Ethnography at Work

Ethnography at Work

Ethnography at Work

Ethnography at Work


Ethnography at Work follows the experiences of the author as a participant observer in the day-to-day running of a Japanese advertising agency. The book reveals the intricate behind-the-scenes planning, discussion, negotiations and strategies needed to ensure that the agency's presentation to a potential client will be preferred over that of a rival firm. The book shows how detailed ethnography can lead to an understanding of numerous different, but interlocking, theoretical issues. It demonstrates how ethnography can travel beyond the academic realm and be used by business personnel to heighten their understanding of their companies' organizational structures, strategies and daily work practices. Asking crucial questions about the role of the anthropologist in the field, Ethnography at Work introduces students to ways in which anthropologists study social systems in business.


Two separate events encouraged me to write this book.

The first occurred when I was a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School. Soon after I arrived, I was asked by a colleague to give a two-hour lecture on advertising in Japan in a general course on management that she was co-ordinating for final-year undergraduate students. I asked what exactly she wished me to talk about, and was advised in rather vague terms to tell them about my experiences as an ethnographer in a Japanese advertising agency.

This I duly did. As part of my explanation of how people in the advertising agency interact both among themselves and with the client (or advertiser) and other players in the industry, I told the two dozen students present about an account team's preparations for a competitive presentation for a client. Before I was halfway through my story, one student interrupted and said dismissively, 'This is just a case study, isn't it?'

That certainly brought my middle-aged loquaciousness to a jarring halt (no bad thing in itself!). Having paused for thought, I tried to explain the general significance to be drawn from the particulars described, but my interlocutor was unimpressed. A case was just a case: a practical example that was no more than a practical example, to be discussed, analysed and cast aside for the next case. It had no general significance. I disagreed, but was not well enough prepared to argue my case coherently and persuasively there and then (I came back to it later on in the class). Unimpressed, my interlocutor and his fellow students then asked me to talk about something else more immediately pertinent to their interest in Japanese management. (We were in Denmark where an egalitarian ethos demands that there be no status differences between people, even though there may be clear signs thereof.)

The second 'event' has been repeated several times since I started writing about the Japanese advertising world more than a decade ago now. From time to time, I have written a paper and submitted it to a non-anthropological journal for consideration for publication. As is customary with academic submissions of this nature, each paper has been sent out to anonymous reviewers whose comments on its contents have then been relayed to me. On each occasion, my reviewers have tended to adopt very different standpoints regarding the strengths, weaknesses and potential directions I might take in the rewriting of the paper for eventual publication in the journal concerned.

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