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Postmodernism
Introduction

In Chapter 3 we outlined some of the most striking features of American pragmatism as a source of theoretical inspiration for management researchers. One observation of much of John Dewey's work is that he was passionate about helping individuals to develop the capacity to view the world in a critical fashion. In one way, Dewey's philosophy finds more than a dull resonance with those aspects of postmodern theory that also encourage us to think critically about the lifeworlds we occupy. Of course, there are significant ways in which these two bodies of theory diverge, but it is tantalising to think that there may well be a rendezvous between the two.

In this chapter we wish to explore the contribution of postmodernism to management theory. Unlike American pragmatism, postmodernism has an established history as a critical force within organisation studies. However, its popularity among business school scholars has not been consistent; indeed, to many organisation scholars postmodernism is a dirty word that signifies armchair theorising, monstrous relativism and pretentious posturing. For its supporters, notably David Boje (2006), postmodernism (after an encouraging start within the fine arts and then the social sciences) has splintered into different strands of theorising. As Boje observes, the ideals held by early postmodernist thinkers for reforming capitalistic societies have dissipated into vaporous strands of theorising. It might be argued that postmodernism has lost its momentum. However, like Boje, we believe that postmodernism is still a theoretical force to be reckoned with, one that has much to offer critical management researchers looking to develop emancipatory forms of research.

With the above in mind, this chapter outlines the most important features of postmodernism by making reference to the organisation studies literature. It is not our intention here to put forward the one ‘true’ version of postmodernism or one that harbours most salience for the critical study of management. To seek clarity within such debates about what postmodernism is (if it is at all possible to do so) might well leadto privileging some brands of postmodernist thought over others a prospect many postmodernists would shudder at. In order to avoid rigid classifications, we work up Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblance which purports that two objects may belong to the same classification and, yet, may have very few features in common if any at all. Thus exemplars that appear to stand in opposition to one another could in fact belong to a broadly defined version of postmodernism. The chapter then looks at what lies outside postmodernism before moving on to sketch out the challenges confronted by researchers wishing to engage in the postmodern scientific enterprise.

Postmodern times

Postmodernism is all around us. A trendy catchword since the late 1980s, postmodernism simply refuses to go away. Its discourse and mode of engagement have reached academic domains as diverse as music, international relations, media studies, geography, psychology, architecture, sociology, mathematics, development studies, politics and more recently organisation studies. For many commentators, the focus of postmodernism is on images, copies and other simulacra that supplant what they are supposed to represent (Goldman and Papson, 1994). Desire and unwavering consumption, the blurring between high and mass culture, and the time-space compression are all features of a postmodern world. Postmodernism has, according to many, altered the way we live, organise ourselves, interact with each other and so on. But more importantly, postmodernism has changed the way we think about the human condition.

The literature is replete with postmodernist typologies: for example, Hal Foster divides postmodernism into neoconservative and poststructuralist variants; Pauline Rosenau talks about affirmative and skeptical postmodernism; Richard Rorty about deconstructionist and bourgeois postmodernism; while Mark Hoffman splits postmodernism into critical and radical interpretivist postmodernism (all cited by Darryl, 1998). Perhaps the most influential typology in organisation studies comes from Martin Parker (1992) who suggests that post-modernism (with a hyphen) refers to an epoch of change that presupposes new economic, technological, political and spatial configurations. Postmodernism (without a hyphen) refers to a new epistemological sensitivity that challenges the status quo of social science.

Despite its proliferation throughout the social sciences and humanities, postmodernism remains a curious lexeme of essentially contested concepts, disparate ideas, obtuse meanings and political agendas (Darryl, 1998). Indeed, there are as many versions of postmodernism as there are commentators on the subject: Jean-François Lyotard, for example, sees postmodernism as a general condition of knowledge in the contemporary informational regime; for Ihab Hassan, postmodernism is regarded as a stage on the road to the spiritual unification of humankind; Frederic Jameson views postmodernism as thecultural logic of late capitalism; Jean Baudrillard conceptualises postmodernism as a sea of signs and simulacra that has killed its points of reference; while for Jacques Derrida postmodernism is about challenging the Western metaphysics of presence through textuality. Elsewhere, Michel Foucault sees the postmodern agenda as concerned with unearthing the complicities of power/truth regimes and the resulting subjectivities. Interestingly, the likes of Foucault and Derrida, labeled by some commentators as ‘postmodernists’ or ‘poststructuralists’, rejected these terms in a typical postmodern/poststructuralist gesture of refusing the imprisonment of paradigmatic classification.

