Qualitative Research in Information Systems: References on Ethnographic Research

Section Editor: Michael D. Myers

This is a list of references on ethnographic research. After a brief introduction which suggests those works which are essential reading for newcomers to the field, the list is organized into two parts: the first part lists citations related to the approach in Information Systems, the second lists citations related to the approach in other disciplines. You can use the Edit Find command to look for a specific citation.

Please send additional references and/or short abstracts of items on this page (maximum 100 words) to the Section Editor at: m.myers@auckland.ac.nz

[Introduction] [Citations in Information Systems] [Citations in Other Disciplines]
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Two books which give an excellent introduction to the ethnographic research method are those by Geertz (1973) and Van Maanen (1988). Both are written by anthropologists. Zuboff's (1988) book is regarded by many as the best and most insightful book that has ever been written about the impact of IT on organizations.

For an overview of ethnographic research in information systems, see Myers (1999). Star's (1995) book is one of the first collections of essays to explore the range of cultural practices associated with the design and use of computing. An excellent empirical example of ethnography in information systems is Orlikowski's (1991) article.

Citations in Information Systems

Avison, D.E. and Myers, M.D. "Information Systems and Anthropology: An Anthropological Perspective on IT and Organizational Culture," Information Technology & People, (8:3), 1995, pp. 43-56.

Abstract: This paper considers the potential role of anthropology as a source discipline for information systems. Although anthropology has been largely neglected in the IS research literature, it is argued that important insights can be gained by adopting an anthropological perspective on information systems phenomena. The value of an anthropological perspective is illustrated by looking at the relationship between information technology and organizational culture. We show that the concept of ‘culture’ has generally been used rather narrowly in the IS literature, and argue that a more critical, anthropological view of the relationship between IT and organizational culture is required.

Barry, C. A. "Critical issues in the evaluating the impact of IT on information activity in academic research; developing a qualitative research solution," Library and Information Science Research (17) 1995, pp.107-134.

Benson, D.H. "A field study of end-user computing: Findings and issues," MIS Quarterly, December, 1983, pp. 35-45.

Bentley, R., Rodden, T., Sawyer, P., Sommerville, I., Hughes, J., Randall, R. and Shapiro, D. "Ethnographically-Informed Systems Design for Air Traffic Control", CSCW '92. ACM 1992 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: Sharing Perspectives. New York, ACM Press, 1992, pp. 123-129.

Davies, L.J. "Researching the Organisational Culture Contexts of Information Systems Strategy", in Nissen, H.E., Klein, H.K. and Hirschheim. R. (eds.), Information Systems Research in the 1990's. Amsterdam, Elsevier/North Holland, 1991.

Davies, L.J. and Nielsen, S. "An Ethnographic Study of Configuration Management and Documentation Practices in an Information Technology Centre", in Kendall, K.E., Lyytinen, K. and De Gross, J. (eds.), The Impact of Computer Supported Technology on Information Systems Development. Amsterdam, Elsevier/North Holland, 1992.

Davies, L.J. and Nielsen, S. "Time as Cultural Signifier in Documentation Practices", Australian Journal of Communication, 20,1993, p.1.

Harvey, L. "A Discourse on Ethnography," in Information Systems and Qualitative Research, A.S. Lee, J. Liebenau and J.I. DeGross (eds.), Chapman and Hall, London, 1997, pp. 207-224.

Harvey, L. "A genealogical exploration of gendered genres in IT cultures," Information Systems Journal (7:2), 1997, pp. 153-172.

Harvey, L. and Myers, M.D. "Scholarship and practice: the contribution of ethnographic research methods to bridging the gap", Information Technology & People, (8:3), 1995, pp. 13-27.

This paper assesses the contributions and limitations of ethnography for IS research and practice. The paper received the MCB University Press Award for Excellence for the most outstanding paper published in the 1995 volume of Information Technology & People. A PDF version of this paper is available.

Holzblatt, K. and Beyer, H. "Making Customer-Centered Design Work for Teams", Communications of the ACM, (36:10), 1993, pp. 93-103.

Hughes, J.A., Randall, D. and Shapiro, D. "Faltering from Ethnography to Design", CSCW '92. ACM 1992 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: Sharing Perspectives. New York, ACM Press, 1992, pp. 115-123.

Klein, H. K. and Michael D. Myers. "A Set of Principles for Conducting and Evaluating Interpretive Field Studies in Information Systems," MIS Quarterly, Special Issue on Intensive Research  (23:1), 1999, pp. 67-93.

