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2008 8: 616Qualitative Research
Paddy O'Toole and Prisca Were
Observing places: using space and material culture in qualitative research
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A RT I C L E
Observing places: using space and
material culture in qualitative
A B S T R A C T A significant amount of qualitative research takes place in
the field. Yet the notion of analysing the place and material objects that
contribute to the interactions and in situ behaviour of the participants is
often overlooked. This article shows how an analysis of space and
material culture contributes to an understanding of social and structural
relationships in qualitative research. We use examples from a study of a
technology company to demonstrate how an analysis of space and
material culture added insights into power, identity and status. We
conclude that the tacit insights derived from space and material culture
analysis, when synthesized with analysis of other data enable
researchers to gain new perspectives on the social world.
K E Y W O R D S : identity, material culture, organizations, power, space
‘We know more than we can tell.’ (Michael Polanyi, 1967: 4)
Qualitative research involves investigation beyond the superficial. Researchers
routinely probe beyond the explicit and the known to try to understand the
worlds of research participants of which the participants themselves may be
unconscious. Part of this exploration involves the context surrounding the
areas of research. The importance of situating theory, and locating theory
within a context is frequently stressed. In contrast, the physical layout, or spa-
tial arrangement, and the material objects within that environment, and the
integration of these two corporeal constructs, that sense of ‘place’ that forms
the context in which research is conducted, is largely unacknowledged as a
source of qualitative research data, except for highly specialized (Atkinson,
2005) and some ethnomethodological studies (for example, Heath and
Hindmarsh, 2002). Generally speaking, space is seen simply as a location
‘where people do things’ (Pellow, 2001; Rodman, 1992: 640)
PA D D Y O ’ T O O L E A N D P R I S C A W E R E
Flinders University, Australia
Copyright © 2008
ondon, New Delhi,
vol. 8(5) 616–634
617O’Toole & Were: Observing places
In terms of research conducted in contemporary settings, the analysis of the
physical environment adds richness and depth to the data collected. Textual
representations can be overly representative of the views of the privileged.
Hodder (2000: 705) argues that the use of space and material culture analy-
sis can enable the exploration of ‘multiple voices’, particularly those that are
less privileged. Material culture analyses have enabled the study of past native
Americans (Peers, 2003), the mentally ill (Parrot, 2005) and other groups
that have had little voice in the written historical record.
In this article we explore theories relating to space and material culture, and
give examples relating to the analysis of space and material culture. Examples
from previous studies will be presented and the formulation of concepts illus-
trated. Issues relating to the trustworthiness of the methods will also be dis-
cussed. Finally, we argue that space and material culture analysis needs to
have a higher prominence in qualitative research studies as a valuable and
viable method of qualitative research.
The next section explores theoretical constructs that provide insights into
space and material culture analysis.
Theoretical foundations of material culture and space
Material culture and space are terms that are seldom seen in qualitative
research articles. The definitions of these concepts, by their nature, show a need
to determine a scope, a defined conceptual framework, from which higher order
conceptualizations relating to cultural and societal constructs can be drawn.
Material culture refers to the corporeal, tangible object constructed by
humans. Ferguson (1977: 5–8) describes material culture as ‘all of the things
people leave behind …. All of the things people make from the physical world –
farm tools, ceramics, houses, furniture, toys, buttons, roads and cities’.
Material culture refers to objects that are used, lived in, displayed and experi-
enced. Human beings interact with material culture as a normal part of their
daily lives. Because of this interaction, material culture and human living is
strongly influenced by each other, and thus studying material culture gives us
important clues about the way humans live and have lived in the past.
Schlereth (1982) outlines the importance of the study of material culture,
arguing that through material culture we can learn about the ‘belief systems
– the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or
society, usually across time’.
‘Space’ includes the interior and exterior spatial arrangements that make up
our world. ‘Space’ refers to the quantities, qualities and geometric relation-
ships, such as distance and juxtaposition (Gieryn, 2000: 465). Massey (1994)
and other cultural geographers have amply demonstrated that space is imbued
with cultural and political implications. Space encompasses proximity and dis-
tance, which can have dramatic effects on communication and cultural under-
standing or lack of it (Doz et al., 2001; O’Toole, 2003).
A place is the nexus of things and space within a given boundary, and has
imputed values and interpretations (Gagliardi, 1990; Gieryn, 2000; Van
Maanen and Barley, 1985). Van Maanen and Barley (1985) maintained that a
group’s physical territory and material world are a primary catalyst for the
group’s cultural formation. Proshansky et al. (1995) saw a group’s ‘place-
identity’ as a merging of ‘place-identities’ of the individuals, who developed
these understandings through their experiences. Thus the individual’s place-
identity meets the place-identities of others, which may converge into a shared
place-identity as the group develops shared sensemaking and perspectives
about their immediate world (Weick, 1995). In this article, a place has physi-
cality and is bounded by the perceptions of the observer. Thus, according to
Gieryn (2000: 464):
a place could be your favourite armchair, a room, building, neighbourhood, dis-
trict, village, city, county, metropolitan area, region (Entrikin 1989; 1991), state,
province, nation, continent, planet – or forest glade, the seaside, mountaintop.
