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Tarja-Liisa Laaksonen

Liberal "Organizational culture" discourses in time, space and agency context

This paper engages with current discourses of "organisational culture" as they are expressed in organisation studies and social sciences, and calls into question some of their major themes. Discussion about the complex interplay of time-space-agency via both domination and human agency, the influence of political globalisation issues, and the importance of local and cultural aspects in organisational life challenges some key standpoints of these discourses. Often the organizational culture discourses assume that the concept 'organisational culture' is universally understood and has shared meaning worldwide. They also assume that even if workers are analysed in regards to their ways of resistance, they are in somewhat powerless positions. Most of these positions identify 'organisational culture discourse' as a tool or a management technology involved in the creation of appropriate and ‘excellent’ cultures, including notions of the self-regulating and entrepreneurial self in various institutional environments. In such contexts, these discourses centre on fixed subjectivities, control over organisational subjects, as well as focus on domination of entrepreneurial discourses over worker subjectivities. Furthermore, advanced liberalism usage of ‘agency’ for its objectives is controversial and needs some clarification. These discourses are clearly informed by the Anglo- and Eurocentric management and social sciences literatures. They often treat difference and culture as something exotic. Contradicting this, they however assume that workplaces can be treated with same management ideas all over the world. Thus, they usually lack comprehensive global, local, and cultural perspectives. The homogenous universality and unproblematic globalisation of the neoliberal or advanced liberal regime of governance thought is assumed. Possible themes in organisational life analysis are many and varied. Reflecting on the current organizational discourses as described above and for analytical purposes of this paper I distinguish certain clusters of major themes: the cluster concerning political and global, and the local-cultural cluster, and the domination versus resistance-agency cluster. I use Foucault originated "Governmentality" discussion to look at some aspects of these clusters in reflecting towards organizational culture and organizational life discourses. “Governmentality” examines the ‘mentalities, arts, and regimes of government and administration that have emerged since early modern Europe’ (Dean 1999, p.2). It is a way of analyzing political economy of liberalism as a rationality of thought. Specifically, Foucault’s post-structuralist analysis shows how neoliberalism is a historically formed discourse, and his governmentality analysis is a critique of liberalism (Olssen 2003, p. 189).

Political and global

In political and global sphere neoliberalism and advanced liberalism are the present-day underlying rationalities of thought for organizational culture and development discussion. In neoliberalism, state has gained a connotation as an active agent in creating the best market conditions and by creating laws and institutions for its maximum operation – even if at the same time the role of the state in government is reduced. Neoliberalism also intervenes in the creation of an individual by enhancing the enterprising and competitive model. Individual is then manipulable, and the state plays an important role in the shaping of this entrepreneurial figure. Thus, neoliberalism is governmentality of ‘freedom, choice, consumer sovereignty, competition, individual initiative, compliance and obedience’ where state again has an important role as a regulator and in conditions where all social relations are regarded as relations of exchange (Olssen 2003, p. 199). Notably, neo-liberalism introduced the recovery of the market in all spheres of life, but it also claims that change is not to be rational but must be carried out according to cultural values, rules and norms – which are ‘best condensed into the cultural form of enterprise and consumer’ (Dean 1999, p. 164). Thus, we see now that neoliberalism or its more recent mutation ‘advanced liberalism’ governs through experts and through aspirations of freedom that citizens have. It also utilizes moral and community loyalty in administration of conduct, and operates from the distance between the political representation and other social actors (Rose 1996d, p. 41 and p. 54). I argue that the present-day organizational culture discourses are too silent about the underlying neo- and advanced liberal political and globalization processes, which are the principal structures for the so called “organizational culture” or “organizational development” work. I, consequently, call for the more serious inclusion of structural dimensions in to the discussion.

