Dee Estuary Project: Post-Brexit Methods and Politics

This week’s featured project written by Hannah Knox, UCL Anthropolgy November 2016


Writing this post two days after Donald Trump’s election as US President, and in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, questions about the relationship between methods and politics seem more important than ever. In this post I outline a new project I am working on with Dr Damian O’Doherty at the Alliance Manchester Business School in which Brexit is very much a live topic. Working with Marco Ferrari (Folder Visual Research Agency), we are interested in exploring how a combination of ethnographic research, data analysis and information design might be deployed to provide insights into what constitutes liveable landscapes under conditions of environmental and economic strain. The research entails finding ways of accessing a social space in the coastal estuarial landscape of the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy. This is a geographical that crosses the boundary between The Wirral, which voted ‘remain’ and North Wales that voted ‘leave’. However we chose this as a research site long before Brexit, identifying it initially for the way in which it constituted a rather different set of political relations not between leavers and remainers but between economy and environment. Our hope for the project going forward is that by focusing not on Brexit per se, but, as originally intended on the place of data practices in navigating relations between economy and environment, we might be in a position to provide some different languages for talking about contemporary politics and some alternative methods for engaging relations that no longer neatly divide along class, race or left/right political lines.

Watch our video of the Dee Estuary project


This tidal estuary, like many similar estuarial locations in the UK and beyond, is a place where questions about future liveability cast trajectories of economic development out into wild territories of rising sea levels, animal subjectivities and ethno-geological histories. Projections of economic futures to inform infrastructure development here sweep out across a wilderness of mudflats and marshland. As they do so they become caught in the wilds of industrial nature with all the agentive complexity that the landscape contains. Here in the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy spectres of financial accumulation and energy extraction rub up against the materiality of particulate sedimentation: sandbanks, mudflats and dunes that have emerged out of a process of non-human accretion in a slower temporal register to the hyperactive circulations and accumulations of financial capital. Natures intertwine with economic models to produce foraging economies, tourisms of beauty and dreams of conservation but also a landscape of extraction, contamination and transportation. The estuary brings together and entangles economy and environment in ways that trouble the central dualisms that are normally deployed in the description of what might constitute a liveable life. Our project is thus not only an inquiry into the question of who gets to define liveability (economists or conservationists, policymakers or local residents), but also a study of how liveable and unliveable lives emerge out of situated relations of material and informational entanglement.


In the spirit of experimental enquiry and an acknowledgement that methods make worlds, one of the things we are trying to do in this project is not only to describe but also to participate in the practice of producing this liveability. Central to this project is an attempt to find languages or concepts that can help us move beyond a dialectical view of environment and economy – where we remain locked in a back and forth between texture and numbers, nature and culture, abstraction and thick description. We start from the position that it is it insufficient to see environment as the basis of economy, or the economy as determinant of environment and we are committed to exploring modes of description and analysis that elicit alternative relational trajectories that require different modes of representation and different practices of participation.

Our research is in part a project of working out how to participate in the question of liveability by producing our own interventions that cross cut the kinds of divides that are constantly produced in the question sustainable livelihoods. We intend to do this by conducting an ethnographic project which takes as its starting point not community, nor place in any straightforward sense, but rather the implications and potential of practices/methods of data-modelling around which the estuary is being composed. Part of this project is understanding the data practices that are already at play and making these more visible. Another part of the project is bringing alternative data practices to bear on this estuarial space.

On the one hand then we intend to study data practices that inhere in things like the “bird-food model”. Taking this model as what we have recently taken to calling ‘an ethnographic probe’ and tracing the relations that become made and compromised by such models our aim is to ask questions about how different worlds get made, brought together and held apart. What understanding of livelihood comes to the fore when we begin to describe the involvement of ex-fishermen and their wives in both data collection and the maintenance of buoy-based monitors?


