Bateson, schismogenesis, etc and The Wire…

So, am reading about Institutional Work.  And stumbled on an article that used the best television show that I ever saw (‘The Wire’) to talk about this and a LOT else.  Not sure how I will be able to use it in The Thesis (concept of fields, relentless contestation that changes the actors – and indeed whether it makes sense to speak so much of ‘actors’ in ‘systems’. But I digress…)

The article is this –

Zundel, M., Holt, R. and Cornelissen, J. 2013. Institutional Work in The Wire: An Ethological Investigation of Flexibility in Organizational Adaptation. Journal of Management Inquiry. Vol. 22 (1), pp.102-120.

Here are some excerpts with comments, followed by the specific references I will chase down.  First though, Fun fact – Gregory Bateson talked about the threat of climate change in.. 1967 at the International Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in London [paraphrased here].  Possibly told about it by his ex-wife, Margaret Mead, who had been involved in LBJ’s science committee in ’64 and ’65, and who would go on to hold a conference in 1975 with a young-ish Stephen Schneider. But I digress.

However, rather than suggesting this to be the result of an inherent duality in the structure of theorized phenomena, or even a problem of bad measurement leading to erroneous or incomplete taxonomies of things and their properties, Bateson argues that these problems stem from a tendency to ignore the difference between the categories we produce and the world of phenomena they are designed to capture: They are “errors in epistemology” (Bateson, 1972, 1979). His response is a move from analyzing “things” to investigating “patterns” (Bateson, 1972, p. 428), suggesting we can recognize and describe patterns of accelerating and regulatory processes whose dynamics afford or restrict the possibilities of adaptation for living systems.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 103)


Bateson terms such progression “schismogenesis,” which in cases of patterns of boasting or intensifying competition is symmetrical. The alternative to symmetrical is complementary schismogenesis, when increases in the display of one behavior (A) elicit more of a different behavior (B), for instance displays of “dominance” invoking greater display of “submission.” These interactive patterns of living systems can therefore not be explained using a language of force and impact alone.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 104)


Such flexibility may be restricted because energies are committed when systems devote their efforts to satisfy ongoing interactive patterns, for instance when defending their territory, in competitive relations, or simply when keeping up with the neighbors, so that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to do things differently while trying to satisfy existing and unfolding commitments. Systems can expend a lot of energy simply staying put.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 104) (emphasis added)

Yes”- there is an “invisible” work in institutional maintenance- in keeping things as they are…  And later on

However, it has remained less clear how such peripheral work functions in practice and how it realizes change or stability (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010, p. 190). Our analysis offers a number of new insights into these questions. In particular, “boundary” no longer indicates an enclosure of a fixed and stable field that distinguishes people and groups (Bowker & Star, 1999; Carlile, 2002) but, rather, relational patterns. To understand institutional work, we analyze movement that makes differences (they resonate: energy is transferred, soaked up, released). Here, fields become temporarily balanced ethological systems. This changes the character of movement made possible within and between such ethological systems.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 114)

and this bit was good-

Submission to the open, collaborative organization of the Co-op finds Baltimore’s gangs gaining and yet relinquishing flexibility. They gain the flexibility to pursue alternative actions by reducing costs of enterprise (capping resource-hungry violence, bulk buying product, setting up legal footholds, etc.). But with the increasing focus on harmony, they also increasingly deprive themselves of the flexibility to exercise violence, partly because they no longer maintain their private armies of “muscle” and partly because of new decision structures entailing debates and standards that place bureaucratic burdens upon the execution of violence, as such acts now require sanctioning (“quorum”) by the Co-op….
De-emphasizing violence and aggression emasculates the gang and renders it unable to respond with the former vigor to the actions of Marlo Stanfield, the new market entrant whose vicious dynamic finds other systems wanting.
(Zundel et al. 2013: 114-15)

Exactly this!  By refraining from industrial activism (strikes, work-to-rule etc) during the 1980s, under the Accord, the ACTU lost some of its folk memory/skills and credibility…. Also, under the  Bolsheviks it was Stalin who had taken on all the ‘boring’ and unglamorous tasks,and so held the reins of terror. By the time his erstwhile colleagues grokked this, it was Too Late.

And those references…
Alvarez, R. (2009). The Wire: Truth be told (rev. ed.). Edinburgh, UK: Canongate.

