Doing dirty research using qualitative methodologies: lessons from stigmatized occupations

Gina Grandy (Paul J. Hill School of Business & Levene Graduate School of Business, University of Regina, Regina, Canada)
Sharon Mavin (Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK)
Ruth Simpson (Brunel Business School, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Article publication date: 8 September 2014




Grandy, G., Mavin, S. and Simpson, R. (2014), "Doing dirty research using qualitative methodologies: lessons from stigmatized occupations", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 9 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Doing dirty research using qualitative methodologies: lessons from stigmatized occupations

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal, Volume 9, Issue 3.


Gina Grandy, Sharon Mavin, Ruth Simpson

There is a growing interest in exploring the complexities of stigmatized or dirty work(ers) in organization studies. Dirty work (Hughes, 1958) refers to occupations or tasks that are perceived to be degrading or disgusting in some way; physically, socially, morally (Ashforth and Kreiner, 1999) or emotionally tainted (McMurray and Ward, 2014; Rivera, forthcoming). The taint associated with the work is often transferred to the individuals performing the work (dirty workers) (Ashforth and Kreiner, 1999) and even to the organizations through which the work is provided (Grandy and Mavin, 2012). A diverse range of occupations can be considered dirty work (e.g. garbage collectors, funeral directors, fire fighters, dentists, exotic dancers, bill collectors). Kreiner et al. (2006) go further to argue that all occupations can be considered dirty to some extent, based upon the breath and depth of stigma associated with occupational tasks. The re-construction of work (or those performing the work) as dirty is subjective; the extent to which a job may be considered dirty is context specific in that it may not be considered dirty in all places for all people and the perception of it as stigmatized may change over time (Adams, 2012; Dick, 2005). Despite the various streams of research and dirty work sites that have been explored to date, there is still much to understand about the experiences of dirty work(ers) for management and organization studies and dirty work research. This special issue advances our understanding of dirty work in a number of ways and brings together innovative and robust qualitative papers that critically address empirical, methodological, theoretical and practical issues surrounding dirty work(ers) and those who study dirty work.

The nature of dirty work raises several challenges for researchers. There is a tendency within academia to focus on work that is “modern”; clean and value-adding (Bolton and Houlihan, 2009) research that often relies on large sample sizes and sophisticated quantitative analysis. Such research may be seen as more mainstream in terms of future “impact,” with implications (e.g. academic promotion, funding) for how dirty work research may be supported and valued. Those who study dirty work are often aware of these consequences. For example, as Gina and Sharon, two editors of this special issue, commented on their reflexive journey in doing research with exotic dancers (as academics in business schools), “What would colleagues and students think? Does this research have value to organization studies, business and management or is it just “quirky research”? How does this research threaten professional identities?” (Mavin and Grandy, 2013, p. 239).

A further challenge pertains to its largely invisible status (Simpson et al., 2012). Not only do we often seek to create distance from what we see as contaminating and “unclean,” but such work is often spatially absent (e.g. undertaken by those at the margins of society and/or within the private sphere) and temporally concealed, as with night-time work or work involving unsocial hours. Dirty workers can therefore often comprise a hard to reach group. Southgate and Shying (2014) and Sanders-McDonagh (2014) (both in this issue) illustrate how reaching such groups can also entail considerable professional and personal risks for researchers. Finally, work involving dirt may be visible (e.g. street cleaners) but still unseen in terms of the recognition given – overlooked by the public and within policy discourse that characterize such work with low cultural priority, raising issues, again, over the perceived relevance of such research. As one reviewer commented of a research proposal, submitted by one of the editors of this issue, which sought to explore the experiences of men undertaking a traditionally physically tainted occupation: “I don’t understand why you are interested in this group.” In this special issue our position is that dirty work, and what might be perceived by some as dirty research, is valuable and dignified work and we seek to advance understandings of the empirical, personal and professional challenges of studying dirty work. We also advocate and celebrate novel, interpretivist approaches using a broad variety of qualitative methods and analyses to garner rich accounts of the lived experiences of dirty workers. The papers in this special issue outline numerous approaches reflecting an ethnographic style: researcher and researched authored vignettes, stories and tales, participant observation, photographic representations, shadowing, interviews, metaphors and rhetorical analysis, as well as research in the hyphen and writing messy texts.

