Vagrants, voyagers, travellers and exiles: a journey into the structures of organization

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 18 October 2011


Hopfl, H. (2011), "Vagrants, voyagers, travellers and exiles: a journey into the structures of organization", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 24 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Vagrants, voyagers, travellers and exiles: a journey into the structures of organization

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Organizational Change Management, Volume 24, Issue 6

In many ways, this is a strange collection of papers. Strange in their range and focus but coherent because it one way or another all the contributors attempt to deal with the relationship between architecture and organizations even though, at first glance, this might not be immediately apparent. In this regard, my interest in inviting these contributions was in structure. In recent years, a number of organizational scholars have given attention to ways of conceiving space in organizations. This has led to different ways of conceiving spatial arrangements, analyzing social organization and understanding spatial relationships in terms of power, mobility and materiality. In terms of recent work on space, it is salutary to consider work by Bachelard (1994 [1958]), Lefebvre (1991), Massey (1995), Kociatkiewicz and Kostera (1997), and Crang and Thrift (2000). However, there has also been a growing number of publications on architecture, design and design firms, from researchers such as Yanow (1995), Jevnaker (2005), Kornburger and Clegg (2004) and Dale and Burrell (2008). While this second body of research inevitably draws on concepts of space and spatial arrangements, it also gives attention to the relationship between architecture, structure and management and organizational arrangements. It was this research which inspired this special issue and, in particular, gave focus to the collection of papers which is presented here.

Ann Rippin, as is often her wont, takes us on a magical journey into places of wonder and enchantment, to the “pleasure domes” of commerce and, as our tour guide, she points us towards some soaring architecture, some splendid aesthetics, some sublime conceptions. Without cynicism, she encourages us to enjoy the spectacle. This is not because she is unaware of the totalising effect of corporate architecture but, rather, because she gives us permission to behold and enjoy the sensory delights that await the traveller in this exotic world. This charming paper uses a literary genre to engage with corporate architecture and it is fitting for this special issue to begin with a traveller’s tale because the invitation to explore and to marvel is also an invitation to question and speculate.

It follows then that we might take up the metaphor of the voyage: this time a sea voyage. John Griffiths and Kathy Mack take us on a journey of exploration and wonder in order to draw our attention to “shipscapes”: the artworks and artefacts of the seafarer. Growing up in a seafaring family myself, I recognise much of the imagery of this delightful insight into nautical lives. What Griffiths and Mack bring to this piece is the sight and smell of the sea, the atmosphere of the docks, the call of the oceans. By examining shipscapes, they draw on the notion of ships as architecturally mobiles places which by virtue of this transcend their physicality and location. This is a sensual piece of writing which is rich in imagery and the evocation of life at sea. Just like Ann Rippin’s tales of wonder and Tim Scott’s poetic journey, so too this paper takes us into a new perspective on seafarer’s lives and opens up doors to hidden experiences and memories.

It is this relationship between what is hidden and what resides in memory which is the subject of the paper by Ricky Ng and myself which starts with a discussion of the concealed spaces of resistance and consolation in bureaucratic work. Starting from the apparently insignificant and inconsequential gesture, for example, the cupped hand concealing a forbidden cigarette, this paper examines the ways in which office workers reveal the extent of their sense of estrangement and exile, of journey are marked by melancholy, in the ways in which they try to transform the workplace both as a melancholic gesture of consolation and as a small act of resistance. In accord with the ideas expressed in Ann Rippin’s paper, these explorers and occupational vagabonds might be happy to travel in alien lands but they resist capture and internment in any number of small but significant ways.

