UCL Anthropology


Cultivating Excellence: UCL's Research Culture Ethnography

In the wake of the sudden Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, organizations worldwide faced an unprecedented challenge: transitioning large teams, including HR and Professional Services, to remote work practically overnight.

At University College London (UCL), this shift raised critical questions about the evolving nature of organizational life.

Our ground-breaking online ethnography during this period illuminated the uncharted territory of remote work, offering invaluable insights that revolutionized UCL’s approach to workforce dynamics.


In our comprehensive ethnography, we engaged with UCL's research community, spanning the entire spectrum from passionate PhD candidates to seasoned Professors in the Social and Physical Sciences. Through immersive fieldwork and candid interviews, we deciphered the subtle nuances that define UCL's Research Culture.


Our study unveiled key insights:

Research Cultures…plural: There is no single, cohesive research culture at an interdisciplinary university like UCL. Across the physical and social sciences alone, there are notable differences in career trajectory, publishing practices, funding structures, and teaching approaches, which cumulatively lead to multiple, intersecting research cultures across the university.

Research Cultures are an ecosystem: The day-to-day realities of research in universities are tethered to a large ecosystem of external funding, which runs along different timelines and according to different agendas and goals. A successful research career requires continuously bridging the competing demands of university life and funding bodies.

Research Cultures are Relational: While strong research cultures nurture successful and measurable outputs such as successful funding bids and top ranked publications, the building blocks of research cultures are relationships of support, collegiality, competition, and mentorship, which are rarely captured by ordinary measures of success.

Benefits and outcomes

The outcomes of our study catalyzed transformative changes:

Relational Research Cultures Toolkit: By understanding the ways in which research culture is fundamentally relational, it is now possible to develop a toolkit that integrates relational dimensions at the heart of research culture into institutional processes and policies.

Virtuous, Sustainable Circle of Research Culture: By commissioning its own researchers to investigate research cultures at UCL, the university is not only investing in its existing research power, but it is also learning from its in-house researchers about how to continuously promote healthy and sustainable research culture.

Our ethnographic journey not only illuminated the complex tapestry of UCL's Research Cultures but also empowered the institution to foster an inclusive, and sustainable research environment.