How to...
Use ethnographic methods & participant observation

Find out how to use ethnographic research methods and participant observation in our detailed guide.

What are ethnographic methods?

Ethnographic methods are a research approach where you look at people in their cultural setting, with the goal of producing a narrative account of that particular culture, against a theoretical backdrop. As part of this you will look at:

  • Deeds done as well as words used
  • How they interact with one another, and with their social and cultural environment
  • What is not said as much as what is said
  • Language, and symbols, rituals and shared meanings that populate their world

Organisational ethnography

Ethnography is a study of culture, therefore, organisational ethnography looks at the culture of organisations.

Organisational culture exists within the minds of the people who make up that organisation, while organisational 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 taken over by sociology in the 1930s when the Chicago school studied "deviant subcultures" in urban America in the great depression.

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.

As the researcher, it is best if you conduct your data gathering on an iterative basis, with you taking on a "reflexive" role – in other words observing, reflecting, building up a theory and then going back into the field and testing it.

This process of testing is essential, because of the inevitable element of subjectivity in a research method where you, the researcher, is the instrument.

There are a number of practical considerations with ethnographic methods, such as:

  • 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 organisation you wish to observe and decide whether you want to look at the whole organisation, 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 and/or ordinary "informal" conversations.

Triangulation is particularly important as one method on its own is not usually reliable.

You can also gain a lot of information from other sources, such as:

  • Written documents, e.g. e-mails, policy documents, meeting minutes, organisation charts, reports, procedural manuals, "official" corporate material such as an intranet, brochures, press releases, advertising, web pages, annual report.
  • Corporate events like the annual staff conference and 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.

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.

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.

What is participant observation? 

Participant observation is one of the main ethnographic data collection methods.

The essence of participant observation is that you, as the researcher, observe the subject of research, either by participating directly in the action, as a member of the study population, or as a "pure" observer, in which case you do not participate in the action but are still present on the scene, for example observing workers in a manufacturing plant or discussants in the board room.

In either case, you observe, note, record, describe, analyse, and interpret people and their interactions, and related events, with the objective of obtaining a systematic account of behaviour and idea systems of a given community, organisation or institution.

Why use participant observation?

Like other ethnographic methods, participant observation is very much based on the classic methods used in early anthropology, by Malinowski and others as they studied particular populations, often for years at a time, taking detailed notes.

Participant observation is usually inductive, and carried out as part of an exploratory research phase, with the view of forming hypotheses from the data. It is often connected with the grounded theory method, according to which researchers revisit the research territory with deeper and deeper knowledge.

The strength of participant observation is its ability to describe depth (thick description) and to help understand human behaviour.

Researcher roles

There is a continuum in observation techniques between the covert and the overt observer, and the observer who participates completely in the activity and the one who is purely a "fly on the wall".

There are problems with all these approaches, but the ideal is to ensure that the maximum amount of information is gained whilst at the same time retaining the maximum distance in order to ensure researcher objectivity.

Which role is adopted would depend on the subject being researched, for example:

  • Complete participant. There are obvious ethical considerations of being part of a group and not revealing your role as a researcher who will subsequently write up the research study, but in some circumstances revealing your role might prejudice the research, particularly if the subject concerns something delicate such as the consumption of alcohol or drugs.
  • Complete observer. This might be appropriate to a situation where the subject is relatively large-scale, for example observing people in a shopping mall or in a supermarket, or where the revelation of the role might destroy the dynamics of small group behaviour, as for example watching the behaviour of groups of shoppers.
  • Observer as participant. The disadvantage here is that although you participate in some way in the activity, you lose the emotional involvement, but the advantage is that you can concentrate on your role as a researcher. It might be used if you were, for example, observing people on a training course, or users of electronic courseware, where it was very important to understand the reactions and mental processes of the participants rather than what they do.
  • Participant as observer. The advantage of participating is that you become fully part of the group, and you can experience directly what your subjects are experiencing. It is particularly useful when for example you need to understand work practices or job roles.

There are other possible roles for the observer:

  • As facilitator and change agent, when you become involved not merely as a participant but as someone who seeks to help subjects change some aspect of their world, for example in action research.
  • As a narrator, describing what you have witnessed from a position of authority.

Structured observation

Structured observation differs from participant observation in that it is more detached, more systematic, and what is observed often has a more mechanical quality. It is also a quantitative as opposed to a qualitative technique, concerned with quantifying behaviour as opposed to obtaining a rich description.

Advantages and disadvantages

Participant observation is not without its detractors and is seen to have a number of advantages and disadvantages:


  • It can provide very rich data and can be particularly good at revealing facets of human behaviour.
  • It does not rely on the words of the actors themselves, so is not dependent on people's ability to verbalize, and provides a source other than their own testimony.
  • Issues of time and researcher objectivity can be met by careful use of sampling, whereby observation is confined to particular locations and times.
  • All research techniques have inbuilt problems of bias: for example, the interviewer effect, and the difficulty of formulating careful survey questions.


