Category Archives: Hierarchy

All in this together… Corporate (and State) use of “family” rhetoric

It makes my flesh crawl.  That ‘one team’ bollocks, where our lords and masters (be they corporate or state) make out as if ‘we’re all in this together’ – to quote the words of some already forgotten Tory Prime Minister.  Yeah, right.

So, I really want to read ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ (after my thesis.  I read this academic article and it was good-

Fleming P. and Sewell. G. 2002. Looking for the Good Soldier, Svejk: Alternative Modalities of Resistance in the Contemporary Workplace. Sociology, Vol. 36 (4), pp.857-873

This quote kinda nails it

As Kunda (1992), Barker (1993, 1999) and Casey (1995, 1999) have so explicitly reported, if workers do not subjectively buy into the discourse of ‘excellence’ or ‘continuous improvement’ and actively participate in the attendant rituals then they are pathologized by the managerial gaze and transformed into organizational outcasts by fellow team members. Dissent and resistance in these contexts are not explained as something related to the inequality of the capitalist labour process, but rather a matter of, ‘Do you have problems at home?’ ‘Is it your husband?’ ‘Is it your wife?’ ‘Are you stressed?’ ‘Do you have financial problems?’ ‘Do you suffer from anorexia?’ Thus, the question is invariably framed in the same way: ‘What is wrong with you?’
(Fleming and Sewell, 2002:861)

Here are some of the references, fwiw.

Bailey, F. G. 1988. Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Burawoy, M. 1979. Manufacturing Consent.: Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Casey, C. 1995. Work, Self and Society: After Industrialism. London: Sage.

Casey, C. 1999. “Come, Join Our Family”: Discipline and Integration in Corporate Organizational Culture. Human Relations, Vol. 52 (2), pp.155-178.

Willmott, H. 1993. Strength is Ignorance; slavery is Freedom: Managing Cultures in Modern Organizations. Journal of Management Studies. Vol 30 (4), pp.515-52.

Suspicious minds and climate policy

Goering is alleged to have said that whenever he heard the word culture he reached for his revolver. For me, whendver I hear the word ‘trap’ I think of my Elvis. Specifically, ‘We’re caught in a trap. I can’t walk out.…’

Meanwhile, this from an article

Nair, S. and Howlett. 2015. From robustness to resilience: avoiding policy traps in the long term. Sustainability Science,

is good

“A lock-in trap is characterized by low capacity for change, high resilience to change, and high connectedness among structural variables which may preclude change or render it rather expensive (Ranger 2013; Allison and Hobbs 2004). Policies typically emerge as ‘bundles’ or ‘mixes’ of policy tools through processes of policy change, with addition and subtraction of elements over time (Howlett and Rayner 2013). Any change in policy response, however, will typically be faced with resistance by stakeholders and beneficiaries of status quo policy arrangements. This makes it difficult to introduce any radical changes in the adaptation policy mix even if new policy objectives are put forth (Kern and Howlett 2009). Innovations for example would need to compete with existing institutions that have already been imbibed into the socio-economic context and attempt to fit through processes of ‘‘learning, coercion and negotiation’’ (Rip and Kemp 1998; Christiansen et al. 2011).”

And of course, the mother of all carbon lock-ins, from all the physical, political, psychological infrastructure. You are are now leaving the Holocene, as the amazing David Pope cartoon goes…


So it goes. So it went. This too shall pass…

And those citations

Allison HE, Hobbs RJ (2004) Resilience, adaptive capacity, and the ‘‘Lock-in Trap’’ of the Western Australian agricultural region. Ecol Soc 9(1):3.

Christiansen L, Olhoff A, Trærup S (eds) (2011) Technologies for adaptation: perspectives and practical experiences. UNEP Risø Centre, Roskilde

Kern F, Howlett M (2009) Implementing transition management as policy reforms: a case study of the Dutch energy sector. Policy Sci 42:391–408

Howlett M, Rayner J (2013) Patching vs packaging in policy formulation: assessing policy portfolio design. Politics Gov 1(2):170–182

Ranger N (2013) Topic guide. Adaptation: decision making under uncertainty. Evidence on Demand, UK, p. 86

Rip A, Kemp R (1998) Technological Change. In: Rayner Steve, Malone Liz (eds) Human choice and climate change, Vol 2 resources and technology. Batelle Press, Washington D.C., pp 327–399

The absence of structure is hierarchy

I went to a meeting (won’t say if it was activist or academic or whatever – that’s not the point).

There was explicitly ‘no agenda’.

And we were then, without warning, asked to introduce ourselves (say what we had done, were doing and what we wanted to do around this particular issue/topic). And did they give us a) a couple of minutes to collect our thoughts and b) an upper-time limit.

