Critical Investigative Ethnography in Organisations (CIEO)

Frans Kamsteeg, Harry Wels, Steven Robbins, Juliette Koning

Organizational and institutional arrangements around the world give rise to misuse and abuse. In all sectors – commercial, government, parastatal, public-private partnership, NGO’s, religious, national or inter/transnational – (suspicion) of cases and scandals abound. In the media cases of corruption – Panama Papers, Volkswagen, Catholic church, Enron, KPMG, banks, universities and governments around the world – are numerous, and new ones are being reported almost daily. Most of these exactions develop in the huge grey zones between (semi-) criminal and (more or less) law-abiding behaviour and intentions of people within institutional arrangements in everyday organizational life, but also in the pitch black corners of organized crime in our global society. Public scholarship sometimes engages with ethnographic and investigative research on these institutional worlds in order to lay bare its ramifications and reveal them to a broader audience. A well-known example today is the Dutch investigate journalist-cum-anthropologist Joris Luyendijk, whose Swimming with Sharks on the machinations of the City of London bankers draw considerable attention in the Netherlands and in the UK. Perhaps his picture of the darker (organizational) life worlds that we aim to cover in this stream is slightly too grim and one-sided; broader themes, such as institutional decision-making, lobbyism, and the manifold Kafkaisms of bureaucracy can also be covered. Other works in this line of investigative research are for instance Carl Elliot’s (2010) work on the pharmaceutical industry and David Miller et al’s (2016) work in which the authors argue for investigative methods as a ‘public sociology in action’(Marinetto and Davis 2015). In South Africa an ethnographic investigation into the history of his own institution led Steven Robins to remarkable discoveries (Robins 2016).

Mainstream social science and organization studies have mostly been reluctant to explore the frontlines of ‘inspective’ research, which was left to investigative journalism. Forensic anthropology, and critical management studies, might be coming close, but they have never managed to take the lead. However, ethnography, as a reflexive discipline, is crucial for the current time and age, and the present state of affairs is both an outrage, a challenge, and an opportunity. For, why leave this job to others while ethnographers have such a wealth of investigative methodologies, reflexivity, and analytical power to offer? Society asks for – and surely needs – engaged scholars, advocating for more transparency, openness, and insights in the coming about of higher echelon’s decisions (whether political, business, or service-providing private/state institutions). Ethnography is methodologically as well as theoretically perhaps the best equipped discipline to help produce this kind of knowledge, because “One thing is certain. We need a new wave of writers and journalists, unafraid to do the most radical thing imaginable: simply describe reality. Their ranks will largely come from freethinkers, dissenting academics and bored mainstream journalists who rediscover what got them interested in anthropology in the first place, telling the truth”. (, accessed 23 January 2016). So in this stream we welcome ethnographers who feel that in the upcomingTrump era we may more than ever before need to include investigative methods into our standard ethnographic toolkit.

Please submit a 500 word abstract or proposal by Tuesday 28th February 2017.


Elliot, C. (2010) White coat, black hat. Adventures on the dark side of medicine, Boston: Beacon Press

Luyendijk, Joris (2015) Swimming with sharks. My journey into the world of bankers. London: Guardian Faber Publishing

Marinetto, M. and Davis, L. (2015) Could academics take on the role of investigative journalists? Times Higher Education, 17 December

Miller, D. Brown, L. and Stavinoha, L. (eds)(2016) Researching the powerful: Public sociology in action, London: Routledge

Robins, S. (2016) Letters of stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa, Cape Town: Penguin