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Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey: Realities of conducting an ethnographic study for your PhD

Although I am at one of the tougher stages of the PhD, the beginning of the writing-up process, I cannot help but be relieved. I am relieved because I actually have data to base my writing-up on. I have spent the last six months conducting an ethnographic case study[1] in a renewable energy organisation and this has afforded me too much data, a position I never thought I’d be in this time last year. I was so apprehensive, even dubious, about securing a host organisation to make my proposed ethnography a reality. Wary of the ‘jet plane’ ethnography, denounced by many ethnographers as a fly by night approach, swooping in to ‘collect’ data, I knew I needed to secure access to a company for a matter of months, not weeks. I agonised over approaching my targeted organisation in case they closed the door on me. After all, what company would willingly allow me to lurk around their office space 3 days a week for 6 months, interview incredibly busy professionals multiple times, and poke my nose into all sorts of meetings, unearthing the good, the bad and the ugly realities of working in an emerging sector?

Luckily for me, and my methodology chapter, I secured a willing host organisation through personal connections, and agreed on mutually beneficial outcomes of my proposed study (free consultation for them, a thesis for me). I have so much I could write about the experiences that ensued, but to remain bloggingly brief, I shall outline just a few tips for those considering this approach (I’m sure not written for the first time):

  • Firstly, never underestimate the strength of your professional and personal network to secure a host organisation. I have been told anecdotally that lack of funding and wary management teams are making this sort of study increasingly more difficult to conduct. If you can secure a willing host organisation that trust you and understand that your intentions are sincere, professional and, above all, ethical, both the organisation and academia can benefit.
  • It really does need to be a lengthy stay and it is a slow and tedious one at that. There is no prescribed length, but it does takes a long time to attune to what you are looking for. For the first month, I immersed myself in the company as if I was a new employee learning a job and understanding the company’s operations. It takes a few months to find yourself at the point where a critical gaze comes over you. You can then step back and start ‘seeing’ patterns or traces that will help answer your research question. It’s a hokey-cokey sort of ‘positioning’ dance, you put your left foot in, you take your left foot out…
  • The emotional energy expended in undertaking an ethnographic study is immense. I consider myself a social person who enjoys interacting with people. What about researchers who are naturally more reticent? The physical awkwardness of being, but not being, part of the organisation; steeling yourself everyday to enter the front door and walk to your desk. You are excruciatingly self-aware: are people looking at me? Am I truly wanted here?
  • This experience has led me to ask, can you be too reflexive? It is now a recognised part of the ethnographic process that the researcher overtly reflects about what predispositions they are bringing with them when they enter the field. But can you be so reflexive that it becomes unproductive? For example, one Monday I was sitting around the boardroom table in one of those lovely high-back, swivelly chairs that make you instantly feel Important and taking notes of the weekly sales meeting when the MD entered late. With no spare seat available, he was forced to perch on the side of a table. Oh, the agony that followed for the reflexive me! If I wasn’t there, the MD would have had a seat – should I get up and disturb the flow of the meeting to offer him my seat? Should I sit in a different place next time to avoid this happening again? Should I have asked the chair of the meeting about the chair situation? I’m sure no one else blinked an eye, but for me it was turmoil, and I stopped concentrating on taking notes of the meeting.

So, is the ethnographic approach for everyone? For me, I’m not sure it is as I do think you really need to want to exert the emotional and personal effort needed to be truthful to ethnographic intentions. An interesting counter-point argument in a recent journal approaches this question, debating whether ethnography should become mainstream (see Watson (2011) and Van Maanen (2011), Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 48, Issue 1).

There is no doubt that I would have not got the same depth and quality of data without the lengthy stay in the field. I also feel incredibly lucky to have found a willing organisation to host me for six months and embrace the partnering academic-employer spirit for which my study intended to generate. This in itself is worth the reflexive turmoil I experienced, be it warranted or self-induced. I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences of conducting ethnographies.


[1] An extended period of time spent in the field being researched, drawing on a mix of methodological tools including interviews, observation, document analysis, participant observation and listening

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