What is ethnography and what can it contribute to management science?

Ethnographic studies enable us to overcome the limitations of classical methodologies and obtain a deeper explanation of the behaviours that occur in organisations and communities

Mireia Yter

Ethnographic research involves a particular way of tackling the analysis of reality. In social sciences, when we want to analyse and understand a given social reality, we have different tools at our disposal that enable us to approach the subject of study. Traditionally quantitative and qualitative methodologies have been used, and more recently mixed methods. 

For some researchers, ethnography clearly belongs within the qualitative spectrum. However, for others it is a discipline that draws on both methodologies, and as such amounts to a methodological approach in its own right. 

Immersion implies attaining a deep understanding of the life of the individuals studied

Be that as it may, it is widely recognised that ethnographic research affords a way of understanding and analysing social phenomena in which the role of the researcher is fundamental and should bring together, among others, some of the following capabilities: 

  • Observation and interpretation of data. Large amounts of unstructured data to theorise about a particular social group. 
  • Use of culture as a filter for analysing data. 
  • Involvement in the group under study. It is necessary not only to be present, but also to be integrated; what is known as generating a social role

The main characteristic of ethnography is immersion, which implies attaining a deep understanding of the life of the individuals studied. The technique of participant observation is the key to achieving this level of submersion (Dumont, 2022). The aim is to grasp the meaning that certain social situations have from the perspective of participants embedded into a community that often share a common culture. 

The origin of ethnography 

Ethnography is rooted in classical anthropological studies. One of the most iconic contributions is Malinowski's study on indigenous Melanesians, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which focuses on their system of exchange, known as Kula. 

Malinowski delved into the natives' everyday life in order to understand how their worldview conditioned their day-to-day behaviours. To this end, he lived amongst them, learnt their language and penetrated the core of their realities

His study marked a turning point in how researchers positioned themselves — shunning supremacist attitudes — in relation to the groups they studied. In this way, the hierarchy that existed in the relationship between researcher and participant broke down, leading to a new way of understanding both roles. 

Examples of immersion 

If we focus on the organisational field, the ethnographer's task is to grasp what individuals do, how they think and how they act in an everyday context in order to understand the meaning of their actions and the reasons behind their behaviours that would otherwise go unnoticed. 

The most well-known study in this sphere is that of Mayo (1933) on the human relationships between workers and supervisors in the company Western Electric and how they were managed. 

Ethnography blurs the hierarchy between researcher and researched

Some recent examples of studies using ethnography tell us how people's clothes impact individual and organisational identities (Humphreys and Brown, 2003) or how Harvard Business School sets the basic standards of socialisation for students and faculty both formally and informally (Anteby, 2013). 

Other outstanding studies analyse why some women decide to work for free in the organisation of VIP parties (Mears, 2015) or how social class determines the way in which jobseekers show talent and merit (Rivera, 2015). 

We could add other studies that address the nature of the Wall Street trading room through the eyes of its traders (Beunza, 2019) or to what extent the social context of teams of scientists affects the way they interact, set goals and allocate resources in NASA's space missions (Vertesi, 2020). 

The potential of ethnography 

The advantages of ethnography are numerous. Among the most notable are the depth and the wealth of the data obtained, and the level of analytical complexity

In addition, the fact that information is accessed without filters — as the participants are not interviewed, but rather the source of the data lies in observation — and the move away from an ethnocentric stance — which would hinder the research, as it takes a view of cultures other than one's own as being primitive or inferior, which is entirely unfavourable for scientific rigour — are issues that have a positive impact on research. 

Recently the digital mode has also become an option to bear in mind, for example when studying groups that are difficult to access and contact. 

This method moves away from an ethnocentric stance and favors access to information without filters

Although the usefulness of this approach is patent for an in-depth understanding of a particular organisational reality — because often what people say they do is not what they actually do, and this stands as the main drawback of surveys and interviews — its validity has always been called into question. 

Some of the most habitual criticisms point to its anecdotal and unscientific nature, its large component of subjectivity and its low level of validity. Obviously, these have all been amply refuted, but the criticisms levelled at ethnography are still alive and hover on the horizon of social sciences

In short, despite certain shortcomings (which no approach is spared), ethnography is a good analytical tool and an appropriate methodology in the field of management when it comes to understanding how and why behaviours occur in organisations, communities or societies in order make them meaningful. Researcher, put ethnography in your life! 

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