What Do We Do When They Shed Tears? Ethnography as Emotional Work

Onajomo Akemu, Samer Abdelnour, Gail Whiteman

Research output: Working paper


With the reflexive turn in the social sciences, qualitative organizational scholars have become more self-critical; we have questioned the role of our field as a whole in producing social science knowledge, in serving as a conduit for reifying management ideologies of control, and of unwittingly silencing the interests of marginalized groups (Denzin & Lincoln, 2018, pp. 41–43). Nowhere is this self-examination more pronounced than in reflections on the relationship between the qualitative researcher and the objects of our study: our research informants (Hatch, 1996). Whereas before the reflexive turn, qualitative scholars largely strove to eliminate differences between themselves and their research informants in order to represent the lived experience of the informants currently we are more suspicious of the possibility of that enterprise. Thus, we are more willing to question power asymmetries between the researcher and the researched, to be explicit about the values and interests that inform our fieldwork; we acknowledge and wrestle with how we influence our informants—and how they influence us—and the phenomena while in the field and how represent our informants in our research accounts (Alvesson et al., 2008; Johnson & Duberley, 2003). Research informants are indeed no longer passive repositories of data, but willful, often strategic, agents who are competent enough to “talk back” to the researcher and be co-creators of ethnographic data (Gilmore & Kenny, 2015). Qualitative organizational researchers still believe that valuable knowledge is gained by staying close to the phenomenon being studied during fieldwork (e.g., De Rond & Lok, 2016; Whiteman & Cooper, 2016); indeed, it has become academically legitimate for organizational researchers to reflect on their relationship with the research participants (Golden-Biddle & Locke, 2007). Yet, qualitative researchers are often uncomfortable about reporting involvement with their research participants (Langley & Klag, 2019). Where this reflection has occurred it has been largely individualistic and narcissistic, centering the researcher at the expense of research participants that are the rightful objects of study (Weick, 2002) and rationalistic, privileging detached rationality by the researcher during the research process at the expense of emotions (Cassell et al., 2020; Gilmore & Kenny, 2015; Koning & Ooi, 2013). We draw on a growing body of work that challenges the predominantly cognitive and individualistic conceptions of reflexive research practice (Blackman, 2007; Burkitt, 2012; Gilmore & Kenny, 2015; Hibbert et al., 2019; Holmes, 2010) to argue for increased attention to the emotions of the researcher and the researched during fieldwork and during the analytic process.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusIn preparation - 2021


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