Mapping postmodernism

As we have stated above, there is no single approach to understanding or capturing the ‘essence’ of postmodernism; instead, there are many different strands of postmodern theorising (Boje, 2006). Limitations of space prevent a full account here of each variant of postmodern thought. Instead, driven to a large degree by a pragmatic agenda, we outline some of the key features postmodern theorising might be said to embrace. As such, and in broad terms, we view postmodernism as an affirmative, emancipatory research enterprise that asserts the possibility of meaning, the importance of theory and the necessity of practical action. Six main features are crucial to this approach: fluidity, ambiguity, pluralism, literary language, non-linear progress, and localisation. These are outlined below.

Fluidity

Postmodernism shows an acute interest in processes rather than outcomes. In other words, in organising rather than organisation. As such, it views organisational reality as constantly being in the making, on the way to being constituted, rather than something static and observable at a glance. Postmodernism calls attention to the fluid and slippery nature of the processes that go into the making of organisational reality. Organisations are no longer seen as collections of stable and static entities (people, material resources, ideologies and so on) but as shifting networks in a permanent state of flux and transformation. Postmodernism also posits the end of the strong, stable, coherent and unified subject. Individuals have multiple, fluid, contradictory identities: particular identities take precedence over others, as individuals go in and out of various allegiances and groups. For example, Fournier and Kelemen's (2001) study of a women's learning set explores the fluidity of the identity work performed by its members in an attempt to temporarily suspend, re-negotiate and reconcile the incongruity of their dual position as women and senior managers. Here gender is not seen as a static category, something that is just brought to organisations; instead gender is performed, reproduced and,occasionally, transgressed in organisations (Gherardi, 1995). Thinking about gender as something which is performed rather than given (biologically or culturally) alerts us not only to the complex processes that contribute to constructing and maintaining gender positions and gender difference, but also to the fragility and fluidity of gender dualisms, and the possibility of transgressing them.

Ambiguity

Postmodernism sensitises us ‘to a universe which is not all closed and settled, which is still in some respects indeterminate and in the making … an open universe in which uncertainty, choice, hypotheses, novelties and possibilities are naturalized’ (Dewey quoted in Shalin, 1992). It demands that we become accustomed to indeterminacy, as any attempt to close it off is highly problematic. Indeterminacy arises from one of the main functions of language: that of naming (Bauman, 1991). To name means to draw boundaries around an object or an idea, by setting things apart, by including some and excluding others from the ‘named’ province. The very aim of naming is thus to give the world a clear structure in order to prevent ambiguity. However, the act of naming is ambivalent as it splits the world into two imprecise spheres: the named and the non-named. To ensure that the boundaries are set definitively, one needs an ever more precise name and thus the very effort to jettison indeterminacy creates a space where ambiguity flourishes.

Any attempt to fix meaning is highly suspicious and any chase for the ultimate meaning is riddled with ambiguity. In our quest for precision, more and more ambiguity is created. As we have already shown in Chapter 1, Kelemen's (2000) study explores the ambiguity of the TQM language in four UK service organisations. To reiterate one key finding, Kelemen demonstrates that while ambiguity could potentially facilitate managerial control to be exercised more effectively, at the same time it creates spaces for resistance. In other words, the effects of ambiguity cannot be predicted and known beforehand. Moreover, ambiguity is not only inherent in language, but also in material artifacts that organisational members must read in order to make calculations (Munro, 1995).

