Sub-theme 74: The Question of the Possible in Ethnography as Organizational Research: Thinking, Doing, and Experimenting in/with Ethnographic Practices

Oz Gore
University of Leicester, United Kingdom
Damian O'Doherty
University of Manchester, United Kingdom
Helene Ratner
Aarhus University, Denmark

Call for Papers

What is possible to think and do ethnographically in organizational research today? When organizing for an inclusive society, what can and what should ethnography do to contribute? With this call we invite papers from ethnographic research that tackle issues pertaining to inclusion in society. Contributors may be working on organization in social care, migration, populism, identity politics, modern slavery, climate emergency, digital and network technologies, big data and predictive algorithms, but wherever their work takes them researchers will have novel ethnographic tales to tell about how inclusion and society are currently being organized. We are specifically interested in research which has discovered that ethnography is most productive when it avoids imposing abstracted intellectual or theoretical constructs onto a field of study and instead works with concepts that are native or immanent to a field. We are specifically interested in research that has ‘discovered’ and then analytically worked on the ways in which indigenous members of organization deploy the terms ‘inclusion’ and ‘society’.
With its roots in anthropology, ethnography as a ‘field science’ (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997; Ong & Collier, 2005) has a rich tradition of grappling with questions of inclusion and exclusion (Ahmed, 2012). Recently organizational ethnographers have begun to grapple with what was understood by anthropologists as a ‘crisis of representation’ (Clifford & Marcus, 1986). This ‘crisis’ originally concerned the ways in which anthropologists represented people from the studied cultures or communities as the Other to the anthropologists, as temporally and spatially different from Euro-American societies (Fabian, 1983). While scholars using ethnography have been particularly successful at including ‘others’ by challenging and seeking to undermine exclusionary historical or cultural projects, such inclusions may also inadvertently construct those studied as Others. As a consequence, ethnography’s current intellectual landscape soaks in debates about the exclusionary consequences of a researcher’s ‘gaze’ whilst combining this with the kind of experiments we seek to develop in this sub-theme, including new beings, activities, and processes that extend the boundaries of conventional social and cultural analysis.
These ethnographic experiments are particularly relevant today, when organizational scholarship is facing radically new inequalities as well as challenges from more-than-human encounters with ‘the technological’ and ‘the natural’, digital and mobile disruption, climate change, the onset of fragmented ‘new’ ways of working and organizing, and the changing structures of higher education within which academic research on organization takes place. And we are acutely aware now that we are part of the world we try to study, whether flying to conferences to deliver papers on the climate emergency or writing with the aid of Google scholar and journal data analytics that help shape our contribution and the academic conversation. We are implicated in the making of the world as we study it. We also know that our ethnographic interlocutors are reflexively engaged with the world in similar ways. These conditions call for a continuation of ethnography’s interest in methodological and conceptual innovation as well as for new experiments with, and reinventing of, what ethnographies of organization might look like today.
This sub-theme encourages such discussions in a broad sense and across all kinds of organizational ethnographies, including ethnographies of mundane organizing practices and recent ethnographic studies trying to understand the extreme conditions of ‘life-on-the-brink’ that puts the very possibility of organization in jeopardy (Bresnen et al., 2017; Granter et al., 2019; Hällgren et al., 2018; Hyde et al, 2016; McCann et al., 2013; Ratner, 2019). How are these stories told? How do these ethnographies persuade us of the meanings, motivations and mechanisms that navigate between inclusion and exclusion? We want to advance these questions by also asking how scholars of organization experience the changing conditions of organizational ethnography. How do organizational scholars today grapple with classical and still relevant reflexive issues of othering, representation, and a proper inclusion of those we study? How must ethnography respond when the spaces of/in organizational ethnography are being redistributed across a range of human and non-human actors – climate, technology, knowledge, politics and societal struggle? How are we to partake in this happening? How can we experiment with this redistribution and what sort of experiments does this redistribution compel? Para-ethnography (Holmes & Marcus, 1986), lateral reason (Maurer, 2005), ontological turns (Holbraad & Pederson, 2017; Mol, 2002), ‘post-reflexive’ ethnography (Riles, 2002; Strathern, 1999), ‘after method’ (Law, 2004), and ‘infra-reflexivity’ (Latour, 1988) have been suggested by some as possible solutions to these dilemmas and questions.
Specialists in organization studies will also be developing their own responses and in this sub-theme we seek to share and encourage their advance. We invite papers that are interested in these questions and from authors who may still be doing fieldwork, those who have recently emerged from field research, or are planning to enter the field.
Themes to which contributors may wish to contribute include, but are not limited to:

  • Ethnographies that explore the organizational constitution and practices of inclusion/exclusion

  • Ethnographies which attempt to grapple with issues, or ‘grand challenges’, such as climate emergency and the technologies of ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff, 2019). How do these phenomena compel us to also change our ethnographic practices? And what are their implications for organization studies?

