History and Ethnography

Stephanie Decker and John Hassard

History and ethnography have largely evolved in parallel, despite some significant research contributions from historical ethnography and ethnographic history (Rowlinson, Hassard, & Decker, 2014). To a large extent, organizational ethnographers research ‘literate’ settings in which social actors essentially self-document their experience through a variety of genres of anthropological and sociological writing. However, as Paul Atkinson and Amanda Coffey have pointed out, “many qualitative researchers continue to produce ethnographic accounts of complex, literate social worlds as if they were entirely without documents or text” (Atkinson & Coffey, 2011, p. 78). In this stream, we aim to bring the practices of historical research (largely but not exclusively text-based) closer to the practices of organizational ethnographers (largely focused on direct observation).

History and ethnography appear to overlap in many ways: First, there is the history of organizational ethnography that has not seen extensive exploration. Attempts to understand the disciplinary, intellectual and organizational origins of a field are made as research areas mature and become more established (Hassard, 2012; O’Connor, 1999). Such an approach to history helps to challenge present-day understanding and open up new areas for research.

Second, as indicated in the quotation above, ethnographers encounter history during their fieldwork in a variety of ways. Ethnographies of museums or symbolic sites are obvious examples, but equally important are the oral histories elicited through interviewing, the public histories that organizations or its members produce, and in some cases the academic business histories about organizations that become reference points for action and identities (Yanow, 1998). History and memory overlap closely here, but nevertheless remain conceptually distinct. Histories are mobilized for particular organizational purposes in the present (Ybema, 2014) and form part of a wider organizational rhetoric (Suddaby, Foster, & Quinn Trank, 2010).

Third, historians have frequently taken an ethnographic sensibility to their research. Italian microhistory in the 1980s was an obvious case (Ginzburg, 2012; Levi, 1991), and cultural history has focused on research questions and methodological approaches that are closely related to ethnographic debates. Archival research can be approached just as entering a research site, and historians often serendipitously encounter the everyday among more standardized organizational documentation (Decker, 2013; McKinlay, 2002).

We welcome submissions dealing with the intersection between history and ethnography. Please submit a 500 word abstract or proposal by Tuesday 28th February 2017 to s.decker@aston.ac.uk.