Postmodernist Organizational Theory – Conversation with Rick Martin

Peter:

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.

Rick:

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.

Peter:

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.

Rick:

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?

Peter:

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.

Rick:

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?

Peter:

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.

When the tide comes in – how we impose meaning on the world

I grew up in a town called Morecambe on the Lancashire coast. In my early teens like many other boys, I had a bicycle which I loved to ride and I spent many hours exploring the town. In those days there wasn’t so much traffic on the roads and it was regarded as a safe pass-time for a child. In my late teens I learned to drive. Everyone in the town who wanted to knew the route for the driving test so I drove around that route many times in preparation for the test. It included one roundabout and no traffic lights – it was a small town. By the time I was an adult I had a pretty thorough knowledge of the road system in Morecambe. It became a structure in my mind and a template for understanding all the other road systems I have encountered in my life – or are they all one road system?

A road system is a means by which people impose a structure on the landscape so that they can use it. Without the roads we would not be able to move through the landscape, of course. But, on reflection, that isn’t quite true. Without roads you can move through a landscape it is just that you are breaking a fresh path each time you go anywhere so the roads make it easier. But, on further reflection, roads are not just about movement. Roads are boundaries as well as thoroughfares. They mark the boundaries of land use and land ownership.

One of the things which I noticed about the town from a very young age was that it was socially highly stratified. Of course, one street, or neighbourhood would contain better housing than another and the value of the properties would be reflected in this difference. But the quality of the property was only part of the story. One street in a particular neighbourhood might have exactly the same type of properties as another street in another neighbourhood yet the properties would be worth slightly more and you could sense that the ‘tone’ of the street was better. How you could sense this tone was something of a mystery, perhaps there were subtle clues, like the choices made in the colour of the paintwork, the way the gardens were kept and so on but I could never pin it down. Since then I have lived in many towns and cities in different parts of the world and they have all been the same.

When I began to drive, especially after I had passed my test, I felt a strong sense of freedom. I could get into my car and go anywhere that I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was able to explore the roads further afield deep into the countryside of north Lancashire, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.

The road system is a means by which people impose order on the chaos of the reality with which we are confronted. We take it for granted as though it were part of nature but it is merely a human made system. It also meshes with many other systems of meaning such as ownership of land and social stratification. The sense of freedom which I felt was, of course, illusory. You cannot go anywhere you want in a car; you can only use the road system with all its rules and prohibitions. In fact, driving is much more to do with following a rigid set of rules about how you control the car and how you use the road than it is about freedom.

The road system, then, is not just a system of meanings created through differences like a discourse, the road system is itself discursive, a system of signs which have meaning through difference.

Morecambe stands on the south side of Morecambe Bay and has, in my opinion, the best views in the world. Morecambe Bay has the biggest difference between the water level at low tide and the water level at high tide that it is possible to have. The mudflats of the Bay slope very gently out to sea so that from the town the sea disappears to the horizon at low tide and waves smash against the seafront at high tide.

Discourse creates meaning but it has no easy relationship with reality. Its relationship with reality is loose and constantly shifting like the sea. It allows us to ignore facts which may be inconvenient such as the divisions between neighbourhoods but it also simplifies things so that we are not overwhelmed by the complexity of reality. For example, I can watch a car coming into a filling station. It follows a well-worn route from the street onto the forecourt. The car stops, is filled with petrol and then it goes out of the filling station also following a well-known route. Now we know that the tide comes in and the tide goes out but we forget that this is just a metaphor. We think that the tide comes in and goes out like the car comes into the filling station and then goes out again but it doesn’t and people have drowned because they mistook the metaphor for reality.

You can walk out onto the mudflats in Morecambe Bay while the tide is out and feel perfectly safe. The sea is long way away over there. Between you and the higher ground of the promenade is a short walk. No problem. Then the tide starts to ‘come in’. It is still a long way away so you don’t worry about it. It will be a long time before it gets here. Then you find that you are some way from the permanent shore line and that the sea is in front of you as well as behind you. How did that happen? The sea was behind you and now it is in front of you. You thought you were being sensible and watched the progress of the tide as it ‘comes in’ but it has caught you out. In fact, the tide doesn’t come in like a car coming into a filling station. The tide is a body of water flowing from a higher level to a lower level. The mudflats are not flat but undulate subtly and are crossed with deep channels. The tide doesn’t follow a linear route like a car; it is a moving fluid flowing from a higher to a lower level wherever that may be. It has happened to me. In my case there were no serious consequences, just wet feet, but if I had been further out I may not have made it home like other people who have drowned.

Discourse is the means by which we know things, by which we shape our world and how we understand our world. By being aware that discourse is doing this we can interrogate it, understand things better and create new possibilities.

How Discourse Organizes Sheep

Postmodernism is one of those terms that is difficult to define. It seems to mean different things in different contexts. I have been looking at the nature of postmodernism in the context of the social sciences and particularly how it affects organisation theory. For the purposes of this discussion I shall leave aside the meaning of the term in other contexts.

