Visualising sensory data in organization and management studies

Author: Samantha Warren, University of Essex

The world of organization and management is full of instances where the realm of the non-verbal, the bodily and the intangible form an important part of what is sometimes referred to as an ‘art’ of managing – ourselves, or others. Intuition, ‘gut feel’, an aesthetic sense of what makes a good leader (Ladkin 2013) and the affective effervescence that characterises a well functioning team are all examples. In a more commercial vein too, marketers are exploiting the power of the senses to add depth and saleability to products, such as commissioning bespoke fragrances to surround brands (Lindtrom 2010), and engaging in corporate aesthetics management to create ‘beautiful organizations’. The aim in all these examples is the engagement of the whole body in organizational life, yet, organization and management studies has been slow to embrace the potential of multi-modal methodologies to explore such phenomena (Bell et al. 2013). Dominated by quantitative methodologies from positivistic paradigms, or, where qualitative data is generated, relying on text-based methods, the field has clung onto a logo-centric, rationalist view of what it means to go to work, or be an organizational actor (Strati 1999). Recent developments in visual research, however, have begun to challenge this dominance and fascinating studies using photography, drawing and visual analysis have opened up vistas from which to explore the non-textual realm of organization (e.g., see contributions to Bell at al. 2013).

But how far can the visual help us in understanding sensory processes of organization? Does the emergence of visual technologies help or hinder the project of attempting a more sensual, holistic and embodied studies of organization? Corbett (2006) and Kavanagh (2004) both remind us that vision – as an enlightenment project – flattens the sensorium and privileges the ocular over other sensory modes of experience and communication. Ingold (2011) is adamant that the distancing propensity of vision contributes to our presumed separation from the world that belies our engagement with it (and reduces our responsibility for it). Yet I would argue there is something very sensually engaging about the visual that invokes other sensory recollections in an almost synaesthesic way (Warren 2012). The iconography of a photograph and its correspondence with an assumed reality trigger sensory experiences that can make us smile at, recoil from or get lost in a photograph in ways that I think are quite significant for research practice since they draw organizational members into an empathetic, and arguably more visceral relationship with what’s being discussed (e.g., see Warren 2008). Television (and now Internet) advertisers have been counting on this effect for some considerable time in fact.

Video recording of sensory interactions, such as listening, smelling or touching might give clues as to the behaviours generated by sensory experience, even if such methods cannot ever hope to capture that experience itself (e.g., Pink 2012, Riach and Warren 2013). Indeed, one could argue that in the practical domain of organization and management studies, it is the behaviours and actions that emanate from sensory experiences that are of primary concern to researchers (e.g., Hindmarsh and Pilnick 2007). Furthermore, through technological advances utilising visual methods – particularly photography – as a way to generate data is something that is now reasonably feasible to do and so perhaps the visual is at least a step in a multi-sensory direction. Nonetheless, as contributions to a recent journal special issue on the senses in organizational life show (Jack et al. 2013), we would do well not to write off the possibilities for other less ocularcentric engagements with the field.


Bell, E., Warren, S. and J. Schroeder (2013) The Routledge Companion to Visual Organization, Routledge: Milton Keynes

Corbett JM (2006) Scents of identity: Organisation studies and the cultural conundrum of the nose. Culture and Organization 12(3): 221-232

Hindmarsh J. and Pilnick A. (2007Knowing bodies at work: embodiment and ephemeral teamwork in anaesthesiaOrganization Studies 28(9): 1395-1416.

Ingold T (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

inVisio: the International Network for Visual Studies in Organizations

Jack, G., Riach, K. and S. Warren (2013) ‘Sensually Exploring Culture and Affect at Work’ International Journal of Work, Organization and Emotion, 5(4)

Kavanagh D (2004) Ocularcentrism and its others: a framework for metatheoretical analysis. Organization Studies 25(3): 445-464.

Ladkin D (2013) From perception to flesh: A phenomenological account of the felt experience of leadership.  Leadership, 9 (3) 320-334

Lindstrom M (2010) Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff we buy. London: Kogan Page.

Pink, S. (2012) Doing Sensory Ethnography, Sage: London

Riach, K. and S. Warren (2013) ‘Smell in the workplace: Intercorporeality and organizational bodies’  (working paper)

Strati, A. (1999) Organization and Aesthetics, Sage: London

Warren, S. (2008) ‘Empirical challenges in organizational aesthetics research: towards a sensual methodology’ Organization Studies, Vol 19(4) 559-580

Warren, S. (2012) ‘Having an eye for it: Aesthetics, ethnography and the senses’ Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol 1(1) 107-118


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