Reviewing Kenny, Fotaki and Vandekerckhove’s article called ‘Whistleblower subjectivities: organization and passionate attachment’


As a genre, review articles ‘document the state of knowledge in a given field, primarily for the purpose of fixing existing understandings, or maintaining a record of what we know’ (Patriotta 2020, p. 1273).

Corruption literature includes a wide range of disciplines, and ‘review articles play an important role in promoting collective reflections about the state of the art in a given topic domain and stimulating further debates around it’ (Patriotta 2020, p. 1272).

This article reviews a qualitative, interpretative, and problematising article by Kenny, Fotaki and Vandekerckhove’s (2020) called ‘Whistleblower subjectivities: organization and passionate attachment’ was published in Organisation Studies. It draws a picture of whistleblower’s motives and values. It builds a novel theory with clear concepts by going into subjectivities of individuals. It seeks to problematise paradigmatic assumptions (Alveson & Sandberg 2011, p. 255) by comparing and contrasting a new conceptualisation with prevailing conceptualisations.

The paper clarifies and integrates the field by applying an in-depth grounded theory method using poststructuralist and psychoanalytic frameworks. This is essential to obtaining a better picture of corruption ‘that attacks truth and honesty and subverts human values’ (Sher 2013, p. 171).

The paper examines whistleblower’s subjectivity formation, the positions adopted, and the role of the organisation.

This review explores the article from the perspectives of motivating, grounding, methods, theorising, discussion, and writing. Some extra space reflecting expression is given because of the article’s exceptional quality and connectedness to psychoanalysis. What positive features stand out and how the ideas could be developed further are presented at the end.


Raising to the level of abstraction of ‘denying the truth’, the paper introduces ‘bad and prejudiced’ understanding as ‘an attack on the taken-for-granted world’ (Davis 1971, p. 311) in comparison to novel, empathetic, practical, real-life understanding. Contrasting the approach of a whistleblower’s subjectivity and traditional quantitative research makes for an interesting hook to readers’ curiosity, strengthened by a radical distinction between seeming and being: the subject of phenomenology and the subject of ontology. The dialectical discussion is developed according to ‘Index of Interesting’ (p. 313) by stating how whistleblowers have been taken by a contradictory identity of both hero and traitor but are actually normal everyday people. The movement of mind is held throughout the article by providing the complexity of the matter in building on paradoxes of contrasting forms like impressionist art: The shadow is always colourful. The article presents how whistleblowers’ self-identities are not structured around risk-taking, nor around free and independent reinvention of self, but on passionate investments in organisational and professional ideals. Theorising the topic through affective identifications shakes the ground under the audience’s feet: ‘I must have had it all wrong!’

The article follows the ‘standard form’ of first articulating taken-for-granted assumptions by reviewing the literature, then adducing one or more propositions which deny the traditionally assumed. Then it uses methodological devices by using empirical material, to prove that the old propositions are wrong while the new ones are correct and, in conclusion, suggests how the practical consequences of these new propositions deflect onto new paths (Davis 1971, p. 312).


