Excursions in administrative ethnography

Karen Boll (Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark)
Roderick A.W. Rhodes (Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 13 July 2015



Boll, K. and Rhodes, R.A.W. (2015), "Excursions in administrative ethnography", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 4 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOE-05-2015-0013



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Excursions in administrative ethnography

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Volume 4, Issue 2.

Excursions in administrative ethnography

Perhaps the greatest contribution the ethnographic paradigm can make to organisation and management studies is to challenge the highly influential “KISS” (Keep it simple stupid) paradigm found in the best-selling business books (Bate, 1997, p. 1153).

The anxiety and elation of fieldwork

Anyone doing fieldwork knows the anxiety as you set off into the field. Will your informants be welcoming, friendly or slightly suspicious? Will there be data on your topic? Will something unexpected happen? What concerns your informants? Will it be awkward? You worry about all this and more. In addition, once you start the fieldwork you wonder where you should sit or stand in the room with your pen and notepad. How many notes should you take? Does your pen scratch as you write? You wonder if you can take photos or tape conversations. You worry that your presence disturbs your informants and they behave differently. Indeed, there is so much to worry about that you worry you are worrying too much.

Then, when you are there, when the informants are there, when the conversations take place, when it all happens before your eyes, then you can start to feel humble. You are grateful that you are allowed to be there, experiencing what happens in the moment. In the evening, you think about the day’s events. You begin to feel inadequate. What was it that she said to me in the car? Why did they react in that way? Will it be possible to attend more of these meetings? Was that information confidential? What did I miss? You worry about specific individuals. Did she like me? Did I make a good impression? Will she let me shadow her again? Ethnographers know all these feelings. Fieldwork churns around in the head. You get tired – fieldwork is a physical and emotional experience. Also, you get “curiouser and curiouser”. You want to know more. There is a rush of excitement as you await your next surprise.

Then, you leave the field. You leave your new acquaintances knowing they must become strangers in your head. You look at your copious fieldwork notes and think, “how will I ever make sense of this?”. You write drafts searching for a way of telling your stories from the field. Your colleagues may not like it. Your informants claim you have misunderstood. You try again. There is the day that just disappears as you get into the zone for writing. One day, you do not quite know how, it is there sitting on your desk – a manuscript. You stroke it. You made it. Ethnographic fieldwork may give rise to much anxiety, but there is also the elation of surprises in the field and getting your stories down on paper.

Yet these highs and lows are unknown to some colleagues because, especially in political science in general and public administration in particular, there is little fieldwork. For example, Auyero and Joseph (2007, p. 2) examined 1,000 articles published in the American Journal of Political Science and the American Political Science Review between 1996 and 2005. They found that “only one article relies on ethnography as a data-production technique”. The dominant research idiom of much present-day political science in Britain and America is rooted in rational choice theory and quantitative studies. This special issue is a step to spreading ethnographic research from its heartland in anthropology and sociology to sister disciplines in the social sciences. Its origins lie in a workshop on Administrative Ethnography held at the Copenhagen Business School, 10-12 April 2014. Totally, 15 participants from five countries presented different examples of administrative ethnography.

The workshop did not espouse any specific theory. Rather, we welcomed theoretical diversity, and that is reflected in the selected papers. Nor did we have a normative agenda. We were not for or against any of the much discussed tendencies in public administration such as new public management (NPM), new public governance (NPG), collaborative governance or whatever fashion currently rules. We take our epigram seriously. We avoid KISS and try to convey insights into the workings of public administration and policy without resorting to such broad labels or trite “one-size-fits-all” reformism. Perhaps we are suffering from “label fatigue”. We fear such labelling can predetermine what is at stake in public administration, hindering unstructured soaking, curiosity and openness. In this Special Issue, we focus on what happens in practice when civil servants perform their daily work. None of the papers are “immersed” in contextual descriptions of modernisation, reforms, regimes of governance and the like. Instead, they jump right into what is at stake in everyday work.