Nope, instead it was one of the organisers (or rather, people who called the meeting) saying ‘well, I may as well start’. They then spoke for a few minutes, while we were all trying to listen and think about what we would say.

And guess what – the people who spoke the longest (who basically just mentally Ctrl C and Ved their comments) were the highest status ones. And they spoke for a looooong time. The lower status people spoke very little.

And guess what – after we had done those intros, the conversation came to be dominated by those who had spoken longest in the intro.

Who. Would. Of. Thunk. It.

Afterwards I thought about how one of the smartest people present (also perhaps the kindest) had said not a word. This person is perhaps an introvert. They don’t do the whole song and dance thing, so if you don’t create mechanisms (institutions – informal norms and also formal ones) to facilitate their input, you won’t get it. And you will end up with mediocre decisions, arrived at after un-necessary faffage. And so it came to pass.

This: The absence of structure is hierarchy. Just the hierarchy of prior status (mostly class, race, gender, age, confidence, extrovertism).

You can choose not to see that, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true, it doesn’t mean the power isn’t there. FFS.

Civilising hypocrisies and fundamental questions: on “Emancipating Transformations

Manchester Tyndall Centre today hosted a provocative and highly interesting seminar. Professor Andy Stirling, who spent the 80s in the trenches for Greenpeace, had schlepped up to deliver a seminar on “Emancipating Transformations.” What they? Read on for an (almost) blow by blow account. [My multiple two centses are in square brackets like these.]

emancipating-transf-23-juneStirling began by point out the severe acuteness of the problems we face (not just climate change, but all sorts of other bubbling under) . He pointed out that 2015 saw not just the Paris climate conference  but also the final agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals, with the the rhetoric of sustainability as “care” and UN slogans such as “leave no one behind.”  These are some of the “civilising hypocrisies” of the title of this blog post.

The politics of sustainability and knowledge
He moved on to point out that sustainability concerns actually pre-date climate change [see the 1971 Founex conference, held because what we now call ‘developing countries’ suspected that the then-new concerns about environment would be used by the rich countries to keep the poor ones poor]. After pointing out that 40% of world innovation is on war and ‘security’, Stirling wanted us to understand that sustainability was (and is) a political, not a technical issue. He pointed out that the knowledge we gained about ecology – for example – often came from actions of “horizontal” action, that knowledge making at the time around these subjects was from the more egalitarian impulses. NGOs and other groups had to struggle for decades to get issues(the dangers of pesticides, asbestos, carcinogens) onto the agenda [and there’s some very interesting stuff in the excellent 2014 book  “Behind the Curve: science and the politics of global warming” by Joshua Howe on how US groups that knew about climate change in the early 80s did NOT campaign on it because there was no feasible way to do so.].

Stirling pointed out that the “Establishment” (corporations, august societies of Respectable Scientists) ridiculed what we now regard as common sense. Stirling said that “knowledge is much more malleable and political that is conceded” [but he was not endorsing post-modernist relativistic ‘anything goes’-ness in that]

And here is the kicker – those bodies are now mouthing all the pieties (“Responsible Innovation” etc) and saying all the right things. Meanwhile, the warnings of the United Nations Brundtland report called “Our Common Future” that sustainability was not just about ‘end points’ but “effective citizen participation” and “greater democracy” were quietly forgotten.( 1)

“Progress” as a weapon
Stirling said that incumbents were able to resist so the challenges so effectively because of the discourse of “progress” and the notion of science leads to technology leads to ‘progress’ [Indeed – if ever you challenge a technology’s social, economic or ecological implications, you will be smeared by its backers as a ‘Luddite’. The American political scientist EE Schattschneider observed that “the definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.” ]

Stirling pointed out that this is a totalitarian discourse, a way of shutting down debate. He then pointed out that politicians are forever asserting linear models of ‘progress’, while claiming they are not. This was a particularly fun bit for the geek in me – Stirling showed examples of how the language and metaphors of both political and academic work on innovation are riddled with what he called “hard-wired linear notions” (leap-frogging, catching up etc). All these beg the question of how much, how fast, at what risk, who is ‘ahead’ and what does ahead even mean.
He challenged the audience – had anyone ever seen a “roadmap” document that had more than one road? And if there was only one road, well, you don’t need a map, do you? This got the biggest laugh of the afternoon. Karl Weick would have shared his snowy anecdote no doubt.

He pointed out that the “the” in “the sustainability transition” implies that there is only one way (even when multiple technologies exist) and that rarely if ever are the opportunity cost (what else could you spend the same money on) discussed. This has been an ongoing critique in Australia – money spent on propping up the coal industry is money NOT spent on research/support for renewable energy.

