Ethnography: Practices & Philosophical Perspectives

MET525 Ethnography: Practices & Philosophical Perspectives

  • Topics


    • Research culture(s)
    • Positivist and post-positivist epostemologies and related research assumptions
    • Ethnographic interviews (inc project report out)
    • Fieldwork (canonical) and situated meanings
    • Varieties of fieldwork
    • Participation Observation
    • Systematic self-observation (inc project report out)
    • Continual and recursive questioning of evolving cultural understanding of the setting studied
    • Critical reading skills of ethnographic texts
    • "Persuasive" writing skills (ie, textual representation of culture)
    • Criteria for evaluating research & application of evaluation criteria

  • Learning outcome

    Learning outcome

    Learning objectives:

    Ethnography is a social practice concerned with the study (fieldwork) and representation (textwork) of culture - a practice many claim to be the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. The purpose of this course is to provide students with an understanding of the philosophical perspectives, which underpin the social practice of ethnography as it focuses on meaning making on the ground and the development of cultural descriptions put forth by the ethnographer. Ethnography names an epistemology, a way of knowing and the kind of knowledge that results. The course provides conceptual and hands-on training for students who wish to develop an appreciation and skill in the design and practice of ethnographic research, in general, and in specific field-based studies in and of organizations in particular.

    Ethnographic research is intended to throw light on the search for (cultural) meaning so central to organizational studies. The course takes as definitional that organizations are about people doing things together and that coming to understand and explain (at least tentatively) how and why they do the things they do is the ancient and honorable purpose of organizational studies.

    Meaning is central to understanding and explanation in the field and just how one gets to that elusive matter (and how it is to be presented) is then quite crucial to the quality of work we do. This course explores the concerns and problems surrounding ethnographic fieldwork and the kinds of theory building that fieldwork (aka, participant-observation, intense interview work, comparative analysis, ethnomethodology, contextualization (structural and institutional) semiotics, etc.) allows if not encourages.


    Learning outcomes:

    Knowledge - On completion of the course students should have developed the following;

    • A deeper understanding of and appreciation for the philosophical perspectives, which underpin the social practice of ethnography and the resulting implications for doing research.
    • Students learn how fieldwork, headwork and textwork combine and result in creating a written representation of cultural understandings held by others.
    • An understanding of the complexities involved in striving to represent the "native's point of view," Students learn that in order to come closer to understanding and representing the perspectives of `the others,' the students must continually be alert to surprise and thus alter and build on their knowledge and understanding as a study continues.
    • An ability to make appropriate methodological and storytelling choices, with an emphasis on discovery as opposed to verification and validation. Students learn to consider appropriate criteria for evaluating the quality of their ethnographic research.

    Skills - students should be able to carry out the following research activities;

    • Plan a ethnographic study in an organizational context
    • Describe the research problem or phenomenon of interest and its research relevance in the context of the chosen social or organizational setting
    • Conduct fieldwork over specified time period
    • Conduct ethnographic interviews
    • Engage in intensive participant observations
    • Carry out systematic self-observation (reflection) during and following time in the field.
    • Revise questioning to learn more about the people and events encountered in the fieldwork


    Competence - students should be able to address complex research tasks such as

    • Articulate the choices made in setting the research approach and design
    • Make research decisions and choices based on a deeper understand of and appreciation for the philosophical perspective, which underpins the social practice of Ethnography.
    • Develop an aptitude for venturing beyond the ivory towers of learning (and comfort) to "live with and live like" those from whom one is learning.
    • Appreciate the path-dependent nature of this research approach and maintain the necessary flexibility in carrying out fieldwork and conducting both formal and informal interviews and participant observations.
    • Improvise in real-time as part of the fieldwork, to learn more about the subjectivity and intentionality of those encountered in the field
    • Provide an accessible (to others) textual representation of a culture being explored
    • Present findings and argue for their significance at disciplinary and interdisciplinary research forums both local and international

  • Teaching


    The course is a reading and tutorial-based course focused on a student's chosen project. Students carry out individual research projects and submit a written narrative that describes in detail the research methods and justifications for such methods. Project work includes fieldwork and culminates in the writing and presentation of seminar and/or conference papers. In the end, students must present their project outcomes to an audience of ethnographically trained proto or experienced researchers to share insights and gather feedback from other fieldworkers.