Postmodernism is a paradigm, which means that it is a way of looking at the world. In historical times there have been three overarching paradigms. In the medieval world there was the theocratic paradigm which placed a notion of deity at the centre of its world view. The existence of deity was not available for questioning because it was the foundation upon which everything else rested. All other questions followed from this in the form, “How does this phenomenon show us the will of god?”

This view of the world began to be challenged during the Renaissance and a real alternative was developed during the Enligtenment. This alternative was humanism which placed a notion of man at the centre of its world view. This paradigm became the primary one in the west from about the mid-nineteenth century. In this paradigm the question of enquiry became “What does this tell us about mankind; what use is this phenomenon to mankind or what does this tell us about mankind’s place in the universe?” This paradigm may be termed the ‘modernist’ paradigm.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the modernist paradigm became challenged by such thinkers as Neitszche and Heiddeger. It was developed during a period of intense activity during the mid-twentieth century by such thinkers as Bakhtin, Foucault and Derrida. This paradigm places the notion of discourse at the centre of its world view. This paradigm assumes that discourse is the means by which the world that people experience comes into existence. In this paradigm the question of enquiry becomes, “How does discourse create and maintain this?” This paradigm is known as the ‘postmodernist’ paradigm.

The characteristics of postmodernist view have been characterised as “becoming, formlessness, flux, difference, deferral and change” (Chia 2003). Postmodernism seems to be about moral relativism, uncertainty in epistemology, shifting meaning, lack of the possibility of truth. Postmodernists have talked about these aspects of the world to the confusion of most of their audience who find it all rather depressing. For example, there is the sophisticated and apparently tortuous method of postmodernist textual analysis called ‘deconstruction’ but once the text has been deconstructed, what then? Nothing seems to follow from it, no possibility for action. In this way postmodernists have given the impression that their agenda is nihilistic. This view is a caricature and presents a falsity.

Postmodernist theory has not been well developed since the flurry of activity in the mid-twentieth century and postmodernism has been undervalued. Though it was accused by many who were the most alarmed by it as being a mere fad or fashion, it has refused to go away.

These are early days in the life of a paradigm. A paradigm may take a century or several to develop. I suggest that the way for postmodernism to develop is to be clear about what the paradigm is and not, as has tended to happen, to try to answer modernist questions in the postmodernist paradigm. We need to constantly bear in mind that the centre of the postmodernist paradigm is discourse and the questions that arise from this are about how discourse works.

Immediately we run into problems of terminology. If you are going to think in a different way, you have to develop a language, and a battery of concepts, that will assist. We have ‘deconstruction’ for example but what about ‘discourse’ itself.

Here is discourse, there is discourse, far away there is discourse, in the past there was discourse and in the future there will be discourse. So what is the plural of ‘discourse’, surely it must be ‘discourses’ but it is all ‘discourse’. So, the plural of ‘discourse’ must be ‘discourse’. This is confusing. Perhaps where there appeared to be one word, there is really two words. But, what is the difference between them?

Shepherds don’t have this problem. Their flocks are out there in the fields, even when the shepherds are home in bed. Their flocks are an objective fact independent of human experience, as all modernists would agree. So, here we have a ‘sheep’ and the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’ even when we are talking about all the sheep in the universe. Is it a semantic accident that the plural of ‘discourse’ is ‘discourse’ like the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’?

But the shepherd, unlike the discourse scholar, has another level between this sheep and sheep in general and it is ‘flock’. If we pause for a moment and look at ‘flock’ we may find, perhaps, there is a concept that we can transfer to discourse. How can you tell that a specific sheep belongs to this flock and not another one? It may be to do with the field that the sheep is in, its geographical location, its point in history. The sheep in this field on this date belong to farmer A; they are part of his flock. Or it might be that the sheep are marked with dye and the ones with a blue mark in this shape belong to farmer A whereas those with a red mark in that shape belong to farmer B.

But, let us pause again. We said that these flocks are an objective fact yet they are defined discursively with reference to human classification. Now let us consider the sheep that aren’t in a flock. Well, on close inspection we find that sheep are a domesticated animal and that there are no wild sheep: there are sheep that belong to a flock and sheep that have escaped from a flock but there are no sheep which are not in some way defined by a flock. ‘Sheep’ and ‘flock’ are necessary to each other’s definition. In this way discourse organizes the universe in which we live and what appears to be objective fact ‘out there’ turns out to be a human construction ‘in here, within discourse’.

For the postmodernist, it is absolutely necessary to pay attention to what language is doing, particularly to what it conceals, to what it invites us to take for granted. In normal usage there is discourse in general and there are many discourses but the postmodernist must seize on the fact that these are two different words masquerading as one and reveal the assumptions that have been made. If there are many discourses, what is the difference between them? When someone says a few sentences is it possible for them not to be in a discourse, obviously not. If these words must be part of a discourse, how can we tell which one?

