gaining access to organizations

In this and my upcoming posts, I’ll talk about a few of the many steps that can either advance or stymie a research project.  Since this is my area of specialty, I’ll focus on ethnographic research.  One of the biggest hurdles to ethnographic research is gaining access.  Luckily for my project, the Burning Man organizers immediately gave permission for me to observe their inner workings, including access to meetings that were closed even to insiders.

More researchers have shared how they gained access to their respective field sites, particularly the workplace.  I’ll mention several examples here.

I. Overt observers and participant observers:

In the introductory chapter to Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China (2008, Stanford University Press), Amy Hanser briefly recounts how she became an “intern” store clerk in a Chinese department store.  The unexpected media coverage of the “Western researcher” in a Chinese store then facilitated access elsewhere.

As Celeste Watkins-Hayes describes in The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform (2009, University of Chicago Press), a respected senior scholar and public figure can facilitate initial introductions.

In the appendix to Beyond Caring: Hospitals, Nurses, and the Social Organization of Ethics (1996, University of Chicago Press), Daniel Chambliss details how he first gained the trust of informants via informal conversations, typically held over lunch, as a prelude to gaining official access to an organization.

II.  Covert participant observers

A few researchers find that gaining access as an overt observer is too difficult or problematic for their field sites.  Therefore, Laurie Graham worked on the assembly line without revealing her research agenda for On the Line at Subaru-Isuzu: The Japanese Model and the American Worker (1995, ILR Press).  Similarly, Yuko Ogasawara signed up with temp agencies to gain access to Japanese corporations; however, she notes that when asked, she told her colleagues that she was interested in knowing more about work in corporations.  See Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies (1998, University of California Press).

Do you have any recommendations for how you or another researcher gained access to an organization or organizations?  Please put them in the comments.

Written by katherinekchen

September 15, 2009 at 3:07 am

Posted in uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. My fieldwork has so far been either covert or obliquely-overt (i.e., folks know I’m an academic, but mistakenly assume that I’m an MBA student or something).

    When I teach field methods for grad students, I say that there are two important dimensions along which your ethnography can be placed. One is how interesting is your topic. The other is how difficult was your site to gain access too. Projects with an interesting topic and a site that took some legwork and effort to get into: these have the potential to be classics. (Behind the scenes at Burning Man would be a case in point!)



    September 15, 2009 at 6:45 am

  2. Not sure how the access was gained — but, for an interesting participant-observer ethnography you might check out Mark de Rond’s (former orgtheory guest blogger) recent book on the Cambridge Boat Crew: ‘The Last Amateurs.’ I believe there is more to come from his one-year ethnography with the crew.



    September 15, 2009 at 6:58 am

  3. I feel the need to add a note on ethical issues regarding covert research. I don’t think that it is unethical to do covert ethnographies, but I do think that it is something that you need to consider prior to your research. In my view, a simple guiding question is always: If one of my colleagues were a covert ethnographer, how would I feel about that? How would I want him to write about my place of work?

    Another interesting example is German undercover journalist Günter Wallraf:
    Although not an ethngrapher per se, he wrote some fascinating books about lower class working conditions.


    Johann Weichbrodt

    September 15, 2009 at 8:31 am

  4. I definitely think this is an issue researchers should discuss more. As an ethnographer, my own experience has to do with doing fieldwork in an international context in which Americans were deeply unpopular. My personal political views became an important source of credibility. I studied several different organizations, some of whom were very excited to have an American among them, especially once it became clear that I disagreed with the Bush administration. With these folks, I could still have done the fieldwork even if I had not been open about my commitments, or if I was more supportive of the Bush administration, as they were also interested in cross-cultural dialogue. But I think the political views that I shared with them helped deepen the relationship. With another organization, I was only able to gain access because I had developed credibility as an open-minded American from my work and connections with the other groups. I think this organization saw the relationship with me as an opportunity to explain their views to Americans/the West.

    An issue that comes up for many American researchers overseas is that people suspect you of being a spy or working for the CIA. Nobody made such allegations to my face, but I’m sure some people thought it. There’s not much you can do about this except make it clear with your consent forms that the data is confidential, no names will be used, and so on.



    September 15, 2009 at 4:17 pm

  5. I’ve been thinking about whether there is such a thing as an overt observer without special access. Is it possible to do an ethnography of an organization that does not want to be observed and to do this without “infiltrating” it?

    Or is that just journalism?

    Isn’t there something to be learned by interacting in close, detailed ways with the public surface of an organization?

    One of the reasons I’m thinking about ethnography “without access” is that I’m concerned about the ways in which the kind of access your have overly determines the kind of account of you end up with.

    Might it not be desirable to construct the object of ethnography (especially in a business context) in way that the object has no control over?



    September 16, 2009 at 6:36 am

  6. Thanks for all of these suggestions! A few specific comments here:

    Johann, your simple guiding question is a good one…until one thinks about academia as one institution whose members avoid self-reflection. This is why many an academic write thinly veiled fiction. Or anonyomous blogs. :)

    Bedhaya, wariness is not unwarranted given the history of espionage through scholarship. Unfortunately, this perception makes it more difficult for other researchers to gain access and establish trust. Even Americans are suspicious of research because they (A) don’t know what research is, or (B) what it’s used for. For example, one of my students reported that a relative asked why she was conducting observations of her relative’s workplace. Apparently her explanation was not sufficient, as the relative responded with the comment that the research assignment was “stupid,” which my student dutifully recorded in her field notes. It’s important to educate students and others on what the research process consists of and why research is useful.

    Thomas, how you approach the organization depends on your research focus. If you’re most interested in the organization’s interface, than observing as client/customer/outside observer is fine. Indeed, some researchers chose to analyze the public face of an organization through content analysis of web sites, news reports, and other publicly available materials. However, if you want to know the experiences of being “inside” the organization, then you need to get access or be content with interviews or writings of members. For example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s narrative of the daily grind of working low-wage jobs has a vivid, gut-wrenching quality. While interviews could convey the same data, a first person perspective helps close the distance between the reader and the phenomena. On the other hand, if you’re being escorted around by the military during your observations and having to conduct your interviews with workers via a company translator, then chances are that yes, you might not collect such good data, other than understanding the security precautions taken by that organization.

    A final note. Mario Small has written extensively about using qualitative data both in articles and the appendices to his latest book Unanticipated Gains. See



    September 17, 2009 at 3:31 am

  7. […] academic publications, partly for lack of space, partly out of convention. Click here for: “gaining access to organizations.” Click here for: “Research, the IRB, and Risk: “known knowns,” “known […]


  8. […] In my previous posts, I’ve discussed the issues of analyzing “unusual” cases,  gaining access to organizations and dealing with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) about human subjects.  Now I’ll turn […]


  9. Wow, bedhaya, I wrote something on another forum almost identical to your comment – our experiences sound very similar! If you’re open to discussing this more, please get in touch.



    September 26, 2009 at 4:07 am

  10. […] missed my original posts, you can read my 2009 series of posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good […]


  11. […] prior posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good […]


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