Methodology set of rituals


23 Mar 2015

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Unfortunately method is sometimes reduced to incantations or a set of rituals which are applied to data. Because the research object is complex due to its multi-dimensional characteristics it is not susceptible to exhaustive coverage. Therefore, method itself should investigate at a conceptual level and not simply applied in a mechanistic way. The methodology applied in this project is therefore not a recipe for research practice. The research requires a qualitative methodology rather than a quantitative and it will draw upon non-positivist insights like phenomenology and post-structuralist. Again the analysis is not based on statistics but employs semiotics and analysis of discourse. Through data collection and the development and elaboration on the theoretical embedding the findings will gain reliability, validity, as well as the ability to generalise. To distinguish this approach from statistical sampling Glaser and Strauss (1967) have termed this 'theoretical sampling'.

Grounding theory on the basis of observation and recounting experiences either social experiences or work practices requires a:

“... process of data collection for generating theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes, and analyses his data and decides what data to collect next and where to find them, in order to develop his theory as it emerges. The emerging theory, whether substantive or formal controls this process of data collection. The initial decisions for theoretical collection of data are based only on a general sociological perspective and on a general subject or problem area ...” (Glaser and Strauss: 45).

This requirement has impacted the decision for a qualitative methodology that leans towards institutional ethnography, associated with Dorothy E. Smith a social theorist from Canada. However, researching this project through institutional ethnography is primarily motivated by my views that objective knowledge used in the management of organisations does not pay tribute to the actual diverse circumstances of the lives of organisation's members and is thus not open to the causes and consequences of the social problems perpetuated by these circumstances. By using institutional ethnography I envision, implicitly, a more just world where knowledge is distributed more equally, and where it can be used a challenging force of the existing power relations in an organisation (De Vault, 2008). This method contributes to a distributive justice agenda by turning people's everyday lives into knowledge which seek to understand the existing power relations, and pointing to possible interventions in these relations.

In answering the questions “how does this happen as it does? How are these relations organised” (Campbell & Gregor, 2002, p. 7), institutional ethnography relies on the influence of social organisation literature the language theory of Bakhtin and critical theorists such as Marx and Foucault. The combination of the terms institutional and ethnography implies the need to move beyond local practices (Travers, 1996). It is an approach to empirical inquiry grounded by a materialist ontology - the daily world of people's actual activities - drawing from ethnomethodology that examines how everyday life experience or professional practice, or policy making is socially organised (Devault and McCoy, 2001 p. 751), and its consequences in contemporary societies. Social organisation is understood as local practices tied into activities occurring across time and space to form extended sequences of action or what are called “trans-local” relations (McCoy, 1998).

Institutions organise themselves formally by establish discourses of power and control which are disseminated through. These policies form the basis for further organisational documentation like contracts, accounting records, time sheets, job descriptions etc. Institutions develop conceptual practices:. These discursive, managerial, and professional forms of governance can be seen as the textual venues (such as legislation, management, administration etc.) where power is generated and perpetuated in society across multiple sites and are defined in institutional ethnography as ruling relations. Attempting to understand how the coordination of work processes, activities, and relations organised across space and time form part of the ruling apparatus in society (Grahame & Grahame, 2000) institutional ethnography examines how textual sequences coordinate consciousness, actions, and ruling relations what Smith calls "textually-mediated social organisation". Ruling relations are embedded in these textually-mediated social organisations, which make power less obvious to those being controlled. This notion of ruling relations draws on Marx and his conception of political economy arising from the activities of people (Smith, 1990: 94), but also on ethnomethodology, because it starts from the common-sense knowledge of people and how they talk about daily activities. It should be clear that institutional ethnography is not simply a methodology. Institutional ethnography is not a tool one can readily use at will without adopting the theoretical framework. Theory and orientation toward research are intricately entwined in institutional ethnography and cannot be divorced from one another.

In summary the aim of institutional ethnography is not the discovery of ‘meaning' or the description of social worlds as in traditional ethnography; the goal is to discover the forms of coordination and control that shape people's everyday lives and thus to look at the concrete actions of individuals as they function in relation to an institution using an ethnographic method, but more interested in the political contexts than other qualitative approaches. The method takes into account the texts and discourses that make up social life, but is actually more grounded in fieldwork study of texts that are actually used than most forms of discourse analysis (Eastwood & Devault 2001). So the research begins from the embodied experience of particular Citi staff and then set about systematically investigating the social and institutional determinants of that experience. In this way, the research produces knowledge for people, rather than about them, a kind of map of the work processes, discourses and social practices that generate specific forms of inequality, marginalisation and subordination.

The object of study in this research is not individual people or social groups but, rather, the social relations, especially institutional work processes and related modes of knowledge, that form the ground of Citi staff's lived experience, hence the almost perfect fit to apply institutional ethnography as the research approach, because one of the main purposes of institutional ethnography is to describe the coordination of the day to day activities in the organisation. The challenge is then to discover how ideology can be used to relate those activities to Citi's institutional imperatives. This method enables the exploration of power and politics within Citi, producing insights unavailable using other research methods. The co-ordinating Citi staff's activities is being investigated through the use of institutional texts, with the aim to clarify how these are “hooked up” - as Smith expresses it - hierarchically and horizontally beyond Citi's world. Using institutional ethnography my study identifies the language of meritocracy as an area of experience or everyday practice, and explicates the institutional processes shaping that experience (Campbell & Gregor 2002, p.59; DeVault & McCoy 2001, p.755).