Gaffin (1996) summarizes this notion of the interaction between the physical
environment and people as ‘[p]eople make spaces into places’ (p. 76).
In this article, ‘objects’ refer to the corporeal elements of place and material
culture. An object could be a building, the wall of a building, the picture on a
wall or a vase on a table – as well as the table.
People may erect buildings and monuments that reinforce cultural mes-
sages, which are perceived and interpreted, albeit often implicitly, by others
(Assmann, 1995); on the other hand, they may tear the buildings down and
build a mall (Brand, 1994). Material objects and places are ostensibly con-
structed and possessed for an operational purpose, but also create and com-
SPACE A N D M AT E R I A L C U LTUR E – P U RP O SE ,
OP E RAT I O N A N D P OWE R
Objects, whether tools used by individuals or partitions that separate workers,
are constructed for a purpose. The use of an object by the user may be that
determined by the maker of the object or may be something entirely different.
The acquisition may be made by an individual or a group. The way the user(s)
interact with objects will be affected by the nature of the object. Gibson’s
(1979) theory of physical affordance sheds light on how the physical environ-
ment can shape human behaviour, and how human behaviour can change
the physical environment. An affordance is what is offered to someone, and
what it provides or furnishes, either for good or for ill. A chair affords seating
or a storage area, for example. As Gibson pointed out, human beings alter the
environment and thus change the affordances offered. Gibson posits that
‘what we see when we look at objects are their affordance’ (1979: 134).
According to Gaver (1996: 114) ‘[a]ffordances are primarily facts about action
and interaction, not perception’. Physical layout and artefacts can evolve or
Qualitative Research 8(5)
change according to what is and what needs to be afforded (Gibson, 1979). If
an organization is short of accommodation for its members, it will build or oth-
erwise acquire more space. If an individual needs and lacks a pencil, a lipstick
or stick of charcoal may be used instead. Space and material culture, however,
have a more significant place in human society than the operational. Glassie
(1991: 256) illustrates how there is more to objects than simply their ostensi-
ble purpose and use.
Seeing a composition of wood and steel and naming it an axe, we draw it into our
concept of axeness; we make it imaginatively into a thing for hewing of wood and
cease pondering it. A tool, we say. But for the man who forged and helved it, the
axe was something different, the realization of his tradition and skill, and for the
man who used it, the axe may have been a token of status, not to be lowered into
wood and mere usefulness.
Objects within or at a place have meanings based on culture, function and
power (see, for example, Kingery, 1993; Lawrence, 1998; O’Toole, 2004).
The role of objects has been positioned as ‘a framework in which action takes
place’ while in the practice of ethnomethodology, context, including objects, is
treated as the ‘product of participants’ actions and activitites’ (Heath and
Hindmarsh, 2002: 111). In this article, it is suggested that space and material
objects are both a framework for situated action and the result of such situated
action. Giddens, in his theory of structuration, outlined how social structures
and individuals served to influence each other; individuals may reproduce
social structures or they may choose to transform them (Giddens, 1984;
Social structures relating to power, status and authority are reflected in the
places that we live in. Foucault cited Jeremy Bentham’s architectural invention
of the panopticon as a reflection of power and authority in organizations,
where the powerless could be seen but could not see the powerful in return
(Foucault, 1977; McKinlay and Starkey, 1998). Technological objects are also
manifestations of culture, both of the organization and of the broader social
system. Mumford (cited in Kingery, 1993: 215) suggested that ‘the machine
cannot be divorced from its larger social pattern; for it is this pattern that gives
it meaning and purpose’. In a factory, for example, there is a system of disci-
pline, of rules, of politics in the traditional sense. The forms of machines help
enforce these rules: they suggest the easiest possibilities to those who use them.
They mediate between the people who make the rules and the people who have
to follow them. The social structures that influence and are influenced by the
material culture and space are in juxtaposition to the human need to protect
personal space and maintain identity.
The power of individual will determine their capacity to protect their per-
sonal space from intrusion by others. Schwartz (1968, cited in Altman, 1975)
noted that while people with high status often have the right to intrude on oth-
ers of lower status, the reverse is usually not the case. According to Altman
(1975: 37), personal space is ‘the individual boundary surrounding the self;
619O’Toole & Were: Observing places
intrusion into this space creates tension or discomfort’. Territorial behaviour is
defined by Altman as ‘a self/other boundary-regulation mechanism that
involves personalization of or marking of a place or object and communication
that it is “owned” by a person or group.... Defense [sic] responses may some-
times occur when territorial boundaries are violated.’ The markers used to
define an area or object may be fences, signs, or other objects.