What story can we tell of sustainable living when we consider how the number of oystercatchers attracted to the estuary is held in tension with migrations of labourers from South Wales who come to the estuary to fish for local cockles, displacing the labour of fishermen from the local area? How do data tables, digital sensors, and website that grid and connect information interplay with the movement of vessels, salmon and sediment in the estuary? How might this be described, visualised and made newly present in the estuary itself?

See our map of the Estuary’s cockle fishery order: 4-cockle-fishery-order-2008-map

Conceiving of data relations not as the simple imposition of one logic on another but rather as an instance of worlds in composition we have also been led to ask what role counter or alternative data practices might play in composing the estuary anew both for us and for those who live there. How as ethnographers might we produce our own ‘ethnographic probes’. Working with a design/art /data architecture research agency, one of the aims of the project is to develop a mode of data-ethnography where the participatory mode of ethnography is brought together in the design of equipment that can elicit alternative relations, descriptions and modes of engagement between anthropological researchers and the worlds we research. In this tidal estuary might we find ways of measuring and mapping tidal flows and economic movements, for example, in ways that illuminate the interplay between tides and different kinds of lives? Who would we need to talk to and work with to do this? What effects might it have?

Further information about the research project can be found here.


Wheels within wheels: Reflections on a mobile ethnography

This week’s featured project: By Leo McCann


Leo blog post image


‘Their appearance and their work was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel.’
Ezekiel 1.16


