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Awkward encounters and ethnography

Juliette Koning (Department of Business and Management, Business School, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK)
Can‐Seng Ooi (Department of International Economics and Management, Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Article publication date: 3 May 2013




Researchers rarely present accounts of their awkward encounters in ethnographies. Awkwardness, however, does matter and affects the ethnographic accounts we write and our understanding of social situations. The purpose is to bring these hidden sides of organizational ethnography to the fore, to discuss the consequences of ignoring awkward encounters, and to improve our understanding of organizational realities.


This paper presents awkward ethnographic encounters in the field: encounters with evangelizing ethnic Chinese business people in Indonesia (Koning), and visiting an artist village in China (Ooi). Based on analysing their awkwardness, and in the context of a critical assessment of the reflexive turn in ethnography, the authors propose a more inclusive reflexivity. The paper ends with formulating several points supportive of reaching inclusive reflexivity.


By investigating awkward encounters, the authors show that these experiences have been left out for political (publishing culture in academia, unwritten rules of ethnography), as well as personal (feelings of failure, unwelcome self‐revelations) reasons, while there is much to discover from these encounters. Un‐paralyzing reflexivity means to include the awkward, the emotional, and admit the non‐rational aspects of our ethnographic experiences; such inclusive reflexivity is incredibly insightful.

Research limitations/implications

Inclusive reflexivity not only allows room for the imperfectness of the researcher, but also enables a fuller and deeper representation of the groups and communities we aim to understand and, thus, will enhance the trustworthiness and quality of our ethnographic work.


Awkwardness is rarely acknowledged, not to mention discussed, in organizational ethnography.



Koning, J. and Ooi, C. (2013), "Awkward encounters and ethnography", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 16-32.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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