Altman noted how personal space (or the lack of it) is associated with
wealth, status and power. Altman (1975: 41) argued that:
children or low-status persons are entitled to few privacy mechanisms than a
higher-status person. Thus the higher the person’s rank in an organization, the
more private his or her office and the more barriers (passageways, secretaries)
between the person and others.
It should be noted here that although the distance inherent in personal space
may change from culture to culture, Altman maintained that every culture
has privacy mechanisms. Each culture, however, places a different emphasis
on psychological mechanisms, physical mechanisms, and behavioural mecha-
nisms. Altman described a dialectic relationship for the individual, a dialectic
occurring in terms of the need for human contact, which requires access, and
the desire for privacy. With reference to the individual and their place in social
structures such as workplaces, this desire for privacy and personal space is in
conflict with the needs and requirements of collective living. The more power
that an individual has, however, the greater their ability to meet their own
needs for privacy and personal space.
Naturally, a researcher would need to gain an understanding of the specific
context before drawing conclusions based on physical evidence. Further dis-
cussion regarding power and identity will form part of the succeeding exam-
ples from a research site.
Conceptualizing analysis in a research site
In order to use the physical as data in a research study, it becomes necessary to
problematize the physical. In the research site described in the next section,
photographs were taken, floor plans sketched,
and descriptions of the physi-
cal world were captured to add richness to the study. Glaser (1978) has advised
in his explanations of Grounded Theory Method to continually ask the ques-
tion ‘what is going on with this data?’; taking this advice leads the researcher
into asking questions concerning why people congregate in one area and leave
another abandoned, why entries are placed where they are, how objects are
used, why objects are displayed or not displayed and so on.
Studies that deal with the physical world can range from studies of one object
(for example, Spector, 1993) or a class of objects (for example, Dupont, 1991);
or, as shown in this article, to objects within a space, culture, structure and
practice. The former will usually involve in-depth investigation of manufacture
Qualitative Research 8(5)
621O’Toole & Were: Observing places
and materials, as well as function, usage and place in a social and historical
order. The latter views objects from a perspective of data assemblage, where
other data sources are investigated that can give insights into a broader picture
of life and human activity. In this type of the analysis, the objects are data that
resolve a broader question. In the former, on the other hand, the object itself is
In an attempt to outline a theory of material culture, Hodder (2000) iso-
lated two approaches by which material culture can be interpreted. These
approaches were based on two areas of material meaning. The first category of
material culture is that which is ‘designed specifically to be communicative
and representation’ (p. 706). For this type of material culture, Hodder gave an
example of written texts, but pointed out that this category also extended to
such symbols as badges and uniforms of certain professions; and signals, such
as traffic lights.
The second category, which is more relevant to this article and on which this
study was anchored, is the type of material culture that is ‘embedded in a set
of practices and whose meanings can only be deciphered through practice and
evocation – through networking, interconnection, and mutual implication of
materials and non-materials’ (Hodder, 2000: 708). This category of material
culture represents social and symbolic meaning that is tacit in nature and is
embedded in the culture and practices of the group. The interpretation of this
type of material culture should therefore be done within the context of the cul-
ture in which it is practiced.
According to Hodder (2000: 712) ‘the interpretation is based on the simul-
taneous evaluation of similarities and differences, context and theory’. For the
researcher, the perspectives of the participants that are part of the research
site are sources of significant insights. These insights, however, need to be
viewed cautiously, as sometimes the actions and knowledge related to the
objects may be tacit. Zuboff (1988: 58–60), in her account of workers in the
older pulp and paper mills of Piney Wood and Tiger Creek, gave this account:
There are operators who can operate the paper machine with tremendous effi-
ciency, but they cannot describe to you how they do it. They have built-in action
and senses that they are not aware of. One operation required pulling two levers
simultaneously, and they are not conscious of the fact that they were pulling two
levers. They said that they were pulling one.
This account shows the interaction between the operators and the machines.
Depending on the nature of the study being undertaken, this lack of con-
sciousness means that to simply interview participants in a research setting
may result in flawed data, and points to the need to analyse the material culture
and the interaction among the material culture and the involved participants.
