Ethnography, self and intersubjectivity

Here, Tim discusses ethnography as a way of understanding how research participants make sense of their everyday lives. As a longitudinal methodology, ethnography places particular demands on all participants as researchers become woven into the social fabric of the research context. It is therefore fundamentally important that ethnographers consider their ontological and epistemological dispositions in order to appreciate and ‘truthfully’ account for the intersubjectivities of the research process: researchers are participants too, and should not write themselves out of the research. Tim will therefore illustrate how researchers can think through these ethical considerations before, during and after research fieldwork encounters.

Activity: Film Focus 9, ‘Ethnography, self and intersubjectivity’ – Tim Butcher

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Define ethnography in your own words.
  • What does an ethnographer do in a research field?
  • Why is it important to reflect and keep record of your thoughts and feelings about the role and activities you perform during an ethnography?
  • Have you ever kept a research diary before? How helpful did you find this? What would you change if you did this again?
Download this video clip.Video player: 05-250632-33-ethnography-self-and-intersubjectivities.mp4
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I’m Tim Butcher. I work for The Open University in the UK. And in this session, we’ll be talking about ethnography, self and intersubjectivities. So the first thing we should really try to understand is the everyday. What is the everyday? What are our lived realities?

As ethnographers, it’s really important to understand what’s going on in the field every day. Important questions might include, why do we live the ways we do? Who determines how we live? How do we navigate our way through our lives? And how do we make sense of it all? These are really key questions for ethnographers.

And so as ethnographers, why are we interested in these concepts of the everyday? Well, it’s because we take the perspective that our everyday realities are constructed. It’s the social constructivist view that we take as ethnographers.

Now particularly in the field of management research, I’m an organisational ethnographer. So as an organisational ethnographer, what I’m very interested in is how we organise our everyday lives, from making our breakfast in the morning right through to how we might plan a schedule of activities in the coming months, but also how our lives are organised for us, who organises aspects of our lives, why it’s been organised like that. And so trying to understand our relationship with the wider world as well.

So you’re probably asking yourself, what is ethnography? And more specifically, what is organisational ethnography? For me, organisational ethnography is about understanding how people, how participants in the research, make sense of the organisation of their lives. For me, organisational ethnography is more than just a methodology. It involves a longitudinal study, maybe several months, several years.

My current research with the people of Papunya is now eight years long and will continue on in various ways. It’s a very embedded study. I myself, in that particular project, I come and go from the research context, from the field. The last trip I took was a month long.

Some ethnographers spend their whole time in the field with communities. And so ethnography can take many different forms. And it may also involve many different methods within the overall methodology, and hence, why I think of it more as being more than a methodology.

Now ethnography comes from both trying to understand the social and the cultural, and so has its origins in anthropology and also sociology. Its origins in anthropology can be seen as very problematic. In the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, a lot of ethnographers were very involved in researching social groups, cultural groups, cultural practices, which actually advanced colonial projects.

So ethnography has origins in anthropology. And in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, anthropology took a key role in the colonising project. The methods and techniques that were used were to understand, to gain a better knowledge of cultural practices that Westerners, Europeans, didn’t necessarily previously understand. And by extracting that knowledge, by taking that knowledge out of those communities, it was then used against those communities.

Now that’s really problematic. And to this day, it means that many communities are very, very sceptical of researchers coming into their communities, sharing their knowledge with them. And it’s very, very important to understand why they are very wary of researchers.

And so there’s been a lot of work done, very much from a post-modern perspective, in ethnography, both in anthropology, sociology and within organisations studies and management to identify and develop methods of ethnography which take account of the intersubjectivities of the research, which will go on to talk about further now.

So as an ethnographer being embedded for a very long time in a community, you become very much part of the social fabric. It’s very important that you situate yourself, this idea of you and yourself, your own being, in the field, in the community with other participants. You weave yourself into the social fabric. Other participants will weave you in. The whole situation is socially constructed.

So as an ethnographer, what you’re doing is you’re going in and observing social and cultural practices. You need to understand the social poetics. What’s going on? Why is this happening? How is this happening? And asking questions, listening to answers and really trying to observe and understand just what’s going on.

And so conventionally, we always think of ethnographers as what we call participant observers, so observers of participants. But perhaps we need to think about that more carefully. And this is the work that’s gone on in post-modern ethnographic thinking, is to re-conceive the ethnographer as perhaps an observer participant.

So I, as an organisational ethnographer, I’m a participant in organisational life. And so I’m observing the practices of many participants, but also my own practices and how those intersect, and whilst doing that, also being mindful very much of the power dynamics between myself as a researcher and other participants.

