Postmodernist Organizational Theory – Conversation with Rick Martin


Having given a lot of thought over the past year to a postmodernist organization theory, this is what I have come up with. I would like to hear any comments you may have.

  • Symbolic systems, including language = DISCOURSE
  • Manifestations of a particular discursive formation = CULTURE
  • Something created within a discourse (anything done by a human) = ‘STATEMENT’ or ‘UTTERANCE’
  • The world is in a state of chaos – there is order to be found within this chaos, in fact, order is an aspect of chaos.
  • An organism is a manifestation of order imposed on chaos at the physical level. The organism uses energy to maintain its internal order and to shape its environment for the purposes of its survival and reproduction.
  • The world is not directly knowable to an organism. Physical forces impinge on the nervous system which sends impulses around the body. These sensations are then structured and interpreted into a model of the world by organisms in a way which is useful to them.
  • Humans interpret these sensations a second time through discourse. Thus, there are no ‘transcendental signifiers’; that is, there is no physical force which acts on the body which can directly enter discourse.
  • The most important element of these symbolic systems is language.
  • Language itself is not a homogeneous system structured around a single core of principles but a set of tools developed as needed.
  • Humans engage with the world (and each other) through discourse by collectively imposing meaning on it. Language always already exists. We can only think about and communicate our experience, which is once-occurrent, using discourse, which always already exists.
  • Discourse is a social, collaborative phenomenon and is essential to human existence.
  • At the social level, discourse creates subjects. The word ‘I’ is a marker in conversation to alert others to who is speaking. In the consciousness of the individual it is ‘I’ who experiences the unique, once-occurrent experiences of the individual and these experiences are interpreted through discourse as ‘me’. Using ‘me’ the individual can interpret themselves as part of the world.
  • Discourse is dialogical. That is, it can only exist as a conversation –  the meaning of a statement cannot be known until there is a reply to it. When an individual is alone he, or she, imagines an other who he or she is conversing with (‘I’ and ‘me’).
  • At the physical level we are autonomous individuals, each with a unique set of experiences.
  • At an individual level, experience is unique so the relationship of each individual to discourse, and everyone else, is unique.
  • Humans are social animals and can only live in relationship to a group. The group is more significant for them than the individual (though their culture may lead them to think otherwise).
  • Each group of people is defined by a discursive formation.
  • A discursive formation is a language game (cf. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations). It is shaped by rules which define what is to be included and what is excluded, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. It defines a hierarchy, a body of knowledge and a worldview.
  • Discursive formations are shaped by power which suppresses meaning to enable other meaning. Power also creates a hierarchy of positions from which to communicate.
  • Discourse is dynamic. Each statement, or interpretation, is a once-occurrent event. Discourse continuously recreates itself – like water flowing in a river.
  • Power has a tendency to conceal itself. It does so in a variety of ways, for example, presenting a process or event as inevitable when it could be subject to choice or presenting social phenomena as though they were concrete objects (reification).
  • All discursive formations are susceptible to deconstruction. They contain contradictions because they cannot be all-encompassing.
  • Discursive formations enable groups of people to work together, live together and counter threats together – to be collaborative.
  • In a capitalist society people tend to participate in more than one discursive formation.
  • In a capitalist society, everyone participates in a discourse of everyday life which specifies ranges of moral standards among other things. Regulatory bodies, including government, then frame rules and laws which reflect these moral standards. Organisations, which organize people at work, inherit rules from the regulatory discursive formations. All organizations are defined by one overriding discursive formation.
  • The discursive formation is dynamic because discourse is dynamic (because discourse is dialogic).
  • Every discursive formation has a legitimating statement of aims.
  • Organizations can only be changed at the discursive level. All actors in the organization are involved in the continuous recreation of the discursive formation.
  • Contradictions which become apparent within the discursive formation tend to give rise to rival sub-discourses of resistance.
  • Power creates roles in organizations through which it maintains itself. These roles are for individuals to maintain the rules of the discursive formation. This situation tends to undermine itself because the individuals come to believe that their most important activity is the maintenance of the rules rather than the aims of the organization.
  • Western society is orientated towards structure and product which it privileges over process. Power asserts that control is possible – control over discourse and control over the natural world. This is an improvable model – better to conceive structure as the temporary effect of process.
  • The most important element of consciousness is the awareness of time, the movement in one direction through chaos. Western culture tries to freeze this movement, making process repeatable (or reversible) which it is not.
  • Change in organizations is usually perceived negatively because it is usually perceived as a means by which power is directed in the interests of managers and against the interests of others who have less power.