I would like to suggest that Foucault’s rather neglected and forgotten concept of discursive formation is what we require. Discursive formations are a kind of language game, each one with its own set of rules. These discursive formations are shaped by power which creates meaning by supressing the vast body of possible meaning. Discursive formations create subjects, knowledge, authority, objects and so on.

Let us suppose that an organization is defined by a discursive formation, certain questions seem to follow. What are the rules of the discursive formation? How can a new organization come into being? What are the relationships between different discursive formations? I suggest that it is these questions which should be used to form the basis of a postmodernist organization theory.

The Role of Authoritative Texts in Business Research

Over the past ten years a particular paradigm has become entrenched in the way that research in business schools has been conceived. This consists of the principle that empirical research is the key to all understanding; that knowledge acquisition is a cumulative enterprise where researchers move the frontiers forward one step at a time; that each research paper that is published takes into account the papers that have been published about that subject previously and therefore each new paper stands on the shoulders of its predecessors. Each paper has near the beginning of it a theory section where the researcher states what theoretical principles are being invoked for application in this study.

All of this begs a number of questions. The ones I want to draw attention to here are:

  • How can we be sure that all of the researchers really are looking at the same object of study?
  • How can we be sure that that with each of the small steps that is made by each researcher that the whole enterprise is moving forwards and not just going round in a circles?
  • Why, if the theory is a good one, should it not be explored at length and then used for a variety of studies?

Of course, lurking inside this research paradigm is the assumption that positivism is, if not the actual embodiment of truth, at least the nearest that we can come to it. (Positivism is a way of thinking in the social sciences that sees social phenomena as having independent existence and being amenable to the same kind of study as objects in the physical sciences).

In the physical sciences there is a fixed object of study which is the same for all researchers, like a sub-atomic particle or an extinct species and so on. Each researcher can take an aspect of the object and add to it. For example, one researcher may be interested in whether or not an extinct species of dinosaur had feathers; another might look at the geographical conditions in which it lived; another might be interested in its posture and so on. All of them would be adding, or attempting to add, to our knowledge of the object. However, social phenomena are not so straight forward. Whether a riot is an instance of collective insanity or a political protest might very well be a matter of opinion and there may be, however well argued the cases for different perspectives may be, no one “correct” view.

If the object of study is subject to ambiguity like this then it follows that different researchers will have different points of view and that one contribution may not take the discussion forwards in a straight line from the previous one but might take it in a different direction, or be completely unrelated. Researchers are required by the paradigm, embodied in the peer reviewers and journal editors, to cite other articles in support of their statements. This concern for citation has reached fever pitch and gone beyond its original, rational purpose. The effect is a tendency to make all researchers take part in one paradigmatic view of the object of study or, at the least, a small number of views. In a situation where originality and clarity of thinking ought to be virtues, they are labelled as vices and the overall view of the object of study becomes increasingly muddy.

The role of theory in business research might puzzle an outsider to this arcane practice. The theory section of a research paper is usually much smaller than the section devoted to the empirical research. There is rarely very much depth to it and it is very unusual for it to reach the level of abstraction where philosophy could be brought in to illuminate the matter. This bias towards the concrete evidence at the expense of the intellectual framework that is being used to comprehend it is surely a mistake.

One of the most worrying developments of this approach to research is that authoritative texts from other fields such as sociology or philosophy that are invoked are treated in the same way as the objects of study. Researchers are expected to cite other researchers in support of statements about what an authoritative text says. This is like privileging what the friends, enemies and acquaintances of a person say that his opinions are over and above what he says that his opinions are. It is not a reasonable way of approaching the matter.

There is a misunderstanding here and it is a misunderstanding of the nature of a text. Here is a book; it has size and weight like any other object. But, we are not interested in the book as a physical object but as a text and the text only ceases to be a collection of black marks on white paper when it is read. In other words, it is the reading of the text that is significant and the text is not a static object but a performance. Of course no two performances will be identical even if it is the same text and the same reader but at different times, or if it is the same text by different readers at the same time. For example, readers read with different purposes. A reader might read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” because he is interested in Foucault, another because she is interested in the penal system; another because he is interested in Foucault’s ideas about power while another might just enjoy the horrors of the early chapters. Any of these motives could be the basis of a different reading.

If researchers are expected to cite each other instead of reading an authoritative text afresh, the possibility of original thinking about anything occasioned by the text is banished. And, let us clear up a common misconception, a reading cannot be anything that happens to be in the reader’s head when he or she is reading the text. A reading must be justified at every point by reference to the text and only to another text if there is justification that can be shown. Textual analysis is an exacting discipline, just as exacting as empirical scientific analysis but it follows different rules – rules that are appropriate to the object of study.

If business researchers were to add the skill of reading, of textual analysis, to their repertoire of methodologies, the subject would be much richer and the possibilities of usefully innovative thinking would be vastly increased.

