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Passing the Test in Organizational Ethnography

Special issue call for papers from Journal of Organizational Ethnography

Passing the Test in Organizational Ethnography


 Workshop and Special Issue for the Journal of Organizational Ethnography

Guest Editors: Annika Lindberg and Tobias Eule, University of Bern

The question of how to gain research access is a dreaded one among organizational ethnographers. The process of gaining formal access to organizations is notoriously unpredictable and often protracted, testing the patience and persistence of the researcher; once having entered the field, however, the researcher’s presence is bound to be continuously questioned by interlocutors. The things researchers feel compelled to do, or accept being subjected to, in order to have their presence accepted and secure continued access have so far attracted less attention. This special issue will explore an experience that many ethnographers have, in some shape or form, and put it under the spot light in a way that will both be the reference point for and the start of a conversation about the tests we pass in the field, about their ethical implications, and their analytical value. The special issue will develop a discussion of an underexplored aspect of ethnographic fieldwork, collecting stories of the identifiable events – the rites of passage – through which the researcher acquires their role in the social life of the organization they are studying. Where organizational ethnographers write about access, they normally refer to formal institutional consent and the negotiations that might take place at that point. The idea of 'passing the test' in ethnographic fieldwork tackles the reality that goes beyond making it past initial gatekeepers. After having gained formal access, there are still significant hurdles to clear in order to gain trust, acceptance or credibility with research participants. In doing so, ethnographers will encounter tests. These will be subtle and not so subtle, unpleasant, violent, or ethically or emotionally challenging, and ongoing and repeated upon later return to the field. What are these tests? How do we know we have passed? What happens when you fail the test? What are the implications of having passed? What then is your status vis à vis the participants? Are you now "one of them" and hence complicit? What then are the ethics of the test?
The special issue will thus deal with an issue that, to our knowledge, has not been systematically explored in ethnographic work across different types of organizations. In the special issue, we invite contributors to reflect on their experiences with these tests, and their consequences for successes and failures in fieldwork. Sharing these experiences can help us understand ways of 'staying in the field' after getting into it and enable a discussion on our positionality as researchers and how 'the field' reflects on our presence as ethnographers. This is particularly relevant for organizational ethnography, where there might be a stark difference between formal access negotiations and informal tests and micro games. Moreover, the tests have analytical value, and they might both tell us important things about the field site, and on how organizations shape and mediate social relations, and give rise to new subjectivities – including for the researcher. The special issue would thus aim to:
a) instigate a methodological debate around challenges of access and 'fitting in' beyond the first contact
b) explore further the analytical value of reflecting on tests and micro games during fieldwork, as they might be indicative of shared (but well-hidden) values, dispositions and practices
We welcome contributions from all areas of organisational ethnography, including research on law enforcement, welfare bureaucracies, corporations and the third sector.

Themes the Special Issue aims to cover include:

- Failed and successful attempts to pass the test
- The analytical value of ‘the test’: what can it tell us about the social life of ‘the field’?
- Researchers' positionality: shifting between insider/outsider
- Ethical issues: complicity and challenges of becoming 'one of them' in organisational ethnography
- Multiple tests? Navigating sometimes-conflicting loyalties, expectations, and power relations among different actors in the field
- The impact of the researcher’s presence, her or his gender, nationality, ethnicity, age, and academic position on people in the field

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely illustrative of the type of articles that we hope to include in the Special Issue. To be considered for publication, please submit an abstract of no more than 500 words, describing the topic, methodology and preliminary findings of the proposed article. These materials should be submitted no later than 15th September, 2018 to the co-editors at and All authors who will be requested to submit articles will be invited to participate in a workshop at the University of Bern in November 2018, where we will have the opportunity to discuss and give feedback on the individual draft articles. The articles themselves will be due in January 2019 and will be submitted through the Journal of Organizational Ethnography’s ScholarOne submission system here.