Category Archives: our doomedness

Thinking institutionally, dialectically, iteratively, recursively #noteasy

Our wetware has missed quite a few upgrades, hasn’t it?  It left the factory all buggy and in beta, shaped by encounters – over millennia – with sabre-tooth tigers etc that saw us as easy meat.  We have cognitive biases up the wazoo, and often lack even the awareness of that [Dunning-Kruger etc etc].

It’s only recently for me, when I’ve been trying to construct airtight arguments that synthesise a lot of other people’s work, that I realise quite what a kluge a brain is.  And how hard it is to think institutionally, dialectically, iteratively, recursively etc  (don’t ask me for the distinction between those last two – pregnant elephants or something).

Everything in our “DNA”, our educations, our culture(s) makes it easier to do system one thinking, and be happy, exp-post-facto-y with that….  Hmmm.

All this came from re-reading another excellent paper from Professor Thomas Lawrence, he of ‘institutional work’…  He has a good website, and it gives access to his papers, which is cool for people without a password through the paywalls…

Thinking institutionally, according to Heclo (2008), involves adopting an “appreciative viewpoint” that allows one to “acknowledge, and then through choices and conduct, . . . help realize some normative order reflected in the task of upholding (an) institution and what it stands for” (p. 102). This viewpoint, Heclo argues, provides individuals in contemporary civic society the capacity to think and act in ways that allow them to transcend the totalizing cognitive influence of institutions.

2011 Lawrence, T., Suddaby, R., &  Leca, B. 2011. Institutional Work: Refocusing Institutional Studies of Organization. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(1), 52-58.



“Entrench warfare” or “why I don’t bother with one-off trainings” #smugosphere #inertia

A few years ago I organised a one-off training session on research for activists. It went well and had … no discernible impact on how anyone did anything.  So it goes.  I reflected on this – and other training I have been part of as a punter. And I came to the conclusion that unless you are part of a group that values the new skill/knowledge, then whatever shiny new training you have been on will simply not become embedded, and you and your group will stick to what you know.  This is not a particularly startling observation.  But now at least I have a citation I can back it up with when I am whining about the smugosphere

It’s from a bloody brilliant paper –

Perkmann, M. and Spcier, A. 2008. How are management fashions institutionalized? The role of institutional work. Human Relations, Vol. 61 (6), pp.811-844.

This bit

Zeitz et al. (1999) distinguish between the transitory adoption of a practice and its enduring ‘entrenchment’. Entrenchment is defined as the institutionalization of a practice to the extent that it is unlikely to be abandoned. They argue that while the mere adoption of a practice indicates the exposure to a fashion, entrenchment is required to induce a lasting change of practice. They identify five ‘pillars’ by which a fashionable concept can become entrenched: models (spurring imitation), culture (promoting identification), education (again spurring imitation), regulative/coercive influences (exerting power) and technical-rational influences (providing recipes for improving performance). Assuming that such entrenchment can occur at different levels of analysis, from individual, organizational, interorganizational to the societal level, they propose a set of ‘indicators’ that can be used for empirically assessing as to whether a practice has become entrenched: formalization, compatibility (with other practices), depth, systematic coherence (with other concepts and strategies) and the existence of ‘webs of interdependencies’ (Zeitz et al., 1999).
(Perkmann and Spicer, 2008: 814/5)

And that citation is this – Zeitz, G., Mittal, V. & McAulay, B. Distinguishing adoption and entrenchment of management practices: A framework for analysis. Organization Studies, 1999, 20(5), 741–76.

So,  a while back there was talk of me doing a training or two with a group. But since only one person in that group knew me/valued the training, and he wasn’t going to be sticking around, (he and I) decided it was at best a waste of time, energy and morale for all concerned, and at worst actively harmful (destroys the credibility of innovation, turns it into a ritualistic set-up-to-fail thing).

Doomed, I tell you, all doomed.  So what.

Coal, snow and the desert of the real #auspol

Scott Morrison, Australian Treasurer, brought a lump of coal to the show-and-tell at school today.  Sorry, I mean, to the House of Representatives.  It was a big lump of coal, metaphorically if not literally in the shape of a wedge.  Because this was about trying to make the Labor Party look weak/green/out-of-touch.  Meanwhile, in the real world, there is a heatwave of the real that is sending those rich enough to have them and afford them to their air-conditioners.  (Can the desert be far behind?).

Journalists are bewildered. Katherine Murphy began her piece thus

There is no way you can write the sentence, “The treasurer of Australia, Scott Morrison, came to question time with a lump of coal on Thursday,” and have that sentence seem anything other than the ravings of a psychedelic trip, so let’s just say it and be done with it.

