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Using ethnographic methods & participant observation

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

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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.

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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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.

Analysing, theorising and writing up

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