[For a discussion of the multiplicity of possible readings of a text see: Stanley Fish, “Is There a Text in this Class? – the Authority of Interpretative Communities”, Harvard UP, 1980]

Case Study: Services Marketing

This is a scenario for use in teaching services marketing.

Chain Hotels is a chain of 43 mid-market hotels in the UK. They are popular with business travellers who comprise 85% of customers. Locations are edge of town, motorway and A-road services and town centres. They are all company operated. Restaurants are basic with a limited menu which does not vary. All have business centre facilities, meeting rooms, wi-fi etc. Room décor is one of four standard decors. Any one property may use any or all of the four for their rooms but only these four are available for the whole chain.

Despite being a largely successful business, the hotels tend to have high staff turnover and suffer from a persistent failure to live up to service standards. There is also a problem with low occupancy at weekends.

Chain Hotels has recently acquired another smaller chain called Croft Hotels – 20 properties. All the hotels in the Croft chain are owner operated. They have a variety of locations: seaside resorts, provincial town centres and in the countryside. They generally maintain a very high standard of service and this was the main concern of the founder of the chain, though there are no properly defined service standards. The restaurants vary from property to property but are mostly high quality. Market research in the past has shown that Croft has a small but remarkably loyal following. Owners are committed to the brand and its values of high customer service. Staff turnover is low. However, profits are also low. Nowadays the chain lacks a definite brand image. There are no chain wide promotions. None of the Croft hotels has business centre facilities and most offer no wi-fi. Room décor is the decision of the managers of the particular property.

The CEO of Chain Hotels has recently been replaced and the new CEO is worried about the acquisition of Croft. She wants to take a fresh look at the situation and has called in your team of independent consultants to advise.

Your preliminary investigations reveal:

• Croft Hotels do not know the profile of their customers. They are probably a mixture of business travellers, private travellers and tourists but it is not known in what proportions.

• Croft hotels all have very high quality toiletries and cafetieres in all rooms.

• The Croft web site has not been updated for 5 years. It does allow bookings but the site is generally difficult to use.

• In the Croft chain it is the seaside properties that perform the best in terms of occupancy and profit.

• Chain Hotels have tried offering leisure break promotions to fill rooms during slack periods but have had no success.

The CEO of Chain asks you to consider these questions and report back to the board:

1. What should the brand architecture be? Should they be integrated into one brand or kept as two distinct ones. If kept distinct, should it be made apparent that Croft is under the Chain umbrella?

2. What can Croft learn from Chain? What can Chain learn from Croft? How would you recommend that knowledge transfer could be brought about?

3. Using the services marketing mix, in broad outline recommend a marketing strategy for the company.

4. The CEO is worried about the issue of charging for wi-fi. What would you recommend?

Why Does Business Need Post-Structuralism?

Business is a very practical activity requiring concrete solutions to concrete problems. Post-structuralism, on the other hand, belongs in the realm of pure thought. It is all about philosophy and point of view. Much of the business literature (eg. the books of Tom Peters) perpetuates the view that in business it is action that is important and that talk and thought are just things that you should spend as little time on as possible before you act.

I would like to briefly examines some of the assumptions implicit in this way of thinking and show that post-structuralism does have something of value to offer business.

The paradigm which is chiefly used in business schools is that of positivism; that is a paradigm which assumes that the social sciences should use the same procedures, ways of thinking and methods as the natural sciences. When a researcher has a question to answer he will gather evidence, examine it objectively and draw conclusions. This approach is perceived to be the one that will be of most use to business. This is the method that business follows, or would follow if it had the time; so the recieved wisdom goes. The emphasis here is on rationality, objectivity, measurability and reasoning from evidence. This is a view of the world that is based on the scientific method and one which banishes magic, confusion and arbitrary imposition of a point of view.

I think that there are two problems here. Firstly, business organisations as groups of people are shaped by political forces and rational argument based on evidence is only one of the tools that might be implemented. In my experience, in business being right is no guarantee of winning an argument. Secondly, there is a deeper problem: the problem of the validity of positivism itself.

The positivist approach seems at first sight to inspire a lot of confidence. It is objective and based on evidence which is, as far as possible, measurable. What it tends to gloss over are matters such as how the question was framed in the first place; why this question and not another one; who is qualified to gather and interpret the evidence and what counts as evidence. I am not arguing that positivism has no value, far from it. I think that positivism has a great deal of value in so far as it suggests a methodology but its use as a research paradigm should always be tempered by an understanding of its limitations.

The analogy of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics illustrates the point. If you want to do some research into the workings of an internal combustion engine, Newtonian physics will give you the right way of thinking and the right methodology. However, if you want to study the universe at large, or what goes on at a sub-atomic level, you would have to use an Einsteinian approach. Similarly, if you want to know how a business can best allocate the resources that it has right now, a positivist approach would be just the right thing whereas if you want to know how to fundamentally change an organisation’s culture, you are likely to find that a post-structuralist approach gives you a better set of tools.

