Native Anthropologists and Organisational Ethnography

Derek Shaw and Kenneth Ehrensal

Many organizational ethnographers study organizations to which they either belong or have belonged to, in the past. For all intents, they are, what American anthropologists refer to as “native anthropologists.”

In 1970, the late anthropologist Delmos Jones introduced the idea of the “native anthropologist.” As it had developed in American anthropology, this label includes three different groups of researchers. The first are individuals such as Jones, Gwaltney and Aguilar who are members of ethnic minority groups in the US who are studying or have studied these groups in a US context. The second are individuals such as Ohnuki-Tierney, Narayan and Kuwayama who are “indigenous” to those places where western anthropologists traditionally traveled to study “the other” who are or have conducted fieldwork in those “exotic” locations. The last group are individuals such as Moffatt, Nathan and the Spindlers who are “Euro-Americans” who have conducted fieldwork among other “Euro-Americans” in a US context. The anthropological literature notes that there are both strengths and weaknesses to the native studying their own culture. Among the advantages of being a native is the native anthropologist’s ability to read the subtle meanings of emotional and linguistic responses (Aguilar, 1981; Bakalaki, 1997; Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984). Broadly, the native anthropologist is, by definition, has access to the emic perspective of the culture being studied. Further, Jones (1970) argues that, as a member of the community, rapport and trust can be more easily built with community members and that researcher can have greater sympathy and understanding derived from the shared background. The major concerns that arise about native anthropologists potential lack of objectivity (Kuwayama, 2004), lack of distance (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984) and the inability to see “the everyday (Aguilar, 1981).” Here the literature notes a number of potential pitfalls, that the native anthropologist may have a stake in the community being portrayed in a particular way; or that they may be (consciously or unconsciously) blinded by their preconceived notion of how their society works, or, that like other natives, the everyday is relatively invisible. As Aguilar notes, the being the outsider may be “more conducive to disinterested scientific behavior (p.16).”

In this stream we are soliciting papers that:

  • Explore the potential insights and blind-spots that come from studying an organization that one is or has been a member;
  • Explore the ethical issues raised by having “insider” information;
  • Explore whether one can “go home, again” and return as an “ordinary” organization member after carrying out fieldwork in one’s own organization;
  • Explore one’s relationship with academia if one choses to return to the organization and continue one’s career.

Please submit a 500 word abstract or proposal by Tuesday 28th February 2017 to DRSHAW@GMX.CO.UK or EHRENSAL@KUTZTOWN.EDU. Decisions on acceptance will be made by 30th March 2017.


Bakalaki, Alexandra

1997 Students, Natives, Colleagues: Encounters in Academia and in the Field. Cultural Anthropology 12(4):502-526.

Bourdieu, Pierre

1988 Preface to the English Edition. In Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J.

1985 Anthropology at Home: Whose Home? Human Organization 44(3):261-264.

Jackson, John L. Jr.

2004 An Ethnographic Filmflam: Giving Gifts, Doing Research, and Videotaping the Native Subject/Object. American Anthopologist 106(1):32-42.

Jacobs-Huey, Lanita

2002 The Natives are Gazing and Talking Back: Reviewing the Problematics of Positionality, Voice, and Accountability Among "Native" Anthropologists. American Anthopologist 104(3):791-804.

Jones, Delmos J.

1970 Towards a Native Anthropology. Human Organization 29:251-259.

1995 Anthropology and the Oppressed: A Reflection on "Native" Anthropology. NAPA Bulletin 16:58-70.

Kim, Choong Soon

1987 Can an Anthropologist Go Home Again? American Anthopologist 89:943-946.

Kuwayama, Takami

2004 Native Anthropology: The Japanese Challenge to Western Academic Hegemony. Victoria, Australia: Trans Pacific Press.

Messerschmidt, Donald, ed.

1981 Anthropologists at Home in North America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moffatt, Michael

1992 Ethnographic Writing About American Culture. Annual Review of Anthropology 21:205-229.

Narayan, Kiran

1993 How Native is a "Native" Anthropologist? American Anthopologist 95:671686.

Nathan, Rebekah

2005 My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko

1984 "Native" Anthropologists. American Ethnologist 11(3):584-586.

Peirano, Mariza G.S.

1998 When Anthropology is at Home: The Different Contexts of a Single Discipline. Annual Review of Anthropology 27:105-128.

Spindler, George D., and Louise Spindler

1983 Anthropologists View American Culture. Annual Review of Anthropology 12:49-79.