Workplace Ethnography 101—Interrogating the Unpaid Internship

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel’s prior posts: post 1 — post 2 — post3]

One paradox of practicing ethnography at the academic sidelines is that often the further one gets from the institutional “center” of the field, the more clarity is needed about the fundamentals of ethnographic method and analysis.  This need to get “back to basics” played out in my market research work in which my colleagues and I often needed to prove what ethnography could offer that consumer-data-gathering methods could not.  Here I offer another example of this paradox as I describe the adjunct teaching I currently engage in outside of an anthropology department.  The course I teach is a non-departmental seminar required of arts and sciences undergraduates who wish to receive academic credit in conjunction with unpaid internships not related to their majors.  For example, if a biology major wants to get credit for interning in the editorial department of a fashion magazine or an English major wants to work at an education non-profit that provides afterschool mentoring to kids, they would enroll in my 2-credit internship seminar and 2-credit fieldwork course.  The vast majority of my students are not anthropology majors and for most of them, my course is their first exposure to ethnographic theories and methods.  Those of us working on the margins of our field often have to take on a ambassadorial role vis a vis the discipline, explaining in clear and basic terms not just what ethnography is but also what ethnography can do.  In what follows, I describe what I hope ethnography can do for my non-major students engaged in unpaid internships.  Along the way, I also briefly interrogate the role of unpaid internships in undergraduate study in the U.S., arguing that they are an increasingly significant piece of the kind of workplace precarity we’ve been discussing throughout this series.

Unpaid internships have been much in the news lately—the intern suing Harper’s Bazaar magazine, unpaid interns toiling behind the scenes of the movie Black Swan, and even unpaid interns (over)working at liberal icon Charlie Rose’s show.  More about unpaid internships per se in a moment, but what, you may be wondering, has this to do with ethnography? A few years ago, I had feelers out for teaching work and started talking to someone who knew of my work with non-profit arts organizations and needed someone to teach an internship seminar in order to meet increased student demand for such a course.  The social sciences have long acknowledged the value of experiential learning, and student placements with non-profit, social service, or public policy organizations have been common.  With this in mind, I happily accepted the offer to teach an undergraduate internship seminar, with most involved (especially me) thinking that I would shepherd students through fieldwork in a range of non-profit and/or public-sector organizations.  What none of us really foresaw was how high the student demand would be for a course that could grant credit in conjunction with internships in for-profit workplaces. Over the several semesters I’ve taught the internship class, about three-quarters of my students’ unpaid internships have been in for-profit settings, most notably entertainment, magazine publishing, fashion, public relations, and banking.  Clearly, neither I nor any other faculty member could claim expertise in all of these industries, so my aim has become to equip students with a way of making sense of their internships beyond their sometimes-fuzzy goals of “networking” and “resume-building.’

The approach I’ve taken is to use ethnographic case studies and basic texts on ethnographic methods to build a common language for talking about workplace structures, dynamics, and cultures.  As my students are engaged in immersive fieldwork experiences, often quite intense, each has a rich body of experiences to process and analyze.  Their crash course in workplace ethnography begins with my opening lecture in which I stress the importance of recording first impressions and assure them that much of what initially seems strange or puzzling about their internship site (the jargon, the habits, the pace) will seem natural by the end of the semester.  Quite simply, I enjoin students to think of themselves as ethnographers within their internship placements, and help them to see how anthropological methods of participant-observation, fieldnotes, and reflexivity can enrich their experiences.  Internships elicit strong reactions in students who have often not experienced workplace culture; many are dazzled by the experience, but just as many are demoralized.  Giving them methodological tools to contextualize their experiences can help them position themselves as part of an office, a company, and an entire industry, simultaneously helping them to see their own place in it and giving them critical distance.  Their end-of-semester presentations take the form of research projects that require them to read their experiences against secondary sources relevant to said question. Some topics include: a fashion designer’s philanthropic contributions to the Manhattan’s High Line project; the dearth of women writers in comedy TV; the rise of eco-tourism; and (many, many) diagnoses of the slow death of print magazines in the wake of blogs and Facebook.

But my seminar is not “just” a methods course; students are also assigned readings on the changing face of the white-collar workplace, readings that introduce them to issues of globalization, labor rights, the casualization of labor, and gender inequalities.  As part of this investigation, I also have them read about the internship boom of which they are a part, with the goal of prompting them to see where they fit into contemporary shifts in workplace structures. As noted above, internships have been much in the news in the past couple of years. In early 2010, a few months after I began teaching my internship course, the Obama administration became more vocal about enforcing guidelines for unpaid internships.  While no new legislation was drafted, the existing Department of Labor standards (the “six-point test”) for unpaid internships in for-profit industries were given new attention with promises of enforcement for internships that violate minimum wage laws.  Around this time, a flurry of articles, many by New York Times business reporter Steven Greenhouse, investigated the ethical, legal, and economic dimensions of unpaid internships in entertainment, fashion, finance, and other high-prestige fields. In the spring of 2011, the publication of Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation sparked a second wave of articles, op-eds, and TV interviews about this mode of workplace learning which universities and colleges enable and in which it is estimated at least 50% of all U.S. college students take part.  In this climate, it has become practically and ethically impossible not to include readings on the internship phenomenon.

