Sunday, 7 February 2016

What lies outside of organization studies?

I received an interesting email about this blog the other day. As the sender did not post it publicly I won’t reveal his name but I suppose it was what used to be called a ‘green ink letter’ in that the language was a little intemperate and capital letters and exclamation remarks abounded (and I would just mention that this is not necessarily the most effective way to make one’s arguments). The main point he made was that most of what I write about on the blog is not organization studies but economics and politics and he was particularly exercised by my posts on British membership of the EU. Why, he asked, don’t I just stick to writing about what I know about, meaning organization studies?

The answer to that is important to my view of what organization studies is, or should be. Because I don’t recognize any real distinctions between organization studies and economics and politics or, for that matter, social science or social affairs or history (all of which I often write about), philosophy (though I rarely write about it) or literature (which occasionally I do). That’s actually one of the key messages of the book.

One reason for that is the fairly obvious one that organizations exist within an economic, political and social context so anything about that context is relevant to organizations. In Europe (and more widely), the EU is certainly an important part of that context and although my correspondent clearly disagreed with my views on the matter, the robustness of his email leads me to think that he very much agrees about that importance. Another reason is that the organization-context distinction (or, more often in organization theory, the organization-environment distinction) is a bogus one: they are mutually constitutive. As I argue in the book (p.93), somewhat counter-intuitively organizations are part of their own environment. And a third is that politics, economics and the social are themselves organized both in general and in terms of specific organizations (e.g. political parties). No one bats an eyelid if leadership researchers invoke examples of political leaders alongside business leaders – so why should it not be the same for organization studies in general?

All this suggests another, and I think genuinely interesting, question: does it mean that there is nothing that lies outside of organization studies? I am really not sure. Certainly there is little which lies outside organizations, in that all human life has a collective and therefore organized aspect. Even Robinson Crusoe, sometimes invoked in economic theory as an atomised individual, relied upon stuff that he had rescued from his shipwrecked boat, and both the boat and the stuff were there because of organization. And as soon as he met another (black) person he turned him into a slave – effecting an organization on the basis of how he had learned to organize. So maybe organization studies is about everything?

There are parallels in other subjects. Economics is actually a good example in that it often seeks to recast all human experience in terms of its own categories, and politics can claim that everything is in some sense political. In recent years I’ve noticed that geography has become ever more expansive in its scope, perhaps on the basis that everything, after all, occurs in space and in a place. Anything social must in some sense be amenable to sociological analysis. And does anything about human behaviour lie outside the ambit of psychology? I suppose that many facets of art and science lie outside of organization studies, and that it would be immensely and absurdly flattening to try to argue otherwise. Still, all facets of art and science are in some way organized, and in this regard organization studies has (or could have) something to say about them. Perhaps only aesthetic experience lies wholly outside organization studies?

Like many academics who work in organization studies my training was outside of the field. In fact, although the email correspondent suggested that I should stick to organization studies as that is what I know about, the reality is that I probably don’t have anything like the comprehensive knowledge of the subject that I might be assumed to have, and probably should have. In my case my training was primarily in political philosophy and to a lesser extent economics; for others in the field it was anthropology, psychology and sociology amongst other things. This is actually becoming less true, as the growth of organization studies means that younger academics are more often trained in the subject, and usually within business schools. I am inclined to think that this is change for the worse, although it may well be that they have a more thorough grounding in organization studies per se than do I and others of my generation.

Anyway, I don’t propose to limit myself to the conventional repertoire of organization studies, but I can see the danger that the more it is about everything the more it may be about nothing. Even so, what strikes me more, as regards this blog, is that it is actually rather repetitive in the things I write about. So my belated New Year resolution (with no promises that I will stick to it) is to try to extend my range a bit further. That will not please my correspondent, alas, but since his main complaint was about my “fascistic”, “Quisling”, “big business [loving]” and “liberal-left elitist” support for British membership of the EU I fear that I am unlikely to do so. And I am sure I will continue to post about British membership of the EU – in fact something about the extraordinary intellectual legerdemain (if this does not slightly flatter it) by which its supporters can simultaneously be cast as fascists, traitors, corporate lackeys, liberals and leftists would be well worth writing.


  1. Very interesting posting, Chris. I particularly liked your debunking of the word 'context' which has started to irritate me greatly lately - its naturalization as something unproblematic, given and a-political. I am also interested on the reasons why you irritate so much your correspondent. I suspect he does not recognize your right to speak with authority about anything other than your academic specialism. I wonder why this is so, when everyone can write what they please on the web. Finally, I am not so sure why you exempt aesthetic experience from the remit of organization. Quite apart from the persistent line of organizational aesthetics (I remember you once commenting that what surprises you about organizations is their ugliness!), I suppose that aesthetic experience involves some degree of ambiguity between organization and disorganization.

    1. Thanks, Yiannis. Yes, as I wrote that thing about aesthetic experience I was not sure what I was really trying to say, hence the weasel question mark! I certainly don’t deny there’s an aesthetics of organization (or of organization theory, which is what that thing I wrote that you mention was about), and there is also an organization of aesthetics. But at the moment we experience a piece of music, say, I wonder if there is not something outside of organization. You could say that this experience is culturally organized – perhaps in particular that we recognize it to be ‘music’ as such – but there is perhaps still something in the particularity of our experience that is (and could never be?) organized. Anyway I think something like that is what I meant, but I wouldn’t put it forward with any confidence as a thesis!


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