In ethnomethodological studies, an indepth understanding of the activities,
tools, roles and functions used by the participants in the research setting
enable researchers to investigate the nature and practice of everyday activity
(Heath and Hindmarsh, 2002; ten Have, 2004). In Heath and Hindmarsh’s
study of a medical consultation, video recordings in conjunction with other
field methods are used to capture the interaction of the participants with each
other and with physical objects to discern resources and strategies used by the
participants as part of the interaction. In this study, in contrast, space and
objects are examined to investigate the relationships between participants and
the organization in terms of power, control and identity.
TH E RE S EA RC H S I T E
Examples of space and material culture analysis are now presented that were
undertaken when one of the authors (Paddy O’Toole) conducted research in a
technology company, thus the account of the research site uses the first per-
son singular in terms of researcher action.
This company commenced in 1985 and had operations in Australia, Ireland
and the USA. This company had been lauded by government and won awards
for its achievements from peak business councils. I chose this organization as
a case study for an investigation concerning the structure of knowledge in
innovative organizations. During the data collection period of 10 months, par-
ticipant observation and interviews were conducted, documents scrutinized
and the floor plans and physical layouts were recorded. The data was analysed
using Grounded Theory Method techniques, with codes emerging through a
comparison of event with event, operation with operation and the research
site with the literature.
The organization is located in a quiet, semi-industrial suburb in Adelaide,
Australia. The entrance, through a slightly twisted security gate, leads to the
L-shaped main building, which partially surrounds a car park. This building
appears to be comprised of predominantly warehouse facilities: the warehouse
door, which is often obscured by loading and unloading trucks, dominated the
external frontage of the main building. The short arm of the L was comprised
of two floors, housing the Accounts and Management departments on the top
floor, and the Research and Development (R&D) department on the ground
floor. Other buildings are within the grounds and are periodically used for
product testing and as workshops. The main building has a neat, if uninspired
corporate garden in front and tall eucalypt trees can be seen behind. The
grounds are surrounded by a chainlink fence.
The company had experienced dramatic growth in the preceding three years,
and approximately 70 per cent of the approximately 110 staff had been
employed during this period. This accounted for the somewhat jury-rigged feel-
ing of the warehouse side of the main building. A mezzanine had been built on
one side of the warehouse to accommodate the marketing people and the engi-
neers, and I could feel the floor shake when walking over it. The warehouse
itself, beside crates of components, housed a production section. The people
employed in production endured very cold winter temperatures and torturing
heat in summer, due to the improvised facilities. Despite the dramatic growth in
Qualitative Research 8(5)
employee numbers, the organization had retained something of a ‘family’ feel
that sometimes occurs in small organizations. The conversation style was infor-
mal, and the most humble workers called the Managing Director by his first
name. Staff congregated at lunchtime, and social gatherings were common.
During the data collection phase of the research study, several weeks were
spent with each department of the organization. These departments were orga-
nized on functional lines, for example, the Accounting Department and the
R&D Department. At a broad level, the predominant occupational subculture
seemed to be reflected in the material culture of the department. Walking into
the Accounting Department was to walk into a haven of neatness and order.
Most of the accounting staff sat in an open plan space, with shoulder-height
carrels protruding from one wall, desks positioned in tidy parallels in the centre
of the floor, and glass-faced offices for the Accounting Manager and other man-
agers lining the other wall. The Accounting Department worked with paper,
and tidy piles of paper would be placed on desks, with the edge of the piles par-
allel to the edge of the desk. Sometimes Accounting staff would have to recon-
cile figures, and the printouts would be turned so that the folds stayed true to
the original creases. Lever arch files were tidily lined up on bookshelves, and
pens and pencils were kept either in the drawers or in a small cup or other recep-
tacle. The Accounting Department was comprised mainly of young to middle-
aged women who had learnt that to keep the printouts, balance sheets and
revenue statements in any sort of order, neatness and system had to prevail.
The R&D Department, on the other hand, was chaotic, with equipment,
components and people in various states and in various positions. The mater-
ial culture reflected the work habits and character of the occupational group rep-
resented. The R&D Department, however, had a mixed population that had
been hired for the ability to create and innovate, often in short time frames,
and their workplace reflected this. The quotation below, created for a research
manuscript, was based on my first experience of the environment of this R&D
Department. The names, of course, have been changed, and the ‘new recruit’
takes the place of the researcher. Otherwise this is an accurate representation.
