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Reading during lockdown: Insights from Global Ethnography

Photo credit: German Naval Yards by Can Pac Swire, shared with a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

This blog was written by Carolin Decker-Lange, a Senior Lecturer in Management, based in the Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise in The Open University Business School.

The global pandemic situation has inspired many people to read books that they haven’t looked at for years. During the lockdown, I revisited Global Ethnography, published by the sociologist Michael Burawoy and his students about 20 years ago. This title is thought-provoking because: ‘How can ethnography be global? How can ethnography be anything but micro and ahistorical? How can the study of everyday life grasp lofty processes that transcend national boundaries?’ (Burawoy et al., 2000, p. 1). In times of a global pandemic, we are constrained to live in confined local spaces instead of travelling across the globe. But what does ‘global’ mean?

Sharing a common context: the ‘globe’

Global ethnographers define the ‘globe’ as a common context, comprising three dimensions:

  • First, global forces are external processes that affect social actors in their local sites and often go beyond their influence (Burawoy et al., 2000). The German shipbuilding industry is a case in point. In the second half of the 20th century, German shipyards introduced innovative technologies to reduce production costs and labour intensity, with significant implications for workforce diversity and employment over time. Migrant workers were especially affected. From the 1980s onwards, they were gradually displaced, their work environments became increasingly precarious, and their access to highly skilled work areas was systematically constrained. This development was nurtured by the rapidly increasing globalisation of the competitive environment in the shipbuilding industry. To remain competitive and make their production processes more efficient, German shipyards invested in innovative technologies reducing the costs of labour (Bothe & Decker-Lange, 2020).
  • Second, global connections constitute global forces. Since the rise of the internet, workplaces have become increasingly remote and globally dispersed. Ó Riain’s (2000) study of Irish software engineers working for a software company in the USA illustrates this point. Staff are embedded in both local and global networks. The global workplace dominates the Irish software engineers’ lives, because guidelines and deadlines are imposed by the US-based corporate headquarters.
  • Third, global imaginations reveal that globalisation is neither inevitable nor fully beyond human control. Images of globalisation are produced. Their dissemination can culminate in local social movements that may become global (Burawoy et al., 2000). For instance, changing medical practices fostered by major advancements in cancer research in the 1970s and 1980s influenced local movements to fight breast cancer in the USA, eventually rising to the global level (Klawiter, 2000).

Global and local – a contradiction?

The description of the three dimensions reveals that global and local processes are intertwined. The transformation of German shipyards from large corporations that heavily relied on a low-skilled and highly international workforce into predominantly medium-sized high-technology companies with significantly less diverse and highly qualified technical staff driven by global forces illustrates this point (Bothe & Decker-Lange, 2020):

  • The initial expansion (1960-1976) of the German shipbuilding industry was driven by a shipbuilding and tanker boom nurtured by an increasing maritime trade and demand for oil (Cramer, 1993). German shipyards expanded, and the workforce rose by 50%, from approximately 54,000 to 113,000 employees. To satisfy the high demand, German shipyards recruited ‘guest workers’ from Southern and Eastern Europe. By 1975, the number of migrant workers rose to almost 10,000.
  • During the subsequent shipyard crisis (1976-1990), the predominance of competitors from South East Asia – Japan, South Korea and China – led to a restructuring of the global shipbuilding industry (Albert, 1998). Germany’s market share dropped from 19.5% to 3%. In the aftermath of the oil crisis in 1973 and 1979, German shipyards withdrew from commercial shipbuilding and focused on specialised shipbuilding, accompanied by massive layoffs. From 1975 to 1988, the workforce declined by almost 50%, from 77,000 to 34,000 employees. The largest groups affected were migrant workers with a dismissal rate of 50% (Cramer, 1993).
  • In the following period of reorientation (1990-2000), high technology played a vital role. The number of production workers dropped by another 65% from 62,700 to 25,600 (Federal Statistics, 2017), while the proportional growth of high-skilled employees in construction increased by 50%.