Notebook and pen in hand I’m sat, hunched over scribbling, in an easy chair in a somewhat rundown NHS ambulance station. I’m accompanying a paramedic working on a solo response vehicle on a 12-hour shift. At this particular moment we’re on standby between jobs and I’m engrossed in catching up on fieldnotes.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but … who are you?” asks a senior paramedic over by the noticeboard. Suddenly I’m jolted back into a reminder of the feelings of artificiality and inadequacy that often stalk the ethnographic researcher in official workplace settings. It’s a very reasonable question. My answer is along the lines of: ‘I’m an academic at the University of Manchester and I’m doing a study of the working lives of ambulance staff. It’s a sociology of work study, I guess.”
“Ah, I did A-Level sociology…” This was quite a common reaction among other paramedics and technicians I met on the road, at hospitals, or on station. One even asked me if this was “a Paul Willis, Learning to Labour, type thing?”
Explaining my presence as a ‘fifth wheel’ was something I had been getting used to doing. Ambulance services actually have a long tradition of allowing interested persons to observe shifts out on the road, typically student paramedics or trainees, sometimes managers and, of course, ‘reality’ TV crews. I had written with colleagues before about management and work in ambulance services and on the back of this was invited by a senior manager in one particular ambulance trust to do some further observations with crews – what they call ‘third manning’, basically a training exercise. I suspected he felt I had a lot more to learn about ambulance services than what was evident in what we had thus far published. I was only too happy to try to learn more.
Open-ended invitations of such a kind are invaluable to a researcher but can also problematize ‘the point’ of ethnographic research when there are no obvious research questions to answer and no PhD thesis to write. I have no clinical training and until fairly recently knew nothing about ambulances or the paramedic role beyond Casualty or Tom Reynolds’ blog-based Blood, Sweat and Tea books. Yet I was generally welcomed by the front-line workers I was studying and learning from. I was heartened by the way in which whatever value I might have was often described by them as precisely emerging from my lack of clinical training and my coming to their field green and without a management agenda. I made it clear I had no ‘toolkits’ or ‘solutions’ to offer which allowed them to present and explain their world and their actions on their terms, something they are encouraged to do formally and informally as mentors and trainers to junior colleagues and students. While out on the road with various paramedic crews I also saw them regularly learning from each other: a quick discussion in a hospital corridor, an impromptu agreement to arrange a shift with a more experienced colleague with specialist skills. I witnessed a lot of reassurance and reflection going on between emergency staff at quiet moments on ambulance stations, sympathizing about difficult jobs and exhausting shift patterns. This often involved a world-weary form of workplace banter once described to me as ‘de-compressing’. Gallows humour as a coping mechanism is well known across the clinical world, but here it had a particular work-related flavour that greatly intrigued me, with the subject matter often mechanical breakdowns, gear being put back in the wrong places, or failures of ‘common sense’ among management and patients. (For an example see the picture above which I found on a US-based Facebook page for paramedics).
My role in all this was always partial. While I was very much in the classic ethnographer’s position of ‘learning the ropes’ (or Learning to Labour, even) it was also somewhat odd to be conducting an ethnography as an ‘established’ academic who has published on the subject and presented at paramedic-related conferences. Some crews referred to me as ‘The Professor’, which made me feel especially awkward as I noticed their highly respectful use of academic and clinical titles when referring to, for example, ‘Professor Chamberlain’s cardiac guidelines.’ But what kind of professor has no clinical input or experience to provide crews or patients? What, in this era of ‘real-world impact’, might this organization and its members expect from me? As a business school expert am I to profess some organizational answers to the very real organizational problems that NHS ambulance trusts face on a daily basis? Or am I there simply to get an ‘authentic’ picture of the daily realities of street-level emergency work, to listen and to learn like a trainee or student? I was much more comfortable with the latter explanation.
Staff I met on the road, at ambulance-related conferences, or that I interviewed were generally supportive of what I was doing (including my mess-room interrogator) partly because they often claimed that ‘management’ has ‘lost touch with what it’s like out on the road.’ I was actively encouraged to report such feelings although one paramedic hoped I wouldn’t focus solely on ‘our miserablist stories’. ‘We love a good moan’ and ‘we can moan for England’ were common refrains. Many suggested that ambulance services are a rather neglected part of the NHS without much of a research tradition, so it was good that ‘someone is taking an interest.’ My outsider status at least gave me the ability to report frontline stories and opinions without fear.
The experience of being invited to paramedic CPD conferences or events has been rewarding but often incongruous. The hotels, PowerPoint slideshows, break-out groups, corridor gossip and coffee and biscuits were much more familiar to me than mess rooms, hospital bays and emergency vehicles, yet even here I remained in a liminal place. My sociology of work presentation would be sandwiched by demonstrations of the use of tactical tourniquets, Q and A’s about sepsis, research papers on catastrophic haemorrhaging, and quick corporate updates by senior management.
I tried to use my background not to try to emulate the existing writings of those actually doing emergency ambulance work, but to try to embed the rich experiences, images, stories and viewpoints into broader academic literature about work, to generate a detailed and distinct picture of a particular clinical profession among many others that do feature extensively in academic workplace sociology (nurses, doctors, radiographers, dentists). Perhaps some of what I eventually produce might even be useful for paramedic education that is increasingly taking place at universities as the occupation ‘professionalizes’ and tries to be less neglected than it currently feels.
Writing up fieldnotes and thinking about publishing have been creative and uncertain processes, and sometimes highly personal and reflective. Returning from a day out on the road I felt the bizarreness of being back in an office: the non-stop emails, the interminable meetings, the corporate boastings of elusive success. Yet these same alienating features of work-life are extending themselves, of course, into the ambulance trusts I’ve been studying: paramedics would check their emails at stand-by posts, complain about management targets and numbers, try to rearrange shifts so they can attend ‘CPD-accredited’ events, and chew over the meaning of the latest edict from on high. One comment that I remember making at a paramedic conference was ‘you are not alone’ – while emergency paramedic services is a very particular form of work, it is still very much recognizable as everyday employment in today’s ugly and unforgiving organizational climate. The ‘real work’ itself is demanding enough; beyond that one has to grapple with alienating and clunky IT systems, negotiate workplace cliques, subcultures, and clans, and suffer the deadening management-speak. While always feeling awkward as a fifth wheel on my travels with ambulances services, I was at least able to reflect upon the ‘wheels within wheels’ of our increasingly irrational and troubling work organizations.


