[We’re pleased to welcome Dr. A. Onajomo Akemu and Dr. Samer Abdelnour. Dr. Akemu recently published a guest editorial in Organizational Research Methods entitled, “Confronting the Digital: Doing Ethnography in Modern Organizational Settings,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Akemu reflects on the significance of the articles featured in this issue in the context of today’s political environment:]
What motivated you to pursue this research?
We were motivated by practical challenges we faced during our ethnographic research. Work in modern organizations is undertaken using computer-mediated means, in ways that are unobservable using conventional fieldwork approaches such as interviewing and participant observation. As ethnographers, we know that the best ethnographic studies engage scholarly audiences when they paint credible, authentic accounts of organizational life. Our inability to directly observe our informants’ digitally-mediated work challenged us to reconsider how we follow the people and processes we study.
As we began exploring different ways of improving how we represent our informants’ lives, we were confronted with another challenge: what we observed in person was different than what we could “observe” digitally. We thus sought to write a paper to make sense of our experiences, to support researchers facing similar challenges, and offer suggestions for designing and undertaking fieldwork that crosses physical and digital sites.
In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?
Our research is innovative in the way we relate emergent theory about the unique attributes of digital artifacts (such as email and digital documents) to the enduring concerns of ethnography: authenticity, presence, and representation of informants. Though there is a growing body of literature on digital ethnography or netnography, we are not aware of any methods paper that explicitly problematizes the differences between informants’ physical and digital data, especially within organizations. We articulate these differences, identify two modes in which researchers can be co-present with informants, and then offer practical guidelines on how to improve authenticity in ethnographic studies. We hope that organizational ethnographers will recognize similar challenges in their own research, expand upon our proposals, and identify additional modes of being co-present with informants.
What is the most important/influential piece of scholarship you’ve read in the last year?
The most influential paper we have read in the last year is an article by Gail Whiteman and William Cooper in the Academy of Management Discoveries (Whiteman, G., & Cooper, W. H. (2016). Decoupling rape. Academy of Management Discoveries, 2(2), 115–154). We liked the paper for at least three reasons. First, Whiteman and Cooper’s article is substantively and methodologically rich—an exemplar of qualitative research and abductive theorizing. Drawing on findings from a single site ethnography, Whiteman and Cooper advance our understanding of corporate social irresponsibility as not simply located at the level of an individual firm, but collectively enabled by systemic decoupling within a field of organizational actors. Second, though the central observation of the paper—the exploitation of vulnerable populations—is heartbreaking, the authors achieve a fine balance between narrative power and theoretical abstraction. Finally, the paper is well crafted and presented. By creatively using videos, pictures and sound in the paper, Whiteman and Cooper situate themselves at the heart of the research project while richly describing their ethnographic context to the reader.
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