Sub-theme 15: (SWG) Organizational Ethnography: The Theoretical Challenge

Heidi Dahles
Griffith University, Griffith Business School, Australia
Heather Höpfl
University of Essex, UK
Juliette Koning
Oxford Brookes University, UK

Call for Papers

Organizational Ethnography (OE) as a distinct methodology, a style of writing and theoretical-conceptual thinking about organizations did not take root in organizational sciences until the mid-1990s. Currently, OE can be regarded as an established methodology in organizational sciences. While conventional thinking views OE basically as a method, i.e. fieldwork, OE is much more than a mode of data gathering. Instead, ethnography has to be viewed as "a style of social science writing which draws upon the writers' close observation of and involvement with people in a particular social setting and relates the words spoken and the practices observed or experienced to the overall cultural framework within which they occurred" (Watson, 2011: 205). Understood in terms of a comprehensive research approach encompassing a conceptual approach, methodology and mode of writing, OE may constitute a 'paradigm', as Bate (1997) suggests. John van Maanen (2011: 218) characterizes OE as both a methodological approach to and an analytical perspective on social research; in other words: as fieldwork, headwork and textwork.

Following John van Maanen (2011: 219–121), OE is "first and foremost a social practice concerned with the study and representation of culture" and as such produces a localized understanding of cultural processes – meaning making – from a few conceptual vantage points within and with regard to organizations. Ethnography implies conceptual work that gives direction to fieldwork and its various representational practices. Turning to organizations, ethnography contributes to explaining how organizations are socially constructed through studying work and management practices and processes in situ. The ethnographic approach helps us understand that these practices and processes do not materialize in a vacuum but in space and time. OE is thus based on a constructivist ontology and interpretive epistemology.

This sub-theme aims at exploring and advancing OE as a paradigm for organizational sciences. OE attempts to capture the lived realities of people within their everyday organizational lives adopting concepts that sensitize researchers for meaning-making processes, such as 'culture', 'identity', 'discourse', 'institutional work', 'practices', or 'boundary setting' and that understands organizations as 'cognitive-cultural constructions' constituted by complex processes of sensemaking and the management of meaning. OE combines an interest in micro-processes of organizing with a contextualized understanding of everyday interactions and sensemaking. It does so by zooming out and bringing into view the wider institutional and historical context. Expanding the horizon of organizational science's view, OE links what occurs inside organizations to regional, national or global developments.

This sub-theme invites paper submissions that advance OE as a conceptual paradigm among organization scientists. Submissions must address the conceptual and theoretical dimensions of OE first and foremost. Papers on 'doing fieldwork' or case descriptions are not eligible for the EGOS Colloquium 2014 sub-theme. We welcome papers that:

  • Critically assess the contribution of OE to organization theory (e.g., the contribution of OE to understanding organizational change, culture, identity, emotions and cognitions, creativity, development, space learning, entrepreneurship, public sector management, governance, etc). What particular, new, different or complementary understanding has come from OE in these fields?
  • Theorize the meaning of reflexivity in organizational ethnography. What does reflexivity contribute to the conceptual depth of analysis of ethnographic data and writing?
  • Explore the unique features of various ethnographic approaches, such as visual, mobile, virtual (e.g. webnography, netnography), etc. that capture new organizational forms and developments. What 'new theory' may evolve from these approaches?
  • Contribute to designing OE's research agenda for the next five years: which new areas of research are emerging and in what ways would these areas that would benefit from an ethnographic lens?



Bate, S.P. (1997): 'Whatever Happened to Organizational Anthropology? A Review of the Field of Organizational Ethnography and Anthropological Studies.' Human Relations, 50 (9), pp. 1147–1171.
Van Maanen, John (2011): 'Ethnography as Work: Some Rules of Engagement.' Journal of Management Studies, 48 (1), pp. 218–234.
Watson, Tony J. (2011): 'Ethnography, Reality, and Truth: The Vital Need for Studies of "How Things Work" in Organizations and Management.' Journal of Management Studies, 48 (1), pp. 202–217.


Heidi Dahles is Professor of International Business and Asian Studies at Griffith Business School, Griffith University, Australia. She published in 'Asia-Pacific Business Review', 'Culture & Organization', 'East Asia: An International Quarterly and Journal of Contemporary Asia'. Among her recent co-edited volumes are "Capital and Knowledge. Changing Power Relations in Asia" (2003) and "Multicultural Organizations in Asia" (2006). Heidi is review editor for the 'Journal of Business Anthropology' and co-editor of 'Asia Matters. Business, Culture & Theory.'
Heather Höpfl is Professor of Management Psychology at the University of Essex, UK. She is on the editorial boards of a number of journals including 'Journal of Organizational Ethnography', 'International Journal of Work', 'Organization and Emotions', 'JMSR', 'JOCM', etc.
Juliette Koning is Reader in Organization Studies and Asian Business at the Department of Business and Management, Faculty of Business, Oxford Brookes University, UK. Her current research focuses on business, leadership, identity, ethnicity and religion in Southeast Asia. Her recent publications are contributions to 'Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies' (2009), 'International Journal of Business Anthropology' (2012), 'Journal of Business Ethics' (2012), 'Entrepreneurship & Regional Development' (2013), 'Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management' (2013), and to edited volumes on "Christianity in Asia" (Routledge, 2009), on "Entrepreneurship in Context" (Routledge, 2012) and "A Companion to Organizational Anthropology" (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). She is editor of the open access journal !ASIA MATTERS'.