Leo McCann is Professor of Organisation Studies at Manchester Business School. He has written widely on the sociology of work, management and leadership, and especially on what might be considered ‘extreme’ forms of work. His work with paramedics has encouraged him to increasingly reflect on the purpose and value of qualitative research and writing. To this end he has started to teach a new course entitled ‘The Craft of Fieldwork’ on the MBS PhD programme.

“They ought to tell us if we’re allowed to laugh”

This week’s featured project: By Simon Bailey


Ethnography is often presented as a ‘dramatisation’ of community and organization, and methodology 101 teaches that one should not be tempted to focus exclusively on the exceptional or dramatic moments of organizational life. Hence, boredom is an important part of organizations, and good ethnography also needs to be attentive to that. In our latest blog Simon Bailey reflects on the experiences of having his ethnographic field notes of mental health professions turned into a stage play that was then presented back to the participants. In a unique experiment this event presented ethnography in a new way and one that reaches beyond its normal textual media, but also provided an incredibly original extension to the ways in which we might conceive fieldwork.
It’s August 2013. I’m part of a group of researchers, artists, educators and health care professionals, and we have just completed the two week premiering of a play about dementia care. The play is based on an ethnographic study of low status health care assistants in dementia wards. I was one of three ethnographers on the original project. In June 2010 we had found ourselves with the project all but wrapped up and £10k left in the dissemination budget, and through a serendipitous confluence of events, had ended up giving it – along with around a ½ million words of fieldnotes – to a playwrite. 12 months later we were reading through the first draft of a script, which told a story of an ethnographer entering a locked mental health ward, taking on the duties of a health care assistant and documenting the experience. Another 12 months and we workshopped the script on a shoe string budget with a small group of actors in order to try and attract some funding to stage a full production. Another 12 months and the full production was premiered for two weeks to capacity audiences for a two week run. Approximately 3000 people saw the performance over that fortnight, and thanks to the involvement of local healthcare trusts (among them the same ones with whom we had conducted the original research), almost half of those people were the members of staff whose everyday work we were re-presenting back to them.
The title of this blog is a comment that was made by a member of the public who had come to see the first show. The first show was in the evening, and was not one of those that were to be attended by the health staff (these were to be day-time performances followed by workshops for staff). Almost the whole way through the first half of the performance you could have heard a pin drop. There was not a noise from the audience. It was tense and uncomfortable. We thought the play was funny – all be it darkly so – at times laugh-out-loud funny, at time sad, at times surreal, disorienting, frightening, but at all times we had expected to get a response – any response. Several of us who had been sitting out in the audience were filing out of the auditorium for the interval when we overheard a conversation in which two audience members were discussing what they’d seen:
‘what did you think?’
‘not sure what to make of it…’
‘I thought it was kind of…funny…in places…but, do you think it’s supposed to be funny..?’
‘they ought to tell us if we’re allowed to laugh’.
At the beginning of the second half of the performance the playwrite took to the stage and addressed this matter – providing a little context to the play, and quite literally giving people permission to laugh. At the start of each subsequent performance she did the same. It had a marked effect, but we couldn’t help thinking after that first performance that maybe we’d missed the mark. Was dementia too much for a general theatre audience to stomach? Had lengthy exposure desensitised us so thoroughly to our subject matter that our sense of what was ‘ok’ had drifted far from public norms? In our desire to render in words, sounds and images the emotional, visceral worlds that we had encountered, to open the locked doors of the ward and raise awareness of the invisible work within, had we in fact betrayed the good faith of the people whose worlds we invaded? Had we exposed them, held them up like some caricature for this silent public humiliation?
The daytime performances with the staff stood in direct contrast. Without prompt or direction they laughed, groaned, screeched, sucked teeth, hummed, clucked and squawked. They were noisy. Only pantomime audiences make more noise than this. In the auditorium we basked in the warm sensation of a shared understanding. In the post-show discussions their talk was full of words like ‘captured’, ‘voiced’, ‘spoke to’, ‘represented’.
Words to make the neurotic post-critical ethnographer shiver. We don’t capture, we problematise, and under no circumstances do we represent.
I’ve since thought about many different ways in which these contrasting events might be read. I’ve thought about the immediacy of visual representation, not always a comfortable reflection when we think about the potential fear and violence of the image. But in the clear sense of recognition that the health care staff communicated to us, can we also read the image as potentially powerful and trustworthy?
The silence, by definition, is a more enigmatic object of interpretation. I’m struck by the novelty, as an academic, of being so close to my audience and experiencing their response to my work so directly, and yet at the same time I’m still filled with such doubt as to the meaning of that response. If they had been entertained, then perhaps there would have been a clearer sense in which we had used, or even commodified, our participants. But I wonder if in that silence is to be found many uncomfortable individual encounters with otherness, and our novel re-presentation could therefore be said to have prompted some kind of critical consciousness raising. This is certainly not to lay claim to some kind of new and authentic language, but rather to draw attention to a brief moment in which something ordinarily hidden might have been made visible, and to which there was no practised response.

