Sub-theme 71: Secrecy and Transparency in Governing and Regulating a Good Life

Convenors:
Ziyun Fan
University of York, United Kingdom
Lars Thøger Christensen
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Dan Kärreman
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, & University of London, United Kingdom

Call for Papers


The legacy of modernity celebrates transparency as a necessary source of reason, rationality, and good governance (Vattimo, 1992). These ideals and the implied promises of accessibility, visibility, openness, inclusivity, and equality have given rise to a ‘transparency explosion’ in recent decades and a sense that secrecy might eventually be a thing of the past. Although Simmel (1906/1950) in his influential work on the sociology of secrecy argued that knowledge is partial and intertwined with ignorance and inaccessibility, secrecy is often associated with impropriety (Wilson, 1913/2011) and unfairness in ways that benefit in-groups, but harm others (e.g., Bok, 1982; see also Jung, 2001/1933). Secrecy, or the speculation of its existence, triggers a quest for more transparency.
 
While transparency has become the currency of our time, the assumed ‘zero-sum’ relationship between transparency and secrecy, where the rise of transparency reduces secrecy, has been increasingly problematized (e.g., Albu & Flyverbom, 2019; Birchall, 2021; Christensen et al., 2021; Fenster, 2017). The inevitable links between transparency and secrecy establish the parameters of what can be seen, imagined, and practiced in the name of ‘rationality’ in and of our contemporary society. Hence, to understand transparency, we ought to understand secrecy.
 
Despite being identified as an important aspect of organizational life in general and of transparency in specific, secrecy remains under-researched. Existing studies have explored secrecy and its roles in concealing trade secrets and preserving organizational competitive advantages (e.g., Hannah, 2005), in triggering conspiracy and forming the sense of stigmatization in organizational life (e.g., Parker, 2016; Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), in cultivating confidential gossip as part of the unmanaged organization (Fan et al., 2021; Fan & Dawson, 2021), and in (re)shaping identity management that (un)links individuals to an organization (e.g., Scott, 2013). Secrecy, thus, shapes our behaviour and interactions at work in ways that constitute normative orders and expectations, which in turn (re)shapes the demand for and understanding of transparency. Contemporary discussions of organizations and organizing therefore must look beyond the familiar and immediately recognizable and integrate the less observable into our thinking and understanding about the complex and challenging roles transparency plays.
 
Our subtheme is a call to explore new boundaries in processes of understanding the nexus between transparency and secrecy, to speak the unspoken, to reveal the hidden, as a platform to offer theoretical, practical, and policy insights and to address the broader significance of transparency and secrecy in governing and regulating a good life for individuals, organizations, and society.
 
We welcome papers from a range of theoretical and empirical approaches and from different cultures to discuss the possible topics and questions that could include but are not limited to the followings:

  • How could we (re)conceptualize the relationship between transparency and secrecy in contemporary democratic societies? While existing studies indicate that their relationship is ‘mutually constitutive’ (e.g., Birchall, 2021; Costas & Grey, 2016; Cronin, 2021; Fan & Liu, 2021), how should we unpack and understand such ‘mutual constitution’ in a specific (organizational) context?

  • Through the explosion of legislative and institutional reforms calling for further disclosure about the working of organizations, what might be the risks of transparency? Can transparency as a principal regulation and governance of good life lead to dysfunctional consequences? In what ways do secrecy play a role in this?

  • While transparency ideals influence legislative reforms, should transparency itself be reformed for constructive policy and organizational implications on sustainability, inclusion, and ethics? If so, how might it be? Can secrecy help?

  • Does any particular form of secrecy (e.g., Costas & Grey, 2014, 2016; Horn, 2011; Scott, 2013; Taussig, 1999) play a role in the sense-making and sense-giving process of transparency? Do specific approaches to transparency (e.g., Albu & Flyverbom, 2019) provoke particular conditions and consequences of secrecy?

  • Can we learn from historical examples and archival cases about the nexus of transparency and secrecy?

  • What is the influence of the expansion of digitalization, artificial intelligence, and big data on transparency, secrecy, and their interrelations (e.g., Birchall, 2021; Dean, 2002; Flyverbom, 2019; Stohl et al., 2016)? How should we understand the tensions between our ‘right to know’ and technological surveillance; and between privacy and security in such cases?

 


References


  • Albu, O.B., & Flyverbom, M. (2019): “Organizational transparency: Conceptualizations, conditions, and consequences.” Business & Society, 58 (2), 268–297.
  • Birchall, C. (2021): Radical Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datafield America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Bok, S. (1982): Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • 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: Stanford University Press.
  • Christensen, L.T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2021): “Talk-action dynamics: Modalities of aspirational talk.” Organization Studies, 42 (3), 407–427.
  • Cronin, A.M. (2020): “The secrecy−transparency dynamic: A sociological reframing of secrecy and transparency for public relations research.” Public Relations Inquiry, 9 (3), 219–236.
  • Dean, J. (2002): Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.
  • Fan, Z., & Dawson, P. (2022): “Gossip as evaluative sensemaking and the concealment of confidential gossip in the everyday life of organizations.” Management Learning, 53 (2), 146–166.
  • Fan, Z., & Liu, Y. (2022): “Decoding secrecy as multiple temporal processes: Co-constitution of concealment and revelation in archival stories.” Human Relations, 75 (6), 1028–1052.
  • Fan, Z., Grey, C., & Kärreman, D. (2021): “Confidential gossip and Organization Studies.” Organization Studies, 42 (10), 1651–1664.
  • Fenster, M. (2017): The Transparency Fix: Secrets, Leaks, and Uncontrollable Government Information. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Flyverbom, M. (2019): The Digital Prism: Transparency and Managed Visibilities in a Datafied World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hood, C. (2007): “What happens when transparency meets blame-avoidance?” Public Management Review, 9 (2), 191–210.
  • Horn, E. (2011): “Logics of political secrecy.” Theory, Culture & Society, 28 (7–8), 103–122.
  • Jung, C.G. (2001/1933): Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
  • Scott, C.R. (2013): Anonymous Agencies, Backstreet Businesses, and Covert Collectives: Rethinking Organizations in the 21st Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Simmel, G. (1906/1950): The Sociology of Georg Simmel, translated and edited by Wolff, K H. New York: Free Press.
  • Stohl, C., Stohl, M., & Leonardi, P.M. (2016): “Managing opacity: Information visibility and the paradox of transparency in the digital age.” International Journal of Communication, 10, 123–137.
  • Vattimo, G. (1992): The Transparent Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Wilson, W. (2011/1913): The New Freedom. Brooklyn, NY: Grey Rabbit Publications.
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Ziyun Fan is Associate Professor of Organization Studies at the University of York, UK. Her research interests have a sociological and historical focus and draw on qualitative and ethnographic approaches. Ziyun’s work primarily focuses on critical management studies, secrecy, (confidential) gossip, organizational communication, and temporality. She has published in ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Management Inquiry’, ‘Management Learning’, ‘Organization Studies’, and elsewhere.
Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research interests include issues of organizational identity, voice, CSR, transparency and accountability. Lars approaches these issues through a communication lens focused on how organizations talk themselves into new realities. In addition to six books and contributions to several edited volumes, his research appears in ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Business Research’, ‘Organization’, and elsewhere.
Dan Kärreman is Professor of Management and Organization Studies at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, and at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. He is also affiliated to the School of Economics and Management, Lund University, Sweden. Dan’s research interests include critical management studies, knowledge work, organization communication, identity in organizations, leadership, organizational control, and research methodology.