Fly on the wall or wasp on the window? Reflecting on the role of a multi-sited ethnographer

by Sarah Van Duijn | Reading Time: 5-7 Minutes

“There he is again, slowly but steadily heading my way. Just after the aldermen meeting started, I am no longer able to focus on what is being said. Moving in a menacing manner, a huge wasp is buzzing quietly around the ceiling lamps. After a few loops over the U-shaped table the twenty of us are sitting at, the wasp picks its final position: the window behind the alderman sitting across from me. I surely won’t lose sight of that creature anymore. While I am staring through the alderman across the table, I notice him wondering what on earth I could be looking at. Probably feeling overlooked, the wasp begins to zoom loudly at the same time. “I’ll take care of that” the alderman says decisively, while rolling up the minutes in front of him. Moments later, there is no more buzzing. I let out a soft scream while the meeting coordinator informs the others that I am “pretty scared of wasps.” – notes


The wasp was not the only thing that died that day – so did any hopes of me becoming a ‘fly on the wall’ as a participant observer. Being a fly on the wall refers to taking on the role of an inconspicuous observer, to going unnoticed by the actors you study. Over time, the anthropological ideal has become contested or even ‘ridiculed’ (Hannerz, 2010), and would be nearly impossible to attain anyway, when like me, you clearly don’t belong. My fieldwork included joining strategic meetings of aldermen and healthcare insurers to explore how they collaborated after the 2015 Dutch healthcare reform – and I was “way too young” to be a director.

Considering impact: abstract values translated to practice

Elsewhere, I pointed out a variety of challenges that a multi-sited ethnographer may encounter during fieldwork, including securing access to different organizations, following boundless subjects, and making sense of a plethora of perspectives (van Duijn, 2020). In relation to these challenges, I briefly reflected on problems that fostering research relationships across fields may generate, such as actors trying to leverage your role across organizations. In this blog, I want to elaborate on the values that guided me through taking on the role of a multi-sited ethnographer, and share how working through the conundrums I came across uncovered new avenues for exploration and reflection.

1.    Reflexivity

Given that I inevitably became part of the social settings I observed, it was imperative to consistently be aware of, and reflect on, the impact of my presence on the data I generated. To give an example, during one of the first strategic meetings I observed between insurers and aldermen, they divided themselves across the table automatically: insurers on one side, and aldermen on the other. When the chairman of the meeting entered the room, he exclaimed that this obviously was not off to a good start, and started pushing tables together, whereupon the insurers and other aldermen soon came to his aid. While rearranging the room, one of the insurers jokingly stated “well Sarah, that was unacceptable of course, we’ll do anything to disprove your findings.” The rearranging of rooms became a running joke, and I have only seen insurers and aldermen sitting intermingled after that.

2. Transparency

Blending in was quickly off the table for me, and I did not mind. I felt comfortable in the role of an outsider and liked being clear about my intentions, since I would not only be reporting my findings to an academic audience, but also to the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports. In my experience, being an outsider could work out in two ways. At times, it could be inconvenient. People would sometimes quickly stop talking, or change the subject when I entered a room. Other times, however, being upfront and transparent aided my pursuits. In inter-organizational settings, people seemed more hesitant to talk to me if they thought I worked with their collaborative partners. When I took on a clear role of outsider from university, they opened up more quickly about their experiences or intentions with other actors in the field.

3. Doing no harm

My research and relations across organizational fields, however, meant I could not become too transparent. It quickly became apparent that I was walking a tightrope between being transparent about my findings and doing harm. My PhD research focuses on the dynamics of collaboration between unfamiliar partners. When the time came to present preliminary findings, I wanted to be transparent about the findings of my research, but at the same time, not damage the budding collaboration between aldermen and insurers. My findings included statements from earlier times in which relations were less than friendly. Fearing that sharing a report would tempt actors to selectively pick out quotes that could damage their relationship, I had to find another solution. I decided to lean into the assumptions actors made about each another, and after presenting general findings, I made up exaggerated prejudices that the actors could reflect on. Having to find inventive ways to share my data, thus also sparked novel discussions and insights for my research.

Reflection uncovers new opportunities

It goes without being said that these were not the only times during which my presence clearly impacted the situation I was observing. Such moments were not always lighthearted. Sometimes actors seemed annoyed by my attendance, sighing “and yet another anecdote…” when I observed sensitive or tensed situations. Other times, I projected being intrusive onto a situation, which – after asking – only was the case in my mind. These moments opened up roads to new conversations and insights. Having no illusions of becoming a fly on the wall encouraged me to continuously approach my fieldwork with an attitude of reflection. Principles such as being transparent, doing no harm, and consistently reflecting on my impact, however, turned out to not only be abstract ideas that steered my contemplations about how to fulfill the role of a multi-sited ethnographer, but also served as concrete guides to navigate through issues that could emerge when doing fieldwork.