Others challenges in this field of study relate to how to conceptualize and frame dirty work. One key debate concerns the extent to which dirty work may be tied to occupation or role. Recent accounts of dirty work have gone further to highlight its embodied dimension and the significance of the identity characteristics of the individual undertaking such work (Simpson et al., 2012), as well as of different contextual conditions. Here, norms of acceptability may vary by gender, ethnicity and other aspects of status. Thus, some tasks and roles may be rejected by indigenous worker as dirty but are taken up (and normalized) by migrant groups (Lee-Treweek, 2012). Similarly, while women are seen to “naturally” deliver good service in the workplace, their bodies marked by servility and deemed appropriate for deferential displays, feminized work previously seen as undesirable and incongruent with gender norms (e.g. nursing, caring) may, through de-industrialization, become less tainted as female and more acceptable to men (Gregg and Wadsworth, 2003). Notions of dirt therefore may alter over time and with specific circumstances. Stanley et al. (2014) for example, highlight how the taint attributed to investment bankers did not pre-date their entry into the industry but emerged and intensified during the financial crisis. Following this, as Simpson et al. (2012) argue, the socially constructed nature of dirty work can be seen in how perceptions of dirt and disorder (Douglas, 1966) depend in part on those who are seen to embody such work and how norms of acceptability are temporally and culturally bounded. Cleanliness and dirt are accordingly inscribed onto particular bodies; physically tainted work is often seen as suitable for working class men (Charlesworth, 2000); and, cleaning and private domestic work is commonly associated with black and migrant women (Duffy, 2007). This highlights the fluid and contingent nature of the meanings attached to such work and goes beyond descriptions of the job or role to give signification to embodied processes such as the emotions of disgust and the experiences of contamination and staining. This resonates with a key argument within this issue namely, that research into dirty work fully incorporates the embodied experiences of the researcher.

Across the six papers we are able to learn, not only about research methods and approaches to dirty work/ers and dirty/work researchers but also about occupations which are perceived to be dirty work (immigration border patrol, drug user research, stripping, refuse collectors) and those occupations which can become/are becoming dirty work/ers (taxi drivers, academia and investment bankers). This special issue makes a number of empirical, methodological and theoretical contributions and we set out to detail illustrative and innovative qualitative methods of doing dirty work research; offer novel insights into understudied dirty work sites and the challenges of doing dirty research using qualitative methods; and, break ground as the first dedicated journal issue in organization and management research literature entirely focussed on dirty work.

Writing dirty research differently

Our editorial to this Special Issue has been shaped in part by discussions at the Writing Differently Seminar at Bradford Management School, UK (29th April 2014), led by Nancy Harding, Alison Pullen, Sheena Vacchani, Mary Phillips and Anne Rippin. This workshop shaped understandings of how we might write in ways which dare to question normative scientific ways of researching and writing (Phillips et al., 2013). Writing differently (Grey and Sinclair, 2006) challenges taken-for-granted neutralities through “an engagement which seeks to politicize organizational research at the level of thinking, feeling and writing” (Phillips et al., 2013, p. 15). Further, in writing differently and writing from the body (Fotaki et al., 2014) researchers remain present and embodied in their writing, that which is otherwise removed, cleaned up and sanitized in normative writing.

The six papers in this special issue, for us, engage in writing differently and writing from the body in various ways. They disrupt normative expectations in their revelation and provocation of emotion present in everyday experiences, that which is normally hidden from view in organization studies. They also bring the researcher into their text and/or engage readers in sense-making processes. As readers we have the opportunity to engage with research that does not follow conventional forms and/or content but which have such power and strength in their crafting that they leave us changed in reading them (Phillips et al., 2013). For example, Rivera and Tracy (2014); Simpson et al. (2014), and Cassell and Bishop, 2014) (all in this issue) offer “hidden transcripts” (Scott, 1990, cited in Cassell and Bishop, 2014) and “messy texts” (Marcus, 1994, cited in Rivera and Tracy, 2014) to centralize the researcher's experiences as pivotal to knowledge production; revealing tacit knowledge residing in the researcher, the researched and the reader. Throughout the issue, we are encouraged to experience co-construction and sense making as the authors engage with us through their texts. At each different reading we learn more about what dirty work and dirty work research feels like; how dirty work and dirty work research is experienced. As readers we are provoked into revisiting our own assumptions of occupations and workers in organizations that are both familiar and unfamiliar to us.

