Conducting an Organizational Ethnography: Researching Links Between Concepts of Workplace Bullying and Organizational Practices


This case study is an example of organizational qualitative research in action. In 2013, I began the methodological journey for my PhD to study the link between how violence (in particular bullying) is constructed on an everyday basis by organizational members and organizational practices developed and implemented to counter and respond to forms of violence, with a focus on policies and education and training programs. In this case study, I discuss my research process beginning with the choices of methodologies and methods and how they guided me in answering my central research question. I bring readers into the research process, including finding an organization and gaining access, ethical considerations and challenges encountered, and how I dealt with them. As a pedagogical tool, this case will help other researchers and students learn how to carry out a research project related to organizations, choose and use methods, recognize challenges, and develop solutions as they design and carry out their projects within organizations.

Learning Outcomes

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

  • Have a better understanding of the methodological challenges and solutions involved in conducting research within organizations
  • Understand how the theory behind methodologies (ethnography, institutional ethnography, practice-based studies) guides the research process
  • Understand the multiple roles of methods beyond the collection of data
  • Analyze the connections between methodologies and methods chosen as they relate to the central research question

Aim of the Study: Mapping the Research Journey

My doctoral research centers on the link between how we think about (theorize) workplace bullying and how we act upon it (practice). To date, within the workplace bullying literature, the focus has been placed on individual acts and actors (mainly the decontextualized relationship between the victim and the perpetrator) (Berlingieri, 2015). As I read through the literature on bullying, and then more broadly on other forms of violence, I pondered the question “How does the individualization of this phenomenon shape the development of prevention and intervention practices adopted by organizations?” By practices, I am referring to the array of actions advocated for organizations to address workplace bullying. Examples of practices include anti-bullying policies, training programs, risk assessment, evaluation and change of organizational practices and aspects of the work environment, investigative procedures for reports (complaints), counseling for targets, coaching, and conflict mediation. Organizational practices that emerge from an individualized view of bullying focus on individual workers’ attitudes and behaviors, for example, as a symptom of poor or lacking anger management skills by perpetrators.

I wanted to study—and learn from—an organization whose members were attempting to think about and act upon violence, specifically bullying, differently. More specifically, I was interested in studying an organization where violence and bullying are not viewed as distinct and individualized phenomena and where an acknowledgement exists of power relations reflected in the social structural inequities—such as gender, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, class, age, and ability—that are an integral part of all workplaces as in society in general. Such an organization is committed to bringing about changes in the interpersonal relations of their members as well as changes in intra- and extra-organizational practices. Therefore, my central research question asks, if workplace bullying was not constructed as individualized and as distinct from violence, how would this view shape the development of organizational practices?

Selecting a Methodology: Matching Methodologies With Research Aims

Methodology is “the theory of how knowledge is gained” (Wilson, 2008, p. 34). Our beliefs or assumptions (i.e., paradigm) regarding the nature of reality (i.e., ontology or worldview) and the nature of knowledge, how we gain, and what constitutes knowledge (i.e., epistemology) all influence our methodology and how we conduct research. My study is a critical organizational ethnography of a major healthcare organization in Toronto which I refer to as the Hospital. While I call my study a critical organizational ethnography, I was also strongly influenced by institutional ethnography (IE) and practice-based studies. I chose a specific group (which I refer to as the Committee) within the Hospital as my participants (11 in total). I chose this group as its members are responsible for the development of anti-violence practices within the Hospital. Committee members represent all levels and areas throughout the Hospital. All members are full-time employees of the Hospital, with the exception of representatives from community organizations. The Hospital has a dedicated office (which I refer to as the Office) whose central mandate is to ensure a safe, respectful, equitable, and accessible environment for all members of the Hospital community, including patients, staff, and the public. All members of the Office sit on the Committee. The Committee’s fundamental role is to support the practices of the Office.

Critical Organizational Ethnography

In my search for a methodology, I paid particular attention to the principal aims of the various methodologies considered. As mentioned earlier, the core objective of my study was to demonstrate the relationship between how organizational members conceptualize bullying (and violence generally) and the practices they adopt to counter and respond to it. A principal aim specifically of organizational ethnography is to “uncover and explicate the ways in which people in particular work settings come to understand, account for, take action, and otherwise manage their day-to-day situation” (Van Maanen, 1979, p. 540). I chose organizational ethnography because I was interested in capturing the meaning-making process of my participants and its interrelationship with their conceptualizations of violence and organizational practices. Hence, not meaning alone, but how meaning shapes action (Rosen, 2000). Critical ethnographers are concerned with uncovering the repercussions of those meanings for groups of social actors (i.e., workers) within a specific social realm (i.e., the organization) (Macdonald, 2014). To trace these linkages, it was necessary to study a single organization. Had I been interested in developing a general description of multiple anti-violence practices where organizational context was less important, several organizations would have been sought for this study.

