Posts Tagged ‘Ethnography’

My MRes Research Design

With defending my research at a recent research colloquium, I seem to have reached some sort of saturation point i.e. I think it is time to start the actual research!  Its time to get on with it, well at least get the ethics approval negotiate access with my case study site.

Today for the first time, I’m going to share my research strategy publicly, and would love to hear from people via #phdchat on twitter, via email  or via blog comments.

So here goes people!

The working title of the research is –

“Manufacturing Identities?”:an exploration of project manager identity practices


Research Problem: Project Management’s predominantly ‘hard’ discourse is reducing its potential, and there is an emerging concern of this discourse and the project based organisation on project participant’s identities.

The aim of this research therefore is to:

  • Explore how identity practices such as Identity Regulation and Identity Work are employed within projects, project management, and by project managers.
  • To build research skills and gain research experience.
  • Add to Identity Literature, no specific project manager identity research found –  i.e. a “small gap” identified in the Literature.
  • Add to the Project Management Literature – “using new ideas and theories from Identity theories”

Initial Research questions i’m posing are in what ways do Project Management discourse, role, and projects shape their identity? (My interest in Identity Work), and in what ways are identity practices used by project managers use to get the project team to deliver? (My interest in Identity Regulation) and how are these practices received from project managers’ perspectives? (Again my interest in Identity Work)

Approach to Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology etc!

Ontology: Social Constructionist as identity work/regulation located within this tradition and I believe projects can be considered a socially constructed reality.

Epistemology: Interpretivist “…to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them.”  Clifford Geertz (1973: 24), Yanow’s Masterclass SBS 2010.  In essence I want to give voice to the Project Managers and their ‘stories’

Methodology: Single Site Case Study and Partial Ethnography

I think the case study option offers many benefits to the novice researcher although the disbenefits to the novice researcher that come from multi-method or mixed method approaches has not gone unnoticed.  The benefits:

  • help in placing a research boundary
  • protocol for methodological rigours
  • guidance in theory building
  • help in what constitutes acceptable quality
  • grants the researcher some freedom to embrace the relative strengths of ethnographic genres such as partial, self, or auto ethnography.

Methods: Qualitative Multi-Method design  

Interviews supported by participant observation, and documentary analysis.  These are a natural fit in Case Study research, I can hear their story, see them in action, and read their written accounts.  This will aid the establishing of context and the compare and contrast during analysis.

Case Boundary will be a single company with in-depth studies of 3 project managers, across 3 different project typologies manufacturing, services, and IT.

Unit of Analysis: Role of Project ManagersI would have liked to do participants also, yet this is only an exploratory pilot study at the MRes stage.


Data Collection:

Step 1: Informal Meet and Greet [No recording]

Step 2: Walking the floor – “Building trust” [note taking, post]

Step 3: “Get initial case data”

Observation of Project Team Meetings (3-6)

Obtain Project Meeting Documentation

Informal 30 Min Post Meeting Conversation [note taking]

Unstructured ‘Project Manager’ Story [recorded]

Step 4: Initial Analysis & Design of Semi-structured interview

Step 5: Perform Semi-structured interview [recorded]

Data Analysis:

This is less developed but I’m thinking about doing a combined “Grounded” and “Framework” analysis i.e. try them both an see what emerges from the data on its own, and looking at an established identity lens.


  •     Identity research – sensitive by nature
  •     Informed Consent: Interviews, Observation & Document
  •     Transcript confirmation
  •     Reflexivity: private diary, outside of work time
  •     Confidentiality – Yet to be agreed with company
  •     All Data to be held on password protected, encrypted disk
  •     Researcher and participant safety


While qualitative validity can be contestable e.g. “criteriology” debates, the principle in this research is to attempt for high quality through –

  •     Purposive sample i.e. 3 contrasting projects
  •     Case Study Framework including: triangulation, chain of evidence
  •     Transcript recorded verbatim and to be approved by project manager
  •     Rigorous data management using Nvivo
  •     Extended (semi) engagement in the field (as much as a working PM will allow)
  •     Researcher diary to be maintained
  •     Grounded analysis is being considered against Framework
  •     Secondary researcher to check coding and categories
  •     Transferability to other contexts via “thick” descriptions”?
  •     Hope of research that contains “project” managerial usefulness

My research plan – High level milestones:

  • Negotiate Access May-June
  • Submit Proposal and Ethics Documentation – end of June
  • Data Collection – July, August, September1. Some analysis (6 days observation, 6 interviews, and documentation)  
  • Data Analysis – October, November, December
  • Secondary Literature Review – “Ongoing”/January
  • Write Up – January, February, March
  • Submit April/May.