Alison Hirst takes this notion of travel and movement further in her insightful paper on sociological aspects of emergent socio-spatial structures and looks at a “hot-desking” office environment in order to do this. Unlike Ng and Höpfl’s office workers who can mark their resistance with personal belongings, Hirst’s workers are vagrants. Accepting for the sake of the argument presented here that workers are all, to some extent, travellers in a strange land, these hot-deskers suffer the further dislocation that they can find no shelter. In Hirst’s terms, they are vagrants and this term seems well applied to this particular group. It is this metaphor that she uses in preference to the more usual “nomadic” metaphor to describe the homelessness of this group of workers. This profoundly melancholic image of workers roaming endlessly trying to find somewhere to find shelter in order to do their work offers no place for resistance. Unlike the workers in Ng and Höpfl’s study, there is no place for accommodation. The employees are at the mercy of the designers who know what is best for them and the social objectives they want to achieve. Hirst’s conclusions are helpful and salutary. She gives attention to areas for further research and provides much to ponder in terms of the distinction between public and private space.

To continue the idea of vagrants and travellers, Tim Scott takes us “off the beaten track” in more senses than one. He encourages us to consider Heidegger’s “The origin of the work of art” and poses a knotty problem regarding the gendered nature of such an origin. This elegantly argued and beguiling piece leads to places of exploration and adventure, of violence and estrangement. It is the poetic quality of this essay which insinuates itself both into the writing and into the imagination of the reader, into the logic of the text, in order to disturb and irritate the wound that marks the tear, the rip, he explores between “world and earth”. The paper finds its place in this special issue by opening up this scar and by its playful examination of the structures which create and sustain organization. This paper reminds me very much of the writings of Callimachus, the Librarian of the Library of Alexandria who wrote in the third century BC. Callimachus is considered to be the founder of a critical approach to Greek literature and many of his works demonstrate a sophisticated and elaborate construction. He seems to have been particularly concerned with the relationship between poetic form and content and with the reconciliation of the intellectual content of the poem with its emotional consequence, something which is much echoed in this paper where there is an attempt to achieve a consonance in form and content between the intellectual content of the paper and its emotional consequence.

Finally, to bring us home again, Tuomo Peltonen calls us to consider the university campus and examines the meaning and uses of its spaces and spatial arrangements. Unlike the voyages into the unfamiliar which some contributors have proposed, both material and abstract, Peltonen shows us something which is familiar but reveals it to us as if we are seeing it for the first time. In particular, he invites us to consider the “potentially creative appropriations and reconstructions of the societally embedded users” and challenges architectural ideas about intended users, organizational structures and patterns of interaction. In one sense, this paper alerts us to be concerned that “the non-verbal messages of the architectural artefacts [produce a] material spatial heaviness” caused by the immutable structures with which the employees must engage. In other words, the possibilities for improvisation in social response are limited.

Taken together, a number of related themes emerge from this special issue which have a bearing on organizations in general and organizational change in particular. First, there is a recurrent theme which relates to what is hidden, mysterious worlds which can be brought to life, hidden lives, hidden voices, hidden objects. The artefacts and objects which reveal a concealed aspect of work occupational artefacts, aides memoires of home, the personal, all in their own ways vivify notions of organization. Second, there is a concern with movement: the flow of individuals through buildings, the voyage, the traveller and travellers’ tales, or simply the hopeless movements of the hot-desking vagrant. Third, there is a strand of ideas which relate to estrangement and enchantment, to wonder and amazement. In all the papers, there is something of the sensual – smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste, hidden voices calling to us, muttering to themselves.

Organizations need to give more attention to these ignored and hidden aspects of organization and there is some evidence that over the last decade they have begun to do this. However, the perennial problem emerges, to what extent these issues are raised in order to be colonised by management and turned into mere representational shades of their embodied meanings. The rational and structural are privileged without regard to the implications. What these papers show is that hidden voices need to be heard, sensory delight appreciated without prejudice, humanity restored. Finally, it is important to understand that any system in which social relationships are determined by economic rationality is contrary to the nature of the human person. If this was more widely understood then organizations might more properly reflect how we might like to work rather than how we are made to work.

Heather HöpflGuest Editor