The culture of big business, minus sensation
October 6, 2011 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Are there any ethnographies of corporate culture that are primarily academic?

I've always found the one-sided discourse about big-business leaders to be overly simplistic: they can't really all be people that are only out for profit and have no compassion at all. There has to be a cultural element to it, I've thought: one that leads them to sometimes make destructive decisions and justify it. But most of what I've read in that area is pretty biased - it's either vilification, or an explanation that's just way too simple. Have there been any academic books on the corporate culture of big business? I'd be interested in reading something like that.
posted by Bleusman to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
There are several, going back to the 1960s, in the field of Japanese studies. A recent one is Office Ladies and Salaried Men by Yuko Ogasawara. Another one is For Harmony and Strength: Japanese White-Collar Organization in Anthropological Perspective by Thomas P. Rohlen.
posted by vincele at 7:45 AM on October 6, 2011

The Guardian in the UK is running a blog on bankers by an anthropologist.
posted by Logophiliac at 8:31 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Karen Ho worked in investment banking and wrote an ethnographic, academic study (called Liqidated) of the institution.

Mitchel Y. Abolafia, from the American Journal of Sociology, wrote that “Karen Ho is my hero. . . Her ethnography of investment bankers in the late 1990s, Liquidated, depicts the bravado, callousness, and contradictions that are the hallmarks of investment banking culture.”

I agree that the discussions about whether individual people are good or bad really misses the point. I don't see that framework to be driving the protests, even though the media and Bloomberg would like to portray them as having a simplistic p.o.v. based on individualism.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 8:57 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Mitchel Y. Abolafia, he wrote a pretty good ethnography of Wall Street. - Making Markets: Opportunism and Restraint on Wall Street
posted by Vhanudux at 11:51 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's small family businesses that Dorinne Kondo ethnographisizes in Crafting Selves, but the idea that professional selves are shaped by cultural demands in the workplace fits with the premise of your question.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 12:29 PM on October 6, 2011

Gideon Kunda's Engineering Culture - an ethnography about an engineering division of a tech company. Old but worth reading.

And I loved Kondo's book.
posted by canine epigram at 10:02 AM on October 7, 2011

The Ho book really is excellent. She digs into how i-banker "culture" is linked to changes in how corporate value is conceived (ie a shift from corporations as something lasting and for the general good to a narrower "shareholder value" model) and in turn to changing corporate practices (specifically the downsizing craze of the 90s). Very good stuff.

Sticking with the financial industry, Caitlin Zaloom's ethnographic study of Chicago and London pit-traders is also very readable.

It's not an ethnography, but business-school sociologist Rakesh Khurana's From Higher Aims to Hired Hands is a very good history of changes in America's elite business schools--specifically the decline of the idea that management should be a "profession" like medicine or law--that meshes well with Ho's account.
posted by col_pogo at 12:22 PM on October 7, 2011

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