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Democracy's autonomy dilemma: Whistleblowing and the politics of disclosure

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Democracy has been characterized from its outset by an autonomy dilemma. On the one hand, we think it vital that organizations work according to their own codes and logics. On the other hand, we insist that autonomy must never be complete, that citizens have a right to transgress boundaries to expose wrongdoing. With their insider position in the organizations where wrongdoing occurs, whistleblowers hold a unique place within this democratic politics of disclosure, which has so far not been sociologically theorized. This article takes four steps to address this lacuna: First, I situate whistleblowing within the democratic landslides that took place during the 1960s and 1970s; second, I disentangle it from practices such as journalism and activism; third, I argue that whistleblowers are particularly well positioned to detect normalized wrongdoing within organizations; and fourth, I discuss how whistleblowers’ most pronounced effect is the disclosure of gray areas that have gone under the democratic radar.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSociological Theory
Pages (from-to)245-264
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

    Research areas

  • autonomy, democracy, disclosure, whistleblowing, wrongdoing

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