Scott Morrison brought coal into the House of Representatives. A nice big hunk of black coal, kindly supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia.

The obvious link, which I’ve not seen made, is with another buffoon in another country, almost two years ago.

These seem like desperate claims by desperate men, who are the epitome of the political class (“out of touch”) using props to try to build to their constituents, earnestly proclaim themselves to be “real”(1) and ‘authentically working class’ (In July 2014 Senator Ian MacDonald came to parliament in a fluorojacket, provided to him by the same people who gave Morrison his lump of coal).

What does it all mean? These are bids for a foundational ‘common-sense’, for ‘authenticity’ by a dinosaur breed that can’t accept that the meteor has struck.   There is going to be a mass extinction event.  The only question is what – if anything – is on the other side. Bye Brasil.


Update- a further thought – The Liberals and Nationals have clearly “decided” – as far as you can say there is a central organising intelligence- that they cannot win on price or emissions reductions. Instead they are remorselessly focusing on only one of the three legs of the energy trilemma – namely security of supply.  It may “work” politically. It will not on any other metric – economics, environment…


(1) Gramsci, Baudrillard, Derrida and that crowd would have a field day.

Emergent, emergency, urgency. “Properties for sale…”

Hmm, am puzzling over the distinction between synergy and emergent properties. I found this –

“Today, unfortunately, the term emergence is used in a bewildering variety of ways, often as a synonym for synergy. However, I side with the early theorists; emergence should properly be confined to those forms of synergy in which different parts merge, lose their identity and take on new physical or functional properties. Thus table salt has emergence properties…”
(Corning, 2003: 23)
Corning, P. 2003. Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

and I guess it’s about a dialectic – where the “two” “opposing” “forces” are both/all changed into something – ‘rich and strange‘.

And being able to leverage and guide ’emergent properties’ – either to monetise them or Save The World  (“transition management and other forms of hubristic cock-pitism).  Well, I reckon the former is easier than the latter, sadly…


Meanwhile, the coincidence (?) between emergent and emergency rattled my brain and out popped two song lyrics.

“And it happens to be an emergency
Some things aren’t meant to be
Some things don’t come for free”
Put down that weapon by Midnight Oil


“We need all hands helping, the urgency is overwhelming” (TV Smith, Home Town)

That’s just how my (odd?) memory works, as distinct from beserk autobiographical memory.

See also –

Sokal so good; on targets, reports, fantasies…


The “keeping anthropogenic global warming (global average) to less than 1.5 degrees above pre-Industrial levels” at COP21 was never a serious proposal, surely?  I mean, you’d have to be totally fricking scientifically illiterate to… oh, wait.

But look, even if the policy-makers put it in there to keep the AOSIS (fn1)  crowd from vetoing the agreement, then the scientists themselves ought to know better, and tell the UNFCCC lot that it is a waste of time and bandwidth to study ‘how to hit 1.5 degrees”?  Or would that be too fraught? Is this just a Nekkid Emperor shituation, independent of it being  a nice little job creation scheme and prestige-arena for some social scientists?

I don’t know. But I DO know the last time what happened the last time some social scientists didn’t understand basic physics and ignored shit.

Hilarity and egg on face is what happened. It was called the ‘Sokal Hoax‘-

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax,[1] was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor atNew York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.[2]

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”,[3] was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist.[4][5] On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.”[2]

The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of humanistic commentary about the physical sciences; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.

What should we be doing, then, smart arse?
Thinking about social movement failure, state democratisation, resilience rightly-understood.  Thinking about how to put the politics ‘back’ into Transition Management, and thinking what social movements that applied relentless and irresistible pressure for both technological and social innovation (the two are entwined) would actually LOOK like. What support would they need from academics, for instance?


  1. This would be the same AOSIS folks who, since 1990 [indeed earlier] have been pleading for rich (mostly white) people to take this seriously)

(Wind) Power to the People – Denmark, Tvind and bricolage

So, two years ago I read this

Hendry, C. and Harborne, P. 2011. Changing the view of wind power development: More than “bricolage.” Research Policy 40,, pp. 778-789.

and wrote this about it –

This was mentioned in a reading group/symposium yesterday by one of my supervisors. It’s a response/elaboration to a paper by Garud and Karnoe comparing the Danish and US wind energy industries and how they came about. Hendry and Harbone heartlessly puncture the lovely romantic notions that Tinkerers Matter throughout the process (they did, but once you get to a certain point, there’s no substitute for “science” and deep pockets.) Reminds me a bit of Manuel de Landa in “War in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” where he makes the point that there are tactics, but strategy will overcome them, and there is strategy, but in the end, logistics – being able to feed, clothe, arm and replace members of your army at a more efficient rate than your enemy – is what matters.

