Analyzing Isomorphism in Nongovernmental Organizations: Ethical Dilemmas in Ethnographic Fieldwork


In this case, I describe and discuss methodological decisions made during my research for my PhD dissertation on professionalization and bureaucratization of nongovernmental organizations. With the aim of studying which factors promote or inhibit structural isomorphism, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in five organizations. In this case, I reflect on the ethical and practical problems that I faced. I then provide a list of practical recommendations and solutions to overcome obstacles that organizational ethnographers frequently find in their research. These obstacles have to do with selecting a research topic, selecting case studies, designing a flexible research plan, elaborating a contingency plan, negotiating with gatekeepers, accessing organizations through the “back door,” defining the role of the ethnographer in the studied organization, and preserving informants’ confidentiality.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this case, students should be able to

  • Discuss the practical and ethical problems of conducting ethnographic research on organizations
  • Consider the ethics of using “back-door” approaches to access research sites
  • Be aware of the difficulties of preserving informants’ confidentiality

Project Overview and Context

Spanish nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) experienced rapid growth and professionalization during the 1990s. An important segment of these NGOs was those that were dedicated to the promotion of human and sustainable development. As social anthropologists have had a long-standing tradition of studying development processes, I decided to focus on development NGOs. This would allow me to combine development research and organizational studies. I must confess that studying NGOs was not my first choice. I was at that time more interested in social and labor moments, but I agreed with one of my PhD supervisors to study NGOs because it was a novel topic. Choosing a novel topic also contributed to obtain a highly competitive PhD fellowship of the Ministry of Education of Spain that allowed me to finish my dissertation. I regret not having selected another research object because a lack of passion—together with intensive teaching loads after 2007—caused a delay of several months in the completion of the dissertation. Once completed with my PhD, I turned toward other research interests.

I observed that NGOs had different organizational structures but that there was a strong tendency toward professionalized and bureaucratized models. Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio (1983) called this tendency “structural isomorphism.” According to these authors, organizations tend to develop similar structures due to mimetic, normative, and coercive factors. Subsequent researchers have paid attention to these homogenizing tendencies and have reached different conclusions. Donald Hambrick, Finkelstein, Cho, and Jackson (2005), for example, demonstrated how certain macro-cultural tendencies reduce, rather than increase, isomorphism in several U.S. industries. Jeffrey Leiter (2005) highlighted that it was not possible to recognize such homogenization in the Australian nonprofit sector because the sector was so diverse that it was only possible to find isomorphic tendencies within determinate industries. It depends, Leiter (2005) concluded, on the level of interaction among the entities of the third sector. Recent research has also underlined the growing professionalization of the nonprofit sector (Blake, 2012; Carmel & Harlock, 2008).

With this as a background, I began my PhD research on development NGOs in 2005. I attempted to identify the internal and external factors that foster or inhibit organizational isomorphism. My general research question was as follows:

  • Research Question 1: How are organizational structures, participation models, conceptions of solidarity and development, and external relationships interrelated?

To respond to the research question, I decided to conduct an ethnographic study.

Research Design

Analyzing organizational internal dynamics demands a methodology that allows the analyst to be located close to the participants one aims to study. Ethnography is a research method particularly useful in the study of organizations. Better than any other method, it allows the scholar to know firsthand the articulation between formal and informal aspects of organizational structures, everyday routines and rituals, the influence of contexts, and the meanings that the participants give to their actions. It also allows one to question the ways in which individuals and groups constitute and interpret organizations and society based on their everyday interactions (Rawls, 2008; Schwartzman, 1993).

As ethnographic inquiry cannot be conducted in large numbers of organizations for economic reasons, I had to select a few case studies. The number of cases should be small enough to permit an in-depth study in the available time and large enough to represent existing organizational models.

To acquire a general knowledge of development NGOs, I conducted a preliminary exploratory analysis that consisted of approximately 30 semi-structured interviews with professionals and volunteers from NGOs in Andalusia and document analysis (of documents such as NGOs reports, meeting minutes, publications, and websites). The interviews revealed information about four questions: history of the NGO, organizational structure, ideas on solidarity and development, and activities. This general knowledge allowed me to build a typology of NGOs based on two criteria: organizational structure and conceptions of solidarity and development.

