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How to... use ethnographic methods and participant observation

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Article Sections

  1. Introduction to ethnographic methods
  2. Participant observation
  3. Analysing, theorizing and writing up

Introduction to ethnographic methods

What are ethnographic methods?

Ethnographic methods are a research approach that looks at:

  • people in their cultural setting;
  • their deeds as well as their words;
  • the implicit as well as the explicit;
  • the way in which they interact with one another and with their social and cultural environment;
  • what is not said as much as what is said;
  • their language, and the symbols, rituals and shared meanings that populate their world, with the object of producing a narrative account of that particular culture, against a theoretical backdrop.


"Ethnographic research allows us to regard and represent the actors as creators as well as executants of their own meanings. The very way in which they tell us about what they do tells the researcher a great deal about what is meaningful for and in the research. It adds richness and texture to the experience of conducting research."
(Stuart Hannabuss,"Being there: ethnographic research and autobiography", Library Management, Vol. 21 No. 2)

"Generally speaking, ethnographic studies allow researchers to immerse themselves within their chosen empirical setting for long periods. During this time the researcher’s experience, in terms of his or her participation and/or observation at the research site, is used to generate a narrative-based interpretation of the events that took place."
(Colin Dey, "Methodological issues: the use of critical ethnography as an active research methodology", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 15 No. 1)

In "Using ethnography in strategic consumer research" (Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 6 No. 4), Richard Elliott and Nick Jankel-Elliott quote a famous anthropologist as describing ethnography as "deep hanging out" and lists its principles as follows:
"the first ... is that it entails the study of behaviour in natural settings, 'getting the seat of your pants dirty … in the real world, not the library' (Fielding, 1993, p. 157). The second is that no adequate knowledge of social behaviour can be developed without an understanding of the symbolic world of the subjects of study, seeing the world through their eyes and using their shared meanings, the empathetic process of verstehen. This involves learning the language in use: dialect, jargon, special uses of words, neologisms. The third principle is that it requires extended presence in the field, 'long-term immersion in context increases the likelihood of spontaneously encountering important moments in the ordinary events of consumers’ daily lives and of experiencing revelatory incidents' (Arnould and Wallendorf, 1994). A fourth principle is that of participation in cultural life in order to 'walk a mile in their shoes' and develop an understanding of cultural/symbolic meanings and 'local rules' (Hochschild, 1979)."

They require protracted study and usage is generally confined to small populations in particular settings.

Organizational ethnography

Ethnography is a study of culture, and organizational ethnography looks at the culture of organizations. According to Singh and Dickson (2002), organizational culture exists within the minds of the people who make up that organization, while organizational ethnography is concerned with settings within which social relations take place between actors who are set on particular goals. This culture evolves over time, contains dominant cultures and subcultures, and is subject to its own rules, rites, myths and symbols.

History of ethnographic methods

Ethnography has its origins in social anthropology, and in particular the work of Malinowski whose seminal text Argonauts of the Western Pacific describes his experience of living for a long time with South Pacific islanders, and counsels the anthropologist to spend at least a year in the field, to learn the language, and to live as one of the population which he or she studies. It was also taken over by sociology in the 1930s when the Chicago school studied "deviant subcultures" in urban America in the great depression. It also has strong links with hermeneutics, which is a way of understanding historical texts by looking at them in their cultural context (as in Biblical form criticism).

Early ethnographers were criticized for their detached stance, particularly by feminist anthropologists, but recent adaptations of the method use it in action research, where the study population itself becomes involved in the request for information and meaning.

Research parameters

Ethnographic methods are qualitative, inductive, exploratory and longitudinal. They achieve a thick, rich description over a relatively small area.

The actual process of data gathering is best conducted on an iterative basis, with the researcher taking on what has been described as a "reflexive" role, in other words observing, reflecting, building up a theory and then going back into the field and testing it. (This process has been described as grounded theory.) The process of testing is essential, because of the inevitable element of subjectivity in a research method where the researcher is the instrument.

There are a number of practical considerations with ethnographic methods (as there are with all research methods):

  • Time. Studies are time-consuming to complete. If you are looking at making ethnography one of your approaches for a dissertation, will you have sufficient time before the completion date? If part of a major research project, will the project bear the costs?
  • Place. You need to make sure that you can get the cooperation of the organization you wish to observe, and decide whether you want to look at the whole organization, one part of it or a cross-section.

Data collection methods and triangulation

Most ethnographic research makes considerable use of participant observation, usually triangulated with interviews, with "key informants" in particular. Triangulation is particularly important as one method on its own is not usually reliable.

In addition to interviews, ordinary "informal" conversations, which are not like interviews in that they don't have a particular purpose, although a questioning technique may be used, may yield invaluable information. Much information may also be gained from other sources, notably:

  • Written documents, e.g. e-mails, policy documents, meeting minutes, organization charts, reports, procedural manuals, "official" corporate material such as intranet, brochures, press releases, advertising, web pages, annual report.
  • Corporate events and rituals, particularly the annual staff conference, Christmas party, etc.
  • Branding – logo and how it is applied, slogan etc. Branding is a particularly strong use of symbolism.
  • Site location, built environment, design, etc.

Indeed, one of the advantages of ethnography is that it allows for multiple data collection methods.

Another method used is that of the diary, which participants are required to complete (you will also be completing a diary as part of your participant observation, see data collection). This may either have set categories as in structured observation, or the participant may be required to keep a record of their experiences (for example, their reactions to a training course) or of what they do.


In "Ethnography of an American main street" (Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 No. 11), the researchers used as data collection methods 240 hours of participant observation, including working as a retailer, shopping, and attending events (sidewalk sales, parades and art shows), which they triangulated with 60 field interviews and 12 key informant interviews with retailers, and secondary data from the local media, including news reports and video clips. Evidence was collected in the form of taped interviews, field notes and photographs.

In "Observe, record, then beyond: facilitating participant reflection via research diaries" (Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management, Vol. 2 No. 2), Kate Lewis et al. describe how diaries were used to triangulate with interviews in a research project to find out about technological learning in small dairy farms.

In "The human resource management practice of retail branding: an ethnography within Oxfam Trading Division" (Stéphane J.G. Girod, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 No. 7), extensive participant observation was triangulated with ten, one-hour semi-structured interviews and informal corridor interviews, together with a scanning of the company intranet.


Arnould, E. and Wallendorf, M. (1994), "Market-oriented ethnography: interpretation building and marketing strategy formulation", Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. XXXl, November, pp. 484-504.

Fielding, N. (1993), "Ethnography", in Gilbert, N. (Ed.), Researching Social Life, Sage, London.

Hochschild, A. (1979), "Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure", American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 85 No.3, pp. 551-75.

Malinowski, B. (1922), Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

Singh, V. and Dickson, J. (2002), "Ethnographic approaches" in Partington, D. (Ed.), Essential Skills for Management Research, Sage, London.