In the last post I began to outline some of the similarities and differences between complex responsive processes and critical management studies (CMS) following Hugh Willmott’s keynote at the CMC conference. I have chosen to engage with Alvesson and Willmott’s book Making Sense of Management, while at the same time as recognising that CMS is a broad church and that this book is a primer in CMS. Nevertheless, in this post I will continue the discussion.
Complex responsive processes shares with CMS a critique of the individualising tendencies of modernity and argues instead for a radically social view of human beings and their activities. However, I think this is different from what Alvesson and Willmott term ‘radical humanism’ as an alternative. From our perspective we would side with both Mead and Elias in arguing that human beings are social through and through: there is no society without individuals and no individuals without society. Following Mead, mind, self and society all arise in social processes involving other social selves and our increasing abilities to take the attitudes of others to ourselves. This is not to deny any individuality but to emphasise how individuality is only possible in relation to other socialised individuals: i.e. society makes individuality possible.
For me, the idea of radical humanism still retains Kant’s idea of the rational, autonomous individual which is extensively taken up in cognitive psychology, and is manifest in the quotation cited in Alvesson and Willmott’s book from Burrell and Morgan about ideological superstructures driving a ‘cognitive wedge between man and his true consciousness’ (p60). If I understand this correctly then this is a form of essentialism which we would reject and which the authors draw attention to themselves in mentioning the various critiques of CMS, drawing on the post-structuralists . So this is a further critique of what I understand to be an essentialist and quasi-individualist position, but from a pragmatic and process sociological perspective.
Elias’ process sociology also takes a much greater interest in what he referred to as the ‘rising tides of guilt and shame’ which he argued have accompanied the civilising process. In other words, guilt, shame and anxiety are all feelings provoked in our thoroughly social selves because of our interdependence: we fear exclusion and lack of recognition. These feelings operate blindly because of the imperfect socialisation process that we all endure. It is the ‘internalisation’ of the external forms of control that we would have exercised over each other in former times and is experienced as a form of automatically operating self-discipline. This contributes to what he regarded as the rationally irrational dynamic in social life, and which we take up in complex responsive processes as a legitimate area of enquiry in research: many of our students on the doctor of management programme will describe the strong emotions that are provoked in situations they face at work. In drawing on the complexity sciences we would say that strong emotion also contributes to the ‘non-linearity’ of human interaction and again problematises the idea that there could ever be an ideal speech situation.
From a complex responsive processes perspective there is little emphasis in Making Sense of Management on the role of emotion in organisational life, particularly in the way that we understand anxiety, guilt and shame as social emotions, if you like ‘subjective’ experience called out by ‘objective’ social processes. We are not just interested in different discourses and how they play themselves out in the competitive struggle in organisations, but also in what effect this has on engaged, feeling human bodies.
On the subject of Elias it may be the right time to explore the interest in power that we share with CMS. However, I think there is a distinction to be made between the way we would understand power, following Elias, and how Alevesson and Willmott write about it, where power and domination are often yoked together in the same sentence. I think we would agree with the post-structuralists that there is no separating power and knowledge, but I think we would probably have a slightly different position particularly from the early Foucault. We find Foucault’s take on power particularly helpful for understanding contemporary organisational life, particularly what he terms ‘capillary’ and ‘granular’ power, i.e. it arises between us as we discipline and are disciplined by others. Much contemporary life, let alone organisational life, consists in surveillance, scrutiny and having our bodies disciplined, much as he describes in Discipline and Punish. However, I’m not sure that Foucault can ever shake off his Nietzschean heritage, understanding power as red in tooth and claw, although he states again and again that power both enables and constrains.
For Elias power is an integral element of all human relating: because we are interdependent and we need each other, so we have power over others as they do over us. Our need for recognition, respect, love, companionship places us in fluctuating relationships of power with others, which is another ‘non-linear’ aspect of human relating. We might claim that there is no ideal situation in which asymmetrical power relationships can ever be equalised. Again we would probably find ourselves agnostic about whether human beings could ever free themselves from dominating power relationships.
Like Alvesson and Willmott, we too are in favour of micro-studies, new forms of writing and research and working with managers sympathetically to make sense of their daily trials and tribulations. We agree that we should encourage new forms of practice and writing and this forms the core of what we are encouraging our students to do on the DMan. Students pursue their enquiry iteratively, and in a community of engaged enquirers. They write drafts of their projects, then rewrite them in response to the critique offered by their supervisor and their peers, and in relation to what they find themselves reading in other discourses. Their thesis emerges, then, just as Dewey describes in the pursuit of trying to understand something better over time in a form of practical enquiry, linking theory and practice.
