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Taking sides in organizational ethnography

Special issue call for papers from Journal of Organizational Ethnography

Call for papers
Special issue on
Taking sides in organizational ethnography

Guest Editors for the Special Issue

Amalie Martinus Hauge, VIVE - The Danish Center for Social Science Research
Elisabeth Naima Mikkelsen, Copenhagen Business School
Anne Reff Pedersen, Copenhagen Business School
Anja Svejgaard Pors, Copenhagen University College
Deadline for Submissions: 1 January 2020

To have values or not to have values: the question is always with us. When sociologists undertake to study problems that have relevance to the world we live in, they find themselves caught in a crossfire. Some urge them not to take sides, to be neutral and do research that is technically correct and value free. Others tell them their work is shallow and useless if it does not express a deep commitment to a value position (Becker, 1967 p 239).

There are always more than one side to a problem. How do you, as an organizational ethnographer, deal with this premise? Half a century ago, it was a widely shared belief that social studies should generate objective and value free knowledge. Today, however, most organizational ethnographers agree that neutrality, objectivity and replicability are also values, and that they – as other values – do not only hold epistemic principles about finding truth, but also have ethical and political implications (Brinkmann, 2017). In other words, the point of departure of most organizational ethnographers is that it simply is not possible to do research uncontaminated by personal and political sympathies. The question is: How and when do you deal with these sympathies, and what challenges and concerns does side-taking involve?
This special issue of Journal of Organizational ethnography revisits Howard Becker’s classical question of ‘whose side are we on?’ (1967). We want to see articles that are creative and reflexive in dealing with the classical dilemma of how to take sides in ethnographic research and explore how this problem unfolds in contemporary, organizational ethnography.
In some scientific contexts, ethnography used to be dismissed because it was believed to produce idiosyncratic impressions of single cases incompatible with scientific analysis (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). Consequently, ethnographers promoted an alternative criteria of validity namely naturalism. It was proposed that the social world should be studied not in artificial settings such as experiments or formal interviews, but in its natural state, undisturbed by the researcher (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). In the 1980s and 1990s, however, this goal was abandoned in favor of the view that research cannot but be partisan, and therefore should not pretend to be otherwise (Hammersley, 2005: 1). Several positions on how to take side are currently crystallizing within the social sciences: Some promote the ideal of ethnography as political activism. Inspired by programs such as Burawoy’s public sociology (2005) or feminist ethnography (Skeggs, 2013), this position actively takes on a partisan role and engages with the field from an explicitly political position with the purpose of, for example, invoking social consciousness and pushing social change (Thomas, 1993). Other approaches, often associated with business school ethnography, engage in ethnography not only of but also for the organization (Neyland, 2008). An example is the Mode 2 approach proposed by Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons (2003), who seek to transcend the division between the researcher and the observed organization to engage in the shared development processes. Other books of organizational ethnography argue that the ethnographical approaches should have consequences for our understanding of organizations and renew our understanding of organizations (Humle & Pedersen 2016). 
This special issue welcome both empirical and theoretical papers that engage explicitly with the dilemma of taking sides. Themes addressed in the papers could be:
•    Conflict in organizations. At some point, when doing ethnography, we encounter conflict and opposite opinions. Either between positions in the field, or between our own value positions and positions in the field.  How do you as a researcher engage with conflicts in the organization(s) you observe? Do you actively take side, how, and what is the outcome? How do you balance being respectful and tolerant, while keeping your integrity and honesty?

•    Ethical responsibility. When do we have to step in and take a stance? Most ethnographers have experienced organizational misconduct to some extent: Teachers losing their temper, doctors not following protocol. How do we balance the role of being the silent observer and a responsible citizen? In what situations have you actively taken a side other than the informants? And when should you do so: In the situation or after the fact?

•    Methodology. How we setup our empirical work, the people we talk to and the places we move, inevitably shape the knowledge we acquire. However, we rarely begin our studies with a full picture of the field and the location of different value positions. How do we engage with the premise of taking sides as we plan our studies and choose our methods?

•    Writing. Ethnographers use different strategies in order to validate their writing. Some consult their observed subjects, others imagine how their writings would be perceived. Nevertheless, ethnographic writings are never value neutral, and perhaps they should not be. How do we take sides as we write up our fieldwork, and what principles or rules of thumb should we use?

•    Partisanship. Ethnography as explicit political activism is a contested discipline, and has often been criticized for creating closed parties for members on the same side of value conflict. What forms of politically active ethnography exist? How do we experiment with political, ethnical or ethical partisanship? And is it unethical to engage in political ethnography without overtly declaring our own value position?

•    Morality and politics. Taking side in research may pose moral and political issues. What are the moral dilemmas that the individual ethnographer may face and how do we deal with political implications of our research? How do we handle that we are not only analysing empirical issues in our research but also judging what is going on?

•    Un(for)seen organizing consequences and consequences for organizational understandings. Describing organizations in detail can have consequences we have not intended, not expected or unobservable at first glance. How do we contribute to a more general understanding of organizations when we deal with the challenge of taking sides in ethnographic work? 

•    Sustaining dominant organizational discourses? Taking sides in organizational ethnography allows for advocating alternative understandings of organizations in contrast to the dominating organizational understandings in studies of organizations. How do we reflect upon and strategically utilize our ethnographies to sustain or develop new organizational discourses?

•    Thick data in a big data era. Currently, ethnography is contested by expectations linked to the possibilities of digitization and big data. Should organizational ethnographers stay on their own side in social science, or are they obliged to try to establish a dialogue with more quantitative ways of doing analysis? Epistemologically, both thick and big data are directed toward what actors do rather than what they say. But how can in-depth insights based on “hanging around” and witnessing first hand be combined with wider datasets, capturing data traces in fruitful ways?


Please submit papers through the journal’s online submission system at, create your user account (if you have not done so already), and for “Manuscript Type” please choose the corresponding Special Issue. All papers that enter the reviewing process will be double-blind reviewed following the journal’s normal review process and criteria. Deadline for submitting your paper for this Special Issue is the 1st of January 2020.

For further information please contact any of the Guest Editors for this Special Issue:
Amalie Martinus Hauge:
Elisabeth Naima Mikkelsen:
Anne Reff Pedersen:
Anja Svejgaard Pors:


Becker, H. S. (1967). Whose side are we on? Social Problems, 14(3), 234-247.
Brinkmann, S. (2017). Philosophies of qualitative research Oxford University Press.
Burawoy, M. (2005). For public sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 4-28.
Hammersley, M. (2005). Taking sides in social research: Essays on partisanship and bias Routledge.
Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice Routledge.
Humle, D. M. & Pedersen, A. R. (2016). Doing Organizational Ethnography. Routledge.
Neyland, D. (2008). Organizational ethnography. London: Sage.
Nowotny, H., Scott, P., & Gibbons, M. (2003). Springer.
Skeggs, B. (2013). Situating the production of feminist ethnography. In M. Maynard, & J. Purvis (Eds.), Researching women's lives from a feminist perspective () Routledge.
Thomas, J. (1993). Doing critical ethnography Sage.