Bamberger, P. A., & Pratt, M. G. (2010). From the editors: Moving forward by looking back: Reclaiming unconventional research contexts and samples in organizational scholarship. Academy of Management Journal, 53, 665-671.

Gephart, R. P. (1997). Hazardous measures: An interpretive textual analysis of quantitative sensemaking during crises. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 18, 583-622.

Kisfalvi, V., & Maguire S. (2010). On the nature of institutional entrepreneurs: Insights from the life of Rachel Carson, Journal of Management Inquiry, 20, 152-177.

Langley, A. (1999). Strategies for theorising from process data. Academy of Management Review, 24, 691-710.

Lawrence, T. R. Suddaby, & B. Leca (Eds.), Institutional work: Actors and agency in institutional studies of organizations (pp. 1-27). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Maguire, S., Hardy, C., & Lawrence, T. (2004). Institutional entrepreneurship in emerging fields. Academy of Management Journal, 47, 657-679.

Orton, J. (1997). From inductive to iterative grounded theory: Zipping the gap between process theory and process data. Scandinavian Management Journal, 13, 419-438.

Rerup, C., & Feldman M. S. (2011). Routines as a source of change in organizational schema: The role of trial-and-error learning. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 577-610.

Tsoukas, H., & Chia, R. (2002). On organizational becoming: Rethinking organizational change. Organization Science, 13, 567-582.

Willmott, H. 2011. “Institutional work” for what? Problems and prospects of institutional theory. Journal of Management Inquiry, 2

Books I definitely didn’t buy/get given

Chandler, A. 1977. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press.  [Chomsky rates this one highly. Definitely didn’t buy this for 99p in Lancaster.]

Fromm, E. 2003. Marx’s concept of Mann. London: Continuum. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Lawson, N. 2008. An Appeal to Reason: A cool look at Global Warming. London: Duckworth Overlook. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Green, A. 1997. Education, Globalization and the Nation State. London: Macmillan. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Books I didn’t get given for Atheistmas…

Black W. 2015. Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires. Frontline Noir.

Now THAT’s a life: Louis Herren

“When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself Why is this lying bastard lying to me?

Always good advice, I think.

Louis Heren, the guy behind it, led an extra-ordinary life.  And I’d never heard of him.

Louis Philip Heren (6 February 1919 – 26 January 1995) was a foreign correspondent. He spent his entire career on The Times and was an author of political theory, memoirs and autobiography.

Heren was born in the East End of London. His father, a printer on The Times, died when Heren was four years old. As it was a paternalistic company in those days, Heren was able to leave school at 14 to begin work as a messenger on the newspaper. He moved up to work in various departments before the onset of World War II. He joined the British Army as a private soldier in 1939, commissioned and served in France, the Western Desert, Burma and the Netherlands East Indies. After being demobbed as a major in 1946, he returned to The Times and was made a foreign correspondent.

Here’s the Indie’s obit.

There’s five minutes of footage of him being interviewed in 1972 about growing up in the East End in the 20s and 30s…

Clearly gonna have to read his books, and re-read  Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’


All in the game, you feel me?! Academia and The Wire.

Come hell or high water, this is getting cited in The Thesis.

Zundel, M., Holt, R., & Cornelissen, J. (2012). Institutional work in The Wire: An ethological investigation of flexibility in organizational adaptation. Journal of Management Inquiry, doi:10.1177/1056492612440045

Analysis of institutional work is habitually complicated by the need to combine agentic and structural features. Drawing on the work of Gregory Bateson, the authors suggest that such complications emerge from an error in epistemology whereby the stability and “it-ness” of things is presupposed. As an alternative, they develop a processual analysis that considers the flexibility of adaptation in relational patterns. Here, institutional phenomena are not stable but characterized by regenerative and degenerative cycles of influence that afford or restrict room for maneuver without classifying them “as” something. The authors explicate this by drawing on empirical material covered in the HBO TV series The Wire.

Balance schmalance- when the powerful do it is in the ‘national interest’

So, I am writing an article; a proper academic article. Got me a journal in mind and everything. It’s on incumbent strategies versus challenge(r)s, and uses multiple streams approach and defensive institutional work. Gonna have the sucker done (first draft) by the close of play on the 27th December if it kills me.

Reading some fascinating stuff, but also writing as I go along – it’s the only way, after all.

