Sunday, 31 January 2016

Despair and hope for organization studies

The book which this blog accompanies is in part a reaction to my despair about the state of organization studies. In other posts I have bemoaned the lack of historical awareness within the subject and also the poverty of its academic journals. In that latter post I suggested that one problem with the journals is their invariable, and ludicrous, demand that each paper should make a ‘theoretical contribution’ whilst on the other hand caring little about disclosing anything interesting or new about how people actually live and work in organizations. I pointed out that this is something particularly associated with the ‘top journals’, publication within which is increasingly and slavishly lionized. And there are two aspects to this: the rigid hierarchy of journal rankings, and the downgrading of books.
But there are signs of hope. I mentioned elsewhere my sense that there is a renewed interest and appreciation of the rich history of organization studies. And now Steve Barley, one of the most influential academics in the field, has written a superb essay (a word I will come back to) in the sixtieth anniversary issue of no less than Administrative Science Quarterly. I don’t agree with all that he says, or all of the way that he says it: in particular I think he tends to over-value the idea of ‘incremental contribution’ and worries incorrectly that a desire for ‘novelty and surprise’ comes ‘dangerously close to admitting’ that organization studies is one of the humanities. Apart from anything else, I don’t think this would be either dangerous or an admission; and in fact I don’t think that the distinction of humanities and social science is a sustainable one. Still, most of his core concerns are very similar to my own.
Barley raises the straitjacket of journal rankings and the tyranny of the demand for theoretical novelty. In that regard he makes the interesting point that whereas he used to find that journal reviewers would pick up on issues of methodology and empirical validity, now they rarely do. That’s not, for Barley (or for me), a lament for positivism but a concern that only theoretical novelty matters. And that’s not, for me (or I think Barley) because of a disdain for theory but a concern about ‘theoreticism’.
By way of illustration of this point, I am struck by own experience of submitting papers (about a study I did of the organization of Bletchley Park) to journals that were not in organization studies but in intelligence studies. What I found was that reviewers’ comments in that field focused almost exclusively on challenging the empirical claims that I made. Admittedly that has its own problems – intelligence studies appears to be somewhat inattentive to theoretical debates within social science. Perhaps this sounds as if nothing will satisfy me: focus on theory and I complain about theoreticism, focus on empirics and get accused of empiricism. But what I want from empirical papers is that they be theoretically informed, and from theory papers that they be (at least potentially) empirically meaningful.
Another of Barley’s points is the desirability of book-length studies, combining theory and empirics, and that such studies have in fact been generally more influential in the field than have journal papers. He even identifies as exemplars the work of authors like Blau, Gouldner and Dalton who I have also cited in this regard. Yet books have become a devalued currency within institutional assessment and career systems and research monographs, which is what Barley is talking about, are increasingly shunned by publishing houses outside of the established university presses. Thinking again of my Bletchley Park work, the main ‘output’ (as UK REF-speak has it) was a monograph, precisely because I wanted to have what Barley calls the ‘space and freedom’ to present detailed empirical material and theoretical arguments. Not coincidentally, it was published by Cambridge University Press which continues to commission such works.
Books and journal papers are not the only forms of academic writing and one form that has long-interested me is the essay. So I was delighted to see Yiannis Gabriel, like Barley a highly distinguished and influential organization studies academic, sing the praises of this form, at almost at the same time as Barley’s – yes – essay appeared. Writing in the Journal of Management Studies, Gabriel’s own essay coincides with that journal’s launch of its ‘JMS-Says’ essay format. He sees essays as individual, idiosyncratic, experimental and sometimes influential provocations to thought and debate. I agree and, again speaking of my own work, some of my favorite publications (and possibly the only ones that have made much impact on others) have been essays. In a way, the book of this blog – although longer than is usual in the genre – is pretty much an essay.
Whilst essays may be idiosyncratic and experimental this does not mean that ‘anything goes’ or that it is an undisciplined or easy format, as Gabriel points out. Indeed, I would say that it is a hard form to master, requiring rhetorical skill and a capacity to provide a ‘between the lines’ understanding of its author’s knowledge and its audience’s sensibilities. Essays are not, or not simply, polemics – although the polemic is itself a difficult to write and under-rated genre by the way. There is now, at least in business schools, what might appositely be called a thriving industry in how to craft papers for ‘top journals’, with its own gurus, master classes and formulae. But it is difficult – and if not difficult then depressing – to envisage such an industry growing up around essays which are, at their best anyway, impervious to codification.
There are very powerful forces working against the arguments that Steve Barley, Yiannis Gabriel and – at a much lower level in the reputational pecking order – I are making. I don’t see hardcore business school deans recognizing them any time soon. But that these arguments are gaining a higher profile does give me, despite what I will admit is my temperamental pessimism, some cause to hope that organization studies might become – well, let’s not get carried away – a bit better than it is now.

