Ethnography Study re Globalisation 2500 words

Explore how the topic of ‘Globalisation’ helps to interpret what goes on in one specific organization.

Globalistion has had a huge impact on management and organization, as Clegg, Kornberger and Tyrone have argued, “anywhere/anything is potentially or actually linked to anywhere/anything else in the management of commerce, government, aid, or other globally exchanged goods and services” (Clegg et al. 2005: 449). This has led to the increase in power of transnational corporations as “the economic scale of the largest giant corporations now exceeds the GDP of most countries” (Clegg et al. 2005: 456), and shifts in marketing strategies to account for the increased flow of information, goods and people. Such shifts in global power relations have effects not only on a world scale but also at national and local levels, as Clegg, Kornberger and Tyrone go on to propose, “globalization is everywhere today – and, so it seems, is resistance to it” (Clegg et al. 2005: 451). The focus of this study will be on how global marketing strategies are played out, or potentially resisted, in the everyday lives, routines and rituals of people in a specific organization, what Lechner and Boli describe as the ways in which “globalization affect people concretely” (Lechner and Boli 2004: 122). It uses an ethnographic study of a local independent coffee shop to explore how processes of globalization have impacted upon the organization, and how this can help us understand it. Firstly, it outlines the ethnographic fieldwork taken out. Secondly, it provides an overview of the perspective of globalization. Thirdly, it analyses the ethnographic study in relation to issues of globalization, and finally a concluding section draws the research together and proposes areas for further study.


Hammersley and Atkinson define an ethnographic study as “a descriptive account of a community or culture, usually one located outside of the West” (Hammersley and Atkinson 2007: 1). The concept also includes however, the analysis of rituals and behaviour of one’s own culture. They emphasise that ethnographic study shows

“people’s actions and accounts in everyday contexts, rather than under conditions created by the researcher”, and the importance of “participant observation and/or relatively informal conversations” They also define it as “unstructured…a relatively open-ended approach” meaning that data is acquired first before a hypothesis is proposed, and show that “what are produced are for the most part, verbal descriptions, explanations and theories” (all preceding quotes from Hammersley and Atkinson 2007: 3).


This ethnographic study followed these basic principles. I visited a small independently owned café called ‘Venetia’s Coffee Shop’ situated on a local suburban high street. The area could be described as transitional in the sense of being traditionally working-class but changing rapidly due to gentrification and waves of migration to and from the area.  The street consisted of a mixture of fried chicken outlets, newsagents and premises such as a children’s bookshop targeting a different demographic of consumer.  I sat in the café and tried to remain unobserved while I observed the behaviour of others, unaware they were being watched. I made notes and descriptions on the workers, interactions, and all of the people entering the café during a two-hour period on a weekday afternoon. After this period of research I made four informal conversations with people in the café, including the staff, without alerting them that I was analyzing their responses.  The whole process raised many theoretical and ethical questions, which will be returned to at the end of this study, as well as providing the data on the organization, which will be discussed.


Definitions of globalization, whether from its critics, such as Joseph Stiglitz, or advocates such as Jagdish Bhagwati, emphasize the increased connectivity, flow and deregulation of movement around the globe (Bhagwati 2004: 4). Stiglitz for example provides a basic definition as:


The closer integration of peoples and countries of the world, which has been brought about by the enormous reduction of cost of transportation and communication, and the breaking down of artificial barriers to the flow of goods, services, capital, knowledge and (to a lesser extent) people, across borders. (Stiglitz 2002: 9)


Clegg, Kornberger and Tyrone point out how this leads to the rise and power of transnational corporations:


International activities enable firms to enter new markets, exploit technological and organizational advantages, as well as reduce business costs and risks. …They dominate world trade. (Clegg et al. 452)


Rollinson also states the importance of globalization for management, analyzing the necessity for developing new business strategies, “the effects of globalization are so significant that henceforth the phenomenon will affect almost everyone” (Rollinson 2008: 46).


While similarity can be found in basic definitions of, and arguments for the importance of, globalization, great difference can be found in attitudes towards it. Some have been critical for example of transnational institutions such as the IMF forcing development according to a limited hegemonic model of financial market liberalization (Stiglitz 2002: 212; Klein 2002: 54-5), or of the effect of globalization on climate change (Klein 2002: 92).  On the other hand, others have acknowledged the potential of globalization to benefit the developing world or the environment. Clegg, Kornberger and Tyrone for example suggest that it can, “encourage development based on local initiatives and resources” (Clegg et al. 2005: 460). Fulop, Linsted and Lilley propose that “today it is the transnational corporations that are setting the global environmental agenda”  (Fulop et al. 2009: 241).