Hannerz, U. (2010). Fields Worries: Studying down, up, sideways, through, backward, forward, early or later, away and at home. In Anthropology’s world: life in a twenty-first-century discipline (pp. 59–86). New York, NY: Pluto Press.

Van Duijn, S. (2020). Everywhere and nowhere at once: the challenges of following in multi-sited ethnography. Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 9(3), 281–294. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOE-12-2019-0045

Sarah Van Duijn [PhD Candidate] is interested in the construction of interorganizational collaboration between unfamiliar partners. Her research empirically focuses on the (strategic) collaborations that emerged after the Dutch healthcare reform of 2015. Through multi-sited ethnography, she explores how local stakeholders make sense of their changing tasks and relationships in the field. Using a combination of boundary work and paradox as a theoretical lens, Sarah aims to shed light on how unfamiliar partners build collaboration from scratch.

Time management: Finding the balance between energy, inspiration and just getting shit done

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

To be honest: it’s not always that easy to combine a fulltime job in a non-academic organisation with a PhD project. Or the other way around. Instead of one (PhD) project, I manage five team members, working on eight (international) research projects. All of these projects come with their own partners, tasks, and deadlines. Nevertheless, so far I survived 3,5 years, with satisfying results and progress. Currently I’m in a period of transition. After five years at the National Foundation for the Elderly, a charity combatting loneliness among vulnerable older adults, I’m about to start at Leyden Academy, a knowledge institute on the topic of ageing. In this transition, time management turned out to be a welcome skill. Although I have already quite some experiences, the course I followed did make me realize once again how important it is for a researcher to keep this skill on point. I’m happy to share my take-away’s with you. 

1.     Priority over time

“’No time’ normally means ‘no priority’”, a friend of mine uses to say – which in Dutch sounds even stronger. This course made me realize again that spending my time on things with priority, provide me energy whereas spending – or should I say wasting? – time on things without priority lead to stress and unhealthy pressure. I was already familiar with the matrix supporting to decide whether a task is important and/or urgent. The course triggered me, however, to define what important actually means to me. I started to recall my goals for this month– I monthly define my main focus – and checked whether a new task would contribute to these goals or not. Additionally, distinguished whether something was important in general, or for me personally. Sometimes the job was important, but not necessarily for me. 

2.    Itrinsic motivation over mood

This take-away is related to my first learning. When I define my yearly or monthly goals, I always start to reflect on why I exactly started all this in the first place. In my case this is particularly important, as I don’t do my PhD project for the university or anyone else: it’s all my own motivation and I could easily quit if I’m not motivated anymore. So, when I doubt my motivation, I start to recall myself: ‘Starting my PhD was my dream and gives me the great opportunity to specialize in the fascinating field of older adults and to valorise all the work I do.’ Luckily, I’m not often in this mood. But getting the bigger picture clear, helps me to stay motivated. Not only about the non-attractive PhD tasks, also in my ‘regular’ job. My regular job is also part of how I would love to conduct my research. Sometimes I rather would spend all my time on my PhD but I’m aware that a fulltime PhD position wouldn’t have satisfied me as much as this double role. Yes, and that also implies writing assignments on Saturdays every now and then.

3.    Pragmatic over Perfect

 ‘Ask someone without time to do the job and you can be sure it’s getting done’, is a saying I love. And I often even apply it to my own research project: planning a task when I don’t have so much time. Although I’m not the type of person performing very well under pressure, for some tasks this is the best way. Some jobs don’t need so much time and inspiration, they just need to be done. For instance, writing a proposal (or assignment / preliminary analyses / looking up some literature…) in order to get access to my data is obligatory, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I should spend all my time, inspiration and energy on it. Yes, in the end it was a useful exercise to get more insight in my own research, but some steps of the process felt rather bureaucratic. 

4.    Inspiration over Discipline

I’m happy to be blessed with a sufficient dose of self-discipline – I need it a lot in my full agenda. I have all types of routines and schedules on when, how, and where I work to get my tasks done. This discipline is not only displayed in my work, also in my leisure time. I only rarely skip a Monday morning run. During the course I realized how important these moments are – although I also feel guilty sometimes if this is at the cost of work. But is the latter actually the case? Sitting behind my desk early every morning doesn’t guarantee inspiration or productivity. The best ideas (with regard to the set-up of a study protocol, the title of a paper, the response to a colleague who annoys me) pop up during my runs. Especially as these on the road time has decreased in lock-down (no train, no bike to work), I really need to keep this space. Another learning: sometimes I totally planned to work on a certain piece of a paper, but suddenly get the inspiration for something else. I learned that’s it’s okay – even a must – to be flexible. Especially when I’m able to mainly work on important non-urgent tasks, it’s okay to postpone a task to do something else first. 

