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  • Mark 2:12 pm on January 6, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , critical management studies, , , humanity, ismael al-amoudi, management, necropolitics   

    What does it mean to talk about work as dehumanising? A critical realist perspective 

    My notes on Al-Amoudi, I. (2018). Management and dehumanisation in Late Modernity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 182-194). Routledge.

    What does it mean to talk about work as dehumanising? In this insightful paper, Ismael Al-Amoudi identifies a number of senses in which management practices can be dehumanising:

    1. The “oppression or denial of human flourishing” such that “we cannot be fully human in organisations and societies that repress the development of specifically human powers” e.g. “our capacity for instrumental, moral and aesthetic reasoning”, “our capacity to feel and express refined emotions and our crucially important capacity to act out of love and solidarity” (pg 182).
    2. The “dehumanisation of subalterns” regarded as”lacking characteristic human traits and are thus denied basic human rights” (pg 182).
    3. Those “dehumanisation processes” which involve “the replacement of human activity by automated processes of production and organisation operating differently from human reflexivity and sense making”, as in “humans being increasingly replaced by ‘intelligent’ machines and governed by information systems” (pg 182).

    He cautions that ‘dehumanisation’ is a polysemic term and thus these senses might overlap in practice. It is a term that can easily be used in imprecise ways which inject confusion in debates. Furthermore, it has often be used to justify what should not be justified and promises an easy sense of moral security. As he puts it, its “heavily value-laden” character is both “worthy and dangerous” (pg 183) but it’s one should persist with when the alternative is a technocratic outlook which gives no pause for what makes the human valuable. While the human is always open to contestation, affirming it provides a normative foundation upon which such contestation can take place. In this sense, it’s an important resource for critical social science.

    These are not new considerations, even if they’ve often been framed in terms of other than dehumanisation. Weber’s account of bureaucracy in which “[h]uman persons were increasingly subject to forms of rational-legal authority” both “in terms of limiting the range of legitimate actions” and “restricting human interpretations, emotions and bonds” cast dehumanisation in the first and third sense as the telos of bureaucracy (pg 185). Virtues like “efficiency, calculability, predictability and control”, the “fundamental tenants of professional management and science”, found their origin in bureaucracy with all their dehumanising consequences. However what has changed, suggests Al-Amoudi, is the concern of management to obfuscate this process and mask its consequences.

    He goes on to consider how declining employment security then the decline of the welfare state have contributed to a situation in which “it becomes impossible to formulate coherent life projects” where increasing numbers of young people “have so little certainty a few years ahead about their social and economic conditions that they are unable to start a family or even make meaningful friendships” (pg 187). Even those who have a job might feel it shouldn’t exist, as in David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’ concepts, with all this implies about their capacity for fulfilment and happiness when work figures so prominently in their life. Voice and exit which might have been plausible responses in an earlier period are increasingly denied, with important consequences for the form which resist to dehumanisation might take. In some cases this results in violence which is widely deemed to be shocking, but this violence is a response to more insidious forms of violence which can be found within the labour process. He draws on Mbembe’s account of necrocapitalism and cites examples such as “workers in sweatshops, indigenous populations displaced and sometimes massacred for their lands, unjust wars beneficial to what President Eisenhower termed ‘the military-industrial complex” which indicate how violence at less exceptional and more generalised outside the global north.

    Al-Amoudi argues that attention to dehumanisation serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows us to distinguish between forms of violence which are ethically problematic and those which are not i.e. “when those involved in violence see their human powers wither rather than flourish” or “when it negates human dignity” and “recasts victims as less human than perpetrators” (pg 188). He cites the example of a boxing match here but I’m not convinced about the general point, as I’m struggling to think of workplace cases where violence might be acceptable. Furthermore, one could easily make the case that the warlord flourishes in his exercise of violence, even though it remains reprehensible. Secondly, focusing on dehumanisation lets us “examine the social conditions of such violence and, when appropriate, to criticise them” (pg 188). He then moves onto a prospective mode to consider what ‘smart technologies’ might mean for dehumanisation, asking a number of important questions:

    1. Who will own the robots in the factories and the algorithms upon which our devices depend? What new forms of exclusion and subalternity will develop?
    2. What effect will increased workplace competition driven by smart technology have on our willingness to accept technological enhancement of human beings? What human powers might be extended and which might be lost?
    3. What inequalities will develop between humans and transhumans? What forms of organisation could help mitigate these inequalities?
    4. How will our interactions with robots change how we interact with other humans?
    5. What threshold will machines have to reach in exhibiting signs of humanity for us to be willing to respect their rights?

