Reinventing Hierarchy and Bureaucracy – from the Bureau to Network Organizations: Volume 35


Table of contents

(17 chapters)

Thomas Diefenbach is associate professor of business ethics at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), Beppu, Japan. In his research, Thomas investigates primarily the problematic existence and relationships of individuals within all types of organisations, different forms of organisations and the fundamental principles of past, present and future organisations and societies. Thomas is particularly interested in identifying and investigating non-hierarchical structures and processes as well as alternative forms of management, organisations and societies. In his latest monograph Management and the Dominance of Managers (2009) he developed a comprehensive and multi-dimensional model for critically investigating managers' power, interests and ideology within an organisational context. In another monograph on Hierarchy – The Eternal Beast (2012, forthcoming) he tries to develop a ‘General Theory of the Persistence of Hierarchical Social Order’.

Hierarchy and bureaucracy have been more or less welcomed companions of human civilisation from the very beginning. In almost every culture and epoch, ruling elites and followers, superiors and subordinates can be identified. Hierarchy and bureaucracy are quite flexible, adaptable and they are fairly persistent – but why could, or even should we see this as a problem?

This introduction will first provide a brief history of no change, followed by the second section where the advantages and disadvantages and the contested terrain of hierarchy are elaborated in some length. The discussion focuses on three areas: the functional, social and ethical qualities of hierarchy. In the final section, the chapters of this volume will be briefly introduced. The chapters are grouped into three sections: (I) Fundamentals and historical accounts of bureaucracy, (II) Organisational, cultural and socio-psychological aspects of hierarchy and (III) Alternative views on, and alternatives to hierarchy.

Michel Foucault and Max Weber dominate contemporary organisation theory. At least in part, Foucault can be read as an extension of Weber's concepts of bureaucracy and rationalisation. Or, more profitably, Weber can be read through Foucault and vice versa. Central to the development of the bureaucracy was the construction of the career as a life-long project of the self. From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, British banks developed extensive forms of surveillance predicated upon the career. Not all clerks satisfied the banks' close inspection of the individual's personal life. Here, we use Weber and Foucault to tell the story of William Notman, a Scottish bank clerk who successfully sued his employers for dismissing him because he married against their wishes.

Bureaucracy is under attack and has been for some time, specially these past 30 years. This chapter will outline the specific qualities of bureaucracy, the challenges to it that different critics have posed and the possible futures of bureaucracy that are being imagined. In the 1980s, as a key part of an extremely liberal and influential critique of bureaucracy, new imaginings of how to organize corporations and public sector organizations began to emerge. By the late 1990s these had morphed into a view of the network or hybrid organization as the way of the future. The chapter will suggest that the global future of bureaucracy is not as simple as some of these criticisms suggest when they see it left behind in the emergence of innovative new forms. Instead, it is suggested, there is a spatial disaggregation of organizations occurring that heralds some unsettling new futures of organizations emerging.

In this chapter, we focus on the stabilizing functions of public bureaux and examine some of the consequences attendant upon attempts to make them less hierarchical and more ‘flexible’. In so doing, we seek to evidence the ways in which what are represented as anachronistic practices in the machinery of government may actually provide political life with particular required ‘constituting’ qualities. While such practices have been negatively coded by reformers as ‘conservative’, we hope to show that their very conservatism may serve positive political purposes, not the least of which is in the constitution of what we call ‘responsible’ (as opposed to simply ‘responsive’) government. Through a critical interrogation of certain key tropes of contemporary programmes of modernization and reform, we indicate how these programmes are blind to the critical role of bureaucracy in setting the standards that enable governmental institutions to act in a flexible and responsible way.

The chapter aims to bring out the dynamic nature or hierarchy in organizations and presents a conceptual framework for making sense of hierarchy in contemporary work. We describe hierarchy as the result of a contradictory dynamic that incorporates both vertical and horizontal practices of organizing. The vertical practice, verticalization, draws on and reproduces the formal organization, whereas the horizontal practice, horizontalization, orders people on the basis of their knowledge and initiatives. The dynamic between these two practices varies, we argue, depending on the social and epistemic distance of formal managers' from the operative work process. Three different dynamics between verticalization and horizontalization – loose coupling, translation, and integration – are identified and illustrated, drawing on three ethnographically inspired studies of knowledge work. Through these three dynamics, the chapter casts light on and provides nuances to the current discussion in the literature on postbureaucracy.

