n South African Journal of Higher Education - The illuminative potential of organisational ethnographies

Volume 27, Issue 5
  • ISSN : 1011-3487



Evaluation studies, especially of South African educational institutions and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) offering educational programmes, have been criticised for focussing inadequately on the ethnographic and anthropological dimensions of organisations. The dominant approaches to evaluation, it is alleged, have been structuralist and empirical-rational in orientation, serving narrow bureaucratic functions for funders and donors, based on self reports by programme participants. One way of resolving the dilemma of unreliable evaluation reports is producing richly contextualised organisational ethnographies which illuminate organisational contexts beyond superficial analyses. What are the potential benefits of an organisational ethnography, and what are the epistemological and ethical implications of such an endeavour? The author attempts to answer these questions by drawing on an organisational ethnography of a South African NGO offering language teacher development programmes, and tracing its mutating identity over three decades. The author uses insights derived from the traditions of empowerment evaluation (Fetterman 1999) and illuminative evaluation (Parlett and Hamilton 1976) as theoretical lenses to appraise the value of narratives in understanding organisational behaviour. Further, he appropriates discourse analysis to interrogate selected narrative data as a methodological lens in organisational analysis, and reflects on his experience of engaging in such a project. In the latter part of the article, the author revisits the methodological wisdom of engaging in an institutional ethnography, highlighting some of the ethical, representational and epistemological dilemmas in negotiating a non-conventional approach. He concludes the article with a brief allusion to the potential value of organisational ethnographies in mediating an emerging performativity driven higher education culture.

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