How work ethnographers are adapting to the changing nature of work

As part of our March newsletter, Benjamin Snyder comments on how ethnographers of work are responding to changes in the character of labor and employment.  Snyder is the author of The Disrupted Workplace (Oxford University Press, 2016) and a Lecturer in Sociology & Social Policy at Victoria University of Wellington.  He will join the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Williams College in Fall 2018.  

In 2001, Stephen Barley and Gideon Kunda called upon organizational and work sociologists to revisit the field’s core concepts. Time, place, schedule, wage, job, career, employment, management, ownership, head versus hand, work versus leisure, and a host of other taken for granted ways of describing economic life under bureaucratic organizing, they argued, are increasingly obscured by new post-industrial forms. They prescribed a return to an older tradition of detailed ethnographic studies of work and workplaces to adapt to the changing times. Sit with working people. Watch what they do. Listen to what work means to them. Build new concepts. For ethnographically inclined sociologists of my generation, for whom this call was part of our introduction to the field in graduate school, this message felt like a warm welcome. Many of us took up the invitation. When I look out on the field now, almost two decades later, I get the sense that the seed Barley and Kunda planted has begun to bear fruit. Work-oriented ethnographers are deeply engaged in this much needed conceptual reconstruction.

The clearest example of this effort can be found in research on digital labor, particularly on the platform economy. Are Uber drivers employees, contractors, or business owners? Is Uber an employer of drivers (a taxi company) or a service provider for independent contractors (a platform)? As became clear in the debate leading up to the recent tribunal ruling in Britain over Uber’s legal status, the traditional concepts of employee and contractor—and the assumptions about worker autonomy that go along with these—made it more difficult to get a fix on what Uber is and how Uber employees/users understand their working lives, thus making it doubly difficult to understand how to regulate this sector. A flood of recent ethnographic research on platform laborers is aiming to untangle these sorts of knots by paying very close attention to the multiple meanings of terms like employer, employee, and contractor as they emerge in naturally occurring situations. Because the platform economy is so new, much of this sort of grounded research is either currently underway—there are, for example, several exciting initiatives at the Data & Society Institute—or has been published only in the last few years (see Schor and Attwood-Charles 2017 for an excellent review).

What’s exciting to me about this research is not only that it explores interesting hybrid concepts such as “playbor” and the working consumer (Scholz 2013), but that it also pushes ethnography to adapt methodologically to digital space. Ethnographers increasingly must figure out how to observe workers whose concrete appearance is relatively solitary and silent but whose virtual appearance is full of communication—who interact with co-workers they may never physically see and with algorithms they may not know are influencing their actions. Given the technical knowledge required to understand some of these phenomena, my hunch is that centers outside the academy, such as Microsoft Research Institute, will become increasingly important resources for work ethnographers.

Digital labor gets a lot of attention in the conversation about post-bureaucratic work, but I also want to highlight how ethnographers are finding fascinating transformations in the meanings of basic concepts even in workplaces that seem old-fashioned by comparison. To take the example with which I am most familiar, a handful of ethnographers of the trucking industry have observed that deregulation and de-unionization over the last four decades has increased the size, yet hollowed out the meaning, of one of the most romanticized categories of trucking work: the owner-operator (for example Snyder 2016; Viscelli 2016). A growing proportion of owner-operators no longer own or control major parts of their business, such as the truck itself, because of new forms of precarious “lease contracting” that have been embraced by large firms. As Steve Viscelli (2016) has documented, these drivers can go into massive debt by leasing a truck from a motor carrier firm in an attempt, ironically, to become independent of firms. Yet the traditional concept of being “my own boss” continues to resonate with these drivers and motivates them to work hard.

In my own ethnographic research among long-haul drivers, I found that an important mechanism behind the blurring of owner-operators’ occupational identity is the way the meaning of time itself has been fragmented under deregulation (Snyder 2017). Though these drivers are federally mandated to work within a traditional hour-based, clock in/clock out schedule, in practice they have to think of work time more like knowledge professionals because of their status as contractors. Temporal norms like flexibility, an attention to task cycles over shift hours, and emotional absorption in fast-paced and self-directed work are valorized as part of a “professional driver” identity, even though these norms are in tension with drivers’ structural position as rigidly scheduled and closely surveilled shift workers who are dependent on a firm for their livelihoods. Does that make today’s owner-operators a new breed of professional contractor or just a “wage slave” redux? They do not fit into either category easily, in part, because they are beholden to a hybridized construction of work time. If this basic occupational identity is so hard to pin down, how should we characterize drivers who collectively organize and fight for something better? As business owners? Employees? Debtors? In short, deregulation has fragmented the meaning of core concepts like ownership, independence, and even the work hour, turning an occupational identity we once thought we knew a lot about into a new puzzle.

Work ethnographers are playing an important role in tracking the meaning of the post-bureaucratic turn. But I think it is also important to recognize that insights about the changing nature of work routinely appear in ethnographies that are not explicitly about work.  Janet Vertessi’s (2014) fascinating account of NASA’s Mars Rover mission, for example, tells us a lot about what it means to work with digital images in virtual spaces. Matthew Desmond’s (2016) celebrated ethnography of eviction and even Mitchell Duneier’s (1999) now classic study of sidewalk merchants approach the issue of precarity from an entirely different angle. Looking to the future, I think the field would benefit immensely from developing broad connections with ethnographers in neighboring subdisciplines, such as STS and urban studies, as well as some of the amazing ethnographers working outside the academy, to make sure that our effort to understand the changing nature of work stays as vital as it feels now.

Barley, Stephen R. and Gideon Kunda. 2001. “Bringing Work Back In.” Organization Science 12(1):76–95.

Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown Publishers.

Duneier, Mitchell. 1999. Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Scholz, Trebor. 2013. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

Schor, Juliet B. and William Attwood-Charles. 2017. “The ‘Sharing’ Economy: Labor, Inequality, and Social Connection on for-Profit Platforms.” Sociology Compass 11(8).

Snyder, Benjamin H. 2016. The Disrupted Workplace: Time and the Moral Order of Flexible Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Snyder, Benjamin H. 2017. “The Tyranny of Clock Time? Debating Fatigue in the US Truck Driving Industry.” Time & Society.

Vertesi, Janet. 2014. Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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

3 thoughts on “How work ethnographers are adapting to the changing nature of work

  1. Stephen Barley


    I agree with your assessment that ethnographers of work and employment are indeed beginning to examine new forms of work at an increased pace. But we need so many more. Particularly lacking are ethnographic studies of Artificial Intelligence. I would highly recommend Benjamin Shestakofsky’s paper, “Working Algorithms: Software Automation and the Future of Work” published in Work and Occupations in 2017. At the moment this is one of the best paper we have of firms that attempt to use AI in the workplace. We need more, because without them we are left only with the prognostications of those who write pro and con about AI and work without solid empirical data.

    Steve Barley

  2. Ben Snyder

    Thanks for your comment Steve. Shestakofsky’s piece is wonderful, and I’m happy to see much more of this kind of work coming out now. Thanks for laying the foundation for us!

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