Fieldwork on/with/through non-governmental organizations: navigating NGO ethnography

Academic lecture
International organizations
Written by

Frida Bjørneseth

PhD candidate


Ethnographic fieldwork among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can provide rich data on the practices and micro-level processes of civil society actors, as well as mechanisms of cooperation or implementation. But ‘doing’ fieldwork is not an analogous process of entering a ‘field’ and collecting data through conversation or observation; as the researcher searches for information and connections, answers and access are likely to be shaped by how she is perceived by other actors in the field.

Especially in contexts where the researcher gains access to informants or field sites through the facilitation of an organization – such as the case can be in humanitarian or development research – the researcher must regularly navigate and (re)assert her role in the eyes of both organizations and surrounding communities. The dialectics of perception, role assertion and legitimacy are constant processes.

This paper draws lessons from long-term ethnographic fieldwork conducted among faith-based NGOs in Ethiopia, as well as interviews with other scholars who have conducted research on and with NGOs. Through this, I seek to critically explore what it means to be researching for, with, and through organizations. Is, for instance, the distinction of doing 'research of development', as compared to doing 'research for development', a viable distinction, or merely a heuristic? And how do researchers navigate this divide, in a context where they often risk being perceived as the organization they are researching, or may take upon themselves smaller tasks in the host organizations, in order to gain further understanding and access to ‘the field’?

  • Language: English
  • Place: Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Event type: Conference
  • Event name: 13th Pan-European Conference on International Relations (EISAPEC)
  • Event date: 13 Sept 2019