Getting a feel for dirty work: emotion, embodiment and reflexivity

In their piece, “The use of ethnography to explore meanings that refuse collectors attach to their work,” Alexander Simpson, Natasha Slutskaya, Jason Hughes and Ruth Simpson, outline how ethnography as a style of research can more fully articulate experiences and meanings of a social group. They argue that refuse collectors, as a tainted and under researched group, represent an occupational category where class and masculinity intertwine and conventional linguistic expression may be insufficient to voice everyday experiences. The researchers engaged in participant observation, working alongside the refuse collectors, capturing photographic representations and undertaking interviews “on the job.” The ethnographic style adopted incorporates theory, culture and reflexivity throughout the research process to develop rich data focussing upon the meanings men attach to dirt and their experiences of dirty work involving the handling and disposal of waste.

Alexander, Natasha, Jason and Ruth draw upon photographic representations to both engage with readers in the unfolding story of the research and to give participants’ voice. Here photographs give visual image over and above textual accounts of some of the work practices, disrupting normative protocols and enabling readers to re-interpret and create their own meanings, becoming part of the story of the research. For us, the authors have also succeeded in writing from the body, that is, expressing their embodiment in the writing process, through the story of one researcher's feelings about being in contact with dirt and waste and through the use of photographs which communicate embodied experiences and intimacy in the everyday experiences of the men refuse collectors. This vividly illuminates human relations where the text cannot speak. The research also disrupts the normative by focussing upon class to further understand understand (dis)advantage and engaging with working class men in a research encounter which is reciprocal. Incorporating power relations and reflexivity in their dirty work research, the authors reveal how dirt is perceived, not as impurity which offends order or as matter out of place (Douglas, 1996) but as a normalized domain, which in turn has orderly and disorderly boundaries. In writing differently, Alexander, Natasha, Jason and Ruth unsettle taken-for-granted assumptions about the public's lack of value afforded to the work and a lack of recognition of the men who perform it. This is likely to be an uncomfortable read for the audience, as we are the public, unconsciously unaware of our relations with the men refuse collectors.

In a similar vein, Kendra Rivera and Sarah Tracy's piece, “Emotional dirty work: a messy text of the border patrol” is a beautifully written “messy text” which draws upon vignettes, participant observation, shadowing and interviews to unmask tacit knowledge about immigration patrol agents as dirty work. Kendra's re-telling of her emotive and bodily reactions to working with/alongside “undocumented immigrants” reveals guilt and shame and the messy realities of conducting dirty research as embodied. They write into and through their data, and in doing so Kendra and Sarah succeed in disrupting the sterile cleanliness of normative scientific research. In this messy text, Kendra and Sarah are present and we co-construct emotion and meanings in our reading of their work. We experience the border patrol agents’ experiences and emotions, the undocumented immigrants’ experiences and emotions, the researchers’ experiences and emotions … and our own. Through careful linguistic attention and text creation, Kendra and Sarah explore the metaphors revealed in agents’ texts as messy emotions and offer a story of dirty work in a way that is resistant to classification, open ended and malleable. They succeed in revealing understandings of what dirty work and dirty work research feel like as fragmented complexity. Kendra and Sarah also align a variety of different emotions to physical, social and moral taint; thereby aligning with McMurray and Ward's (2014) and Rivera (forthcoming) recent work which offers emotional taint as an extension to the typology of physical, social and moral taints that constitute dirty work.