Organizational ethnography was appealing to me for other reasons, including

  • its potential for a deeper understanding of social phenomena (e.g., bullying) (Fine, Morrill, & Surianarain, 2009),
  • its “processed-based understanding of organizational life” (Rosen, 2000, p. 55),
  • its focus on interrelationships,
  • and the importance of context both within the organization itself and the broader structural context in which it operates (e.g., legislation, contemporary public management practices and discourses, such as health equity and patient-based discourses).

Organizational ethnography helped me achieve my goal to go beyond a description of organizational practices toward the beginning of deep change both in how we think of workplace bullying as well as the practices we take to counter and respond to it. This aim, however, did not detract from my desire that the study be of practical usefulness to organizational members and practitioners.

Institutional Ethnography

With regard to IE, I was drawn to its relational and feminist underpinnings, namely,

  • How power is traceable through peoples’ everyday experiences and texts (documents);
  • The collapse of dualisms (e.g., individual/social, local/global, micro/macro);
  • The focus on capturing (and mapping) ongoing practices and processes;
  • The central role of texts in coordinating peoples’ everyday activities—and their meaning-making process—as they engage with texts (e.g., policies);
  • The importance of starting from people’s everyday experiences.

It is the central role of texts that provided me with insight into how I could search for an organization for this study and how the analysis of key texts (e.g., policies) would provide insight into how the organization was thinking and acting with regard to workplace bullying. It is important to note here that texts carry and perpetuate meaning, but to have an effect, they must be activated through people’s activities (Campbell & Gregor, 2002), that is, texts shape and are shaped by people’s activities, at times directly or through other texts. A strong influence on my thinking was the power of discourse—specifically concepts (e.g., workplace violence and workplace bullying)—to shape meaning and action in IE. How an issue is labeled or framed shapes how it is seen and acted upon.

Practice-Based Studies

In keeping with the theoretical framework of my study, a major challenge I encountered entailed maintaining at the forefront the view of organizational practices not as distinct entities but as ongoing interrelated processes, that is, they shape each other as each changes. Therefore, the focus is not solely on single practices, but on networks of interrelated practices. It is the design, the use made of the practices by people in their everyday activities, and their subsequent changes, within context, that I attempted to grasp in this study. For example, anti-violence policies are not seen as documents that are simply produced and filed away, but as practices that are used every day by organizational members in responding to forms of violence at work. Policies describe other anti-violence practices (e.g., investigations) and how they are carried out; therefore, they are also a learning tool.

Methods: Gathering Data Through Participant Conversations and Textual Analysis

Methods are the “tools or techniques that you use to actually gather data” (Wilson, 2008, p. 39). For my study, I used participant conversations (interviews), textual analysis, and a fieldwork journal. While I discuss participant conversations and textual analysis in separate sections, the collection of data did not proceed in a linear way. Conversations with participants and the collection of texts occurred simultaneously. I was comfortable with the idea of methods as eclectic and evolving as I proceeded through the research process.

Participant Conversations

Ethnographic studies typically involve the use of unstructured or in-depth interviews (Brewer, 2000) which Burgess (1984) refers to as “conversations with a purpose” (p. 102). Feminist qualitative researchers draw on this research tradition and recognize the power dynamics involved in all research, in particular within the researcher/researched relationship (DeVault & Gross, 2012). While I had a purpose entering into each of the conversations with participants, I preferred the unstructured, flexible, in-depth interviews. Limiting the boundaries set around our conversations allowed richer data to emerge. During conversations with participants, I shared my observations, emerging themes, and my reflections, while constantly being attentive to confidentiality and anonymity of participants (Eisenhardt, 2002). This allowed me to elaborate and clarify any questions I had (e.g., terminology used, references to procedures or areas of the organization that I was unfamiliar with), and delve more deeply into the common themes that were emerging, contributing to the overlapping of data collection and analysis during the fieldwork process. This sharing of emerging themes built trust with participants, brought the participants more deeply into the research process, and made it more comfortable to discuss a difficult topic like violence. This flexibility in the data collection process is key for theory-building research (Eisenhardt, 2002). For feminist researchers, reciprocity goes beyond the relation between researched and researcher to the involvement of participants in the “construction and validation of knowledge” (Lather, 1991, as cited in Kimpson, 2005, p. 82). The unstructured conversation format for the collection of data and the sharing of emerging themes with participants provided a degree of reciprocity.

