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.