Pluralism

Postmodernism celebrates ontological, epistemological and methodological pluralism. The social world is seen as complex, multi-faceted and contradictory, and therefore no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene. In order to recapture as much as possible, one has to change position, mental gears and frames of analysis. Postmodernism encourages multi-paradigmatic and contrasting representations, which could offer ‘insights into the characteristic contradictions and tensions embodied in contemporary organizations’ (Reed, 1985: 201). Calls for devotion to paradigmatic unity are seen asperilous because they reduce the ability to combine diverse approaches and remove social science from the concerns of a wide variety of stakeholders (Kilduff and Mehra, 1997). Postmodernist researchers are free to apply whatever combinations of research methods they deem useful and are urged not to regard the research process as a timid adventure (ibid.). The use of multiple paradigms, for example, encourages greater awareness of theoretical alternatives fostering greater understandings of organisational plurality and paradox (Lewis and Kelemen, 2002). One of the most important multi-paradigm studies in the UK (Hassard, 1991, 1993) displays postmodern characteristics in the ways in which the author mixes four different organisational paradigms, various research methodologies and styles of writing in his study of work behaviour in the UK's Fire Service.

Literary language

Postmodernism questions the neutrality of language. It argues that the language of management research and therefore of social science is literary and can be interpreted like any other text. Postmodernists embrace the idea that ‘knowledge can only be produced in “small stories” or “modest narratives,” mindful of their locality in space and time and capable of adapting or disappearing as needed’ (Calás and Smircich, 1999: 651). Postmodernist stances draw attention to the rhetorical nature of management science and advocate the role of irony, parody and allusion in refining researchers’ sensitivity to differences and their ability to tolerate ambiguity and paradox. If, for many, irony and parody are seen to be signs of disengagement on the part of an apolitical, transcendental ego that floats above historical reality, for LaCapra ‘a certain use of irony and parody may play a role both in the critique of ideology and in the anticipation of a polity wherein commitment does not exclude but accompanies an ability to achieve critical distance on one's deepest commitment and desires’ (1987: 128). Lilley's (2001) study on management research funding in the UK draws on irony, parody and mockery to explore the role played by conspiracies in the process of knowledge generation and legitimation. Lilley examines the relationship of the funding and ownership of the means of production with the ownership and control of ‘scientific knowledge’, through a number of stories that surround his own involvement/detachment in producing knowledge for the Economic and Social Research Council, the organisation that funds much of the UK's state-sponsored research in the management science arena.

Elsewhere, Karen Legge (1995, 2005) points out that from a critical postmodern perspective, human resource management is viewed as a set of discourses. In a Foucauldian sense, discourses comprise of images, beliefs, concepts, language and actions (Foucault, 1978; see also Chapter 6). As such, the discourses on HRM are mobilised and (re)produced by its proponents to present HRM as a ‘coherent new strategy that paves the way to achieving competitive advantage’ (Legge, 2005: 351). These discourses not only justify the practices that underpin HRM, but also the harsh effect these practices have onthose on the receiving end (Mabey et al., 1998). Legge is not the only HRM scholar to remark upon the managerialist undertone to contemporary discourses on HRM.

Taking the Foucauldian notion of discourse with its links to power and knowledge, and employing it in a paper on the potential of Foucauldian theory for (re)analysing HRM, Barbara Townley (1993a) has created something of a stir within scholarly circles. Townley's textual analysis reframed HRM practices (for example, selection, performance appraisal, job design, and so on) as technologies of power used by employers to discipline workers. For example, in relation to performance management systems, Townley (see also 1992, 1993b) argues that the performance appraisal is a site in which a worker's behaviour is rendered visible, and their contributions quantifiable and thus susceptible to being ranked. One consequence of this ‘serial ordering’ (1993a: 529) of individuals is that they may be classified around ‘two poles one negative, the other positive’ (ibid.). In so doing, labour can be differentiated hierarchically along the lines of work outputs, and valued or discarded accordingly. Somewhat similarly, recruitment and selection procedures can be seen as practices that split, quantify, sift and rank applicants. In both cases, the power of normative judgement is exercised, whereby workers and applicants discipline their own behaviours vis-à-vis the hierarchical observations of appraisers and selectors in order to meet normative templates of the ‘ideal employee’. In these instances, individuals are positioned as disciplined subjects within the subjective realms of their managers and (potential) employers, realms in which managerialist concerns about worker performance reign supreme.

