Brooke Harrington is an Associate Professor in the Department of Business and Politics at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. She received her PhD in 1999 from Harvard University. Her research examines the social underpinnings of finance; in addition to her forthcoming book on wealth management professionals, her previous work includes Pop Finance: Investment Clubs and Stock Market Populism (Princeton 2008), and Deception: From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating (Stanford 2009). She has published in journals such as Socio-Economic Review and Social Psychology Quarterly, and her work has been supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation and the Danish National Research Council.
Methodology and Globalization: For a Sociology of the Local-Global Encounter
Studies of globalization within sociology increasingly rely upon quantitative methods, drawing authority and insight from big data and statistical models. Without taking anything away from this approach, I contend that the sociological imagination requires closer contact with real life in order to make great leaps forward. Specifically, I call for a return to the traditions of ethnography, in which social scientists immerse themselves in the lived experiences of the people they study. In a global context, this entails multi-site studies, which are costly and time-consuming. I propose some tactics for addressing these practical problems, and—most importantly—posit three domains in which ethnographic methods can make a distinctive contribution to sociological theories of globalization:
1. By focusing on interaction.
Ethnography’s actor-centered approach complements the structural theories that dominate much of the sociology of globalization. Ethnographic data can shed light on key dynamics, such as the way global practices and norms diffuse to the local level, and vice-versa: phenomena known generally as the “local-global encounter.”
2. By providing detailed process data, not otherwise available, and not apparent from quantitative data or public records.
For example, we may know from public records what decision a government or other organization reached, but through ethnography, we can learn how and why that decision—rather than others—prevailed.
3. By opening to observation the “backstage” areas of social life—particularly power dynamics—that are often concealed.
This is the source material of much of the theory-building that has fuelled the sociological imagination since the discipline’s inception. The unseen and unexpected, revealed through immersion in the life-worlds of others, are ideal starting points for developing social scientific breakthroughs.