He touched briefly on the inevitability (even without shadowy incumbent conspirators propping up their own industries) of forms of lock-in (e.g. the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing this on) before returning to the earlier point that the political function of discourses (around “the” transition) is to maintain incumbent power.

Expedient fallacies
Stirling then laid out five “expedient fallacies” of current “sustainability thinking”
1. It maintains rather than transforms social orders
2. Any changes are envisaged as singular,deterministic, top down (rather than unruly, open-ended, bottom up)
3. The crucial “science base” is hierarchical, technical, expert leadership
4. Salient values are about fear and control,rather than hope or care
5. Democracy, equality and collective action are ‘threats’ that need to be domesticated

There was then a rather interesting set of slides that showed the connections between durability, stability, resilience and robustness, and the corresponding properties of transition, transduction, transilience and transformation [I feel another of my coloured paper/cardboard/paper-clip 3D models coming on! And at this point I should have shouted out about “Transruptive”

but I didn’t…]

Stirling then pointed to how the powerful close down opportunities for experimentation through invocation of ‘evidence based design’, insurance contracts, liability protection, stochastic reduction’ etc [he could also have mentioned policy-based evidence making!]

[I thought about Michael Thompson and his plea for ‘clumsy organisations’ for dealing with wicked problems and “post normal science.

Flocking hell!
Stirling returned to the notion of flocking swarming behaviours and the messiness of democracy. [Sadly though, the Pentagon has got there first (it so often does). Also, I’m reminded of passenger pigeons, that went through boom and bust cycles of population growth and collapse. Caught at a low ebb, they were wiped out. I fear the same for the social movements, that sort of gave up the ghost and fell in, according to Ingolfur Bluhdorn, with post-ecological thinking.]

The Q and A
The Q and A was dominated by men (including me). This was noted by Andy, to be fair. What is to be done? Well there are some suggestions here  about how you can simply and non-tokenistically make it more likely that ‘quiet voices’ (male, female, whatever) find it easier to ask questions. I also personally think that a two minute rule (or even, gasp, a four sentence rule) might sometimes be helpful…

I asked about impact science ‘versus’ production science, and Stirling’s response was very very interesting, showing how the former is itself shot through with assumptions about ‘safety’ that are highly contestable, highly political.

There were some interesting snippets and discussions of course, especially around how useful the “there is no time [to consult/be democratic]” argument is to elites (something that Manchester’s own Erik Swyngedouw has rightly been saying for years.

Prof Kevin Anderson (see MCFly passim ad nauseam!) made the good point though, that elites are NOT saying that about climate change. They’re actually saying Business As Usual is fine, and some fantasy technology like BECCS can be deployed later. [Prof Anderson was also hilariously rude about Integrated Assessment Models,  comparing them to “analysing astrology”]

The fundamental question – or at least the one I took away is this – who are our bosses? We are academics. We are paid to sit around and concept-monger. By the tax-payer, ultimately. So should we be aiming to impress elite policy-makers and follow what Stirling called “policy etiquettes”, in the hope they will twist this policy knob (and there are many many knobs), or pull that policy lever, to magic the right kind of innovation into existence? Or should we be trying to work with and for the (mostly mythical) social movements? Of course, this is a crude binary. But there are choices to be made, priorities to choose from.
I think I know where Andy Stirling’s preferences lie, and I definitely know where mine are.



  1. Released in 1987, the report had a climate change chapter, but it wasn’t a key issue. A UN conference was then scheduled for 1992. The following year, climate change exploded onto the public policy agenda, thanks in part to the June 23rd (!) testimony of James Hansen – the policy entrepreneurs then ‘hijacked/retrofitted the 1992 conference to become the deadline for climate change negotiations. You take your opportunities were you find them…]
  2. Other stuff that I didn’t put in that might be worth your time include three excellent books
    Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism
    A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming
    Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control
  3. From a more unquestioningly technophiliac perspective, Professor Thomas Schelling in Mancheter in 2010.

Of Monbiot, Manchester and miserable ‘feral’ futures.

