Relational Practices, Participative Organizing: Volume 7

Cover of Relational Practices, Participative Organizing

Table of contents

(22 chapters)
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List of Contributors

Pages vii-viii
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Acknowledgments

Pages xiii-xiv
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This book focuses on the concept and role of relational practices as a way to understand, conceive, and study processes of organization, and subscribes to a processual view of organization that, since Weick's seminal book The Social Psychology of Organizing, has turned the study of organizations into one of organizing. More than 30 years later, the field of organizing has increasingly expanded Weick's interpretive framework of sense making, resulting in a rich palette of conceptual frameworks that vary between such diverse processual approaches as complexity theory, phenomenology, narration, dramaturgy, ethnomethodology, discourse (analysis), practice, actor-network theory, and radical process theory (Steyaert, 2007). These various theoretical approaches draw upon and give expression to a relational turn that has transformed conceptual thinking in philosophy, literature, and social sciences, and that increasingly inscribes the study of organization within an ontology of becoming.

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What if we were to take an explicit relational perspective on organizing? What if we put our organizational conversations and interactive practices right in the middle of our scholarly focus on organizations? In this contribution, I wish to document how the concept of “relational practices” can be formulated as a generative approach to organizing in emergent and multiplex organizational contexts. Starting from the main concern of developing “actionable knowledge” about organizing, I will compare and contrast a relational constructionist approach with a mere instrumental approach to organizing. Beyond the purposive coordination of the means to attain intended goals, organizing will be considered as an essentially relational activity. Actors acknowledge mutually meaningful contributions and, at the same time, mutually enact organizational membership through joint engagement in “relational practices.” Relational organizing is as much a goal in itself as a means to an end.

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One of the central questions to which organizational research has yet to find a satisfactory answer concerns the concept of the individual in a context where the central subject matter deals with issues of community, groups, social practices, and the nature of social processes in communities of practice. This chapter seeks to show the ways in which the apparent contradiction between concepts of the individual and those circumscribing social practices and social processes is a fabrication resulting from the ubiquitous, the deeply ingrained (culturally and historically), and the generally taken-for-granted understanding of individuality. More generally, the central problem would seem to be that what is taken for granted — and, in that sense, experienced as real and true — becomes, with the passage of time and changed circumstances, politically incorrect, socially incompetent, or totally drained of meaning. One only has to bring to mind the once-credible principles of lifelong employment in a given company and of clearly defined gender roles, or the traditionally sanctioned ideal of the nuclear family. In each of these cases, an axiomatic understanding existed, which was never questioned and which, at one point in history or in a given cultural context, was held to be real and factual.

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The invitation in this chapter is to see or remember1 what can be gained and achieved by turning our attention from a style of thinking and speaking that focuses on the “truth about things” and shifting it to a recognition of the contribution of our own cultural practices in how things come-to-be what they seem. We are invited to look at human social processes and the relationships of how things in the world get caught up in these, historical or current but always active, processes and in so doing create meaning.The point here is to arrest or interrupt the spontaneous, unself-conscious flow of our ongoing activity, and to give “prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily make us overlook.” ( Wittgenstein, 2001, p. 43 )We are invited to indulge a little less in the apparent “nature of things” and instead give a little more attention to the practices that make things happen and the relations between their inter-actors. Rather than having the relationship between “a directly perceiving mind and reality” as our primary focus we are looking afresh at those social processes that attribute characteristics to its actors and “cause us to hold beliefs.” We might call this “relational practicing.”2 I assume that the proper study of interaction is not the individual and his [sic] psychology, but rather the syntactical relations among the acts of different persons mutually present to one another….. …Not, then, men [sic] and their moments. Rather moments and their men. ( Goffman, 1982, p. 2 )Goffman richly points out the variety of ordinary, everyday ways in which people participate in social encounters and how they conduct the minutia of constitutive relational practices. Goffman spent a lifetime illuminating the relevance of the almost hidden inter-participant grammar in cooperative performance of coordinated meaning and structure and also had much to say about the practical relationships between the actors and those prevailing enacted structures.

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Modern organizational forms are subject to isomorphic processes (Di Maggio & Powell, 1983) that create a narrow range of organizational types. These types dominate discussion in the management literature, creating the impression that they represent the proper, advanced way to organize. As a consequence, critical scholars are calling for management research and education to become committed to praxis, “the ongoing construction of social arrangements that are conducive to the flourishing (our emphasis) of the human condition” (Prasad & Caproni, 1997, p. 288). According to this view, researchers should seek to generate knowledge of alternative social forms that provide options to organizational leaders. This chapter represents our attempt to do so.

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The social ritual of apology is highly nuanced in Western cultures. At its profoundest, it represents felt and displayed feelings of remorse for injuring another party and transgressing a central moral code. The felt regret is accompanied by a strong impulse to right the wrongs caused. The absence of such apology is taken as denial or devaluation of the moral worth of the harmed party, hence the restorative significance of a sincere apology. The restoration, however, is likely to be more symbolic than literal for a deep hurt, as the injury itself cannot be reversed. What is restored by the apology is the dignity of the victim; recognition that they should not have been treated in the way they have been. The moral and relational value of such apologies is nicely captured by Kathleen Gill:The apology is not a thing; it is an act that displays a certain set of beliefs, attitudes, etc. experienced by the offender. More importantly, an apology is not a mechanism for offsetting losses. The apology does not compensate for loss; it is instead a way to acknowledge the value of what was lost. ( Gill, 2000, p. 16 )It follows that this kind of apology implicates emotions beyond feelings of remorse and regret. It involves the expression of feelings of empathy and shame, the former placing the perpetrator in the victim's shoes, the latter signaling ownership and responsibility for having crossed a moral line — and wishing to do something about it. Yet what is felt has also to be performed, and convincingly so if the apology is to provide what Goffman terms a “remedial exchange” (Goffman, 1971). Acts of apologizing are in part cultural and in part institutionalized. In the traditional Catholic Church, for example, the apology ritual contains a confession of sins, plus an act of prayer or restoration to the wronged party. It once also involved penances, such as fasts, sexual continence, pilgrimages, or floggings.

