection of ethnography, anthropology and sociology would also play an important role
and are already considered in many an ethnographic handbook or textbook (see Van
Maanen 1988: 13-21; Atkinson et al. 2001). Then there are of course many others that
write histories about workplaces and organizing more generally. Roy Jacques
Manufacturing the Employee (1996) exemplifies what can be achieved by examining the
historical development of scholarly thinking about work, management and organizations.

These then are the basic stepping off points which establish the object of study. We now
need to discuss how we might go about studying it.

Means: How (not) to study the history of workplace and organizational ethnography?

I have purposively avoided a tight definition of workplace and organizational ethnography.


As I imply above, attempts to pin down such a changing and overlapping array of research
works and genres, will constrain historical analysis, which seeks to create patterns in
intellectual and practical enquiry as it unfolds over time. The above characterisation gives a
clear enough picture of the possible scope of enquiry.

Similarly, it would be inappropriate to prescribe how histories should be conducted and


written. Any history would use material and sources selectively and build particularising
and/or generalising historical narratives reflecting the purpose of the specific project. How
these narratives look would depend on choices made about how to render and portray the
production of the ethnographies: the rich variety of method and methodology; the different
disciplinary connections; the ebbs and flows in popularity and fashion; the impact of the

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books on organizational policies and management practices; the trajectories of individual
scholarly careers and their influence; the debates and fallings-out; the theoretical and
intellectual legacies (both legitimate and bowdlerised), are just a few important themes.

Then there are different means by which relevant recovery, reading back and reconnecting
might hold contemporary ethnographers and organizational theorists to account. Here is not
the place to rehash debates over what organizational history is or might become; there is
now, thanks in particular to a succession of articles in the journal Management and
Organizational History (see Taylor et al. 2009, and the response by Toms and Wilson 2010
for instance), a growing understanding of the historiographical possibilities available to
management and organizational scholars (see Down 2001a; Stager Jacques 2006). Debates
from within history itself (Jenkins 1995; Evans 1997) have percolated through to us and
provide a clear guide to what is possible. There are however a couple of aspects that I do
think are worth discussing.

Whilst a boundary might reasonably be set around workplace and organizational


ethnography - the section above explained why - historiographically we need to be aware
that we are likely creating a greater sense of coherence around past events than would have
been apparent at the time. At its worse, this can be called antihistorical anachronism
(Stager Jacques 2006: 41). Stager Jacques and I (Down 2001a) rightly castigate the likes of
Moore and Lewis (1999) for suggesting that ancient Phoenicians practiced international
management. And, Engels and Riis most emphatically did not wittingly practice
ethnography. The criss-crossings of the careers, projects, books and articles of all the
amateurs, sociologists, anthropologists, and latterly management and organizational
scholars should also not be read as part of an teleological evolving whole either (Stager
Jacques 2006: 42). Equally however we should be wary of throwing our hands in the air at
the impossibility of framing a period and an activity: postmodern doubts in the possibility
of objective knowledge or unified interpretation that have convulsed and undermined
scholars (Hobsbawm 1997: 195) in a variety of disciplines should not paralyse us. All
histories are of the present. They tell of us and them.

W. G. Sebald recognised another truth of historical representation: reflecting on seeing a


panoramic mural monumentalising the battle of Waterloo he wrote This then, I thought, as

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I looked round me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective.
We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not
know how it was (2002:125). To take a look en masse at the history of workplace and
organizational ethnography must falsify in this way, but knowing how it was should not be
the primary objective: knowing better how to act now is; doing better ethnography and
doing better organization.

Along with false perspectivisation the historian of workplace and organizational


ethnography also needs to avoid sentimentalising what they research. John Van Maanen
suggests that ethnography has a somewhat glorified history (1988: 13). I think he meant
that the fame and glory that are now attached to the illustrious proponents of the past take
us away from the mundane reality of the problems and compromises these researchers
faced (Smith 2001). It is not difficult to see how anthropologists gain a boys own explorer
kudos from rubbing shoulders with exotic natives in faraway places. The ethnographer of
work and organizations too gains professional respect and admiration for being a worker or
getting close to workers and managers. Showing you were accepted by your respondents is
a pass to having your work accepted as an authentic and respected account. Its cool to be
able to say you really experienced what its like to be a woman welder or Ford worker or
student doctor. This inevitably sentimentalises our understanding of work and organizing.
The historian of workplace and organizational ethnography needs to reconstruct the
research of the past as everyday projects. This doesnt stop what these ethnographers
achieved from being impressive or influential, or cool even, but it does place the
knowledge produced in its context: we will understand the work, its impact and its
connections to our own worlds of work and research all the better.

