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Field roles which researchers adopt during ethnographic research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2315 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Evaluate the potential implications of the different field roles researchers might adopt when carrying out an Ethnographic study of the workplace. The study of Ethnography, “involves the ethnographer participating overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions- in fact collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are focus of the research” (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995: 1). Ethnography creates a platform to identify various new issues and gives importance to the participant’s opinions and experiences by focussing explicitly on social context. During the Ethnographic research, a number of new questions concerning to the workplace are raised apart from the initial questions. Ethnographic research has some disadvantages like the replication of the work is not possible, purpose of research may not be fulfilled, time consuming, data generated may not be accurate, may contain researcher’s own assumptions and it is challenging for ethnographer to gain access to the research site. (Friedman and McDaniel, 1998) In this essay, I am going to start with defining different field roles in the terms of overt and covert role, which researchers adopt during ethnographic research. Then, I will be discussing various implications of these different field roles with relevant experiences of researchers in their methodological ethnographic study at various workplaces.

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There are different roles which researchers adopt during ethnographic study at work. They are Complete Participation, Complete observer, Observer as Participant and Participant as observer. In the complete participant role, the researcher becomes member of the organisation or group which is being studied and doesn’t reveal his or her purpose to the group members but continues to do with the research at work. In complete observer role, the researcher does not reveal the purpose of his or her activity to the members but observes about the activity carefully and carries out research. In this role, there is always a scope for misunderstanding the perspectives of the participants through observing his or her behaviour without knowing actual intentions. These two roles are “Covert” and the other roles like Observer as Participant and Participant as Observer are “Overt”. In Observer as participant role, the researcher just observes by revealing his or her purpose of the research to the members or organisation and in participant as observer the researcher participates directly by revealing purpose. (Saunders et al, 2007)

In the initial days of fieldwork, the researcher is always considered as novice in his new and strange surroundings. The researcher takes overt or covert role depending upon the nature and purpose of his research at different workplaces. The role which the researcher adopts may change in the process of his research to achieve his preset targets. But, the process of obtaining data is always a serious consent in the Ethnographic study. Access to the workplace where research has to be carried out is a critical issue; it is matter of getting permission to become a part of activities of the workers and organisation. In overt role, access to the research is obtained through series of negotiations between researcher and the management. The study of Barbera- Stein (1979:15) on day-care centres for pre-school children illustrates that, even after her repeated requests for permission to observe the staff she has been given limited access to the staff indulged in children puppet play sessions. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995) The major concern of Ethnographic study is not just getting access to the organisation but the acceptance of the workers to contribute for the research. The field work of Jason Heyes (1996:355-356) at chemical plant as observer as participant tells that even though Jason was given complete freedom by management to observe the production process, workers were not so co-operative giving information in initial stages as they found him suspicious. But later when his true purpose was known, workers were more formal and interactive to him. The other argument for not providing complete access is due to lack of trust. Unless the researcher builds up a trusting relationship he can’t gain valid information as participants suspect him as spy or due to little knowledge about social research. Kaplan’s studies on New England fishermen illustrates that she was believed to be either government official or investigator, which made fishermen to be reluctant to her research. (Kaplan, 1991:233)

When the access to the workplace is subsequently blocked by gatekeepers, the researcher takes the covert role in getting access to the workplace. Also, this role is adopted when the researcher feels that workers may provide untypical data due to private reasons. In covert role, the researcher might become one of the members of organisation where he participates directly in production activities. Donald Roy’s research (1952:427) in steel processing plant shows that he joined plant as radial drill operator and carried out research work by recording in his memory and noting them down at end of day without revealing his identity to his fellow workers and management. In this type of research, the researcher has to deceive the gate-keepers, as access seems to be impossible or permission is constrained. But covert role has severe constraints on the research as it will be limited to some extent and experiences great difficult in hiding the identity and maintaining the trust. If the identity of the researcher is known in any circumstances during research, it may lead to greater difficulties and he may face hostility from the organisation or group. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995)

In Ethnographic research, personal appearance is very important as sometimes it is necessary for the researcher to dress in the same way as people being studied. In covert role, the researcher must present himself similar to the participants like that of Wilson (1963), where she took the role of an assembly worker so that her fellow workers don’t doubt her integrity. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995) Even when the researcher takes the overt role, the appearance can be important factor as it helps in developing relationship and gaining trust among participants. With different categories of participants and various social contexts, it is necessary for the researcher to create impression and manage appearance irrespective whatever role he or she adopts in-order to fit in any shifting situations. In some cases, the identity can be developed through skills, knowledge or expertise which the researcher might already posses. In case of Ram’s research (1996) in clothing industry his skills and knowledge about the industry (through working and family business) gave him an advantage to find out the problems in the management activities in relation to market and on the shop floor.

