Category Archives: power

Why appeals to nationalism involve narcissism and provoke runaway feelings, particularly towards non-members of the group – reflections on the referendum via Norbert Elias

I watched some of the final debate over Britain’s referendum to Remain/Leave last night and wondered at the wild clapping and cheering that greeted references to Britain’s putative ‘independence’ if we vote leave. Boris Johnson referred to this coming Friday morning as potentially Britain’s ‘independence day’. The setting was bound to amplify dynamics in a crowd of 6,000 or so people, particularly with a  debate which swtiches between poles. There is no middle position here: Britain will either remain, or leave. A large, public televised space is not a forum which naturally lends itself to nuance or subtle argument. But in thinking about the intense nationalist emotion that this debate stirs up, particularly for Leavers, I was reminded of Norbert Elias’ digression on nationalism set out in the The Germans. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 5th-7th June 2015

Conference theme: Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations

How do we negotiate degrees of freedom with each other in what we can increasingly experience as regimes of disciplinary power in organisational life? How do grand schemes for whole-organisation transformation play out in every day relationships between people?

This conference will invite participants to discuss and reflect upon the every day politics of getting things done together, noticing the negotiations, compromises and improvisations which are necessary to take the next step.

Between now and then we will be posting further reflections on the topic on this the Complexity and Management blog.

The key note speakers this year are  Svend Brinkmann,  who is Professor in general psychology and qualitative methods as well as Co-director of the Center for Qualitative Studies, and Professor Patricia Shaw, co-founder of the Doctor of Management programme at UH and currently working at Schumacher College. Here is Svend’s profile page at Aalborg university and here is Patricia Shaw’s at Schumacher College: .

The conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. The conference fee includes accommodation and food and will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK:

The booking page on the university website will be set up in the New Year.

A more detailed agenda will follow, but the conference begins with a drinks reception @7pm on Friday 5th June and ends after lunch Sunday 7th June 2015.

Participants wishing to set up a particular themed discussion in a working group during the conference should contact Chris Mowles:

Meeting to achieve measurable outcomes

In the last post I discussed the ways in which people regulate themselves and each other in everyday life. I made the argument that without this self- and group discipline there would be no order in social life. As we have pointed out many times on this blog, après Bourdieu, Elias and Foucault,  and by drawing on analogies from the complexity sciences, power relations both enable and constrain what it is possible to do. There is, however, a general tendency in more popular management literature to suggest that somehow we can do away with or ‘transform’ power relations by being nice to each other, or by being appreciative, or by being open and transparent, or authentic. These perspectives convey the implicit idea that power is somehow unpleasant or illicit. But this is to cover over or even to miss the productive nature of power. Power produces a regimen of resistance and compliance, the exact patterning of which will always be unpredictable, but is likely to give rise to both routine as well as a degree of novelty. But to ask the question about how disciplinary power operates in social life is not simply to enquire into how ‘they’ are doing something to ‘us’ but also to probe into how we are doing things to ourselves. How we try to influence each other to organise our joint undertakings can say a lot about the kinds of pressures we are under and how we aspire to being professional. Continue reading

Tennis championships as complex responsive processes of stability and change

The Wimbledon grand slam tennis event is a very good example for helping us to think about how we would account for the complex stable instability of social life.[1] It is an event where the dynamic regularities of British social life are reproduced and potentially transformed year after year and where we have an opportunity to reflect upon the interconnectedness of individual and group behaviour. We recognise and might look forward to the event year on year, and partly because there are always differences and novelty. We are reassured by the annual improvisation on traditional themes. The recognisable patterns of tradition and the familiar arise because of a multitude of fluctuating, responsive social relationships dependent on the co-operation between very long chains of interdependent people. Meanwhile the event is predicated on competition and the disciplined channelling of intense emotional and physical drives. Continue reading

Payment by results: research methods and disciplinary power

I was sitting in a meeting with a social development organisation listening to the kinds of requirements that have been placed upon it by a governmental body in order to trigger the full funding for a grant that they had succesfully bid for. 10% of the grant is ‘performance related’. In other words, and on a sliding scale of reward for performance, the social development organisation has to prove that it has helped educate a certain number of girls in a developing country to a predicted level of attainment, and that these girls will have stayed in school for the three year duration of the project and not dropped out. Additionally money is released against the achievement of pre-reflected project milestones. ‘Results’ are validated by ‘rigorous research methods’ which turned out to mean quasi-experimental methods. In other words, the rubric insists that the project sites be compared with communities where there has been no such intervention, and which are ‘similar in every way’. The organisation will only be fully rewarded if it achieves exactly what it said it would, and precisely to the timetable it set out in the proposal.