Nature as redeemer, nature as escape, nature as the solace for our “gridded, controlled, mannered urban lives.” So far so romantic.
Well, nature is on the road, and she’s gunning for the lot of us. We’ve poked the beast, and now it really is waking up. On a quiet day, you could hear it snoring. Nowadays you can hear it going about its morning ablutions while preparing to unleash a can of whoopass on the species wot woke it up.
Which made the Manchester Literature Festival event I went to all the more weird. Row upon row of staggeringly white (this is Manchester?) people, of a certain level of (cultural) capital – not so many upward omnivores here – sat in rows while downloadGeorge ‘Feral’ Monbiot and Sarah ‘Carhullan Army’ Hall stood at t’podium. Hall read from her latest novel, The Wolf Border, which is about a woman, Rachel, involved in a project to reintroduce wolves to the UK. George does what George does well – some witty observations, confidently delivered with a smile. I first saw him do this at the Schumacher Lectures in, bosh, 1996?, when he alarmed the assembled ‘hippie’ gentry by advocating for land rights in the FIRST world. (They were underwhelmed, given the tacit deal with the Schumacher Lectures is that rich people get to be telescopically philanthropic, not locally so. But I digress).  He did not epater la bourgeoisie on this occasion however, but advocated the roaming of the four-legged beasts, especially ones that might contest the ‘white plague’ (sheep, not TB). And deer. [What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out? No eye-deer. What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out and his legs chopped off? Still no eye-deer. I’m digressing again, aren’t I?]

This is all well and good, but as the host alluded to, there are slightly bigger fish (well, planets) to fry. So, uncharacteristically, I stuck up my hand and asked this.
“On climate change. We’ve been warned since 1988 by the scientists and some politicians. We’ve done nothing. We WILL do nothing. So we are going to get acidified oceans, seven metres of sea level rise and four degrees plus of warming. Given that, to be provocative, what does it matter if we re-introduce this species or that. “Mother Nature” will introduce – and eliminate – species over the next hundred years as she sees fit.” 
George’s answer was in two parts. I will try to report each fairly, and then editorialise.
1) You mustn’t say that we will do nothing, that we are doomed, because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The species is hugely altruistic, it’s just a few (percentage) who are screwing it up.

2) Ecosystems with lots of biodiversity (and apex predators etc) are more resilient to shocks.

George – if you’re reading this and I’ve been unfair, lemme know. Ditto if anyone who was there is reading this…

What I wanted to say in response, but obviously didn’t.

1) The “you mustn’t say we’re doomed because that means people will give up” argument is beginning to get on my tits. I think it can and should only be made by people who have done a thorough job of studying WHY our response has been so poor (it’s not ALL Exxon’s fault) and – this is the crucial bit – have some clearly-stated suggestions about HOW TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY ‘GOING FORWARD’. George may have these, but he didn’t say them on Sunday (fair enough – folks were coming to hear him talk about wolves and rhinos, not social movement strategy).
We don’t say “you shouldn’t tell people with lung cancer that they have lung cancer because then they’ll get upset.” We expect to treat ourselves/each other as adults, who can read a Keeling Curve, read the emissions trajectories and understand the concept of climate sensitivity, and do some pretty rudimentary guesstimating.
ALSO, it’s not my ‘doom’ that is killing the species’ chance of seeing the 22nd century in reasonable shape. It’s capitalism, technological hubris, consumerism, population, the failure of social movements to cope with neo-Gramscian passive revolution strategies, and good old fashioned inertia baked into ‘the System’ (, “man”).

2) Hmm, that’s

a) curiously anthropocentric and

b) kinda misses the point about the shocks to the System. The second half of the 21st Century is (probably, okay, probably) going to make the first half of the 20th look like a picnic. This or that species of wolf is not going to mean there isn’t starvation, plague, war and all of that zombie apocalypse stuff. Wishful/magical/totemic thinking to think otherwise, no?

Sarah Hall’s answer I can’t categorise so clearly (I’m sexist man only paying attention to men? Maybe. Or just getting old? Or both). She seemed to be saying, with the example of the 2005 floods in Carlisle, that the cities will be affected, and it’s only when that happens that we will do something.

Worth reading on this “back to Nature” malarkey

  • EM Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops
  • Kingfisher Lives by the late Julian Rathbone, denied the Booker Prize – because one of the judges, the wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, could cope with the incest, murder, cannibalism, but not the (in context) dropping of the C-bomb.
  • Paul Theroux The Mosquito Coast
  • And of course all the feminist sci-fi/spec fiction writers – Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass), Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler.  And I STILL haven’t read Carolyn ‘The Death of Nature’ Merchant. #lazy

PS Thanks to CG for the ticket!!

