Passion flowers in a neo-discipline

Organisation: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organisation, Theory and Society
February 24, 1995

The punctuation of the subtitle of Organisation bothered me first of all. The placing of the comma made me pause. Is this to be a forum for the consideration of "organisation theory", of "theory and society" or, separately, but in relation to each other, of "organisation", "theory" and "society"?

I believe that theory, as in Comte's view of method, "does not admit of being studied apart from the research in which it is used''. Bourdieu, Chamboredon and Passeron in The Craft of Sociology: Epistemological Preliminaries pushed this point further, and argued that the social conditions which make the process of theoretical construction possible also have to be constructed: "The scientific community has to provide itself with specific forms of social interchange.''

The editors of Organisation are confident that we are living in a period of change that requires the development of new frameworks of understanding. In a stimulating editorial, "Why Organisation? Why now?'' they quote Ernest Gellner approvingly: "We are facing a new situation in which the old polarities of thought can no longer apply, or at the very least require scrutiny.''

The editorial board is mainly made up of academics who have institutional bases in organisation studies in business or management schools and they are concerned about what might be "the central task for students of organisation in the closing years of the 20th century''. They are aware that one response in favour with academics who sense that their disciplines are under intellectual and social threat is to retrench and to circumscribe their fields of activity more narrowly and exclusively. They agree with J. Pfeffer that "Many researchers entered the field of organisations because of its theoretical and methodological openness and pluralism'', but they are diametrically opposed to his view that, "given the current climate", that that pluralism is now "downright dangerous".

By contrast, the editors wish to revive the openness of organisation studies and to use the journal in this endeavour. They argue that this will involve the location of an intellectual space that is "neo-disciplinary" and they give interesting details of the organisation of the journal itself that indicate their sensitivity to the organisational problems inherent in locating such a space.

Thus Organisation does not see itself as just a new journal, but, instead, as a motivator for new forms of intellectual and institutional exchange. The editors "emphatically . . . do not wish to remain within a framework where 'organisation' is taken to mean by implication a mere synonym for bureaucracy, or for business enterprise.'' This is a laudable aim, but it seems to ignore the realpolitik of their academic situations.

My fear that the venture is methodologically misconceived was strengthened when it became clear that one of the contributors to the first number had been asked to consider "Whither 'organisation' and organisation studies?'' and had been told that the editors were "looking for passion rather than caution, speculation rather than certainties, personal credos rather than academic distance.'' There is, in other words, more than a whiff of global brainstorming about the journal's approach - brainstorming which distrusts rationality and ignores the social-economic context of its activity.

The world and its organisations may need to be understood differently, but even a "neo-discipline" involves discipline. Although I share the opposition of the editors to academic retrenchment, they will, I think, need to guard against too facile deconstruction. Rather we need to advance by recognising the artificial or constructed functionality of academic institutions and of the "disciplines" which they sponsor.

Derek Robbins is reader, faculty of social sciences, University of East London.

Organisation: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organisation, Theory and Society: Volume One, Number One

Editor - Gibson Burrell and Mike Reed
ISBN - ISSN 1350 5084
Publisher - Sage
Price - £18.00 (indiv.), £48.00 (inst.)
Pages - -

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