Barley, S. (2016) ‘60th Anniversary Essay: Ruminations on How We Became a Mystery House and How We Might Get Out’, Administrative Science Quarterly 61 (1): 1-8.

Gabriel, Y. (2016) ‘The Essay as an Endangered Species: Should we Care?’, Journal of Management Studies DOI: 10.1111/joms.12176 [By the way, a minor hobby horse, but how exactly are we meant to reference these ‘early online’ papers?]

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Sovereignty and Brexit

As a UK Referendum on EU membership gets closer, much is being made by those urging exit of the idea of national sovereignty. Indeed for some Brexiters this is the defining issue. What they mean by sovereignty seems to be that a country can make its own laws and act independently of all other countries.
Whether such a situation ever obtained is highly questionable; but it certainly hasn’t obtained for the UK or any other country in recent times. Like other countries the UK is bound into a web of multiple sovereignty-sharing arrangements regarding trade, defence and security via a multiplicity of bodies including the UN, the WTO, NATO and, yes, the EU. Indeed it is ironic that many Brexiters parade the idea that the UK on Brexit could ‘reclaim’ its seat on the WTO as a triumph of sovereignty (by which they mean that whilst remaining a WTO member the UK has since 1973 been represented in trade talks by the combined EU delegation). It’s an irony because the WTO has over 160 members and yet the Brexiters argue that within the 28 strong EU the UK ‘has no say’.
A similar irony is present in the Brexiters’ idea that the UK could lead a new Commonwealth trade bloc. Apart from the fact that there is no appetite in the Commonwealth for such a bloc, its 53 members are highly unlikely (for obvious historical reasons) to want to be lead by Britain! And if sovereignty is the issue, what could matter more than who can direct people in war? Yet Brexiters are quite relaxed about – and mostly in favour of – pooling sovereignty in NATO, which entails British troops being led by foreign generals.
Going back to trade, it’s notable that right-wing Brexiters have no problem with the idea that international ‘markets’ dictate what governments can do, and see no problem of sovereignty in that. Meanwhile, left-wing Brexiters point to the secretive EU-US negotiations to impose the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) on the UK, but are oblivious to the fact that even more sovereignty-violating deals are struck by ‘sovereign’ states outside of the EU, as the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) shows. In parenthesis, TPP, which includes as six of its twelve members Commonwealth countries (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand), also shows how superannuated is the Brexiters’ idea of a Commonwealth free trade zone. In further parenthesis, TPP is an example of the regional platform trade deals (the EU being another) which have emerged because of the failure of the WTO to enact a global deal, showing how superannuated is the Brexiters’ idea of the WTO as the arena for trade deals.
Brexiters habitually advance their sovereignty argument in terms of a claim that a large percentage of UK laws are made in the EU. The percentage given varies, sometimes being quoted as 80% but in recent months 65% has been the typical claim. The true figure is 8-14%. Then there is another, and very potent, line of Brexit sovereignty argument: that the EU interferes in the UK by imposing human rights judgments upon it. But neither the European Convention on Human Rights nor the European Court of Human Rights are EU bodies. The UK was signed up to them (and in the case of the Convention largely created it) before it ever joined the EU and would be a party to them even if it left the EU.
Then, of course, there is the issue of immigration. Surely it must be a matter of sovereignty that a country can decide who enters and leaves its borders? As regards the Brexit debate several different things have been conflated. One issue, of course pressing at this time, is that of refugees and asylum seekers. But the rules governing that are not EU rules but those of the UN’s 1951 Convention. Moreover, since the UK does not belong to the Schengen Agreement and is exempt from the EU refugee-sharing agreement, it is in any case not directly affected by the crisis. Indeed, were Brexit to occur, the only consequences for borders would be to move the UK border from France to the UK and to require a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both of which would have devastating consequences, firstly for border control and secondly for the still fragile Northern Ireland peace process.
But Brexiters’ arguments about sovereignty and immigration are also concerned with free movement of EU citizens, not just refugees and asylum seekers. Here, they point out that the UK has no choice but to accept immigrants from the rest of the EU. And they are quite right. That is part and parcel of the single market, which the neo-liberals amongst them want. For you can’t have a single European market without free movement of people any more than you could have a single market in the UK whilst having border controls between, say, Cornwall and Devon or Lancashire and Yorkshire. Left-wing opponents of the EU should welcome this, because it means that the international mobility of capital is matched, within the EU, by labour mobility. Why should workers have to stay where they are, beholden to globally free-wheeling companies to give them jobs?
And in any case, when it comes to free movement within the EU, British people do it quite as much as anyone else, and the numbers of EU citizens living in the UK is about the same as the number of UK citizens living in the rest of the EU. In round numbers its about 2M people in both directions. Many of these British immigrants fail to learn the local language, 'take' jobs from locals, push up property prices, and put pressure on local health systems.
In short, the sovereignty argument of the Brexiters is completely flawed, but actually it is worse than flawed. The globalization of economics and markets has created a political vacuum in terms of the democratic political regulation of capital, and it is that which has created the real crisis of sovereignty. The solution – and let's be clear, it's the only solution – is democratic transnational governance structures. And the only such structure in the world today, imperfect as it surely is, is the EU.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