Due to nature of its process, Ethnographic study is always time consuming process and it has great scope for researcher’s interests to get diverted from actual objectives. During the fieldwork the personal experiences of the workers sometimes not only influence the researcher’s objectives but also it may result in rise of new questions concerning their activities. Piore’s (1983) research in factories on worker’s acquisition of new skills concludes that his views about process of acquiring new skills by workers were irrelevant after listening to them. Moreover, his research discovers that the social relations among workers which make them to acquire new skills from each other. In covert role, due to complete participant in production activities it sometimes leads to over rapport between researcher and the workers, which may affect the data collection. Even in overt role, over rapport with any particular group in organisation may lead to problems of rapport with other groups and may also limit researcher’s rapport with the management. In his study of local union leadership, Miller (1952:98) outlines his problem due to close relationship with union leaders. In order to obtain more information about union groups, his friendly relations with some union leaders not only resulted in limited data collection but also lead to problems of rapport with other groups. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995)

In Ethnographic study, the personal characteristics of the researcher like age, gender, race, religion and ethnicity are absolutely determinate. Irrespective of the role adopted these personal characteristics form serious implications of the research. The research work of Linda Dickens (1998) on “gender equality” points out the implications of gender in the workplace in terms of participation, pay for work, work time, flexibility. The effects of gender can be obtained by focusing on the roles of women researchers, where gender stops them from entering into activities which are accessible to men. In same way, male researchers find difficult to get access to women’s world especially where cultures are bonded with religion. From the experience of Rainbird (1990:78), I can draw that even though her dressing appearance made her to attend meetings like that of men but she was restricted from drinking. On the other hand, she had good access to women’s activities. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995) In similar way race, ethnicity, religion and age can also set limitations and lay problems for the researchers.

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The role of complete participant seems to be very attractive as it avoids the need for negotiations, provides genuine information and obtain inside knowledge. But, becoming member of the organisation or group sometimes may place researcher in great strain, especially if his identity is blown out. This may lead to hostility, it will be difficult to complete entire work and sometimes it may result in severe embarrassment for researcher itself. With all these implications, the concept of reflexivity is argued by researchers like Jules- Rosette (1978a & b) which evokes the necessity of total immersion in “native culture”. It suggests that researcher should not be just passing member for the organisation or group when intending to do research, but actually he should become real member. This makes reflexivity a significant feature of social research. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995)

In Ethnographic study, the levels of stress and strain at fieldwork are considerably high for the researcher irrespective of the role he adopts. In covert research, there is always a sense of insecurity while maintaining his cover on identity along with making of research opportunities. In overt research, there is strain of living with an unclear and uncertain position provided research is carried out in ethical manner. The researcher might induce to wide range of feelings like safety, fear, anger, frustration and sensitivity. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995) In Ethnographic research, the degree of new issues arising from the research process is high and unique depending on particular context. But these issues and experiences are not so easy to replicate, merely impossible due to which data validity and selective reporting is a concern. For instance, Burawoy’s research (1979) at same steel plant where Roy (1954) had worked for several years, had failed to reproduce same findings and perceptions of the workers. Thus, even though ethnography generates new insights every time in research but it always have a concern in proving history, which raises a question about validity and reliability of research findings. (Friedman and McDaniel, 1998)

There are some ethical issues which are concerned around social research concentrating mainly on the behaviour of the researcher and participants. In covert research, the researcher carries out research without knowing to other participants. This issue always raises the question of deception and manipulation which occurs due to obtaining access by hiding identity. Even in overt research, sometimes researcher may not reveal his true purpose in-order to obtain valid information. Research participants should be given enough assurance on their privacy and respect to their feelings. The issue of privacy is also serious concern for ethnographic study as the researcher in any role might get access into private data at workplace which are intended to be secretive. The information which researcher collects during his fieldwork should provide benefits for the organisation or group than creating any harm, creating positive and outright human benefits. (Hammersely and Atkinson, 1995)


In ethnographic study, direct participation and interaction with workers at workplace makes its contribution unique. It provides detail analysis, perceptions of participants and scope for new issues which cannot be achieved through other studies. In the process of Ethnographic research, researchers adopt overt or covert role which has set various implications like access to workplace, building trust, negotiations, selective reporting, personal characteristics, validity and reliability of the data which are stated in the essay. Even though study is time consuming and risky, it has an important role in research as it provide insights to changes in workplace, reliable and unbiased information by considering the perceptions of the participants and experiences of the researcher in a social context. Thus, various implications of the overt and covert role are discusses in the essay with relevant experiences of other researchers.


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