Genre blurring

A key characteristic of the initial workshop was “genre blurring” (Geertz, 1983, p. 21); that is, disciplines learning from one another. The participants came from political science, organisation studies and anthropology. Normally, political science has little to do with these other fields, although historically organisation studies influenced public administration. Deliberately, we combined communities of academic practice that are normally seen as distinct. Our aim was to surmount the “double absence” of politics in ethnographic literature and of ethnography in the study of politics’ (Auyero and Joseph, 2007, p. 2, emphasis in the original).

There are a few exceptions to this general assessment. There is a handful of qualitative and ethnographic studies of public sector organisations by students of public administration (Glennerster et al., 1983; Hall et al., 2000; Heclo and Wildavsky, 1974; Kaufman, 1960, 1981; Maynard-Moody and Musheno, 2003; Rhodes, 2011; Rhodes et al., 2007; Walker, 1961). These studies all show the value of qualitative and ethnographic studies; they provide a clearer understanding of civil servants’ beliefs and practices. Furthermore, these studies have been pivotal in developing interpretive political science as a distinct approach challenging naturalistic explanations of the political world (see Bevir and Rhodes, 2015). As Corbett and Boswell observe in their paper, interpretive political science has begun to look outside mainstream political science for theoretical and methodological inspiration.

In sharp contrast, organisation studies have a much deeper rooted tradition of using ethnography to study organisations (Bate, 1997; Yanow et al., 2012). It began with the pioneering Hawthorne studies (Mayo, 1945; Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1934) and now encompasses many present-day ethnographic studies of organisations (Boll, 2014a, b; Czarniawska, 2012; Neyland, 2007; Rouleau et al., 2014; Schatz, 2009; Schwartzman, 1993; Ybema et al., 2009). These studies speak to ethnography in organisation studies as a growing field, as does the launch of the Journal of Organisational Ethnography. Yet ethnography needs nurturing, recognition and promotion. In the social sciences more generally, it is under threat. For example, Taylor (2014) argued ethnography was “endangered” because it took a long time, was ethically sensitive and had difficulty in securing funds. In addition, he emphasised the harmful effects of the performance assessment regime to which universities in the UK were subjected:

[…] it is difficult to believe that many academic researchers would choose to embark on a three-year qualitative study when they could gain all the REF credit they needed by placing three short articles in peer-reviewed journals (Taylor, 2014).

All our authors confronted the problems of time, ethics and money if not the managerial pressures of the UK higher education system. Encouragingly, many are at the start of their academic careers. So, maybe, Taylor is too pessimistic. This Special Issue shows there is a new generation of ethnographers coming through.

Organisational ethnography covers all kinds of organisation – voluntary organisations, private corporations, non-governmental organisations, religious organisations, indeed any organisation. In this Special Issue, we narrow the scope to public sector organisations in the developed world. We use ethnography to study the public bureau, the state office, governance, policy or simply the public administration as we experience it as citizens in our everyday lives. Hence, while the ethnographies included in this Special Issue focus on distinct “offices”, we have a bigger agenda. We seek to show that political science, and especially public administration, can gain much from using ethnography. We seek to bring together two fields of enquiry, and answer the question of what political scientists and students of public administration can learn from organisational ethnography when studying public administration and public policy.

Fieldwork and methods

There are four papers based on fieldwork and two methodological papers in this issue. The fieldwork papers share several features. First, they are based on “being there” in the field. The authors followed public servants in their daily work. They interviewed them and observed their interactions with clients, customers, users and citizenry at large. Second, the fieldwork focuses specifically on public sector organisations. Third, all the papers recover the stories of street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1980/2010). They narrate how these civil servants on the front line navigate their daily work. In Bate’s (1997) introduction to organisational anthropology, he writes that probably more people are writing about organisational ethnography than actually doing it (p. 1150). Our authors do it.