Local and cultural

Culture is also always governmental, since it implies power and practices, and ordering of people and things. Thus, also globalization needs to be seen in complex relations between power, culture and different spatialities. Then, cultural importation and imposition cannot be generalized. Instead, we can observe that production of something quite new occurs when cultural forms ‘traveling across borders, often become comprehensively and unpredictably reinterpreted and re-customized to serve very particular local purposes’ (Yurchak 2000, p. 412). Furthermore, individuals are not only national subjects, but have multiplicity of subjectivities in various sites and scales and thus ‘there is no longer a general subject of culture’ but the globalization processes ‘reterritorializes the normative individual subject’ (Barnett 1999, p. 390). In the advanced liberalism ethos individuals are increasingly addressed as ‘members of communities’. In these respects culture and governmentality need to be seen in multiple spatiality and temporality, where organizations and spaces are one set of means of exercising power. However, we need to be careful in considering certain lived spaces as purely global or local. Rather, it is important to look at the globalization as a more nuanced configuration of various types of spaces and their intersections. There is no singular, homogenous, and abstract space of globalization. A world culture or global culture is something we cannot even imagine – it is an abstract impossibility. Instead, globalization is a process. In globalization process, lives may be experienced as out of place, when the localized affective identities of nationhood, ethnicity, and religion contrast with the appealing cosmopolitan globalism (Crang 1999, p. 171). Similarly, local cultures cannot be imagined as ‘uncontaminated or self-contained’ or not affected by other cultures. (Bhabha 1998, p. 54). ‘Culture’ examined in terms of governmentality thus receives new dimensions. Traditionally, culture has been defined ‘as a set of signifying practices’ where it became both an object and an instrument of governmental policy. However, once we begin to see ‘culture’ in relation to governmentality as an integral part of the policing process we can extend the analysis towards power and culture. Then we can, for example, examine how neo-liberal or globalization strategies operate in a specific cultural context, or how culture functions as the intersection of policy and ethos – that is ‘the practices of the self on the self and the technologies of subjectification’. Thus, the objective of cultural studies shifts from language bound general mechanisms and signifying practices of a certain culture, towards technical, discursive, truth-telling governmentality practices found in a specific cultural setting and historical moment. (Bratich, Packer et al. 2003, pp. 5-6). Then. It is easier to see how today cultures rather mingle and interact with each other. It is a global and local fusion. Suyngedouw argues that spatial scale is rather a produced process, which is continuously heterogeneous, conflicted, and contested. This scale is discursively and materially a place where power relations are contested, negotiated and regulated (Suyngedouw 1997, p.140). Bhabha’s concept of ‘hybridity’ approaches the same understanding when he describes the process of ‘construction of cultural authority within conditions of political antagonism and inequality’…’and where hybrid strategy or discourse opens up space of negotiation’. The emerged negotiation is not assimilation or collaboration, but instead hybrid agency is born. (Bhabha 1998, p. 58). Here, Appadurai’s diagram of various spheres or scapes is useful. We can find ethno-scape, media-scape, techno-scape, finance-scape, and idio-scape. These spaces are not limited areas, but instead like landscapes, which are formed of different dimensions or scapes which become realized in an experienced place (Appadurai 1996). In these various networks of spatial scales and scapes, economics, politics, social issues, and identity formation become shaped (Appadurai 1990). This way a concrete moment of lived place can be experienced as a site where ‘globalization comes together and also falls apart’ and Appadurai’s different ‘scapes’ offer an imagined space in which the local is embedded but of which it is a unique configuration’. Thus, globalization becomes seen as performed when people negotiate a variety of spaces. (Crang 1999, p. 175). In sum, I argue that in our globalized world culture is becoming a hybrid and fluid mixture of global and local multiplicities and spaces or scales. We just need to discover and recognize those specific hybrids of discourses, spaces of culture, and scapes in any workplace or organizational life setting. Thus, it seems that any intended imposition of a certain globally homogenized ‘organizational culture’ would fail.