All conversations took place in person at a location of the participants’ choice. All, except for one participant (we met in a local coffee shop), chose to conduct our conversations in their offices. This was also an advantage for me. As the researcher, I was able to become familiar with participants’ work environments. Often, participants generously pulled out documents from their files or desks to share with me. Conversations were audio recorded with permission, except for one conversation during which I took extensive notes.

Due to the relatively small size of this group, I chose to have individual conversations as opposed to focus groups. Conducting research within a particular unit of an organization, where participants know each other well, presents particular dilemmas related to confidentiality and anonymity at each stage of the research process, including analysis and write-up. I was extremely careful in not including details of participant conversations and stories that might identify them to fellow committee members and others within the organization at large. For this same reason, I use gender-neutral pseudonyms (e.g., Alex, Jamie, Jess) and plural pronouns such as “they” or “their.” While ethnographies usually contain “thick descriptions,” this is not always possible in organizational ethnographies for these same reasons. Describing people, their specific positions within the organization, relationships, departments, situations, and events in detail could have compromised participants’ confidentiality and anonymity.

Textual Analysis

I collected a multitude of documents prior to (using the Internet) and during fieldwork. These included an array of policies and education and training materials which then became the focus of my analysis. Additional informative documents included, for example, the Hospital’s organizational chart, Corporate Strategy, Code of Ethical Conduct (which includes Mission, Vision, and Value statements), Declaration of Patient Values, the Collective Agreement between the Ontario Public Services Employees Union and the Hospital, various strategy and framework documents, internal newsletter articles, and public news articles. In these documents, I searched for webs of practices, actors, and links to other documents (Gherardi, 2012; Prior, 2003). Although I did not use all collected documents explicitly in the analysis, they did provide me with a richer context in which the organization and its practices are embedded. As per Hammersley and Atkinson (2007), “documents can provide information about the settings being studied, or about their wider context, and particularly about key figures or organizations” (p. 122). The documents were analyzed at different stages throughout the research process. Policies and education and training related documents were analyzed again in depth during the final analysis stage. Documents were analyzed together with data from participant conversations. These data allowed me to explore what may not be immediately explicated from within the document itself. This process allows the document to become more than an inert text. Of key interest to me was participants’ experience with the documents and the meanings the documents held for them.

Maintaining the research question constantly at the forefront, I explored ways in which documents conceptualized bullying. Specifically, I was interested in how the Hospital was attempting to shift away from bullying as an individualized construct. I was less interested in the actual wording of definitions of bullying than the context in which the definition of workplace bullying is placed. This context comprises the policy itself and the broader structural influences that shape the policy (e.g., legislation).

Fieldwork Journal

During the entire research process, I kept a fieldwork journal (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007): a separate notebook in which I recorded emerging themes during and after conversations with participants, my (re)listening to audio recordings of conversations, (re)reading of transcripts, reading documents, as well as my own observations, reflections, and internal reactions. Following Eisenhardt’s (2002) advice, I retained a distinction between these different types of recordings in my notes. There are many non-verbal aspects of a conversation that are important to document and may not be captured in the audio recordings and transcription process. Of particular note in my conversations with participants is the discomfort and struggle when speaking about violence. My aim was to bring these struggles to light and the process to understand violence as an ongoing one. While I call this a fieldwork journal, in actuality, I used it during all phases of the research process, inside and outside the actual field. Maintaining detailed field notes facilitated the continuous and overlapping process of data collection and data analysis (Eisenhardt, 2002). The fieldwork journal also allowed me to organize details of the fieldwork, for example, the data collected, keep track of the participants with whom I had spoken, which conversations where transcribed, assign pseudonyms, and record the origins of documents collected.

Writing of our own experiences is one way to position ourselves as researchers within the research. Reflexivity is a necessity in the inquiry process and journaling its main tool. Maintaining a fieldwork journal is one way in which I attempted to maintain self-awareness. Regular meetings and discussions with my thesis supervisor and fellow researchers in a thesis student support group were other ways. As inquirer, I do not have to distance myself from my inquiry. Quite the opposite! I have to find my place within the inquiry. Personal feelings, reflections, and involvement can be of analytic significance (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). They are not recorded for their own sake, but in order to become aware of how these may influence the social relationships we engage in during fieldwork and our choices during the analysis phase of the research (e.g., which emergent themes are given importance or excluded), as well as any limitations on data collection (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). The interesting challenge as a researcher was simultaneously holding who I am as a researcher, my worldview, and what I was finding in the data. There was no part of this research in which I did not interrogate my own experiences of violence and meaning-making process, and how this could potentially influence all aspects of the research process from data collection, to analysis, to writing. This was particularly important as the conceptualization of violence is at the heart of this study.