Thus, from a postmodern point of view, HRM practices seek to discipline, order and control workers, although these forms of government are imperfect. In the same Foucauldian vein, it is also possible that workers can engage in acts of resistance that can disrupt and even overturn the designs of management. In other words, the exercise of power is not a zero-sum game that solely works to the advantage of managers. Power may be exercised productively by workers as it can be by managers, though the field of discursive constraints that mediate the exercise of power in each case may well be different (also see Newton and Findlay, 1996). In summary, Townley's groundbreaking paper is a brilliant example of how critical postmodern theory has been used to rethink an aspect of organisation in order to denaturalise its coherent and legitimate appearance. In this case, Townley's Foucauldian analysis refocused HRM as the construction and production of knowledge that ‘serves to render organizations and their participants calculable arenas, offering, through a variety of technologies, the means by which activities and individuals become knowable and governable’ (1993a: 526).

Non-linear progress

Postmodernism attacks the view of progress as linear development. In fact, the more we know the more we realise we do not know, and thus we progress to an even greaterknowledge of our ignorance (Kilduff and Mehra, 1997). Management knowledge does not ‘grow’ according to some linear cumulative model: processes of double hermeneutics (Giddens, 1987) make such a scenario highly dubious. Within double hermeneutics, the first loop is one in which researchers study and interpret the organisational world. This loop is also characteristic of research in the natural sciences. The second loop is specific to the arena of the social sciences: it is that process where the subjects reflect on the research interactions and findings and change their behaviour in unpredictable ways. Thus the object of study in organisation studies is not static, predictable and coherent but in continuous transformation and is, therefore, difficult to predict. Postmodernism does not reject scientific advances but it draws attention to the rhetorical devices by which theories are arrived at, as well as to the social and political relations that help establish what counts as knowledge at a particular point in time and within a particular context. Knorr-Cetina's ethnographic (1983) study of the social conditioning of scientific knowledge led to some surprising findings: laboratory scientists were driven by a concern to make things work rather than by the abstract quest for ‘truth’ customarily ascribed to science and scientists. Knorr-Cetina concludes that the products of science are the result of mundane routines occurring in the laboratory. These routines obscure and, at the same time, lend credibility to the processes by which scientists are able to transform the subjective into the objective, the unbelievable into the believed, the fabricated into the finding and the painstakingly constructed into the objective scientific fact.

Localisation

Postmodernism emphasises the importance of the local above any globalising tendencies. The local may refer, among other things, to one's neighbourhood, organisation, region, country, ethnicity or religion. As such, it is a contested resource. Indeed allegiance to the local is by no means unproblematic. Individuals bring with them different expectations and meanings, transforming the local into a site of continuous struggle. Globalisation, deregulation and the erosion of the Cold War geographical systems have helped fuel new aspirations and struggles for local autonomy and assertions of collective identity against freely moving capital, jobs, people and images (Antonio, 2000). Antonio calls this process ‘new tribalism’, viewing it as a consequence of the postmodern drive towards cultural fragmentation, anti-universalism and identity politics. While we might be witnessing the resurgence of neopopulist group identity anchored in ethnic community, we dispute the claim that the nation state has withered away its utility, sovereignty and political jurisdiction (Elkins, 1995). For a while, on the one hand, we have witnessed the formation of new territorial alliances and the removal of trade and work barriers (within the European Union and the NAFTA countries, for example), in an era that seems to know no boundaries; on the other hand, we are being faced with more ferocioussystems for protecting national boundaries against those who are not seen to have the right to belong (economic and political immigrants), as well as more and more armed conflicts aimed, precisely, at defending the boundaries of sovereign states.