    One crucial theme in the chapter is the relationship between management studies and management practice. He cautions that “the vast majority of management and organisational studies to date ignore the historically contingent cultural and social structures within which managerial groups operate” producing  “an historical vision of human organisations” and a “dangerous fantasy of humanity without without a history” (pg 190).

  • Mark 7:22 pm on April 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , atari, , management, , ,   

    Why would senior managers feel contemptuous of their expert staff? 

    At various points in the last few months, I’ve seen the claim made that the senior management of universities hold their staff in contempt. A claim like this can’t help but be polemic and I’m not sure how helpful it would be to examine the particular cases if we’re interested in addressing the broader question: why might managers come to feel contemptuous of their expert staff?

    From the perspective of higher education, it would be interesting to consider prima facie examples of such contempt in other sectors. This is one I stumbled across in Trouble Makers, by Leslie Berlin, describing the tensions in Atari after a new CEO took over the company and open hostilities broke out between developers and management. From pg 277:

    The programmers had asked Ray Kassar for a pay raise or a bonus, as well as recognition as the games’ authors on the cartridges. (Already some designers had taken to hiding their initials as “Easter eggs” in secret rooms that players could discover in the games themselves.) Kassar allegedly responded that the game programmer was no more essential to the company’s success than was the line worker who put the cartridge in a box.

    From pg 278:

    Even with the higher pay, many on the engineering side felt that Kassar and the managers he hired did not appreciate their ideas or their work. Kassar gave an interview in which he called the technical minds behind the games “superstars” but also “high-strung prima donnas.” Many programmers felt the jab was a closer approximation of Kassar’s real feelings.

    The case suggests a clear message to me: management can view the self-proclaimed expertise of staff as a ludicrous conceit on the part of a group who are just one feature of an organisational chart, with their capacity to exert themselves and demand respect provoking resentment on the part of a management who have their sense of autonomy challenged by this. How far away from higher education is this?

  • Mark 9:12 am on June 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , management, , , ,   

    On the Spiralists 

    In a recent editorial in Current Sociology, Michael Burawoy warns about what he describes as the ascent of the spiralists. He finds these figures throughout the UC Berekely administration, accusing them of being “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. There are naive spiralists and experienced spiralists but between them they are transforming the university system:

    Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

    Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

    His analysis of the spiralists is heavily focused upon higher education:

    Spiralism is not a function of pathological individuals but of an executive class who conceive of themselves as visionary innovators with new financial models, traversing the globe in search of  private investors while complaining about recalcitrant legislatures and conservative faculty. They  blame everyone but themselves for the plight of the university.

    However I think the concept has a broader purchase than this. Reading the recent account of Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign, Shattered, I was struck by how many of the key figures could be seen as spiralists in this sense. In their concern for their own advancement, seeing the campaign in terms of opportunities to position themselves for their next job, the possibility for collective purpose  amongst the top operatives was fatally undermined.

    It’s a descriptively rich concept but it’s also an explanatory one. How does the concentration of spiralists shape organisational outcomes? Under what conditions will spiralists be attracted to organisations? Can certain sorts of organisations ever redeem and transform spiralists? The editorial Burawoy offers doesn’t delve into these questions but the concept he offers is a potentially powerful one. 

    It could be read superficially as an implied contrast between instrumental rationality and value rationality. But I think it’s more subtle than that. It points to particular intended and actual trajectories through organisations, opening up the relations between spiralists and their unintended consequences for the spiralists themselves and the organisations they work within.

    • Dave Ashelman 2:22 pm on June 3, 2017 Permalink

      Being a fan of Burawoy, I’ve read the article, but come with a quite different take-away that is deeper than, and predates ideas of rationality. What Burawoy describes is nothing new – it started in the 1940s at the University of Chicago (more on that in a minute), and has the fingerprints of neoliberalism written all over it. Neoliberalism is of course, rooted primarily in utilitarianism vis-a-vis Hayek, Friedman, von Mises, and Karl Popper.

