Ethnographic research on the production and reproduction of market culture is inherently difficult. In most sectors of advanced capitalist economies, market-making is the province of corporate elites.
They make the highly consequential buy and sell decisions that determine the success of their organizations. They generally have power and status that derive from their position in these organizations.
Like other elites, they are insulated from observation and protective of their time. The researcher must often pass through several levels of gate-keepers to gain access and may be rebuffed at any level.
Indeed, Jackall (1988 and Thomas (1993) discuss the frustration, expense and lost time
involved in gaining access to business elites. Jackall, R., (\988), Moral Mazes, New York: Oxford University Press and Thomas, R., (\993), ‘Interviewing Important People in Big Companies’, Journal of
Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 22 No. I, pp. 80-96.
Market-makers can let you in or keep you out and once you’re in, you can still be asked to leave at any time. It is easy to see why elites are rarely the target of ethnography. Most ethnography is done among the poor, the powerless, the deviant, and in the less developed societies
HERE STYING UP! This is a path!!!
It was only at the New York Stock Exchange that I gained the kind of unlimited access for which ethnographers yearn and that extended observation requires. The initial contact was provided by
an alumni that I met at a business school cocktail party. He was introduced as a specialist (market-maker) at the New York Stock Exchange. After learning about my previous research, he graciously invited me to the floor of NYSE. After a morning on the floor with him and his staff, he introduced me to the man who would become my key informant and supporter. This man believed that the culture of the floor was changing and wanted someone to document it. He had been at the Exchange for over 20 years, served on many governance committees, and was able to introduce me to a cross-section of the floor community.
I was his guest on the floor for several months, observing from his post, until a trader who served on the
Board of Trustees became aware of my presence, objected to it, and brought it to the attention of the Board. They voted to allow me to stay providing a permanent floor pass and a large office in the economic
research department on the seventeenth floor. I was ‘in’ or as one anthropologist described it, the natives had built me a hut. With this degree of access my fieldnotes soon supplanted interviews as the major source of data.
Getting good data
In the process of gaining access and establishing rapport with business elites the researcher feels cautious and at a certain disadvantage. Elites can refuse or revoke access. Moreover, market-makers typically have greater power, wealth, and prestige than social science researchers. They are used to deference. But once the researcher begins to gather data, that imbalance begins to adjust. I found that
market-makers had tremendous verbal facility and were used to controlling the definition of the situation they were in. Yet, playing the scientist gives one interpretive power. My informants were quite sensitive to this. While it made a small portion of my informants initially defensive, most easily assumed the role of a research subject. They showed real concern that their own performance was useful to me and interviews often went well over the time we had scheduled to talk. After an initial warm-up period, the more that I directed the interview and pursued questions I cared about, the more responsive my informants became.
Nevertheless, the ethnographic interview is a subtle form of strategic interaction. The market-makers in my study often had a well-developed perspective on the sociology and psychology of the trading floor. As an ethnographer I endeavoured to cast the broadest possible net searching for detailed descriptions of everyday life. To fill this net I asked market-makers to describe their day, to describe their career, to tell stories about key incidents and to explain a wide variety of social institutions associated with trading.
I allowed them to talk about their pet issues, but I often had to direct them back to the issues that were emerging in my data. The market-makers communicated a combination of behaviours, emotions,
opinions, and ideologies, all of them data to be analysed.
Perhaps the hardest thing about gathering data in this setting for me was subverting my critical stance. In all my research I start with a critical stance, questioning the norms, procedures, structures, and values of my subjects. These are things a student of markets should never take for granted. But the market-makers themselves are suspicious of such a stance. They want you to share their assumption that their world is as it should or must be. They want you to believe in the importance and rationality of what they do from the start and not to question it. A critical stance would present me as an out-sider not to be trusted. This puts the researcher in a difficult position.
I decided that my stance would be that I was open to anything. That was hard to do because some of the things I heard from bond traders were shocking. But I learned to keep a dispassionate ‘straight’ face, shaking my head and taking it in. The subtle threat here is the temptation to go native, ie, to buy into their interpretation of the world or simply to join that world. I did receive one job offer during my year of research. When I declined, my prospective employer asked me why. I told him that I was going to write a doctoral dissertation. He asked if I would get paid for that. I told him how much my assistantship was worth. He responded, ‘Maybe I misjudged you’.
It’s very easy to get caught up in their interpretation of their world because it’s a powerful one. The economic ideology that dominates Wall Street is a clear and comprehensive system for understanding everything from individual behaviour to the government’s role in the market. Everything that happens on a daily basis is sifted through this ideology. It may be easy to maintain your ethnographic distance when your subjects are illiterate, impoverished or stigmatized. If the belief system is one that is part of your own society, it is harder. But here your method protects you. In the field you are open to recording anything, but at home, with the data, the critical facility must return. All the norms, procedures, and values of market-makers become culturally embedded social institutions to be understood.