What lies outside postmodernism

This section explores what lies outside postmodernism by arguing that postmodernism is neither anti-science nor armchair theorising. In that regard we counter the strong criticisms levelled at postmodernism that suggest it leads to an ‘anything goes’ approach, that it advocates a wholesale rejection of modernism and that it has become the very thing it despises a meta-narrative.

Postmodernism is not anti-science

Postmodernists do not dismiss science. They simply question its production (and consumption) in a sympathetic manner. If normal/consensual science is at the heart of modernism, postmodernism challenges the neutrality of the process by which scientific consensus is achieved by focusing on the power relations that help constitute what counts as science at a particular point in time. In general, postmodernism sees theory and science as a constellation of perspectivist narratives arising from, justifying and reproducing hegemonic relations and identities of specific socio-cultural relations. This is not to say that postmodernists would abandon all truth claims and reject references to a reality external to the theoretical text, or that they embrace the view that perspectives from divergent locations are incommensurable and thus impervious to intersubjective consensus. In fact, many postmodernists (Calás and Smircich, 1999; Deetz, 1996; Kilduff and Mehra, 1997) view incommensurability as a modernist legacy and would urge researchers to engage in cross-paradigm communication and research.

If the project of modernist science is built on the myth of the heroic individual who, armed with objective procedures and methods of research, proceeds to discover the ‘truth’, postmodernism views science as emerging from the workings of heterogeneous networks of humans, material, ideologies and traditions that come together at a particular point in time within a particular context (Latour, 1987). Hence, the outcome (or what we may call the scientific product) cannot be known beforehand or indeed predicted and managed according to a grand plan. Latour's ethnography sheds light on the transient and unpredictable constitution of such networks and their workings, by making more apparent the ‘messiness’ of the processes that contribute to the production of scientific results in a laboratory. His work casts doubt on the rational character of science: the view that science is value free and the result of applying objective procedures methodically to the object of study. In a similar vein, postmodernists arguethat partisan values play a central part in producing knowledge but usually the results and processes are neutralised and described in a technical language.

Postmodernism is not armchair theorising

For many critics postmodernism is synonymous with abstract levels of theorising which bear little or no relation to the surrounding management reality. The postmodern management theorist is thought to be a meditative, contemplative and occasionally romantic person, who sits in his/her professorial chair from where he/she engages in theoretical acrobatics. Although we accept that some writings that are labeled ‘postmodern’ are indeed unwieldy and loquacious, postmodernist writing in management and organisation studies does not have to be abstract or garrulous, and is by no means anti-empirical work. In fact one of the most illustrious, contemporary, organisational ethnographies is an empirically-driven postmodern analysis of contemporary management practices (Kunda, 1992). Kunda's work documents the tensions and conflicts between the individual self and the organisational self, and the ways in which the self is the unpredictable result of personal and organisational contingencies coming together. Postmodernist research employs a plethora of research methods in an attempt to turn theory and practice into a site of denaturalising critique.

Contemporary criticism also asserts that postmodernism has no theory of agency that enables a move into political action (cf. Hutcheon, 1989). This is by no means the case: many management theorists are also activists who try to bring about social and political change in the worlds around them (Boje and Dennehy, 1993). In fact, many postmodernist management researchers care deeply about the social, economic, political and aesthetic consequences of their work. They view common opinion or ‘the voice of nature’ as cultural representations. They often work hard to challenge the neutral façade of management theory in order to make visible the positive and negative effects it has upon the way we understand and approach organisations.

