Politics, impartiality, reflexivity – reflections on the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference

I promised to write up my presentation from the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference, which was entitled Exploring our Experience of Every Day Politics in Organizations. My task was to pull out a few themes which struck me, and to respond to the keynotes of Svend Brinkmann and Patricia Shaw. This post tries to identity common threads, lacunae and opportunities for thinking arising out of what our guests said and links these to reflections on what it might mean to reflect systematically on the politics of everyday life in organisations.

The first thing to offer by way of getting hold of the idea of the politics of everyday organisational life is to reach for the distinction that Paul Ricoeur made between le politique and la politique. By the former he meant the kind of politics that we talked about in the conference: every day organisational negotiations of power relations between people. This is sometimes referred to as polity, a discussion of the grounds and rationality of doing politics. By la politique he meant big politics, how groups of people organise themselves into political parties to represent their interests and contest social domination. For Ricoeur le politique and la politique are two sides of the same coin: it is impossible to have one without the other. The latter is the former writ large.

Both speakers at the conference mentioned Hannah Arendt particularly concerning her interest in the former term, le politique, which she understood as a way of rescuing contestation from other forms of social rationality, such as bureaucratic or economic rationality, which are more instrumental. Every day politics is a way of contesting power, more or less openly, and the alternative is often to imply that somehow rationality, of one kind or another[1], is above power. There is an appeal to ‘objectivity’, or ‘the facts’ or ‘what works’, or ‘what the figures show’, as though numbers could interpret and speak for themselves. In a recent book the sociologist Will Davies[2] describes the way in which politics is ‘disenchanted’ by measurement in contemporary society, as though measurement reflects the way things ‘really are’.

I think we have all experienced more instrumental forms of rationality in contemporary organisational life which can sometimes depart from common sense and which attempts to cover over any debate. For example, in another post I write about an educational institution which insisted on a colleague giving justifications for not using ‘preferred suppliers’ even though the purchase concerned was a fee for using a mock-up of a WWI trench. To the best of my knowledge the institution has no preferred suppliers of WWI trenches. However, this is a good example of bureaucratic rationality. Meanwhile, economic rationality is perhaps now the dominant way of making sense of social life. In my own experience I have had to make a strong case for the profitability of the Doctor of Management programme with some colleagues at the university, and claims about the quality and originality of what we are doing seemed to have little influence.

Both of these are examples of how power is exercised in contemporary organisational life with an appeal to the rules, or profit, as though these trumped all other considerations.

In a similar vein, Hans Georg Gadamer[3] was concerned about the technologisation and instrumentalisation of social life because he thought it constrained people into acting irrationally. The needs of the organisation trump the exercise of practical judgement to the extent that people become alienated from their work and no longer recognise themselves in what they are doing. They can be forced into acting stupidly[4] in order to keep the organisation stable, but in the process they have any opportunities for thinking and acting creatively severely constrained.

The second idea I want to address is the concept of ideology because in neither presentation to the conference was the idea of ideology taken up. Ideology is a term for a more or less coherent set of ideas which constitute a political programme, although it may not be explicit as such. Elias’ supervisor Karl Mannheim was one of the earliest sociologists to think about ideology and he compared and contrasted this with the concept of utopia.[5] Mannheim offered this definition of ideology and utopian thinking which he presents as two sides of the same coin. Ideology arises as a result of certain groups becoming so intensively interest-bound that they cannot see facts which would undermine their sense of domination. An ideology, a coherent set of ideas and descriptions, obscures the situation of society both to the dominant group and to the others being dominated. Mannheim considers utopian thinking as the opposite tendency – groups may be so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given society that they only see elements which tend to negate it.

We might think of the discourse of managerialism as being ideological in the sense that it is almost impossible not to talk about visions, missions, values and transformation and the centrality of leadership in contemporary organizational life. It is very hard to call into question the idea that management is a rational discipline, and that managers as a cadre have a unique competence for bringing about ‘change’ irrespective of the organisational context (or even that ‘change’, more often ‘reform’, is even required). From a utopian perspective one might think of certain manifestations of environmental politics, where every discussion of social problems turn on environmental concerns, as a contemporary example of utopianism.

In Mannheim’s terms, utopianism can also evolve into ideology. In another post I noted the way that a particular utopian thinker was interested in some of the same ideas that we at the complexity and management group are interested in. On occasion his position can read similarly to the concerns explored by Norbert Elias, who was a contemporary. Take this quotation, for example, which describes how complex social order arises:

Since a spontaneous order results from the individual elements adapting themselves to circumstances which directly affect only some of them, and which in their totality need not be known by anyone, it may extend to circumstances so complex that no mind can comprehend them all. Consequently, the concept becomes particularly important when we turn from mechanical to such ‘more highly organized’ or essentially complex phenomena as we encounter in the realms of life, mind and society. Here we have to deal with ‘grown’ structures with a degree of complexity which they have assumed, and could assume only because they were produced by spontaneous ordering forces[6].

