On Agency and Action Katrina Pritchard and Gillian Symon Department of Organizational Psychology Birkbeck College, Univers...
Why agency and action? <ul><li>Major debate in organizational theory </li></ul><ul><li>Unexplored assumptions in the Organ...
So what are we talking about here? <ul><li>Agency: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>who and/or what are assumed to have the capacity ...
Bringing in Discourse Theory <ul><li>Agency: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Structuring properties of discourse </li></ul></ul><ul>...
Bringing in discourse theory Bringing in ideas from discourse theory provides opportunity to move “upstream” (Chia, 1996) ...
Knowledge as object <ul><li>Agency </li></ul><ul><li>Agency positioned as an attribute of individuals or a knowledge objec...
Situated knowledge <ul><li>Agency </li></ul><ul><li>Agency remains an individual (or individual-in-group) attribute </li><...
Bringing in discourse theory Bringing in ideas from discourse theory provides opportunity to move “upstream” (Chia, 1996) ...
Moving upstream: some opportunities <ul><li>Examining discourses of knowledge in a particular context: how are notions of ...
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OKLC 2006: On agency and action

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Conference Presentation from OKLC 2006 Warwick

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  • Good morning. My name is Katrina Pritchard and I am presenting a paper jointly written with Gillian Symon, my PhD supervisor at Birkbeck. In the brief time allotted, I ‘m going to take you through the key themes of our paper which was originally submitted under the knowledge and discourse track, and in which we attempt to work through how thinking in the area of organizational discourse could be used to prompt a reconsideration of how the notions of agency and action appeared to have been conceptualised within the field of organizational knowledge. Our overall aim in writing the paper has been to suggest that agency and action have been hidden concepts in organizational knowledge and that engaging with discourse theory provides a useful framework within which we can expose and unpack these assumptions.
  • Why Agency and Action: Well this was a question I asked myself with increasing frequency once the abstract had been accepted. But I would like to spend some time explaining why we chose to explore these issues in our paper – they are not particularly in order of priority – rather its more like they are increasingly personal as you work down the list. Firstly debates about agency and action are central to many issues within organizational theory – and as such it is helpful to assess how writing with organizational knowledge is positioned with regards such debates and also these issues can provide a common focus for discussion – I was going to say between those researching organizational knowledge and other areas but given the scope of this conference alone perhaps this is a useful idea within this group in any case Secondly, while I would certainly not claim to be an authority in the area of organizational knowledge (particularly to in front of an audience such as this) I have read a lot – such is both the burden and the luxury of a typical UK PhD programme! And in much of what I read from a whole variety of perspectives the topics of agency and action rarely seemed to be explored in any depth. Rather the theoretical attention seems almost exclusively to be given to the issue of knowledge itself – so that while there seemed to me to be a whole raft of differing assumptions taken about agency and action within both theoretical and empirical work at a variety of different levels of analysis these are not often opened up for discussion. Thirdly , It appears to me that there is an increasing focus on addressing questions of “how to” and particularly privileging what Contu and Willmott (2003 Org Science Paper) referred to as “conventional interpretations”, so that some of the ideas and issues raised by major writers in the field have remained underdeveloped. I believe I am remember that these are issues that Jean Lave touched on in her key note speech at a previous OLKC conference in Innsbruck in 2004. Fourthly , as I ploughed through the data collected on a year long ethnographic study (another luxury stroke burden of the UK Phd) and worked through this data with one eye on the organizational knowledge literature and another on that on organizational discourse– the issues of agency and action were writ large and too big to ignore. While I am not going to talk about this research in any detail it perhaps help to understand that my PhD research is investigating Human Resource Professionals construction of expert knowledge and knowledge claims and how they use notions of knowledge as a resource in this respect. What follows then, while ostensibly a theoretical paper, is in fact more an account of our own explorations of these issues and particularly a juxtaposition of the differing conceptions of agency and action that have emerged from my reading around both organizational knowledge and organizational discourse as I attempt to find a path through these with respect to my own research endeavours.
  • These are what I would suggest are fairly traditional perspectives on agency and action - definitions that you might find in a great deal of what I will call mainstream organizational theory. These sort of definitions tend to be anchored in a cognitive psychological perspective. In the paper however we explore the notions of agency and action from a different perspective – that of, what I am today, calling discourse theory
  • In the paper we present an overview of the range of writing which the term “Discourse Theory” encompasses – and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for those of you in the audience) I am not going to have time today to explore that range in any great detail. However it is worth noting here that we are interested in the notion of discourse both defined as Du Gay (1996,p265) suggests: a group of statements that provides a language for talking about a topic and a way of producing a particular kind of knowledge about that topic” together with the associated processes of production, dissemination and consumption (Hardy 2004) Issues surround agency here centre on the way in which Discourse can be said to have structuring properties that constrain agency and the way in which individuals can (or cannot) work through and around this within organizations. While some approaches (most notably those that draw on particular interpretations of Foucault) are criticised for excluding the possibility of agency, most suggest that, as Alvesson and Karreman (2000) phrase it: there is a potential to consider how people use language and how language uses people. In terms of action, discursive perspectives rejection that talk is conceptually separate from action so that the effects of discursive activity should be considered as equally important, drawing attention toward a variety of effects such as Hardy suggests it is important to consider how texts scale up and discourse bears down.
  • To summarise what I think bringing discourse theory means here, I want to borrow the analogy of moving “upstream” which Robert Chia used in his 1996 book, Organizational Analysis as deconstructive practice. Basically my interpretation of this is that rather than examining agency and action as outcomes we paddle our way upriver to explore and unpack the processes of construction. So how does this relate to the way in which agency and action are currently depicted within the organizational knowledge literature. CLICK TO BRING IN REST OF PICTURE In our paper we took the decision to sub-divide the area of organizational knowledge into two broad camps: which we labelled “knowledge as object” and “situated knowledge” – a division which is similarly employed in many reviews of the literature. The knowledge as object label we have employed to summarise a focus on identifying, mobilising and managing knowledge while the situated knowledge is a label we have used to encompass work which includes practice based views of knowledge particularly that which builds on the work of Lave and Wenger. While we accept that this division is somewhat problematic, particularly since the lines between the two are somewhat blurred, we found that it is a useful distinction to make to draw attention to the differences in assumptions on agency and action that are made. This is the area that I now turn to. I have positioned these two labels on this slide – intending to depict that we would suggest that work in the area of situated knowledge pays to the construction of knowledge and to issues of agency and action than that which treats knowledge unproblematically as an object. I will now explore this in a bit more detail over the next two slides
  • So first to consider the “knowledge as an object” camp – with respect to both the issues of agency and action.
  • Now we move on to consider the work we have labelled situated knowledge in respect to assumptions about agency and action
  • So to revisit the slide I introduced a few minutes ago in the presentation. I would suggest that the potential for this movement “upstream” is highlighted in much of the early writing on situated knowledge – but that in research today these opportunities have been overlooked as there is, as we have already mentioned, more attention being given to the “how to” aspects and a focus on mobilising knowledge for organizational benefits. And so finally I want to discuss what sorts of questions we might explore through this movement ‘upstream and why these might be useful or at least interesting from an organizational knowledge perspective
  • OKLC 2006: On agency and action

