AthensI had the opportunity to attend the EGOS Conference in Athens, from July 2-4, and followed the  ‘track’ (or sessions) on Organisational Ethnography. Since I am preparing to conduct field research on a group of employees facing a major change within their organisation,  I am deeply interested in organisational ethnography as a research method. How should I conduct my fieldwork? To what extent can I observe what is taking place without influencing things? How should I then write about my findings?  As quite a few researchers in this track have conducted organisational ethnographies in similar cases, I am very curious about their approaches. I want to know: what are the rules of the game?

EGOS Athens

I listen to a variety of presenters discussing their research; one had followed a group of French policemen for several years, another, a team of HR managers within an organisation. One observed crisis workers dealing with suicidal callers. Some were employed at the organisation where they were conducting their field research. A few didn’t even mention they were doing research while they were working there.

A lot of the discussions revolve around the concept of reflexivity, which  is about “interrogating our taken-for-granted assumptions, actions, relationships, identities, methods and forms of knowledge,” as one presenter puts it.  Being reflexive is to look at oneself as data, writing about our experiences while doing the research. How are we in relation to others?  Moreover, questions such as who is funding the research and who are we reporting to, are quite crucial.

I realise I had never really asked myself the question –who am I? – in terms of my role as a researcher… Why am I doing this? Why am I even interested in this topic? Another presenter asks: “If I find something interesting, how do I know that I’m not finding what I want to find?” What theoretical framework am I bringing to my study? (that I may not even be aware of).

Who me cartoon

“Reflexivity is about doubt. It’s about uncertainty. There are no right answers,” says one of the speakers at a plenary session on reflexivity. “It’s about embracing doubt.”

Doubt and uncertainty were never my forte… So to fend off an incoming identity crisis, I quickly embrace the idea of being a pracademic:  someone who is both an academic and a practitioner in their subject area. (In my case: an aspiring pracademic – especially when it comes to the academic part…).

But after quite some discussion, I realise that being a pracademic is not always a good thing; the practical experience that you bring into your research will most certainly taint your vision and approach. I slowly see how my journalistic background is doing just that.

For example,  several claim that being relevant or having impact should not be the end-all-be-all of your study: the idea that developing theories (in order to publish) is a narrow approach to qualitative research. But if your research has no impact or relevance at all, I wonder, what is the point of doing it?

In terms of conducting field research, several have described the researcher as “a listener who cares,” whose role is “learning to learn.” But what happens when you observe certain things that are wrong? Or not going well?

I ask a participant what he did in this case.

“I didn’t see anything that was majorly wrong with the people I was observing,” he assures me. “Otherwise, I really don’t know what I would have done. Maybe I just wouldn’t have talked about the bad things that happened.”

As a journalist, always on the look-out for dirt and what is not functioning– this seems a little suspect, and certainly a missed opportunity…

Similarly, two researchers studied the working life of managers in one organisation. The boss was very interested in their results, but the researchers knew that these would harm certain employees.  So they decided to give a presentation and describe their findings in vague and broad terms.

“How will you write up your findings in an academic paper, though?” I ask.

“We really don’t know yet. The  only thing we know is that it will be quite a struggle.”

There are many discussions about writing ethnographic research. Should the researchers in this case fictionalise their findings to protect their subjects?  To what extent should the reports be accurate?  Some describe every minute detail in order to be as accurate as possible, while others claim that the key is to produce a compelling and flowing narrative, “that draws the reader into the story, and connects with their experiences.”

There are no set rules to ethnographic writing, many claim, and a vast array of genres prove that: auto ethnography (Schultze, Greenhall), ethnographic  fiction (Watson), retrospective ethnography (Carspeken) and portraiture (Lightfoot), to name only a few.

During one of the last sessions, a presenter discusses creative non-fiction, a style that uses literary and journalistic techniques to depict real events.  In this way, we can “create an amazing story that allows us to lose many of the dull details that encumber ethnographic writing.”

“But this is not ethnography anymore,” several panelists argue. “If we create this amazing story, lose the dull details, we may miss out on crucial information. Many insights come from these dull details. Mundane moments are fundamentally important to ethnographic research. ”

So, visibly, there are still some rules. To be continued.