  • Assessment


    The final assignment is a written paper, essay or chapter, detailing the research methods used in the student's selected research project. The paper addresses one of the following three topics, while clearly illustrating the investigative approach used into the student's chosen project or study:

    1. "Ethnography: Theory and Practice," 2. "Ethnography as Method" 3. "The use of Ethnography in Organizational Research". The paper may contain part of or the student's entire dissertation methodology section or chapter. The paper will be presented to an international community of ethnographic researchers for discussion and debate, via a research seminar or conference event.

  • Grading Scale

    Grading Scale

    Grading: Pass / fail

  • Computer tools

    Computer tools


  • Semester



  • Literature


    Reading List:

    The following books and articles forms the core reading material for the course, divided into method readings and examples (mainly, exemplars) of organizational ethnography. Additions (or substitutions) may be made to this reading list if deemed appropriate for student learning.


    Organizational Ethnography: Methods (Books)

    Humphreys, M., & Watson, T. J. 2009. Ethnographic practices: from "writing-up ethnographic research" to "writing ethnography." Organizational Ethnography: studying the complexities of everyday life , 40-55

    Marcus, G. E., & Fischer, M. M. J. 1999. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences . University of Chicago Press

    Ortner, S. B. 2006. Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject . Duke University Press

    Schwartz-Shea, P., & Yanow, D. 2009. Reading and writing as method: In search of trustworthy texts. Organizational ethnography: Studying the complexities of everyday life , 56-82

    Spradley, J. P. 1979. The Ethnographic Interview. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

    Van Maanen, J. 2011. Tales of the field¿: on writing ethnography . Chicago:: University of Chicago Press.

    Yanow, D., & Schwartz-Shea, P. 2013. Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn . M.E. Sharpe.



    Organizational Ethnography: Methods (Articles)

    Geertz, C. 1994. Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. Readings in the philosophy of social science , 213-23

    Golden-Biddle, K., & Locke, K. 1993. Appealing Work: An Investigation of How Ethnographic Texts Convince. Organization Science , 4(4): 595-616.

    Marcus, G. E. 2007. Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque. Anthropological Quarterly , 80(4): 1127-114

    Van Maanen, J. E. 1979. The Fact of Fiction in Organizational Ethnography. Administrative Science Quarterly , 24(4): 539-550

    Van Maanen, J. E. 1995. Style as Theory. Organization Science , 6(1): 133-143

    Van Maanen, J. E. 2011. Ethnography as Work: Some Rules of Engagement. Journal of Management Studies , 48(1): 218-234.

    Van Maanen, J. E., & Kolb, D. M. 1982. The professional apprentice: observations on fieldwork roles in two organizational settings.

    Watson, T. J. 2011. Ethnography, Reality, and Truth: The Vital Need for Studies of "How Things Work" in Organizations and Management. Journal of Management Studies , 48(1): 202-217



    Organizational Ethnography: Examples (Books)

    Anteby, M. 2013. Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education . University of Chicago Press

    Glaeser, A. 2000. Divided in Unity: Identity, Germany, and the Berlin Police . University of Chicago Press

    Ho, K. 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street . Duke University Press

    Krause-Jensen, J. 2013. Flexible Firm: The Design of Culture at Bang & Olufsen . Berghahn Books



    Organizational Ethnography: Examples ( Articles)

    Barley, S. R. 1990. Images of Imaging: Notes on Doing Longitudinal Field Work. Organization Science , 1: 220-247.

    Barley, S. R., & Kunda, G. 2001. Bringing Work Back In. Organization Science , 12(1): 76-95.

    Becker, H. S. 1967. Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems , 14: 239-247

    Chinoy, E. 1952. The Tradition of Opportunity and the Aspirations of Automobile Workers. American Journal of Sociology , 57(5): 453-459

    Roy, D. F. 2003. "Banana Time": Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction. i: Harper, Douglas & Lawson, Helene M.(red) , 289-312

    Silbey, S. S. 2009. Taming Prometheus: Talk About Safety and Culture. Annual Review of Sociology , 35(1): 341-369.

    Van Maanen, J. E. 1973. Observations on the making of policemen. Human Organization , 32: 407-418.

    Van Maanen, J. E. 1979. The Fact of Fiction in Organizational Ethnography. Administrative Science Quarterly , 24(4): 539-550.

    Van Maanen, J. E. 1983. Doing new things in old ways . DTIC Document.


ECTS Credits
Teaching language
Spring, Autumn

Course responsible

John Van Maanen (Dept. of Work and Organizational Studies, MIT Sloan.)