The planned outcome of this research is to have explored project manager’s identity work and identity regulation in the project environment, perhaps introduce identity theory to project management practice through publishing an article in a PM Journal, and finally and most importantly to position my future PhD research.

This topic will be of interest specifically to those involved in organisational studies, and theorists from subfields such as management, project management, and identity studies, not to forget Project Management Practitioners.

So what do you think about the design – can it answer the research questions?  I’d love to hear your feedback!  Leave me a comment :o)


Case Study and Ethnography compared

The purpose of my blog is and always has been as a personal record of my progress of becoming a researcher, and share that record to assist personal reflexivity.  In my first six months, and what can only be called a false start can be regarded as a useful period of learning and reflection.  Since then my progress has been steady, with research philosophy completed, research methods underway, a new topic chosen, and finally a new proposal submitted.  This hard work was rewarded this week with my place as part-time post graduate student confirmed by Strathclyde Business School.


One thing that surprises me in the academic world is the tremendous depth to the academic canon, within disciplines, sub-fields and subjects.  This is no different in the area of organisational identity study literature, nevertheless, this seems to be a mere shadow of the work done in research philosophies, methodology, and methods.


From my last blog entry I identified both case study and ethnography as two research methods that were commonly used in Identity studies.  Since then I have been attempting to compare and contrast these methods/methodologies and have come off a little shell shocked!  So much has been written about both approaches.  There are positivist slanted case studies in order to get closest to acceptable science, and emergent subjective alternatives. There are many flavours of ethnography from studying the exotic or the mundane, getting close to the action, or in the case of self-ethnography (not to be confused here with auto-ethnography) distancing oneself sufficiently from the action (Alvesson, 2003).


Case study and ethnography have many similarities, and can use common data collection methods such as observation, interviews, documents, and archival analysis (Tellis, 1997).  Data analysis, again seems to follow a similar pattern by generally using grounded theory or literature informed inductive methods to extract findings from the data, although Case Studies need not necessarily be bounded by this statement.  I have noticed that articles do seem much more likely to clearly outline data collection methods where the data analysis methods on the other hand often seem light in their description.


If I can posit the differences so far between case studies and ethnography, it would come down to politics, purpose, research period, the output and at a stretch where the researcher is positioned.


Case Studies were most used in Identity Studies, and do seem more outward looking, and interested in the inquiry of ‘a phenomena’ with a bounded system called the case.  They can be descriptive or explanatory, or instrumental; multi or single site; multi or single case (Stake, 2005).


Purpose: and outward looking inquiry of ‘a phenomena’ within a bounded system

Politics: (seems can be used particularly to get funded research)

Research Period: Shorter observational periods than ethnography (contestable)

Output: Case report (reaching for a funded outcome as agreed in the beginning)

Research Position: close or far, but more often than not trying to maintain a certain neutrality.


Ethnography, on the other hand, can be described as inward looking, creating the ‘perfect spy’, and embedding the researcher in order to inquire to the unwritten/tacit laws that operate within a certain culture or organisation (Cohen, et al., 2003).  This being said, it does seem that there is much more acceptance to move away from the anthropological history of “exotic” inquiry towards the “mundane” of  organizational life (Rosen, 1991).


Purpose: inward looking, and extraction of the unknown rules within a culture

Politics: seems largely apolitical on the surface anyway, and may struggle to be considered a ratified research method and the juxtapostioned funding problems.

Research Period: Longer observational periods than case studies to become part of culture, but again this can be argued that organizational ethnographies are not any longer than the case study observation.

Output: A major difference must be here, where the ethnography has many examples of getting closer to a creative fiction that accurately depicts a non-fiction.

Research Position: close (even with self-ethnography), trying to ‘go native’ yet maintain reflectivity and reflexivity.


I am particularly like the safety that comes from the case study protocol, its acceptability even if it must come to grips with general qualitative research method criticisms.  I don’t like though the rigidity, some of the postivist undertones, and competing views of what is an effective case study.  It also makes me nervous to come to grips with multiple methods of both data collection and data analysis i.e. being skilled interviewer, statistician, or observer.  Following on, my trying to think through how to compare potential incommensurable data is also uncomfortable.


