Myers (1999) Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research


Ethnographic research is one of the most in-depth research methods possible. Because the researcher is at a research site for a long time - and sees what people are doing as well as what they say they are doing - an ethnographer obtains a deep understanding of the people, the organization, and the broader context within which they work. Ethnographic research is thus well suited to providing information systems researchers with rich insights into the human, social, and organizational aspects of information systems. This article discusses the potential of ethnographic research for IS researchers, and outlines the most important issues that need to be considered in selecting this method.

Citation Michael D. Myers (1999). Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research. Communications of AIS, vol. 2 no. 23, pp. 1–19. URL

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {Myers, Michael D.},
doi = {Need},
isbn = {9789728939540 (ISBN)},
journal = {Communications of AIS},
number = {23},
pages = {1--19},
title = {{Investigating Information Systems with Ethnographic Research}},
url = { CAIS article.pdf},
volume = {2},
year = {1999}

Key ideas

The purpose of this article is to help IS researchers to evaluate the potential of one particular research method for IS research, that of ethnography. This paper is a tutorial in ethnographic research in information systems. It attempts to outline the most important issues that should be considered before using ethnography to study information systems phenomena. It also gives some practical guidance.


1. Introduction

In Information Systems we have reached the stage where many different research methods and approaches are accepted as appropriate for our field. (p.2)

2. Defining Ethnography

Ethnographic research comes from the discipline of social and cultural anthropology where an ethnographer is required to spend a significant amount of time in the field. (p.2)

Ethnographers immerse themselves in the life of people they study and seek to place the phenomena studied in their social and cultural context. (p.3)

The main difference between case study research and ethnographic research is the extent to which the researcher immerses himself or herself in the life of the social group under study. In an ethnography, data sources are supplemented by data collected through participant observation. (p.4)

3. The Benefits And Limitation Of Ethnography


  • One of the most valuable aspects of ethnographic research is its depth (p.5)
  • Over time the researcher is able to gain an in-depth understanding of the people, the organization, and the broader context within which they work (p.5)
  • Knowledge of what happens in the field can provide vital information to challenge our assumptions (p.6)


  • It takes a lot longer than most other kinds of research (p.6)
  • Not only does it take a long time to do the fieldwork, but it also takes a long time to analyze the material and write it up (p.6)
  • It does not have much breadth (p.6)
  • Some argue that it is impossible to develop more general models from just one ethnographic study (p.7)

4. Types Of Ethnography

5. Doing Ethnography

6. Writing Up Ethnography

7. Evaluating Ethnography

8. Conclusion


Ethnography, INF6001W, information systems, intensive research, interpretive research, qualitative research, research methods