This particular social development organisation I am visiting is one amongst a dozen or so others which have received similar or much bigger grants, some of which amount to the low tens of millions. All of them have proposed highly complex interventions in very different developing countries involving the girls themselves, their families, teachers, head teachers, community groups, religious and community leaders, sometimes even boys. As with most social development these days the intervention is highly ambitious and leaves the impression that the organisation, working through a local social development organisation in the country concerned, will be intervening in particular communities at breakfast, lunch and dinner and in a variety of different and incalculable ways. This combination of interventions may be necessary, but the extent and range of them makes the question of causality extremely problematic, experimental methods or no.

The other thing that struck me is that the dozen or so social development organisations receiving this money all have to use the same project management tools and frameworks so that the government department can aggregate progress and results across all countries and all projects. Quantification and standardisation is necessary, then, in order to render the projects commensurable, and in order to make a claim that the government has made a quantifiable contribution to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which they can ‘prove’. The kind of assertion that the government would like to make is that it has improved X tens of thousands of girls’ education to Y degree through its funding of a variety of organisations. These results, the claim will continue, will have been rigorously demonstrated through scientific methods and will therefore be uncontestable. Continue reading

Conforming and resisting. Thinking with and within institutions

In her book How Institutions Think (1986) the social anthropologist Mary Douglas, who died in 2007, struggles with the paradox of the individual and the social. On the one hand, she argues, it is unreasonable to assume that institutions can think and act as though they had some group mind and body. These are only figures of speech, shorthand, because only individuals can think and act. But on the other hand, the institutions which we form, with their organised ways of doing things, their procedures, rules and sets of values, are one way of organising to promote specific categories of thought, certain choices, and particular values:

Our social interaction consists very much in telling one another what right thinking is and passing blame on wrong thinking. This is indeed how we build the institutions, squeezing each others’ ideas into a common shape so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent. (1986: 91)

One of the things that she is concerned to do in this book is to illuminate more clearly the ways that individuals come together to shape organisations, and consequently the way that individuals in their turn are shaped by the sustained processes and functioning of institutions. She draws on the work of Ludwik Fleck, who coined the term ‘thought collectives’ to describe the way that particular approaches to science become institutionalised so that it becomes impossible to think or argue in a different way. For a more thorough treatment of Fleck’s thought, see Ralph Stacey’s post here. Similarly, institutions constrain individuals in the way that the price of belonging may rely upon obedience to particular ways of understanding the world.

This brings Mary Douglas hard up against the age-old difficulty for the social scientist: how can we possibly think of ourselves in society except by using the classifications established in our institutions? For Douglas this is a necessary task to secure some degree of autonomy and freedom of thought, because institutional concerns are not necessarily our concerns:

They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardised pitch on standardised issues. …For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon the mind. (Ibid: 92)

Intellectual independence, which may take the form of resistance, is particularly important in times of crisis such as we are enduring economically and socially at the moment in the UK and throughout most of Europe, and more broadly and deeply in the less developed world. Things need not be the way they are. Continue reading

To follow a rule

Without rules organisational life would be impossible. They enable and constrain, they set out codes of social conduct between different groups of people, often with different and potentially rival professional backgrounds, trying to get things done together. And they often codify and represent more symbolic and aspirational themes of organisational life: they declare that such and such an organisation takes itself seriously as a professional place to work, and aspires for its staff to act in civilised ways in public and within the institution. Rules may encode organisational habits, routine ways of getting things done more efficiently which have evolved over time. They are also manifestations of political struggles taking place within organisations, which may be compromises between rival positions, but at the very will least tell you something about the particular figuration of power which staff are experiencing in an organisation at any one time. Who sets the rules, why and when they set them, how they are applied, all say something about organisational politics and what GH Mead referred to as the ‘struggle over the life-process of the group’.

Organisational rules can be both explicit, implicit and perhaps hybrid, with explicit rules evolving implicit corollaries, and whether they are one or the other tells an outsider nothing about the degree to which one is obliged to conform to them. Organisational rules may be explicit but more observed in the breach, or implicit and closely followed as a means of including and excluding. In this post I will be dealing just with the more explicit variety and the way that staff take them up, contributing to the stable instability of organisations, which I have been writing about in previous posts. Continue reading