I like this theoretical framework very much; I think you have captured it all and condensed it into an accessible but powerful set of concepts/statements. Where are you going from here? I seem to recall a three-level approach or something that you outlined early on. Is that the map you are following?

I especially like your reading of Hegel and Foucault in the idea that, in capitalism, we are constructed in three distinct but overlapping discourses or discursive formations. This explains Marx’s notion of alienation: we are always already divided in/from our “selves.”  And it probably explains Freud too.


The main insight here is that there is something in between what I say, the utterance, and discourse in general. If there isn’t anything between the two then all truth is purely personal – which is, of course, nonsense. In between the utterance (or statement) and language in general is Foucault’s discursive formation (df). All utterances are made within a df and their truth is relative to the df. Without the concept of df all postmodernist (or, post-structuralist) theory is useless. It is through dfs that humans impose order on chaos at the social level.

If you look at Bakhtin, he wants to say that all truth is personal and that it is social at the same time. He invents something which he calls ‘translingusitics’ which is a discursive version of sociology but doesn’t develop the idea beyond the title. Later he develops another idea called ‘architectonics’ which is on the way towards df but is still based on the individual so it doesn’t get very far either. Nevertheless he was seeing the gap. Foucault saw the gap clearly and filled it but didn’t see the importance of what he had done. Now, the reason why he couldn’t see was because he was distracted by the need to get beyond structure to the process beneath. In other words, he thought that because everyone before him and around him had been obsessed with reducing everything to structure that structure in itself is a bad thing. Thus, he failed to see that he had explained structure and its relationship to process.

The trouble with philosophers is that they rarely think about work (except for Karl Marx who had a reasonable stab at it, given the circumstances). If any of twentieth century philosophers, Bakhtin, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze had thought about work instead of avoiding the subject, they would have been a lot more useful to organization theory.

My three layer discursive model of society follows on from an understanding of what a df is.


So, while language in general is arbitrary (ontologically at least), discursive formations are not, because they are a (dialectical) function of a specific social organization at a specific historical moment. And individual utterances are not arbitrary because they always exist within (at least one) discursive formation, are (always already) determined by it and can be judged according to its practices. The lacunae and contradictions within and between dfs provide the opportunities for deconstruction and change (this suggests that deconstruction has always already existed as a stimulus and consequence of changing socio-discursive formations: dialectics in Marx’s terms).

Is that right?


Yes, nearly. I think of discourse as being like a river – it is the same for long periods of time but always changing, moment to moment. The df is a language game, that is to say, it is rules. This is the channel in which the water runs. Utterances are molecules of water; they are subject to swirls and eddies within the stream but always within the banks. In other words, I want to avoid notions of determination. Bakhtin says that utterances arise in specific contexts and the context of each one is ‘once-occurrent’ or unique, in space and time. You and I sit on either side of a table and have a conversation, so the context is the same – but not quite, because I can see what is behind your head, which you cannot, and vice versa. So, each individual is a location of unique experience but can only articulate it through the collective, social tool of discourse – you can only experience what you uniquely experience but you can only talk about it in quotations.

Foucault is talking about structure so it looks as though he is talking about something rigid and deterministic but that, I think, is a mistake. The dfs are in a process of continuous creation, or becoming, and they do change over time because there is always a dialogue between the utterances and the rules of the df.

All dfs are unstable and open to deconstruction because they cannot fully encompass all that they contain. A df is a temporary imposition of order on a reality which is intrinsically chaotic. I think of structure as fictions – there are a number of important fictions which we depend on such as ‘me’, ‘you’, all organizations including nations and so on. I think that a work of literature is also a df – a different kind of df to a nation, for example. By different, I think that the work of literature can be seen as an utterance within a larger df but since it makes its own rules it must also be a df in itself. And, this is a characteristic of dfs: they spawn other dfs, just as a breach in the bank of a river spawns other streams. New dfs are continually being created by a process of inheritance, that is the new df inherits the attributes of its parent so it resembles the parent closely. New dfs can only be made out of already existing ones – discourse is always already. Chaos is always threatening order, undermining it in subtle ways and structure is always on the point of collapse.