The focus of this ethnographic study and analysis however, will be how the effects of globalization are played out, culturally, in everyday experience. Two points that follow from effects of globalization are firstly, the dominance and importance of the transnational corporation, and secondly, the huge impact of processes of globalization on all aspects of experience. Globalization affects the marketing strategies of corporations and this in turn effects behaviour in organizations.  One criticism aimed at globalization on an everyday level is the way that it imposes a particular dominant notion of cultural experience as universal, canceling out the possibility of any diversity or difference:


Globalization…has meant the global proliferation of norms of individualized values, originally of Western origin. (Clegg et al. 2005: 477)


Ricouer’s critique of the uniformity of consumerism, “the phenomena of universalization…constitutes a sort of subtle destruction…of traditional cultures…Everywhere throughout the world one finds the same bad movie, the same slot machines” (Ricouer 1961, cited in Frampton 1999: 268), reflects the attitude many interviewees expressed in the ethnographic study towards what they perceive as processes of globalization in the coffee-shop market, “I don’t like chain places like Starbucks, they’re all the same…soulless” (Ethnographic Study 2009). Bhagwati is critical of hostility to corporations, “anti-corporation arguments are not supported by facts” (Bhagwati 2004: 22), but he fails to understand here that the facts, unless the way they are presented is particularly compelling, really make very little difference in the context of marketing and everyday consumer attitude, experience and opinion.


One effect of globalization then, which emerged from this stud, is the dominance of global chains in the coffee shop market. Starbucks was a key reference point which emerged from the interviews, signifying the globalized coffee chain par excellence in the perceptions of interviewees. Michelli’s analysis of Starbucks marketing strategy shows how the organization has evolved around the construction of a commodified and endlessly reproducible ‘experience’, “The Starbucks Experience” (Michelli 2007: 13), in an attempt to create a brand name that is “synonymous with coffee (Michelli 2007: 3). A brief look at any outlet of Starbucks reveals the elements used in this global marketing strategy. Boards with signifiers of personalization, ‘your perfect coffee just the way you like it’; passion, ‘put your heart into it’ and ethics, ‘the fairtrade promise’ are combined with recognizable brand identity such as the store design and worker uniforms.


While this highstreet experience has become the dominant norm, where does this leave the local small independent café in relation to the discourse of global marketing strategy? If ‘The Starbucks Expereience’, which, due to its transnational presence and brand identity, is necessarily uniform, is perceived as “soulless” by members of the public, then does the independent café offer a different relation to forces of globalization? How does this relate to debates on globalization and the local? And how does this play out in everyday patterns of consumption, behaviour and experience? These are the questions this study sets out to address.


The globalized rituals of chain coffee outlets have now become so normalized that the analysis focused initially on ways that the chosen organization played out these rituals, and ways in which it made some attempt to differentiate itself from them. Many of the rituals were the same, constituting a shared language, which was assumed by every customer who entered. People would walk in, stand at the counter, order a drink and speak in a specialized language, which was readily understood by everyone, “to go?” or “skinny”, for example People would then pay, stand and wait for the drink, then go and sit down. One customer, with a child, educated her child to the rituals while ordering, telling him to “wait here” before taking a seat. There were other assumptions which weren’t questioned, the belief that you had to buy something before taking a seat for example, or the price and availability of beverages. The space inside the café seemed to fit as many people as possible into the space, maximizing numbers, and therefore profit, at the expense of personal space. This created an environment where people would not stay for long, no-one stayed after their cup had been taken away, and it made it difficult to concentrate as conversations around could all be heard. The space was used differently by different people, some came to socialize and chat, others to read newspapers or books, but the main focus was on small struggles over personal space and minimizing interaction with strangers.


Although interaction with the staff was minimal, it most occurred when disruptions to the expected routine were proposed. The offer to “have a seat, I’ll bring it over” for example, elicited a surprised response as it challenged the expectations of the scenario. Similarly “pay later if you want” again elicited a surprised reaction. Such offers can be seen as ways of introducing flexibility to the service ritual, something distinctive from the rigid service ritual in a global chain. Flexibility also seemed common in staff rituals, they would take breaks at quiet times rather than at fixed times for example. The name ‘Venetia’s’ suggests a friendly local-owned culture as a marker of difference from chains. Staff chose what music to play from CDs, and there were other details, such as books on shelves (signifiers of intellectualism, sharing, and public service) and a noticeboard (signifier of local community), which suggested attempts to differentiate from chain coffee shops. These signs were reflected in behaviour – people spoke to the staff as if they had met before, many stopped to read the noticeboard and one person browsed the books.