Simon is a Research Fellow in the Organisations & Society subject group of the People, Management and Organisation division at Manchester Business School. Simon’s research interests are in the critical study of management and organisations, and with exploring relations of power, knowledge and subjectivity within public organisations, with a particular focus on healthcare.

Ontologically-Cultured Access and Ethnography’s “Golden String”

This week’s featured project: By Felicity Heathcote-Márcz


golden string image edited horizontal


In this week’s featured project, PhD researcher Felicity Heathcote-Márcz thinks about culture and ontology for organisations, and takes inspiration from Donna Haraway – introducing the concept of the “golden string” as a way of understanding certain predicaments surrounding access to the worlds of business and management. This leads her to new ways of linking organisations, and the value of “peeping” or “peeking” as a kind of transgressive act involved in the marking out of fieldsites and access.


For those of us attempting ethnography of, in, and with organisations, access is important and often notoriously difficult. But for all the time we spend thinking about and enacting the rituals of access, perhaps most important is that discussions of access to ethnographically study organisations are largely missing from our scholastic debates.

Approaching businesses, public sector bodies or any other kinds of institutions (including communities that don’t fit the standard norms for ontology of organisations), to negotiate the opening up of their inner workings and private lives to an ethnographer – an uninitiated guest – is perhaps one of the most problematic, anxiety-inducing and fundamental parts of ethnographic study. We may follow Viveiros de Castro in recognising ontology as characterised by cultural structures (2011); culture-being of severe contemporary concern to organisations, almost to the degree of organisation-being a pandemic (etymologically “all people”) of culture. Such an argument points to normalcy for an ‘ontology of organisation’ as a culture we have come to expect in ethnographic scenarios. Bound-able and identifiable classifications of bodies, objects and material practices the ethnographer can clearly separate, reiterate and follow through space and time. However, other un-cultural (or ‘un-ontological’ from this understanding) organisations pose completely other questions to uninitiated guests when it comes to access. We need to start thinking culture more as an ontology that can make us ethnographers and our fieldsites, ‘over in ways that could make us otherwise’ (Kohn, 2014). This blog post is too brief a space to offer more of a discussion on these issues, but I will continue here by casting out some more of my own problem-posing on the spectre of access.

Why then are academic papers or books about this necessary issue so thin on the ground in Organisation Studies literature? (Alcadipani and Hodgson, 2010 and Bruni, 2006 being rare exceptions).
I have come to understand the process of deciding upon a ‘fieldsite’, doing the background research needed to make culturally-relevant approaches to that organisation, and making first contact, as critical to what each ethnography is and becomes. These first touches with organisation may be interpreted as the initial steps in a “golden string” of negotiated relations, on which the ethnographer must rely to get him/her through a long, immersive stay in that organisation’s world. From these beginnings the networks of relation the ethnographer builds with those in the organisation will be defined, politicised and trajectory-ed by the questions of access. These: how, why, when and by whom the ethnographer is introduced to ‘The Organisation’ (a thing that is a problematic unification of identities and hence ethnographic encounter), will colour and shape the experience of the ethnographer in her new worlds. The start of the golden string – access and its discontents – is also the genesis for how the ethnographer is experienced by those other ‘research participants’ in and around the organisation whom will come into contact with her, an equally important consideration if the ethical and political potentialities of ethnography are to be accessed.

