Management Ethnography in Organization Research
Beth A. Bechky, Sonya Pyo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0210


Classic organizational theory was built on ethnographic studies. These studies, which rely on immersion in everyday organizational life, adopting the native’s perspective, and an openness to emergent phenomena, have helped illuminate the complexities and nuances of organizations that were otherwise invisible to outsiders. Today, organizational scholarship boasts of drawing on a wide range of theoretical traditions and diverse methodologies, particularly in quantitative methods that lend generalizability and scientific precision to organizational theory. As such, the role of ethnography has also evolved over the years; its validity has been criticized and defended, its ontological and epistemological foundations reflected on, and its place among other traditions clarified. Besides its critical role in establishing organizational study as a discipline in its own right, ethnographic work is now generally recognized and appreciated in the scholarly community, in what has been termed its Golden Age, for its contributions to new intellectual territories across multiple subfields of organizational theory.

Book-length Ethnographies

Classic ethnography is associated with monographs, such as Mayo 1933 on factory work and Whyte 1948 detailing restaurant management. Notable recent book-length ethnographies from the last decade include Anteby 2013 and its study of Harvard Business School, Turco 2016 on a tech company, and Vertesi 2020 on NASA space missions, all delving into how organizational culture produces macro-level outcomes. In work and occupations, Bechky 2021 studies a crime laboratory and Kellogg 2011 examines hospitals and their changing norms and practices, while Ocejo 2017 on craft occupations and Viscelli 2016 on truckers observe changes in meanings of work and status. Rivera 2015 discusses elite job seekers and Sharone 2013 looks at unemployment to reveal social dynamics that shape the labor market.

  • Anteby, M. Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226092508.001.0001

    An ethnography of the Harvard Business School demonstrates how this elite, powerful institution uses selective forms of silence to cultivate the moral perspectives of its members.

  • Bechky, B. A. Blood, Powder, and Residue: How Crime Labs Translate Evidence into Proof. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691205854

    In this study of a crime laboratory, the author shows how forensic scientists’ work anticipates the expectations of the world of criminal justice and the assumptions of the public while reflecting their own scientific ideals.

  • Kellogg, K. C. Challenging Operations: Medical Reform and Resistance in Surgery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226430010.001.0001

    In this ethnography of surgical residents in three hospitals, the author traces the impact of a reform intended to reduce work hours, showing how such institutional reforms spark resistance by challenging established norms and systems of authority.

  • Mayo, E. The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1933.

    This classic study of Western Electric explores the nature of factory work and the relationships between workers and supervisors. It established the foundations of the human relations movement within the field of management.

  • Ocejo, R. E. Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400884865

    This study examines the rise of craft occupations that leverage culture and taste to create unique products fit for the new elite, culturally omnivorous, consumer. The author explores how these workers and businesses, as part of community institutions, challenge traditional cultural stratification but also contribute to gentrification and create new status distinctions

  • Rivera, L. A. Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400865895

    This ethnography looks into the hiring process of elite professional service firms and reveals how social class shapes the way talent and merit is demonstrated by job seekers, as well as recognized and evaluated by employers.

  • Sharone, O. Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226073675.001.0001

    This ethnography that compares unemployment in the United States and Israel shows how differences in the structure of the labor market influence the subjective experiences of unemployment as well as job-seeking strategies in different ways.

  • Turco, C. The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.7312/turc17898

    This ethnography examines a company that intended to establish radical openness by renouncing traditional bureacracy and hierarchy. Ongoing negotiations between employees and leaders, however, led to reestablishing some structure and certain aspects of bureacracy.

  • Vertesi, J. Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226691114.001.0001

    This ethnography compares two NASA space missions to show how the social context of scientific teams affects the way scientists interact, set goals, allocate resources, and resolve competing agendas. The author argues that how knowledge is produced influences knowledge itself.

  • Viscelli, S. The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520962712

    In this ethnography of the work of long-haul drivers, the author examines how “bad work” leads to dissatisfaction and high turnover. The nature of the labor market, however, resists reform and instead tends towards further decline at the expense of those who most need the work.

  • Whyte, W. F. Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948.

    In this foundational study, the author treats restaurants as social systems and focuses on the management of personnel as pivotal to the restaurant’s success. The study was influential in examining the areas of effective supervision, conflict management, status, and privilege among organizational members.

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