Anyway, I stumbled on a very useful article from the defunct Business Review Weekly.

Hooper, N. and Way, N. 1995. Canberra’s Green Berets. BRW, 20 February, p.36.

They (approvingly) quote the late Peter Walsh (climate denialist and “failed” (his words) Finance Minister complaining that

“The Environment Department should no longer be regarded as a component of the Commonwealth bureaucracy, but as a fully taxpayer-funded extension of the partially taxpayer-funded Australian Conservation Foundation propaganda machine.”

All because some of the bureaucrats thought that cutting down and digging up everything in sight and in site was short-termist.

Never mind that the Treasury, Energy Department, Resources, DPIE etc had been busy scuppering anything environmental for, well, decades.

What happened next? The Greenhouse Mafia ran the show for another 12 years. Then the fight broke out into the open, and the opponents of action won. And now we are totally stuffed. Oh well, so it goes.

Pigs might fly, (in comfort) – on sociotechnical transitions, streams and social movements

“This eventually led to the development of a new pigsty concept called Pigs in Comfort Class (PCC) with a term derived from the aviation sector. [Regular sties were basically designed according to economic criteria, thus housing pigs in ‘economy class’. In contrast, the new stables were called ‘comfort class’, because pigs were much better off.]”

This above is from page 271 of this –

Elzen, B. Geels, G. Leeuiwis, C. and van Mierlo, B. 2011. Normative contestation in transitions ‘in the making’: Animal welfare concerns and system innovation in pig husbandry. Research Policy, Vol. 40, pp.263-275.

It’s a corking article that looks at pressures on incumbents (in this case the pig industry in the Netherlands) coming from moral entrepreneurs (animal rights organisations and political allies) and how this pressure ‘works’ –  if and when viable (i.e. cheap enough) technofixes are at hand to solve a problem.  But if the technofix arrives after pressure has faded, things can languish.  [So, the key question, which the authors don’t address-  and neither does anybody else – is how do you arrive at a situation where sustained pressure from social movements is common and effective… Answers on a postcard to the usual address… But I digress…]

The central research question is

How, when and why is normative contestation of existing regimes effective in influencing the orientation of transitions in the making?
(Elzen et al. 2011: 263)

So, they mash up the multilevel perspective with social movement theory [who builds pressure, how, when, for how long] and a modified ‘Multiple Streams Approach’ [with a market stream and a technology stream along side a problem stream and regulatory/politics stream].

There’s good stuff on how using the wrong analogies (pigs are not cows, and do not behave as such) led to dashed optimism of technological progress, with the resultant loss of credibility making life difficult when the techies did finally ‘get it right’.

They used crude concepts adapted from the cattle sector and then found these did not work very well. This eventually led to sector-wide hostility towards group housing of pregnant sows in general which was difficult to counter with results from further research, no matter how hard the scientist tried to show that the second-generation system worked well (Interview LTO).
(Elzen et al. 2011: 269)

and also on how by the time you do get the right technology sorted, the caravan may have moved on –

By 2005, when the technical research was finished, the world of pig farming had changed significantly compared to the late 1990s. Although animal welfare and environmental concerns were still present in the societal and political debate, they were less prominent. The sense of urgency that had followed the 1997 outbreak of swine fever and other animal diseases had largely disappeared. In 2003, a new government had taken office that strongly emphasised deregulation. So, when the Hercules concept was considered ready for practical use, the alignment between the political process and normative pressure had weakened considerably. Consequently, the project results were shelved.9
(Elzen et al. 2011: 271)

There is, naturlich,  state refusal to release awkward reports –

In 1972, one researcher at the Institute for Animal Husbandry Research wrote a report that noted that pigs were biting each other’s tails and ears because of boredom and stress, related to confinement in small spaces. The Ministry stopped publication of the report and forbade the author to speak about it in public (Crijns, 1998).
(Elzen et al. 2011: 269)

Not sure this will play much of a part in The Thesis, but in terms of how you might be able to slow down transitions, there are a couple of suggestive thoughts chasing each other around my noggin.


References wot caught my eye

Dacin, M.T., Beal, B.S., Ventresca, M.J., 1999. The embeddedness of organizations: dialogue & directions. Journal of Management 25, 317–356.

Geels, F.W., 2005. The dynamics of transitions in socio-technical systems: a multi-level analysis of the transition pathway from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles (1860-1930). Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 17, 445–476.

