Sub-theme 61: Viewing the Unseen Organization in Practice

Feng Liu
Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary's University, Canada
Michael Jarrett
INSEAD, Singapore
Linda Rouleau
HEC Montréal, Canada

Call for Papers

Politics, symbolic power and resistance relationships often go unacknowledged along with the strategies, practices and realities that lie behind the socio-economic project of organizations (Vince & Mazen, 2014). We argue that they represent the unseen organization in practice. Thus, this sub-theme seeks to make “visible” the processes that are accomplished in practice by which networks, groups and actors balance, compromise, divert and resist the multiple objectives and goals that pervade the gestalt of organizations. Beyond what people do and say, there are layers of subjective experience, knowledge and complex forms of participation and resistance that only make sense through visual and lived artifacts including, for instance, pictures, films, graphs, as well as dress and space.
We believe that “viewing the Unseen Organization in practice” is an important step for advancing practice studies. The visual mode of discourse, meaning and social reality construction and the powerful performative effect of visuals in situ can bring up new cues for understanding the processes through which organizations are negotiated, transformed and resisted. Notions such as visual narrative (Höykinpuro & Ropo, 2014), and emotional display (Liu & Maitlis, 2014), can help to better understand the “creative entanglement of doing and knowing” (Gherardi, 2015) along with multiple circuits of power (Denis et al., 2011) that characterized the Unseen Organization in practice.
To provide a more integrated perspective of what really goes on and, paradoxically, to illuminate how the functions of dysfunctions can deliver better socio-economic outcomes (Ashforth & Reingen, 2014), we propose to look at the following set of questions: “Why” should we “view” the multiple and heterogeneous assemblages of practices that constitute the unseen organization? “What” can be “viewed” from these assemblages, whether the involved practices are symbolic, discursive, ideological or political? And “How” we can “view” these assemblages?
The “why” question addresses the reasons, the opportunities and the challenges for practice researchers to endorse the visual turn for understanding and researching the “bright” as well as the “dark” side of the organization. Following Bell & Davidson (2013) and Meyer et al. (2013), this sub-theme aims to explore the epistemological and theoretical underpinnings as well as the pros and cons of adopting visual studies and methods for highlighting the hidden side of the organization whether it is positive or negative.
The “what” question ambitions to reveal what the unseen organization looks like and to understand the processes through which it is constructed, interpreted, resisted, communicated, legitimized, defended and strengthened (or weakened) to its internal and external stakeholders. These could be addressed by examining the visual artifacts which reflect the organization’s cultural and political systems (e.g., Gagliardi, 2006), the values that may be reflected through photos in CSR reports (e.g., Höllerer et al., 2013) or following communication studies, we suggest that analyzing visual artifacts such as CEO talks, would enable us to understand these implicit organizational practices.
The “how” question highlights the variety of visual methods through which to examine the many sides of the unseen organization (see Bell & Davidson, 2013; Meyer et al., 2013). Researchers can either draw on pre-existing visual artifacts such as website images or use visual artifacts that organizational members develop in real-time during the research process. In addition, we see the value of video recording of organizational members’ daily activities (Rouleau, de Rond & Musca, 2014), TMT power dynamics (e.g., Jarrett & Liu, 2016; Liu & Maitlis, 2014), the tools and artifacts they engage (Kaplan, 2011), and the space they involve (Jarzabkowski et al., 2015; Teulier & Rouleau, 2013). Such rich visual, multi-channeled, cues deepen our understanding of the social construction of the organization in real time.
Finally, the broader aim of this sub-theme is to integrate, and further develop ongoing efforts to draw on visual research for exploring the unseen organization in practice (Bell & Davidson, 2013; Meyer et al., 2013). We welcome contributions from many traditions of both theoretical and empirical papers devoted to produce knowledge for better understanding practices drawing on visual research and methods. Our only requirement is that the contributions are thought provoking, innovative, and rigorous!


  • Ashforth, B.E., & Reingen (2014): “Functions of dysfunctions: Managing the dynamics of an organizational duality in a natural food cooperative.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 59 (3), 474–516.
  • Bell, E., & Davison, J. (2013): “Visual management studies: Empirical and theoretical approaches.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 15, 167–184.
  • Denis, J.-L., Dompierre, G., Langley, A., & Rouleau, L. (2011): “Escalating indecision: Between reification and strategic ambiguity.” Organization Science, 22 (1), 225–244.
  • Gagliardi, P. (2006): “Exploring the aesthetic side of organizational life.” In S.R. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W.R. Nord (eds.): Handbook of Organization Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 701–724.
  • Gherardi, S. (2015): “To start practice theorizing anew: The contribution of the concepts of agencement and formativeness.” Organization, 1–19, published online before print, doi: 10.1177/1350508415605174.
  • Höllerer, M.A., Jancsary, D., Meyer, R.M., & Vettori, O. (2013): “Images of corporate social responsibility: Visual recontextualization and field-level meaning.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 39 (B), 139–174.
  • Höykinpuro R., & Ropo, A. (2014): “Visual narratives on organizational space.” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 27 (5), 780–792.
  • Jarrett, M., & Liu, F. (2016): “’Zooming With’. A Participatory Approach to the Use of Video Ethnography in Organizational Studies.” Organizational Research Methods, published online before print, doi: 10.1177/1094428116656238.
  • Jarzabkowski, P., Burke, G.T., & Spee, A. P. (2015): “Constructing spaces for strategic work: A multimodal perspective.” British Journal of Management, 26, S27–S47.
  • Kaplan, S. (2011): “Strategy and PowerPoint: An inquiry into the epistemic culture and machinery of strategy making.” Organization Science, 22 (2), 320–346.
  • Liu, F. &, Maitlis, S. (2014): “Emotional dynamics and strategizing processes: A study of strategic conversations in top team meetings.” Journal of Management Studies, 51 (2), 202–234.
  • Meyer, R.E., Höllerer, M.A., Jancsary, D., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2013): “The visual dimension in organizing, organization, and organization research.” Academy of Management Annals, 7 (1), 487–553.
  • Rouleau, L., de Rond, M., & Musca, G. (2014): “From the ethnographic turn to new forms of organizational ethnography.” Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 3 (1), 2–9.
  • Teulier, R., & Rouleau, L. (2013): “Middle managers’ sensemaking and interorganizational change initiation: Translation spaces and editing practices.” Journal of Change Management, 13 (3), 308–337.
  • Vince, R., & Mazen, A. (2014): “Violent innocence: A contradiction at the heart of leadership.” Organization Studies, 35 (2), 189–207.
Feng Liu is an Assistant Professor of Strategy at the Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary's University, Canada. Feng uses video ethnography to examine how top management teams and board teams strategize in their meetings. She published one of the first video-ethnographic studies in strategic management (Liu & Maitlis, 2014).
Michael Jarrett is a Senior Affiliate Professor in Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, Singapore. His research focuses on the dynamics of top management teams, the process of strategic change and the role of implicit emotions on organizational outcomes. He has published books, chapters and articles on these topics as well as consulted to a number of top management teams and organizations experiencing change. By using video ethnography, it has helped to systematically capture the ‘in situ’ experience of strategy in practice.
Linda Rouleau is a Professor at the Management Department of HEC Montréal, Canada. Her research work focuses on micro-strategy and strategizing in pluralistic contexts. In the last few years, she has published in peer reviewed journals, such as, for example, ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Organization Science’, ‘Accounting, Organization and Society’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, and ‘Human Relations’.