The five case studies of NGOs represented different organizational models and conceptions. The first case (NGO A) was an Andalusian NGO founded in 1993 that presented strong resistance to bureaucratization thanks to the charismatic nature of its leadership. The second case (NGO B) was an NGO connected with leftist organizations and social movements. However, as I will describe in the next section, I had to substitute it with a Foundation (NGO C), which is part of the trade union Comisiones Obreras (Workers Commissions) and presents a conception that understands development as something related to the labor movement. The third case (NGO D) belonged to the Catholic Church, was founded in 1960, and had strong internal conflicts in the 1990s as a result of different ideas of professionalization and representations of solidarity. In this NGO, development is understood not only as something material but also as something connected with spirituality. The fourth case (NGO E) was a highly professionalized international NGO with an important membership of health care professionals that specialized in health care cooperation. The fifth case study (NGO F) was the Spanish division of an International NGO, which evolved from a Jesuit department to a paradigmatic case of a professionalized NGO. NGO F was the most influential organization within the Spanish NGO industry. Its publications and leaders disseminated ideas, models, and practices to the rest of the NGOs.

NGOs A, C, D, E, and F represented the diversity of organizational models and representations of solidarity and development within the development NGOs in the area. Once the cases were selected, it was time to conduct fieldwork within them.


For ethical reasons, I decided to ask the leadership of the NGOs for authorization to conduct research. These leaders acted as gatekeepers. Usually, this stage of the research is understood exclusively as the moment in which the only goal is getting permission to access the organization. However, following Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson (2007), I seized the opportunity to better understand the internal dynamics of these organizations. Who is the gatekeeper? What does the researcher have to do to get access to the organization? What are the main reactions of the participants when the researcher appears on the scene? All these questions contribute to understanding organizational cultures and types of authority.

As most NGOs have volunteers, I suggested that I participate as a volunteer. In this way, I would be able to do participant observation. The first obstacle that delayed my expected work plan was that one organization refused to be studied. The president of NGO B responded to my request by saying that they were not interested in being studied. I respected their right to not be studied and selected another NGO that was related to left-leaning politics and social movements: NGO C. A second problem arose with NGO C: They had no volunteers and no space for volunteers to participate. They had had space several years before, but the organization was completely professionalized at the time I wanted to investigate them. In that instance, I opted to substitute participant observation with more semi-structured interviews and document analysis.

In NGOs A, D, and E, I was able to participate as a volunteer for several months; in the case of NGO A, for more than 1 year. As a volunteer in these organizations, I (a) worked in an office to help undocumented migrants get access to the public health care system, (b) joined the education team, or (c) collaborated in the distribution of merchandise, respectively. In contrast, access to NGO F was not easy. I had an interview with the director of that NGO in Andalusia, who made several objections to my request:

Gatekeeper: We have a lot of work. You could slow down our work.

Researcher: My intention is to work as a volunteer. There is some work you won’t have to do if you accept me.

Gatekeeper: But the problem is that we won’t have control over what you publish about us. It would be different in the case of a consultancy.

Researcher: I promise I will send you everything I would publish about your NGO, and include your point of view in the publication.

Gatekeeper: Why don’t you study other organizations that have experienced something very interesting?

Researcher: That sounds good, but I have chosen your organization because it is a paradigmatic case of professionalization.

Gatekeeper: You could address some critical issues, such as power relations.

Researcher: Power relations are part of my research interest, but I guarantee confidentiality and I will be very cautious in writing about such things.

In spite of my efforts to convince him, I did not succeed. He asked me to fill out a form and to wait until they called me. They never called me. Instead, I opted for doing what Steven Taylor and Robert Bogdan (2000) called “entering by the back door.” Several months after the unfruitful interview, the central headquarters of the NGO published a call for volunteers for an action called the “Day of Hope” in Seville online. I filled out the recruitment form and several days later, I was invited to a training session. I attended several meetings and training sessions. The NGO leaders were surprised to see me at the events, but they soon stopped worrying about my presence. After that, I attended several public events and joined as a volunteer in several events. I succeeded in gaining the confidence of NGO F’s leaders and members.