Inside real businesses power, who has it and how it is used, is far more significant than objective truths, even where they actually exist. Also, the prevailing business culture lays down that action is more important than talk or thought – discussion or strategy. In this situation it is essential to understand power, which post structuralism is good at to make a convincing case for discussion and strategy so as to avoid costly blunders.

Post structuralism puts language at the centre of its approach. According to this paradigm organisation culture is created through language. Meaning and truth are not universal as they are in positivism but are relative to the position of the particular member of the organisation. Since social phenomena like organisations were created through language they can be understood and changed through language. Post structuralism has a lot to say about power and how it operates through discourse.

Whereas positivism treats social phenomena in the same way as the natural sciences treat physical phenomena, it is at a loss to explain the mechanisms by which they were created in the first place. Positivism studies what has happened but has a problem with studying change. Positivism assumes that there is one, correct, point of view which is accessible to everyone and cannot explain differing points of view except in terms of error.

Of course, post structuralism would be an overly complex way to look at operational business problems, a positivist approach is entirely appropriate to such local issues. However, if you want to tackle higher level strategy or fundamental organisational change, post structuralism gives you subtle and sophisticated tools.

Case Study Scenario – conflict, change and point-of-view

The following scenario is fiction but draws on my own experience in different working contexts. It contains elements of situations of conflict, change and point-of-view so that it may be used as a basis for discussion of these topics.

The Boundary

A man called Fred who is a bricklayer obtains a contract for work where he is to build a boundary which is quite long. He is not good at project management so he asks another man called Ted to go halves with him on the project so that it runs smoothly. Ted is experienced in managing projects so there is a good fit though he has not managed a project exactly like this one before. The payment for the work will all be made at the end of the project so each of them has to put an equal amount of capital into the project and the agreement is that the profit left over at the end will be split equally between them. They expect that they will have to spend about the same amount of time working on the project.

Fred begins work with a small team of juniors working under his direction.

Ted is not familiar with boundary walls when the project begins so he takes the trouble to read-up on the subject and talk to anyone he meets who knows about it. In addition, he looks carefully at any boundary walls he comes across.

After a short time Ted becomes uneasy. In the contract it does not specify what sort of boundary division is to be built. He works out that there is a strong possibility that a fence could be put up instead at a much lower cost which would fulfill all the requirements of the contract. If the wall is all built in the way that Fred is doing it, there will be only a small profit to share at the end of the project and there is a possibility, if there were unforeseen difficulties, that there could be no profit at all.

When he tells Fred about this thought, Fred flies into a rage. Fred says that he has 20 year’s experience of building walls and he knows what he is doing. He says that he cannot work with someone who has such a negative attitude and refuses to discuss the matter any further.

Ted persists. After all, Ted has a half share in the profit so has an interest in maximising it. Fred becomes even more offended and refuses to speak to Ted altogether. So, Ted brings in a mediator.

The mediator first speaks to both parties separately.

Fred tells him that his part in the project is to build the wall. He has a great deal of experience in building boundary walls whereas Ted has none. He says that Ted is negative towards the project but fails to suggest a better way of building the wall.

Ted tells the mediator that his part in the project is to manage the project. He also says that he finds Fred very difficult to work with because Fred will not discuss the project with him.

The mediator calls a meeting so that the two sides can settle their differences.

The mediator says that Fred has described his job as building the wall. Everyone agrees that this is what he has been doing. The mediator goes on to say that Ted has described his job as managing the project and everyone also agrees with this. The mediator says that since both parties are in agreement about what they are doing, they have the basis for a working relationship and they should get on with their jobs.

Soon afterwards Ted leaves the contract. Fred pays him the amount of capital he has put into the project plus a very small amount in recognition of the work he has done.

Points to consider

  • Do you sympathise with Fred, Ted or both?
  • Could Ted have behaved differently? If so, how?
  • How would you analyse the mediator’s approach?
  • How would you have mediated this situation?

Knowledge Cafes with David Gurteen

On Tuesday, 13th December, I attended a workshop run by David Gurteen of Gurteen Knowledge on the subject of Implementing Knowledge Cafes. I have attended public cafes in London organised by David Gurteen and I have always found them to be immensely stimulating so I was keen to find out how I could organise an event like this myself.

David describes how he came to formulate his knowledge cafes. He says that at one time he was involved with seminars that consisted of a ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentation followed by questions. Often the speaker would speak for too long so there was no time left for questions. After the seminar everyone would go the pub and just talk. David noticed that the best part – most enjoyable, most productive – of the event was the discussion in the pub and he wondered how he could make a whole event as good as that. He used the American ‘World Café’ as a model and adapted it.

The knowledge café has very little structure. It is an event that usually takes about 2 hours or so where 20 to 30 people meet to have conversations with each other. It begins with a keynote speaker talking about a topic. The delegates sit in groups of 4 or 5 people round a circular table or in in a circle of chairs. The speaker is briefed to speak for five minutes and is allowed fifteen at the very most. Usually the speaker introduces a question which he may do by, for example, telling a story about a problem he or she has encountered. When the speaker has finished the delegates discuss the question in their groups. After about 20 minutes, the organiser asks some people to move to another group and the discussion continues with people bringing to their new group ideas from their previous group then after another 20 minutes the groups change again. When the third group discussion is brought to an end the furniture is rearranged by the delegates so that everyone sits in one big circle. The discussion then continues until time runs out.