    1. 1. On Agency and Action Katrina Pritchard and Gillian Symon Department of Organizational Psychology Birkbeck College, University of London OLKC 2006
    2. 2. Why agency and action? <ul><li>Major debate in organizational theory </li></ul><ul><li>Unexplored assumptions in the Organizational Knowledge literature where theoretical attention remains focused around the concept of knowledge itself </li></ul><ul><li>Opportunity to problematize increasing dominance of “conventional interpretations” in the field (Contu and Willmott, 2003) </li></ul><ul><li>Relevance to issues and questions surrounding my own research </li></ul>
    3. 3. So what are we talking about here? <ul><li>Agency: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>who and/or what are assumed to have the capacity or capability to “make a difference to a pre-existing state of affairs” (Rossi, 2004, p5) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Key Issues: What, how & when is agency constrained; Issues of equality and power </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Action: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>some (often observable) effect or outcome of agency </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Key Issues: Intentionality; origin (especially collective vs individual); primacy of “doing”; cause effect relationship with knowledge/knowing </li></ul></ul>
    4. 4. Bringing in Discourse Theory <ul><li>Agency: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Structuring properties of discourse </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Availability of multiple positions that may be accepted or resisted </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Relationships between knowledge/power/discourse </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Action: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Rejection of primacy of doing </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Focus on construction and enactment via discursive practice </li></ul></ul>
    5. 5. Bringing in discourse theory Bringing in ideas from discourse theory provides opportunity to move “upstream” (Chia, 1996) in terms of examining notions of agency and action Knowledge as Object Situated Knowledge Organizational Knowledge Literature
    6. 6. Knowledge as object <ul><li>Agency </li></ul><ul><li>Agency positioned as an attribute of individuals or a knowledge object </li></ul><ul><li>Agency seen as determined by internal characteristics </li></ul><ul><li>Changing agency = changing these characteristics </li></ul><ul><li>Action </li></ul><ul><li>Focus on action as doing and an emphasis on tacit knowledge </li></ul><ul><li>Knowledge as input and output from doing </li></ul><ul><li>Positive relationships between knowledge and action </li></ul>
    7. 7. Situated knowledge <ul><li>Agency </li></ul><ul><li>Agency remains an individual (or individual-in-group) attribute </li></ul><ul><li>Equality of agency assumed (differences linked to time related constructs only) </li></ul><ul><li>Constraints on agency as within group (e.g.CoP ) </li></ul><ul><li>Action </li></ul><ul><li>Invoking notion of practice offers potential for a more complex perspective on action </li></ul><ul><li>Physical aspects of practice positioned as more important than discursive </li></ul><ul><li>Within group perspectives still dominate </li></ul>
    8. 8. Bringing in discourse theory Bringing in ideas from discourse theory provides opportunity to move “upstream” (Chia, 1996) in terms of examining notions of agency and action Knowledge as Object Situated Knowledge
    9. 9. Moving upstream: some opportunities <ul><li>Examining discourses of knowledge in a particular context: how are notions of knowledge constructed and how are these constructions used? </li></ul><ul><li>What positions are available within these discourses (e.g. expert, novice) : how is agency made available or denied? </li></ul><ul><li>Positioning ourselves within the processes of construction: reflexivity </li></ul>

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