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Testing relevance and applicability: reflections on organizational anthropology

Mette Marie Vad Karsten (Department of Educational Anthropology, Aarhus University, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 3 February 2020

Issue publication date: 12 June 2020




Starting from the challenges and implications of doing organizational ethnography within the organization which the researcher is also employed by, the purpose of this paper is to reflect upon the idea of “passing the test” in relation to such ethnographic endeavor. The paper discusses how “collaboration” on projects and in product development processes with colleagues/informants is a precondition for passing “tests,” which unfolded as subtle, verbalized demands made by colleagues/informants during fieldwork.


Longitudinal anthropological fieldwork was carried out as part of an industrial PhD project, which investigates digitization as organizational, professional and social practices in the Danish construction industry. The fieldwork lasted on/off from April 2017 to December 2018. Various forms of participant observation and collaborative ethnographic methods were used during fieldwork.


The paper investigates how these “tests” focused on two key aspects: the relevance of anthropology in a profit-oriented, technical corporate organization; and the application of anthropological theories and ethnographic methodologies for the benefit of product development, usability studies and organizational change. It is argued that the tests were passed through collaborative engagements, where the author oscillated between positions as collegial insider and outside researcher for the dual benefit of both commercial interests and research interests.


The paper suggests that daring to collaborate and co-create products (as something different than texts) during organizational fieldwork for the benefit of both corporate and ethnographic interests offers strong possibilities for keeping ethnography relevant and applicable, passing tests in organizational settings and advancing ethnography’s impact in the world.



There are no conflicts of interest to disclose in relation to the author’s employment at the Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology. The author’s PhD studies have been funded by the Danish Innovation Fund, which has therefore indirectly funded the ethnographic research carried out in relation to the present paper.


Karsten, M.M.V. (2020), "Testing relevance and applicability: reflections on organizational anthropology", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 9 No. 2, pp. 159-172.



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