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Labour Reads: ‘Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People’ by Dorothy Smith


Howard A. Doughty, Steward, Local 560

It’s time to dig deeper into the archives. Long ago, I got my first formal schooling in women’s studies in a course I took with Dr. Dorothy Smith at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Dorothy passed away just shy of her 96th birthday, on June 3, 2022. I hope she would have been pleased to be kindly remembered by yet another grateful student.

Though born in Yorkshire, England, Smith settled in Canada in 1967 where she originated the sociological specialty of “institutional ethnography”— the study of modern organizations through the careful description and analysis of the almost unnoticed instruments of social communication and control. Whoever dominates the narrative of working life by controlling our vocabularies, the means of communications, and methods of and direction of information sharing is almost as important (and sometimes more) important than those who have the power to make decisions on policies, processes, and budgets, as well as the labour process of hiring, firing, promotion and discipline. Who shapes the story also determines the substance of work.

Especially in the current pandemic when the proportion of precarious workers often exceeds full-time staff (in college education it’s about 75 per cent of all teachers) and when people are largely working from home and unable to commiserate with co-workers at the water cooler or the lunch room, management’s domination is intensified and deepened, not only regarding work organization and assignments, but also in pervasive and invasive entry points into personal life.

Every day, for example, my college distributes to everyone’s email inbox a host of announcements about activities that address almost all aspects of life: aerobics exercises and leisure-time hobbies, mental health awareness and career counselling, photo-shopping and recipe sharing, career plotting and retirement planning, professional development (especially technology training), inspirational talks and group thinking and, oh yes, the employer’s views on how awful the union is and how much employees are cherished and supported by management.

It’s part of what’s called the “totally administered society.” It’s Big Brother come to the workplace, gathering intelligence and preparing for algorithms to make us ever more active as producers and passive as employees.

Dorothy’s Smith’s book is a perfect primer on where to look and how to see managerial techniques to socialize the work force and imbue everyone with an ideology conducive to management’s. Institutional Ethnography isn’t obsolete despite its almost twenty-five year pedigree. True, it isn’t up-to-date on the latest IT innovations, social media misinformation and propaganda, and the latest fads and foibles of managerial overreach; but, that doesn’t matter. It invites you to look at your workplace like a sociologist, or even an anthropologist, exploring an unfamiliar community and seeing as though for the first time the instruments of internal rule that are in plain sight.

We don’t think of post-it notes, work orders, and emails as anything more than benign ways of messaging; but with Smith’s help, you can get fresh insights into the power to normalize oppression and charm workers into the fantasy that workplaces are big happy families where the employer has your interests at heart.

And, yes, there are compassionate, fair, and dedicated bosses; but they, too, are caught in an organizational frame within which we are subtly and even subconsciously made submissive and management sets the boundaries for what we can think, say, and do. And if your local union isn’t relentlessly calling the employer to account by challenging the total environment of the workplace, then the authorities will more easily control not only your bodies for eight hours a day, but can influence your minds 24/7.

Dorothy Smith, Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People (Lanham, MD: Alta-Mira Press). 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7591-0502-7