The first paper is Nina Holm Vohnsen’s study of a municipality’s administration of sickness benefit legislation. This municipality was enroled in the local implementation of a broader national randomized controlled trial called Active – Back Sooner. Holm Vohnsen studies the way in which implementing this policy happened in the municipality. She links the findings from this study to several oft-cited reasons for implementation going wrong. The most common reason is the mismatch or antagonistic relations between street-level worker’s decisions and priorities, and policy-makers’ or administrators’ directives and priorities. Holm Vohnsen challenges this explanation by pointing out that planning and implementation are concurrent processes and that “local knowledge and practice” are dynamic perspectives that individuals might take up in certain situations. Holm Vohnsen’s study shows that when an ethnographer pays attention to what happens at meetings, in interactions and conversations, then new understandings of these practices can occur. These understandings challenge conventional explanations of why implementation “fails”.

The second paper is Sanne Frandsen’s autoethnography of her entry and exit from fieldwork in a European national rail service. On the one hand this paper is empirical. It is a study of the rising paranoia that comes to characterise this organisation. We learn about the inner workings and power structures between the actors involved (particularly the employees, the union and the management). On the other hand, the paper is methodological because Frandsen uses autoethnography to reflect on how she gained access, tried to build trusting relations, and started to develop a touch of paranoia herself as the fieldwork and its associated challenges grew. Frandsen gives a naked account of her worries and problems. Her account is important because it gives voice to challenges either absent or suppressed in mainstream analysis where the problems of data collection are downplayed and the emphasis falls on presenting data.

The third paper is Anja Svejgaard Pors’ study of e-governance in a municipality-based Citizen Service Centre. Svejgaard Pors’ paper provides detailed descriptions of how service providers guide, prompt and produce learning for citizens. These citizens need to navigate municipal services in an era where much information for the public is digitalised. Bate (1997) writes that what characterises good ethnographic accounts is that the text becomes a window rather than a page (p. 1163). This applies to Svejgaard Pors’ paper – the interactions and conversations at the citizen service centre are vividly recounted. We know in concrete terms about the deskilling of the service providers and the intensive informality that now characterises their relations with the citizens. Importantly, this portrait of the effects of digitisation provides a nuanced account of what happens to the bureaucratic encounter in the digital era. Such effects on street-level encounters are rarely researched, and, possibly more important, it debunks the excessively optimistic view of what digitisation can accomplish.

The final empirical paper is by Karen Boll who studied tax inspectors’ reasoning about tax evasion. Boll followed a team of tax inspectors, from their initial desk research, to field audits that investigate and disclose tax evasion. Her study focuses on the tax inspectors’ discretion; when and why they decide whether tax evasion has taken place. She shows that the reasoning is performed on a case-by-case, pragmatic basis in which cases are judged on the facts. They try to make the correct decision in the given, specific situation. Also, she highlights the constraints and opportunities that shape their work. The paper demonstrates the merit of an ethnographic approach to public administration, and especially to tax administration, because it contradicts common stereotypes. The public often sees bureaucrats and tax inspectors as “rule-abiding, paper-pushing administrators”. Even much academic analysis portrays taxation as a rule-bound field, easy prey for black letter law and formalist analysis. In sharp contrast, this paper demolishes the stereotype and shows that the tax inspectors administer rules with discretion, and that they engage in a constant professional balancing act about what to do in specific cases to be fair-minded.

The last two papers in the Special Issue propose methodological innovations for administrative ethnography. Rhodes and Tiernan discuss how to develop a different way of “being there” when a researcher is denied access to political elites and top civil servants who often operate in a private web of relations. Rhodes and Tiernan argue that focus groups are another way of “being there” and a way of side-stepping the problems of access and secrecy. The argument is illustrated with a discussion of the work of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (CoS) in Australia. The focus groups with CoS provided knowledge of their beliefs and practices. Ethnographic insights were provided through the shared narratives of the CoS about what they were doing, what prime ministers needed, and how they worked. Scholars in public administration will all too often be denied access to certain “elites”. In such situations, focus groups can fruitfully be employed as a different way of “being there”.