Having avoided these traps, we might do worse in looking for positive guides than look to
how others have created histories of analogous intellectual and disciplinary fields.
Stockings historical analyses of Nineteenth and Twentieth century British anthropology
can serve as a historiographical guide (1987; 1995). He stresses the need for multiple
contextualisation (1987: xiii) and plays down the linear or chronological unfolding of
intellectual history. The tone he adopts is perhaps quite traditional, in that he strives to be
as interpretively suggestive as possible without knowingly doing violence to historical

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particulars, and feels that historical generalizations must grow out of and directly relate to
concrete historical materials (1987: xii). However, his desire to contexualise and avoid
narrow intellectual or disciplinary histories that simply seek to trace ideas backwards in
time in order to establish lineages [] for contemporary theoretical viewpoints (1987:
xiii), is something that I feel workplace and organizational ethnography history should also
avoid. It is worth citing him at length (he is citing from one of his own earlier essays):

Although the present structure of contextualisation reaffirms my commitment to an


historical understanding that emphasises a contexts prior to or contemporary with
the phenomenon being studied, it also reflects my greater appreciation of the
manifold ways in which the historical understanding presupposes a continuing
tension between past and present not only between an historians present and the
past he [sic] studies, but that past present and its antecedent past, and between that
same past present and all of its consequent futures among which our own present
is, if only for the moment, the most important (1987: xv).

This stance may lack the anxieties demonstrated by more postmodern historiographers (e.g
Taylor et al.; Jenkins 1995), and imply an unfashionable confidence about what the
historical record might tell us, but it reflects a subtle and sensitive regard for the need for
contextualisation. It is not sufficient to limit the history to textual analyses of published
ethnographies, using enumerative or discourse analytic logics in isolation. We need the
context of their production too. Why was the research commissioned or undertaken? What
organizational problems prompted the research? What specific local events and longer-run
historical forces (Stocking 1987: xiii) connect and shape the ethnographies and their
reception.

Stocking also highlights the need to investigate paradigmatic continuities and


discontinuities in intellectual discourses and fashions. What does and doesnt connect
Watson (1994) to Burawoy (1979)? And what does that tell us about problems of
management and organizing and how we currently view and ethnographize them? How
have workplace and organizational ethnographers behaved in the face of changing
intellectual fashions? When have they been part of the advant garde vanguard? When part
of the conservative rearguard? What were the reasons for these intellectual choices?

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Stocking also makes us aware of the tensions to be made between
reconstruction/refamiliarization and deconstruction/defamiliarization: choices to make
about representation and critique. Like Stocking I would tend more towards the former than
the latter, and seek to understand the context and modes of thought, expression, and action
of people who lived in worlds which, though continuous with, were rather different from
[our] own (1995: xvii). But historians might take a variety of approaches that would
inevitably and profitably draw upon a range of contrasting historiographical principles.

For instance, Clifford Geertz would also add much. He points to the tension between the
historical and anthropological sensibilities, between priorities given between Space and
Time and Big and Little (Geertz 2000: 119). Historians (Time and Big) address the
broad sweep of thought or action, and anthropologists (Space and Little) study small,
well-bounded communities (ibid.). Historians accuse anthropologist of nuancemanship,
glorying in the detailing of the unimportant, and anthropologists accuse historians of
schematicism, ignoring the feel of everyday life (ibid.). The historian of workplace and
organizational ethnography, being neither historian nor anthropologist, would be wise to
conceptually and methodologically meander between these stances, and blend the
advantages of both (thus, oral history and documentary archives). That is, seek to make the
generalizations about work, organization and management, but to do it using the detail and
feel for how life and the research might have been. Geertz advocates this blending,
exhorting us to look back and to look sideways (2000: 121, 123).

These then are some of the traps to avoid and some preliminary guides to the writing of
histories of workplace and organizational ethnography: a historiographical sketch. There
are of course many other more detailed questions and decisions about the conceptual and
methodological means needed that will have to wait for another time.

Conclusion

The aim of this paper has been twofold. First, it has been to set out the purpose, scope and
means by which histories of workplace and organizational ethnography might be written.
Secondly I have suggested that this project is chiefly necessary in order to protect the

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practice of ethnography from becoming the victim of its own success in organizational and
management studies. It would be sadly ironic if the Journal of Organizational Ethnography
marked the debasing of the currency. In order to avoid such degradation a better sense of
the field is needed, and key to this is a greater historical sensibility.

This is not the same as using history to catalogue and lament a passing chimerical era
where researchers were blessed with more resources. The nature of work and organizing
has changed greatly in recent years. As a response, workplace and organizational
ethnography inevitably focuses on new problems, and adapts research practices to suit
novel, often virtual, realities. The institutional higher education context government
priorities, funding regimes, university careers, shifting disciplinary spaces, philosophical
and methodological fashions, and so forth is also continually changing, placing pressure
on the community being formed by the Journal of Organizational Ethnography to exercise
its interests through constraints. Practices, research or otherwise, are enabled and
constrained by such contexts. But such discontinuities are often overplayed. For many
people in factories and offices around the world traditional ethnography is still a practice
worth pursuing, especially to expose those mundane, everyday tyrannies. We should, in
other words, be wary of sacrificing our rigorously conceived and practised (Watson 2011:
214) craft on the altar of expedience and a fixation on the most novel organizational and
employment trends. And, it is in this respect that greater historical understanding reminds
us of what the practices and sensibilities have meant, and should continue to mean.

14

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i
One can trace such connections: Steven Barley and Gideon Kunda were advised/supervised by John
Van Maanen, who had Robert Dubin (trained at the Chicago School of Sociology) as part of his
doctoral committee, and was also influenced by Harvey Sachs and David Sudnow, also at the
University of California, Irvine (personal communication with John Van Maanen).

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