Guest editorial

Torkild Thanem (Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden)
Alison Pullen (Department of Marketing and Management, Faculty of Business and Economics, Macquarie University, NSW, Australia)

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ISSN: 2040-7149

Article publication date: 15 September 2014



Thanem, T. and Pullen, A. (2014), "Guest editorial", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 33 No. 7.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Guest editorial

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, Volume 33, Issue 7

Difference, diversity and inclusion in monstrous organizations

The dance between the most disparate things (Pearson, 1999, p. 168).

The encounter with the monstrous other opens up both the putative risk of indifferentiation, and the hope that oppressive identities may be interrupted (Shildrick, 2002, p. 5).

We have to learn to love some of the monsters and to combat others (Hardt and Negri, 2004, p. 196).

Since we first met as PhD students in the late 1990s, we have shared an interest in the monstrous. Over these years the monstrous has become an increasingly powerful figure for thinking and engaging with difference: it materializes a desire to break free of the institutional constraints that govern us; it expands the range and intensity of what Butler (1990) speaks of as liveable lives; and it harbours a pursuit of justice for those subjectivities and bodies that are rendered abject.

An engagement with the monstrous, then, involves a politics of transgression, whether through the interrogation of "dark side" monstrosities, or through the productive experimentation with heterogeneous and life-affirming affective relations. After Torkild's book The Monstrous Organization (2011) was published, we set out to further explore the general interest in the relationship between the monstrous, diversity and equality in organizational life. At the heart of this project is a basic assumption that difference becomes embraced and proliferated through the monstrous, and that the monstrous difference of subjects and bodies who "live on the edge" (Thanem, 2006) enable organizational boundaries, constraints and pressures to be disrupted. Pushing the monstrous through and beyond these themes, this special issue gathers leading international contributions, which explore the monstrous in relation to gender, ethnicity and diversity in organizational life, the politics of oppression and exploitation under contemporary capitalism, and critique the idea of the monstrous itself. This problematizes predominant and pejorative sentiments that associate the monstrous with the excessively horrifying, vicious and unruly, the enormously large, the disgustingly ugly and the remarkably unusual. While we acknowledge that the monstrous disrupts normal boundaries of size, shape, morality and conduct, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Indeed, throughout history the meaning of the monstrous is dynamic and ambiguous. In ancient times, monstrous births could be warnings of doom and gloom, or promises of future glory. In medieval and renaissance times, the morality of monsters became more unequivocal, seen as signs of God's wrath against human sin, though their contrary nature did not prevent them from living amongst ordinary beings. In early modern times, monsters were part of the natural order but excluded from participation in mainstream society, often incarcerated in hospitals and asylums or exploited as freak show performers. And in contemporary modern times, the monstrous occupies the margins of both nature and society, receiving limited attention in mainstream science whilst being frequently mobilized as a rhetorical device in branding, advertising and the news media and as a core theme in the production of popular culture by the entertainment industry: headlines invoke excessive acts and opportunities such as Enron's "Monster Mess" (Fortune, 2002); job seekers upload their CVs on; moviegoers flock to watch the superhuman strengths of Spiderman or X-Men; and reality television peeks into the unruly fits of "Bridezillas", the "Monster Quest" for "giant squids" and the everyday troubles of conjoined twins and transsexuals.

The term "monster", then, presents opportunities for spectacle and discrimination. At the same time, the monstrous is politically important in order to surface, challenge and undo difference and its abjection. To bring about an ethical engagement with organization and the management of difference and diversity requires us to embody the monstrous rather than to voyeurize monstrosity, to physically and viscerally feel and experience the "uncertainty of strange encounters" (Shildrick, 2002, p. 7).

During the past couple of decades, research in the humanities and social sciences have problematized the pejorative connotations of monsters, monstrosities and the monstrous. Such approaches have rethought what has long been considered grotesque into a body politic that troubles norms and provokes difference and abjection to subvert. Kristeva's (1982) writing on horror reminds us that it is through extremity and abjection that transgression becomes possible and that the monstrous is conventionally cast in opposition to orderliness, organization and organizing. In various kinds of fantastic folklore, female monsters (Braidotti, 1994) such as vampires, Medusa and succubi evoke horror, abjection and extremity through exaggerated transgression of the feminine, often with female beauty and seductiveness located as the source of monstrosity. And in the mundane order of the everyday, the excessive maternal body is seen to heterogeneously, and monstrously, couple mother and child (e.g. Halberstam, 1995; Russell, 2000; Shildrick, 2002; Ussher, 2006) and disrupt organizational spaces (Longhurst, 2001).

While feminist writings reveal the female body as leaky, vulnerable and grotesque, science and technology studies have proposed a sociology of monsters pre-occupied with the multiple memberships of individuals and the heterogeneous couplings between humans and machines (Law, 1991). Further, organization studies have cast "hopeful monsters" as a counterpoint to bureaucracy (Du Gay, 1994), viewed rational calculation as a monstrous discipline (Clegg, 2005), explored the possibility of research as monstrous knowledge (Rhodes, 2001), conceptualized the monstrous as a matter of distortion, subversion and undecidability (Bloomfield and Vurdubakis, 1999), problematized the dark side of passionate leadership as monstrously transgressive (Thanem, 2013), and sketched out trajectories for a positively monstrous and excessively powerful politics and ethics of organizational life (Thanem, 2011).

There is little doubt, then, that the monstrous remains a powerful metaphor for difference, deviance, boundary disruption and heterogeneity in natural, social and organizational life - and one that can be employed both oppressively and affirmatively to ask a range of questions about ethical and political relations within and around organizations. This special issue therefore interrogates how the monstrous relates to issues of equality, difference, diversity, inclusion and exclusion. In their own ways, the authors of this issue have engaged the monstrous to surface, promote, challenge and undo difference and its abjection - whether immigrant workers, pregnant bodies or capitalist subjects. Each paper presented furthers the importance of affirming difference as a means of preventing symbolic, epistemic and material violence that threaten equality and justice.