The last paper by Corbett and Boswell presents broad reflections on navigating between political science, ethnography and interpretive policy analysis when doing ethnographic research. They suggest that ethnography is understood, used and judged differently by these disciplines. The authors illustrate their argument with a discussion of the impressionistic nature of interpreting and reporting fieldwork. In other words, ethnographers narrate a stylised, partial and fleeting impression of a phenomenon under study. Within mainstream political science such an admission would be seen as “far-fetched” and “career limiting”. Within interpretive policy analysis the reaction is a “hostile critique bordering on betrayal”. For anthropologists and other researchers with a cultural studies or organisation studies background, the claim that thick descriptions are impressionistic would seem obvious if not banal. Their paper fits this Special Issue precisely because it explores the differences between the core disciplines of political science and public administration, and organisation studies and ethnography.

The advantages of ethnography

In our choice of epigram, we are suggesting that administrative ethnography can provide nuanced accounts that go beneath the surface of the reform maxims of NPM, NPG or other current fashions. Although the journal format limits lengthy fieldwork descriptions, we believe that all the authors succeed in making their papers “windows” into what happens in public administration, rather than just “pages” (e.g. Bate, 1997). They succeed in providing exhaustive accounts of “life” in public administration.

“Thick descriptions” are well-established tools in the social sciences, valuable both in their own right and as a corrective to approaches that read off beliefs from social structure. It is not the task of this introduction to provide a general discussion of the pros and cons of observational fieldwork or of the issues in ethnography (for a survey see Rhodes, 2015). Rather our task is to show that the several papers identify what we can learn from ethnography that we would not learn using more conventional methods to study public administration and policy. So, we itemise the several advantages of ethnography over other methods and illustrate each point with examples drawn from the papers in the Special Issue.

Ethnography enables gathering of data not accessible with other methods

This point is highlighted in Rhodes and Tiernan’s paper on the ethnographic focus group. This method gave them access to the work of an elite group; the Australian Prime Ministers’ CoS. Similarly, there was no other way for Frandsen to grasp the paranoia of the European national rail service without being there. Both of these studies show that ethnography as focus groups and as autoethnography are successful ways to identify key individuals and core processes. It may be obvious but different methods provide different and new data. The point is worth emphasising for students of public administration and public policy because ethnography allows us to hear and to see what goes on every day in public offices.

Ethnography disaggregates organisations and helps us to see inside “the black box” and understand the internal processes of groups and organisations

We think implementation goes wrong because there is a mismatch between street-level workers’ decisions and policy-makers’ directives. We think tax inspectors are “rule-abiding, paper-pushing administrators, working in a strictly rule-bound field”. Both Holm Vohnsen and Boll’s studies show that this stereotypical understanding of how work gets done can be challenged. They go inside the black box of public administration and show there are many and varied internal processes enacted by the public officials. Both of these studies allow the reader to get below and behind the “official” surface, providing inside knowledge, texture and nuances. We get richness as well as depth.

Ethnography recovers beliefs and practices of actors and may result in moments of epiphany

Svejgaard Pors not only describes the challenges to the existing tasks, skills and workloads of service providers but she also unearths the meaning of their actions, and we learn about their everyday work practices. She provides an authenticity that can only come from the main characters involved in the work. Svejgaard Pors’ paper also provides a moment of epiphany. Her analysis radically changes our view on what e-governance in a municipality does to the service encounter by showing the unexpected effects of digitisation for the workforce.

Ethnography gives voice to groups all too often ignored

Frandsen’s study is a clear illustration of the point. She shows that the paranoia stems from train conductors who feel that they are being ignored or misrepresented both by the media and the management. Frandsen’s account gives voice to this “forgotten” group. We get a nuanced account of how and why they developed a paranoid view. By contrast, Rhodes and Tiernan’s study illustrate this point, not for a forgotten group, but for a secret one. We hear the voices of Prime Ministers’ CoS for the first time.