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The idea that relational processes are central to knowledge creation and knowledge sharing is an idea in good currency (Bouwen & Taillieu, 2004; Brown & Duguid, 1996; Wenger, 1998). Rather than considering knowledge as a commodity that can be transferred from one mind to another, when knowledge is viewed as a relational practice, it resides in social interactions and is actualized in common practices that evolve within a particular community of practice (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999; Van Looy, Debackere, & Bouwen, 2000). Thus, knowledge is both embedded and emergent — subject to change as participants in a community interact with one another. To understand what is known, it becomes necessary to study how members of an organizational community interact and how their knowledge shifts over time.

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Relational space refers to the state and configuration of interpersonal connections within a social system and to the conditions that facilitate these connections. Where connections are strong or of high quality (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003), the relational space is vibrant and full of life. When the number of connections is numerous, and where their configuration is extensive and expansive, the relational space is robust and resilient (Baker, Cross, & Wooten, 2003). Generative capacity is increased by the extent to which people connect to think expansively through dialogue in vibrant, healthful relational spaces.

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This chapter was inspired by and tells of a conference experience. Most “ordinary” academics like me go to a varying number of conferences annually and regularly share stories of these experiences with our colleagues. The conference stories are about a central set of practices in academic work, at least for active researchers. However, it is difficult to find studies of conference practices (for exceptions, see Radford, 2000), and, in particular, their broader meanings to both organizers and participants.

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Europe's population is aging. Compared to the number of people who live with an acute, life-threatening disease, more people now live with the effects of serious chronic illnesses, and disability toward the end of life. Meeting both needs presents a public health challenge. Policy makers and health professionals recognize that these changes require a health program that encourages both inventive cure and care professionalization, particularly palliative care for those patients (and their families) who cannot be cured (Davies & Higginson, 2004).

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Technological innovation in context has been studied by economists and sociologists of technical change and innovation. I shall present the insights and perspectives from this body of literature (including some of my own work), in order to highlight the dynamics of technological innovation processes and the possibilities to influence them — by managers, as well as governmental and societal actors. These actors often work with a limited view of the complexities of technological change and innovation, and they might do better if they were to use recent insights, as I have argued previously (Rip, 1995). Thus, a further topic, visible between the lines of my main exposé, is the relation between the “theory” — i.e., insights from social scientific studies — and the “practice” of policy or action.

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The S–O discourse includes themes that have been variously summarized as “objectivism” (Hermans, Kempen & van Loon, 1992) and “the received view of science” (or “RVS,” see Woolgar, 1996). Others, speaking of competing “paradigms” in qualitative research, have referred to some of these themes as “positivist” (Guba & Lincoln, 1994) — a confusing simplification for those familiar with the philosophy of inquiry. Relevant examples include narratives that, for example, distinguish between individuals and groups and more “macro” units such as organizations and society in ways that are overly suggestive of concrete, separately existing “things” with their own defining characteristics (Hosking & Morley, 1991).

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In Bouwen (2001), René Bouwen discusses the case of an R&D department in a metal refinery developing a new refining process, only to have it at first rejected by the Operations department as too difficult and time-consuming to implement notes. Yet later, when it was reintroduced at an opportune moment in a discussion — occurring within the context of a task force established by the Business Unit manager to study new innovations — the too revolutionary new process was accepted for implementation. About this event René Bouwen remarks: “The implementation of innovation really means a ‘crossing of the boundaries’ between the departments […]. The innovative breakthrough can be attributed to a frame-breaking interaction […]. Frame-breaking thinking does not occur in isolation but as a consequence of close interaction with significant others who provide the necessary challenge and safety to pose a new framework […]. The crossing of the communities of practice allows for the new technological innovation to emerge […]. Only ‘interruptions’ in one's modus operandi create opportunities for new exploration of meaning among oneself and significant others” (p. 362). He then goes on to discuss another case, a second example from the domain of rural development in the Southern Andes in Latin America. Here, a whole multiplicity of different “communities of practice” (Wenger, 1998) is involved: a local NGO supported by representatives from the local Indian population, an international NGO, officers of the Ministry of Agriculture, local university geology researchers, the local water management authority, and social scientists from a neighboring university. Starting from the principles of “multiparty collaboration,” this last group organized a platform for all those involved to come together.

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Mary: To begin, I think it is important that we take into account some milestones in the development of multivoiced organizing. This will also set the stage for our extension into the realm of polyvocality. For example, we owe a debt here to work that René Bouwen did with Chris Steyaert (1999) on global organizing. They were among the first to promote multivoicedness in describing how an organization might be affected through the inclusion of many voices. They distinguished four metaphors that were useful in exploring how multivoicedness could influence global organizing: “building the Tower of Babel,” “dialogical imagination,” “polyphonic chorus,” and “strangers’ meeting.”

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References

Pages 275-299
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Cover of Relational Practices, Participative Organizing
DOI
10.1108/S1877-6361(2010)7
Publication date
2010-11-17
Book series
Advanced Series in Management
Editors
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-0-85724-007-1
Book series ISSN
1877-6361