Questioning Ethnographic Texts

Socorro Cambero, Fall 2019

School of Education, University of California, Irvine

Anthro 215A/ "Ethnographic Methods"/ Professor Kim Fortun

The Lives of Campus Custodians: Insights Into Corporatization and Civic Engagement in the Academy  

By Peter Magolda/ Stylus Publishing

What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually?

What modes of inquiry were used to produce it?

How is the text structured and performed?

How can it circulate? 

What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics?

This is an ethnographic study of the effects of downsizing, subcontracting and outsourcing on college campuses. Post 1970, colleges have cut public sector funding, thus they “[seek] profits through formal and informal close relationships with other corporations”, which is manifested in capitalist ideals such as entrepreneurialism (Magolda, 2016, 27). This book examines how universities implement corporation practices to cope with scarce resources, specifically what and whose concerns are addressed with changes. 

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

This phenomenon is located in two universities. One university (Harrison University) is a public institution in a rural midwestern college town east of the Mississippi River. The second university (Compton University) is a private medium sized institution located in a midwestern metropolis west of the Mississippi River.

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount? 

After the national financial crisis during the 1970s, government funding for higher education institutions were cut. Universities and colleges have solicited with corporate funding and foundations to offset costs. Consequently, universities assume characteristics of for profit organizations that illuminate capitalist ideals including entrepreneurialism. 

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

Trends of corporatization on college campuses disportionately affects some of the most subjected college campus members, which are campus custodians. Consequently, corporatization leaves custodial staff fearful about their positions, disengaged from the university, and marginalized. However, these characteristics are often qualities that colleges attempt to combat with students and staff. Additionally, corporation fosters a subculture among college employees that views custodial staff members as lacking knowledge. However, Magolda complicates this by arguing that staff and faculty in positions of power are not the sole-holders of knowledge because custodial staff also possess valuable knowledge that institutions ignore. 

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example? 

Custodial Staff, administrators and supervisors working in a private and public university to understand the effects and social functions of higher education during downsizing, subcontracting and outsourcing occuring in institutions. 

What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

University efforts to corporate funding intensified during the 1970s crises, which reemerged in 2008.

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text? 

Corporate Managerialism has negatively affected the experiences of custodial staff on college and university campuses,  complicated custodians disengaging civically from campus life, and complicated custodians’ efforts to utilize education-related benefits afforded to them as campus employees

The collegiate subculture leaves staff who may not be “formally schooled” viewed as inferior and lacking knowledge about how the university operates. This subculture aso illuminates how the notion of equity and access are not available for all people. 

What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

Corporate managerial practices impact campus custodians, many who do not make a living wage. This contradicts the mythology of equity that higher education institutions claims to pursue.

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

As mentioned, science and technology is not implicated, but the text alludes to neoliberal forces that are influenced by technical solutions to improve universities  when resources become scarce. 

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

Policies that aim to address the worldwide economy has caused education institutions to shift from ideals of liberal arts and creating leading-edge research. A common solution to the declining state and federal funding is to transform universities from non profit corporations into corporations managed by a small group of administrators who hold sole power and responsibility to cut costs. Universities are able to bargain wages with those with least institutional power, such as custodial staff.

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

Power operates through the  corporate ideology (ie. whose concerns are addressed), job security, and collegial culture.

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes?  

This is situated within corporate managerialism, which includes three characteristics: (1) centralizing power (2) minimizing labor costs (3) Increasing accountability. 

What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims? 

Extends prior theoretical claims regarding corporate managerialism affecting staff with little institutional power (ie. adjunct faculty). However, Magolda extends the literature on corporatization of college campuses by considering custodial staff. 

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both?  

Complicate the manner we think about the corporatization of education institutions and to include those most marginalized due to corporate managerialism such as custodial staff. Further, Magolda pushes the reader to re-think how we describe university productivity that prioritizes and recognizes measures of excellence and corporatism. Magolda shows how such measures ultimately impact custodial staff, who are holders of valuable knowledge regarding the students’ experiences. 

What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument? 

Offers a new way to think about community engagement within higher education structures, which often entails that civic engagement involves working with communities outside of the university such as service learning excursions to address what the school is lacking. However, Magolda’s work shows that university subcultures also need further improvements and urges us to consider why civic engagement by custodial staff seems strange.

How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument? 

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged? 

We can take a closer look at how racial politics affects custodians on university campuses. The majority of custodians interviewed were White. One campus was comprised of 99% white custodians and the other was 78% white. 

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text? 

