Retelling Tales of the Field

“Retelling Tales of the Field: In Search of Organizational ethnography 20 Years On” currently appears as one of the most frequently cited articles in Organizational Research Methods, based on citations to online articles from HighWire-hosted articles. Written by Ann L. Cunliffe, the University of New Mexico, the article was published in April 2010. Professor Cunliffe graciously provided a personal reflection upon the article.

I was really happy to hear from SAGE that this article is one of the most frequently read articles in Organizational Research Methods in 2010 – for a number of reasons. 

Of course, it’s always nice to know that someone is reading your work!  But more than this … that management researchers are interested in the possibilities that ethnography holds for their work.  While ethnography has a sustained presence in disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, it has a less stellar history in organization and management studies, and thoughtful organizational ethnographies are few and far between.  So does this mean there is a revival of interest in organizational ethnographies?  I hope so! 

Good organizational ethnographies are rich descriptions of organizational life that resonate and offer insights to both organizational members and academics.  However, this is not easy to achieve – it’s difficult to find a balance between offering too much description with too little theory or reducing the rich complexities and subtleties of organizational life to abstract theorizations distant from practice.  Good ethnographers are detectives, noticing taken-for-granted practices and ways of thinking, speaking and acting.  They have a terrier-like instinct in terms of following up possibilities and drawing out the lodes of theoretical gold.  And even more important, they understand the importance of textwork, of crafting rich, resonant and insightful narratives, a point emphasized by John Van Maanen (2010) in the same ORM journal issue.

One of the main reasons for writing the paper was as the introduction for a special issue that emerged from the Qualitative Research Methods in Management conference 2008 held in New Mexico in honor of the 20th Anniversary of John Van Maanen’s classic 1988 book Tales of the Field.  This is a biennial conference that I organize to encourage researchers engaged and interested in a multiplicity of qualitative research methods to share their work and engage in critical discussion[1]. It’s important to explore innovative ways of studying and developing knowledge about organizations.

What makes this 2010 Organizational Research Methods special issue so distinct, is that it includes papers from four scholars (John Van Maanen, Bud Goodall, John Shotter and Mike Agar) from four different disciplines (organization studies, communications, psychology and anthropology) who have four different ways of doing ethnography.  So my aim in the paper was to give a brief a history, identify some classic studies, offer resources for potential ethnographers, and provide a taste of the many ways of carrying out ethnographic research as a way of situating the papers that followed…. and in the hope that a new generation of organizational ethnographers will emerge.

All too often nowadays, we find ourselves in the publish or perish promotion trap of trying to get work out quickly – of dipping our toe into the stream of organizational life so that we can get the next paper out.  Ethnographic research takes time but can be very rewarding.  Just look at some of the studies cited in the paper! They are not only good stories, they also have something important to say about organizations.

Finally, I wrote the paper for all those Ph.D. students whose careers are going to be built around their research. Part of learning the research craft is being exposed to a wide range of research methodologies and exploring different methods and ways of theorizing and writing about organizations. Finding a topic and a methodology that is going to sustain interest and provide the basis for a deeply committed and impactful research agenda is important.  Ethnography offers one such approach.


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