The article provides ontological, epistemological, and methodological paradigm assumptions (Alveson & Sandberg 2011, p. 260) in problematising. It looks at whistleblowers’ subjectivities in literature on organisational whistleblowing and raises a concept of parrhesiastic truth-telling as a useful way of exploring this positioning. It specifies the ‘relation to truth through frankness’ by referring to Foucault’s (2001), Rothschild’s (2013), and others’ understanding of whistleblowers’ positioning as moral obligation to act and speak against organisational wrongdoing. The corruption-related phenomenon of knowing and not knowing in relation to denial is reflected through the parrhesiates rejecting a secure life of unspoken truth. Organising relations to others through ethical and political dimensions is given as a part of the ‘ethico-political’ practice described by Weiskopf and Tobias-Miersch (2016, p. 1624). While the existing literature defines whistleblowers as ‘heroes or traitors,’ the article reaches out for integration in framing with whistleblowers’ powerless position and risk in confronting the status quo. It brings out further contradictions explained by Guido Stack’s ‘bureaucracy and economics’ relating to the identity of a ‘legal professional’ utilising formal rules and obligations. The further question of whistleblowing-as-parrhesia’s identity is to be found and re-invented (Kenny et al. citing Mansbach 2009) during the disclosure by breaking the surrounding discursive frames, and the grounding continues to Lacan’s concept of ‘pure desire’, Contus’ ‘singular’ act where the subject is free from symbolic authority and placed unattached by social constraints (Kenny et al. citing Alford 2001). Further dilemmas are presented – between the literature’s description of whistleblowers’ subjectivity as expressing freedom by breaking off from social norms and the study’s findings of their identity as defenders of them and placing the topic from earlier laterality in the core of everyday practice. This pulls the reader by connecting the article’s theory to practice. Presenting as competition between sources in the literature based on secondary ground, this deeply embedded empirical study has a magnetic effect. It brings Judith Butler’s concept of passionate attachment as a source for whistleblowers’ subjectivity together with the way the study is conducted and reported.


The detailed article is transparent to the findings while using the in-depth grounded theory method consisting of researchers’ studies of social and social psychological processes, collecting direct data, managing data analysis, and developing an abstract theoretical framework to explain this process. Data is drawn from thirty unique cases from two qualitative, interpretive research projects by the authors, who have previous experience in in-depth studies on whistleblowing. Based on similarities with previous experience and earlier engagement in whistleblowing, the projects were combined. Secondary data was collected from newspapers, documents, etc., and peoples’ stories were verified. The original interviews lasted 1–3 hours, and interviewees were contacted through a whistleblower advocacy group.

The analysing strategy was to come together as a team and use a constructivist interpretation of grounded theory through past and present involvements. It was complemented by the chosen poststucturalist and psychoanalytic framework, reading and rereading the data, producing extended memo notes, and iterating between data and theory. The in-depth focus was not developed in existing work drawing on secondary accounts; instead, the researchers self-identified as whistleblowers. By adopting similar approaches to the constitution of subjectivity, attention to data was paid on the ways people positioned themselves to wider discourses and self-representation. By using psychoanalytic and poststructuralist frameworks, the centrality of a paradoxes was recognised to avoid false coherences.

The grounded theory research process was built by coding and analysing data in a simultaneous process, proceeding empirically in the following way: The first line coding was done line by line through highlighting aspects according to Charmaz’s (2015a,b) instructions on focused and theoretical coding by rereading the existing material, identifying the significant issues, and systematically labelling chunks of text. The codes were compared, checked, and revived with initial categories to avoid overlap. Five primary themes were created by focal coding, with findings reanalysed in light of the organisational literature on whistleblowing and theoretical frameworks of psychosocial formation. The primary themes’ relations to organisations were further refined to reflect the subject positions of professional subject, outsider, loyal employee, and involuntary discloser. The theoretical development proceeded through mutual discussion and consideration, feedback from a presentation at an academic workshop, and inductive tacking back and forth (Kenny et al. citing Charmaz 2006) between literature on parrhesia in organisations and relevant psychosocial and poststructuralist theories. The self-evaluation found how, in contacting people based on the whistleblower’s role, the subject positions of both researcher and researched were constituted. This was then taken as a starting point to study the complex interaction between participant and researcher. The article was rigorous in its methodology.