Literature on neoliberalism could expand Magolda’s work on the corporatization of higher education. Custodial staff are victims of the greater neoliberal project that encourages a value system that rewards self interest. Even when custodial staff attempt to leave the neoliberal system, they are are unable to leave their jobs. 

Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text? 

Magolda looks at the backdrop of corporate managerialism, which is distinct from mainstream scholarship on higher education that focuses on understanding the experiences of students, faculty, chancellors, presidents and administrators. Instead, Magolda looks at the realities of those with low status that described themselves as the “backbone of the university.” 

What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

Magolda assumes that the custodial staff are unaware of what he refers to the “Corporate Creep” which is embodied by the six characteristics (pg. 150-154): 

  1. Unusual- Corporate managerialism influences custodial staff' interpretations of what it means to be a good campus citizen by placing the needs and interests to the forefront, following orders and refraining from questioning authority instead of voicing individual concerns. Custodial staffs' feelings of fear and powerless begs an unusual question: What would a university look like if custodial staff has the capacity to define what it means for powerbroker? 

  2. Profound- Powerbrokers were rarely observed listening, soliciting feedback or interacting from custodial staff, despite the fact that custodians have knowledge of how to make the university more efficient that align with corporate ideals. The interactions between powerbrokers is profoundly different. Magolda poses the question: What would happen if proponents of corporate managerialism listening to custodial staff?

  3. Sad- In corporate managerial settings, collecting and retelling stories is depicted as inefficient and bad. However, Magolda points to the manner in which stories can yield productive outcomes. Magolda poses the question: How can feeling and understanding coexist in the corporate setting? 

  4. Unbelievable- Corporate managerial advocates rarely interacted with custodial staff at an unbelievable level. Magolda poses the following: What would happen if power brokers more broadly defined key constituents and forged partnerships with non-like-minded people, especially the less powerful? 

  5. Disorienting- Higher education aspires to be a platform for individuals to attain success with hard work. Students are encouraged to make decisions on their own, navigate through differences and encourages them to participate in organization; however, these ideals are rarely applied outside of the question. Magolda asks, what would happen if powerbrokers applied their entrepreneurial energies to finding ways to democratize work settings? 

  6. Revealing- Students have organized to improve the conditions and wages of custodial staff, but inequalities persist. Magolda claims that custodian’s low status on campus and the struggles to mobilize makes it unlikely that they will be the epicenter of future grassroots activism. However, this might not be the case in current time or context. 

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained? 

More than a year of participant observation (ie. working with custodians, attending training sessions), ethnographic interviews with 70 individuals, analyses of written and audiovisual documents (ie. newsletters, manuals and performance evaluation reviews. Magolda began this research as a passive participant and eventually assumed an active role. Magolda also kept a field journal where personal experiences, ideas, impressions problems, preliminary interpretations and hypothesis were kept. He claims that this journal augmented his more factual field notes.

Magolda shares that the process to obtain IRB approval was long because IRB reviewers identified problems and inferred that there were no easy solutions. Magolda adds, “IRB must guard against researcher violations that could result in severe institutional penalties, such as the loss of federally funded research dollars” (pg.228). 

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews? 

Three interview topics were discussed:

  1. Tell me a story that might sensitize me to what it is like to be a custodian. This topic solicited the lives of custodians and their work experiences.

  2. Tell me what I should do to gather quality information about custodians. Magolda learned that several interviewees believed that their minimal formal education did disqualified them from improving the research design. That is, they understood how power operates and who is viewed as holding knowledge. 

  3. Share names of people who share your worldview and those who have different worldviews. This topic was meant to solicit as many perspectives as possible. 

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

Magolda intertwined coding analysis, which involved categorization of data. Next, the inegregation of categories created the theory in the book. He notes, “Through this process of establishing relationships between data and playing with ideas, theory inductively emerges from the field experience” (pg. 222). 

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories? 

Corporate ideals and managerial ideals are compared to the supposed role of higher education structures as great equalizers.

What additional data would strengthen the text? 

  1.  Visuals of custodial staff expanding their job descriptions such as them interacting with faculty and students. 

  2. Testimonials from students discussing the work and knowledge custodial staff broker to them. They could discuss how their interactions and knowledge are employed as they navigate higher education, which Magolda implies. 

Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? 

The introduction immediately complicates the assumptions of the role of custodial staff and how we view custodial staff. Magolda begins the introduction by illustrating an experience with a custodial staff describing how society tends to assume they are custodial staff because “they did something wrong.” 