One of the features of the café is that the emphasis is very much on the discussion between the people taking part. Delegates can make their own notes if they wish but nothing is formally captured. You can get a good idea of how the café works by looking at the slideshow on the Gurteen web site. The groups do not have any formal reporting back which tends to give a platform for dominant personalities. However, there is no output in the form of report backs or flip charts to take away because the point of the café is the generative power of the dialogue itself: the output is in the heads of the participants.

The philosophy of the café is that new knowledge is created by dialogue about existing knowledge. This insight is a profound one because the effectiveness of the café often surprises delegates who have not attended one before. In many work situations this creative dialogue is impeded. Firstly, it is impeded by the fact that often people work in functional silos or because of accidents of geography or office layout they just don’t meet the people who they could benefit from talking to. Secondly, it is impeded by the fact that most conversation in the work place is task orientated so there is not enough time for conversation that might lead to innovation. As David puts it, “… I would put communication first as connecting people, improved communication and better conversations ultimately leads to effective decision making and innovation”.

David tells how at the beginning he thought of the café as just a better way of doing a seminar presentation, as a way to share thoughts and information. Then, one day, he went to organise a café for the employees of an organisation. He quickly discovered that the café conversations were bringing to the surface all kinds of problems and suggestions about how the organisation was running. Managers from the organisation asked that the discussion be temporarily halted so that it could all be captured for more in-depth discussion and consideration after the café and David realised that the café was an even more powerful tool than he had previously thought.

I had only ever seen the café in action as a public event. In some ways, this is the purest form of the café because the delegates are self-selecting and from a variety of different organisations. This situation means that conversation is uninhibited by the constraints of organisational culture and hierarchy. The main thing that I took away with me from the workshop was ways in which the café format could be adapted to use within an organisation. For example, capturing ideas usually gets in the way of the dialogue but sometimes it is valuable to have some sort of formal capture.

In line with the philosophy that in the cafe ‘the knowledge is already in the room’ and that ’knowing more is not as good as the group understanding what it knows’ during the course of the workshop some useful points emerged which were contributed by the delegates. One point was that organisational hierarchies get in the way of creative conversation which must be sociable to be at its most effective. Another was that stories may be used to break through taboos and that breaking these taboos could be very fruitful indeed. A delegate described how he had used stories about corruption in general to address issues of corruption in organisations he was dealing with. If he had broached the subject head-on, he would have met with a brick wall but by getting delegates to discuss stories of corruption in general he found that they became more comfortable about relating these stories to what was happening within their own organisation.

There was some discussion about whether conversation needs to be face-to-face or whether it could be at a distance perhaps using social media. The consensus was that it would depend to some extent on the culture of the participants, some people taking to social media more readily than others, but that face-to-face conversation is preferable.

Following on from this topic, David talked about ‘flip-teaching’ and ‘flip conferences’. The thinking behind these concepts is that people do not learn well from sitting in rows in lecture theatres or seminar rooms listening to speakers. But, they do learn well from group activities and dialogue with others. In flip-teaching the students watch a video on You Tube at home before the class then the class time is spent in group activities based on the information in the video and group discussion, for example, how to apply the knowledge in the video to a specific problem. Similarly, in the case of a flip-conference, delegates would watch videos of keynote speeches on You Tube before going to the conference then spending their time at the conference discussing what they had heard. Surely, this has to be the right approach, especially for conferences. I wonder if any conference will be done in any other way in twenty years’ time.

Some books were recommended by delegates and these included:

  • Levine/Locke/Searls/Weinberger/Newmark/McKee, The ClueTrain Manifesto – the way to look at marketing in the age of the internet
  • Lynda Gratton, Hot Spots: Why Some Companies Buzz with Energy and Innovation – and Others Don’t

I have read the summary information on Amazon and I shall be reading them both as soon as a have some free time.

The day was a very worthwhile event. I now feel confident that I could organise knowledge cafes myself. It was also great to meet the other delegates, talk with them and learn from them.

One of the things that struck me about the day’s workshop was that although there was a wide spread of ages and of professional backgrounds all the delegates were the same type of person. Some were from academia, some from the public sector, some were self-employed consultants, some from large corporations and some from the voluntary sector. Yet all the people attending were intelligent, articulate, analytical yet people orientated, pro-active and concerned to make things better. They are the sort of people who you would want to come to your organisation as consultants because they would make a connection with your people quickly and be genuinely interested in understanding your organisation’s culture. Similarly, as employees they are the kind of people who are the most valuable employees, the glue of an organisation, because they will always expect the best of themselves and encourage and enable the best from their colleagues. In other words, the people who voluntarily attend knowledge cafes are just the ones who least need to and the world needs them to take the café idea out to the people who really need it – which is what this workshop was all about.