Adopting the back-door strategy entailed important ethical dilemmas. By that time, my University did not have any committee on research ethics that should approve my research plan. The reflection about research ethics took place in the meetings with my PhD advisors. In general terms, ethical codes include the right to withdraw of research participants. This is the case, for example, of the ethics code of the American Anthropological Association (AAA; 2009), that states that “Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research” (p. 3). Nonetheless, the situation with NGO F was different. I did not receive a clear refusal to participate. Technically, I was waiting a response that never came. In addition, my PhD advisors suggested me to insist and adopt the back-door strategy. According to their judgment, as NGO F received public funds, they were morally obligated to show transparency. This transparency included being studied by social scientists and using the real names of the organizations in my publications. I followed the guidelines of my advisors, although this made me uncomfortable at times because I felt that I was forcing the situation. Probably this was also one of the causes of the delay of the completion of my dissertation.

Method in Action: Violating Confidentiality

Another important setback that I experienced during the fieldwork was the unexpected difficulty I found in preserving my informants’ confidentiality. The Code of Ethics of the AAA (2009) suggests that “In conducting and publishing their research, or otherwise disseminating their research results, anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research” (p. 2). Ensuring privacy, however, is not easy under certain circumstances.

One of the technicians of one of the NGOs that I was studying made significant confessions to me during the interviews. He voiced sincere and strong criticisms of the NGO leadership and some of his fellow workers. Naïvely, I thought that using a pseudonym when reproducing our dialogue would be enough to preserve his anonymity. However, I was mistaken. In 2006, I completed an interim report on NGO A and sent it by email to the people I interviewed. When the staff of the NGO read my research report on that organization, they rapidly identified the technician who made those criticisms. The informant wrote me an email telling me that this caused problems for him with his superiors and co-workers. I felt very badly, but I was not able to do anything to mend the situation.

With time, the technician should be able to improve his relationships with other workers and his supervisors. I learned a lesson, and in future research, I became extremely cautious when using testimonies of interviewed participants. When I think there is sensible information that could affect my informants, I send them the excerpts from interviews that I want to use to be sure that they give me their consent to publish them. I have not had that problem again.

In general, thanks to the flexibility of my research strategy I was able to overcome the obstacles I had to face. However, if I had had a contingency plan when writing the research design, the research would have been easier for me. I would have anticipated solutions for eventual obstacles. Although I had to employ different strategies for each organization—substituting participant observation by qualitative interviews and document analysis, entering the organization through the back door, and adopting different roles in each NGO—I succeeded in collecting comparative data that allowed me to formulate informed conclusions about professionalization, bureaucratization, and isomorphism in those NGOs. While in the description and analysis of some cases I used many excerpts of my fieldwork notes together with documents and interviews, in other case studies I used exclusively interviews and documents.

Practical Lessons Learned

The most important practical lessons I learned about conducting ethnographic research in NGOs and research ethics are as follows:

  • Selecting the research theme is always complicated. It involves negotiating with academic supervisors and adapting to the demands of public or private funders. I strongly recommend choosing a topic the researcher is passionate about. Conducting research used to take months and frequently years. Without passion, researchers are more likely to throw in the towel.
  • I recommend elaborating a contingency plan in the design of the research. Thinking carefully about eventual obstacles and the way they could be solved will help reduce those moments in which the researcher is disoriented. Although contingency plans can be useful, it is necessary to have a flexible attitude and research design to adapt to the eventualities of the research process.
  • The contingency plan should consider the fact that some people can block entry to the organization.
  • The ethical considerations of the research should take into account that in some cases, participants may refuse to be studied. The researcher should respect the right of social participants to not be studied. However, my conviction is that respecting the right to not be studied is not necessarily contradictory to entering through the back door; that is, looking for other ways of conducting participant observation or collecting ethnographic data when the gatekeepers obstruct the research.
  • With regard to gatekeepers, the stage of negotiation with them should be understood not only as a means to conduct participant observation once accepted, but also as a situation that can offer valuable information about the organization such as its structure, power hierarchies, informal dynamics, and routines.
  • In any case, during the ethnographic fieldwork, the ethnographer should adopt a role in which the individual feels comfortable. Not doing so can threaten the future of the research.
  • Finally, but no less importantly, it is worth noting that using pseudonyms for individuals and organizations is frequently not enough to preserve the confidentiality of the research participants. To protect their anonymity and avoid causing problems, I recommend sending them the excerpts of the interviews, conversations, or observations that the researcher intends to publish. This practice will prevent many uncomfortable situations.


