Revealing the hidden performances of social work practice: the ethnographic process of gaining access, getting into place and impression management

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Jadwiga Leigh
  • Tom Disney
  • Lisa Warwick
  • Liz Beddoe

Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Northumbria University Newcastle
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Auckland


Whilst the empirical process of research highlights substantive findings, understanding the methodological approach in which access is gained and sustained on field sites is also an integral part of the data. Gaining access in ethnographic studies, in particular, is a complex task which requires researchers to continually negotiate systems and processes in order that they may reflect on the socially embedded practices of their chosen fields. However, once the researchers are accepted, the ethnographer then has to be aware of the effect their presence has on the field and that access is a continual process of negotiation and contestation. Based on a longitudinal study, which conducted a 15-month ethnography in two social work organizations, this article will explore the dilemmas various members of a research team experienced when trying to blend into the different sites. And then, once having achieved their desired position, the challenges they encountered when they realized that their presence was affecting the performances of their participants. We conclude by discussing the importance of reflexivity, power and ethics. Ethnographic research may be a more natural way for researchers to collect data, but it is also a method which positions researchers in situations, where they can easily influence encounters and, in effect, become part of the findings as well.


Original languageEnglish
JournalQualitative Social Work
Early online date9 Jun 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Jun 2020


  • Ethnography, gaining access, Performativity, Dramaturgy, emotional labour, impression management, Goffman