Organizational ethnography: How to gain access

This post is intended to provide concrete tips for researchers looking to gain initial access to an organization, particularly for those doing fieldwork or qualitative interviews (but perhaps the suggestions will apply for survey research, as well). It extends Katherine Chen’s earlier post on gaining access to organizations.

If you have experience in this area, I hope you will contribute suggestions. I imagine that corporations will be of most interest to readers, but of course there can be challenges to accessing non-profits such as universities and the government, so please chime in if you have insights to contribute.

Here’s my experience: To successfully gain access to a multinational corporation to do an ethnography, I identified appropriate companies to study and then took the following steps:

  • Network with anyone that had connections to the companies. This actually didn’t get me anywhere.
  • Work to access multiple companies at one time. This was time-consuming but worthwhile because it took 6+ months to get into the company I studied, from my first efforts to reach out to a company to the day I was in the door.
  • Prepare a research proposal document that looks like a business proposal. It includes my research objectives, what I would need from the company, potential “deliverables,” and my credentials. I researched business proposals to look at how they are formatted. My proposal was about 5 pages long, with lots of white space and just a few bullets on most pages. I put my university’s logo on the bottom of every page. I packaged it in a glossy folder from my university, along with my business card and a letter from my dissertation chair, on university letterhead, attesting to my abilities and trustworthiness. I attached a brief cover letter to the front. If you can demonstrate any connections to a business school, I imagine that would help
  • Identify the right person in the organization, send them my proposal, and follow up. It may take a phone call or two to identify the right person because contact information often isn’t online.  

Ultimately, two of the four companies I approached agreed to let me in, and I ended up studying one of them, “Starr Corporation.” I got lucky—around the time I approached the company, the director of diversity management was planning to do an internal evaluation of the company’s diversity programs, but the department’s budget was limited. She saw me as potentially fulfilling that role, and she saw my proposal as serious and professional.

After Starr said yes, we negotiated:
1. A letter, approved by their legal department, outlining the company’s anonymity and guidelines for my access. My university IRB provided no assistance whatsoever at this stage, which I thought was outrageous. I ended up consulting a lawyer I knew to look over the letter (I strongly recommend doing that), and I got someone in the university’s patents office to review it, as well… I gave the company the option of being anonymous, and they wanted that. The company added a sentence stating that I would not be paid to do my research. I didn’t anticipate this, but in retrospect it is not surprising at all.

2. An understanding that I would produce a final internal report (i.e. Powerpoint presentation) on the company’s diversity programs.

Once I was in the door, my status was analogous to a consultant. I got an ID, an identity and password, my own cubicle with a computer and, crucially, access to the company’s intranet, including its computer program for scheduling interviews. I had a point of contact within the diversity department who identified appropriate events for me to attend and individuals to interview.

How did you gain access?

Also, do you have suggestions of books or articles on gaining access to organizations? I only am familiar with general discussions of this topic. I particularly like Gaining Access: A Practical and Theoretical Guide for Qualitative Researchers, which is what the title suggests.

Written by ellenberrey

June 15, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Posted in ethnography, workplace

11 Responses

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  1. What networking did you do on LinkedIn?



    June 15, 2015 at 2:03 pm

  2. That’s a great idea. I didn’t use LinkedIn. It wasn’t as popular when I was in graduate school.

    Does anyone have advice about how to use LinkedIn for gaining access?



    June 15, 2015 at 2:08 pm

  3. I did something very similar and got successful access to two companies/one NGO, but also failed many. 1. trust is key. An introduction from a familiar person resolves many issues. 2. a professional-looking proposal definitely helps. 3. Timing is also important. You never know why organizations may want to have you inside their organizations but whenever you have the access, there is always a reason you are given the access. In general, I would say, stay in touch with the contacts long enough, it will eventually work out. People must feel comfortable with your presence. One of the key individual allows me access one year after. Another, after 4-6 months. Caveat: all the above experience in the context of China/make sure the key persons do not change their jobs very often. My access to an NGO become quite restricted when the supporting executive left the organization.



    June 15, 2015 at 2:23 pm

  4. I tried linkedin, but I wasn’t very successful (perhaps I wasn’t skilfull enough), except for getting one interview. Some people accept invites rather casually. If you send them a cold message, they might/most likely ignore you. It seems that many professionals update their linked when they are seeking for a career transition. I did manage to get an interview with linkedin, because there happens to be a mutual interest. Linkedin is helpful in the that you can use search terms to find the right person, but again not every “key person” have detailed profiels on linkedin. At least in the context of my empirical field (fund management industry), insiders told me that they feel more comfortable seeing the real person.



    June 15, 2015 at 2:30 pm

  5. Shipeng writes: “At least in the context of my empirical field (fund management industry), insiders told me that they feel more comfortable seeing the real person.”

    It is straightforward to make the cold call much warmer in LinkedIn.

    1. Target for interviews only contacts with 500+ connections who are active on LinkedIn.
    2. Make intelligent comments on articles they have also commented on.

    Make the call by referencing that you have seen their comments in LinkedIn and want to know if they know anyone who might be interested in [your pet project description]. Use an indirect pitch to find either a referral or pique their own interest.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 15, 2015 at 3:32 pm

  6. I’m not an ethnographer, but I’ve also had collaborations with corporations to do research, and my experience definitely mirrors yours here. One comment on this:

    >The company added a sentence stating that I would not be paid to do my research. I didn’t anticipate this, but in retrospect it is not surprising at all.

    In my research I’m working with sensitive data within a company, and so (they claimed) they had to employ me officially as a contractor/consultant and pay me a small amount so they could also write an NDA that would be binding. I’m surprised that wasn’t true here.



    June 15, 2015 at 3:46 pm

  7. Outstanding post. Please do more on the ethnographic process in organizations.



    June 15, 2015 at 4:08 pm

  8. Thank you Ellen for your post. I am preparing for starting to contact potential companies and started to network with anyone that had connections to the companies.



    June 16, 2015 at 12:23 pm

  9. My dissertation is broadly ethnographic – observations, interviews, internal archival materials – and examines an established athletic footwear and apparel company undergoing a variety of organizational change. In thinking through my own access process, one potentially overlooked resource is the alumni network of your university. Universities, and B Schools in particular, maintain lists of alumni and their current employment. When I was interested in studying this organization I worked with a senior administrator in the B School to identify graduates who currently worked in this organization. This senior administrator then reached out on my behalf to a graduate who was very senior in the organization. It organically grew from there. Doctoral students might particularly benefit from this because they can play the “can you help out a struggling student” card and have a shared point of connection with the contact based on being students of the institution. In any event, my access has been phenomenal. Just another potential resource.

    Liked by 2 people


    June 17, 2015 at 1:16 am

  10. DLepisto- what a smart strategy. Thank you for sharing this useful tip.



    June 17, 2015 at 1:52 am

  11. If you want to compare you experience with others before you I suggest you get hold of a copy of the book:

    Feldman, M. S., Bell, J., & Berger, M. T. (2004). Gaining access: A practical and theoretical guide for qualitative researchers. Rowman Altamira.

    The book has a (long) first chapter with the how to do it followed by several shorted first person accounts of “how I did it”. A great resource book


    Davide Nicolini

    June 22, 2015 at 9:56 am

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