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The birth of an action repertoire: On the origins of the concept of whistleblowing

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The standard account in whistleblowing research fixes the birth of the whistleblowing concept in the early 1970s. Surprisingly, there are no efforts to discuss why whistleblowing emerged as a distinct new action repertoire at this particular moment in time. Whistleblowing is a historical latecomer to an ethos of field transgression, which includes well-established forms of intervention such as watchdog journalism and political activism. Whistleblowing has strong affinities with these practices, but also holds its own unique place in ethics and democracy. We can only appreciate these qualities in full if we trace the historical origins of the concept. The article argues that the concept of whistleblowing crystallized at the intersection of a set of trends that picked up speed in the 1960s–1970s: individualization, changing perceptions of loyalty, declines in authority trust, new participation patterns, and a growing awareness of the dangers and complexities in human production and organization. This is not simply an exercise in disciplinary history. Whistleblowing is on the rise in these years, just as digitalization creates a whole new range of opportunities for disclosure. It takes an increasingly steady hand to isolate the distinct ethical-democratic contribution of whistleblowers within this complex reality. To achieve this, we need to be able to place whistleblowing on a broader sociological and historical map.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Pages (from-to)13-24
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022

    Research areas

  • Conceptual history, Democracy and ethics, Whistleblowing

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