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“Walking the line”: an at-home ethnography of bureaucracy

Markus Gottwald (Institute for Employment Research (IAB), Nuremberg, Germany) (Institute of Sociology, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Nuremberg, Germany)
Frank Sowa (Institute for Employment Research (IAB), Nuremberg, Germany) (University of Applied Sciences Georg Simon Ohm Nuremberg, Nuremberg, Germany)
Ronald Staples (Institute of Sociology, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Erlangen, Germany)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 3 April 2018




The purpose of this paper is to present a specific case of at-home ethnography, or insider research: The German Public Employment Service (BA) commissioned its own research institute (Institute for Employment Research (Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung)) to evaluate the daily implementation of its core management instruments (target management and controlling). The aim of the paper is to explain the challenges faced by the ethnographers and to reflect on them methodologically.


At-home ethnography/insider research.


In the paper, it is argued to what extent conducting at-home ethnography, or insider research, is like “Walking the Line” – to paraphrase Johnny Cash. When examining a management instrument that is highly contested on the micropolitical level, the researchers have to navigate their way through different interests with regard to advice and support, and become micropoliticians in their own interest at the same time in order to maintain scientific autonomy. The ethnographers are deeply enmeshed in the micropolitical dynamics of their field, which gives rise to the question of how they can distance themselves in this situation. To this effect, they develop the argument that distancing is not so much about seeing what is familiar in a new light, as is mostly suggested in the literature, than about alienating a familiar research environment in order to avoid a bureaucratically contingent othering. It is shown what constitutes a bureaucratically contingent othering and how it should be met by an othering of the bureaucracy. Conclusions are drawn from this with regard to the advice and support required for the bureaucracy and concerning the methods debate surrounding insider research in general.


The paper contributes to the method debate with regard to at-home ethnography, or insider research, and particularly addresses organisational researchers and practitioners facing similar challenges when conducting ethnographic research in their own organisation.



This manuscript has benefited from professional English language editing by Rachel Teear. The authors would like to thank Sandra Grimminger for examining the references. The authors thank goes also to the reviewers and the editors of JOE for suggestions and impulses. The paper is based on ongoing research funded by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) in Nuremberg. The funder has had no part in the production of this paper.


Gottwald, M., Sowa, F. and Staples, R. (2018), "“Walking the line”: an at-home ethnography of bureaucracy", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 87-102.



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