9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN20 Qualitative Methods

2009-09-04 09:00:00 2009-09-04 10:30:00 Friday, 4 September 09:00 - 10:30 Ethnography Building II, B2.01

Rationalising the Rationale: An ethnographic case study

This paper discusses the valuable contribution that ethnography can bring to organisational research and draws on an ethnographic case study that explored how organisational change was communicated in a department of the British Civil Service. Modernising government lies at the heart of Government reform in the United Kingdom, indeed, the British Civil Service has a long and chequered history of reform that is predicated on perpetuating drives for standardisation, efficiency and more recently, ?value for money?. The need for modern government to rationalise and be transparent is all the more difficult in a system that is historically pre-existing, rational and bureaucratic in structure. Typically criticism focuses on the inflexibility of the civil service and its tradition of operating mechanistically. Organisationally since the 1980?s the civil service?s project of reform has found itself likened increasingly to the private sector and contemporarily draws on business strategy to effect both operational and cultural change.

Such strategy typically promotes a ?top-down? discourse that on the one hand is post-modern woven with threads of ?new age? business mantra while on the other, remains tightly bound within an existing and rigid hierarchical structure. The question is how effective are discourses of change and modernising government and, what are their effects on the organisation?s working culture. Ethnography can bring much to the table in this respect. Through observation, conversation, interviewing and secondary data drawn from open government resources, this paper through a ?bottom up? approach ethnographically explores how a cohort of civil servants negotiated a change discourse; a discourse that as an amalgam fuses old and new ways of ?being? and therein creates everyday risk. Risk in terms of identifying with proposed organisational change, personal risk around negotiating a sense of self and identity within the organisation and finally, locating oneself within a changing culture. This paper argues that in terms of understanding the complex nature of organisational change, change must also be understood from grass root level and that ethnographic research is a highly effective means by which to understand organisational culture and in this case, a complex micro culture within the British Civil Service.