To ethnography or not to ethnography

Ethnographic research in information systems research is not new, but what is it?

It is a very in-depth research method and a way of describing the real world. The researcher usually spends several months “in the field”, in this research area the field usually is a company. Typically the researchers immerse themselves in the life of the people they study. It has been used to investigate social and organizational contexts of information systems.

In ethnography data is collected through interviews, documentary evidence, participant observation and informal social contact.

The Benefits of ethnographic research are the in-depth understanding of people, organization and context of work. The researcher sees what people are doing and hears what they are saying. This enables the researcher to question what is taken for granted. For example people might have the perception that they follow a certain process, while observation might unveil they are following a completely different process or none at all. Your observation might cause you to question what standard and best practice is and it unravels the actual practice.

The Disadvantages of ethnographic research are that the data collection and the analysis process is long. The research has a narrow focus, as it concentrates on one company.

For the researcher this means it is important to think about what are the parameters which make the company comparable to others and are these parameters relevant for the findings. However, if it is valid to generalize from case study research, it is similarly valid to apply this principle here.

I am preparing ethnographic research to explore requirements for a software engineering framework. So I read a bit about it and talked to some ethnographic experts I know.

After talking to people who have done ethnographic studies in information systems research, I came up with the following list of issues to consider:

1.       Get involved, get a job to do in the company that is of use to the people you are observing

2.       Follow one project from the beginning as far as your timeline allows

3.       Introduce an observation instrument from the beginning:

·         Keep a diary; write ½ hour at the end of each day

·         Analyze and then follow the structure after the 1st week
Write about people, profiles, tasks, projects

·         Collect data so it suits your research; have a plan!

·         Interviews should be written up at the same day with at least a brief summary - if there is a recording.

·         Regularly review your ideas and develop ideas; write analytic memos

4.       Organize a workshop and report what you found or saw

·         A happened like that

·         B happened like that

·         Then ask:

a.       What is best for you? (ask people in the company)

·         Ask yourself:

a.       What are the parameters to consider?

·         Come up with a prototype process together with the people involved

·         Be prepared that people might not like what you report back

Some things to consider: things written in your diary might be without much reflection, just to document them and you will know that, but someone else reading it might be upset.

Reporting your findings

To report the findings, methods of participatory design have been used. In particular Eva Brandt has done a lot of research on that.

Ulrike Schultze wrote a useful tutorial on methodologies for ethnographic research. That’s where the next entry will continue J


Myers, M.D. (1999). Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research. In: Communications of the Association for Information Systems, Volume 2.

Ely, M., Anzul, M., Friedman, T., Garner, D. & McCormack Steinmetz, A. (2003) Doing Qualitative Research: Circles within Circles. Taylor & Francis eLibrary. Available from [Accessed 20 October 2011]

Schultze, U. (2000). A Confessional Account of an Ethnography about  Knowledgework. In: MIS Quarterly 24 (1) p. 3-41

Brandt, E. (2006).Designing exploratory design games: a framework for participation in Participatory Design? In: Proceedings of the ninth Participatory Design Conference

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