For instance, Judy Wajcman's (1998) study is a fine example of postmodern analysis that challenges taken-for-granted views about gender and management. Her analysis draws on triangulated evidence collected as part of a survey involving male and female senior managers in five organisations, selected because of their ‘exemplary’ equal opportunities programmes. Wajcman also constructed a more in-depth qualitative case study carried out in ‘Chips’, an American-owned, multi-national, high-tech corporation. Wajcman's study scrutinises those practices that make possible the creation and maintenance of gender regimes of management, by investigating whether men and women have distinct styles of management and whether the experiences of men and women in senior management positions are different and if so for what reasons. Her findings suggest that despite a relatively positive attitude towards female managers, women are far from being totally accepted in senior management positions. The reason behind that is not thatwomen are better or worse than men: organisations are circumscribed to a ‘male standard’ and this positions women as out of place as travellers in a foreign land (see also Gherardi, 1995). As long as the rules of interaction in organisations are male biased, women will find themselves in the precarious position of having to constantly negotiate their position as managers and women. The study concludes that only by challenging and debunking such rules can organisations achieve success in equal opportunities programmes.

Not ‘anything goes’ for postmodernists

It has been suggested by many critics that postmodernism adopts a naïve, relativist, ‘anything goes’ approach. This position suggests that since there are no standards by which to assess which account is more truthful than others, one collapses into a position of endless pluralism and/or nihilism. Jean-François Lyotard's work is typically associated with this position. While Lyotard wages war on totality by celebrating difference and embracing local knowledge, he does not (viewpoints to the contrary) suggest that anything goes. In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984), Lyotard argues that no scientific discourse can dominate all others by making recourse to a meta-narrative authority to ensure its legitimacy. The postmodern condition presupposes the existence of many petit recit-s (‘small narratives’), each of them possessing its own specific, local way of representing the world. But Lyotard views the small narrative as the ‘quintessential form of imaginative invention, particularly in science’ (1984: 60) and the communication between small narratives as a necessary, albeit contingent, function of scientific action. As there are no meta-narratives to regulate such communication, this is an area where, according to Lyotard, a researcher has to be ‘active’, by taking on the job of the ‘philosopher’ and not just that of the ‘scientist’. In so doing, researchers should attempt to seek out new idioms which can ‘speak for the silent’, guarantee the conditions for ‘participating in conversation’, and write about the world ‘in the service of the unknown’. Thus, Lyotard's position is not one which invites nihilism but one which encourages active participation in deciding the rules of the game.

Postmodernism does not deny the existence of universal rules; rather, it suggests that different communities of practice interpret such rules differently. Knowledge, or what is considered to be true and valid, is a matter of agreement among the members of the scientific community and depends to a large extent on the sanctioned vocabulary, procedures and mechanisms of inquiry and justification. Scientific communities usually display a high degree of sophistication and complexity with respect to the rules and methodologies that have to be mustered by their members. Initiation into the language game of the community requires special and extensive training. Willful departures from established rules and procedures might be perceived as irrational, especially if they fail to produce findings that align themselves with the expectation of the scientificcommunity. Yet such departures are welcomed by postmodernism as they could lead to novel insights into the fluid, ambiguous and plural social reality. At the same time, they may also trigger the exclusion of certain members from the scientific community.

Postmodernism does not reject modernism

Postmodernism does not represent a total rupture from modernism. Postmodernism, as the label implies, is neither ‘anti-modernism’ nor ‘non-modernism’ but a more sceptical continuation and refinement of modernism. Postmodernism is a particular perspective on modernity and is itself dependent on it (Tester, 1993: 28). It is a condition that only makes sense regarding the extent that it is considered in relationship with the modern. Here a parallel can be drawn with poststructuralism. As we assert in Chapter 5, poststructuralism cannot be understood in isolation from structuralism. Like post-structuralism, postmodernism can never step completely outside of the modern heritage from which it must borrow its tools, its history and language in an attempt to destroy that heritage (Manzo, 1991). As such, postmodernism is the unfolding of the modernist tapestry; talk about the postmodern age is merely talk about the consequences of modernity (Giddens, 1991). Moreover, the postmodern is always implied in the modern, and its potentiality can only be realised in the modern (Lyotard, 1984). Modernism and postmodernism mutually define each other, with their mutuality being in a constant state of tension and difference. Any attempt to periodise the modern/postmodern in a linear fashion is fraught with difficulties. For example, Nietzsche's and Dewey's works display many of the postmodern features discussed above, yet they were created at a time when the whole philosophical establishment was staunchly upholding modernist standards of thought.