The new recruit knocks on the door as instructed. It opens to a face she has seen
in the tearoom. The new recruit asks the whereabouts of Thommo’s desk. ‘Walk
straight down this aisle and then turn left. Don’t take a shortcut through that
work area. Doug is working on something there that’s a bit sensitive’. ‘Yeah, like
the Hiroshima bomb was sensitive!’ interjects a passerby. The new recruit edges
past a contraption made of balsa wood that takes up most of the aisle space. A leg
swings out from under the contraption missing her narrowly. ‘Sorry!’ The body
belonging to the leg crawls out. The new recruit picks up a battery that had rolled
away from two women sitting on the floor and returns it. They smile and thank her
and go on counting. Snatches of conversations about the Osmonds, how water
arrived on Earth, the death of Princess Di and the production date of the new
release fill the air. A man strides by alternatively clutching his head and swinging
his arms. She has fallen down the rabbit hole and arrived in R&D. (O’Toole,
623O’Toole & Were: Observing places
As indicated by the quotation above, the space of the R&D department
tended to be crowded, untidy and bestrewn with objects and components that
the R&D people happened to be working with. It is to be expected, perhaps, that
the composition of the material culture would change according to the opera-
tional nature of the department in the organization. It is not surprising that
paper should be prominent in an accounting department and printed circuit
boards and other components prominent in a R&D department in a technol-
ogy company. It can be seen, however, that not only the composition, but the
disposition, of the material objects were affected by the culture of the opera-
tional department. In the Accounting Department, objects were disposed in
a neat and orderly way, but in the R&D Department, the objects were
The vignettes below give more specific examples of how both space and
material culture can contribute to qualitative data. It should be noted that
these data sources are not analysed in isolation. Instead they are analysed in
conjunction with interviews and participant observation. It is undeniable,
however, that the interrogation of material culture and space in this research
study brings to light issues of power, identity and status that may well have
been otherwise unexplored.
The first vignette gives an example of how blocking off a door indicated
changes in the company’s political structure.
The blocked door One of the departments observed was involved in the repair of
faulty units. If a customer bought a product that was later seen to be defective,
the customer would return the unit for repair under warranty. The work of
this department employed two men. Karl was an extrovert who cared about his
customers. Although he was employed to fix faulty products, much of his time
was taken up soothing and reassuring frustrated customers via the telephone.
The other man, Adrian, was happy to let Karl placate customers while he pried
casings from products and tinkered with (to my untutored eye) the tangle of
wires, nodes and mass that make up electronics.
The physical location of the department was a room on the ground floor of
the building approximately 3 m wide by 4 m long. Walking into the room for
the first time, I was struck by the lack of light, which was apparently compen-
sated for by the lamps on each of the two draughting tables. The men perched
on draughting stools while they pored over the units, trying to ascertain the
cause of the machine’s recalcitrance. The room, to the untutored eye,
appeared a jumble of components, tools and products. The units under repair
were hung on the walls of the carrels, provided there was room. If not, they
were placed against available walls. Coils and cords were festooned around the
desks and the shelves.
The repair area itself consisted of two desks and a series of shelves that
stored the components needed to repair the units. These shelves were placed
Qualitative Research 8(5)
against the wall, and were positioned by insertion into slotted supports that
had been screwed to the walls. After spending a few days in the repair unit with
the men, I noticed that, behind the shelving that shared a wall with the ware-
house, was a door. Entry was prevented, however, by the shelving. When I
asked Karl why the door was blocked off, he answered that the R&D people had
caused too many problems by entering that door and helping themselves to
Reynolds (1987: 157) used the term material system to denote the ‘complex
interacting unity of behaviour, idea and objects that is polarized around each
individual element of a material culture’. In this case, the door and shelving
were parts of a material system that was both a symbol and symptomatic of a
change in the power relations within the organization.
When the organization commenced, the technology that enabled the opera-
tion of the products was the key strength for the organization. The R&D people
provided the core expertise that made the company a success. The R&D people
were creative free thinkers – a group of physicists, technicians and others who
invented new technologies through, it seemed to me as an observer, a playful
group dialogue and disregard for rules. As the company became successful,
however, the demand for the products grew. To keep up with demand, produc-
tion had to become more efficient and standardized. This caused the entry to
the organization of more people to work in or with the production area, and
managers to oversee the supply of products to markets around the world. They
in turn influenced the company with their previous experience and expertise
in production process and engineering, and introduced a discipline that the
R&D people lacked. The number of people entering the company, some of them
at a senior level, with similar experience and values, meant a change in the
way organizational operations were conducted, and a change in the power
relations of the organization. The free, laissez faire, inventive culture of R&D
clashed with the discipline of Production. People from R&D could no longer
‘forage’ for the parts they needed, and the physical work place was altered to
enforce these rules. Schein (1996) illustrated how different occupational
groups within organizations could exert political domination over other
groups. The blocked door is a physical manifestation of a change in political
dominance and signals the decline of a group that the organization formerly
privileged. The blocked door denied access to everyone, but the block was
aimed at the people in R&D. In this research study, the blocked door acts as an
indicator or signpost that warrants further enquiry. Making sense of the
blocked door in terms of the organization’s culture and political structure, and
piecing together the data provided by interviews, conversations and observa-
tions, as well as the door, resulted in a picture of the political development of
The door, however, is an object that is sited within the working operations of
the organization. Objects that are personal possessions of people working
within the organization also have meaning for the researcher.
