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Beyond a naturally occurring ethnography: the work‐based researcher

Anita Walsh (Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK)

Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning

ISSN: 2042-3896

Article publication date: 1 January 2011




The purpose of this paper is to explore the contrast between the approach to research taken by academic ethnographers and that taken by work‐based researchers. Van Manen claims that “a good ethnographer describes a cultural reality in such a way that a non‐member of the culture could ‘pass as an insider’ if he or she had internalized the cultural features of the particular setting”. In order to achieve this level of familiarity with a context, ethnographers spend considerable amounts of time embedded in the culture which they are studying – “being there” is seen as fundamental to effective research.


The paper provides a reflection and deliberation on personal experience.


The dominance of the academic disciplines and the model of research in higher education which considers the doctoral student as a novice researcher problematises the role of the work‐based researcher. It calls into question the extent to which valid research can be undertaken by practitioners in the workplace.

Research limitations/implications

Practitioner researchers, research their practice and/or context. These researchers are not novices – they are usually senior practising professionals who are very familiar with the organisational and occupational culture in their workplace. However, in contrast to academic researchers, usually their intention is not to provide an ethnographic account of it. They are concerned to address issues and/or achieve changes/developments in practice in order to improve the functioning of their organisation.


The paper reviews the function of insider researchers.



Walsh, A. (2011), "Beyond a naturally occurring ethnography: the work‐based researcher", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 38-51.



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Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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