Postmodernism is not a meta-narrative

It has been suggested that the postmodern denial of meta-naratives is itself a narrative. According to the critics, to postulate the ‘death of the author’ and to uphold the ‘crisis of representation’ is synonymous with hypothesising in the modernist tradition. Postmodernism does not suggest the death of all meta-narratives. Rather, it suggests ways in which such meta-narratives could be resisted and opposed locally. We can turn to Foucault's thoughts on power and resistance for inspiration. In Foucault's work, disciplinary power is the overarching meta-narrative that brings and keeps individuals together. For Foucault (1977), disciplinary power refers to those techniques/technologies that make possible the control of the individual by others or by oneself:

Discipline … is a type of power, a modality of its exercise comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a physics or an anatomy of power. (p. 215)

Furthermore, disciplinary power resides in every perception, judgment and act, and therefore any prospects of escaping it are limited to both the advantaged and the disadvantaged (Hardy and Leiba-O'Sullivan, 1998). One becomes a subject namely, gains knowledge about the self and the Other by taking part in such disciplinary power structures. Disciplinary power transforms individuals into subjects who ‘secure their sense of meaning and reality through participation in (certain) practices’ (Knights and Morgan, 1995: 194). What Foucault suggests is that rather than simply complying with the demands of disciplinary power, one could manipulate, comply selectively or put up resistances against its practices in order to make discipline work more in favour of the individual.

The challenges of postmodernism

It is argued here that postmodernism has a great deal to offer to management and organisation studies. But management researchers seeking to realise its potential in that respect will be confronted by a number of challenges, as outlined below.

How to avoid orthodoxy

Postmodernism has moved from a rather marginal position only a few decades ago to a more central position in the social sciences. In order to retain its liveliness and usefulness, postmodernism must constantly challenge its own assumptions and search for novel forms of inquiry. Such novel forms of inquiry have to be empirically grounded. Many postmodernists would argue that postmodernism cannot be considered in a purely conceptual manner and needs to be subject to both theoretical and empirical criticism (Strinati, 1993). Esping-Andersen (2000) advocates intentional and purposeful empiricism, for if there is a microcosm in the making, one cannot identify it by trying abstractly to imagine a hidden Gestalt. A far better strategy is to examine empirically what is happening in the organisational world and to report it in a reflexive and useful way to wider audiences. The important thing is that postmodernism does not become complacent. If it is going to revive management and organisation studies it has to continue to disrupt, re-inscribe and re-think the world of organisation.

Emancipation

Postmodernist researchers should view practical action as crucial. Many management theorists would do well to descend from their ivory towers and attend to the unheard and the unseen. This is not to say that those subjects in a more visible position (namely, managers) are to be ignored entirely by management research. Rather they need to be inscribed with new faculties and placed in a more equal relation to marginalsubjects. In other words, it is not enough to study workers, women, non-heterosexuals, and so on. One has to study and eventually affect their relation with managers, non-heterosexuals and women (and so on) respectively. Some postmodernist researchers take an anti-managerialist stance by suggesting that providing managers with tools for understanding the concerns of the marginalised Others would in fact reinforce managers’ centrality and dominance. Therefore, researchers should not attempt to engage practitioners but should instead confine their theories to academic conferences and publications (Nord and Jermier, 1992). However, this stance is highly modernist in that it preserves the ivory tower of those researchers who are not interested in stepping down in order to engage with the immediate, the contingent and the local. Our version of postmodernism emphasises the importance of pragmatic action and the central role of the reflexive practitioner/manager in transforming organisations in better, more democratic, workplaces. Consequently, the role of postmodernist social science is to successfully adapt to the contingencies and exigencies of experience.

