Sub-theme 34: Ignorance at Work: How Organizations Strive Not to Know

Justine Grønbæk Pors
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Lena Olaison
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Birke Otto
European University Viadrina, Germany

Call for Papers

Organizations are marked by ignorance as much as by knowledge. In our daily lives, we constantly encounter situations in which we do not draw on available information (March, 1978). Such practices of ignoring the obvious have been conceptualised as stupidity (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012), blindness (Baker & Kelan, 2018; DeKlerk, 2017; Fotaki & Hyde, 2013), inefficiency (Sydow et al., 2009), inertia (Tripsas & Gavetti, 2000), or generally incompetence. Yet, as Mary Douglas has shown, excluding something or someone from one’s reality by ignoring it, is often a way of dealing with anomalies or threats that have the capacity to ‘pollute’ and thereby destabilize an existing order (Douglas, 1967). Not surprisingly in organizations we constantly stumble upon instances of looking the other way, diverting attention, denying or actively avoiding uncomfortable matters and alternative understandings. Organizing practices require us to avoid talking about the elephant in the room and ‘knowing what not to know’ (Taussig, 1998).
Ignoring what is obvious is crucial to maintain and protect the certainty, morality, confidence, and propriety that ensure organizational functioning (Douglas, 1967). For example, scientists intentionally blind themselves in experimental settings to reduce their own biases (Polit et al., 2011). Other studies show organizations develop forms of ‘inattentiveness’ to information that questions their ideas, practices or moral valuations (Knudsen, 2011). However, while ignoring might be necessary for organizing, strategic ignorance can also be a tactic to mobilize and exploit unknowns to avoid liability for earlier actions (McGoey, 2012). We see this in ongoing corporate scandals such as whitewashing in the financial sector, as well as governments and corporations inability to act on societal challenges such as climate change and global inequality. But, even ‘legitimate’ acts of ignoring may have many unintended and perhaps unjust consequences. The unspoken presence of what is obvious can come back to haunt and disturb organizing processes in unexpected ways, causing discomfort, confusion and ambiguity (Pors, 2017; Pors et al., 2019). Finally, like whistleblowers who publicly reveal what many of us know already, unmasking a public secret is a political act to point to certain injustices of a given situation (Kenny, 2019; Radcliffe, 2008).
In this sub-theme we explore ignorance not as the opposite of knowledge, but as a practice of ignoring that is productive and unproductive in its own right. It can be a standardized and institutional practice, but it can also be a more informal and intangible process that lies under the radar of official or managerial control. These practices are more than deliberate action. They constitute collective, embodied and sensuous acts of unseeing (Otto et al., 2018; Zerubavel, 2008) that are embedded in complex socio-political environments (Proctor, 2008: 9; Smithson, 1989; Stel, 2016).
Our aim in this sub-theme is to explore the status, practice, context and consequence of ignoring uncomfortable matters as an organizational practice. We are interested in the multiple levels that make ignoring possible, including affects, cultural norms and the political economy of organizations. We aim to collect and connect conceptual and empirical studies of collective ignoring that show that although ignorance is a ubiquitous part of organisational life, it takes work and effort to produce and sustain it. We also strive to bring out the different political consequences of organized ignorance, particularly when considering that organisations are not islands, but connected to societies and environments.
Papers may address issues related (but not limited) to the following topics:

  • Affects and emotions: ignoring as an embodied and sensuous activity

  • Methodology: how to study the imperceptibility of ignorance

  • Temporal aspects of ignoring: Ignoring the past, gendered histories; post-colonial histories

  • Ignorance as paralysis: (not) facing obvious challenges such as climate change, social injustice

  • Strategic ignorance in governmental and corporate scandals

  • Willful ignorance in leadership; experimentation; creative processes; decision making, failure and entrepreneurial processes

  • Speaking out as acts of resistance and emancipation

  • Ignorance as a practice of protecting secrets



  • Baker, D.T., & Kelan, E.K. (2019): “Splitting and blaming: The psychic life of neoliberal executive women.” Human Relations, 72 (1), 69–97.
  • Bakken, T., & Wiik, E. (2018): “Ignorance and organization studies.” Organization Studies, 39 (8), 1109–1120.
  • De Klerk, J.J. (2017): “Nobody is as blind as those who cannot bear to see: Psychoanalytic perspectives on the management of emotions and moral blindness.” Journal of Business Ethics, 141 (4), 745–761.
  • Douglas, M. (1967): Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.
  • Fotaki, M., & Hyde, P. (2015): “Organizational blind spots: Splitting, blame and idealization in the national health service.” Human Relations, 68 (3), 441–462.
  • Kenny, K. (2018): “Censored: Whistleblowers and impossible speech.” Human Relations, 71, 1025–1048.
  • Knudsen, M. (2011): “Forms of inattentiveness: The production of blindness in the development of a technology for the observation of quality in health services.” Organization Studies, 32 (7), 963–989.
  • McGoey, L. (2012): “The Logic of Strategic Ignorance.” The British Journal of Sociology, 63 (3), 533–576.
  • Otto, B., Pors, J.G., & Johnsen, R. (2019): “Hidden in full view: The organization of public secrecy in Miéville’s The City and the City.” Culture and Organization, 25 (2), 91–103.
  • Pors, J.G. (2016): “It sends a cold shiver down my spine: Ghostly interruptions to strategy implementation.” Organization Studies, 37 (11), 1641–1659.
  • Proctor, R.N. (2008): “Agnotology: A missing term to describe the cultural production of ignorance (and its study).” In: R.N. Proctor & L. Schiebinger (eds.): Agnotology. The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1–28.
  • Roberts, J. (2013): “Organizational ignorance: Towards a managerial perspective on the unknown.” Management Learning, 44 (3), 215–236.
  • Smithson, M. (1989): Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms. New York: Springer.
  • Taussig, M.T. (1999): Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Zerubavel, E. (2008): The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Justine Grønbæk Pors is an Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Her work spans studies over welfare reforms, education, public innovation, co-creation, gender, knowledge production and digital knowledge sharing. She is particularly interested in the contradictions and paradoxes inherent to contemporary policies and in subjectivity, affect and ghostly matters. Justine has published in ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Culture and Organization’, ‘Management and Organizational History’, ‘Social Theory and Health’. She is part of the editorial collective of the open access journal ‘ephemera. theory and politics in organization’.
Lena Olaison is an Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. She is currently engaged in a research project on sustainable entrepreneurship. Further research include entrepreneurship in relation to failure, post-growth, alternative organizing, gender, affect, and education. Lena has published in journals such as ‘Organization Studies’, ‘International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research’, and ‘European Planning Studies’. She has been an editorial member of the open access journal ‘ephemera: theory and politics in organization’ since 2008.
Birke Otto is a post-doctoral researcher at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder, Germany. As a member of the research unit ‘Organized Creativity’ (Free University Berlin), funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), she studies the various roles of secrecy and ignorance as a mundane organizational practice in idea generation processes. Birke’s work is published in journals such as ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Culture and Organization’, and ‘Critical Perspectives on International Business’.