Disrupting systems and organizing identity

Goffman and organizing identity

Authority, with its assumptions of legitimacy, necessarily implies consent to the rule that is invoked. Erving Goffman makes this absolutely clear, writing in relation to the small things of everyday organizational life, which ‘provide instruction’ in the essence of the organization’s power: ‘For example, to move one’s body in response to a polite request, let alone a command, is partly to grant the legitimacy of the other’s line of action’ (1961: 165). To accept the privileges that any organi- zation offers is already to legitimate its claim to organize one and one’s world, ‘plac- ing one in a position of having to show a little gratitude and cooperativeness (if only in taking what is being given)’ and through this some acknowledgement of the right of the agents doing the organizing to do as they please and feel entitled to do. That what they feel pleased to do may be within the normative universe of the for- mal rationality guiding their action is merely incidental, as far as those who are subject are concerned. As Goffman (1961: 167) suggested, discrepancies between the authorities’ and the subjects’ views of what an organization can command, expect and receive are not unusual; and a great deal of organizational life consists of strategies that seek to close that gap on the part of organizations, and open it up as far as possible on the part of the people, the employees, within these organiza- tions, both managers and employees more generally.

People’s definitions of the situation rarely accord entirely with those scripted and expected of them by organizations. Real people rarely conform to expecta- tions that they will act in the prescribed way. What the participant in an organi- zation is expected to do, and what is actually done, may cohere, but, as Goffman observes, this ‘is not the real concern’ because ‘expected activity in the organiza- tion implies a conception of the actor and … an organization can therefore be viewed as a place for generating assumptions about identity’ (1961: 169–70). That is, the organization has a prior claim to defining the identity of those indi- viduals that comprise it. Organization theory in much of its discussion of power in organizations starts from the analytically strange position of accepting the for- mally legitimated assumptions that organizations make about identity rather than starting with the actors themselves, their definitions of the situation, which is to favor the analytical abstraction over that which is existentially and empiri- cally real.

In crossing the threshold of the establishment, the individual takes on the obligation to be alive to the situation, to be properly oriented and aligned in it. In participating in an activity in the establishment, he takes on the obligation to involve himself at the moment of the activity. Through this orientation and engagement of attention and effort, he visibly establishes his attitude to the establishment and to its implied concep- tions of himself. To engage in a particular activity in the prescribed spirit is to accept being a particular kind of person who dwells in a particular kind of world … to forgo prescribed activities, or to engage in them in unprescribed ways or for unprescribed purposes, is to withdraw from the official self and the world officially available to it. To prescribe activity is to prescribe a world; to dodge a prescription can be to dodge an identity. (1961: 170)

The point is that legitimacy is not something given; it is an effect of some actor’s construction of the situation. Interestingly, the constructions that organization theory so often chooses to make are already those of the prescribers, not the prescribed (choices which are often claimed to be made in the interests of ‘value-free’ analysis). It seems strange to take one set of social constructions – those of the abstracted and corporate organization – as somehow more real than the def- initions of the situation that the actors themselves construct. Of course, as we shall see subsequently, what is important is to analyze the discourse which makes either abstracted or embodied constructions possible (see Chapter 10).

Goffman was aware that ‘every organization … involves a discipline of being – an obligation to be of a given character and to dwell in a given world’ (1961: 171), and that every individual can make ‘adjustments’ to absent their self from the prescribed being through use of either or both unauthorized means and ends to enact ‘practices’ that evade the organization’s assumptions about what one should do and be. These escape attempts are what make one a human agent: purposive, someone with dignity and integrity rather than the cipher that so many organization roles seem to assume. In systems theory the display of such humanity is castigated as an illegitimate act of power, the illegitimate ‘underlife of public institution’ as Goffman (1961) termed it. In Goffman (1961) it is what makes for human being. What Goffman had to say was available to orga- nization theorists, almost contemporaneously with the Parsonian framing of the world, a framing that irrevocably switched the tracks of analysis to functionalist system theory assumptions over and above agential concerns. But it largely went unnoticed.

In Parsons’ functionalist social theory, given the centrality of a cultural institu- tional viewpoint, what are constructed as values and goals in organizations cannot be treated as empirically contingent on structures of dominancy or, indeed, as fun- damentally problematic. If it were the case that values and goals were problematic or experienced as domination then the central value system would not be doing its theoretical work. If the central value system does its theoretical work properly then power would have little role to play in organizations because there would be no need to make members act in terms of the organizations’ preferences, over and above their own preferences, because, by definition, these preferences would be aligned. Thus, by definition, power could only ever be enacted against the organi- zations’ preferences. The reason for this is simple: organizations’ preferences are always already authoritative; action that seeks to ensure they are enacted is thus, by definition, legitimate authority. Thus, power could only enter the picture if members sought to enact preferences other than those of the organizations; power, by definition, would always be illegitimate if it were not in the service of the orga- nizations’ goals. It was precisely this conclusion that was reached by Parsons (1964): that power, if it were to be legitimate, could only ever be deployed in the service of goal attainment. It was this insight that framed his discussion of positive power, which we shall consider in Chapter 7. Where this left any other instances of power, other than in pursuit of system goals in the organization, was quite clear: they could only be constituted outside its normative order, as illegitimate and deviant. Goffman’s organizational underlife was thus transformed into an informal organization, one that was conceived to be both underground and illegitimate, in which power flourished.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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