625O’Toole & Were: Observing places
PE R SO NAL S PAC E A N D O B JE C TS
Concepts regarding personal space and privacy have been outlined in a previ-
ous section. It was noted that people may place objects in their personal space
to denote their territory.
In the research site, the employees of the organization had placed objects
around their desks that related to previous employment, relationships both
within and outside the organization, comic strips and various decorative
knick-knacks. In a large number of cases, the objects held some meaning for
the individual in matters such as their roles and relationships outside the
workplace, former careers and unfulfilled aspirations, in other words, the per-
sonal objects acted to manifest the individual’s knowledge and perception of
themselves, that is, their identity. Campbell (1996) warned of validity issues
where academics made assumptions about symbolic meanings without asking
the people involved. This caution may be a little simplistic – as Hodder (2000)
pointed out ‘what people say’ is often very different from ‘what people do’. In
the research site, it became clear that people often had only a vague or no idea
why they displayed various objects. After I experienced this type of reaction on
multiple occasions, I concluded that the symbolic meanings of material cul-
ture can be both complex and tacit, although it is possible through question-
ing and observation to arrive at conclusions that are acceptable to both
researcher and respondent. The next two examples, ‘the receptionist’s desk’
and ‘the temp and the photographs’, show how objects can serve not only to
mark a personal space, but to connect an individual to their life outside the
workplace and to maintain a treasured identity while within the workplace.
The receptionist’s desk In western corporate organizations, the front entrance is
often the site for the Reception Desk. The role of the receptionist ostensibly is usu-
ally to greet and direct visitors, answer the telephone and manage the switch-
board, receive and register deliveries and generally act as the ‘face’ of the
organization. The reception desk is generally between the world and the ‘back
office’ functions of the company. The receptionist is responsible for ensuring that
visitors are directed to where they are supposed to go. The receptionist is also gen-
erally expected to conform to the projected image of the company. The reception-
ist should blend in with the corporate furniture to present a consistent message to
visitors about the values of the company. The persona of many companies is also
at least partially reliant on the appearance and display provided by meeting rooms
and offices of the senior and middle managers. Important visitors, at least, are
directed to these more palatial settings by the receptionist, while visitors of lesser
status are directed to areas of lesser status within the company.
When visitors to the technology company arrive in the car park of the build-
ing, they are directed by a sign to mount the stairs to the reception area. As the
visitors mount the stairs, the reception area comes into view; carpeted in neu-
tral colours, with a montage of pictures of the staff and the products that
Qualitative Research 8(5)
draws the eye. Some comfortable chairs line one side of the area, and the
visitors see the neatly dressed receptionist sitting at a desk. The impression is
one of clean lines and polish. Behind the receptionist is an opaque wall of
black glass. The receptionist, Jenny, is looking at them from behind the clear
bench, smiling and ready to help them with their enquiries. Jenny confided to
me several times that she hated her job. She wouldn’t be able to stand it if it
wasn’t for the people with whom she worked.
Jenny’s situation was a story of power, or rather, lack of power. The role of
the receptionist is comparatively low-status. As the face of the company, she
was constantly on view while at her desk. And the role of receptionist necessi-
tated that Jenny stayed at her desk. When she went to lunch or the wash-
rooms, she had to arrange for some-one to temporarily fulfil her function,
depending on the length of time she would be absent. If a person covered for
her, they would sit on her chair in her workspace. Others in the workplace
could visit Jenny for a chat, she could not visit them. Her relief, Angela, was
sheltered behind the black glass wall, which meant that Angela could see if
Jenny was speaking on the telephone if another call came through. Thus
Jenny had little control over her own movements and was subject to constant
surveillance. A fairly obvious theoretical construct is supplied by Foucault
(1977) in terms of power and visibility. Jenny could be seen by many people
but could not see them in return. Jenny had little power in the company, she
could not leave the reception desk, the reception desk was periodically
‘invaded’ by others. Jenny was essentially at the mercy of any garrulous visi-
tor or co-worker. The other tasks that she was obliged to undertake were gen-
erally routine because her primary role was to be the face of the company and
the conduit through which visitors passed.
It is interesting to note that Jenny’s desk was called the ‘reception’ desk
rather than the ‘receptionist’s desk’, although people did refer to ‘Jenny’s desk’.
The terminology used in the company indicated that although Jenny herself
had gained an identity and recognition of her personal space, her role was one
without any allocated space; only the function mattered. In contrast, within
the company there were references made, for example, to the ‘Engineers’
desks’ and the ‘Production Controller’s desks’. The roles had higher status and
space was tacitly allocated to the role as well as to the function.