Finding an Organization and Gaining Access

For this study, I searched for an organization that is attempting to take up the concept of workplace bullying differently and traced how this shapes the practices they have adopted. My first major challenge was how and where to find such an organization for my study. I realized that, as texts, organizational policies would provide me with insight into how organizations were thinking and acting (practices) with regards to workplace bullying. Here is a strong influence of IE and the important role of texts. I spent a lot of time on the Internet reading policies. I focused on organizations within the healthcare and education sectors as research shows that these two sectors have a high prevalence of workplace bullying, and other forms of violence as well. I also focused on organizations in Canada where little research has been done.

The selection of the healthcare organization, which I refer to as the Hospital in this study, as a suitable site was based primarily on a preliminary analysis of their policy with regard to workplace violence and bullying and an exploratory conversation with the Director of the Office. Two salient features of the Hospital’s policy contributed to my selection of this organization as a site for this research: the presence of the organization within the policy and the goal of systemic change. These two key features of the policy that recognize the power relations that exist in all organizations allow the Hospital to acknowledge the importance of and the attempt to bring about systemic change.

Once I found the organization for my study, I arranged an exploratory conversation with the Director of the Office. We discussed the research project, its goals, and the possibility of doing the fieldwork in the Hospital. As requested, I submitted a summary of my research proposal to the Director of the Office who obtained formal approval by the Senior VP, Strategy and Organizational Development, of which the Office is a part. It was important that the summary of the research described the fieldwork in detail, including who was to participate, the duration of conversations, and examples of the types of documents (texts) to be collected. The duration of conversations was an important consideration in the approval of the study. Therefore, I had to balance the time constraints within the busy workdays of participants with my need as a researcher to have sufficient time to enter into deeper conversations. While classical ethnographic studies involve extensive time in the field coupled with participant observations, this is not always possible in contemporary organizations. Therefore, organizational ethnographers need to be constantly open to flexibility and to rethinking their strategy throughout the entire research process. My focus in this study is the conceptualization of workplace bullying, and violence in general, from the perspective of participants; therefore, I do not believe that repeated observations in the field were necessary, nor did their absence from the research design compromise the study. Having said this, however, I did find it extremely interesting and helpful (e.g., in forming relationships with participants) attending various events in the Hospital. For example, I participated in a Committee meeting, a lunch-and-learn event, and attended a 2-day training session on domestic violence in the workplace. Following a conversation, a participant enthusiastically invited me for a tour of their work area. Occasions like this can occur quite serendipitously during fieldwork.

Once my study was approved, I was invited by the Director of the Office to participate in a Committee meeting (held monthly) and was given the opportunity to meet the members and present myself and the study. It was also an opportunity for members of the Committee to ask questions or make comments, which many of the members did. I informed the Committee members that they would be receiving correspondence directly from me via email in order to set up a date, time, and location of their convenience for our conversations. I also spoke briefly regarding confidentiality during our conversations. This process facilitated the recruitment process and participation rate.

Several days following the committee meeting, the Director of the Office sent out an email on my behalf to begin the process of scheduling conversations with participants. The email referred back to the committee meeting and my brief presentation and included information regarding the expected duration of the conversations, assurances of confidentiality, and the possibility of withdrawal at any time during a conversation. Participants were also informed that they would receive a more in-depth description of the study at the beginning of our conversations and would be required to sign a consent form.

Shortly after my attendance at the meeting, I was provided with a list of all the Committee members’ names and email addresses. I contacted each of the participants individually via email and began the process of scheduling appointments for our conversations. I attached a brief description of the study to the email as well. Later during the recruitment process and in conversations with participants, it became apparent that the provision of additional information contributed to the comfort level of participants. Although my study did not entail the exploration of personal experiences of violence, it is a topic that is uncomfortable for many to talk about. Because the form of the conversations where open, however, several participants did share experiences of violence, personal and workplace-related. As a researcher, I had already considered the possibility of this occurring and was attentive to the well-being of participants, as well as my own. Journaling immediately following each conversation helped in this regard.