      Perhaps you meant to say that Burawoy essay is “exploratory” rather than “explanatory.” You bring up some very relevant and interesting questions that come out of the Burawoy essay, which by itself suggests an exploratory angle. I do not feel that Burawoy essay “explains” anything, especially in the backdrop of utilitarian neoliberalism versus post-modern anti-truth. Burawoy does however, describe a lot, and gives us a lot of “red meat” to chew on, especially in (Burawoy fashion) in the idea of academic self-reflection.

      In the late 1940s, no one wanted to publish Hayek’s manifesto: “The Road to Serfdom.” Milton Friedman, being at the University of Chicago, convinced the university to publish the book, which it did. The sensation that Hayek’s manifesto became to utilitarians put the University of Chicago at the center of the Economic and neoliberal universe. The University of Chicago even sponsored a TV show hosted by Friedman at a time when neoliberal thought was still on the fringes. Other universities caught on to this “branding,” including the Collège de France who sponsored TV debates featuring Foucault.

      Enter the post-modern anti-truth, where just like utilitarians, social moral values (along with “truth”) no longer existed, which had been a prerequisite for social justice. Social justice just became another regime of power. “Branding” for universities became more important that moral values of what the academy was supposed to be in lieu of profits, in trading regimes of administrative power for academic power. It didn’t matter – “branding” made both the neoliberals happy and the post-modernists happy. This is a philosophical difference that goes well beyond “rationality” theory, and dives into the fundamental philosophy of the social institution of the academy.

      Your contrast with the Clinton campaign is fitting. However, I would also argue that the same conditions exist(ed) for Trump; where people are engaged in that administration for their own (utilitarian) career advancements. There’s no question that neoliberals existed in both Clinton and Trump. I would also argue that post-modernists (as embodied in anti-truth) also exist in both camps. Recent examples of Trump’s climate denial, along with Clinton’s (and staff) complete inability to engage in self-reflection point to not only neoliberal fingerprints, but post-modern ones as well.

      The fundamental question I found in your post, as well as Burawoy’s essay are these: Can we redeem the seeking of truth as a fundamental moral mission of the Academy? If Sociology can engage the publics as Burawoy suggested, can we do so beyond making the public little more than a euphemism without the existence of truth? Can we re-engage the idea of cultural morals of the academy that were abandoned, that make “spiralists” not even want to engage the academy in the first place? Can we, as academics change the culture that we (the academy) have created? Are we even capable of that kind of self-reflection?

      Burawoy’s essay on creating a public sociology was met with fanfare, and rightly so. The result was that Sociology still hasn’t engaged the publics. As this Sociological Review article points out: “…public sociology has, to this day, amounted to little more than a mere rhetorical gesture or a self-righteous posture…”


      I fear that Burawoy’s latest foray into academic self-refliction will meet a similar fate.

    • Mark 4:43 pm on June 11, 2017 Permalink

      Yep I agree with that, in fact we’re in the early stages of writing a book together on that very topic. I’m increasingly cold about lofty rhetoric of ‘truth seeking’: I think it romanticises what academics do, effectively a form of knowledge world and disguises the realities of academic labour… I think Burawoy would argue the spiralists concept is meant in an organisational sense, reflecting certain power positions within the university and how they’re mutually reinforcing, to be resisted through collective action rather than suffocated out of existence through moral uplift. Though of course the two things aren’t necessarily opposed in practice.

    • Dave Ashelman 4:38 pm on June 19, 2017 Permalink

      I came back to the academy in old age (I’m 50 now), and with old age comes cynicism – especially after a few degrees (including Economics) and 20 years experience in board rooms of Fortune 500 companies. I do not wish to romanticize the academy, nor would be foolish enough to think that “truth” would actually matter in the social sciences; “truth” is the realm of natural sciences.

      However, just because social science says that “truth” does not exist, doesn’t make it so. There actually are “social forces” and we actually have “agency” against them. International trade and Economy actually did exist 3000 years before Marx, and was a political force long before European Feudalism. The first common currency, and first common debt frameworks actually did happen in the Bronze Age (along with the first government taxation system rooted in Juris Prudence).