These first steps into access are what I’d like to address in the rest of this blog post. My own encounters with access negotiations for my PhD ethnography have been as promising, frustrating and formative to my thinking on ethnography, as that which many academics confess off the written page; when speaking over coffee in conference breaks or after the second Sauvignon Blanc at dinnertime.

What became a month long ethnographic stay at one of my PhD fieldsites, began with a sequence of happenstance moves in my “golden string”. A). a desire to ethnographically enter an institution which married my background experience of financial services and technology, B). circulating this proposal to several actors in my own social networks that I envisioned had the contacts and positions to help me, C). a suggestion from a friend I met at a workshop on ‘ethnography in practice’ to contact her husband to initiate access to such an organisation, D). his ‘behind the scenes’ suggestions of the merits an ethnography might bring to his organisation, E). his colleagues’ agreement and my weaving of contact to those people who would become my ‘gatekeepers’, and F). the arrangement for my first meeting at this site. All of these first moves over several weeks sealed my own positionality in what I have come to understand as the “pre-space” of the ethnographic encounter(s); from which I would go on to develop more embodied and virtual (or virtually-embodied) meetings with this organisation, or at least with its employees and various other stakeholders.

Who I then was to be for the organisation, was the vital answer to initial access: yes or no? This decision was made before I had even begun ‘the real fieldwork’. The ‘uninitiated guest’ was invited in as a specific kind of novel consultant, from whom ethnographic peeps (or a “peep-show ethnography”) into the closed politics and goings-on of different organisational teams could be translated back (to gatekeepers, management/leadership and academic text).

The answer to long-term access that would enable my study to be accepted as ‘an ethnography’, with its norms for immersion as time spent in and with bounded objects of study, would prove to be much more problematic. What I’d like to term ‘organisational peeking’, or multi-sited ethnography/(ies) with a difference, has become my means of working at the moment. This peeking method, though a necessity borne out of the need for access when organisation’s eyes close or negotiations are sleeping, has to me become a vastly interesting methodological development in my work. Rather than waiting for my golden string to unfold itself through corporate background negotiations between complicated different agendas and bodies – that were already taking months to tie themselves together – I decided to pick up my string and carefully lead it into some very different spaces and see what happened. Some objects and bodies have moved with the string’s new directions; my ethnography’s own unique Fibonacci numbers. Yet some have inevitably been left behind.

As the guest moves from uninitiated to peeking, to learning and back again, through ethnographically studying organisations that bound and unbound one another, this golden string moves with her. Borne from the very first negotiations and questions, of gaining access and identity, it still remains, fadingly intact – and should be ethnographically held onto.

I am and will be writing much more about this in my PhD thesis including papers for publication. Thanks for reading and please comment with any questions, thoughts or (missed) opportunities.

Felicity Heathcote-Márcz is a doctoral researcher at Alliance Manchester Business School and is a founder member of the Ethnography Network.

Talking Coffee Mugs
The ‘Added Value’ of Ethnography in Business and Management Studies

This week’s featured project: From Charlotte Coleman


What are the boundaries of good ethnographic research? Where do you start? Where do you stop? When do you start, when do you stop? Good ethnographers will consider the funding application process itself a part of the ethnographic enquiry. On the other hand, many people claim to be doing ‘ethnography’ when they are in fact doing little more than half a dozen interviews during which researchers have got to know the names of their interviewees. Ethnography can be served quite badly in business and management studies, but everyone can develop an ‘ethnographic disposition’. Indeed in many cases such a disposition is forced on researchers during their field work – or it can begin to develop without the researcher necessarily becoming aware of this fact. Much of this, of course, lies in the realm of the implicit and taken for granted, which is the particular remit of ethnography whose methods of obsessive, patient attention to the everyday can help render this implicit more explicit.


