Ruthanne Huising — EM Lyon Business School
Pedro Monteiro — Copenhagen Business School
1. As we read your paper, we were astonished by the expansiveness and depth of your fieldwork, especially your ability to access and study 71 of the university’s 500 research labs. How did you gain access to these labs?
This paper emerged from ethnographic work conducted as part of a team led by Professor Susan Silbey. Susan brought PhD students from the Doctoral programs in Management, STS, and Urban Studies onto the project, starting in 2003. There were also master’s and undergraduate students who collected data for the project. Ayn Cavicchi managed this decade-long research project and collected data, as did Susan, throughout. We spread across the institution we studied. We were in the labs, the administration, the EHS office, the legal department, and so on. This data was archived centrally and has produced papers across different fields. This is how I was able to understand what was happening across so many labs. I was able to draw on the data and insights of other ethnographers.
2. In this paper, you sourced the perspectives of opposing groups involved in laboratory life (e.g., clients, professionals, managers). Do you have any advice for aspiring ethnographers trying to figure out how to conduct a study across the boundaries of multiple groups?
In any organizational ethnography, you need to balance the time you spend with different groups, especially at the beginning. You need to learn the lay of the land, and this is difficult to do if you appear to be aligned with or more interested in one group over another group. You want to maintain neutrality in the face of all the various allegiances and cliques – formal and informal. To do this, it is vital to plan your time, so you move across the spaces, ties, groups, etc. This is not fortuitous. You structure it. You have to make an effort to get coverage. With some groups, I struggled to gain access. My solution was to be present, hang around their offices, or be where I thought they might show up. I would attend a particular training several times just to get to know someone or stick around after a meeting to ask questions or help pack things up. Or, when I was walking around with one person, and I saw another person that I wanted to shadow, I would say: “Listen, I’m going to leave you here; I’m going to go follow so and so now.” It is crucial to find ways to do that smoothly.
3. You frame the paper around how professionals gain authority over their clients, focusing on occupational dynamics. Were there any other theoretical frames that you considered, and how did you go about discarding them?
Of course, there were changes along the way. I workshopped it numerous times, and the paper evolved through discussions with different people. For example, one significant change was that I thought it was about autonomy initially. But then, I presented it at a conference in 2014. Steve Barley was the discussant. He was very clear and helpful. He recognized that the empirical story was more about authority. That was all he needed to say, and I knew what to do next. I just went away and wrote the front end quite quickly after that.
The bigger issue with this paper was disentangling it from other related empirical patterns. This paper is a companion piece to The Erosion of Expert Control Through Censure Episodes. It all used to be a single massive paper. I was interested in how the different expert groups were affected by the introduction of a management system related to their work. In that paper, I analyzed the process through which they more or less lost control of their work. The Health Physicists stood out as they maintained control over their work despite the change. So, the second half of the paper tried to understand how they did that. That was an enormous paper that didn’t work for anyone. It became two papers. I wrote the process paper first and then got to work on this paper.
4. You aptly acknowledge and sidestep alternative explanations for the phenomenon you were studying (such as on page 12). We realize that this can be somewhat difficult in papers that untangle a complex puzzle as yours did. Do you have any advice for researchers on the analytical decisions behind (and limits of) their work?
Let me start by saying that amongst qualitative researchers the idea that we offer explanations is controversial. Yet, we do provide accounts of how things happen in organizations and in other social arenas. We go beyond description to hazard explanations about how the social world works. We create or borrow concepts and articulate their relations, often implicitly causal.
In terms of advice, I think I have more for reviewers. It’s vital to consider alternative explanations, and we need to puzzle through them, but we can’t expect people to eliminate all the alternative explanations. Reviewers need to be open to: “Yes, my case could be explained by X, but here are the reasons I don’t think that’s happening. I have all this rich data that shows this process but not that.” So, we can think our way out of a lot but also leave some doors open too.
5. The research on which the paper is based traces back to your days as a Ph.D. student. What have you learned about organizations by doing it? And do you have any general reflections for early-career scholars?
The findings of this paper have something to say about academic work if you want to read it broadly. The most interesting reason professions hive off scut work is that they believe there is nothing to be learned from it. This paper shows that scut work provides access to all kinds of information, insights, and relations that make it easier to leverage expertise and maintain authority. This is also true in our work. There are activities that some consider a distraction and cast around to get rid of: teaching, supervision, data collection, analysis, and so on. Yet, these activities are more integral to developing our expertise than we realize. The most talented researchers that I know are excellent teachers at any level. They also often tend to be dedicated to their Ph.D. students providing close, hands-on supervision. They get their “hands dirty” in the analysis and data collection. I believe this is because you continue to learn about the craft of research and work of knowledge creation as you fully engage in this range of work. These are scholars who are dedicated researchers, not paper writers, their entire career. In terms of tasks, they understand the work of being an academic in “a soup to nuts” way, to quote one of the Health Physicists. My advice to early-career scholars is to consider this model.