More gloom

In the second edition of the book I made some remarks that turned out to be prescient about what at the time I wrote it was the nascent financial crisis. Since it is rather rare for my – or any other social scientist’s - predictions to come true I rather regretted the fact that in updating for the third edition I had to excise them. I’m now working on the fourth edition but by the time that comes out (at the end of this year) I suspect that I will have been overtaken by events and that by then we will be well into another, probably worse, crisis. So I’m going to get my prediction in now.
Of course I’m not the only person saying this. Last week a leading strategist at Societe Generale said the same thing and the Royal Bank of Scotland advised its clients to sell their equity holdings in anticipation. Stock markets across the world are in sharp decline, and the collapsing prices of oil and basic commodities are precipitating a global deflation. At the heart of all this is the slowdown in China and, in particular, the massive growth in corporate debt there, much of it due to a real estate bubble and the rise of a secondary banking sector.
Meanwhile, personal debt in most countries – from Sweden to Thailand - is also rising to higher levels than at the time of the 2008 crisis. Although in the UK and US it is not yet at the same levels as it was then, it is also rising. Once again in the UK much of this debt is related to a house price bubble and lax bank mortgage lending, but also rising is unsecured debt sometimes used simply to cover basic living costs.
If there is another financial and economic crisis the consequences will be much graver than in 2008 for two reasons. One is that the capacity, both financial and political, of nation states to bail out banks will be much more limited. So much the worse for the banks, it might be said; but it will not just be the banks that suffer. The reason why, post-Lehmann’s, the US and other governments stepped in was not because of an outbreak of Keynesianism but because they saw the political and economic consequences that would follow if the cash machines, literally, ran out of money. This time round there's every chance that that will happen.
Second, the intervening years have seen a growing precariousness of employment, symbolised but not limited to the rise of the zero hours contract, as I have written about elsewhere on this blog. At the same time there has been an erosion of welfare provision. Thus the ability of ordinary people to weather another crisis is much more limited. In many countries – Greece and Spain amongst the most obvious examples – the capacity of families to provide support for unemployed young people and pensioners has already reached breaking point. It is one thing to give such support to tide over short-term problems, quite another to do so on a more or less permanent basis.
For, as the distinguished political economist Andrew Gamble (2014) suggests in an excellent book, crisis is now likely to be permanently embedded within the global economy, in the absence of some major shifts in ideology and public policy. Of that, there seems little chance. Despite some initial impetus for reform after the 2008 crash almost nothing came of it. There was no new settlement and no new deal, and every prospect, therefore, of another crash. It looks to me as if 2016 will be the year we see it. 

