The Listening, Observing and Tracing Strategy

By Carlo Mari, University of Molise, Italy, and Olimpia Meglio, University of Sannio, Italy

Data collection in longitudinal field research should preferably be conducted using a multi-technique approach if scholars want to build evidence that is both broad and deep. The need for depth and breadth is a result of the data being contextually and temporally bounded in longitudinal field studies (Mari & Meglio, 2013b). Combining a range of different methods, when carrying out research over time, allows for the cross-validation of data and enables the research strategy to be modified when collecting further data. We think that there is enough empirical evidence and sufficient suggestions from seasoned scholars to recommend adopting a multi-method approach to data collection when conducting longitudinal field research, even though a comprehensive framework for guiding such an approach is still lacking. Our contribution is to bridge this gap and formulate a proposal for organizing the different data-gathering techniques within a comprehensive framework that can be defined as the listening, observing and tracing (LOT) strategy (Mari & Meglio, 2013a). As far as we know, both the label and the acronym are new, and we think that it might form an effective way to avoid neglecting potential routes for data collection. Of course, we do not claim that our proposal is completely new, because others before us have called for a multi-method approach, but our formulation tries to combine in a single strategy the toolbox of every longitudinal field researcher. Listening, observing and tracing are the core approaches for data gathering in research where there are two main features: the immersion in the ongoing social activities of some individuals or group, and the across-time perspective. The LOT strategy is the result of a series of dilemmas that any researcher needs to address during the course of the research process (McGrath, 1981) when deciding how to conduct their inquiry. This approach is an alternative framework to the conventional discourse about the research process, depicted as a linear and logical flow of tasks from problem formulation to the implementation of results.

The proposed strategy is a blend of listening, observing and tracing techniques. Taken together, these techniques depict a coherent strategy, based on three fundamental approaches to data gathering that are not necessarily employed in all fieldwork, but are strongly recommended for building broad and deep data. These approaches share the following characteristics. Firstly, each of them can help in studying a social setting (Spradley, 1980) through its basic dimensions (that is, actors, activities and places). More precisely people, groups and collectivities may be understood by using a combination of listening, observing and tracing approaches. Activities and behaviours engaged in by actors, and the physical space and territory where actors display that behaviour, require observing and tracing approaches to be used in order to collect data. Secondly, gathering data is a cyclical task that is repeated many times during the course of the fieldwork, especially in a longitudinal study. What changes over time is the emphasis of data collection, which moves from descriptive to focused, to selective, like a funnel (Spradley, 1980). Initially, researchers gather broad data in order to gain an overview of the social setting and what goes on there (that is, descriptive emphasis). After analysing the initial evidence, the researcher is able to narrow the scope of the investigation and collect further data (that is, focused emphasis). Finally, after more analysis, the fieldwork proceeds in a narrower direction that represents the smallest focus through which data are gathered (that is, selective emphasis). The funnel progression is applied to actors, activities and places relevant to the research topic. Thirdly, each research approach can employ one or more specific research techniques to gather data.

Here we present the most useful techniques for longitudinal fieldwork, highlighting their features in a comparative way rather than providing a detailed description of each of them. The listening approach is based on interviewing, which means understanding how informants make sense of their actions (Lofland, Snow, Anderson, & Lofland, 2006). It means that researchers try to access the internal lives of people and give voice to them (Langley, 2009) through speech as the data source. Interviewing can be conducted at the individual and group levels, depending on both the research aims and the broader range of influences depicted above. Ideally, the two levels should not be considered as alternatives, but rather as complementary in cross-validating data.

The observation approach enables close access to and experience of the lives and activities of others (Dawson, 1997; Lofland et al., 2006). It means understanding evolving patterns of daily interaction and behaviour that shed light on the ‘how’ of organizational life. Observation can be participant or non-participant, according to the role played by the researchers. The former implies that they actually participate in the work they are investigating. This may happen overtly (that is, working as a temporary member of the organization and asking permission to conduct the fieldwork) or covertly (that is, taking a working role without disclosing the research aims). The latter requires the researchers to observe the phenomena but not take part in them. Moreover non-participant observation involves limited interaction between the people observed and the researchers.

The tracing approach to organizational research provides a valuable way of studying key event chronologies spanning long periods of time, records of arguments and justifications (Langley, 2009), and logs of personal activities and events (Alaszewski, 2006). It takes the form of diaries and archival records, and may contribute to a better understanding of the organizational life because it conveys data that are usually difficult to gather through the other approaches. Here, we refer to solicited diaries that fit the research aims rather than unsolicited documents that are already available, such as life histories or memoirs (Alaszewski, 2006). Archival records (Ventresca & Mohr, 2002; Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, & Sechrest, 2000) are written materials that can be produced by either public sources (that is, data periodically gathered for purposes other than scholarly ones) or private sources (data from organizational archives).


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Mari, C., & Meglio, O. (2013a). Planning data collection in longitudinal field research: Small and not so small practical issues. In M. E. Hassett & E. Paavilainen-Mäntymäki (Eds.), Handbook of Longitudinal Research Methods in Organisation and Business Studies (pp. 295-317). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Mari, C., & Meglio, O. (2013b). Temporal issues in process research. In M. E. Hassett & E. Paavilainen-Mäntymäki (Eds.), Handbook of Longitudinal Research Methods in Organisation and Business Studies (pp. 204-228). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

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Webb, E., Campbell, D. T., Schwartz, R. D., & Sechrest, L. (2000). Unobtrusive Measures (Revised ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Please email Olimpia Megglio (meglio at to read more. She can provide the full text of Carlo & Meglio (2013a) and Carlo & Meglio (2013b).

© 2013, Carlo Mari and Olimpia Meglio. All rights reserved