Thinking of case study I wonder IS organizational identity, or identity construction the phenomena under study?  


Ethnography seems wonderful with its creativity, its ‘suck it and see’ approach to what comes out of the study.  Equally it feels risky, unstable, and what if nothing significant emerges?  Funnily, I tried to maintain an ethnographic diary for two days last week documenting my observations during those days… I liked it, and quickly hated it at the same time.  How so?  Well, I liked the writing down my thoughts, reflections, and sometimes the a following sentence was modified due to reading what I just wrote!


As an example:

“I luke warmly said hello to a few people, and a little warmer to others.  They asked where had I been, had I been in Al Ain the whole time.  ‘What an insult’ – I thought – how little people really care.  No idea where I was I what I had done – equally, I had given up on them also, so perhaps I was [and previously] insulting them.


Reading this again now, a further recognition to the kind of narcissistic self centeredness of my comments…. Reflection on Reflection.  Albeit, still a fairly passive reflexivity but the insight may bring about change to future diary entries, and posting this on the web or discussing with my supervisor offers an active challenging alternative to my thinking and practice!


By day three (after some stressful long days) I found had no energy to write up my thoughts, or excuses crept in like no time because of a family outing, etc…  So my first attempt, only two days of diary entries, a few meeting notes and transcripts!   As I write this though, there are solutions, like perhaps using a podcast alternative to typing up – just press record and speak.


Thinking of ethnography I wonder – IS identity, or identity construction a valid focus of inquiry into an organizational culture?


So where am I at with these two research possibilities, can I innovate, or can I crisscross and walk around the research methods hypermarket with my trolly taking only the tools and techniques I like best, and that suit the nature and context of my research?  Truth – I have no idea.  Time to float that question of my new supervisor!!


Love to get your comments on whether I’m getting closer to understand the differences and similarities between these great research methods.


PS. I also want to really thank my wonderful wife Alexandra for putting up with me, and all my really cool friends out there – you know who you are: Rula, Richard, Ron, Deanya, Suba, Paul K, and Tony for all your fantastic support.


Without you I would not be where I am today – now registered, and on my way!



Alvesson, M., 2003. Methodology for close up studies – struggling with closeness and closure. Higher Education, 46, pp.167-193.


Stake, R.E., (2005). Qualitative Case Studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln, eds. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 443-466.


Tellis, W., (1997) Introduction to Case Study. The Qualitative Report, 3(2).


Yin, R. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishing.


Rosen, M., (1991) Coming To Terms With the Field: Understanding and Doing Organizational Ethnography. Journal of Management Studies, 28(1), pp.1-24. Available at: http://doi.wileycom/10.1111/j.1467-6486.1991.tb00268.x.




Identity Study Methods

For my last blog of 2010 I thought why not share my first methods review of Identity studies mainly from an organisation perspective.  This is some preliminary work for the Research Methods assignment (in the program I am still not yet officially accepted of course!!)

Actually, the assignment instructed a ‘brief review’ of the literature – and being without a supervisor I have no idea what ‘brief’ actually means – so I settled on a list of 123 initial articles compiled from a 2008 Special Issue on Organizational Identity Studies in a 3 star publication called – Organization, Volume 15 (1).

Here is the process adopted:

1.Read all eight or so articles within the Journal.

2.Compiled a summary list of all references from these articles (119) and books (132).

3.The books I left to one side, although I noted prominent authors who were repeated within articles.

4.Performed a general database search on ‘Identity’ and ‘Social Identity Theory’ Studies from the Emerald Search Engine.  This appended a further 50 articles.

5.I searched and downloaded these 169 articles (That took me two days as some were not easy to find!)

  1. Loaded these into Mendeley, and tidied the references.
  2. Scanned from within Mendeley, each article for philosophy, methodology and methods adopted.

6 articles were dropped for clear lack of relevance and a further 46 articles demoted to indirect relevance to Identity studies in my research context (i.e. those not directly related to self, organizational, groups studies of identity).

8.123 directly related articles reviewed with associated spreadsheet analysis (see below).

9.Finally summaries were created for Epistemology, Methodology, Methods type, and collection.

Some points pre-analysis of the sample of Identity articles:

•It is very important to note that the editors of the special issue magazine were explicitly more interested in the interpretivist and critical research agenda.  This may/will have skewed this sample.  I supplemented with further articles form the Emerald database search, nevertheless, this sample may not be a fair representation.

