Sub-theme 15: (SWG) The Power of Organizational Ethnography

Juliette Koning
Oxford Brookes University, UK
Jana Costas
European University Viadrina, Germany

Call for Papers

Organizational ethnography generally aims to capture ordinary struggles of meaning in organizations, or 'how things work'. As such it combines an interest in micro-processes of organizing with a contextualized understanding of everyday interactions as well as sense-making and -breaking. It does so by zooming in and out of organizational life and by exposing the wider institutional, social, cultural and historical context.

With the uniqueness of observing, following, and immersing in the life situation of others (Van Maanen, 2011) ethnography has the capacity to uncover elements of 'the ordinary' and those that remain hidden, submerged, disguised, secret and invisible in organizational life. Ethnography is thus particularly suited to explore, expose and critique the dynamics of power relations that shape our organizational and social lives. However, there is a tendency to study "down" (shop floor) instead of studying "up" (Watson, 2011). Exploring the webs of influence and workings of the "power elite" (Mills, 1956) has received less attention. There is also a need to expand the organizational ethnographic lens to the lives of "outsiders" (Becker, 1963) – the "nuts, sluts and perverts” – and "non-person" (Goffman, 1959) as these have the potential to provide unique insights into forms of deviance and challenges to the existing order.

Doing organizational ethnography always carries the triple dimension of fieldwork, headwork and textwork (Van Maanen, 2011). In all three instances power plays a key role. Next to the identified areas for expanding organizational ethnography above, we therefore invite papers that address one of the following three dimensions:

  • Power through organizational ethnography: i.e. the ways in which organizational ethnography can expose hidden dimensions of organizational life and thus the workings of power. In particular, we call for papers that focus on studying up, down and side-wise in order to explore, understand and theorize deviance, resistance, control and power.
  • Power in organizational ethnography: i.e. the power relations in the field and the writing process organizational ethnographers are inherently part of, linking to current debates on relationally reflexive practice and co-production of knowledge. Here we invite studies that problematize the role of the ethnographer and expose the conflictual nature of the involvement in the field/writing process.
  • Power from organizational ethnography: i.e. how organizational ethnography can contribute to some forms of emancipation of those we study; does it make a difference? In particular, we invite ethnographers to discuss the target audience of their findings and how these may serve, be potentially coopted by, or challenge existing power relations.

The sub-theme will include several activities such as a debate on power through/in/from ethnography related to discussions in the press (2015) of Alice Goffman's book "On the Run" and a "seeing Naples through local eyes" tour.




  • Becker, H. (1964): "Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance." American Journal of Sociology, 69 (4), 417–419.
  • Goffman, E. (1959): The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
  • Mills, C.W. (1956): The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Van Maanen, J. (2011): "Ethnography as work: some rules of engagement." Journal of Management Studies, 48 (1), 218–234.
  • Watson, T.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), 202–217.


Juliette Koning is Reader in Organization Studies and Asian Business at Oxford Brookes University, UK. With a PhD in social anthropology, her research focuses on small organizations, entrepreneurship, leadership, identity, and religion in Southeast Asia. Recent publications appeared in 'Journal of Business Ethics', 'Entrepreneurship and Regional Development', 'Qualitative Research in Organization and Management', 'Management Learning', 'International Journal of Business Anthropology'. She co-convened several EGOS sub-themes and Paper Development Workshops.
Jana Costas is Professor of Human Resource Management at the European University Viadrina, Germany. She holds a PhD in organization studies from the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include culture, identity, power and control, leadership and secrecy. She recently conducted an ethnography of "Cleaning Work: Life in the Corporate Underworld of Berlin". Her work has been published in 'Organization Studies', 'Human Relations' and 'Organization'; a monograph "Secrecy at Work: The Hidden Architecture of Organizations" (together with C. Grey) is forthcoming (Stanford University Press).