Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Participatory Work-Along as an Apprentice-A Qualitative Research Tool in Studying Organizations and Work Practices

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Participatory Work-Along as an Apprentice-A Qualitative Research Tool in Studying Organizations and Work Practices

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Introduction

According to Barley and Kunda (2001), work has increasingly slipped into the background of organizational research since the 1950s, and Orr (1996) noted that what is done at work is rarely studied. Recent research has also indicated that existing management research bears little or no relation to what practitioners are doing in their daily work (Tengblad, 2012). This recognition has contributed to what Nicolini (2012) referred to as 'a widespread turn or "re-turn" to practice theory in the field of organization and work studies.' Nicolini sees organizations as 'bundles of practices,' where the notion of practice refers to ways of doing and saying something in a specific place and time. There is no unified practice theory, but Tengblad (2012) noted that a commonality of practice theories is that they focus on individuals' habits, routines, and actions in their societal contexts, as well as on the social rules individuals produce and reproduce.

A practice approach bringing work back into organization studies has some methodological implications. Studying what people do means embracing methods that yield detailed descriptions of work life. Barley and Kunda (2001) claimed that researchers need to go out into the organizational field and examine work practices and relationships in situ.

Nicolini (2012) emphasized that what he calls a strong practice-based program requires a commitment to an observational orientation and the adoption of methods that allow an appreciation of practice as it happens. We could add to this that it requires a participatory orientation . When it comes to methods or techniques suitable for studying practice in organizations, Nicolini especially mentioned attending meetings and shadowing actors and observing their daily activities. These are methods that to a limited extent involve participation in work practice. In this article I want to highlight the importance of participation in practice in order to understand practice. Active participation (Spradley, 1980) in work practices requires that the researcher takes an active participant role (DeWalt & DeWalt, 2011), for example by working as an assistant (Ybema et al., 2009), or by becoming an apprentice (Coy, 1989).

This article discusses the possibilities an apprentice role can offer to a researcher conducting ethnographic fieldwork in work organizations. An apprentice role puts a researcher in a unique position when it comes to learning from informants in the field (Spradley & McCurdy, 1972). This type of role is seldom explicitly discussed in method textbooks (for example, Bernard, 2006; DeWalt & DeWalt, 2011; Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007; Schwartzman, 1993; Sluka, 2012; Spradley, 1980). Coy (1989) provided some examples of ethnographers who became apprentices in order to better understand specialized occupations. Nonetheless, apprenticeship as a field method is discussed to a limited extent in organizational ethnography.

An apprentice role provides many opportunities to perform work activities together with people in the field. I call this work-along. This concept is inspired by Margrethe Kusenbach (2003) writing about 'go-along' or 'walk-along' as an ethnographic research tool whereby the fieldworker accompanies informants on their natural excursions and tours in familiar surroundings. Work-along involves participation in natural work activities and places the fieldworker in a direct working relationship with informants. This makes it possible for a researcher to provide detailed descriptions of both work and work-related factors.

To illustrate work-along and how to assume an apprenticeship role, I will refer to fieldwork conducted within the public care system for elderly people in a Norwegian and a Swedish municipality. I will first discuss what it means to be an apprentice and the opportunities that come with the apprentice role in ethnographic fieldwork, before going on to discuss work-along as a method of acquiring knowledge about work organizations and work practices. …

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