Thanks to the research strategy I adopted for my dissertation and the practical lessons I learned, I was able to complete the PhD with honors. Organizational ethnography allowed me to identify factors that drive NGOs to different organizational models. Some factors fostered homogeneity. Others reinforced diversity. Certain factors that push them to isomorphism stand out: age; organizational growth (in membership, territorial expansion, activities, and funds); “fashions” that make some NGOs imitate others in relation to discourses, practices, and organizational structures; and, above all, the existence of a common political, legal, and administrative frame that favors the externalization of certain public services in civil society organizations at the price of becoming increasingly professionalized (Roca, 2011, 2014). I also discovered an interesting connection between charismatic leadership and democracy (Roca, 2009), a concept that some years later was developed by Scott (2012).

As I have mentioned, I also acquired important practical knowledge about conducting organizational ethnography. This knowledge involved preserving informants’ confidentiality and research ethics, understanding negotiations with gatekeepers, respecting the right to not be studied, formulating a flexible research strategy, adopting the tactic of entering through back doors, selecting a research topic about which one is passionate, adopting a role in the field with which one feels comfortable, and the recommendation of elaborating a contingency plan at the beginning of the research (a plan that should include the possibility of being denied access to the organization as a participant observer). Without any doubt, I learned in my dissertation about both NGOs’ isomorphism and the practicalities and ethical aspects of ethnographic research.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • Elaborate a list of advantages and disadvantages of accessing an organization through the back door for conducting research.
  • Search on the Internet for the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropology Association. How does this code define “quality” of the informed consent?
  • How would you manage to preserve the confidentiality of your interviews if you have to publish the transcripts in an open repository?
  • Elaborate a contingency plan for a hypothetical ethnographic research project on nonprofit organizations. Make a table with five to six possible obstacles and possible actions to overcome them.

Further Reading

Hammersley, M. (1993). What’s wrong with ethnography? New York, NY: Routledge.
Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Roca, B. (2009). Structure, power, and discourses of development in Spanish NGOs. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 20, 203218. doi:
Schwartzman, H. B. (1993). Ethnography in organizations. New Delhi, India: SAGE.


American Anthropological Association. (2009). Code of ethics of the American Anthropological Association. Arlington, TX: Author.
Blake, J. (2012, July–September). Professionalism and the third sector. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the ISTR 10th International Conference. Retrieved from
Carmel, E., & Harlock, J. (2008). Instituting the “third sector” as a governable terrain: Partnership, procurement and performance. Policy & Politics, 36, 155171. doi:
DiMaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48, 147160. doi:
Hambrick, D. C., Finkelstein, S., Cho, T. S., & Jackson, E. M. (2005). Isomorphism in reverse: Institutional theory as an explanation for recent increases in intra-industry heterogeneity and managerial discretion. Research in Organizational Behavior, 26, 307350. doi:
Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Leiter, J. (2005). Structural isomorphism in Australian non-profit organizations. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 16, 131. doi:
Rawls, A. W. (2008). Harold Garfinkel, ethnomethodology and workplace studies. Organization Studies, 29, 701732. doi:
Roca, B. (2009). Structure, power, and discourses of development in Spanish NGOs. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 20, 203218. doi:
Roca, B. (2011). La solidaridad organizada: Profesionalización y burocracia en las ONGD en Andalucía [Organized solidarity: Professionalization and bureaucracy in DNGOs in Andalusia] (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from
Roca, B. (2014). Conflicto y cambio en el tercer sector: Carisma, control externo y heterogeneidad en las ONGD [Conflict and change in the third sector: Charisma, external control and heterogeneity in DNGOs]. Papers: Revista De Sociología, 99, 97118. doi:
Schwartzman, H. B. (1993). Ethnography in organizations. New Delhi, India: SAGE.
Scott, J. C. (2012). Two cheers for anarchism: Six pieces on autonomy, dignity, and meaningful work and play. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Taylor, S. J., & Bogdan, R. (2000). Introducción a los métodos cualitativos de investigación. Barcelona, Spain: Paidós.
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