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

The theory is weaved throughout political and historical background. The theory is also weaved in the chapters of part two discussing the lives of supervisors, custodial staff, their fears and how custodial staff form communities in their jobs. Magolda insinuates that custodial staff are knowledge producers and theorists about corporate managerialism. 

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development? 

Magolda provides a historical background of the corporate managerial practices and shows how previous cuts in federal funding inform how universities employ the same corporate techniques to alleviate costs. 

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

Collegial subculture and powerbrokers. There are those that are depicted as lacking knowledge of how to run an institution while upholding corporate ideals and those who are the sole holders of knowledge. 

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

The perspectives of the custodial staff drive the motion of this book. For example, in the chapter discussing the lives of custodial staff, the stories of three custodians are the focus of the chapter. 

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described? 

The text does not draw out implications specifically on science and technology, but alludes to neoliberal forces that are influenced by technical solutions to improve universities  when resources become scarce. 

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers? 

Magolda provides vivid memories as a child, learning from those depicted as the Other and how they have influenced his work in studying the experiences of those most subjugated in society. Magolda also adds humor when discussing his interactions with custodial staff. For example, he describes how he had little knowledge of how to efficiently complete simple cleaning tasks that experienced custodial staff have.  Magolda also adds a sense of warmth in the text when describing how custodial staff expand their job descriptions to foster relationships with faculty and students. 

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument? 

Magolda separates 12 chapters in 4 sections according to the central theme. The first section provides details the research study (Chapter 1), research sites (Chapter 2), the historical and political insights and researcher positionality and reflexivity (Chapter 3). 

The chapters in the second section focuses on the lives of campus custodians. Section two includes a discussion of pathways to a custodial staff member (Chapter 4),  the life and stories as a custodian (Chapter 5), the life of a supervisor (Chapter 6), the fears of the job (Chapter 7) and how families are created in their community (Chapter 8). 

The third section includes chapters of the effects of corporate managerialism on custodians (Chapter 9) and negative byproducts of corporization such as civic engagements (Chapter 10). 

The last section centers the stories of three custodial staff who worked in corporate-like environments, but stayed committed to teaching and learning (Chapter 11). The last chapter in section four ends with custodial staffs’ and Magolda’s suggestions on how to improve the quality of life for custodians. 

The book ends with an epilogue containing life updates of the custodial staff involved in the research. 

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect? 

There is one visual of provided in this text of Dolores, a night shift custodian holding a picture of Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman, the first woman to slave to be freed in North America during the revolutionary war. Dolores worked in a hallway with displays of historic and contemporary citizens that advocated for social justice and the common good. Dolores praises the work of the gallery designer and recommends that an image of Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman be added to the gallery. Months later, the gallery designer paints a portrait of Dolores holding a small watercolor painting of Freeman. 

This visual creates a different image of custodial staff as knowledge producers and holders. 

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes? 

No footnotes. 

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? 

It is a criticism of how low wage staff at universities are viewed or as “ill-equipped” to inform universities. 

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?  

In the preface, Magolda shares how interactions with two custodial staff in his first position at a university influenced the study. Magolda describes the cultural norms that make it difficult for custodial staff to share their knowledge with others in the academy that have more power such as students, faculty and administrators. 

Early in the book, Magolda shared four stories that informed his interest in studying the lives of campus custodians, in relation to corporate ideals. 


Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences? 

This ethnography is written for custodial staff and higher education scholars. Higher education scholars tend to study how institutional agents such as faculty and staff in positions of power conceptualize education and their positions in the university. Other work examines how faculty work with campus administrators to improve the experiences of students at the university; however, Magolda suggests that custodial staff also have valuable knowledge. 

What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

Graduate students interested in ethnographic methods and qualitative research that will raise flags from institutional gatekeepers. Magolda provides details of how they navigated the IRB process, administrators and chancellors. Magolda also discusses the implications of these experiences for higher education scholars and the purpose of higher education.  

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

Knowledge emerges from unexpected places. 

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

The arguments in this text are generalizable, given that most universities are not neutral spaces and typically operate in favor to the ideologies of the working class. Universities also tend to adopt corporate ideals and become fixated on profit. This work informs future work looking at how custodial staff expand their job descriptions to assist students, despite their working conditions. Magolda’s work also provides the groundwork for studies that would like to examine the experiences of outsourcing in the University of California system. 

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

Universities should examine how corporate ideals impact campus subcultures and reexamine the nature and social function of universities. Higher education scholars are also encouraged to research custodial staff in order to reform education. 


Creative Commons Licence


Contributed date

October 13, 2019 - 6:12pm

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019