The Three States of Money

At the core of most stories in the news media that have to do with politics is the issue of money. There is debate about its generation, it’s expenditure, how much should be raised in taxes, how much executives should be allowed to earn, how much pension people should expect in retirement and so on. There is an assumption among journalists that everyone understands the basics, after all, we all have a few coins in our pockets don’t we? But, of course, many consumers of news feel that they do not understand much of what they are being told and skip over the economics stories until they find something which has more readily accessible content. Journalists see their role as being disseminators of information but, in the main, they make very poor teachers.

 The trouble is that money is a strange substance though it is with us all the time. It is a bit like water. When water is cold, water it is a solid. Normally, we experience it as a liquid. And when it is very hot, it turns to steam and becomes gaseous. I would like to suggest that just as water has three states which vary according to its temperature and pressure, it is helpful to think of money as having three states which vary according to its quantity and use.

For want of more elegant terminology, let us call small amounts of money ‘Money 1’, middling amounts of money ‘Money 2’ and large amounts of money ‘Money 3’. Economists have the terms ‘micro economics’ and ‘macro economics’ and in this suggested classification ‘micro economics’ roughly corresponds to Money 1 and Money 2 whereas ‘macro economics’ corresponds to Money 3. I suggest that the three states of money model paints a clearer picture.

Money 1 is the money that individuals and families spend on an everyday basis. It falls within the limits of their income. It is the money that is used for daily expenses such as food, travel, mortgage payments and so on. The wisest approach to managing Money 1 is not to allow expenditure to exceed income. If it does, there is an extra cost which reduces spending power in the longer term. The time horizons of Money 1 are short and the amounts are small. The emphasis is on income, directly or indirectly arising from labour. Risk is to be kept to an absolute minimum and, if possible, eliminated altogether.

Money 2 covers a range from amounts required to buy domestic properties and small businesses up to amounts turned over by large commercial organisations and may run into billions of dollars. The keynote of this state of money is investment: it is money used to make money.

The aim of a purchaser of a domestic property in taking out a mortgage loan, in preference to renting accommodation, is to pay it off so that housing ceases to be such a significant cost and to acquire an asset which stores value and, perhaps, increases in value. For a business, Money 2 is an input which is used to invest in means of production which, in due course, generates wages and dividends – Money 1 – paid to employees and shareholders. Without Money 2 there would be no Money 1. Money 2 is money for investing.

Money 3 is money in such large quantities that its use affects the nature of reality. It is money spent by government. It cannot be seen as investment in the same sense as Money 2. In Money 2, for example, two commercial organisations engaged in similar activities could decide to invest similar amounts of money in different ways. Shareholders or commentators can then compare the effects over a period of time and make a judgement on which organisation made the wisest choice. This cannot be with Money 3. By applying Money 3 the nature of the whole situation is altered. For example, there was a time when the British Government was faced with a choice of building a tunnel under the Channel or building a bridge over it. Once the tunnel was built the nature of the situation had been altered so there could only be a theoretical comparison made. Governments cannot own money; they can only direct its flow from taxes into expenditure. Money 3 is money for spending.

The essence of Money 1 is ownership, the nature of Money 2 is investment and the nature of Money 3 is expenditure.

The fundamental structure of our society (capitalist) is tripartite. The terminology varies from writer to writer. We could, for example, use Hegel’s terminology from the ‘Philosophy of Right’: ‘Family, Civil Society and Government’. In this schema ‘Family’ is the realm of the private where people know each other and are mutually dependent. ‘Civil Society’ is where people meet as strangers, for example, to take part in market activities. It is the realm of business. ‘Government’ is where the common interests of all individuals and groups come together and its function, which may be achieved with varying degrees of success, is the maintenance of the common good and its realm is that of justice. We could make a parallel here and say, roughly, that Money 1 is the money of Family, Money 2 is the money of Civil Society and Money 3 is the money of Government.

I suggest that this idea of the three states of money is a simple model and easy to grasp. For example, politicians over recent months have frequently used the analogy that the British economy is like ‘a credit card that has been maxed out’. Now a credit card is Money 1 and the British economy is Money 3. They are fundamentally different so the analogy is obfuscatory and confusing.

I would also like to suggest that the model is helpful for understanding other issues. For example, social class or whether or not experience in business is useful for a politician.

Let us take social class. Everyone is familiar with Money 1. It is not possible to be a fully functioning adult and not have a thorough grasp of Money 1. It’s laws are simple: don’t borrow unless you must; save for a ‘rainy day’; if you want to spend more, you must earn more. However, the degree to which a person is middle class depends on their grasp of Money 2. If you see all expenditure as just expenditure you cannot grasp the concept of investment. Middle class people think in terms of making investments: in buying houses, businesses, investing in education and training. Thus, they are able, to some extent, to escape the cycle of income and expenditure which working class people are trapped in. Class is a state of mind and it is, essentially, a state of mind about money.

