Academic Book Review Organization Theory Past, Present & Future WULBA

Book Review – Pandemonium: Towards a Retro Organization Theory (Burrell, 1997)

A book review of Pandemonium: Towards a Retro-Organization Theory by Gibson Burrell.

Withdrawn from the University of North London Library

A wonderfully weird book

I only managed to read half of this book, or did I?

In the body of the book, the top half of each book page goes forward in the normal linear manner, whilst the bottom half of each page goes backward, with arrows attempting to assist the reader on what is a difficult navigation.  This is illustrated in the Linearity Kills extract below.

Linearity Kills - Extract from Pandemonium
Linearity Kills – Extract from Pandemonium

I reached what we traditionally think about as the end list of references, what Burrell (1997) refers to as the pandemonium municipal library.  This was in the centre of the book, at which point there was a full-page illustration of an entrance/exit and I went through the exit as I knew I was going to struggle reading pages going backward. My specialism is organizational change – going forward.

The book has some wonderful insights into organization theory, but I was reading the book to inform a historiography project of my own and I didn’t have the time for the playful creativity of the way the book was organized. We have an annual research conference which goes back years, there is a style guide to assist early career researchers in formatting their abstracts, Burrell (1997) is used as a best practice exemplar of formatting, playful creativity is alive and well in universities. As Burrell (1997) states linearity kills, so let’s go backward.

Studying organizational theory in the 1980s

I am a second-year undergraduate and my memories are very vague.  However, I remember the lecturers becoming excessively excited about a new textbook – Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). It was the course text for the organizational theory module and in those days, you bought the course text (or I certainly did, see photo of my student copy).   The dilemma was that the students didn’t really understand the textbook and didn’t share the excitement of the lecturers.  The lecturers decided to invite Gibson Burrell over to do a guest lecture, unfortunately, we understood the textbook even less after his talk.  Years later I learned to love the book and although it became fashionable to question the paradigmatic analysis it spawned, I still enjoy fondling this classic.

Chronarchy in the UK

I purchased Pandemonium (Burrell, 1997) (see photograph) after reading Burrell’s (1992) chapter ‘Back to the future’.  In this chapter, he was a pioneer making connections between temporality and organization change prefacing later debates about temporality by many years.  In what is still a very provocative chapter he warned that we are easy prey to chronarchy (oddly the spell checker keeps attempting to change this word to ‘coronary’, perhaps a precursor to the future).

Moving forwards (ho ho), in the conclusions he suggested that the management of change as taught lacked self-reflexive analyses of issues of substantive and thematic temporalism.  He favoured spiral time which at the time seemed silly but having lived through organizational changes and the repetition of old ways of working as new ways of working, it seems eminently plausible.  He suggested that organizational analysts should be historiographers. Today this is accepted, but back then it was a bit different.  I began to appreciate that to go forwards I needed to go backward.

The 2012 London Olympic Games

In the spirit of avoiding linearity and avoiding chronarchy we find ourselves at the Olympic Games celebrating history and interweaving the past with the present in a creative, yet also a subversive way.  In order to appreciate the importance of the National Health Service (NHS) we had to revisit the past of the NHS in the ceremony. The opening ceremony was so special that Danny Boyle was quizzed on the inspiration behind it and Pandaemonium 1660 – 1886 (Jennnings, 2012) was acknowledged with Danny Boyle quoted in the Foreword to the 2012 edition (see photograph of the book).  I purchased this book which is best described as a compendium of moments from human history.  The subtitle helps to highlight the intent of Jennings (2012) – The coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers.  It is an era which has fascinated me as we witness the precursors to the OD practitioners, change managers and project managers of today. At this time Projectors were very prevalent, yet rarely acknowledged today and very absent from progressive textbook histories.

Back to the past

I have jumped all over the place in a weird homage to Burrell (1997) we can return to his weird book and the opening page which appears perversely to be going in a linear direction.  He cites an earlier edition of Humphrey Jennings book as his inspiration and justification for mixing up the text.

Normally, the symbolic ordering of our lives takes place textually on the page or the screen but it is laid out in very, very particular ways.  These constrain our thought and our ability to envisage a set of other possibilities. (Burrell, 1997:1)

Two decades later this quotation has very real meaning for me. I enjoy writing but most of my writing is performance managed by peers or markets.  I am enjoying writing these posts with no need for validation by peers or market forces, it is hard to convey how liberating that feels and the possibilities such liberation raises for writing in a less ordered manner.  I am listening to Robert Merlin’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe Soundtrack which accompanied the early sixties black and white TV series as I write this. I have reminisced about my student days and remembered the wonderful opening ceremony for the Olympic Games. Nobody is ever going to publish such meanderings or pay me to write in such an unordered manner.

Today I have resisted textual symbolic ordering. I like to draft these posts, and then schedule posting for a later date.  Tomorrow, I may not resist textual symbolic ordering and may change this post as it is still in draft form.  Today, we do not just allude to spiral time, we can embrace it.  As Burrell (1997: 25) hasn’t featured as prominently as I hoped, but then again everything is textually permissible in the world of Pandemonium, I give him the final words.

Thank you very much for coming.  This bunker was constructed fifteen years ago with capital provided by a book called Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis.  Since its building, I have rarely ventured forth into the campus except for the occasional foray.

WULBA Archivist

Further Reading

Burrell, G. (1992). Back to the future: time and organization. In M. Reed., and M. Hughes (1992) (Eds) Rethinking Organization: New Directions in Organization Theory and Analysis, pp.165-182. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Burrell, G. (1997). Pandemonium. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Burrell, G. and Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: Elements of the sociology of corporate life. Aldershot: Gower Publishing.

Jennings, H. (2012). Pandaemonium 1660–1886: The coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers. London: Icon Books Ltd.