Approaching text through institutional ethnography means deviating from the post-modern stance. It is not the discourse of the text that is the starting point nor is the focus on the subject who makes use of it. Contrary to post-modern approaches to social analysis that often treat texts as metaphors, the ‘body as text' or ‘society as text'; institutional ethnography investigates texts as active constituents of social relations. The idea of texts as constituents of organisations has been around in institutional theory for a long time:

  • DiMaggio and Powell (1983) argued that texts allow organisations to standardise by modelling themselves after similar organisations, which are perceived as legitimate or efficient.
  • For Taylor et al. (Taylor et al., 1996; Taylor and Van Every, 1993), actions in bureaucratic organisations are always text generating.
  • Hasslebladh and Kallinikos (2000: 703) assert that “no organisation could support its status as a formal system without the arsenal of verbal and numerical techniques through which its goals and operations are described, organised and controlled”.
  • More recently, Phillips et al. (2004: 635) have offered what they call a “discursive model of institutionalisation,” where “it is not action per se that provides the basis for institutionalisation but, rather, the texts that describe and communicate those actions. It is primarily through texts that information about actions is widely distributed and comes to influence the actions of others”.
  • The same authors (ibid.: 641) write that “discourses provide the socially constituted, self-regulating mechanisms that enact institutions and shape the actions that lead to the production of more texts. Thus, the discursive realm acts as the background against which current actions occur—enabling some actions and constraining others”.

Texts, in both their "material" and "symbolic aspect" form the "bridge between the everyday/every night local actualities of our living and the ruling relations" (Smith, 1999:7). The relations into whom the text and its discourses enter are investigated to discover the social activities that are generated. Symbolically, it is how text influences everyday life to co-ordinate social activities, how text constitutes social organisation. This will show the power of texts in everyday life (Smith, 1992: 93), and the importance of the physical texts to institutional organisation (Smith, 1984). Texts transport power in ideologies and practices across sites and among people. Since texts do not know boundaries, they are powerful tools in organising people's activities, across organisations. (Smith, 1999: 80), standardising people's activities into bureaucracies. The power of a text can be viewed similar to Foucault's (1967) explanation:

“Power must be analysed as something, which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localised here or there, never in anybody's hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising power. They are not only its inert or consenting target; they are always the elements of articulation [italics added]. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, not its point of application.” (p. 234)

Ruling relations

The entry point of my inquiry is "the standpoint of actual individuals located in the everyday world" (Smith, 1987:159). Standpoint refers then to the location of an "embodied subject" in a specific local, historical setting. Although experience is the ground zero of my analysis it cannot be confined to the direct experience of the everyday world for it is "organised by social relations not fully apparent in it nor contained in it" (1987:92). According to a social organisation framework, social relations are systematic processes that control people's lives through ruling relations “more or less mysteriously and outside a person's knowledge” (Campbell & Gregor, 2002, p. 18; 2004, p. 18). Within this framework, social life is not chaotic but is purposefully organised to happen as it does. Power becomes critically important to evidence how ruling relations are transported through knowledge, experience, discourse, and institutions. Power of these ruling relations is investigated on an institutional level where Citi transposes what really happens to its staff into abstract categories. Conceptualising “what happens in a form that makes it administrable...these categories are embedded, for example in case reports, report cards, application forms, tickets, etc.” (Darville, 2002, p. 61).

Smith conceives of "institution" as a "complex of relations" organised around a specific function such as law, health care, or education. This complex of relations forms part of the ruling apparatus in contemporary society. Rather than referring to a specific form of social organisation, "institution" refers to the coordination and intersection of an array of activities into a "functional complex." The concept "institution" does not refer to entities in themselves but rather to the way in which they are interwoven around a particular function.

To obtain data for this analysis, this project proceeds through three main phases of data collection:

  1. investigation of local experience through the Citi staff's individual standpoint,
  2. analysis of processes and social relations extending beyond Citi staff's experiential accounts, and
  3. establishing the interconnection between the local experience and the extended experience (Griffith & Smith, 1990; Smith, 1987).

Phase one examines the work activities (broadly defined) of Citi staff engaged in the progress of their daily lives with a view to analysing how that world is shaped by and maintains the institutional process. Bearing in mind that experiences or situations are not free-standing phase one data collection tries to discover the “material connections between what actually happens to participants in a research setting and what triggers those particular events” (Campbell & Gregor, 2004, p. 70).

While phase one brings the problem into view, phase two is an analysis of ideological procedures that are used to make the institutional work processes accountable. It is a way to “explicate how the local setting, including local understandings and explanations, are brought into being- so that informants can talk about their experiences as they do”((Campbell & Gregor, 2004, p. 90). Important to this phase of data collection and analysis is the earlier mentioned notion that power is carried through the ideological constructs of texts. Analysis is about deriving particular meaning from the data as to their social construction across multiple settings.

Bringing the other phases together phase three analyses how these work processes in a particular context are connected across time and place and as such operate as part of an extended set of social relations (Smith, 1987:160-161).


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