Or this quotation questioning how far natural scientific methods apply to social life:

Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems. It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learnt than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.[7]

The economist/philosopher who is author of the quotations above is Friedrich Hayek, one of the influential thinkers in the Mont Pelerin Society, whose ideas have been taken up widely by Western governments as neoliberalism. The Mont Pelerin Society was founded in 1947 in response to the perception that ‘Western liberal values’, in the sense of economic liberalism, were imperilled by the threat of socialism. Once a utopian argument it has now become an ideology. The recent general election in the UK is a good example of the way in which neoliberalism has become an orthodoxy which neither of the principle political parties are able, or want to challenge.

My third observation is linked to the first and second points above and turns on how we might keep Arendt’s interest in the daily politics of everyday life alive, whilst being more attuned to our own propensity for ideological or utopian thinking. It seems to me that this raises questions about method and should be of interest to all of us involved in research. Hannah Arendt made the observation that truth and politics are on relatively bad terms: ‘no-one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.’[8] In other words, she is drawing attention to the fact that when we are committed to something and are arguing warmly in its favour, it is hard to be dispassionate. Whatever we might mean by the terms ‘truth’, and ‘facts’, getting some sense of what we might mean by a reasonable shared reality means treading a fine line:

The political attitude towards facts must, indeed, tread the very narrow path between the danger of taking them as the results of some necessary development which men could not prevent and about which they can do nothing and the danger of denying them, of trying to manipulate them out of the world.[9]

In other words, reaching some kind of agreement about what we take issues of importance to be should fall neither into fatalism nor hubris. To state that things could be other than they are is not the same as denying the way things are. It may be possible to be more dispassionate about the practice of politics.

Methodologically, how might we aspire to take a position, but at the same time be open to the positions of others? Mannheim offers some insight into this dilemma particularly in relation to the struggle over power, of everyday politics. Politics arises, he argues, where some aspect of social life has yet to be settled and thus involves the competition for dominance of different groups. Given that our own position may be invisible to us, he argues, is more helpful not to deny our own position with a claim to neutrality or objectivity, or to resort to bureaucratic rationality (he reminds us that administrative policies are merely past struggles which have been stabilised. Today’s political contestations are unlikely to be open to resolution from the results of past struggles). A science of politics is partially possible through bringing one’s own determinations into view in order to create some degree of freedom from them. We need not be totally bound by the social processes which have determined us but may only become aware of them by relating them to other people’s positions. This also involves becoming more sensitive to the unconscious and less rational aspects of participating in a group to achieve something together. The discipline, and in particular in the context of this conference the discipline of academic research, is to take in a variety of points of view from the perspective of one’s own. It implies, then, a focus on reflexivity, making more explicit the processes of thinking, one’s own processes and those of others. Gadamer makes a similar argument in Truth and Method that the best way of engaging in argument is not to set out to defeat one’s opponent but to render their argument more explicit to them and to you.

In arguing how we might more systematically consider the political, Mannheim highlights the importance of the qualitative in helping us understand better our struggles with each other and with the world. We cannot separate politics from our own interests and motivations, nor can we separate knowledge of the political from the processes of obtaining it: if there is a science of politics it is oriented towards critically understanding how we are becoming and produces knowledge for action:

politics can become a science…not as passive contemplation, but as critical self-examination, and in this sense (it) prepares the road for political action.[10]


[1] See Townley, B. (2008) Reason’s Neglect: Rationality and Organizing, Oxford: OUP, for a discussion of the different sorts of rationality and the influence they have on social life.

[2] Davies, W. (2014) The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty, and the Logic of Competition, London: Sage.

[3] Gadamer, H-G. (1993) Reason in the Age of Science, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[4] Alvesson, M. and Spicer, A. (2012) A Stupidity-based Theory of Organizations, Journal of Management Studies, 49:7, 1194-1220.

[5] Mannheim, K. (1936/1972) Ideology and Utopia, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[6] Hayek, F. A. (1973/2013) Law, Legislation and Liberty, London: Routledge: 39-40.

[7] Hayek, F.A. (1974) The Pretence of Knowledge, Lecture to the memory of Alfred Nobel, December 11, 1974.

[8] Arendt, H. (2006) Truth and Politics in Between Past and Future, London: Penguin Books.

[9] Ibid. p254.

[10] Mannheim, K. (1936/1972) Ideology and Utopia, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p171.


3 thoughts on “Politics, impartiality, reflexivity – reflections on the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference

  1. Pingback: Groundless hope | Reflexivepractice

  2. Pingback: Sack your coach | Reflexivepractice

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