Observing Workplace Rituals

Activity Description:


To encourage students to consider the meaning of workplace rituals and the symbolic management of work-family relations


As is the case for rituals of the family (see Rituals of the Family entry), rituals of the workplace lend themselves to original student research projects.

Local firms may be open to having students observe a workplace for a period, tracking various rites large and small through the working day and talking to employees about which ceremonies they have found helpful, meaningful, relaxing, or disturbing.

(As always in field projects, it is important to work closely with students on field ethics and to review policies on the protection of human subjects.

In a collaborative class project in a given workplace, each student might take careful note of the meaningful organization of different symbolic media, such as space in the workplace, adornment, food symbolism, or the use of photographic images.

What sites (such as water coolers or coffee alcoves) are deemed appropriate for informal interaction?

When office parties do take place, where are they held? Who organizes the parties?

In what contexts, and through what media, are workers’ family lives signaled within the workplace? Under what circumstances is it generally deemed inappropriate to bring family or family issues into workplace conversations.

Resulting student projects on the ritual and symbolic dynamics of workplaces might be collected in some form – perhaps in a student-developed website -and serve, in turn, as points of departure for subsequent courses.

NOTE: Although fieldwork projects based on “participant-observation” yield far richer data than interviews, in some instances it may be impossible or inconvenient to arrange field placements. If so, students might interview their parents on these topics, or reflect on their own experiences working in fast food restaurants or shopping malls.

Activity Source:

Suggestion submitted by Mark Auslander, Brandeis University