Answers to Exercise

7.4 Exploring the role of the researcher in observational research

Burawoy (2009: 204) notes that as participant observers, ‘we don’t have access to some Archimedean standpoint’ [a hypothetical vantage point from which an observer can objectively perceive the subject of inquiry]: instead we are always located somewhere ‘in the site, which has grave consequences to what we say’. In groups or pairs, discuss how this statement relates to the four types of observational research presented above. What are the implications of the different standpoints for researchers and research participants? What kind of observational research is the most useful/the most problematic?

As with many of our exercises, this exercise aims mainly at generating debate – and it is safe to say that there is no observational standpoint that is perfect in every respect. Depending on the research question and the field under study, it can be appropriate (or useful) for us to minimize our interaction with the field, in this way aiming at a position which comes close to being ‘outside the field’ (complete observer). Some scholars favour such a standpoint because they feel that it is likely to produce more objective (i.e. less biased) research. While this may or may not be true, it is important to remember that as researchers investigating social phenomena, we will never be able to take a fully ‘objective’ stance. Our presence will always make an impact on the field, even when we try hard to obscure our presence. As observers we are an intrinsic part of what we observe – not least because our interpretations are informed by our own experiences of engaging with others. Acknowledging this fact, many researchers prefer to follow their fields (observer-as-participant) or to engage with their field in an active way (participant-as-observer; complete participant). Full participation allows us to develop a level of in-depth understanding which can never be achieved by complete observation. At the same time, however, such understandings can lead to a situation where we become lost in the field and our own subjective experience of it, unable to reflect upon the conditions and implications of what we are doing. Taking a more active role also allows us to experiment. For example, we can develop a theory of how a field might react to a certain stimulus and then see if we are right. This can be useful, but it also begs the question of whether the field would ever have reacted in such way if it had not been for our input. This is not to say that the observations resulting from this input do not lend themselves to the development of valid and useful knowledge derived in this way.

7.5 Ethnography

In his online article ‘Ethnography – What is it and why do we need it?’, Ruben Andersson argues that we need ethnographic research more than ever. Can you explain the reasoning behind his statement? Do you agree?

Andersson describes ethnography as a way of conducting research by shifting from the perspective of an outsider to that of an insider, a view which often remains hidden from view when conducting research using other methods. He emphasizes the challenging nature of ethnographic methods as he describes ethnography as ‘straying out of our comfort zone in order to understand another social world’. Andersson acknowledges that ethnography is a time-consuming way of conducting research that due to its messiness will always be open to criticism. However, he also points to the deep insight that can be gained through prolonged periods of engagement. He argues that at a time of fake news and sound bites, when researchers are asked to deliver ready-made policies or models in as short a time as possible, ethnography may be needed more than ever, as it can inform a deeper understanding of complex issues and implies a more long-term view on social processes.

7.6 Netnography

In this video, Robert V. Kozinets defines netnography as a form of ethnography that examines online cultures and life that is often deployed in a marketing context with the aim of understanding consumer behaviour.

How does netnography differ from other ethnographic approaches?

Netnography was developed by Robert V. Kozinets in 1995 in a study on online fan discussions about Star Trek. It is an online research method used to investigate social interaction in digital communications contexts. It implies a distinct focus on conversations recorded by contemporary communications networks such as online forums. So far netnography has mostly been used to study online consumer communities such as brand or communities of practice, whereas ethnography tends to be broader in focus (an entire society, culture, tribe, etc.). Digital ethnography is about the study of the new forms of digital life, so again it implies a different research focus on platforms and entire digital ecosystems.

Netnography is more on the observational rather than participatory end of spectrum of methods that constitute ‘participant observation’. It involves the collection of computer-based and secondary data, whereas ethnographers create primarily primary data (field notes, recordings, etc.). This focus on observation rather than engagement can make it appear less obtrusive. Netnographers immerse themselves in online communities without becoming themselves a member of them. Computer-based data allow for tracing conversations that happened many years ago. In this way, netnography is a great method for research into the history of online communities as well as their present situation.

Think about a topic of relevance for business and management studies for which you could conduct a study using netnography. How would you approach such study?

Netnography has been predominantly used in marketing and consumer research due to its implicit focus on user/consumer’s identity as a role that is expressed in communications within an online community. For example, Kozinets (2010) has identified four types of users involved in digital communities: Devotee, Insider, Newbie and Mingler.

7.7 Conducting action research

Download the case study ‘Participatory Action Research: Improving Professional Practices and Local Situations’ by Mary M Somerville.

Individual – Read the case study and make a list of the main features of Participatory Action Research (PAR).

In participatory action research (PAR), practitioners-researchers seek to understand social phenomena by trying to change them in collaboration with others. As such, the approach is focussed on change in a way that is both emergent and practical and context-specific and interpretative (all about how local problems are understood and addressed by those involved – from small groups to entire communities). There is an emphasis on participation and collaboration in the sense of researchers and participants working together in an iterative cycle of research, action and reflection. PAR is therefore often described to be more democratic and emancipatory than other forms of research, as it involves the participation of practitioners on an equal footing. PAR as an approach allows for the use of a great variety of quantitative and qualitative methods and aims at the development of theories and practices that can be shared and used (as opposed to just published).