Domination versus resistance-agency

The liberal concept of ‘freedom’ is in key position in shaping the regimes of thought or political rationalities and ultimately management discourses, and the ways in which they in turn outline the conduct of conduct. In advanced liberalism freedom is the formula of rule. Through discourses of freedom, self-disciplined citizens are produced. They are responsible agents working eagerly for their own development. This advanced liberal governmentality does not, however, function via direct domination and imposition, but through hope and promise. Those are the promises of incorporation and inclusion, which are supposedly achieved via worker commitment, self-government and agency. The duty of the self is to function as a moral agent and as a rational choice and economic actor. In these freedom circuits of the self, also the risk management is then transferred back to individuals (Peters 2001, p. 61). Similarly, in organizational life success of employment or career development and risk of failure or unemployment are transferred back to individuals. The new valorization of the self-actualized subject coincides with the emergence of neo- and advanced liberal redeployment of ‘free subject’ as an instrument of governmentality, and it coincides also with the notion of freedom and free conduct as the principles by which government is to be rationalized and reformed (Dean 1999, p. 155). Technologies of agency seek to improve and enhance our possibilities for participation, agreement and action. They emphasize the ‘voice’ and ‘representation’ of user groups or partners to negotiate over their needs. The objective of this agency work is to enable the ‘targeted populations’ or ‘excluded’ to take control of their own risks and act for their development. (Dean 1999, pp. 167-168). It thus manages the themes of freedom and agency in a reflexive way in its deployment of surveillance and regulation of the agency through which it functions (Dean 1999, p. 195). Cruikshank’s examples illuminate these discourses and related agency technologies. She distinguishes phases of ‘Cultures of self’ discourses: in the 1970’s the theme of the self-governance technologies’ discourse was that of ‘positive thinking’, in the 1980’s it was that of ‘empowerment’, and in the 1990’s ‘enterprising’ (Cruikshank 1996, p.247). She argues that towards the turn of the century we were experiencing the discourse of ‘self-esteem’. Now, I can add that today we live the ‘ethico-community’ discourse as illustrated by Rose (Rose 2000a). Or rather, we often live in combinations of these discursive technologies. Most importantly, however, it is crucial to analyze how the lack of power and control in the personal life and in the world is increasingly attributed to lack of these themes of positive thinking, empowerment, enterprising, self-esteem, and ethico-community responsible conduct. Instead of addressing the structural issues, the political liberal environment continues to insert these new themes, which account for the individuals – and their agency or lack of it - for the ills of the society and the world. Importantly, nowadays it is the combination of normalizing discourses, disciplinary effects and constitution of calculating enterprising subjects that are in play (Martin 2002, p. 4). We are now witnessing the new concept of freedom that ‘obliges us to self-realization through choice and to the ethico-politics of community’ (enterprise or organization) (Rose 1999, p. 273). This ‘governmentality’ agency is different to the agency of resistance over attempts of subjection. I argue that even if individuals continuously receive and listen to the neo- and advanced liberal government, management and enterprise discourses, they also negotiate these dominant discourses. As a result of negotiation, the meaning of dominant discourses is only partially fixed and thus discourses are only partially fixing of subjectivities. Rather, in this flow of discourses, construction of multiple subjectivities and selves is also in continuous movement between, for example, acceptance, adoption, collaboration, conflict, resistance and compromise. Thus, the dimensions between compliance and resistance can be parts of wider social play.


This discussion gives the frame of research strategy: It is necessary to look at how neo- and advanced liberal discourses are political, and how globalization discourses that introduce redefinitions of subjectivity, conduct and culture, impose management and enterprise culture assimilation, and extend market language to all possible activities. However, in self constructions individuals ‘agentially play with the associated discursive practices and forms’…so that…’resulting outcomes are complex and varied’ (Doolin 2002, pp. 385-387). So, globalization and (organizational) cultural imposition are not capable of simply introducing a new system of signification or order of people and things – depending how we want to define culture – into a physical public or enterprise space. Instead, a redefinition of that space, personal subjectivities, and power relations results. Thus, resistance and agency are at play when particular, new versions of social realities, and construction of subjectivities are developed. When these aspects are taken into account, the organization culture and its establishment of fixed values, visions and missions, and creation of committed but self-regulating worker subjectivities, and binaries that divide human life in work and other life, are broken down. Human beings are not one-dimensional objects. They live through shifting multiple subjectivities in constantly changing situations and life and work conditions. These observations indicate towards some social and political implications in the whole management and ‘organization culture’ discourse and discipline. When these complexities are considered, the whole concept, rationality and usefulness of the present-day management and organization culture discipline is contested.


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