Gamble, A. (2014) Crisis Without End? The Unravelling of Western Prosperity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Friday, 15 January 2016


Our topic today is, cheerily enough, death. It’s prompted by this week’s biggest global news story, the death of David Bowie. One of the consequences of the contemporary media is that within a few hours almost all that could conceivably be said about any big event is said within a few hours, rendering the most obvious thoughts we might have clichés before we have had time to think them. One such cliché is that for people of my age, give or take ten years, Bowie provided ‘the soundtrack to our lives’. And so indeed he did for me. I fell in love for the first time to the accompaniment of Life on Mars; rebelled (sort of, anyway) to the backdrop of Rebel, Rebel; was angst-ridden to the tune of Rock’n’Roll Suicide; uplifted by Heroes; thrilled by Ashes to Ashes; and fell in love again with China Girl in the background.
I mention in the book that I grew up in Croydon and, in Croydon in those days, we claimed Bowie as a local hero (he actually grew up in nearby Bromley), admittedly not having anyone much else in pop culture to lay claim to (Captain Sensible of The Damned and Kirsty MacColl being the other main possibilities). What’s more to the point is that pop music, which can be and can mean many things, can sometimes be a poetry of ‘sound and vision’, speaking both directly and ambiguously to one’s own life and to the human condition. For me this was true of Bowie but also Morrissey and Elvis Costello (whose autobiography I am currently reading) – all notable lyricists as well as musicians.
The other immediately stated but also true cliché about Bowie’s death was that he made that death into art, especially in the extraordinary song and video Lazarus. Extraordinary, that is, in its depiction of a bandaged, emaciated figure struggling on his (death)bed and straining to get words down on paper before dying. Bowie was a kind of poster-boy for what sociologists call reflexive modernity – constantly and knowingly giving an account of his own life – and providing what both Victorian aesthetes and postmodernists might recognize as an aesthetics of the self.
That this should include a knowing and aesthetically careful depiction of death is particularly extraordinary because of the way that death is so comprehensively written-out of contemporary culture. There’s an idea – implicit, anyway – that death is a kind of embarrassing and certainly best-avoided topic. Possibly – if one is sufficiently careful in terms of diet, exercise, not smoking, not drinking – avoidable; perhaps in any case something for which a cure might one day be found, and in the meantime better not thought about.
Organization studies does not have a great deal to say about death (at least that is my impression; I haven’t undertaken the dreaded literature review required by academic journals). It could do: after all, funeral parlours and cancer wards are organizations, but I’m not aware of too many cases studies of them. The German organizational psychologist Burkard Sievers (1990) wrote a thought-provoking essay on this, arguing that “collectively, we have displaced death from experience” (p.132) and he referred to the great sociologist, Norbert Elias (1985) to claim that “death, like the dead body, has to be isolated and hygienically hidden” (Sievers, 1990: 132).
From that perspective, Bowie’s Lazarus rips open the stage curtain to show death, or at least, a representation of death because that is (and must be) what it means to make death into art. In another post I wrote about the death of Tony Benn, who said something very powerful and moving about his wife, Caroline, who pre-deceased him: “she taught me how to live and she taught me how to die, and you can’t ask more from anyone than that”. Bowie did something like that.
A final thought. When I was a teenager and first listened to Bowie there was a boy in my class at school called Simon. Now, he is a Buddhist scholar known as Vishvapani who often speaks on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, and did so last Wednesday taking Bowie’s death as his theme. He said that “the most basic fact of our lives is that nothing endures”. That is of course true and for Buddhists the implication is to become less self-absorbed. For those of us who are not Buddhists the issue might be the more egotistical one of what we leave behind. That is unpredictable, for sure. A chance conversation might ripple through the ages; a magnificent book languish unread. For myself, I like the idea that at some point in the future someone might come across something I have written in a dusty corner of the library (if libraries still exist) and find it of passing interest.