This implicit and unsaid plays an important part in the research of Charlotte Coleman, who is a founding member of our ethnography network. Charlotte set out to study protest tactics and corporate-community relations based in and around ‘oil sands’ (tar sands to its detractors) in Alberta, Canada, the results of which informed her doctoral thesis. On returning from her fieldwork Charlotte wrote up a short essay that sought to reflect on the nature of the methods deployed during her research during which she discovered that a number of strange things had appeared in the field. Not only did she become aware that some of the most important clues as to how one might solve a research puzzle are to be found in what people don’t say but also in what might be being said by things like coffee mugs! ‘Talking coffee mugs’ are perhaps not so strange to our more seasoned anthropologists, but for a study in business and management such findings promise a whole new dimension to the subject and for which most methods in business and management studies are insufficiently sensitive to register.


The Value of In-Situ Research

I set out to conduct interviews to develop a case study for my doctoral research in Alberta, Canada. To begin with, I had few existing contacts, and attending events was a way of meeting people I wanted to interview, or a way of getting the interview directly after their event. As I proceeded with this data collection, I came to see that these events, and many other experiences ‘in the field’ were in fact of equal relevance to the study. To many seasoned ethnographers, this may be ‘old hat’, but I hope my thoughts on this might be useful for those starting out; or contemplating an interview-only approach.

There are some people you cannot meet to interview. In my study those keen to meet me were often proactive stakeholder engagement executives, eager to promote their best practice, and those who thought badly of corporate activity. This gave a somewhat polarised, and partly contradictory set of perspectives. Through attending and observing events such as a regional development consultation, and people in their environments, I was also able to encounter ambivalent or supportive community members or inactive corporate executives.


Off duty talk, rather than the polite or more official descriptions of things in interviews, are often markedly different from interviews, especially once trust has been developed. Examples of this in my research were executives letting off steam; car journeys where people were frequently franker, and on occasion, racist; and listening to a consultant speaking passionately to a private audience of executives. Additionally, I found that being present allowed me to hear answers to other people’s questions. Sometimes these were questions that would have been impertinent for me to have asked.

Some things may be rarely admitted during the more formalised talk of interviews, but are observable. People rarely admitted to negative, fraught or distant relations with others, for example NGOs with communities, or executives with communities, or for that matter, within communities. I found that after I had attended events, people were more likely to speak frankly. For example, the ‘unbiased’ corporate sponsored educational activities discussed in an interview became reframed by an organiser as ‘not unbiased, but not brainwashing’. In addition, my own observations on these corporate activities highlighted, not simply an interest in educating children, but a desire to gain favour with the children and their families through gift giving, and to capture the activities on camera for promotional activities.


Away from talk, there is great value in being in particular places. The opportunity to be shown around a location and to observe the presence of objects is valuable; a lack of books in a school, or the elder’s coffee mug emblazoned with the oil company logo. Money talks, said the elder, mugs do too, I thought. There are benefits of being in the natural environment, especially when people are discussing environmental damage, or traditional indigenous lifestyles such as hunting.

I hope this piece does not get read in a way that assume I sought methods and strategies to ‘catch out’ people. Instead I think it illustrates those opportunities that are out there in our respective fields of research in which we have occasion to better understand the complexities of people’s experiences and relations in ways that interviews (or at least some of my interviews) might struggle to encapsulate. If you are studying relationships, then my advice would be to spend as much time as possible observing, participating and being present.


Charlotte Coleman is a Lecturer in Organization Studies at Alliance Manchester Business School. She has a particular interest in social movements, sustainability and organisations. She did her doctoral research studying protest tactics and corporate-community relations based around oil sands (tar sands to its detractors) in Alberta, Canada. This is a type of oil that is mined or extracted ‘in situ’ in a remote boreal region of the province, close to First Nations and Metis communities. There she met oil company executives, regulators, community members and environmental activists.