Bureaucratic hierarchy, as the hallmark of the modern organization, has been remarkably resilient in the face of increasingly pervasive attacks on its fundamental value and usefulness. We investigate the reasons for this from a cultural, particularly psychoanalytic, perspective – one that sees hierarchy's perpetuation not in terms of the efficacy of its instrumental potential, but rather in the values that are culturally sedimented within it. We argue that hierarchy reflects longings for a pure heavenly order that can never be attained yet remains appealing as a cultural fantasy psychologically gripping individuals in its beatific vision. To tease out this cultural logic we examine two representations of it in popular culture – the U.S. television comedy The Office (2005–) and comedian Will Farrell's impersonation of George W. Bush (2009). These examples illustrate the strength of bureaucratic hierarchy as an affective cultural ideal that retains its appeal even whilst being continually the subject of derision. We suggest that this cultural ideal is structured through a ‘fantasmatic narrative’ revolving around the desire for a spiritualized sense of sovereignty; a desire that is always undermined yet reinforced by its failures to manifest itself concretely in practice. Our central contribution is in relating hierarchy to sovereignty, suggesting that hierarchy persists because of an unquenched and unquenchable desire for spiritual perfection not only amongst leaders, but also amongst those they lead.

Within hierarchical relationships, subordinates are expected to obey the existing order and to function well. Their deviance or organisational misbehaviour is usually regarded negatively and as a threat to the system. However, there seems to be a paradox: Subordinates' deviance and (occasional) misbehaviour does not threaten organisational hierarchy but often re-establishes or even strengthens hierarchical order even though it challenges it. In itself, this phenomenon is quite self-evident. What is less clear is when exactly subordinates' deviance might contribute to the (further) stabilisation, continuation and persistence of the hierarchical social order and when it might be indeed system threatening. For interrogating the specific conditions and consequences of subordinates' deviance within organisational settings, the concept of crossing of boundaries will be introduced and differentiated into weak, medium and strong crossings. The concept will then be applied to subordinates' deviance in the realms of social action, interests, identity and norms and values.

Drawing on the idea of bio-power from wider social theory, this paper will demonstrate how life itself (bios) is now a crucial resource enlisted by capitalism. To explain this, the concept of biocracy is introduced to demonstrate how the informal subcultures, social intelligence and personal attributes of workers are currently being put to work. All that Fordism once feared is now the medium of a new form of exploitation. But as life itself is colonized in ever more expansive ways, resistance appears once again. A new political landscape has crystallized transforming the old tension between capital and labour into one between capital and life. Its manifesto is defined not by the demand for more, less or fairer work, but the end of work.

This article considers a series of ways in which hierarchy is ontologically and politically opposed to flatness, particularly in the work of the artist Takashi Murakami and the cultural critic Dick Hebdige. It explores the attractions and problems of flatness as an alternative to hierarchy, but concludes that both are equally two-dimensional representations of organizing. Instead, alternative organizers with a commitment to anti-hierarchical practices would be better learning from the three-dimensional practical examples of anarchism, feminism, socialism and environmentalism.

Mats Alvesson is professor of business administration at the University of Lund, Sweden and at University of Queensland Business School, Australia. Research interests include critical theory, gender, power, management of knowledge intensive organizations, leadership, identity, organizational image, organizational culture and symbolism, qualitative methods and philosophy of science. Recent books include Interpreting Interviews (Sage, 2011), Metaphor We Lead By: Understanding Leadership in the Real World (Routledge, 2011, edited with Andre Spicer), Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies (Oxford University Press, edited with Todd Bridgman and Hugh Willmott), Understanding Gender and Organizations (Sage, 2009, 2nd edition edited with Yvonne Billing), Reflexive Methodology (Sage, 2009, 2nd edition edited with Kaj Skoldberg), Changing Organizational Culture (Routledge, 2008, edited with Stefan Sveningsson) and Knowledge Work and Knowledge-Intensive Firms (Oxford University Press, 2004).

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Research in the Sociology of Organizations
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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