TSElosophers meeting 20.12.2021. Participants: Andrea Mariani, Eeva Nummi, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl.

Van Maanen, J. (2011). Ethnography as work: Some rules of engagement. Journal of management studies48(1), 218-234.


The article presents a counterpoint to a point; Van Maanen responds to an article by Tony Watson. Van Maanen sets out by emphasizing that his own musings about ethnography that mostly correspond with Watson. However, Van Maanen adopts a more protecting position about ethnography’s uniqueness than Watson: He outlines ethnography as inherently a relatively marginal method and feels the need to defend the ethnographers’ capabilities to extract evidence by observing the observations of natives.

Van Maanen concentrates on ethnography as a combination of “fieldwork, headwork, and textwork” (p. 218). Fieldword is especially difficult in ethnography and requires considerably more commitment than in mainstream science. Thus, he doubts that ethnography could turn into a mainstream approach without diluting itself to mediocre scholarship and results. Headwork and textwork refer insightful process of theorization and communication of ethnographic research.

Our discussion

We greatly appreciated Van Maanen’s three-part distinction that adjusts the typical idea about ethnography as fieldwork towards theorizing and skillful communication about the research. It is extremely important that an ethnographic researcher (just like any other empirical researcher) keeps in mind all these three ‘works’ in a reasonably balanced manner. Van Maanen successfully employs this distinction to stress how (ethnographic) research is full of making choices by the researcher.

However, despite his laudable approach, Van Maanen still downplays the role of theorizing. His take on ethnography is eventually rather open-ended and empirically tuned. The examples given by Van Maanen set ethnographies as rhetorically appealing theoretical collages that intricately describe local realities. Still, it remains shrouded how to select theories and, most importantly, how to validate the outcome of theorizing in the ethnographic research. Even if an eclectic and intuitive approach works for the niche Van Maanen has developed for himself, it might be too shaky foundation for the broader ethnographic field, its researchers and for generating influence outside ethnographic circles.

It seems that Van Maanen’s idea of ethnography as a marginal method requires creative, social and rhetorical geniuses that operate under very few rules. He perceives Watson’s pursuits towards mainstream to endanger his idea about ethnography. However,  it might be that Van Maanen’s representation of ethnography reflects more his own niche take on it than the views of the entire field.

Unfortunately, we had no chance to read the original text by Watson, but only Van Maanen’s reflections on it. Watson might have interesting thoughts as for how to approach the potentials involved in adjusting ethnography in parallel with the mainstream. If so, we hope he adopts Van Maanen’s important distinction between fieldwork, headwork and textwork and uses it to relate ethnography further with the mainstream, yet carefully ensuring that the key characteristics of ethnographic pursuits are not lost in this move.