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Making culture visible: reflections on corporate ethnography

Anne-Laure Fayard (Department of Technology Management and Innovation, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, New York, NY, USA)
John Van Maanen (MIT Sloan School of Management, MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, US)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 9 March 2015




The purpose of this paper is to describe and reflect on the experience as corporate ethnographers working in (and for) a large, multinational company with a remit to study and articulate “the culture of the firm.”


The research relied heavily on interviews and some (participant) observation carried out periodically – in North America, Europe and Asia – over an eight-year period.


The authors discuss how the studies were produced, received, and occasionally acted on in the firm and the realization over time of the performativity of the work as both expressive and constitutive of firm’s culture.

Research limitations/implications

The increasing entanglement in the organization raises questions regarding emic and etic perspectives and the possibility (or impossibility) of “enduring detachment” or “going native” and the associated, often unintended consequences of being both outsiders and insiders.

Practical implications

The authors start with the premise that ethnography is about producing a written text and conclude by arguing that ethnography is not fully realized until the writing is read.

Social implications

The ethnographic reports, when read by those in the company, made visible a version of Trifecta culture that was interpreted, framed and otherwise responded to in multiple ways by members of the organization.


Corporate ethnography is a growing pursuit undertaken by those inside and outside firms. This paper focusses on how and in what ways corporate ethnography sponsored by and written for those in the company shifts the positioning of the ethnographer in the field, the kinds of texts they produce, and the meanings that readers take away from such texts.



Fayard, A.-L. and Van Maanen, J. (2015), "Making culture visible: reflections on corporate ethnography", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 4-27.



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Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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