Playfulness

There is nothing worse than boring social science. Postmodernism reverses this trend in that it encourages playfulness in the service of inquiry. This is not to suggest that postmodernism necessarily encourages us to engage in play for its own sake. Play can never be ‘free-play’ that operates outside a zone of power relations. Our efforts at play are mediated by the constraints that exist within relations of power. This is to say that while play can be liberating it can also be limited in the form it takes. This is an important point because the postmodern notion of play within research has been severely chided by some postmodern critics. Playfulness within scholarly inquiry is a sort of playfulness of the mind that allows one to think of a subject in all sorts of strange ways. Put differently, playfulness can help us to make the familiar ‘strange’. Postmodernist writing in management and organisation studies can be playful, eclectic and, to some extent, exhilarating (Kuspit, 1990). But its critics view playfulness as a passive, reactionary position, one of letting the world go by like a play/carnival that has previously been scripted and in which the ending never changes. Others view playfulness as a thinly disguised façade that spares postmodernist theory the embarrassment of revealing its a-theoretical impression and meaningless nature (Huyssen, 1984). We, however, strongly disagree. Playfulness is an active project, one that seeks not only to gather insights into the world, but also to change it for the better by interrogating and disrupting modernist logic.

The place of the individual

Another challenge facing postmodernism is to redefine the place of the individual and his/her relation with structures of authority. Modernism emphasises versions of theindividual as being in control of the world or individuals being trapped by broader social structures. Postmodernism celebrates the individual uniqueness resulting from individuals’ ability to choose the structures that enable or constrain them. The acknowledgement of individual choice has seen renewed interest in cognition and perception. Individuality is the result of difference, requiring the presence of the Other. Being with the Other and for the Other are postmodern prerogatives of becoming an individual (Bauman, 1995). In addition to being a product of time, chance, and historical and political circumstances, the individual is also an aesthetic product, made of heterogeneous materials, relations and traditions which are put together by the self in an attempt to cope with day-to-day practical contingencies.

Summary

This chapter has argued for the relevance of postmodernism in doing critical management research. Despite the widespread suspicion within some academic quarters about what postmodernism might lead to (for example, relativism and armchair theorising), we view postmodernism as a vibrant body of theoretical perspectives that holds much potential for cultivating open-ended forms of empirical inquiry (see also Hassard, 1995). Rather than shy away from the animating impulses within postmodernism to shake up what we regard as taken-for-granted in the world around us, we embrace the insistence within postmodernism to re-think familiar ideas, images, ways of becoming and relating to others.

As we have stated above, postmodernism is generative in that respect it enables us to question, re-invent and re-imagine. It is not, as some might have us believe, an unconstrained playground for destruction. In outlining the case for postmodernism within critical management research we hope to have demonstrated postmodernism's potential in that regard, as well as the aspects that are prone to attack. Although the limitations of space prevent us from entering into postmodernist debates more deeply, like some other supporters of organisational postmodern inquiry (Cooper and Burrell, 1988), we duly sound a final optimistic note for the postmodern project as one that helps us to usefully examine paradox, ambiguity and contradiction within management. In the next chapter we outline one analytical approach that bears the postmodern concern for highlighting paradox, ambiguity and contradiction this is deconstruction.

Further reading

Though challenging and intricate, Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) is regardedby many as a classic on postmodernism. For a useful review of Lyotard's work on postmodernism and its application within organisational studies, read Jones (2003) ‘Theory after the postmodern condition’, in Organization, 10 (3): 503525.

One of the most influential and readable articles on postmodernism in organisational studies is Parker (1992) ‘Post-modern organizations or postmodern organization theory?’, in Organization Studies, 13 (1): 117. Another seminal article which explores the potential of postmodernism for reshaping organisational research is Kilduff and Mehra (1997) ‘Postmodernism and organizational research’, in The Academy of Management Review, 22 (2): 453481. David Boje, a well-known supporter of postmodernism, has also written a number of articles on postmodernism and organisation studies. One of the most useful (for its overview of the developments within postmodern theory) is Boje (2006) ‘What happened on the way to postmodern?’, in Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal, 1 (1): 2240.

Finally, we heartily recommend reading Townley (1993a) ‘Foucault, power/knowledge, and its relevance for human resource management’, in Academy of Management Review, 18 (3): 518545.

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