IS8004(M) * Seminar 6 - Department of Information Systems

IS8004 – Seminar 6
Much of the material here is drawn or expanded from Myers (1999)
“Ethnographic research is one of the most indepth research methods possible” (Myers, 1999)
The researcher is embedded at a research
site for a long time
Seeing and hearing what they say and do
Obtaining a deep understanding of the
organisation and its people and work context.
Ethnographic research can provide
researchers with rich & detailed insights into
the roles that information systems play
Benefits and Limitations
Types of ethnography
Practical guidance
How to write up ethnographic studies
Evaluation of ethnographic studies
Definition & Distinction
Ethnographic research usually requires the
researcher to spend a considerable period of
time in the “field”.
It is critical that the researcher engages in
detailed, observational evidence gathering.
This includes ‘participant observation’ and
‘informal social contact’.
Like case studies, ethnographies also
include interview data
Benefits 1
No other method allows the researcher to gain such
depth or intensity in studying a phenomenon.
By staying in ‘the field’ for an extended amount of
time, the researcher can become invisible to the
research subjects and so gain a degree of intimacy of
understanding of the people, their work, routines,
frustrations, politics, competing, relationships and
dangers in the day-to-day organisational context.
Benefits 2
Challenges to accepted knowledge.
When you are deep in the context, you start to
question what you already know – if there is
contradictory evidence
An ethnography permits a ‘deeper-thanusual’ understanding of the problem – and so
can lead to a new appreciation of that
For Example
Hughes et al. (1992) found that ‘good
design principles’ were actually not good
in all contexts
Orlikowski (1991) found that IT
contributes to intensifying control in some
These findings were unexpected by the
researchers and the prior literature.
Limitations 1
It takes a long time to complete an
ethnographic investigation
Including data collection, analysis and writing
There is enough time in a PhD, if you start
Some of the most influential and insightful
works on IT and organisations have come
from ethnographic studies (e.g. Zuboff,
Limitations 2
Depth & Breadth
It is too deep. You don’t get much sense of
the world beyond the context
It is hard to generalise to other contexts
However, as with single case studies, you can
generalise to theory
Also, as more ethnographic studies are
completed, so they can be compared
Types of Ethnography 1
Go native and live like the locals. Become a sponge
that absorbs the local knowledge
Empathy is not needed. Instead, seek out the symbols
(words, images, behaviours, institutions,
arrangements, routines) and understand their
relationships with each other and the context. Identify
the ‘webs of significance’ in these contexts (Geertz).
Types of Ethnography 2
Cyber (Ward, 1999)
Traditional ethnographic methods are designed for
physical communities, but what about the virtual
Cyber-ethnography involves a study of online
The researcher has to be embedded online as a
member of the community
The researcher engages in a dialogue with the online
subjects – who ‘talk back’
The online subjects are much more involved than in a
traditional ethnography
Practical Guidance 1
(on doing Ethnography)
Field notes
Participant observations, thoughts, reflections,
interviews, feelings and questions
Write them up regularly (within a few hours) – don’t
rely on your memory, which is quickly swamped
Keep them up to date and keep them detailed
Something might seem very strange or odd at the
beginning – yet later it makes a lot of sense when you
know more.
Practical Guidance 2
(on doing Ethnography)
Review what you wrote, or thought
Comment on your reflections – explicitly
Much of the data is observational and personal
On your ideas, impressions, feelings, thoughts
But if you don’t codify it, you may lose it
Develop a way to manage data
Indexes, classification schemes, summaries, etc.
Writing Up Ethnographic Research
Again, there are many styles
Ethnography means writing about your data and
the people/context that it represents. To do this
you have to have a personal style.
A Book!
Yes, honestly, to do justice to the huge
volume and richness of data you collect, a
book is the only way to represent all the
detail faithfully
Zuboff (1988) In the Age of the Smart
Descola (1996) The Spears of Twilight
Journal Articles 1
Yes, that’s right, most of us need to publish
journal articles, not books
What you have to do is to treat each article
as a part of the whole story
This means that a single ethnographic
study can produce multiple journal articles
The same story can be told from different
Journal Articles 2
Each (of several) journal article needs to be
complete, so it is better if it addresses only a
single question or area of contribution
It needs to present a description with persuasive
evidence that will be interesting for the audience
Recall the guidance for writing up case studies –
very similar
Indeed, each article is one case study, one aspect
of an ethnography
Journal Articles 3
Another way to think of it is to compare it to a
PhD thesis
From a ‘good’ thesis, you should be able to
produce multiple journal articles
Each article offers a different view or slice of the
story or data
Each offers a different contribution, even as each
may rely on the same background and the same
set of theories.
Evaluating Ethnography 1
Rich Insight?
Is it persuasive, clear, theory-linked, new?
The reader must gain detailed insights into the
Does the paper contradict the status quo or
organisational policy?
Demonstrate how much data you collected.
Cite this evidence in its social context.
Reveal hidden agendas, disagreements, frustrations,…
Evaluating Ethnography 2
You need to document what you did very
carefully – so that others can judge if your
work was conducted according to appropriate
Your readers will be both experts and novices
A novice should learn ‘how to do’
ethnography as much as appreciate the
insights from your story
Any organisational context that involves
technology is a potential opportunity for an
ethnographic investigation that can reveal
new insights and contradictory findings
that will reinform our knowledge,
challenge existing theoretical perspectives
and so make a convincing contribution
You just have to be brave enough to try!
Descola, P. (1996) The Spears of Twilight, The Free Press, New York.
Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Hughes, J. A., Randall, D. and Shapiro, D. (1992) Faltering from Ethnography to Design.
ACM 1992 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: Sharing
Perspectives, New York, 115-123.
Klein, H. K. and M. D. Myers (1999) A Set of Principles for Conducting and Evaluating
Interpretive Field Studies in Information Systems, MIS Quarterly 23, 1, 67-93.
Myers, M.D. (1999) Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research,
Communications of the AIS, 2, 23, 1-20.
Orlikowski, W. J. (1991) Integrated Information Environment or Matrix of Control? The
Contradictory Implications of Information Technology, Accounting, Management and
Information Technologies 1, 1, 9-42.
Van Maanen, J. (1988) Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Ward, K.J. (1999) Cyber-ethnography and the emergence of the virtually new community,
Journal of Information Technology, 14, 1, 95-105.
Zuboff, S. (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine. New York: Basic Books.

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