Absract: This article discusses the conduct and evaluation of interpretive research in information systems. While the conventions for evaluating information systems case studies conducted according to the natural science model of social science are now widely accepted, this is not the case for interpretive field studies. A set of principles for the conduct and evaluation of interpretive field research in information systems is proposed, along with their philosophical rationale. The usefulness of the principles is illustrated by evaluating three published interpretive field studies drawn from the IS research literature. The intention of the paper is to further reflection and debate on the important subject of grounding interpretive research methodology.

Lee, Allen, Richard Baskerville, Jonathan Liebenau and Michael D. Myers. 1995. "Judging Qualitative Research in Information Systems: Criteria for Accepting and Rejecting Manuscripts," Proceedings of the Sixteenth International Conference on Information Systems, 10-13 December 1995, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

One of the presentations above was concerned with the evaluation of ethnographic research in information systems. A summary of this presentation is available.

Myers, M.D. "Critical Ethnography in Information Systems," in Information Systems and Qualitative Research, A.S. Lee, J. Liebenau and J.I. DeGross (eds.), Chapman and Hall, London, 1997, pp. 276-300.

Abstract: In recent years there has been growing interest in qualitative research methods and their application to information systems. This paper discusses the nature and applicability of one qualitative approach to information systems research, called critical ethnography. Critical ethnography, informed by critical hermeneutics, is one of many possible approaches to ethnographic research. A critical ethnographic study of the development of an information system in mental health is reviewed.

Myers, Michael D. 1999. “Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research,” Communication of the AIS, Vol. 2, Article 23, pp. 1-20.

Abstract: Ethnographic research is one of the most in-depth research methods possible. Because the researcher is there for a reasonable amount of time - and sees what people are doing as well as what they say they are doing – an ethnographer obtains a deep understanding of the people, the organization, and the broader context within which they work. Ethnographic research is thus well suited to providing information systems researchers with rich insights into the human, social and organizational aspects of information systems. This article discusses the potential of ethnographic research for IS researchers, and outlines the most important issues that need to be considered for those considering using this method.

A PDF copy of this paper is available.

Myers, Michael D. and Leslie W. Young. 1997. "Hidden Agendas, Power, and Managerial Assumptions in Information Systems Development: An Ethnographic Study," Information Technology & People, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 224-240.

Abstract: A number of researchers have drawn attention to the way in which information systems development is an inherently political activity. This paper, using the critical social theory of Jurgen Habermas, discusses the development of an information system in mental health. Using critical ethnography, the authors revealed otherwise hidden agendas, power, and managerial assumptions to be deeply embedded in the project. This study raises broader questions about the extent to which information systems can be seen as "colonizing mechanisms".

Ngwenyama, O.K., Harvey, L., Myers, M.D. and Wynn, E. "Ethnographic Research in Information Systems: An Exploration of Three Alternative Approaches to Ethnography," Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Conference on Information Systems, 14-17 December, 1997.

Nyce, J. and Löwgren, J. "Towards foundational analysis in human-computer interaction," in Thomas, P. (ed.), The Social and Interactional Dimensions of Human-Computer Interfaces. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 37-47.

Abstract: In this paper, we argue against the tendency within HCI to reduce ethnography to an analysis method for early phases of systems development. To demonstrate the potential of ethnography to take fundamental assumptions apart, we perform a recursive analysis of participatory design (abstract provided by the authors).

Orlikowski, W.J. Information technology in post- industrial organizations: An exploration of the computer-mediation of production work, unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University, New York, 1988.

Orlikowski, W.J. "Integrated Information Environment or Matrix of Control? The Contradictory Implications of Information Technology", Accounting, Management and Information Technologies, (1:1), 1991, pp. 9-42.

Pettigrew, A.M. "Contextualist Research and the Study of Organizational Change Processes", in Mumford, E., Hirschheim, R., Fitzgerald, G. and Wood-Harper, A.T. (eds.), Research Methods in Informations. Amsterdam, North Holland, 1985, pp. 53-78.

Prasad, P. "Systems of meaning: ethnography as a methodology for the study of information technologies," in Information Systems and Qualitative Research, A.S. Lee, J. Liebenau and J.I. DeGross (eds.), Chapman and Hall, London, 1997, pp. 101-118.

Preston, A.M. "The 'Problem' in and of Management Information Systems", Accounting, Management and Information Technologies, (1:1), 1991, pp. 43-69.

Randall, D., Hughes, J. and Shapiro, D. "Steps towards a partnership: Ethnography and System Design," in Requirements Engineering: Social and Technical Issues, M. Jirotka and J. Goguen (eds.), London, Academic Press, 1994.