Last but not least

Plan in only 80% of your time – was recommended during the course. Earlier this month I read something similar in a blog on time management: Plan your tasks and then double the time planned for this. Both reminded me to be more realistic in what to achieve. Especially with the take-aways in mind, this will definitely help me. Not only to be more productive, but also to be more relaxed. I’m writing this blogpost on a Saturday. Because I’m intrinsically motivated, I have the inspiration after a run through the snow this morning. It contributes to my goals and I’m pragmatic: it just want it to be done, today. And yes, it was on my to-do list yesterday as well. But that list was not realistic. Instead of 80%, I planned in 120% of my time. Now I realize this, I’m fine with it and with my own time management skills – including the pitfalls.  

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

Co-creation, older adults & Covid: six learnings

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes

We would have loved so much to add it to our New Year’s resolutions: innovating together with older people – like in the good old days. But after almost a year with COVID, it doesn’t look like we can go back to normal yet. So… postponing again? That would be a shame! With a little flexibility and creativity, more is possible than you might think. Flexibility when it comes to the older adults; the methodology as well as the innovations itself. I am happy to share six learnings from the past year! 

The older adults

1.     Think close

Instead of recruiting participants, I engaged in a conversation with my own grandmother about how she had experienced the process after my grandpa passed away – something that, as a granddaughter I was reluctant to do at first and as a researcher I was reluctant to burden her with. Not only did my grandma not mind at all, it also resulted in a nice personal conversation.

You often don’t need to search far for good stories. The threshold for diving into the depths with close others is sometimes higher than with strangers, but it is worth it and saves a lot of (travel) time.

2.    Join what already exists

It was not easy: recruiting individual older adults for a focus group. Moreover, participants had to meet several conditions and had to be willing to come to our office in these insecure times. The solution? We looked to join an existing bereavement group.

Joining an existing group has many advantages. The group is already complete; people know and trust each other; location is already arranged; meetings are already in the agenda of participants and the (COVID) rules of the external organization can be followed, which makes everything a lot easier.

3.    Nothing new under the sun

Older people remain older people. For example, one lady showed up an hour early in an online group session while my colleague and I were still making preparations. Still, older people like to arrive on time. Another lady called me the day before her participation in an online test because she was in need for some social talk. Even, or perhaps especially, in COVID times, social contact is often an important motivation to participate in research.

Much has changed. Yet much has also remained the same. Do not expect older people to suddenly behave completely differently online. So, don’t do that yourself either. 

The methodology

4.    Don’t wait

A planned focus group was replaced by individual phone interviews in order to get to know our target group. Crying, a lady who had recently lost her husband, answered the phone. The anonymity of the phone made her feel safe in her vulnerability. We would never have achieved this extra layer of depth in a focus group session.

Of course, it is a pity if you cannot carry out the activities as planned. But what a pity even more to wait without doing anything? You can learn so much in the meantime!

5.    Learning by (just) doing

‘Are older people able to do that, online research?’ Why not just try? My test-user had a tablet, but meeting me through TEAMS, sharing the screen, opening the app with camera and microphone, was too much to ask for. Both for her and for the tablet. But she was clever – and so were we. With the camera on and the lady in front of the mirror, we could still look at her screen. And by calling her by phone, we could even hear each other.

Trying something new requires creativity and perseverance. But it is very rewarding! Not just feedback on a new idea, but also insight into the research method itself: win-win.

The innovation

6.    A flexible service design

We tested a toolkit to support older people in sharing stories. The pilot, which resembled the real service as much as possible, consisted of some online activities and two physical sessions. Just before the second session, the COVID measures were tightened. The pilot was put on hold.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is the importance of (user-friendly) digital solutions for older adults.  So if the implementation of our innovations needs to be postponed because of social restrictions,  are these then actually ready for the new normal? The new normal requires innovations with a flexible service design in which a group activity can easily be exchanged with one-on-one sessions, online or telephone activity; in which family members or caregivers play a role, if we have difficulty meeting the elderly; or by having the intervention fit in with activities that continue even with limitations, such as therapy or a care trajectory.

I am convinced that we will only come up with more sustainable solutions if we continue to involve older people in our research in creative ways. I am curious about your most important lesson from the past year!

