An ethnography of multiplicity: Wittgenstein and plurality in the organisation

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    This paper responds to the stream’s call to critically examine the bounds of truth, taking the relatively mundane an example of the term “Agile” and investigating the slack and multiple connotations associated with this term’s use in organisational discourse. The term may, at various points be used to mean a company value, a project management method, or a “holistic approach” for improvement. Arguably this variety is symptomatic of the messy “experienced reality” facing practitioners whose organizational lives evolve not as neatly separated linear strands but as a Gordian knot of expectations and hopes. This vagueness has consequences, with meanings often shaped to fit the needs of embedded power relations. The contribution of the paper, then, lies in questioning the apolitical nature of current critical investigative ethnography of pluralistic reported “truths”. I argue that by investigating and critically engaging with competing or coexisting discourses or language games and their associated forms of life, we may render transparent or at least partially refocus attention on the conceptual or ideological baggage which shape our consensuses. In so doing we may avoid unwittingly reinforcing the interests of those we aim to critique and instead shed light on whose “truth” we have been conveying as we open up new facets of our lives in organisations.
    The events of the past few years have led many to declare that we now live in an era of post-truth; alternative facts, a concept for better or worse now irreversibly lodged in the public consciousness, have existed for far longer than this recent acclaim and condemnation suggests. In trying to generate a coherent account we can choose to treat these problems of reporting as a challenge to be overcome. However, rather than joining the cacophony of voices calling for a return to the hegemony of singular essential facts, perhaps we could gain significant critical insight by exploring this freshly highlighted intersection between reported “truth” and power; while valuing and respecting calls for ethnographic researchers to “describe reality”, we see that the very notion of “the truth” is one that is inextricably tied to notions of power and orthodoxy.
    The data used in the illustrative analysis will, by necessity, be studies and reports performed by others. However, the illustration is not the contribution, rather it is the method which, instead of trying to “resolve” this plurality of reported experience, will make our lived multitude of meanings the specific target of our attentions; an ethnography of multiplicity centred around Wittgenstein’s notions of forms of life, language games and grammatical investigation, utilising his work to inform primarily what John Van Maanen may term the headwork and the textwork of ethnographic research. This descriptive method, built on a critical analysis of existing Wittgensteinian approaches to organisational research and ethnography, aims to bring his philosophical insights more fully to bear and in new ways. Ethnography has undergone many changes, phases and identity crises since the heyday of Clifford Geertz, and while he drew much inspiration from Wittgenstein it would be inappropriate to claim to follow in his tradition. In truth, the ethnographic work would draw more inspiration from is that of Tom Boelstorff or Bill Maurer; work which, while revealing, is deeply reflexive about its position in the world and its inherent limitations.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 28 Aug 2017
    Event12th Annual International Ethnography Symposium: Politics and Ethnography in an Age of Uncertainty - The University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
    Duration: 29 Aug 20171 Sept 2017


    Conference12th Annual International Ethnography Symposium
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


    • Wittgenstein
    • ethnography
    • alternative facts
    • post-truth society
    • truth


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