Ethnographers must confront the challenges of multiple research roles and idiographic data

The usual methodological caveats found in standard positivistic research reports are relatively minor when compared to the frailty of the ethnographic research enterprise. We are not the detached observer of naturalist social science. Instead, we enact many and conflicting roles. Cleaning a quantitative data set is simple compared to the intricacies of negotiating and renegotiating access. The limits to our data are as visible as they are challenging.

There is no agreement on the role of the ethnographer. van Maanen (1978, pp. 345-346) describes his relationship with the police he was observing as: “a cop buff, a writer of books, an intruder, a student, a survey researcher, a management specialist, a friend, an ally, an asshole, a historian, a recruit and so on”. He was “part spy, part voyeur, part fan and part member”. Ethnography can serve many masters, and a key question is for whom is the research being done. The contributions by Rhodes and Tiernan, Frandsen, and Corbett and Boswell discuss the challenges posed by conflicting roles and talk frankly about these challenges.

The idiographic character of ethnographic fieldwork is invariably seen as a weakness. It is claimed we cannot generalise. Of course what we cannot do is to make statistical generalisation, but we can make general statements from a case. The authors of the empirical papers in this Special Issue provide rich ethnographic descriptions, and they make general statements. But they are careful. They believe that “small facts speak to large issues” and local knowledge “is substantive, somebody’s, and will do for the moment” (Geertz, 1973, 2001, p. 3, 140). The emphasis falls on complex specificity in context (Wolcott, 1995, p. 174). Our contributors refrain from universalising explanations and focus instead on the much-needed details of how street-level bureaucrats go about doing their everyday work.

Moving on

This Special Issue has an agenda. It is dedicated to showing that political science and especially public administration can learn from ethnography. It is a tool for “edification” (Rorty, 1980, p. 360) it provides new insights into how the public sector works. We believe that these papers show that, whatever ethnographic tools are used by “interpretive political ethnographers”, these scholars are united by their quest to recover meanings, beliefs and practices of civil servants as these conduct their daily tasks. Recovering meaning is the key to what ethnography adds to political science and public administration. It is absent from most mainstream political science. We acknowledge there exist many forms of ethnography and there are many ways to recover the beliefs and practices of everyday life. Also, we know that fieldwork only ever uncovers partial truths and that our knowledge is always provisional. Yet, the authors of all these papers strive to develop narratives that rely on extensive empirical evidence, and that are accurate, comprehensive and consistent. As professional strangers to the practices we observe, we need to “be aware” of how we are shaping the research both in the field and as we write our analyses. We need to be self-conscious practitioners of a literary craft that encompasses many types of textual and analytical experimentation.

After reading the contributions in this Special Issue, we hope readers will agree that at least we have succeeded in combining ethnography and public administration and public policy. We are convinced that, in all its many guises, ethnography is an essential part of the toolkit for the student of public administration and public policy. There is no substitute for being there. Ethnography is a new way of moving on in public administration to discover the unknown and forgotten in public offices. We hope this short collection shows not only the variety of tools available but also the insights that can be delivered when one is up close and personal. If the enterprise has its anxieties, what we remember is the elation of working in the field and of finding ways to tell and analyse different versions of other people’s everyday work.

Dr Karen Boll, Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark, and

Professor Roderick A.W. Rhodes, Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK


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About the Guest Editors

Dr Karen Boll is an Ethnologist and Organisation Scholar who specialises in Public Administration. She is studying tax administration and is developing ethnography as a methodology to study taxation processes and changing forms of state regulation. Her work has been published in Taxation: A Fieldwork Research Handbook (Routledge, 2012); Accounting, Organisation and Society; and Critical Perspectives on Accounting. Dr Karen Boll is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: mailto:kbo.ioa@cbs.dk

Roderick A.W. Rhodes is Professor of Government at the University of Southampton (UK). He is the author or editor of some 38 books including recently: (with Anne Tiernan) Lessons of Governing (Melbourne University Press, 2014); and Everyday Life in British Government (Oxford University Press, 2011, paperback edition 2015). He is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in both Australia and the UK.

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