Ethnographies of Work

Students studying using laptops

Overview of Ethnographies of Work (EoW)

Ethnographies of Work is a unique two-course sequence required within Guttman’s First-Year Experience (FYE). In EoW I, taken in the Fall I semester, students use workplaces as research sites to practice, refine, and master the ethnographic methods of research design, observation, mapping, and interview. In EoW II, during Spring I, they focus on critical analysis of workplace issues using an interdisciplinary social sciences lens that includes anthropological, sociological, and historical approaches. In EoW II, students use ethnographic skills to conduct original research and gain deeper understanding of the worlds of work. Both EoW I and II involve readings, discussions, and fieldwork.

Catalog Course Descriptions

SOSC 111: Ethnographies of Work I (Credits: 3, Hours: 3 cr.)
Pre/Co-requisites: None
Ethnographies of Work I introduces students to sociological and anthropological perspectives on work as they investigate a range of careers. The course approaches work as a cultural system invested with meanings, norms, values, customs, behavioral expectations, and social hierarchies. Students pose key questions through the lens of ethnography in order to investigate workplaces, occupations, and career pathways in an urban context. Guided by the ethnographer’s assumption that there’s “always more than meets the eye,” students are encouraged to uncover myths and stereotypes about the work world and gain appreciation of how and why work matters to individuals in a range of occupations. Students explore dimensions of work life in the context of contemporary dynamics of disruption, uncertainty, innovation, and diversity, and draw connections between the self and work through readings, films, interviews, and fieldwork. The centerpiece of the course is for students to compose and present ethnographic accounts of workplace relations and vocational pathways as they contemplate their own career journeys.

SOSC 111: Ethnographies of Work I satisfies three credits in the Individual and Society area of the CUNY Flexible Core.

SOSC 113: Ethnographies of Work II (Credits: 3, Hours: 3 cr.)
Pre/Co-requisites: None
Ethnographies of Work II is the second course of a two-course sequence that uses social science concepts, perspectives, and methods to increase student understanding of the work world and the processes and contexts that link the self and work. The focus for the second semester is to conduct an ethnographic investigation on an occupation of interest to the student. Students will conduct fieldwork at a work site; they will use observation, interviewing, and artifact analysis as methods to learn to identify and reflect on personal, cultural, social, structural, and economic aspects of the work experience. Students will also research quantitative data on occupations and employment trends to better understand the depth of particular careers. Throughout the semester, students will add more in-depth ethnographic writings to their body of ethnographic works and continue to reflect on their own journey toward deciding on a career path.

SOSC 113: Ethnographies of Work II satisfies three credits in the Individual and Society area of the CUNY Flexible Core.

Putting Work at the Center of Student Learning:
Guttman Community College’s Approach to Career Development

Dr. Mary Gatta, Guttman Community College, CUNY
Dr. Nancy Hoffman, Jobs for the Future

Higher education institutions and high schools increasingly recognize the importance of providing students with career information and workplace experiences so that they will acquire the skills necessary to succeed in an ever-evolving workplace environment (Humphreys, 2017). Yet learning about the working world remains on the margins of the higher education curriculum – isolated in workshops on professional skills and resume writing.

Students often graduate from high school and college with little knowledge of the larger systems at play in the world of work, job searching, career pathways, or how their interests do (or do not) align with labor market needs. They lack a concrete understanding of the day-to-day life in many careers they have interest in and have not learned the critical skills necessary to build up and use networks of family, friends, professors, and colleagues to connect with opportunity and be seen as an asset. This lack of attention to career preparation only serves to intensify the class and racial divide. The most privileged students, mostly white, are able to anticipate and prepare for professional careers like those of their parents. Meanwhile, students from low-income families continue to think of work mainly as a way to survive and are often left disappointed when, even with a degree completed, few new doors open to them.

Guttman Community College[i] (City University of New York) has developed a career-preparation alternative in Ethnographies of Work (EoW). This required first-year course integrates individualized reflection on the character of work into the academic curriculum, rather than keeping work-centered learning a separate endeavor. EoW is a two-part, year-long social science course that gives students both a theoretical and applied context by putting the subject of “work” at the center of learning. The course helps students identify and begin to build a pathway towards a “vocation” – an occupation that particularly draws a person’s interest and in which they are personally invested.

EoW students complete a paired co-requisite course entitled Learning About Being a Successful Student (LaBSS). EoW thus links intellectually focused, liberal arts learning about work with the more skills-oriented lab, rather than presenting them as two decontextualized and separate endeavors.

In EoW I, students master ethnographic methods: research design, observation, workplace mapping, and interviewing. The signature course assignment is a semester-long ethnographic fieldwork-based investigation of a career or workplace that the student has an interest in pursuing. In EoW II, students focus their research on applying ethnographic methods to address a particular workplace problem.

The theory of change that underlies EoW is as follows: Students who understand the meaning of work in human lives and who have a critical understanding of work experience will have greater agency in entering and navigating the labor market than those who believe they only need a credential. EoW students are asked to reflect on their own workplace and community experiences with a social science lens, gaining new insights into their work lives.

Given the growing concerns with inequality that disproportionately affect low-income young people of color, the time is right to move beyond our old approach to career advising. EoW both raises critical issues that all students should address and provides one model for moving work to its rightfully central place in order to better prepare young people for the labor market.