The ethical dimensions of unpaid internships could (and have) filled many pages, and a full exploration of them is well beyond the scope of this post.  What seems most relevant to the discussion of ethnography in conditions of academic precarity is how unpaid internships relate to so many nodes of economic and labor precarity within academia and beyond.  Over the past couple decades, internships have become not just a nice addition to a resume, but, according to many of the articles linked above, absolutely necessary to secure even an interview for an entry-level position in many industries.  In a recession, companies and industries facing economic hardship are keen to minimize costs in any way possible. Many, including Perlin, argue that eager young students wanting to gain experience, connections, and letters of recommendation have replaced an entire stratum of formerly-paid entry-level positions. With job prospects for college graduates so dismal and college tution and student debt rising at a rapid pace, students are looking to gain advantages in any way possible.   Colleges come into the picture because with their imprimatur, oversight, and corresponding academic coursework, it is argued, internships can offer both experience and intellectual engagement with that experience, thus shifting the nature of internships from primarily labor transactions to primarily learning experiences.

Given the above predicament, it is easy to see how colleges, by granting academic credit for unpaid internships, can be seen as complicit in the exploitation that unpaid internships can (but don’t have to) involve.  That’s a reasonable assumption to make, and it’s one I constantly grapple with in relation to my course.  This dilemma about my own role in the unpaid internship boom resonates with many of this month’s discussions about selling out.  Walking the line between complicity, on the one hand, and effecting change from within, on the other, is a dynamic that has been explored candidly and thoughtfully by Nate and a number of  commenters, including Beth and Ben.  Others, notably commenter Amy, have pointed out that staying within academia can also involve a kind of selling out to “the shady world of ed biz.”  How, then, do I make sure I stay firmly planted on the change-from-within and not the “selling out” side of the fence? One practical way is to vet internships carefully in order to ensure the work is substantive, that students are actively mentored, and that their hours are within the reasonable limits set by the university.  The other goes beyond this policing function and uses the tools of ethnography to get students to see their internship (and the internship system in general) in a new, critical light.

While many students resist the requirement of an academic class in conjunction with their internships, many have stated (or at least demonstrated) that seeing themselves as ethnographers has enabled them to understand their internships in a richer way.  Learning to observe power dynamics, workplace culture, modes of speaking, and even uses of physical space can help students to understand not only their internships sites but also themselves as workers as part of larger social, cultural and economic systems.   For example, they may gain a language and frame for talking about the feelings of anonymity and disposability they often experience in their placements.  Or they can appreciate that while it stinks to work for free, it is also a relatively privileged position reserved for those who can afford to forgo pay in the hopes of a future gains.  Teaching ethnographic methods to reluctant non-majors is neither glamorous nor prestigious, but the satisfaction in doing so derives from the possibility that giving students tools to see their positions more clearly is a kind of ethical intervention into a problematic development in U.S. workplaces. And this may be an example of what Deepa, in her fourth week prompt, meant by suggesting that “academic precarity or marginality” may generate “new intellectual possibilities.”

Laurel George is an adjunct assistant professor in New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Gallatin Division, as well as a humanities scholar with The Paul Taylor Dance Company. She received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Rice University in 2002.


Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on

3 thoughts on “Workplace Ethnography 101—Interrogating the Unpaid Internship

  1. This is the best blog post on internships I have ever read.

    I would love to hear more about your students ethnographic studies. Is there a way to get in contact with you regarding an interview with you or one of your students? You can email me at


  2. Hi Celia,

    Thanks for your comment (sorry for the delay, haven’t checked SM for a couple days).

    To your question about evaluating how substantial a learning opportunity an internship presents, I/we consider two main elements: 1) the kind of projects the intern is assigned; and 2) the quality of the mentoring/supervision. The rule of thumb is that the work should be no more than 25% clerical or menial in nature. Also, the supervisor should have regular meetings with the intern to answer questions and give insight into the workplace and the industry as a whole.

    Of course, as anthropologists, we know that just about any experience can be an opportunity for ethnographic understanding and analysis, but avoiding exploitation and really maximizing learning are the dual goals of vetting internships for substance.

    Looking forward to reading your piece. Thanks for the link,

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