Temporal practices: time and ethnographic research in changing organizations

Patrick Dawson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


– The purpose of this paper is to explore time dilemmas in ethnographic research and develops a facilitating frame for thinking about temporality. Core concepts developed include: temporal awareness that refers to widening of the understanding and sensitivity to time issues; temporal practices which relate to how the researcher learns to deal with, for example, contradictory conceptions of time in the pragmatics of conducting fieldwork and in the analysis of competing data; and temporal merging which is used to refer to the interweaving of objective and subjective concepts of time, and to the way that the past and prospective futures shape human experience of the present.

– An extended case study on workplace change is selectively drawn upon in discussing time and ethnographic research. Two closely related stories are used to illustrate aspects of temporality. These include a discussion of the way that stories in organizing, representing, simplifying and imposing structure (become theory-laden) often compressing the subjective experiences of lived time into a more formalized linear presentation that may inadvertently petrify temporal sensemaking; and an examination of how the polyphony of storying during times of change highlights temporal sensemaking and sensegiving through asynchronous features that emphasize volatility and non-linearity in explaining the way that people experience change.

– The conundrum that competing concepts of time often present for the researcher is in the juxtapositions that generate loose ends that appear to require resolution. Temporal merging in being able to accommodate the intertwining of objective and subjective time, temporal practices in being able to use different concepts of time without trying to resolve them during the collection and analyses of data, and temporal awareness in being able to accept the paradox of time in the use of a relational-temporal perspective, all open up opportunities for greater insight and understanding in engaging in ethnographic studies on changing organizations.

Practical implications
– There are a number of practical implications that arise from the paper in doing longitudinal research on workplace change. Four summarized here comprise: the significance of sustained fieldwork and not trying to shortcut time dimension to ethnographic research; the importance of developing temporal practices for dealing with objective and subjective time as well as the interweaving of temporal modes in data collection, analysis and write-up; the value of engaging with rather than resolving contradictions; chronological objective time is good for planning the research whilst subjective time is able to capture the non-linearity of lived time and the importance of context.

– A new facilitating frame is developed for dealing with time tensions that are often downplayed in research through the concepts of temporal awareness, practices and merging. The frame provides temporal insight and promotes the use of a relational processual perspective. It is also shown how stories present in the data, in the writing up of material for different audiences, in chronologies and events, and in the sensemaking and sensegiving of individuals and groups as they describe and shape their lived experiences of change – are useful devices for dealing with the conundrum of time in ethnographic research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)130-151
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Organizational Ethnography
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2014


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