Elias, N. (1985) The Loneliness of the Dying. Oxford: Blackwell

Sievers, D. (1990) ‘The Diabolization of Death: Some thoughts on the obsolescence of mortality in organization theory and practice’, in Hassard, J. & Pym, D. (eds) The Theory and Philosophy of Organizations, pp 125-136. London: Routledge.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Everyone needs a Willie

The phrase ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie’ was uttered by Margaret Thatcher, apparently without realising the double entendre it contained. It was a reference to her sometime deputy as Conservative Prime Minister, William Whitelaw. Whitelaw’s significance to Thatcher lay in the fact that he provided a point of connection between her and the wider Conservative Party, especially during the early years of her leadership in the late 1970s and early 80s. For it is easy to forget that during those years Thatcher was engaged in remaking her party, in a process that was by no means unopposed from within, away from its traditional, pragmatist and patrician form and into a much more ideologically-motivated neo-liberal entity.
This did not happen all at once, by any means, and the presence in her first cabinet in particular of ‘Tory wets’ (the more traditional, centrist, one nation Conservatives) are a testament to this fact. Not only was there an ideological battle here but also Thatcher, both in her class background and her gender, did not fit the established image of a Tory leader. Willie Whitelaw’s significance lay in being both doggedly loyal to his boss but also being trusted by the wider party, since he was very much from its traditional mould (public school, Cambridge, ex-army). He was thus able to be a conduit between traditional and new Tory parties.
In the 1990s, a very similar role was undertaken within Tony Blair’s New Labour party by John Prescott, who also became Deputy Prime Minister. Here again a party was being re-made towards a more neo-liberal posture, but this time against a traditional backdrop defined in terms of socialism, or at least social democracy, and trade unionism. That constituency was alien to Blair’s ideology and his personal background (public school, Oxford, ex-lawyer) but one that Prescott, a working-class former trade union official, was steeped in. Like Whitelaw he formed a key conduit between traditional and new Labour parties.
I have been recalling these two because of the current situation within the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn is seeking to re-shape Labour away from Blairism and also, like Thatcher and Blair, has a persona that only appeals to some sections of his party. In some ways his situation is more complicated than Thatcher’s or Blair’s in that he differs from both the new right of his party (too left-wing) and from the old left (too liberal and metropolitan). At all events he faces opposition and mistrust from, at least, its MPs, very few of whom wanted him to become their leader (his support base being, rather, amongst party members). One reason that task is proving so hard, I would suggest, is that there appears to be no one willing and able to act in the kind of conduit role that Whitelaw and Prescott fulfilled; someone trusted by the parliamentary rank-and-file and willing to use that trust in support of the new leadership.
If anything, Corbyn seems more inclined to seek to surround himself with those who agree with him, with this week’s sackings of shadow cabinet members for ‘disloyalty’. That is always a temptation for any leader but it carries with it enormous dangers. In the long run it leads to isolation from dissenting opinions (something that played a part in the downfall of both Thatcher and Blair, and probably of many business leaders) and hence the well-worn problem of ‘group think’, and that of cultism*. But in the short-run it hamstrings the necessary process in any form of politics, including organizational politics, to build what are inevitably forms of coalition. It seems related in some way to the well-known – within critical organization theory, at least - limitations of seeing leadership in terms of individuals: precisely because leadership involves coalition building it also requires a broader set of appeals than are likely to be provided by a single person. Corbyn needs urgently to find his Whitelaw or Prescott or even, given his particular situation of being neither Old nor New Labour, a couple of them.

* For an excellent analysis of cultism in leadership, and indeed of the dangers and difficulties of leadership including the over-focus on the individual, see Dennis Tourish’s The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective (London: Routledge, 2013).

