Templates of Ethnographic Writing in Organization Studies: Beyond the Hegemony of the Detective Story

Tammar B. Zilber*, Patrizia Zanoni

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Using a translation lens, we explore templates for writing ethnography in organization studies and their evolution over time through the analysis of all ethnographic papers published in the premier journal Administrative Science Quarterly, 1956-2018. We found three templates of ethnographic writing. Few early ethnographic papers resemble travelogues, as they use theory to explain a unique case based on firsthand experiences of the author. Most studies read like detective stories, using extensive, quantified data from a case and systematically analyzing it to advance theory. This template has remained predominant over time. Finally, some ethnographic papers read like postmodern detective stories, in that they attempt to create knowledge from lived experience, while also hinting at the partiality of this knowledge. This template appeared around the turn of the century but is today rare. The overall low number of ethnographies and the lasting hegemony of the ethnography as detective story template reflect the strict disciplining of ethnography into the emulation of positivist research, constraining knowledge creation in organization studies. We conclude by offering researchers some strategies to recover the strengths of templates available in the past to broaden the boundaries of existing norms for writing ethnography today.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)371-404
Number of pages34
JournalOrganizational Research Methods
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Tamar Gross and Merav Migdal-Picker for their help in the research process. In developing this article, we benefited much from comments on earlier versions from participants in the ABC conference in Boston; Harvard-MIT seminar in Economic Sociology; the Centre for Strategy Studies seminar in the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University; the Davis Conference on Qualitative Research; the Gothenburg Research Institute seminar; the WOW group; and the HUOS forum in the Hebrew University. The first author thanks the Asper center in the Jerusalem Business School for its generous support, and Yehuda C. Goodman for the ongoing conversation on this project. The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.


  • anthropology
  • ethnography
  • knowledge production
  • literary genres
  • templates
  • translation
  • writing


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