So it’s important to be interwoven into the social fabric. But you’re probably asking yourself, well, if I’m woven into that fabric, what do I do as a researcher? How do I capture what’s going on? So my own methods are quite varied. I always carry a notebook with me. It’s always there with me. And I take field notes diligently.

Everything that’s said to me, everything that I see, things that I experience, things that I feel, things that catch me by surprise, things that intrigue me, I make notes. I ask questions in those notes, things that I might come back to later. It’s almost like a diary. So I’ll take notes whilst things are occurring so that I don’t lose them. But also, at the end of every day, I’ll go back through those notes, and I’ll write new notes.

So as an organisational ethnographer in the field, I’ll take notes. I always carry a notebook with me and a pen. And as things happen in the moment, I’ll make notes. At the end of every day, I’ll go through those notes. I’ll make fresh notes.

What else do I do? I take photographs. Photographic practice is part of my ethnography. It may not be what every ethnographer does. But visual methods can be really helpful to ethnographers, because it’s a way of seeing. There are other things that we can do as observer participants, participant observers, that are able to understand what’s going on – so not just sitting on the sideline and watching, but actually taking part.

So when I’m taking notes, when I’m taking photographs, I’m at sporting events in my current project. So I’m in amongst the crowd. I’m walking around the boundary line. I’m seeing things happening from different angles. I’m listening to what’s going on. And I’m really feeling that atmosphere.

I said before that the way I see ethnography, it’s more than just a methodology. You know, my own ontology, my own lived reality as an organisational ethnographer is one that I see more than just a job, more than just a profession, more than just a way of doing research. But it’s a vocation to me.

For me, I feel I have a responsibility to other research participants, to people who read the research, to who I engage with in connection to the research. And so what I’ve said before in a previous film about staying true to participant stories, this for me is very much a way of understanding the lived reality of being an organisational ethnographer.

And so that then leads me to ask questions about both before, during and after the research, about just how embedded am I in the field? How embedded am I in people’s lives? How interwoven am I? How engaged in the social scene am I?

Certain scenes I might get more involved in. I’ve just talked about being at sporting events and being part of the crowd and feeling the excitement, whereas there are other situations in the research when I might take more of a backseat. And different scenes, different settings, will mean that I respond in different ways. I behave in different ways.

Some other questions I have to ask myself is, will I get involved in certain cultural practices? Will I be invited into those? And if I’m invited, should I choose to, or should I not? These are the questions that we have to ask ourselves.

I always remember having a conversation at a conference with an early career academic who was considering doing an ethnography in a tattoo parlour. And she didn’t have tattoos, but she was considering getting a tattoo to be able to get access to do that research. And she brought that idea to the conference and shared it with us as an audience. And that was a really interesting dilemma for her. I actually don’t know the outcome. But it’s an interesting dilemma.

So it leads to these questions of, as a researcher, as an ethnographer, are you an insider, or are you an outsider? How much of an insider will you become? How much of an insider do you want to become? How much of an insider can you become? Or will you always be an outsider? And these are perennial questions that all ethnographers ask themselves, and every ethnographic experience is different. And there are so many reasons why because of the way the social is constructed.

So you’re a participant in the research process, too. All of these things that I’ve talked about so far, it sounds like a lot of fun. Some of it might sound quite confronting, quite challenging. But really, you’ve got to start to think quite critically about your own disposition in the field, both before, during and after. And so it’s important for you to attune yourself to the field.

Now I’ve talked about my own ontology, the way I see how I am as an ethnographer. And a lot of that’s come through experience, a lot of experience through several studies. And so you as an ethnographer entering the field really need to think of your own way of entering the field, your own way of being in the field. What are you comfortable with? What are you not comfortable with? And how do you feel about things? Feeling part of something, but part of what? And how much do you want to feel part of that?

The way you identify yourself to and with other participants, the way that you co-create shared narratives and collective stories these are important ways to bond with other people in the field, to become a participant yourself. But how much do you want to share?

And so as I say, it’s very important to think very critically about what we call intersubjectivities, these relationships that you build, how you build them, how much you want to build them, and the sort of ethical dialogue you have with other participants, but also, most fundamentally, the ethical dialogue you have with yourself.

And so that internal ethical dialogue is very much understanding your own reflexivities and how you are in the field and really critically examining what’s going on inside you so that you know just how embedded you want to become, how long you feel able to study for, the sorts of things that might change over time, how the research might even change you.

So these are things that you can really take away from the research. And that’s the importance of the note-taking, for example at the end of the day, going through your diary notes, at the end of an extended period of research, going through those notes again, and really seeing, where were you, and where have you come to? Because without doubt, ethnography is really going to transform you as a researcher. And it needs to be something that you’re comfortable with.

End transcript
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