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  • Writer's pictureSanne Witkamp

Culture & research

The term 'fieldwork' is used to describe research in all areas of anthropology, from social and cultural anthropology to corporate anthropology. The practice of 'fieldwork' can take place in different environments. Such as an urban or virtual environment, a small-scale tribal community, a museum, an association or an organization.

anthropological fieldwork

There is a general consensus among anthropologists today that fieldwork came to be considered part of the practice of social anthropology, thanks to the work of one of the founders of British anthropology: Bronislaw Malinowski.

Unlike the “armchair anthropologists” before him, Malinowski advocated (rather than studying other people from the comfort of university libraries) “going into the field.” Living with the people he studied, being involved in their communities, learning their language and really participating in their daily lives. Since Malinowski's time, fieldwork (traditionally outside one's own society) has been seen as an essential and necessary part of an anthropologist's professional training.

Conducting fieldwork over a longer period (usually six months or one year) is seen as a specific part of social and cultural anthropology - and this distinguishes the discipline from other social sciences. Most anthropologists (including myself ) still believe that doing fieldwork in the traditional Malinowskian sense is an essential and distinctive aspect of anthropological research. Fieldwork now encompasses a wide range of methods and techniques - allowing anthropologists to gain in-depth knowledge of a community, group or society. Anthropological fieldwork is no longer limited to distant countries, but corporate anthropologists delve into the deep depths of business and the 'urban jungle'.

being there

1. giving and receiving trust (ethics)

Fieldwork is one of the most distinctive methods that anthropologists use when studying human behavior in groups. One of the most important starting points for me when conducting research within organizations and systems is as simple as it is complex: coordination in trust. As a researcher you demand a lot from the environment you research and the people you come into contact with. We ask for access to the social environment, but we also step into existing power structures and relationships. This requires an enormous amount of awareness in every interaction, where transparency and integrity are essential to me. Communication before, during and after fieldwork is of the utmost importance. What can informants expect? What about confidentiality? What is done with the results? The researcher himself always has an influencing effect on the field. A continuous reflexive attitude is essential. As a researcher (especially if you have been present in a specific environment for a longer period of time), you unintentionally become part of the power system, the patterns and the group functioning. Anthropological fieldwork has enormous critical potential, because it looks at everything with a fresh perspective - provided you continually examine the instrument that you are.

In addition, it is equally important that the researcher's frameworks are supported and communicated by the client. Or preferably by the highest ranking person: the chief of the tribe you are going to investigate. They must also fully support the ethical frameworks that apply to the researcher: full protection of informants, no manipulated results and - especially in the case of research within organizations - full transparency about the process and presentation.

2. being there, interacting: participatory observation

One of the most typical parts of fieldwork is participation. Participating in the group you are researching. For example, I once worked with nurses during a night shift in a hospital, I worked with a maintenance team in a large factory and I attended meetings in various places. Hanging out in the canteen and chatting at the coffee machine. It's all part of the job.

Observe, participate, become part of the culture - including daily lunches, celebrations and after-work drinks. And then look neutrally again, which is not always easy if your fieldwork has been successful and you have built a bond with different people. Participating well means getting full access from the group. To be accepted. Only then can you hear the gossip and adopt the local humor. If you do fieldwork for a longer period of time, friendships sometimes even emerge, which does not make maintaining your neutrality easy. Returning to the notes and the observational, neutral glasses remains a challenge. The more you are absorbed by the group, the more difficult it is to keep your distance.

Source: National Geographic, photograph by James P. Blair

3. interviews and 'deep listening'

Anthropologists can collect data in numerous ways. They can collect quantitative information by conducting surveys or analyzing documents such as historical archives, reports and records. For the most part, however, social anthropologists focus on collecting qualitative data. They do this by conducting individual and group interviews, by writing oral histories and, most importantly, through the Malinowskian tradition of 'participant observation'.

For me, conducting in-depth interviews is always a major part of fieldwork. By individual. to have real conversations about the experience of culture, leadership or social safety - a colorful collection of perspectives and anecdotes arise. These provide a rich representation from which patterns can be extracted. Connecting threads through all the stories. In-depth interviews are open, without pre-set questionnaires. The interviewee is therefore in control of the structure of the conversation. The topics he or she addresses say something about the perspective and prioritization of the themes. For me, good interviewing mainly means listening very carefully and deeply. What is not said? Which emotions play a role? What's going on between the lines? Deep listening is invaluable to really feel, understand and appreciate what is being shared.

insider ánd outsider

There are a number of typical approaches to conducting anthropological research. Anthropologists use different perspectives to arrive at a 3D image of culture and internal experience.

1. Emic

The view from the inside. This is a research perspective that focuses on the internal experience and perception of the participants. The goal is to understand the world from the perspective of the participants themselves. We describe the experienced reality, the microstories and the internal logic of the group. The insider's perspective.

2. Etic

The view from outside. The analytical view. This is a research perspective that focuses on an external, objective analysis of the culture or social group. The goal is to develop general laws and theories that apply to multiple cultures or groups. We compare: we look for contradictions, differences and similarities. How do the observations, insights and discoveries relate to a research question, another group or the structure in the environment? In a study of work pressure, for example, the emic results in the light of the 'experience of pressure' are placed in order to look at how functional certain internal logic is.

3. diary

As a researcher you take yourself with you. Since we don't work in a laboratory and everything is studied by our own system of mind, body and soul, it is essential to keep your instrument clean. To keep yourself pure and clean. Keeping a short, intuitive diary during fieldwork can help. Write down what touched you, what surprised you and what went through your mind. This way you keep an overview of all the movements that take place, and what belongs to you and what belongs to the other(s).

4. presentation

All findings end up in a presentation or report. From emic to etic. From patterns to analysis. From presentation to recommendations and next steps.

Companies and organizations need guidance when using the results. What does a pattern mean and how do we break it? How do we ensure that collective needs are met? What should we change together (if things are not working)? How do we break through social insecurity? Do we need new rules? There is always a lot that comes to light and an extensive analysis without advice on next steps is of little use to an organization, group or team. The conversations often yield many wise ideas to make the group stronger. These are also included in the presentation.

Cultural Research at organizations

What do you get, as a client?

  • An exceptionally high-quality and richly illustrated representation of culture, (in)security, (un)safety, power relations and internal communication.

  • Information with which you can implement essential interventions that do justice to the perceived reality and any damage incurred.

  • You get a detailed picture of patterns and problems within teams, so that change and improvement processes are embraced and real communication is initiated.

  • A good view of areas for improvement and needs with regard to leadership and decision-making that serve and support the group process.

That's what you get.


Culture always exists between people. People are constantly moving and causing change themselves. Every change has an impact. Culture is a temporary landing place in the midst of changes and systems. The culture provides tools and information about the meaning that people and teams collectively give to matters and events. Dissecting and understanding culture is necessary to initiate positive changes. Insight and clarity as a basis for change.

Would you like to know more about organizational culture, liminality and change? I'm happy to help you.


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