Rip, A., Kemp, R., 1998. Technological change. In: Rayner, S., Malone, E.L. (Eds.), Human Choice and Climate Change.  Battelle Press, Columbus, Ohio, pp. 327–399.


Ah, and there is this.  Augean stables and all that…

Bos, B. and Grin, J. 2008. Doing Reflexive Modernization in Pig Husbandry: The Hard Work of Changing the Course of a River. Science , Technology and Human Values, Vol 33, (4), pp.480-507.
The Dutch animal production sector faces significant pressure for change. We discuss a project for the design of a sustainable husbandry system for pigs. Named after the Greek hero Hercules, the project aimed for structural changes in both animal and crop production. However, instead of changing the course of the river, the project ended up merely adapting its flow. The Hercules project ran into difficulties typical for projects aiming at reflexive modernization.
It relapsed from an effort for reflexive modernization to ecological modernization, by ultimately leaving the structural features of the sociotechnical regime intact. We show how this resulted from the biases and limitations implied by existing institutions, in which the project was unavoidably embedded. We introduce the idea of reflexive design, as “doing” reflexive modernization, which implies working on action and structure at the same time. A number of recommendations are given for reflexive design projects like this.

Keywords: sustainable development; reflexive modernization; ecological modernization; agriculture; animal husbandry

Immune systems as two-way metaphors…

Donna Haraway is awesome.  Has lots to say about metaphors and science, especially around immune systems.  Immune systems are something I am interested in (For The Thesis). And so I came to read this –

Anderson, W. 2014. Getting Ahead of One’s Self? The Common Culture of Immunology and Philosophy. Isis, 105, pp.606-616.

Which is a total head-fuck (in a good way.)  I will have to come back to it, but for now, two chunks.

I want to consider the emergence in the late twentieth century of what might be called “immunological metaphysics”—but to do so I need additionally to sketch the philosophical roots of modern immunology. That is, I suggest that in this case a sort of “sociological fallacy” anticipated and rendered possible the “naturalistic fallacy,” that social thought has authorized the science of immunology as much as the humanities and social sciences recently have sought validation in immunological research, in the already socialized natural.
Therefore I am interested in the traffic of metaphor and model between social theory and the biological sciences—traffic so dense and intricate that it sometimes obscures any division between these domains. Indeed, that really is my point. Notions of an appeal to nature or a resort to culture are useful fantasies, figments of a convenient bipolar imaginary. Nature and culture, as critics such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour tell us, are hopelessly entangled no matter how assiduously we try to unravel them—hence the plausibility of mixed terms like “sociobiology,” “biosociality,” and “biopolitics.”
(Anderson, 2014:607)


Exploring the images dominating popular and scientific discussions of the immune system, Martin tried to understand what sort of social world immunologists were conjuring. She believed that immunology excelled at rendering “natural” certain social arrangements and cultural assumptions. In popular accounts, the metaphor of warfare against an external enemy still prevails; the body resembles a police state, protecting against foreign intruders. The boundary between self and other is rigid and absolute. These images of immunity make “violent destruction seem ordinary and part of the necessity of daily life.”17
In contrast, immunologists increasingly were inclined to depict the body as a “whole, interconnected system complete unto itself,” as a “homeostatic, self-regulating system.” Martin saw older militaristic models of the body, “organized around nationhood, warfare, gender, race, and class,” contending with a new immunological body “organized as a global system with no internal boundaries and characterized by rapid flexible response.” It was, for her, a new body transformed for “late capitalism.” Martin was convinced that immunologists did not “ignore the world outside the lab in devising their models of the body.” Therefore the cultural anthropologist recorded how the language of immunity increasingly “crashed into contemporary descriptions of the economy of the late-twentieth century with a focus on flexible specialization, flexible production, and flexible rapid response to an ever-changing market with specific, tailor-made products.”18
(Anderson, 2014:611)
17 Emily Martin, “The End of the Body?” American Ethnologist, 1989, 16:121–140, on p. 126; and Martin, “Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as a Nation State,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1990, 4:410–426, on p. 417.
18 Martin, “End of the Body?” pp. 123, 129; and Martin, Flexible Bodies (cit. n. 14), pp. 111, 93.

After The Thesis I will get down to some ‘Hollow Land’ too..