Although to the visitor, the reception desk was professional and uncluttered,
walking around the desk to Jenny’s space showed a different picture. Jenny dis-
played a great deal of bric-a-brac as well as some photographs of her dog and
her partner in what seemed a cluttered and haphazard way. When I asked
Jenny about the objects, she laughed and shook her head. She said that ‘it had
just happened that way’.
The workspace of an individual is a significant indication of their power in
an organization. Physically separated offices insulate each member and give a
measure of autonomy to those within them, and the size and appointments of
an office serves as a powerful indication of hierarchy (Fischer, 1997; Giddens,
627O’Toole & Were: Observing places
628 Qualitative Research 8(5)
1984; Rosen et al., 1990). The physical layout of workplaces can also affect
the behaviour of organizational members (Oldham and Rotchford, 1983;
Strati, 1990) and show the structure of an organization (Giddens, 1984;
Rosen et al., 1990). Jenny’s space was part of the open space. It confirmed the
low status of the role. Jenny responded to that status by establishing an area
that was overwhelmingly hers, even though that space was regularly invaded.
The photographs in particular connected her to her other identity, as partner
and besotted dog owner. These objects were a strategy to help her cope with
disadvantages of her role, and to maintain a preferred identity while having to
cope with her workplace role and can be seen as an act of resistance to control
The ‘temp’ and the photographs This second example involved photographs that
were not displayed. During my time in the organization, a temporary worker
was employed for a couple of weeks to replace Jenny who went on leave.
Temporary workers (‘temps’) are employed to fill a gap. Many temporary
employees come to organizations through temporary work agencies who
screen and hire employees, and in turn contract these employees out to other
organizations. Work places often need temps to take over for staff who are ill,
on vacation, or when the work is subject to periodic and dramatic increases
(Kalleberg, 2000). Temps are often employed for no more than a few months,
FI G U R E 1. The receptionist’s desk
and sometimes for only a day or a week. Because of the nature of their employ-
ment, temps generally occupy the space that belongs to the absent workers
they are replacing, and may use other people’s equipment. Rodman (1992:
650) noted that ‘[t]he most powerless people have no place at all’. In the case
of temps, their allocated place within an organization is not really their own.
They are there to fulfil a function, and although their co-workers may be pleas-
ant, it is generally understood that there is not much point in forming close
relationships, as the temp may be gone tomorrow. Although many high status
roles may have people who work on short contracts, or be employed by spe-
cialist temporary help agencies, the class of worker known as the ‘temp’ tends
to fill low status roles in organizations, where skills such as typing and work
processing and the ability to direct telephone calls are required. According to
Kalleberg (2000), most temps have no career path and tend not to receive any
training or career development, and for the temps themselves, ‘having tempo-
rary work is often better than not having a job at all’ (p. 350).
The temp in this case, Sarah, was engaged to take over the role of the recep-
tionist while the receptionist was on leave. While I was chatting to Sarah,
I asked her if she had any personal things that she liked to bring with her on
her various jobs. She brought out of her handbag an envelope of about 10
photographs. The photographs pictured her partner, her parents and other
members of her family. When asked if she had ever accidentally left them at
home, she replied that she had. When I asked her how that had felt, she replied
that it was ‘terrible’; she couldn’t get ‘settled’ and when she went home she
immediately found the photographs and put them in her bag. Her conversation
at this time was punctuated by grimaces and some shivering. It seemed clear
that she did not enjoy the memory of that event.
It is suggested that in this case, the photographs represented the stability
and warm relationships and her identity as a mother, sister and friend in
Sarah’s other life. They were the unchanging happy things in her life; they
were effectively manifestations of her stable identity grasped throughout her
life as a temp in changing workplaces. The photographs were thus an objecti-
fication of a life outside of working hours where Sarah was valued and
respected as a significant part of a happy family unit, and helped her maintain
this identity in the face of the disadvantages of being a temp. Miller (1994,
cited in Parrot, 2005: 247–8) distinguished between two sets of values that
may be expressed through material domains. One set of values relates to a
sense of the past, stability and permanence; the other set of values to ‘the
retention of a sense of freedom’. The possession of the photographs by Sarah
points to a wish to remain connected to the happy stability and permanence of
her family. She kept, however, these photographs in her handbag. There was
no folder or frames, no display on her desk, which is reminiscent of the situa-
tion in Parrot’s study of psychiatric patients. Parrot found that many of the
patients were reluctant to decorate their rooms. According to Parrott (2005:
629O’Toole & Were: Observing places
250), ‘”It’s not forever”’ was the ‘inevitable mantra of every conversation on
the transformation of individual bedrooms’. A similarity between Parrot’s
respondents and Sarah is that of time. In each case, there was an issue of lack
of permanency in their continued occupancy of a place. The difference
between the participants in Parrott’s study and Sarah is that the participants
were involuntary occupants of the psychiatric wards. Sarah, on the other
hand, had voluntarily entered this workplace, and had embarked on life as a
temp worker for her own reasons. She did not, however, claim possession of the
space assigned to her by displaying her treasured photographs. Her time in the
organization was short, and to establish possession of space by marking terri-
tory with photographs when she would shortly go on to another place was
pointless. Her borrowed space was Jenny’s (see Figure 1) who had already
aggressively marked the reception desk as hers by a variety of objects and pho-
tographs. Instead Sarah’s photographs were kept in the only private space that
was unquestionably hers – her handbag. Thus the temp carried the manifesta-
tions of her identity with her, from workplace to workplace, and maintained
her preferred identity of her home life.
