Tuesday, 16 June 2015

C.P. Snow and the drama of administration

Some years, in fact almost two decades, ago I wrote an academic paper about what the novels of C.P Snow could tell us about management and organizations (Grey, 1996). Little-cited and presumably little-read, it has sunk without trace but I was thinking about it again because I have just come across an old (and largely excellent) TV adaptation of his novels and have been watching the DVD.
Snow is nowadays an almost forgotten novelist, but in the 1950s and 1960s was both popular and widely admired, even being tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is most remembered now for his 1959 lecture on The Two Cultures of arts and science, and the gap between them; a lecture savagely attacked by the now perhaps even more obscure but then gargantuan figure F.R. Leavis. Actually I find this rather uninteresting, whereas his almost entirely forgotten 1961 Harvard lectures on Science and Government are fascinating. Anyway his main novelistic achievement was the eleven volume Strangers and Brothers series, and it is the adaptation of this that I have been watching. Over three million words long, Snow's is one of the most remarkable roman-fleuve ever produced in the English language, standing alongside his hero's Trollope's Barchester novels and his contemporary Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time sequence.
Snow (1905-1980) started life as a physicist but subsequently became a senior civil servant, involved amongst other things in the British atomic bomb project, and later a government minister for technology in the 1960s. All of this and more gets fictionalised in the novel sequence. I have read, and re-read, his novels since I was in my teens and I suspect that part of the reason for my interest in organizations stems from this. I was thrilled when researching a book on Bletchley Park to discover that Snow had been involved in recruiting some of its staff.
The novels are at least in part about the drama of administration, with an emphasis on decisions made within closed groups – sometimes a Cambridge College, as in perhaps his best novel The Masters, other times government – and the meetings, negotiations and small-p political manoeuvring that surrounds them. He coined the phrase, and used it as the title of one his novels, ‘corridors of power’ which has now entered the language and which sums up this theme of his work.
It may seem odd to call this a drama. After all, administration conjures up anything other than a dramatic image. Yet Snow shows how within the mundane transactions of organizational life, drama may be found. And this is not just about personal interactions. Always in Snow there is a mixture of the personal and the big-P Political: for example the Cold War in Corridors of Power (about an attempt to pursue a policy of British nuclear disarmament) and The New Men (about the development of the British atomic bomb in and after the Second World War).
There are many aspects of the novels which are of interest in terms of organizations, especially the treatment of small, powerful groups, which I explored in that 1996 article. Perhaps especially interesting is his repeated view that policy and strategy arise not from the grand designs of leaders but from what he called – using a physics metaphor – the Brownian motion of a myriad of minor decisions. That is a useful corrective to the current lionization of leadership and a validation of close attention to the detailed processes of organizational life.
The context of Snow’s novels is rather dated and specific – they depict a slice of English (not even British) life in the mid-20th century which is now rather obscure. Even so, my own experiences both in Cambridge, when I worked there, and in Whitehall, where I have sometimes had peripheral involvement, suggest that perhaps not so much has changed, at least in England. And beyond that many of his insights, particularly into small-group interactions, transcend time and place.
I don’t suppose that Snow was a great novelist, and he will probably never reclaim his former status as a popular novelist and public intellectual. Nevertheless, anyone wanting to understand either English society in the mid-20th century or, more pertinently to this blog, the more-or-less timeless nature of organizational power-play could do no better than to read Snow’s novels.
Grey, C. (1996) ‘C.P. Snow’s Fictional Sociology of Management and Organizations’, Organization 3, 1: 61-83.
For an introduction to Snow’s novels, see:
Tredell, N. (2012) C.P. Snow. The Dynamics of Hope. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
For what is still the best analytical account of Snow and his novels see:
Ramanathan, S. (1978) The Novels of C.P. Snow. London: Macmillan.
Surprisingly, there has been no proper biography of Snow, but his brother’s memoir is worth reading:
Snow, P. (1982) Stranger and Brother. A Portrait of C.P Snow. London: Macmillan.

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