  • Because the researcher is the instrument, there may be difficulty in maintaining the necessary objectivity.
  • Good participant observation takes up a lot of time.
  • It requires intimacy and an invasion of privacy which may be disruptive both to the research process and also to the organisation itself. On the other hand, concealing one's identity is ethically questionable as it involves a deception.
  • Observer bias: the observer's own views and personal beliefs may impinge upon observations.

However, the best way of using participant observation in a useful and responsible way is to triangulate it with other approaches.

Applications to management research

Participant observation is based on the social sciences, particularly social anthropology and on the premise that you go and study a different, and often remote culture.

The appeal to management research is that it can study the culture of an organisation in depth. However, in many cases it is simply not practical to immerse oneself for months at a time: the cost would be too great, the organisation may not be willing, and one cannot actually live with the workers. For this reason, time sampling is often adopted, where the times at which observation takes place are carefully selected.

Use in market research

Participant observation is particularly useful in market research. It is a natural technique as both are concerned with human behaviour. It can be a good method when:

  • The subject under study is easily observable and occurs in public
  • It concerns a social process or mass activity, such as the disposal of household waste
  • The processes are subconscious, for example in a study of in-store music
  • It would not be desirable or easy for consumers to interact with the researcher, for example with very young children.

Data collection

Observations should be recorded as far as is possible on the day of the fieldwork, in diary form, and should comprise the following:

  1. Primary observations including:
    • Date
    • Time of day
    • Location
    • Actors present
    • Sequence of events, and any interruptions.
  2. Secondary observations in the form of any statements by others about what you observed.
  3. Experiential data as relating to your own state of mind, emotions and any reflections.
  4. Circumstantial and background data about the organisation, key roles etc.

Analysing, theorising and writing up

Analysis of unstructured data

What distinguishes the analysis of ethnographically generated data is that the research process is inductive and iterative.

Unlike the neatly linear trajectory of some other research, when you construct an instrument to prove a theory and do not analyse until you have collected all the data, in ethnographic research data collection and analysis may be simultaneous, while theories are formed on the basis of some data and then tested and refined against further data. This process is known as analytic induction.

When you begin to collect data, you will find very soon that you get a lot. This is the time to begin an initial analysis. As you start the coding process, begin to look for groupings, based on frequency and patterns of and in the data. As you refine your coding structure, check your assumptions carefully. Eventually, you will reach a point where you are relatively confident of your coding structure and you can begin to use it as a way of organising your data.

There are a number of software packages – NVivo, QSR NUD.IST and The Ethnograph for example – that can help here, or you may prefer to use an ordinary office package such as Word or Excel. Some of the software packages also offer modelling facilities.

Whatever method you use, at this stage patterns will begin to emerge from which you will be able to build theory.

Analysis of structured data

The analysis of structured observation data is different in that the coding schedule is established before the start of data collection. In this case you either:

  • establish your own headings, which should be consistent with your research questions
  • follow an existing "off the shelf" coding schedule
  • use a combination of these approaches, modifying an existing schedule and perhaps putting in some of your own headings.


The fact that data are situation specific and not easy to replicate, together with the possibility of observer bias, are threats to validity with unstructured observation.

These threats can be dealt with by:

  • Checking the observations, and interpretations of them, with participants, as a form of triangulation.
  • Checking the coding structure, which can be done by the researcher checking against emerging theory, and other researchers coding the data to see if they come up with similar coding structures.
  • "Perspicacity" – the ability to abstract from the data general principles that can throw light on other similar situations.

Theory building

The literature review is commonly done at the beginning of the research process. But with ethnographic research, it often follows (at least some) data collection and analysis – because it is connected with theory building.

In ethnographic research, the researcher is often compared with a journalist researching a story and looking for promising lines of enquiry. As the data are being collected and patterns start to emerge, so may interesting lines of enquiry on which theories can be built.

The objective of the theory is not to predict, but to explain, to look for contextual structures and to provide a context for events, conversations and descriptions. You are providing an explanatory framework for the phenomena which you have been observing.

As indicated above, once you have formulated a theory you need to check it against the data, and check the data against itself – how valid is it?

The theory also needs to be situated in the relevant literature, and have its own theoretical context.

Writing up

For a dissertation, you should follow the guidelines of your own university and check out other dissertations which have used similar research techniques.

A traditional approach, however, is introduction, literature review, philosophical approach and methodology, findings, analysis, discussion and conclusion.

For a journal article, you are best advised to look carefully at other examples of articles written for scholarly journals, particularly ones in which you are thinking of publishing.


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

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