      These are examples of the kind of “truths” I’m talking about for the social sciences in the academy. For Canadian Sociology, there is no economy before Marx, and (à-la Foucault) there is no history before the European nation-state. In American Sociology, there can be no new theory without it first being couched in old theory after 1898 (an oxymoron and paradox); completely ignoring anything that isn’t European or American. At the end of the day, we just all end up attacking each other’s theories through the presentation of half-truths and falsehoods.

      So when I say “truth,” I don’t mean it in some abstract, romanticized sense; I mean “truth” empirically. Seeking the truth empirically is what both natural and social science have in common, and used to be the mission of the academy. Research funding in search for “empirical truth” still goes to the Universities. Graduate students still research with their professors in search of “truth” – empirical truth (both qualitative and quantitative).

      It’s my concern that because empiricism no longer matters, either in the academy of “spiralists” or in the general public. Society today is a place where all truth is made up and the facts don’t matter. If we (as academics) are not going to be concerned with empirical “truth,” then who will in our society? There’s literally no one left to explore and search for empirical truth in today’s political climate. I could be wrong (that’s been known to happen form time to time), but I don’t see the search for empirical truth (either social or natural) to be romanticizing. I do however, see it as important in our society, and we (as academics) need to be self-reflective enough to examine how we came to end looking for it; even if it’s a “historical sociology.”

    • Mark 8:18 pm on June 19, 2017 Permalink

      Oh ok I see where you’re coming from and we’re largely in agreement. Why frame it in terms of ‘cultural ideals’ though? As opposed to the practical activity of social inquiry?

  • Mark 10:21 am on February 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , management, , , , , ,   

    Liberating discretionary effort by robbing your staff of a personal life 

    There’s an interesting extract in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, concerning discretionary effort: what could your employees do if they were properly motivated? I’m fascinated by this concept because of its open-ended character. Once one begins to think like this, it’s always possible to imagine your employees doing more. The full actualisation of discretionary effort is a vanishing point and this creates a space in which bullshit thrives: lionising managers for successfully robbing you of a life outside work, as well as all manner of motivational idiocy with little discernible relation to outcomes. From loc 2498:

    Kalanick simply directed his team to work harder. “Never ask the question ‘Can it be done?’ ” he was fond of saying at the time, recalls one employee. “Only question how it can be done.” Kalanick left for LeWeb but stayed in touch from his hotel room over Skype video chat, his disembodied head still a loud, demanding presence in the office. Everyone was working around the clock, on little sleep and ebbing patience. “Someone turn Travis off!” yelled the new chief of product, a former Google manager named Mina Radhakrishnan, when Kalanick berated them for not having the service ready in Paris on time. Conrad Whelan, the company’s first engineer, recalls spending every day in the office, from 7: 30 a.m. to midnight, including weekends, for three weeks straight before the Paris launch. “This is the biggest thing I will say about Travis,” he told me years later. “He came to us and said, ‘Look, we are internationalizing and launching in Paris,’ and every single engineer was saying, ‘That is not possible, there is so much work, we will never be able to do it.’ But we got it done. It wasn’t perfect. But that was one of those moments where I was like, ‘This Travis guy, he is really showing us what is possible.’ ”

  • Mark 8:57 am on January 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , management   

    The Importance of Business Culture 

    From One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 1787:

    It is worth examining the way business talk about itself, the fantasies it spins, the role it writes for itself in our lives. It is important to pay attention when CEOs tell the world they would rather surf than pray, show up at work in Speedos rather than suits, hang out in Goa rather than Newport, listen to Stone Temple Pilots rather than Sibelius. It is not important, however, in the way they imagine it is, and for many Americans it is understandably difficult to care very much whether the guy who owns their company is a defender of family values or a rave kid. But culture isn’t set off from life in a realm all its own, and the culture of business in particular has massive consequences for the way the rest of us live.

  • Mark 8:26 am on April 23, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , management, , , , , , working culture   

    “Please, sir, may I go home?” 

