Ethnographic research methods to understand the innovation ecosystem

In her latest blog, PhD student, Hannah Tornow, considers how ethnographic research techniques can be used to understand the innovation ecosystem

This year my PhD research is focused on collecting and analysing data, so let me introduce you to the ways I will do this.

My research will take a mixed-method approach, meaning I will combine qualitative and quantitative methodologies to use the advantages of both approaches in answering my research question. The tools of my data collection will comprise a self-completion online questionnaire, with which I am intending to grasp the personal perception of individuals within the company environment, linked to the individual’s role within the company. To also understand the perspectives of the company I am intending to interview founders and C-level leaders within innovative businesses. Since the companies are embedded and operating in the Oxfordshire innovation ecosystem, I would like to capture the context and the culture of this environment too. By analysing all the levels at which innovation takes place – individual, company, ecosystem – I am aiming for a holistic view.

To better understand the innovation ecosystem in Oxfordshire, I would also like to use ethnographic research methods. In this blog article, I provide a short introduction to ethnographic research. Prior to the 1970s, ethnography was mostly linked with social anthropological research, in which researchers travel to a foreign area, secure access to a group (such as a village or a tribe), and spend a significant period of time with that group in order to learn about their culture. Many of the tools and practices of ethnography have been transferred into the study of organisational settings by business researchers. When it comes to ethnographic terminology, it refers to the process of writing (graphy) about people and cultures (ethno), giving business researchers a clear way to understand work organisations as cultural entities.

Ethnographic research is a methodology that can enable investigators to make sense of people’s actions by observing them in the context of their environment. The ethnographic process entails watching and listening to how people react and interact with each other in an organisational setting. It can also mean engaging people in discussion in order to elicit information on specific topics of interest. The ethnographer takes extensive field notes,  referring back to them after the period of immersion, to compose a description of the fieldwork experience.

With the help of ethnographic research, I am intending to study the innovation ecosystem of Oxfordshire. In the first step, I would like to understand the context and the culture of the innovation ecosystem and in the second step I am aiming to understand the relations between actors, companies and organisations that are embedded in this context. To give myself the chance to fully understand the innovation ecosystem and its relationships, as well as engage in the field, I intend to undertake my ethnographic research over a period of 10 months.

You may be wondering about the role I will take when participating in events or meetings. The researcher’s role is as an observer-as-participant who takes part in a non-intrusive manner in order to ensure the regular context and natural behaviour of the ‘actors’ (i.e. participants in the meeting or event). There might be some interaction with the actors but I will mainly be a silent participant. It is possible that during some meetings confidential information might be discussed. To ensure confidentiality, but also the anonymity of participants, I will not report on the content of the conversations or identify individuals or companies.

Please rest assured that anonymity will be guaranteed, I will only use my handwritten notes to get a more precise impression of the culture and the context of the innovation ecosystem. Ethnographic research is a modern and innovative method which is particularly suitable for understanding the specific context in which innovation takes place. It also has little time impact on the participants, as it only requires a few minutes at the beginning to introduce myself or when I engage in short conversations at the end of the session (always driven by your availability). In case any participant feels uncomfortable about me taking notes at the time, it is also possible to record observations after the meeting or event has concluded.

Every field an ethnographic researcher goes into is different and the researcher is always dependent on being in the right place at the right time, which means for me I will need luck in meeting actors from the ecosystem who will be willing to provide me with access to different meetings and events. Advanced Oxford plays a huge role in facilitating this access, nevertheless if you know about an event or meeting taking place within the Oxfordshire innovation ecosystem, where different actors from the ecosystem come together, please feel free to drop me a message via email or to connect with me on LinkedIn as I am always eager to find new opportunities for ethnographic-based data collection.

I am looking forward to engaging in the field very soon and starting my data collection in spring 2022.

Best wishes, Hannah (March, 2022)

You can find out more about the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice here

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