Seeing global forces ‘from below’

The transformation of the German shipbuilding industry cannot be fully understood without listening to the workers’ voices. For her PhD thesis, Katharina Bothe from the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven conducted 30 qualitative oral history interviews with three generations of industrial workers, engineers and union representatives from Germany, Turkey, Italy, Portugal and former Yugoslavia who were employed at three major Northern German shipyards between 1960 and 2000. These interviews enabled her to discover narrated patterns of social exclusion and inequality.

In the 1960s, the first generation of migrants were mainly employed as industrial workers in the production areas on shipyards, whereas technical staff and engineers in the construction offices were mostly German. That division remained largely unchanged over four decades. Because of language barriers and a lack of access to training and reskilling, migrants were disadvantaged and unable to use complex and technologically advanced machines. This circumstance left the migrant workforce behind when the industry was eventually forced to restructure its production processes and embrace high technology. The example underlines that the analysis of individual histories allows us ‘to compose the global from below’ (Burawoy et al., 2000, p. 343).

Entrepreneurship as a local response to a global pandemic

Global Ethnography allows us to look afresh at the current pandemic crisis. Even if we have a global mindset, our physical life remains local. We experience and respond to the pandemic ‘from below’ in our own local site. From the perspective of an entrepreneurship researcher, global ethnography enhances our understanding of emerging entrepreneurial initiatives:

  • First, COVID-19 acts as a global force that deeply affects our individual lives. Lockdowns and restrictions promote the re-evaluation of the economic and social aspects of locality. For example, many small local shops are evolving into hubs of mutual support, creativity and innovation in neighbourhood communities all over the world.
  • Second, local responses to COVID-19 may be imitated by other communities, possibly connected by networks of like-minded entrepreneurs across countries and international media coverage. Global connections could foster a global movement supported by, for example, ‘build back better’ campaigns towards an economy relying on smaller and more sustainable businesses, responsible leadership and local sourcing relationships.
  • Finally, a look back into economic history shows that global imaginations like these campaigns have been disseminated since the 1970s, such as the concept of the social enterprise as an alternative to the traditional approach to business in the UK.

I end this article on the note that while COVID-19 is disrupting our lives, in the future it could emerge as a powerful global force encouraging creative approaches to entrepreneurship. For the time being, it inspires us to revisit our bookshelves.


  • Albert, G. 1998. Wettbewerbsfähigkeit und Krise der deutschen Schiffbauindustrie 1945-1990. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
  • Bothe, K., & Decker-Lange, C. 2020. Globalisation and Technological Innovation: Labour Inequality at German Shipyards, 1960-2000. Developmental (discussion) paper accepted for inclusion in the British Academy of Management Conference ‘In a Cloud’, 2-4 September 2020.
  • Burawoy, M., Blum, J., George, S., Gille, Z., Gowan, T., Haney, L., Klawiter, M., Lopez, S., Ó Riain, S., & Thayer, M. 2000. Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Cramer, U. 1993. Beschäftigte im Schiffbau – Opfer des Strukturwandels?, in W. Karr (ed.), Küstenregionen im Strukturwandel. Beiträge zur Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung, BeitrAB 169 (pp. 70-83). Nürnberg: Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung der Bundesanstalt für Arbeit.
  • Federal Statistics. 2017. Statistics for the Manufacturing Sector – Shipbuilding Companies.
  • Klawiter, M. 2000. From private stigma to global assembly: Transforming the terrain of breast cancer, in M. Burawoy, J. Blum, S. George, Z. Gille, T. Gowan, L. Haney, M. Klawiter, S. Lopez, S. Ó Riain, & M. Thayer (eds.), Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World (pp. 299-334). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Ó Riain, S. (2000). Net-working for a living: Irish software developers in the global workplace, in M. Burawoy, J. Blum, S. George, Z. Gille, T. Gowan, L. Haney, M. Klawiter, S. Lopez, S. Ó Riain, & M. Thayer (eds.), Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World (pp. 175-202). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Photo credit: German Naval Yards by Can Pac Swire, shared with a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.