Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Identity, Discourse & Organizations

Common sense – derived from a strictly modernist understanding of the world - describes the individual as a fixed entity with a certain given and stable personality. In fact, identity has been classically conceptualized as a well defined and stable construct: the idea being that it stabilizes itself and never changes, except in exceptional circumstances, once one reaches adulthood.

A post-modernist approach would instead suggest that the individual is rather, using George Herbert Mead words, a “parliament of selves” or, using another metaphor taken from Karl Weick, an “ongoing puzzle that is undergoing continuous redefinition”. A process of never ending negotiation, of struggle is what therefore characterizes the “identity work” we need to engage in, in order to try to reach the necessary sense of perceived stability.

In fact, we try to make sense of who we are by drawing on various cultural/linguistic resources such as narratives and discourses. The assumption here, as discussed in another post, is that language shapes the ways in which reality is constructed. This last point is easily understood if we consider how "we cannot know, think about or analyse the world without using concepts, language, [categories] and "frames of reference", which come from the social world that we are part of" (Watson, 2006).

For example discourses - understood as the historically contextualized collection of texts, logics and assumptions about something - can a have a more or less strong influence on the way we can plausibly think, or talk about a certain subject, on the way we enact reality and therefore make sense of ourselves. Various competing and contradicting discourses coexist at the same time and, almost certainly, none is going to offer a sufficiently strong grip in order to guarantee to the individual the comfort of a sense of coherence and stability. In fact, as humans we are better understood as strategic and situationally oriented: the specific context, the various ongoing projects, the competing discourses present at a given time and many other factors are going to influence the current sense of self and consequently how we make sense of reality.

From an organizational point of view this is interesting because this continuous struggle to define one’s identity is going to influence and, at the same time, to be influenced by organizational life. For example, people’s work orientation – the meaning and attitudes toward work – are going to change over time together with what an individual is going to be willing to exchange with the organization: the inputs, the physical and mental effort, the responsibilities, willingness to accept risk-taking, acceptance of managerial control and so on and so forth.

Moreover understanding people in this more process-relational way may help us understanding how there is actually a limit to the extent of control that a manager can reach over the people working in the organization: it is in fact impossible to herd the cats, or to control the uncontrollable.

To conclude, I think that the practical implications of this paradigm shift in how we conceptualize individuals are not to be underestimated. In fact, as we know, theories in social sciences tend to have the property of self-fulfilling prophecies: “If men define situations as real they are real in their consequences.”

In the next post on this theme, in order to make what I have explained here a bit more concrete, I am going to analyze the implications of a certain discursive approach to management.

PS: Most of Ideas for this post were taken from: Tony Watson (2006) Organizing and Managing Work. Financial Times/Prentice Hall