My professional experience within organizations, in particular related to organizational development, was invaluable in gaining access to the organization, developing relationships, and many other aspects of the fieldwork, including scheduling meetings with participants and understanding many aspects of organizational worlds. IE has taught me, however, to be attentive to how my experience within organizations could contribute to my de-sensitization to institutional discourse, or what Smith (2005) calls “institutional capture.” That is, when both the participant and the researcher are familiar with institutional discourse, much can be taken for granted and the researcher can easily lose touch with the participant’s knowledge which emerges from their experiences and miss clues as to how this experience is hooked into and coordinated by institutional practices and processes.

A key lesson for me as a researcher was that the function of methods is not restricted solely to the collection of data. Rather, viewing methodologies and methods as linked provides us with clues into how we can solve challenges throughout the research process.

Conclusion: Weaving Methodologies Throughout the Research Process

As my narrative shows, every step of my research process, from design through to write-up, was consistently guided by two primary elements: the research question and the chosen methodologies. Conducting qualitative research within contemporary organizations presents particular challenges and ethical considerations; however, if as researchers we are committed to becoming intimately knowledgeable of the central tenets and theory of the methodologies we choose, we can be guided by them and allow ourselves the flexibility and openness to craft the research process as we progress, as well as be comfortable with the “messiness” and often unpredictability of the research process.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • What are the principle aims of organizational ethnography?
  • In my doctoral thesis, I discuss the important role of texts in institutional ethnography (IE) and how they helped me to find an organization for my study. What are some of the reasons why texts are key in IE?
  • How did practice-based studies allow me to view organizational practices differently?
  • In his case, I briefly discussed ways in which I attempted to make participants comfortable talking about a difficult topic like violence. List other strategies you think I could have used before and during interviews.
  • What are some of the possible differences between a traditional ethnography and an organizational ethnography?
  • As researchers, we are responsible for maintaining the confidentiality and anonymity of our participants. What are some of the ways in which I achieved this in my study?

Further Reading

Ahmed, S. (2007). “You end up doing the document rather than doing the doing”: Diversity, race equity and the politics of documentations. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30, 590609. doi:
Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. doi:
Buchanan, D. A., & Bryman, A. (Eds.). (2009). The SAGE handbook of organizational research methods. London, England: SAGE.
Hunter, S. (2008). Living documents: A feminist psychosocial approach to the relational politics of policy documentation. Critical Social Policy, 28, 506528. doi:
Kyriakidou, O., & Özbilgin, M. F. (Eds.). (2006). Relational perspectives in organizational studies: A research companion. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. doi:
Prasad, A., & Prasad, P. (2002). The coming of age of interpretive organizational research. Organizational Research Methods, 5, 411. doi:


Berlingieri, A. (2015). Workplace bullying: Exploring an emerging framework. Work, Employment and Society, 29, 342353. doi:
Brewer, J. D. (2000). Ethnography: Understanding social research. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
Burgess, R. (1984). In the field. London, England: Routledge.
Campbell, M., & Gregor, F. (2002). Mapping social relations: A primer in doing institutional ethnography. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Garamond Press.
DeVault, M. L., & Gross, G. (2012). Feminist qualitative interviewing. In S. N. Hesse-Biber (Ed.), Handbook of feminist research: Theory and practice (
2nd ed.
, pp. 206236). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Eisenhardt, K. M. (2002). Building theories from case study research. In A. M. Huberman & M. B. Miles (Eds.), The qualitative researcher’s companion (pp. 436). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. doi:
Fine, G. A., Morrill, C., & Surianarain, S. (2009). Ethnography in organizational settings. In D. A. Buchanan & A. Bryman (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational research methods (pp. 602619). London, England: SAGE.
Gherardi, S. (2012). How to conduct a practise-based study: Problems and methods. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice (
3rd ed.
). London, England: Routledge.
Kimpson, S. A. (2005). Stepping off the road: A narrative (of) inquiry. In L. Brown & S. Strega (Eds.), Research as resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and anti-oppressive approaches (pp. 7396). Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Scholars Press.
Macdonald, M. E. (2014, April 15). Theory in, theory out? Reflection on theory building in a palliative care project (CQ Speaker Series). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Centre for Critical Qualitative Health Research, University of Toronto.
Prior, L. (2003). Using documents in social research: Introducing qualitative methods. London, England: SAGE.
Rosen, M. (2000). Turning words, spinning worlds: Chapters in organizational ethnography. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Harwood Academic Publishers.
Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Van Maanen, J. (1979). The fact of fiction in organizational ethnography. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 539550. doi:
Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.
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