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

Whereas in February we were still joking about the situation in China – only one month later we found ourselves in the midst of a global crisis. Fierce restrictions and containment made our world smaller overnight, forcing us to make the best of our daily life in a different way than we were used to. We needed coping strategies to deal with all of that, but no one seemed to have any previous experience we could take lessons from.

No one? No. There ís a group we can learn from in this extraordinary time: the older adults. This population, in this crisis often considered a vulnerable group, can be seen as a source of inspiration, as older adults already have experience in dealing with limitations in life.

I’m referring here to what is known as the paradox of ageing. Although older people are often confronted with physical, mental, and cognitive challenges, they score surprisingly high on quality of life. Theories in the field of social and emotional ageing describe the coping strategies older people follow to ensure these levels of quality of life, despite decline (Charles & Carstensen, 2009). Coping strategies we all can benefit from in this exceptional era.

Forced to choose 
In the crisis, we suddenly had to choose and select. We were asked to only travel with public transport if strictly necessary, and only to meet-up with a limited number of friends. Striking – and somewhat confusing –  was the RIVM’s call to limit social contacts to only one sex buddy; a message that was already revised shortly.

Whereas most of us were overtaken by these restrictions, the older ones among us were already familiar with limitations before the crisis, as both their energy level and time left are limited. The socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al, 1999) explains that older adults are particularly good in choosing and selecting. They focus on most valuable relations – family members, close friends – and activities in life. And guess what? It turns out to be a successful strategy to maintain wellbeing.

Early in the crisis, my grandfather passed away. We had no other choice than only invite the closest relatives to his funeral. After the disappointment, we embraced this extraordinary setting. It was more intimate than we could ever have achieved in a packed church service. I learned to appreciate the restriction, as it helped us to focus on most important things and persons in life.

Alternative strategies
For almost everything that had been totally normal in daily life, we suddenly needed alternative strategies. Skype meetings, walking routes, queue management, disinfection routines. Whereas some of us dealt very well with it, others had more difficulties in getting used to new strategies such as working from home.

New strategies for older adults? Been there done that! The theory of Selection Optimization & Compensation (Baltes & Baltes, 1990) explains how older adults, more than younger ones, are good in finding alternatives. When getting older, they continuously have to deal with physical and cognitive decline and restrictions. Although the COVID restrictions are of a different kind, older adults seem to know how to handle this. Selection refers to selecting the relevant goals that, realistically, can be achieved in the particular circumstances. Optimization is defined as optimizing the own capabilities to achieve these goals. Compensation includes the alternative strategies where objectives cannot be achieved in the usual way.

Being able to develop compensation strategies can be very beneficial these days. Personally, I needed the crisis to say goodbye to my gym. I’ve become a happy runner over the previous months, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened without the gym closing its doors. My grandmother, instead, easily switched to the church service on her Smart TV, because at her age she didn’t always visit the service live anyway.

Everything under control
Control, what’s that? Over the previous months, we have lived our lives week by week. We started counting down towards April 7, soon that became 1 Juno. At first only the terraces would open, then the restaurants and bars followed. Will my appointment at the hairdresser take place? My vacation? Most of us found it hard to accept this uncertainty.

According to the lifespan theory of control (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995) older adults are better in accepting things they cannot influence or change. Due to cognitive and physical decline, they are more used to this. My team at the National Foundation for the Elderly has worked hard setting-up a corona panel, consisting of 500 older adults whom we asked for their opinion on crisis related issues. Remarkable was that the eldest group, aged 75+, turned out to feel less mentally effected than the younger group, who indicated to feel more lonely than before. We may explain this by the fact that older adults already before the crisis learned to accept things they cannot change. Facing age-related decline, they got used to adapting their expectations in daily life.  

Many of us have successfully developed new habits during this crisis. Others are still doubting and considering whether and how they want to go back to their – stressful- pre-COVID lifestyle. Older adults learn us that Fear Of Missing Out won’t make us happy but focussing on most important things in life will do so instead. So, the next time you don’t know how to handle a crisis? Ask some older people (stay safe at six feet :)) to share their experiences. Because most of all we need to do this together.


  • Baltes PB & Baltes MM. (1990). Selective optimization with compensation. In: Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carstensen LL., Isaacowitz D. & Charles ST (1999). Taking time seriously: a theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychology Journal, 1999 54(3), 165–81.
  • Charles, ST & Carstensen LL. (2009). Social and Emotional Aging. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2009. 61:383–409
  • Heckhausen J & Schulz R (1995). A Life-Span Theory of Control. Psychological Review 1995, 2(2), 283-304.

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.