Southgate and Shying (2014) and Sanders-McDonagh (2014) take us further in understanding the sometimes problematic nature of studying dirty work; what it feels like to be/come dirty researchers. Erica and Kerri in their piece, “Researchers as dirty workers: cautionary tales on insider-outsider dynamics,” offer unique stories from two researchers who hold insider-outsider status in doing dirty work research. The participants come to their own research already bearing the moral and social stain of dirty worker, one with a past involving illicit drugs and the other a former stripper. The frank and embodied stories of their participants, Laurel and Astrid, illuminate how such a position both facilitates and constrains research practice and the complexity of living a subject position as the “hyphen” between researcher – other and insider-outsider. Laurel's stain is open and unconcealed as a skilled peer educator and researcher working with those who use illicit drugs. Astrid's staining is concealable and concealed within the realm of her University, having previously worked as a stripper and now as an academic/university researcher. Both experiences of staining highlight uncertain relations of power. The two tales are poignant. They create a dynamic of uneasy ambivalence which disrupts normative expectations of insider-outsider research and evoke ambivalence toward neat dichotomous categories relied upon in social research. In writing from the body the authors adopt a position through which the body and mind are intertwined and inseparable to explain lived experiences of stigmatized identities of researchers. In reading the stories, we share their vulnerability; we feel present in Laurel and Astrid's experiences, observing tainted embodiment and embodied regulation, and exploring understandings of living in the hyphen, in between insider-outsider research/er.

In “Conducting ‘dirty research’ with extreme groups: understanding academia as a dirty work site,” Sanders-McDonagh (2014) explores academia as dirty work. She engages us in her story of becoming a dirty worker when she is mistakenly associated with a well known far right-wing organization. She draws attention to the risks of studying unloved groups, in her case research with right-winged political groups. This story disrupts the raison d’être of social scientists who see their work as dedicated to social justice and equality; it highlights how finding the balance between rapport and intimacy within the research relationship can be troubling in dirty work research, particularly when the researcher is ideologically opposed to those in the researched unloved groups.

Erin shares with us the challenges of boundary marking when one holds an insider-outsider subject position, maintaining positive personal and professional identities and the threat of becoming a “spoiled identity” (Goffman, 1963). Her work extends research on identity construction and dirty work (e.g. Dick, 2005; Grandy, 2008) to better illuminate the impact on the researcher. We experience Erin's vulnerability in exposure to harm, as she re-tells how her reputation as a “clean” academic is threatened by treading in ethically murky waters; the risk of being stigmatized by her colleagues, students and her institution. Erin's story highlights the risk of dirty work research, the threats of taint and stigma for researchers and the challenges to professional and personal ethics. As readers we feel Erin's powerlessness and terror when she discovers she is named on a right-wing organization web site which intimates her membership. This takes almost a year to rectify. We feel the risk of dirty research/researcher through emotion embodied in Erin's identity work struggles as she sees herself becoming tainted and stigmatized. We see how Erin struggles to manage the situation and the research so she can remain intact; ethically and professionally “clean.”

Ambivalence, ambiguity and power relations in dirty work

Catherine Cassell and Vicky Bishop's paper, as well as Liz Stanley, Kate Mackenzie Davey and Gillian Symon's paper direct our attention to the subjective nature of what is considered to be dirty work, the breadth and depth of the stigma, and who serves as “sense-makers” and “sense-givers” (Gioia and Chittipeddi, 1991) in the construction and negotiation of dirty work/ers. One way this is manifested is through ambivalence and ambiguity in the experiences of those who work in, talk about or report on dirty work/ers. Indeed, ambivalence and ambiguity “are particularly salient in the experiences of those who work in stigmatized or dirty work” (Grandy and Mavin, 2014, p. 132). This certainly resonates in the work of Rivera and Tracy (2014), Southgate and Shying (2014) as well as Cassell and Bishop (2014).

Cathy and Vicky make a unique contribution in that they theorize and empirically demonstrate how the construction of dirty work occurs within the customer service interaction. They argue, in “Metaphors and sense making: understanding the taint associated with dirty work,” that the extent to which taxi driving, their empirical focus, can be seen as dirty is ambiguous. It can be viewed as morally (e.g. exploiting customers), socially (e.g. servile role) and physically (e.g. vomiting customer, risk of assault or robbery) tainted, yet taxi drivers are self-employed and afforded considerable autonomy through their work. Given this ambiguity, Cathy and Vicky argue that metaphors can help reveal the “hidden transcripts” in taxi drivers’ talk and experiences about their work and further our understanding of taint management strategies. For dirty work research the paper offers an unusual view into the everyday lives of workers whose occupation fits with compartmentalized stigma (Kreiner et al., 2006), where the majority of tasks are not stigmatized but one or more are. Cathy and Vicky discuss five metaphors that illustrate how these drivers make sense of and manage their experiences. They conclude that “the construction of taxi driving as dirty work can shift from one customer encounter to another, so drivers need a repertoire of hidden transcripts to draw upon to make sense of each different customer interaction.” This advances our understanding of dirty work as contextual, temporal and dynamic. In their writing of the research, Cathy and Vicky provoke meaning making with us as readers. As editors, our sense making and re-thinking of the driver-passenger interaction as dynamic and enveloped in power relations became conscious almost immediately; we feel the lack of control the driver has over the customer and the customer over the driver, the confined personal space occupied, and how drivers and passengers become vulnerable in different contexts.

