Research Method: Visual Organisational Ethnography

1st June 2021

Funded Project:
Methods for Change

This ‘how to’ guide outlines the Visual Organisational Ethnography research method used by Stephen Linstead from the University of York. The booklet was created in collaboration with Bryan Ledgard.

Social scientists from the Methods for Change project came together to discuss the research methods they use and how methods create change in society. Drawing from the expertise in the Aspect network, they collaborated on a series of ‘how to’ guides which are step-by-step instructions and top-tips for adopting these methods in a range of sectors. Visual and multisensory pieces, including comics, illustrations, posters, booklets, short films and animations were then developed in collaboration with creatives to capture the key value of these research methods with a view to being able to convey them to a variety of audiences.

It is hoped that these resources will be useful for people in higher education, commercial, public sector, third sector and community organisations who are interested in experimenting with, and expanding professional skills in, the adoption of social science research methods.

Research Method: Visual Organisational Ethnography

Visual Organisational Ethnography is a transdisciplinary approach that brings together artistic interpretation and theories from the social sciences used to study management and organisational culture. Researchers using this approach aim to generate a rich site-specific understanding of organisations, institutions, industries or interest groups, and work closely with those communities to produce a creative representation of their culture that can galvanise change.

As an ethnographic approach, it often entails long-term and immersive processes of observing, collecting and recording while participating in the communities or organisations that are the focus of the research. Gathered materials are then brought together and edited in order to release and develop the narratives within them, telling the stories of these places or communities in a way that moves and energises the people involved and provides a springboard for their future action. The researcher is not viewed as an expert, but rather as someone with the desire and skills to comprehend and help to articulate the worlds in which participants are the real experts.

Visual Organisational Ethnography frequently involves the use of several different methods that aim to open up suppressed or neglected dimensions of a culture. Specific tools, such as photography, film, poetry or theatre are selected in response to the context of the community or organisation that is being researched. Similar approaches are sometimes termed sensual ethnography, and while visual forms of data such as photographs and film are important, researchers should aim to draw on the full range of senses in order to understand and communicate participants’ experiences and stories. Whether the research culminates in a film, an exhibition or performance art, the aim is to create an immersive experience that has an emotional impact on those encountering it. The principle is that you might not remember what the research makes you see, but you will remember how it makes you feel.

You can find all the research outputs from the Methods for Change series here

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This blog by the Methods for Change team, illustrated by Jack Brougham, asks if we should spend more time talking about the methods we use as researchers. Drawing on a recent paper, we suggest that researchers need to articulate why methods matter in creating change to global challenges. We share three creative techniques that we have experimented with across the Methods for Change project that can encourage playful, reflective conversation about methods and their role in galvanising change.

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