On a broad sweep of history level, I think, probably, that the Catholic Church inherited the df of the Roman Empire and modern business organizations inherited from the Catholic Church – see Durkheim.

Individuals can take part in many different dfs. I think that it is a characteristic of modernity that people take part in many dfs at the same time. So, they think about different things and in a different way to the way that they think at home, and so on. One of the appeals of Facebook, for example, is that it nostalgically creates a world in which people have only one identity but this is a fictional identity which does not exist, apart from in Facebook. (This is why I can’t get on too well with FB. I feel that I have to turn myself into a caricature of myself in order to exist there). The internet is a technology of its time because it enables and encourages multiple personalities but social networking is deeply reactionary because it tries to reassert the fiction of an individual having a fixed core of identity.


So, are the domestic, market, and state spheres of modern, capitalist social existence dfs or discourses. I suppose they must be discourses within which there are a variety of dfs, or rather they are articulated through a number of dfs.

It would seem to me that “discourse” is an abstract concept: a discourse can be glimpsed only through the examination of numerous dfs much as the concept “table” can be abstracted only from examination of numerous individual objects, or as a language is an abstraction from a whole bunch of utterances. And, of course, discourse formation is an abstraction from a whole bunch of statements, practices, etc.

Is it important to note that discourses run across (so-called natural) languages? The discourse of medicine in the broadest sense, for example, is articulated in many languages. “Medicine” encompasses all of the statements/practices around the health/unhealth of animal bodies, no matter the language. Those statements/practices occur, of course, only within the context of specific socio-historical “medical” discourse formations. Some of those are within the domestic sphere (folk medicine), some within the market sphere (clinics, pharmaceutical companies), and some within the state sphere (ministries of health). And those all overlap and draw upon and influence each other in different ways at different times and in different places.

Does that make sense?


I think that we have to be very careful with the word ‘discourse’. It means so many different things that it hardly means anything at all.

I think that the kind of matters you are raising here are the grounds for a good deal of future discussion and research in a discipline which does not quite exist yet: discursive sociology.

Let us be clear: I am not suggesting a scientific hypothesis about the world as it exists ‘out there’. I am suggesting a way of looking at the world which might be fruitful and, I believe, is possibly more fruitful than the existing ways of looking at it. So, the first question is, “Does the model fit the facts?” or “Can it be adjusted to fit the facts?” and “Does it give us a fruitful way of looking at the world?”

Let us take your example of medicine. You might have a belief that the best way to cure a wart on your knee is to run around the house three times with your hair on fire. I would not say that this belief belongs to a medical discourse. All I would say is that it belongs within a topic of medicine and, probably, to a pre-modern df. If you take my three part structure with the discourse-of-everyday-life being the dominant df and the regulatory df the next in the hierarchy followed by specific organizational dfs, I would say that utterances on the topic of medicine, as we normally understand the term ‘medicine’ these days, belong to the regulatory df. (Foucault is quite clear about this particular point. He calls the regulatory df ‘governmentality’). The mode of production of knowledge in this df uses the technology of scientific method and it has official sanction through universities, hospitals and other publicly funded bodies and even has formal standing within the legal system.

I know that my examples may seem rather crude but let me repeat that this area of theory is in its infancy. Let me take another example. Here is a hospital. It is an organization and, according to my theory it is a df. However, I would say that within that organization, the organizational df is subordinate to the regulatory df. That is, a doctor, for example, is first a doctor and second a member of the medical team at that hospital. On the other hand, here is a manufacturing company which employs an accountant. For the accountant the dominant df is the organizational one. His first priority is as an employee of the company and second as a part of a regulatory df which is accountancy. Of course, a large part of the accountant’s role in the organization is to make an easy relationship between the organizational df and the regulatory df.

I feel that this model needs a lot of development. The reason why it has not been done is because researchers in organization theory prioritise empirical analysis over theoretical analysis so they feel that they don’t need to develop a postmodernist theory when there is, as they see it, a perfectly serviceable modernist theory at hand. This point-of-view, I believe, is a mistake.

I feel that you need to rethink your example of the table. Each df creates its own object which is the table. In other words, it is not quite the same table in different dfs. For example, a table taken from the workplace to the home is not the same table because its interpretation in each context is within a different symbolic system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s