Well, the Danish wind industry is the gift that keeps on giving, if you are interested (like me) in niches that become regimes and ‘bottom-up’ pressure that actually, you know, ‘works’.

The latest I have found is this paper, which is brilliant.

Hoffman, J. 2013. Theorizing power in transition studies: the role of creativity and novel practices in structural change. Policy Science, Vol. 46, pp.257-275.

Just brilliant [full disclosure – for two years of my life (minus a year here and there) I lived in the shadow of the Tvind windmill. True story.].

Here are a couple of empirical chunks.  Far more interesting (well, as interesting) is the theoretical contribution, around ‘carrier waves’ and also the shortcomings of a multi-level framework,and the assumptions that innovations just, you know, happen.  –

Because the MLP assumes the presence of a ‘novel practice’, it hides from view how actors draw upon regimes and incorporate exogenous trends in shaping and defining what the [page break] ‘novelty’ is about and how it relates to the regime.
(Hoffman, 2013: 262-3)

But that’s for another time.

I shall distinguish between two key episodes of interaction between wind energy experiments and outside groups, both within and outside the energy sector. Although both very crucial for further development, the two episodes differed in terms of entrepreneurial activities, strategies, and the outcomes. In the first episode (1950s), entrepreneur Johannes Juul put up wind energy experiments in collaboration with power company SEAS. Even though the later popular 200-kW Gedser turbine resulted from these experiments, the energy sector’s support for wind energy waned and wind energy production in the 1960s was literally left to fall into disrepair. Danish wind energy experienced a second coming, however, when parts of the Danish democracy movement in the 1960s and 1970s adopted wind energy as a form of decentralized energy production. In this episode, wind energy became primarily an affair of the democracy movement, with little involvement of traditional energy companies. In contrast to the collaborative relationship between Juul and incumbent actors, wind energy actors in the democracy movement moved into an antagonistic relationship with incumbents; wind energy actors in the democracy movement openly contested incumbent practices and presented themselves as a decentralized and democratic alternative. In its decentralized form, wind energy production grew to substantial proportions resulting in a relatively strong industry that obtained a market share of half the world market for wind turbines.
(Hoffman, 2013: 259)


How do these insights help us make sense of the dynamic interplay between actions at the level of novel practices and power? Let us now draw on the case of Denmark to answer this question. The rising prices of import fuels in the 1950s formed a structural power that discredited incumbent practices and raised expectations about novel practices. Among others, the entrepreneur Juul proposed wind energy as a complement to the use of imported fuels, which regime players appreciated as a way to tackle the increasing costs of imported fuels. In collaboration with the power supplier SEAS and a Wind Energy Committee (Vindkraftudvalget) from the ministry of trade, Juul could draw on sufficient technical and financial resources to start experiments. This relational power resulted in the later widely used 200-kW Gedser wind turbine. At least for a while, rising prices for import fuels formed a carrier wave for novel energy practice. However, just when wind turbines were ready for upscaling, nuclear energy became a serious alternative and regime players’ expectations for wind energy practices were lowered. As a result, all wind energy projects were cut short and resources were withdrawn. Wind energy practices were left to ‘hobbyists’, bereft of relational power.
(Hoffman, 2013: 261)

Bloody compassion and the bloody smugosphere

We talk about “carbon capital”, “fossil fuel historical bloc”, ‘technological lock-in’.  Yep, them corporations and states sure are sclerotic, ain’t they? But, aside from talking about foundations and how NGOs take their money and sell a fake rebellion,  we don’t talk about social movement hegemonies and blocks or ‘social lock-in’. This bores me.

Descriptions of how we got into this mess are plentiful, and some of them are excellent. Some might say we have a plethora of these.  Much more rare are critiques of “blockadia” for its manifest (?) and manifold failings.

Where we are

Marches are “acceptable”  agreed format.  A dominant design, whatevs.

  • “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”
  • Keynes “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
  • “Better the devil you know..”

And if you criticise marches, then Gaia help you, for you are criticising The Tribe.

What happens when you criticise marches
People don’t/can’t hear and (so) create binaries/strawmen

  • “You want us to quit”
  • “You are like supporters of Apartheid”
  • “You are mentally unwell”

[Digression – in response to an enthusiastic call out for yet another goddam march on climate change – I wrote this

“And all the other marches achieved what exactly? Marches just give an excuse for people to turn up on one day (maybe having spent a couple of hours perfecting a snarky sign) and feel good about themselves. They are emotathons (and before you reply, why not try googling that word). Organisers lack imagination, ability to enhance their groups’ absorptive capacity. So instead they stick to their goddam zombie repertoires. It’s a good thing it is already too late to do anything substantive about climate change, or I’d be quite annoyed by this latest example of failure.”

