Organization‐Representation: Work and Organization in Popular Culture

Joel Foreman (English Department & the Program on Social and Organizational Learning, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA.)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Foreman, J. (2000), "Organization‐Representation: Work and Organization in Popular Culture", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 401-446.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book is like a promising essay whose introduction makes commitments that are never fulfilled. Perhaps one should not expect more from a collection of edited essays. Such an assemblage is, as often as not, a salad of diverse works whose fit depends more on the imagination of the reader than the skill of the editors. In this case, the editors make some very engaging promises, which they themselves seem promptly to forget. So it does not surprise that the various essayists are themselves not true to the major aims stated in the book’s introduction.

I distinguish here between what I believe to be the book’s most important reason for being and its real reason. Both are to be found on the first page of the introduction. The former comes in a cluster of three controversial and appealing claims: first, the representation of organizations in popular media provides a valuable complement to the conventional texts of organization studies. Second, these representations are an untapped source of insights that can inform both theory and practice. Third, popular media may be used to great effect “in the classroom as an aid to teaching and learning how organizations work” (p. 1). These claims are contentious, and thus interesting. If the essayists had structured their discussions to support the claims, Organization‐Representation might have made a significant contribution to organization studies.

Alas, the real interests of the writers in this volume direct the reader’s attention to the ideologies embedded in fictional representations and to the vagaries of representation itself. These interests are indeed relevant to organization studies, but mostly as an academic enterprise that’s insulated from, and thus has little effect upon, the practical world of organizations.

The essays in the section on “Realism and Representation” demonstrate my point. The first of these, “The Documentary Film Movement: The Post Office Touches all Branches of Life”, reviews the British documentary movement between 1929 and 1939 and attempts to show how its products were shaped by “the growth of mass society, corporate capitalism, organized labour and increased state intervention” (p.18). The second essay, “Representing Reality: Cinema Verite”, “examines the history of the ethnographic documentary” (p. 42) and questions its claims to verisimilitude. For readers interested in film history and/or the history of work in the twentieth century, these essays will be worth the read. Other readers may indeed gather some interesting trivia about forms of work that no longer exist. And they may be convinced, as the authors argue, that the representation of work is always going to be distorted by prevailing ideologies. But for those seeking insights into what makes organizations work or how popular media may be used to teach organization studies, these essays offer little help.

If, on the other hand, the reader will be satisfied with the kind of emancipationist activism (of a limited academic sort) that characterizes cultural studies, these essays will suffice. Like a virus that exploits for its own ends the dynamism of its host, cultural studies analyze cultural artifacts to reach “subversive” conclusions about such matters as the power relations in capitalist societies, the continuing inequities affecting women, the oppression of the gay community, the dangers of technology, and the blight of racism. In America, cultural studies has successfully furthered this agenda by appropriating the interpretive mission of the humanities and its supporting university apparatus (mostly in the form of English and history and sociology courses). Thus, for example, what used to be the study of literature (for “purely” aesthetic purposes) has now become a vehicle for habituating students to a postmodern world characterized by a much greater degree of cultural heterogeneity than was previously the case.

Displacing the study of literature qua literature was a good idea because such studies supported an elitist and specious view of high culture and its role in civilizing students. Replacing aestheticizing literary studies with emancipationist and critical analyses of popular media at least acknowledges the importance of pop culture and probably does a real service shriving many students of their biases.

The question is: can this work take place within the context of organizational studies? By claiming to provide insights into the workings of organizations, Organization‐Representation superimposes the mission of cultural studies on top of organization studies. I am not sure the latter is a beneficiary of this move. Witness Maggie O’Neill’s essay, “Saloon Girls: Death and Desire in the American West.” In O’Neill’s view, the essay qualifies as an organizational study because it “explores the portrayal of the saloon/brothel as a workplace organization” (p. 117). I object to this claim because of the considerable gap separating a fictional representation of historical work relations (in several Hollywood films) and the workplace of today. O’Neill is on safe ground when she treats these films as fantasy material informed by such matters as the “ambivalence of heterosexual gender relations” (p. 121) and when she argues that prostitutes serve social needs at great cost to themselves. If this analysis had been supplemented by an authoritative account of the contemporary brothel/organization, O’Neill’s essay might well have shed light on the organizational concerns that we face today. Not having done so, the essay is too speculative to be taken seriously by someone wishing to alter the organizational practices being criticized.

This kind of inactive activism is typical of cultural studies. The analysis is an end in itself and doesn’t need to be concerned with the means to rectify the situations it decries. Ruth Holliday’s discussion of the film Philadelphia and its treatment of aids in the workplace is, in effect, a weak shadow of the film. The film is itself a very powerful dramatization of the disruptive role that homosexuality and aids can play in an organization. The essay simply intellectualizes the film’s effects, providing an opportunity for academic discourse but not contributing in any meaningful way to the cultural work already performed by the film itself.

Packed with references to Foucault and Deleuze and displaying a required density of multi‐syllabic abstractions, the essays are ex post facto descriptions of what most of us already know precisely because we are all consumers of popular culture. Parker and Cooper’s essay on “Cyborganization” starts with a topic (the technological supplementation of the body) that promises to reveal something about the rapidly accelerating transformation of the “natural” human form. We learn that cyborganization is actually mundane, that the science fiction film characterizes corporations and corporate executives as self‐seeking perpetrators of scientific evils, that we are all cyborgs because in a world of use‐things the human is a “temporary assemblage of person and things.” Some of this is interesting. Some of it is obvious. But about all of it, we must eventually ask, “So what? Who cares? Why do we need to spend our time thinking about or teaching such points? What difference does this kind of discourse make to anything that matters other than the continuance of a hermetic and self‐involved academic narcissism?”

As an academic, an intellectual, and an observer of cultural studies, I can enjoy the essays in Organization‐Representation. Their authors are earnest and skillful participants in an academic business (cultural studies) that is trying to expand its market by moving into organization studies. The results of such an expansion could be salutary if, as noted at the outset of this essay, the resulting hybrid studies actually deliver on the promise to alter the way organization studies is taught. Perhaps the essays in this collection are helping to lay a foundation for future work that will move in such a direction.

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