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This page is intended for use by students and researchers in the University of Cambridge Schools of Technology and Physical Sciences whose research involves the detailed and/or extended observation of the design, development or use of technologies in their particular organisational settings. It is part of a larger set of research guidance pages on work with human participants.


There are two main types of observational research associated with technology studies: Ethnography and Ethnomethodology

Ethnography is a predominantly qualitative research method developed originally by anthropologists studying the cultures of non-Western societies. It is now also used in other fields of social research, such as sociology, management and human computer interaction to study settings “closer to home”. It aims to produce a detailed description of how a particular social group operates, based on observation of, and often participation in, the group. This may be supplemented by interviews and gathering of documents and artefacts.

Ethnomethodology attempts to understand how people “get on in the world” by exposing the taken-for-granted rules of interaction in everyday life. It typically involves the detailed analysis of social practices, often through the use of video recordings of particular organisational settings.

Ethical issues in ethnographic research

Given the extended period of engagement of the researcher with the research site and the intensity of the relationship with the research setting to which this often gives rise, ethnographic studies face particular ethical issues at all stages of the research process – “getting in”, “getting on” and “getting out” (Buchanan, Boddy and McCalman, 1988).

“Getting in”

Extended engagement in a research setting is likely to involve the researcher gaining access to “backstage” areas, the observation of which an organisation, or individuals within it, may consider harmful to their interests. This may be due to concerns, for example, about commercial confidentiality, sensitivity of certain practices or potential discrepancies with the external view of the organisation. For this reason, organisations may be reluctant to grant access to research settings.

Some organisations may be willing to allow access on condition that a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is signed. There is debate about the potential conflict between such agreements and a researchers “right” to publish material gained during a study. As many such agreements are written with commercial confidentiality in mind and may impose wide-ranging and long-term restrictions on disclosure, it is recommended that researchers seek to ensure that agreements make allowance for academic publication and sharing of data with research colleagues/academic supervisors in advance of the study. Where confidentiality agreements are necessary for research access they can only be signed by the individual and not on behalf of the individual's department or University.

Other organisations may seek to place a “price” on access, for example requesting that the researcher undertake some work on their behalf. This may be a normal part of participant observation research and may be considered a reasonable quid pro quo for access if it does not interfere with the research. Where the researcher is paid for their work, however, it may be considered to give the organisation greater rights over the use of the researcher's findings.

In some settings concerns about disclosure of backstage activities may entirely preclude access. There is therefore a debate about the permissibility of covert research. Some ethical codes strictly forbid such research, but others argue that it is matter of the balance of benefit and harm.

Even where access is granted to the setting there may be circumstances where covert observation may be considered appropriate. For example where the research phenomenon, such as errors in patient treatment, might be affected if participants in the research setting knew that they were being observed. In such circumstances it is recommended that participants should be informed about the observation at the end of the study period and their retrospective consent obtained to the use of data gathered

Approval of access to a settings may also not mean that all participants have given their informed consent. For example access permission may be granted by managers or head office and individuals subject to observation may not be informed. It is recommended that researchers make their role in the setting clear, ideally by seeking explicit verbal, if not written, consent from all participants. There may be practical difficulties, however, in achieving this with every individual who is encountered in a research setting and repeated requests for consent may be unduly disruptive of the activities being observed. This may be particularly the case in participant observation where the researcher seeks to act as an ordinary member of the research setting in order that, as far as possible, events that occur during their observations do not differ significantly from those which occur in their absence. Practical problems may also arise where participants in a research setting are not in a state to provide informed consent. This may be a particular issue where observations may include, perhaps incidentally, vulnerable groups (young people, people with mental disabilities).

A common means of protecting individuals' and organisations' concerns about disclosure is to guarantee anonymity. In practice this may be difficult to ensure. For example, individuals or organisations may be sufficiently distinctive that they may be potentially identifiable even when anonymised. It is recommended that suitable forms of anonymity are agreed with research participants before findings are shared or published.

Note that if your field research takes place in a context where there are children or vulnerable adults, then researchers may be subject to a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.

“Getting on”

Extended engagement in the research setting is demanding of the social skills of the researcher, even where circumstances do not change, especially as consent to initial access, may not imply continuing approval. Consent and access agreements may need to be renegotiated.

Another consequence of sustained engagement with “backstage” settings may be the observation of ethically questionable behaviours, for example racism or bullying. There is debate as to whether researcher is entitled to make a judgement about whether such behaviour should be reported if doing so would terminate their research. In some circumstances, such as potential harm to vulnerable individuals, there would be a presupposition that behaviour should be disclosed before harm is caused.

“Getting out”

If access has been granted in exchange for certain services from the researcher then the agreement should be fulfilled, whether or not it is legally binding. Researchers should also consider themselves under an obligation to treat research participants in such a way that access by future researchers is not prevented or made more difficult.

Depending on the terms of any confidentiality agreements that may have been signed, publication may require varying degrees of approval by research participants. There is debate about what research materials should be shared with participants, for example interview transcripts, descriptions of research sites, analyses of findings, or final publications and what input participants should be allowed to have on reports made about the research, for example correction of factual errors, noting of differences of interpretation, commentaries on findings or joint authorship. There are also different views on the extent to which this sharing and input should be made explicit in research reports.

While ethnographic research does not involve any distinctive ethical concerns regarding the confidentiality of research findings, the volume of materials that may be gathered from extended observational fieldwork and their potential sensitivity, means that particular care needs to be taken to ensure that confidentiality is maintained.

Further useful information can be found in the Ethnav, a tool to help navigate some of the complexities that now face ethnographers when presenting their research plans, developed by the Association of Social Anthropologists

Ethics and ethnomethodological observation

The typically narrower focus and more abstract theoretical orientation of ethnomethodological studies may mean that they attract less ethical concern, but similar issues of access, anonymity, consent, publication and confidentiality to those experienced by ethnographic studies are nevertheless likely to be encountered.


Alcadipani, R. & Hodgson, D. (2009) By Any Means Necessary? Ethnographic Access, Ethics and the Critical Researcher. TAMARA: Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science, 7(3/4), 127-146.

Bell, E. & Bryman, A., (2007) The ethics of management research: an exploratory content analysis. British Journal of Management, 18(1), 63.

Bryman, A. (1988) Doing Research in Organizations. London: Routledge

Buchanan, D Boddy, D and McCalman, J (1988) “Getting in, getting on, getting out, and getting back” in Bryman, A. (Ed) Doing Research in Organizations. London: Routledge

Bulmer, M. (1982) Social research ethics : an examination of the merits of covert participant observation London: Macmillan

Fine, G.A., (1993) Ten lies of ethnography: Moral dilemmas of field research. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 22(3), 267.

Gray, P.S. (1980) Exchange and Access in Field Work. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 9(3), 309–331.

Neyland, D (2008) Organizational Ethnography. London: Sage

Punch, M. (1986) The Politics and Ethics of Fieldwork London: Sage


The initial version of this page was drafted by Matthew Jones. 

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