Here’s what transpired, with the other people’s names blotted out, fwiw.





In the same way the joke ends with the bear saying “this isn’t about hunting, is it?” this isn’t about the marches.  These are proxies, surface responses to deeper anxieties.

All these add up to – ‘Don’t attack my tribe!’  And it’s hardest to take when comes from someone who ‘should be’ in the tribe, who can’t be dismissed as a denier or an official enemy.

Why are people so scared? (thus the ‘bloody compassion of the headline – I would prefer to be able to label people who don’t ‘get it’ as stupid and/or complacent. Reality is more complicated, dammit).
Over and above the standard operating of the smugosphere, there seems to be an extra level of fear that is clouding people’s ability to absorb new information, or even hear suggestions that we have to change our standard operating procedures. I think that is

  • Because the situation is – objectively – fucking terrifying.
  • Because, as Lennie sang, we know that we lost
  • Because (some of us?) know that our previous methods haven’t helped to create the movement we need.
  • Because people look at the last large-scale/publicised ‘innovation’ in social movements – Occupy and the Arab Spring – and they go ‘damn, that didn’t work’ and so we retreat into what makes us feel good, what is easy – the cycle of meetings and marches, marches and meetings.

We have to swallow the fear  and actually innovate, actually listen to critiques of our current failures

Dismissing them (by claiming someone is mentally unwell, advocating quitting, or analogous to an Apartheid supporter) is – at its best-  intellectually bankrupt and morally vacuous.  I would argue strongly – or at least emphatically –  that it is harmful and morally indefensible, but that would be another blog post.


We have to ask some questions

Do marches build social movements?

Well, if they did, wouldn’t we have won by now?

Let’s get beyond the marches/no marches binary, and reframe that question.  “Do marches, on their own, build social movements.”

Okay, I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “no.”

Are there loads of people who care about these issues but don’t get substantively involved in the actions of social movement organisations?

I hope we can all agree the answer to that is “yes.”  (If the answer is no, we’re totally fubarred.)

So, in order to ‘win’ (whatever that means) do we need a proportion of those people to become involved and to stay involved?

If your answer to that is ‘no’, then you may as well stop reading.

So, given that social movement organisations have been holding marches and meetings, meetings and marches, what have we been doing wrong?

What do we need to do less of, what do we need to stop doing altogether?

What do we need to do more of, what do we need to start doing that we haven’t been?

There are lots of things groups do – websites, newsletters, rallies/protests.
But the ‘big one’ is meetings. Let’s divide it into two kinds (there is overlap, of course)

Business meetings and ‘public meetings’.

What is the experience of new people at both?

From personal experience, it’s not good.  (see recruitment/decruitment stuff).  People get treated as ego-fodder.

If you look closely, you will see some people leave either at the end of the speech or during the Q and A, or right after it and before the ‘mingling’. Did you ever wonder why they left, why they came in the first place, why so many of them you never see again?
It’s like a first date.  They were checking you out. And when they realised that you only wanted to talk about yourself, they left, and stopped returning your calls for a second date.

What are the obstacles for us to doing this? Or “Expect resistance”

  • Habit –routines. Our expectations of ourselves and each other, the ‘scripts’ of the ‘right way’ to do things.
  • Our frustration that we have the high moral ground, that it shouldn’t have to be up to us to work smarter, given the moral arguments are on our side and the bloody corporations and states/bureaucracies ought to keep their bloody promises.
  • Our fear of failure. Many of us are middle-class and our schooling taught us that there was One Right Answer and if we memorised it or mastered the procedure for arriving at that One Right Answer, then we would ‘succeed’.  That reflects curricula and the ease of marking exams, not life.
  • Most of us do not reflect on the format of meetings
  • The current set up benefits some people with some skills and some status.
  • Cops? If they see us becoming more effective, they will up their game. Right now, they don’t particularly have to try that hard, I fear.

What could we do right now?

  • Have lower expectations of the power of marches to motivate existing members (people get foot-sore) and to ‘recruit’ new ones.
  • Have higher demands on ourselves for how we will structure meetings not for us and our mates, but for the new people, the hesitant ones, the ones who are not extroverts.
  • Contest the smugosphere, the emotathons, both when OTHER people suggest them and when YOU do.  Accept that social movement organisations need to innovate as well.

If the rest of the movement was healthy, but we were still doing too many marches, I’d grit my teeth and live with it.  But it isn’t and we are.  As a substitute for action.  So it goes.