The article articulates the general taken-for-granted assumptions of whistleblower subjectivity by reviewing the literature and adduces several propositions proving previous assumptions wrong. The authors justify the theoretical framework of Judith Butler, who is taking valuably forward Foucault’s concept of subjectivity by drawing upon Hegelian philosophy and Lacan’s psychoanalytic ideas. Psychic processes of desire lead to identifications with given social norms (Kenny et al. citing Butler 1997), as a continuous search for unattainable unity by the human subject (Kenny et al. citing Fotaki 2010, 2009). Suffused with the affect to be recognised as legitimate, the subject strives to overcome alienation felt towards the ‘symbolic order’ of laws, norms, etc. to achieve stability of identity. Dependency and interdependency on normative recognition lie with a network of others expressing itself as attachments that are experienced as affective, or ‘passionate’ (Kenny et al. citing Butler 2004). Failure to attain recognition can be catastrophic for one’s sense of self, leading to existential crisis (Kenny et al. citing Butler 2004, p. 31). The article builds, with the help of methodological devices, a deep, painful, and identifiable profile of whistleblower subjectivity as professional, outsider, loyal employee, and ‘involuntary discloser’. The concept is then retheorised through attachment to social and organisational norms focusing on ‘meaning of risk’ and the ‘whistleblower as a truth telling subject’, making the showing and the telling connect.

The article ‘builds the theory by first identifying a domain of literature, then identifying and articulating assumptions underlying this domain, evaluating alternative assumption, developing an alternative assumption ground, considering assumptions in relation to its audience, and evaluating the alternative assumption ground’ (Alveson & Sanberg 2011, p. 256) and suggests practical consequences of these new propositions in ongoing social research (Davis 1971, p. 312).


The analyse focuses on a deeply intertwined, complex, and persistent ‘self-constitution’ brought about by in-depth understanding (Nelson 2017). ‘Risk’ as an essential characteristic of the position of parrhesiastic truth-teller is taken not knowingly, and the process of reinventing oneself happens in relation to disclosure. A picture emerging from the data is of an individual similar to you and me who is passionately invested in organisational and professional pride despite its related pain.

Both discussions provide a transparent, detailed explanation of what has been done, connect empirical evidence to theoretical understanding, and show how what was known before has now changed and a new understanding has replaced it.


The ‘hook’ in the article is its entire dynamics. Utilising psychoanalytic knowledge, the article is written to function as emotional mind. Starting out from the ‘lagoon of ambivalence’ gathering together history, culture, and institutions, it creates a split between quantitative ‘bad’ studies and qualitative empathetic studies. The article creates excitement in relating ‘truth’ and ‘dangerous’ and brings in an emotional split with the psychological defences of idealisation and devaluation, normally used to deal with anxiety, in defining whistleblowers as either heroes or traitors. The solution is in separation: a radical brake and reinvention of the self as the integrating factor. The article continues to discuss feelings of helplessness arising from powerlessness. The threat arises from the risk of a relatively weak actor ‘speaking truth’ to a more powerful one as a nonverbal comparison to David fighting Goliath. The idea of formal rules and obligations are brought in to provide security of boundaries. Giving life to another contradiction of restrictions, it travels ‘through the process of the disclosure, from its initial uncertainties and subsequent upshot to the re-appropriation of speech that the act of whistleblowing enables’ (Kenny et al. 2020, p. 325). The reader is given relief by understanding of ‘what is going on’. The superego elements of right and wrong are located into values of freedom and truth and transformed into boldness of defending the ‘boundaries’ of professional norms. With the core given as an ‘everyday embodied practice’, the issues are shockingly placed to concern the reader. The article then connects norms and affects and enters discussion, guided by Butler and Fotaki, of the search for unattainable unity by the human subject, of me and not me in eternal longing for symbiosis and separation. The identity and alienation brought into us by being ‘social’ demands overcoming subjectivity in order to reach stability. The reader is not left to rest while emotions of passion, grief, and rage are discussed as a cause of being melted into the social crowd. Accepting interdependency with a precondition of recognition for existing calms emotions. The writing lands on the methodological part to collect data from people like the researchers themselves, making obvious how this study is not about whistleblowers ‘out there’ but about you and me.

Positive features in the article establish a bridge between the ontological, epistemological, and theoretical elements to build consistency within when the reader is struck with a tsunami of emotions, history, philosophy, and empirical studies yet landing on solid ground being able to identify with true whistleblower subjectivity.


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