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

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