Sub-theme 62: Secrecy, Secrets and Organizations

Jana Costas
European University Viadrina, Germany
Chris Grey
School of Management, Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Secrecy is a fundamental part of organizations. It is neither an anomaly nor is it only found in unusual or special organizations, but rather it is woven into the fabric of all organizations in a multitude of ways. It has an obvious functionality in, for example, protecting knowledge and information from competitors. It is present when information about clients and employees is restricted, and in every day interactions, for example when people share confidential gossip. There is a wide range of forms of secrecy, encompassing the formal secrecy of trade and state secrecy based on law and regulation, informal secrecy based on networks and trust, and public or open secrecy which are both known and not-known in organizations. While in discussions of transparency, public accountability and organizational knowledge-sharing secrecy is typically regarded as ‘evil’, in those regarding the protection of innovation, privacy or national security it is seen as ‘good’.
In moving beyond the dichotomy of good and evil, the aim of the sub-theme is to explore the significance of secrecy in organizational life. Indeed, apart from being omnipresent secrecy creates a social order by establishing boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Secrecy thus not only cuts through and overlaps with a wide array of organizational phenomena, such as trust, gossip, elite, identity, control, culture, creativity, knowledge, identity, just to name a few, but also can organize social relations and thus bring about groups, networks, hierarchies and indeed organizations. Secrecy can arouse strong emotional reactions, from the sense of betrayal, superiority to uncertainty and fear, amongst the insiders and outsiders alike. Whereas studies focusing on organizational secrecy are still rare, rich descriptions of secrecy can be found in fiction, such as Dostoyevsky and Kafka or for that matter in espionage novels and films.
Secrecy has recently become a matter of greater attention within organization studies (e.g. Costas & Grey, 2014; 2016; Parker, 2016; Scott, 2013). Building on this, in this sub-theme we invite papers that address the multiple ways in which secrecy matters in and for organizations from a theoretical and/or empirical (including fictional) perspective. The focus might be secrecy within organizations or organizations that are themselves secret. In particular, we encourage papers to explore:

  • How does secrecy interact with organizational phenomena? What role do formal, informal and/or public secrecy play here?
  • How does the lens of secrecy allow us to rethink organizations, groups, networks and hierarchies? What metaphors of organization and organizing serve to bring into focus the significance of secrecy?
  • How can we methodologically study that which is kept hidden?
  • What insights does the world of fiction provide us?
  • How does secrecy in organizations relate to debates in organization studies about accountability, trust and transparency?
  • How does secrecy in organizations relate to public and political debates about privacy, big data and surveillance?



  • Costas, J., & Grey, C. (2014): “Bringing Secrecy into the Open: Towards a Theorization of the Social Processes of Organizational Secrecy.” Organization Studies, 35 (10), 1423–1447.
  • Costas, J., & Grey, C. (2016): Secrecy at Work. The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Parker, M. (2016): “Secret Societies: Intimations of Organization.” Organization Studies, 37 (1), 99–113.
  • Scott, C. (2013): Anonymous Agencies, Backstreet Businesses, and Covert Collectives: Rethinking Organizations in the 21st Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Jana Costas is Professor of People, Work and Management at the European University Viadrina, Germany. She holds a PhD in organization studies from the University of Cambridge, and 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”.
Chris Grey is Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK and Visiting Professor at Université Paris-Dauphine, France. Previously, he held Professorships at Warwick and Cambridge. He has published widely in peer-reviewed journals, and his books include “Decoding Organization”, “Bletchley Park”, “Codebreaking and Organization Studies” (Cambridge University Press, 2012).