Monday, 4 January 2016

Required reading

Over Christmas I have been reading Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, Number 11. Like John Lanchester’s Capital, which I ‘reviewed’ on this blog, it can be read as a ‘state of the nation’ novel (Coe even makes a joke about this) and, via five interlocking sub-stories, it reprises some of the themes of his earlier books, especially What a Carve Up! and The Closed Circle. Overall, I would characterise these themes as being about the unwinding of the post-war welfare state and its accompanying collectivism, and the ongoing consequences of individualization, privatization and – a key one in Number 11 – monetization (in the sense of putting monetary value on things like education which might otherwise be regarded as valuable in themselves).
The title Number 11 carries several resonances: the address of Britain’s finance minister; the number of the circular bus route that a character rides so as to be warm without heating her home; the number of subterranean floors being dug below an uber-rich family’s London home to extend their already commodious residence. For it’s a satire – sometimes almost judderingly heavy-handed, other times almost painfully delicate – that often addresses some of the themes of this blog, especially those of inequality, tax avoidance, the pitfalls of choice, the politics of ‘austerity’ and, even, the perils of twitter.
The section that spoke most profoundly and personally to me is entitled ‘The Crystal Garden’ which tells of the doomed attempt of Roger, an Oxford academic of about my age, to track down a short film he had seen as a child:
“Roger was convinced … that life was better, simpler, easier, in the past … it wasn’t just a hankering for childhood. It was bigger than that. It was to do with what the country was like … in the sixties and seventies …. For Roger it was about welfarism, and having a safety net, and above all … not being weighed down by choice all the time … he loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf. Not all of them. Just some. Just enough so that you were free to live other parts of your life the way that you wanted.” (Coe, 2015: 176)
It’s important to understand that this isn’t about nostalgia, or at least not just about nostalgia. It’s about a rupture that animates – in very different ways – the politics of both nationalists and socialists across, at least, Europe. In France, Les Trentes Glorieuses, Jean Fourastié’s term for the 1945-1975 period of economic growth and social security, captures the same sentiment that Coe expresses. This rupture is described in my book in terms of the shift in the 1970s to the new capitalism (pp. 104-120) and so, of course, present in the book I most heavily draw on in that section, Richard Sennett’s (2006) The Culture of the New Capitalism. And it’s no coincidence that at the heart of Roger’s memory was “waiting for his father to come home from work – from the same place he worked for forty years” (Coe, 2015: 176) because stable employment was at the heart of the economic and social security of those years. As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, the erosion of that security constitutes the most pressing political issue of the present time in Western societies, in ways well-captured (for all that it is startlingly inattentive to the ‘critical management’ literature that says much the same thing) by Boltanski and Chiapello’s (2007) The New Spirit of Capitalism.
We can understand this in conventional political terms: the social democratic consensus of North and West Europe and, to an extent, the USA in the post-war decades was about the best economic and social arrangement that has so far existed (even if it did not always seem so at the time). But perhaps it is better understood without thinking in terms of economic or political theory. Bill Bryson’s humorous memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid expresses it well as regards the United States; David Lodge’s novel Nice Work captures the beginning of it in the UK, especially as regards academic life. And Coe’s book is the latest example of the powerful way that art and humour can illuminate social science.
In a somewhat related vein, another Christmas read was Douglas Board’s novel MBA. This is not nearly so well-written (but, to be fair, whereas Coe is a well-established professional novelist Board is a coaching and leadership consultant who has turned his hand to fiction) and it’s a fairly clumsy satire, if not farce, of business schools. Still, it does hit what are for me some familiar targets in terms of the corporatization and even corruption of the contemporary business school, including the hubris of high-flying deans (see Parker, 2014 for a real world example). And there are some acute insights along the way about, for example, the enmeshment of business schools and politicians in the marketization of the public sector that also get a look-in in Coe’s book. MBA certainly isn’t a great or even a good novel, but it’s the first that I know of that tackles the business school. I feel sure that this setting is ripe for the attention of a latter-day Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge campus novel.