Randall, D., Hughes, J., O’Brien, J., Rodden, T., Rouncefield, M., Sommerville, I. and Tolmie, P. "Banking on the Old Technology: Understanding the Organizational Context of 'Legacy' Issues," Communications of the AIS, (2:8), 1999, pp. 1-27.

This article was part of the "Focus Issue on Legacy Information Systems and Business Process Change." The following is taken from the Introduction to the focus issue:

"In the lead article (Volume 2, Article 8), Randall, Hughes, O'Brien, Rodden and Rouncefield, explore the issue of 'legacy' through the use of a long-term empirical investigation into how information technology is employed in a major UK bank. The closeness of their investigation into the day-to-day operations of the bank from the perspectives of individual users (using ethnographic techniques) identifies the embedded nature of the technology and the impact of cultural, organizational, and individual employees' legacy on organizational and technical change. It is a fascinating account of the practical difficulties involved in managing large-scale change."

Ruhleder, K. and Jordan, B. "Capturing Complex, Distributed Activities: Video-Based Interaction Analysis as a Component of Workplace Ethnography," in Information Systems and Qualitative Research, A.S. Lee, J. Liebenau and J.I. DeGross (eds.), Chapman and Hall, London, 1997, pp. 246-275.

Schultze, U. "A Confessional Account of an Ethnography about Knowledge Work," MIS Quarterly (24:1), 2000, pp. 3-41.

Simonsen, J. and Kensing, F. "Using Ethnography in Contextual Design," Communications of the ACM (40:7), 1997, pp. 82-88.

Star, S.L. Cultures of Computing. Oxford, Blackwell, 1995.

Star, S.L. "Steps toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces," Information Systems Research (7:1), 1996, pp. 111-134.

Suchman, L. Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Suchman, L. "Making Work Visible," Communications of the ACM, (38:9), 1995, pp. 56-64.

Wynn, E. Office conversation as an Information Medium. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1979.

Wynn, E. "Taking Practice Seriously", in Design at Work, J. Greenbaum, and M. Kyng (eds.), New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

Zuboff, S. In the Age of the Smart Machine. New York, Basic Books, 1988.

Citations in Other Disciplines

Agar, M. Speaking of Ethnography, Beverly Hills, Sage Publications, 1986.

Atkinson, P., The ethnographic imagination: Textual constructions of reality, London: Routledge, 1990.

Barley, S.R. "Technology as an Occasion for Structuring: Evidence from Observations of CT Scanners and the Social Order of Radiology Departments", Administrative Science Quarterly, 31,1, 1986, pp. 78-108.

Bucciarelli, L. "An Ethnographic Perspective on Engineering Design," Design Studies, 9, 1988, pp. 159-168.

Burgess, R.G. In the field: An introduction to field research, London: Allen and Unwin, 1984.

Burgess, RG (ed.) Field research: A sourcebook and field manual, London, Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Clifford, J. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Clifford, J. and Marcus, G.E. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1950.

Fetterman, D.M. Ethnography: Step by step, 2nd edition. Newbury Park, Sage Publications, 1998.

The first edition of this book identified and discussed major landmarks every ethnographer and potential ethnographer encounters. The second edition takes a step further into a new frontier -- the Internet. The Internet is one of the most powerful resources available to ethnographers. This edition provides insights into the uses of the Internet, including conducting searches about topics or sites, collecting census data, conducting interviews by "chatting" and videoconferencing, sharing notes and pictures about research sites, debating issues with colleagues on listservs and in on-line journals, and downloading useful data collection and analysis software. These tools are rapidly becoming indispensable to ethnographers today. In addition to providing basic steps in the process of doing ethnography, this edition includes relevant links to the net. An overview of the book and more links to ethnographic sites are available on David Fetterman's web site.

Forester, J. "Critical ethnography: on field work in an Habermasian way," in Alvesson, M., and Willmott, H. (eds.), Critical Management Studies. London, Sage Publications, 1992, pp. 46-65.

Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, Basic Books, 1973.

Geertz, C. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York, Basic Books, 1983.

Geertz, C. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1988.

Hammersley, M., What’s wrong with ethnography? Methodological explorations. London: Routledge, 1992.

Hutchins, E. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Johnson, J.M. Doing field research, New York: The Free Press, 1975.

Lewis, I.M. Social Anthropology in Perspective. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985.

Spradley, J.P. The ethnographic interview, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979.

Spradley, J.P. Participant observation, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980.

Van Maanen, J. Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Wolcott, H.F. "How to look like an anthropologist without really being one," Practicing Anthropology, 3 (2), 1980, p. 39.

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