Book Review – The social construction of management: Texts and identities (Harding, 2003)

Withdrawn from the University of Reading Library

I am rarely invited to parties these days and metaphorically speaking I would probably end up arriving late to the party or decline the invitation. In academia new ways of acting, thinking and writing appear to me as parties to which some people are invited and engage, it takes time to find the right parties and normally the world has moved on by the time that I arrive. I lived through the arrival of post-modernism in management and organization studies.  Looking back, it was an enjoyably disruptive party characterized by loud proclamations and knowledge mayhem.  I remember Karen Legge describing herself in one of her publications as flirting with the post-modernist heuristic. A wonderful way of saying I am in my car sat just outside the front door of the party.

I was late to the social constructionist party and in all honesty, the cool kids had long departed by the time I showed up.  I must concede today I don’t really get Practice Theory, but based on previous engagement lead times, I should get it five years into my retirement, I think there is a joke in there, but at this point, it is beyond me. I show up to the social constructionist party too late, everyone is clearing up the debris which is very apparent and tangible.  Oddly, it is an informative standpoint to dig back into what we know with the passage of time the significant contributions are discernible from the wasted party poppers and burst balloons. After the party, a level of reason prevails.  I have found myself sitting happily in a largely empty social constructionist party venue reading through all the ephemera (books and papers). There is a lot more I want to say about social constructionism, but I better get back to Harding (2003).

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I acquired the book for a few pounds last year via one of the usual online retailers, it was in hardback and in good condition. Although subsequently, I have taken my dayglo highlighters to it, so there are now signs of at least a party going on inside my head.  I have enjoyed the provocations of Nancy Harding, particularly when she writes with Jackie Ford.  There was a disparaging term in use many decades ago when I was a young social science undergraduate – ‘fake comrade’. In universities, I have been disappointed by the many critical scholars who live affluent lives yet talk the talk of radical Critical Theory (CT). I once asked a keynote CT professor at a conference when the low paid women workers he had been researching for many years in insecure insurance jobs would be emancipated, he claimed not to understand the question. Bad news for these women, but their labours contributed considerably to his promotions and progression, so not all bad news.   I have never been a Critical Theorist and never will be, it would be disingenuous for me to adopt such a position.  However, when I read Nancy Harding she comes across as the antithesis of a ‘fake comrade’, I don’t share all of her radical views, but I certainly share her passion for change and academic identity being all about challenging orthodoxy.

I do like the title The social construction of management: Texts and identities (Harding, 2003).  This book was published in 2003 when the party music was still playing, they hadn’t run out of cider and that idiot hadn’t been sick over the sofa. It reads as a radical read today, but it must have been even more intoxicating back in the early part of the last decade.  The title appears fairly benign, but the content is far from benign.

…management texts are based on a foundational myth that ‘proves’ the need for management.  This myth states that without management the world will descend into chaos and anarchy. (Harding, 2003:53)

We are now getting close to the unease I have been dancing around in this blog post. Harding (2003) throughout the book is critical about managers, management and large parts of management studies. In many ways, this is a book more about the destruction, rather than the construction of management. She cleverly deconstructs management as a science, as legal authority, as art, and as modernity.  These deconstructions still appear valid fifteen years later, although they are far from the mainstream understanding of management.

However, it is difficult to offer a sustained critique of management given it is a dynamic and ambiguous process which is highly context dependent.  Creatively, management textbooks become the critical target and provide the unifying narrative for the book.  As a textbook author, I am familiar with such critiques, this is the party that never ends.  Typically, the critical scholar will complain that in a 6500-word chapter there was not a single reference to postcolonialism, or disability or environmentalism or whatever (insert whatever is important to you). It is impossible to include everything in every chapter and for me, it begs the question why not write your own textbook focussed on whatever floats your boat, rather than criticizing the textbooks of others? Certainly, I encountered many years ago a strong critique of change management in academic journals and this critique was missing from many of the textbooks I was reading, so I began to bridge what was being researched with what was being taught.

Back to Harding (2003), her concern with textbooks and by association, their authors were not pedantic in terms of what was missing, but instead more substantive in terms of how they framed management theory and practice and for Harding (2003) how they constructed the identity of the manager.

The potential manager reading about her/himself in the pages of the textbook and projecting themselves forward to when they are managers enacting the world of the text are simultaneously offered power while being subjected to that very power. (Harding, 2003:75)

Some critical scholars choose not to use textbooks in their teaching and would never entertain the idea of writing a textbook, so we have an informal boycott of textbooks by many critical scholars.  My concern remains that if textbooks are an integral aspect of the knowledge landscape as Kuhn (1962) believed, readers of textbooks, in general, would benefit from authors from very different perspectives. I agreed with many of the ideas in Harding’s (2003) book and was rather pleased that I understood most of them, given some of the intellectual seams she mined.  However, to use that romantic platitude it is me not you, this textbook author was never going to fully embrace this particular book.

WULBA Archivist

Further Reading

Harding, N. (2003) The social construction of leadership: Texts and identities.  London: Routledge.

Hughes, M. (2016). Who killed change management? Culture and Organization 22(4): 330-347.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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