    An interesting snippet from Losing The Signal, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, concerning the lengths to which overzealous mangers would go during the early days of Research In Motion. From pg 39:

    One RIM manager became so obsessed with deadlines he issued an edict requiring engineers to ask permission before leaving at night. Lazaridis reversed the decree, but his company’s aggressive, need-it-yesterday approach fostered what would become a robust cynicism. “It got to the point that when schedules were made up I didn’t bother to read them,” says Wandel. “They were so made up, a fantasy.”

    While it’s nice this wasn’t enforced indefinitely, it’s nonetheless reflective of a peculiar culture of intensified work. The famous office perks of Google et al represent a domestication of this impulse: why would you want to go home when we’ve provided all these nice things for you? Add to that an element of self and social selection, such that only those willing to subordinate themselves in this way are likely to get there in the first place.

    But what was once a peripheral phenomenon, confined to the run up to deadlines and struggling start ups, now defines the working culture of much of the tech industry. The managerial culture this breeds can be toxic, as illustrated by this notorious op-ed about the ‘wage-slave attitude’ in game production:

    A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways. I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done. Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on. These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.


  • Mark 10:04 am on December 10, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , , management, , , , , ,   

    a taxonomy of corporate monitoring software 

    From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 1209. I wonder what ‘innovations’ have emerged in the ten years since this was book was published?

    There are at least five distinct types of monitoring software. First, there are what might be called “classic” monitoring products, software that embodies the Taylorist preoccupation with timing and measurement: How long do agents take to answer a call? How long does the call last? How long does the agent take to “wrap up” the call by completing clerical tasks that may have arisen in the course of the call? Second, there are “quality-monitoring” products-software that eases the manager’s task of measuring the agent’s “soft skills”-his warmth and politeness, and whether his demeanor has strengthened ties of intimacy and loyalty between company and customer. Third, there are what might be called “total monitoring” products, software that simultaneously multaneously monitors what is happening on the agent’s screen and what the agent is saying on the telephone. With this “total monitoring,” it is possible to know whether the agent is following a prescribed script and accurately relaying the information and recommendations provided by product databases. Fourth, there is software that monitors Internet and E-mail “conversations” between agent and customer, and which can, if necessary, integrate this monitoring with the parallel monitoring of telephone conversations. Fifth, there are the digital technologies that are embodied in many of these monitoring products and that have made possible this forward leap in the scope and intensity of monitoring.

  • Mark 3:10 pm on October 25, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , , management,   

    the boss in your head: an unrecognised form of reflexivity? 

    From Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 10246:

    It was Bill Gates who focused that view: As Harbers put it, “I created a Bill simulator in my head. Before I would go to a meeting with Bill I would actually run Bill in my head and ask all the tough questions and make sure that I thought about the stuff.” Software simulating hardware: It was the classic Microsoft development method, expanded to Bill himself.

    It must be hard to be critical of a corporate cult of personality if you find yourself running a ‘simulator’ of your boss in your head. I find this interesting as a form of internal conversation: it’s reminiscent of someone adopting What Would Jesus Do? as a principle governing their exercise of reflexivity. How widespread is it in the technology sector?

  • Mark 10:09 am on August 21, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , , management,   

    “drag coefficient”: the creepiest human resources concept ever? 

    HT to Marcus Gilroy-Ware for telling me about this disturbing concept. This description by Arlie Hochschild is quoted in Bauman’s Consuming Life on pg 9:

    Since 1997, a new term – ‘zero drag’ – has begun quietly circulating in Silicon Valley, the heartland of the computer revolution in America. Originally it meant the frictionless movement of a physical object like a skate or bicycle. Then it was applied to employees who, regardless of financial incentives, easily gave up one job for another. More recently, it has come to mean ‘unattached’ or ‘unobligated’. A dot.com employer might comment approvingly of an employee, ‘He’s zero drag’, meaning that he’s available to take on extra assignments, respond to emergency calls, or relocate any time. According to Po Bronson, a researcher of Silicon Valley culture, ‘Zero drag is optimal. For a while, new applicants would jokingly be asked about their ‘drag coefficient’.

    I guess one’s drag coefficient is a way of making sense of constraints upon ‘discretionary effort’.

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