“Video-based ethnography in the workplace”
This week’s featured project: From John Hassard and Paula Hyde


Some work we’ve been doing recently discusses relations between theory and practice in video-based socio-cultural research. Specifically it assesses these issues in respect of three elements central to documenting the life-world of the contemporary workplace – ethnographic research, social theory and research subject experience. The result is analysis that discusses the relative emphasis to be placed on professional film-making practice, modern organization theorizing and participant understanding in video-based research accounts.


Basically we examine the view that, historically, ethnographic film-making has offered organization research little more than “mindless empiricism” – or the production of facts without theory – when assessing the “real-world” of working, managing and organizing. In contrast, we argue that while the history of the ethnographic film has emphasized a realist ontology of empirical description, recent sociological studies have offered a more varied palette for depicting such organizational phenomena; for example, through constructionist, interpretive and post-structural analysis. Thus, for explaining work and organization, it can be argued there is analytical tension when it comes to contrasting recent intellectual advances in social and organization theory with established traditions of ethnographic documentary film-making.


The argument we make is that future video-based research on work and organization should attempt to take a “visual turn” and strike a more conscious balance between ethnographic documentary practice and modern social theorizing. We advance proposals for achieving such a balance, specifically through advocating collaborative video-based research that emphasizes, for example, issues of affect, embodiment and polyvocality. Through such collective proposals our work seeks to bring the expertise and interests of the ethnographic video-maker and social theorist closer together, uniting them progressively with research subjects and viewers in the same, or at least a very similar, methodological and analytical space. In developing this argument, we reflect upon our own recent work in order to promote logic of inquiry and ultimately a methodology for undertaking collaborative organizational research in the field.




Thus far we have developed a working paper that reflects these interests and ideas. The paper is developed in three parts. In Part 1, In Search of Reality, we trace the history of documentary film-making that has dealt with ethnographic research issues. After discussing practical developments in method, style and technique, we examine the philosophical (mainly ethical and onto-epistemological) principles central to such inquiry; particularly how film-makers have sought to present a sense of “truth” or “reality” in the filmic product. The focus is on, for example, how “realist” images of work and organization have been portrayed in the many documentary schools that have emerged since the earliest days of the ethnographic film, and centrally those schools that have practiced under the generic banner of “film-truth”.

In Part 2, Theorizing Sociologically, we develop this discussion of documentary practice by considering issues for ethnographic film-making arising from recent writing in social theory. We shift the onto-epistemological focus from realism to nominalism to focus on subjective analysis of affect and embodiment and how these issues can be theorized for research practice. In contrast to the ontological realism favored in traditional ethnographic documentary, we suggest that social theory offers a richer and more varied range of analytical options for the video-maker to consider. We discuss, for example, writing that emphasizes the sensing of the body, its affective character and contested nature, and focally in relation to perspectives of dramaturgy, phenomenology, semiotics and narratology. In other words, we explore the construction of the organized body and how it can be conceptualized and analyzed in video-based ethnography.


Finally, in Part 3, Toward Collaborative Research, we bring together the practical and theoretical issues discussed in Parts 1 and 2 to advance proposals for ethnographic film-making infused with post-structural social theory, a project that takes reference to a philosophy of “withness” (Shotter, 2007) thinking in qualitative research. Reflecting on the planning, development and production of organizational videos made in collaboration with colleagues at Sheffield University and Yorkshire Artspace, we suggest that social theorists and video-makers cooperate progressively with research participants and viewers in understanding how to present “critical” issues of management and organization. This discussion sees us suggest a multifaceted methodology for realizing collaborative visual research in ethnographic settings. Arguing there is no “one best way” to do such research, we suggest the film-maker shares in a spirit of dialogue with social theorists, participants and viewers so that the aims of video-based ethnography can be understood mutually, along with modes of analysis.