Terrible meetings? Here’s a nesta reasonable ideas…

According to the American humourist Dave BarryMeetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot masturbate.” (As in, meetings aren’t just ego-potlaches, they’re also for the recycling of anxiety and responsibility).
While meetings might be full of wankers, they’re surprisingly joyless experiences. “Nesta”, a UK think tank, thinks it has some ideas on “Meaningful meetings: how can meetings be made better?

meetingslonelyThey sort of do, but the paper, as it states is “part of a larger research programme” and couldn’t/is not intended to stand on its own.
The author, Geoff “Connexity” Mulgan explains that we have “old formats and new tools”, ponders on “why so many meetings?” and then offers advice on “linking meeting format and purposes” (see Barry above) and gives some recommendations;

  • The ends and means of meetings need to be visible
  • Meetings need active facilitation and orchestration
  • The best meetings are often multi-platform, and use visualisation as well as talk and paper

Good meetings make the most of their participants – and rein in the extroverts, and the most opinionated and powerful

“one recent psychology study found that three factors were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of a group: the average social perceptiveness of the group members (using a test also used to measure autism, that involves judging feelings from photographs of people’s eyes); relatively equal turn taking in conversation; and the percentage of women in a group (which partly reflects their greater social perceptiveness).” [Woolley, A. W., et al. (2010) Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. ‘Science.’ 330(6004): 686-688.]

    • Good meetings begin and end with a deliberate division of labour
    • Good meetings benefit from a conducive physical environment that heightens attention
    • Good meetings apply ‘Meeting Maths’: balancing time, scale, knowledge and breadth
    • Good meetings are cumulative – part of a longer process
    • Some of the best meetings don’t happen (or why you shouldn’t hold unnecessary meetings)

Mulgan then goes on to give succinct explanations of flipped conferences (send in youtubes of your presentations first, then turn up and engage), world cafe , dynamic facilitation, open space technology, the revolutionary thinking method (no, I am not making this up) , De Bono Six Thinking Hats, Sytegrity (see above for RTM), buurtzorg, holocracy governance meetings and agile.
As he drily observes
“There is relatively little evidence about when these work and when these don’t, and an odd feature of innovation in this field is that new models quickly crystallise as highly prescriptive methods, with little feedback to help them improve, or create hybrids, and very little formal testing or evidence.”

So, this is definitely worth a read, and perhaps thrusting into the hand of the stale activocrats who run stale meetings (for all the good it will do). As to what’s missing-
Parkinsons Law of triviality
Any sense that the radicalism of the “open space” will be captured, co-opted and used as a marketing gimmick, or just done so cack-handedly that it will empty the terms of meaning (Instead of ‘how not to be bossy‘)
The psychological needs of both the bosses (to be in charge) and the attendees (to be infantilised)

“The rest of us, with less responsibility in our day-to-day lives, are able to regress merely to being a school-child, sat in rows, listening to the Clever Parent at the front. No jobs, no direct-reports, no kids to look after, we can, for the length of the event, just be the docile/obedient Child.
Attempts to turn us into Adults in this setting will be resisted, both by those who wish to be Parents, and by those who want to be Children. Efforts at de-ego-fodderification are, thus, futile.”

I think there is a glancing reference to Jung [can’t find it now], but nothing on the fantastic psycho-analytically informed work of Rosemary Randall – “Collective and Community Group Dynamics… or your meetings needn’t be so appalling”- which someone has helpfully scanned and uploaded onto the interwebs

Other concepts worth exploring

Medical hubris and arrogance leads to “iatrogenic” agony…


“There was a period of about three years (1987-1990), however, when it became fashionable for physicians to reduce the rather long MR imaging times by using anisotropically shaped (i.e., non-square) imaging pixels in studies of the spine. As it turned out, this resulted in a prominent dark line appearing within the spinal cord. The dark line was a Gibbs ringing artifact. Unfortunately clinicians, not aware of this kind of artifact—for not being conversant with the mathematics used to transform the instrument signal into an image—at times interpreted this artifact as a disease process: a fluid-filled lesion known as a “syrinx” requiring aggressive medical treatment. Ultimately, the artifact was detected and explained by an individual (Bronskill, McVeigh et al. 1988) whose knowledge bridged medicine and physics. Unfortunately, this did not happen until a great many patients had been misdiagnosed and treated. Once the nature of the artifact was recognized, and its implications appreciated, later researchers identified it too as the cause of misdiagnosis of different disorders, for example, spinal cord atrophy (Yousem, Janick et al. 1990).”

Baird, D. & Cohen, M.: 1999, ‘Why trade?’, Perspectives on Science, 7, no. 2, 231-254.

Translation – a bunch of cocky doctors think they are clever taking short-cuts (to be fair, probably under-pressure from cheapskate hospital administrators).  They fall in love with their images.  And then the false positives mean a bunch of people undergo spinal taps (mildly painful) and get told they have spinal cord atrophy.

It’s almost as if we are a species that has fallen for our own propaganda, and have forgotten all the Greek myths etc that warn about hubris.