In the examples of the receptionist’s desk and the temporary worker’s pho-
tographs, the material objects hark to another life outside the office. Assman
(1995: 127, 130) reminds us that individuals are members of many groups
and therefore have numerous self-images and memories. On a larger scale,
Assman propounds that the objectivization of culture through monuments,
texts and rites serves to maintain the ‘concretion of identity’ (p. 130), which
preserves the identity of the culture with a minimal sullying through inter-
vening events. In the two examples above, the material objects that relate to
their lives outside the office point to an identity where they ‘own’ their own
space and form a group in which they are valued as girlfriend, mother, daugh-
ter and so on. The photographs in particular are a window to a world peopled
by friends and family who value them. The material objects in the form of bric-
a-brac and photographs anchor them to this more positive self-identity and
enables them to cope with the lack of power and status that is manifested by
the lack of personal space.
The examples above are brief vignettes taken from a much larger study. They
illustrate how simple, taken for granted things – a blocked door, bric-a-brac and
photographs – can give insights into life. In the study above, conclusions drawn
were based on multiple data sources. Because the research site was a corporate
organization, conversations and interviews with research participants con-
tributed to the data. If a particular entrance to a building, for example, is locked,
the researcher can check whether the door is locked continually for a particular
reason, or whether the door is opened for any reason at any time. The ability to
ask questions – ‘Why is this office larger than that?’ ‘Where do you talk to other
Qualitative Research 8(5)
631O’Toole & Were: Observing places
people?’ – can either contribute to the understanding of the context under inves-
tigation, or, alternatively, raise dilemmas and queries, the resolution of which
can add significantly to theoretical insights. The ethnographer, in particular, can
engage in the interaction of the research participants and their material world.
Space and material culture deal with the implicit and unspoken and with shift-
ing realities, which means that the researcher needs to deal thoughtfully with
the data. According to Rodman (1992: 643):
It is time to recognize that places, like voices, are local and multiple. For each
inhabitant, a place has a unique reality, one in which meaning is shared with
other people and places. The links in these chains of experienced places are
forged of culture and history.
In Hodder’s (1987: 19) exposition on the symbolic representation of bow
ties in a pet food factory, he noted that ‘[i]t is not easy to say [italics in text]
what the bow ties, the plants and the white coats mean. But in practice they
evoke particular images, perhaps interpreted differently by different people,
but nevertheless effective if competently displayed’. This engagement with
space and material culture engenders a tacit understanding as well as the
explicit collection and analysis of data. The challenge for the researcher is to
explicate an integration of the tacit and explicit into a trustworthy account
and defensible conceptual framework.
The tacit nature of space and material culture data means that other data
sources can and should be interrogated. A consistency found in the analysis of
differing data sources will mean that the researcher can have confidence in con-
clusions drawn from the analysis. Inconsistencies, however, can lead to new
questions requiring resolution that ultimately lead to richer understanding.
Space and material culture is a pervading facet of human life. It is both a
manifestation and influence on our cultures, social structures, sense of
agency, identity and power structures. To include space and material culture in
our data collection and analysis is to include a rich source of insight that gives
the researcher a deeper perception of the intangible and tacit through an
examination of the corporeal and present.
N O T E
1. Floor plans were requested but not forthcoming.
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PADDY O’TOOLE is a senior lecturer at Flinders University in South Australia. She is
currently researching organizational learning in the Australian Army. Her principal
research interests concern knowledge management and organizational learning.
Address: Flinders University, School of Education, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001,
Australia. [email: email@example.com]
PRISCA WERE is a human resource development officer with the Teachers Service
Commission in Kenya, and has recently completed her Master of Education (Leadership
and Management) at Flinders University. Formerly a school principal, she has a strong
interest in organizational learning and how space and material culture influences
learning and knowledge within organizations. Address: Flinders University, School of
Education, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001, Australia.
Qualitative Research 8(5)