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The impostor syndrome: language barriers in organizational ethnography

Virginia Rosales (Department of Management, HEC Montréal, Montreal, Canada) (Department of Business Administration, Umeå School of Business, Economics and Statistics, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 16 February 2021

Issue publication date: 29 July 2021




The use of organizational ethnography has grown significantly during the past decades. While language is an important component of ethnographic research, the challenges associated with language barriers are rarely discussed in the literature. The purpose of this paper is to open up a discussion on language barriers in organizational ethnography.


The author draws on her experience as a PhD student doing an organizational ethnography of an emergency department in a country where she initially did not speak the local language.


The paper examines the author's research process, from access negotiation to presentation of findings, illustrating the language barriers encountered doing an ethnography in parallel to learning the local language in Sweden.

Research limitations/implications

This paper calls for awareness of the influence of the ethnographer's language skills and shows the importance of discussing this in relation to how we teach and learn ethnography, research practice and diversity in academia.


The paper makes three contributions to organizational ethnography. First, it contributes to the insider/outsider debate by nuancing the ethnographer's experience. Second, it answers calls for transparency by presenting a personal ethnographic account. Third, it contributes to developing the methodology by offering tips to deal with language barriers in doing ethnography abroad.



The author is grateful to Mike Rowe for his editorial guidance and two anonymous reviewers for their very insightful comments and suggestions. The author also thanks Maira Babri for her feedback on an earlier draft of this paper. They have all helped to make this manuscript a better one.Funding: Financial support from the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation, and the Tore Browaldh Foundation is gratefully acknowledged.


Rosales, V. (2021), "The impostor syndrome: language barriers in organizational ethnography", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 162-179.



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