We would agree with what Alvesson and Willmott say in their book that there is nothing about CMS which suggests a particular approach, or a blueprint for doing management ‘properly’. Equally we keep rejecting the idea that arises from people coming to terms with the theory of complex responsive processes of relating that there is a way of ‘applying’ it. We do encourage our students to write about what they are doing at work using narratives in which they figure, but apart from that they can go on to use any method they like to research their organisations. Again, the point of what we are doing is to encourage the Deweyan (and Hegelian) notion of researching experience from within experience itself. This is different from the usual Kantian research approach that the rational, autonomous individual chooses and epistemological stance vis-a-vis their experience, they choose a qualitative method, and by using this method they then write ‘about’ it. Instead, we are encouraging students to write as far as possible from within their experience. This is not very far away from what Mats Alvesson refers to as ‘at home ethnography’, although we oblige our students to root their narratives firmly in their own experience and to write from the first person perspective. We share an interest in pluralism, multiple-perspectives, reflection and reflexivity, and reflections in particular on how all of this affects the researchers’ identity and experience of subjectivity.
Where we differ is probably in the notion that micro-studies are a prelude to, or are lesser than, macro- theorising about management and organisational life. For us there is no separation: ‘macro’ theories can only ever be found locally, in ‘micro’ interaction with others, even as we take up highly abstract ideas together. Nor would we see a study of the micro, or in our terms the ‘local’, as being somehow incrementally conducive of more thorough-going wholesale change. In taking up a non-linear view, we would not necessarily concur that change arises step by step since a small change can escalate into a population-wide repatterning, meanwhile a large intervention could result in very little change at all.
We would also try to overcome the distinction that Alvesson and Willmott make between reconstruction and critique, which I mentioned earlier. If I understand what they are saying correctly, they are suggesting that first comes theoretical engagement, then practical involvement in trying to resolve problems. They suggest that there is an internal critique within CMS that the two concepts are only loosely coupled. We are trying radically to problematise the notion that thought precedes action: rather we are suggesting that all action is already theorised and that action leads to more theory about action. There is no separation between thinking, acting and speaking: they are simply separate phases of the same activity.
Summary (for now) of similarities and differences
In his most recent book The Pragmatic Turn, Richard Bernstein draws attention to the way that German philosophy has appropriated many pragmatic themes: Habermas, Honneth and Joas have each drawn on the pragmatists, particularly Mead and Dewey. Indeed, Habermas calls himself a Kantian pragmatist in Truth and Justification (2003). These themes are to do with social theories of action, the role of communicative interaction, the role of values and processes of idealisation in human life, and questions of selfhood, truth, science and method. We have more common ground than not, it would appear.
So it may be that despite the many similarities of concern and interest, one of the principle distinctions comes down to the degree to which one leans towards Hegel rather than Kant. By drawing on Mead, Elias and Dewey as heavily as we do, we are clearly inclining more towards Hegel and the idea of the social self, method as the movement of thought, and paradox as a way of overcoming the dualisms of subject and object, self and other, thought and action, local and global. It was their insights into the paradoxical nature of complex adaptive systems which display stable instability and predictable unpredictability that first impelled Ralph Stacey and Doug Griffin to make the link between the sciences of complexity and Hegel’s ‘system’ of thought. By drawing on Mead, Dewey, and Elias we have tried together to develop the ideas of dialectic and paradox throughout the body of work describing complex responsive processes of relating as a critique of orthodox management theory. The latter largely rests on assumptions of the rational, autonomous individual manager ‘applying’ systematic theories to organisations understood as ‘systems’.
In sum, the things that I noticed as different in Making Sense of Management from what we are struggling with are the following (this is accepting what we have in common and just focusing on what I think we might disagree about):
- we are more agnostic than CMS about the possibilities of emancipating others, even given the subtle and critical way that Alvesson and Willmott engage with their own emancipatory intent, although we may be in total agreement that emancipation might be a state devoutly to be wished for, for many of the groups and themes which they describe.
- We are just as convinced as they are about the centrality of power in human relating, but less convinced that it is always linked to ideas of domination, or that asymmetric power relations are always necessarily distorting, or can be escaped.
- We are would be tempted to render some of the dualisms that they work with in their book into paradoxes: so reconstruction and critique, micro and macro, thought and action are for us inseparable, mutually constituting poles of the same phenomenon.
- We would not consider the study of the micro as being lesser than, or a prelude to, more thorough going critiques of figurations of power between groups, but as an equivalent and helpful way of understanding how broader abstractions become functionalised between particular people in particular contexts. (see paradox above)
- We would not describe our position as radically humanist, but radically social.
- We also idealise communicative interaction, but from a perspective of enquiring then enquiring further. We would not aspire to consensus in communicative interaction, but to enough consensus which we would expect to be continuously ruptured and punctured through the continuous encounter with otherness.
- We take greater interest than Alvesson and Willmott in strong emotion as a social phenomenon and its role in organisational life.
The discussion continues…