  • Ethnographies that practice new experiments in organizational ethnography. These may address issues associated with reflexivity, post-reflexivity and conceptual-empirical innovation. In particular, we ask how can ethnography become a site of methodological and conceptual innovation in management and organization studies?

  • Ethnographies that study emerging and changing conditions of organization. What are the new intensities, topologies, challenges and opportunities of/for ethnographic practices within the context of modern business schools or corporate organizations?

  • How does the context of working within modern corporations (either the business school or other work organizations) mediate the levels and applicability of methodological innovation in/with ethnography?

  • Insofar as we are becoming digital ethnographers of organization and/or clock up air miles as part of scholarship, in what sense does the production of organizational ethnography participate in a world of a new dark age? What are the ways out of this reflexive quandary (Marcus, 1994; 2001)?

  • What kind of research objects can ethnography help us enact through field encounters? How can we include such entities in oral narrative, in writing, in film, visually or with alternative academic articulations?

  • Finally, what are the limits of possibility in ethnography or alternatively what comes after ethnography in organization studies?


  • Ahmed, S. (2012): On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Bresnen, M., Hodgson, D., Bailey, S., Hyde, P., & Hassard, J. (2017): “Mobilizing management knowledge in healthcare: Institutional imperatives and professional and organizational mediating effects.” Management Learning, 48 (5), 597–614.
  • Clifford, J., & Marcus, G.E. (1986): Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Fabian, J. (1983): Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Garsten, C., & Nyqvist, A. (2013): Organisational Anthropology: Doing Ethnography In and Among Organizations. London: Pluto Press.
  • Granter, E., Wankhade, P., McCann, L., Hassard, J., & Hyde, P. (2019): “Multiple dimensions of work intensity: Ambulance work as edgework.” Work, Employment and Society, 33 (2), 280–297.
  • Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (1997): Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hällgren, M., Rouleau, L., & de Rond, M. (2018): “A matter of life or death: How extreme context research matters for management and organization studies.” Academy of Management Annals, 12 (1), 111–153.
  • Holbraad, M., & Pedersen, M.A. (2017): The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Holmes, D.R., & Marcus, G.E. (2008): “Para-ethnography.” In: L.M. Given (ed.): The SAGE Encyclopaedia of Qualitative Research Methods. London: SAGE Publications, 26–27.
  • Hyde, P., Granter, E., Hassard, J., & McCann, L. (2016): Deconstructing the Welfare State: Managing Healthcare in the Age of Reform. London: Routledge.
  • Latour, B. (1988): “The politics of explanation: An alternative.” In: S. Woolgar (ed.): Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: SAGE Publications, 155–176.
  • Law, J. (2004): After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. London: Routledge.
  • Marcus, G.E. (1994): “On ideologies of reflexivity in contemporary efforts to remake the human sciences.” Poetics Today, 15 (3), 383–404.
  • Marcus, G.E. (2001): “From rapport under erasure to theatres of complicit reflexivity.” Qualitative Inquiry, 7 (4), 519–528.
  • Marcus, G.E. (2016): Ethnography: Integration. Correspondences, Fieldsights,
  • Maurer, B. (2005): Mutual Life Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • McCann, L., Granter, E., Hyde, P., & Hassard, J. (2013): “Still blue-collar after all these years? An ethnography of the professionalization of emergency ambulance work.” Journal of Management Studies, 50 (5), 750–776.
  • Mol, A. (2002): The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Ong, A., & Collier, S.J. (2005): Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Malden: Blackwell.
  • Riles, A. (2002): The Network Inside Out. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
  • Ratner, H. (2019): “Topologies of organization: Space in continuous deformation.” Organization Studies, first published online on October 14, 2019,
  • Strathern, M. (1999): Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. London: Athlone Press.
  • Zuboff, S. (2019): The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs.
Oz Gore is Assistant Professor/Lecturer at the University of Leicester School of Business, United Kingdom. He has a research interest in knowledge practices, public management, digital technologies, and ethnographic methods. Oz’ research has been published in leading academic journals such as ‘Public Administration’ and ‘Public Management Review’.
Damian O'Doherty is Professor of Management and Organization in the Alliance Manchester Business School in the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. Damian has published widely in top international journals dedicated to management and organization studies over the last twenty years and is currently Director of the Manchester Organizational Ethnography network centred in the Alliance Manchester Business School.
Helene Ratner is Associate Professor at Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. Her research addresses the relationship between organization, datafication, and topology. Integrating ethnography and science and technology studies to address these concerns. Helene has published in journals such as ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Organization’, ‘Big Data & Society’, ‘Science, Technology, & Human Values’, and ‘Discourse – Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education’.