In order to understand how the world works and make good decisions about our lives, how to vote and how to plan for the long term, it is essential that people should come to understand much more about economics than they do. An understanding of the three states of money would be a good starting place.

The Snake in the Garden – the two contradictions at the heart of morality

Moral principles are culturally variable. In one culture it is bad to eat a pig, in another to eat a cow, in another a woman must cover her hair and in yet another a woman must shave her head, and so on. Yet these variable principles tend to be the least important, the least central of these moral systems. The hearts of all moral systems seem to be remarkably similar which is why it is possible for culturally diverse societies to live together.

Let us take the Golden Rule, for example: “do as you would be done by”. It lies at the heart of all the great moral systems of the world including its religions. The root of the success of all the main world religions has been their ability to extend the principle from being only applicable between people within a small group who share a genetic pool – tribal or national, for example – to those people who share our opinions, and onwards to humanity as a whole.

This rule is deducible a priori from the condition of being a social animal whereas the other principles mentioned may be characterised as culturally specific. On the other hand, the biosphere is by its nature cannibalistic: living things must live at the expense of other living things, even plants compete for space, light and air. In the natural world there may be respect between the hunter and the prey but there cannot be reciprocity. “The cut worm forgives the plough”, as William Blake formulates it. Within humanity too conflicts inevitably arise especially where groups compete for scarce resources.

Human existence is not solitary but social so humans need to have moral systems. But, another consequence of the social nature of human existence is that everyone depends on other people and therefore needs things from other people which they do not necessarily want to give. Ideally the survival of the individual depends on reciprocity and free giving but it doesn’t always work like that, and sometimes people are forced to be manipulative or coercive.

It is because of this fact that moral conundrums are most often not black and white. The real moral dilemma is the one where we have to weigh more than one bad option against another to work out which will have the least worst outcome. Parents tell children that they must not lie yet most adults find that they often have to lie to avoid situations where offence may be caused or more serious damage may be done.

A moral principle may be an a priori truth or it may be a cultural norm or custom. But even when it is an a priori truth the way in which it is applied is culturally determined and historically variable. Only a short while ago devout Christians in Europe thought that trial by ordeal and public executions were perfectly acceptable but would be likely to call them “un-Christian” in the twenty-first century. In other words, moral standards are a matter of what society decides they are at the time, and in other words again, they are a matter of point-of-view.

The other paradox that lies at the heart of morality is the illusion that all human individuals are uniquely valuable. From the point of view of the parent each of his or her children is uniquely valuable, other relatives and friends only slightly less so, but the effect tends to wear off with distance. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I care about the man on the other side of the world who assemble my bicycle as I do about a close relative though there may be reasons why I would not wish him any harm. For me, in truth, he is a means to an end.

Proximity in this analogy may be equated with love. On the subject of love Derrida says:

The difference between the who and the what is at the heart of love, separates the heart. It is often said that love is the movement of the heart. Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? …

That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what. The question of Being, to return to philosophy – because the first question of philosophy is: What is it “to Be?” What is Being? The question of Being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is ‘Being’ someone or some thing? I speak of abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone – singularly, irreplaceably – and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the qualities, properties, the images, that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.

Here Derrida identifies love as being an aspect of what it is to be conscious and human – part of being – and the paradox of valuing people for the value they have for others – trust, beauty, intellect etc. – or valuing them for themselves as fundamental to being human. It is so fundamental that if a person is not valued for themselves alone in the early years of their lives, psychologists tell us, the individual will grow up damaged and unable to take a full part in society.

This ability to love is uniquely human but it is part of the delusional picture we have of ourselves. Love does not exist yet we have to believe in it to make things work. It fulfils a function rather like i, the imaginary square root of minus one, does in mathematics. At an individual level we need love for society to function. Yet at a social or at an historical level individuals are not important. We all embody strands of our culture, experiences, thoughts and feelings that are also available to others. A loss of ten per cent of an army does not destroy the army and does not even alter its character appreciably.

Everyday technology develops and artificial intelligence becomes a more immediate reality. It is conceivable that within the next few decades artificial intelligence may replicate human intelligence and interface with it directly. Is it then conceivable that a machine might value another entity as a “who” rather than just as a “what”? It is not a mystery; it depends on how the programming code is written.

It is an important lesson from human history that a moral system that consists of a book of black and white rules to be rigidly applied is unlikely to be satisfactory and inevitably results in exacerbating the cruelty and injustice it was intended to avoid. Justice is a matter of balance and discretion and no one has the unlimited wisdom required to make it perfect.

In recent years the problem has become more difficult with the globalisation of trade and the accompanying mixing of groups with different cultural norms. It is a constant problem to reconcile conflicts between the moral principles of groups who live side-by-side? It is about to become even more difficult with an increasing impact of artificial intelligence and biological engineering, and the combination of the two, which will challenge all our customary points of moral reference.