•The epistemology was as a rule not explicitly stated by the article author.  I improvised a bit not having the time to carefully review this aspect e.g. most case studies using interviews and ethnography are assumed to be interpretivst.  Guideline only.  Explicitly stated research philosophy’s were recorded accurately as stated.

•Methodology was often not stated clearly, or was confusing e.g. either call the study ‘a case study’ when I could not see how, or even not call it anything using interviews and analysing results.  In these cases, judgment was used to reclassify as a ‘general qualitative approach’.

•Data collection methods used various naming conventions so I grouped things together e.g. ethnography, participant observation (or non) were all under ethnography; while semi-structured, in-depth or informal conversations were recorded as interviews.

•All discussion, conceptual, and literature review papers were classified under conceptual papers.

•Data analysis methods were as a rule totally unclear in the papers.  No analysis has been added here because of the lack of quality data, nevertheless it was more often than not qual or quant analysis in some fashion.

•Details around period of study, location, sampling were sketchy in most articles.

•Articles within the direct relevance sample were from 1977-2011, 112 of the 123 are from the past 10 years.


Interpretivist philosophy dominates the research methods suggesting that qualitative work is the most preferred choice for investigating Identity phenomena.


Conceptual and discussion papers, and case studies dominated sample articles evenly throughout the whole time period.  Interestingly, the research studies (i.e. not conceptual papers) are almost entirely in the past 10 years.   This might suggest that contemporary authors favour recent studies or is a recent empirical endeavour.  Removing the conceptual papers, the graph highlights the dominance of case study, general qualitative, and ethnography.  Survey methodology is roughly used once in every 5 studies.

Method Type


Single methods remained consistently the most popular method type over the period.  Multi-method is also common while mixed-methods remains to be used only sporadically, perhaps due to the difficulty for many to cross the quant/qual divide philosophically!

Data Collection Methods

Interview is the most popular method for Identity studies, followed by Ethnography and questionnaire.  Of course as per the method type above, these were often combined in mixed or multi-method configurations.  The most common of these are interviews and ethnography (72%), followed by interviews, ethnography and documentary (24%) – totaling 96% of multi method choices.  These naturally seem to form the multiple perspectives in which to build up a case study.

Journal  Characteristics

I also check the quality of the journals represented.  High quality category 3 and 4 journals were well represented at 29% and offer a third of the actual articles reviewed.  Equally a third of the articles samples come from journals not rated within 2010 Association of Business Schools ‘Academic Journal Quality Guide’, Version 4.



Within the sample overall, I must admit to be having mixed feelings over the quality of the outcomes from the research work undertaken.  In some cases, I was left in awe at the time and care taken to compile differing perspectives and literature on the identity study terrain.  In others, I was amazed at the detail surrounding the research design or the novelty factor on choices e.g. an auto-photography.  Yet, in many cases, I was left wondering what was the point of this research, what NEW insights were found and shared?  The positivist articles still leave me cold, and I found the overly narrative examples left me asking where is the value add?

Frankly, I have found this exercise to be quite laborious, but also interesting and helpful to see the plethora of choices researchers have to make up the design.   Using Morgan & Burrell’s 2×2 categorizations (1979) would have been interesting to validate Alvesson’s et al. (2008) claim of Identity studies being dominated from the functionalist frame.  My initial scan here seems to contradict this, nevertheless, I will admit my philosophical understanding is very light, and considering my limited methods focus in this first review – I could well be totally wrong here!

I will say that, one paper left an impression on me for an odd reason.  Tracy and Trethewey (2005) who highlighted the idea of the ‘crystallized self’ left me with the thought not so much in terms of identity but instead of qualitative research itself i.e. an attempt to extend far past a mere triangulation of evidence to looking for as many angles as possible to find the contribution to knowledge – Crystallized Research!!!!

As per usual, to anyone doing qualitative research or identity related studies – I would love to hear from you.

Shortly, I will post this detailed bibliography on to Mendeley in a shared folder.  Just holler if you would like access.


M. Alvesson, K. Lee Ashcraft, and R. Thomas, “Identity Matters: Reflections on the Construction of Identity Scholarship in Organization Studies,” Organization, vol. 15, Jan. 2008, pp. 5-28.

S.J. Tracy and A. Trethewey, “Fracturing the Real-Self ↔ Dichotomy : Moving Toward ‘ Crystallized ’ Organizational,” Communication Theory, 2005, pp. 168-195.