The last paper in this special issue, “Exploring media construction of investment banking as dirty work,” by Liz, Kate and Gillian unpicks further the power relations inherent in the construction and re-construction of dirty work. Specifically, they are interested in conceptualizing the media as social arbiters and exploring the attribution of dirt through strategic language use. Building upon the work of Grandy and Mavin (2012) on media representation of exotic dancers/ing as dirty work, Liz, Kate and Gillian illuminate the what, who and how of stigma construction in their empirical study of the media portrayal of investment bankers. Their research introduces us to a recently tainted high-status occupation and offers us a novel approach to better understand how work becomes constructed as dirty. Using rhetorical analysis in an episode of crisis they reveal how media constructs moral judgments to build a picture of bankers as dirty workers. They detail the stigmatization of corporate elites in action and highlight how personalized and vitriolic the media has been toward investment bankers, constructing stigma and taint in a process of staining. They conclude that these attempts by media to personalize and stain the individuals who perform the work serve three purposes: to simplify and secure media's legitimacy as social arbiters and protectors of a moral code; to contain the blame in periods of crisis so that wider systematic or societal issues are sidestepped; and to amuse and entertain through ridicule which is easier to achieve by focussing upon the motivations and behaviors of bankers rather than the work they do. The paper disrupts the normative role of the media in our lives. It raises our consciousness to how media, as a form of popular culture, shape and co-produce norms that construct and sustain stigma, often transferring the stigma to the individuals who perform the work.


As editors of the special issue we feel humbled and privileged to have worked with colleagues who produce wonderfully provocative research. We thank the Journal editors, Gillian and Cathy, for their generosity in offering the space to give attention to dirty work research and the critical issues raised in the papers. Finally, we encourage you to read on and enjoy embodied experiences through your own reading, sense making and constructions.

Dr Gina Grandy - Paul J. Hill School of Business & Levene Graduate School of Business, University of Regina, Regina, Canada

Professor Sharon Mavin - Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

Professor Ruth Simpson- Brunel Business School, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK


The authors would like to thank the reviewers of this special issue for their constructive feedback during the reviewing process, the contributors to the special issue for their thought provoking research, and the editors of the journal, Cathy Cassell and Gillian Symon for recognizing the dignity in talking about and doing dirty work/research.


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About the Guest Editors

Dr Gina Grandy is a an Associate Professor in the Paul J. Hill School of Business and Levene Graduate School of Business at the University of Regina located in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her research interests are in leadership, gender, organizational change, stigmatized work and competitive advantage. She has published in such journals as British Journal of Management, Organization, Gender, Work and Organization, Journal of Management Studies, Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal and Gender and Management: An International Journal. Dr Gina Grandy is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

Sharon Mavin is a Professor of Organization and HRM with the Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. She has a sustained interest in gender, identity and women leaders and has published widely in organization studies, leadership and gender research. She is the co-editor of Gender in Management: An International Journal and an Associate Editor for the International Journal of Management Reviews. Her work as been published in British Journal of Management, Gender, Work and Organization, International Journal of Management Reviews, Studies in Higher Education, Management Learning, and Gender in Management: An International Journal.

Ruth Simpson is Professor of Management at the Brunel Business School, Brunel University, UK. Her research interests include gender and management education, gender and emotions and gender and careers. She has authored, co-authored and co-edited several books including Men in Caring Occupations (2009), Emotions in Transmigration (2013) and Dirty Work: Concepts and Identities (2012). Her work has been published widely, including Human Relations, Organization, British Journal of Management, Gender Work and Organization and Work, Employment and Society.

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