Benjamin Barber, in his essay ‘Jihad Vs McWorld’ emphasizes a fascinated, yet critical, definition of globalization as “a busy portrait of onrushing economic, technological, and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and mesmerize people everywhere” (Barber 2004: 29). He creates an opposition between, on one hand, what he calls McWorld  – total cultural Imperialism forged by “global markets rooted in consumption and profit” (Barber 2004: 31), and on the other hand, what he calls ‘Jihad culture’, which includes not only large scale holy war but also “a simple search for a local identity, some set of common personal attributes to hold out against the numbing and neutering uniformities of industrial modernization and the colonizing culture of McWorld” (Barber 2004: 32). Barber’s analysis however is too binary. It is harder in reality to make and sustain the distinctions that he does between the global and the local. The study suggests otherwise, that the coffee shop is a hybrid of globalized coffee culture and attempts at local individualized identity.


As Martin Albrow has pointed out, definitions of local community culture are not so simple in a globalized technological culture, “locality has much less absolute salience for individuals and social research than older paradigms of research allow” (Albrow 2004: 133). People in a local area may feel more, or equally, connected to networks of ‘friends’ on social networking sites, or to family in other countries, than they do to people who happen to live in the same neighbourhood. Rather than assuming a readymade local community then, it could be argued that the coffee shop is actively constructing a community based around locality, defined in relation to the uniformity of the corporate chain coffeeshop ‘Experience’, but with attempts to adapt that to local culture as well. This recalls Frampton’s calls for Critical Regionalism, whose fundamental strategy is to “mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place”  (Frampton 1999: 272).


On one hand then, the study suggests the adapting of models of experience and behaviour of the global coffee chain to a local context. On the other hand however, the study also shows the imbalance and contradictions of this. 100 percent of visitors to the café during the study period were white and middle class, in an area which is still predominantly working class and mixed in terms of race and ethnicity. This suggests that such organizations, a sign signifying strongly its associations with ‘organic’ and ‘fairtrade’ as a lifestyle choice, operate as important markers of gentrification, raising property prices and in a sense, laying the grounds, for further ‘development’ in the form of global chains. The study suggests that rather than critiquing the homogenisation of corporate culture, through a return to local community, as the interviewees believe, such organizations operate as a vital part of processes of globalization, which can fully account for individuality, diversity and difference, in a far less binary way than Barber suggests.


Finally, this study had many limitations. It took place in one small organization, for a relatively short space of time, and far more data could have been collected in a larger operation, for a longer analysis. Ethnography has been criticized for its failures to acknowledge the ethnographer’s supposedly ‘objective’ position, “constructionism and naturalism is compatible with naturalism only so long as it is not applied to ethnographic research itself” (Atkinson and Hammersley 2007: 11) In other words, the ethnographer analyses in detail how others construct their social worlds but is less open about how they do this themselves, through for example the questions asked, and the fact that it is impossible to just neutrally describe without providing a certain agenda and interpretation.  Ethically, I felt uncomfortable asking people about their experiences without letting them know it was for research purposes, although this was important for getting ‘realistic’ data.  A more detailed study would have to take these criticisms on board in more depth. Despite these limitations however, an analysis of globalization, in relation to ethnographic study, proved a useful and critical way of interpreting what goes on in a specific organization.






Albrow, M. (2004) ‘Travelling Beyond Local Cultures’ in The Globalization Reader Eds. F. Lechner and J.Boli. Oxford: Blackwell. pp.133-141.


Atkinson, P. and Hammersley, M. (2007) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London: Routledge.


Barber, B. (2004) ‘Jihad Vs McWorld’ in The Globalization Reader Eds. F. Lechner and J.Boli. Oxford: Blackwell. pp.29-36.


Bhagwati, J. (2004) In Defence of Globalization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Clegg, S, Kornberger, M. and Tyrone, P. (2005) Managing and Organisations: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. London: Sage.


Ethnographic Study (2009), quotes here are taken from informal conversations with anonymous participants.


Frampton, K. (1999) ‘Toward a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ in Postmodernism: A Reader Ed. T.Docherty. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester. pp. 268-280.


Fulop, L. Linsted, S. and Lilley, S. (2009) Management and Organization: A Critical Text. London: Palgrave


Klein, N.  (2002) Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate. London: Flamingo.


Knights, D. and Wilmott, H. (2006) Introducing Organizational Behaviour and Management. Thompson Learning


Lechner, F. and Boli, J. (2004) ‘Experiencing Globalization: Introduction’ in The Globalization Reader Eds. F. Lechner and J.Boli. Oxford: Blackwell. pp.122-3.


Michelli, J. A. (2007) The Starbucks Experience: Five Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary. New York: McGraw Hill


Ricouer, P. History and Truth (1961). Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press.


Rollinson, D.  (2008) Organisational Behaviour and Analysis: An Integrated Approach, 4th Edition. Harlow: Pearson.


Stiglitz, J (2002) Globalization and its Discontents. London: Penguin.