The special issue opens with Brian Bloomfield and Theo Vurdubakis' essay "On the naming of monsters: Organization, (in)equality and diversity in the age of technological reproduction". Examining contemporary media coverage on the re-engineered bodies of new genetics, Bloomfield and Vurdubakis ironicize that the monstrous bodies of genetic engineering are emerging as models and harbingers of new forms of social organization, which may drastically change future conditions of (in)equality and diversity. Insofar as future biotechnology may enable detailed design and complete perfection of the human body - engineering "farmers with gills' or astronauts with 'termite digestive systems'" - these media accounts boast, and warn us, that we might soon move from a world where people are merely fitted to the job, to a "brave new world" where people actually embody their job. If we are to go by these media accounts, future biotechnology will enable the rich and powerful to design their offspring and clone themselves, and future generations may find themselves living and working in societies and organizations dominated by cloned elites who are capable of determining and regulating what they will regard as appropriate levels of (in)equality and diversity.

The issue's second paper takes us from the future, to the past, and back to the future of diversity research. Under the title "Appropriating the abject: an anthropophagic approach to organizational diversity", Gazi Islam traces the inherent monstrosity of anthropophagy through the anthropological roots of cannibalism and through Kristeva's (1982) theory of abjection. Here, anthropophagy is explored as a monstrously abject practice, which transgresses boundaries of moral convention. But the paper also offers a more analytical reading, which has wider implications for our understanding of identity, difference, diversity and inclusion. Anthropophagy involves an "ambivalent identification with and aggression towards the other"; by eating the other, anthropophagy is "a simultaneous act of love and violence". Anthropophagy, then, is a transgression of the self-other boundary, which forces us to think carefully about how difference and diversity is included and managed in organizations.

The next paper, "Classifying difference, or how to create monsters" by Andreas Diedrich, deals exactly with this issue in the context of Swedish labour market integration schemes. Through an ethnographic study of a labour market programme aimed to classify and validate the skills of non-western immigrant job seekers, Diedrich examines how ethnocentric sentiments led skills validators to render immigrants' skills monstrous. As Diedrich shows, validators typically conclude that immigrants do not "measur[e] up to the standards required to work within specific occupations" in Sweden because they are seen to defy and disrupt the predefined occupational categories of the Swedish labour market. While this paper highlights institutional mechanisms that reinforce the subordination and marginalization of already disadvantaged groups in western societies, it further draws attention to how labour market discrimination and institutional racism is inherent in programmes ostensibly designed to counter these problems.

The next two papers shift our focus from ethnicity to gender by problematizing the monstrous aspects of maternity in organizational life. Caroline Gatrell's "Monstrous motherhood versus magical maternity?" draws on netnographic research to analyse the contrasting attitudes towards maternity within UK health discourses and organizational settings. On the one hand, pregnancy and the nurturing of infant children are "valorized within public health discourses, which treat pregnancy and new maternity as a miraculous 'project', encouraging mothers to position maternity as central to their lives". Meanwhile, employers tend to treat pregnancy and new motherhood as inconvenient and messy: working mothers are regarded alien and monstrous at work. While this shows how monstrous bodies are seen to leak into and disrupt workspaces, the implications for women and organizations are significant. As mothers continue to be excluded at work, the paper begs us to further scrutinize the possibilities for more inclusive workplace cultures.

In a more theoretical vein, Sheena Vachhani's penultimate paper, "Always different? Exploring the monstrous-feminine and maternal embodiment in organization", draws on social and psychoanalytic perspectives to problematize the notion of woman-as-monster. Specifically, the paper develops a conceptual analysis of the monstrous-feminine and its relation to maternal and monstrous bodies. Proposing a feminist monstrous politics of organization, Vachhani's close reading of feminist conceptualizations of monsters may enable but also foreclose a positive articulation of the monstrous as disruption, disorder and disorganization.

To close this issue we have Peter Bloom's paper "We are all monsters now! A Marxist critique of liberal organization and the need for a revolutionary monstrous humanism". Bloom challenges the allegedly positive monstrosity of the contemporary liberal and diverse organization. By revisiting Marxist accounts of capitalism as vampiric and cannibalistic, Bloom draws attention to the blood-sucking and exploitative logic underpinning diversity management under capitalism. But rather than rejecting the possibilities for a positively monstrous project, Bloom develops an anti-capitalist Marxist notion of revolutionary monstrous humanism, against the dehumanization of managerial control and market ideologies in liberally monstrous organizations, for genuine diversity, and for the right to be different.

Bringing this issue to a close, we are reminded how each paper has not only brought together a range of monstrous ideas and examples that transgress boundaries between self and other, sameness and difference, inclusion and exclusion. These papers also actualize how any dealing with the monstrous defies such transgression. In other words, the papers offered here cannot escape the codification of the monstrous, which necessarily serves to tame it. As our monstrous project is a project of life affirmation, difference and justice, our engagement with monstrous organizations requires intense exploration and interruption of their ethical and political realities and potentialities; our engagement with diversity and its management requires sincere experimentation and undoing; and our work as researchers of difference in organizations requires constant interrogation and reflection.

Professor Torkild Thanem, Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

Professor Alison Pullen, Department of Marketing and Management, Faculty of Business and Economics, Macquarie University, New South Wales, Australia


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Thanem, T. (2013), "More passion than the job requires? Monstrously transgressive leadership in the promotion of health at work", Leadership, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 396-415

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Further reading

Bowker, G.C. and Star, S.L. (2000), Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, MIT Press, London

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