Non-domination, Pettit and Workplace Democracy

I have now worked at three business schools in my relatively short academic career: Leeds, Durham and Sheffield. All three of them really lovely places to work. One of the most common misconceptions about business schools (views that I have heard from other parts of the university) is that we are primarily scholars who have emerged either from business into academia (with a view to solve management problems) or – perhaps worse still in their eyes – academics who are predominantly conservative and wish to preserve or build upon mainstream capitalist orthodoxy. Thatcher’s bastard children running wild in academia, merely “playing” at academia whilst moonlighting as company directors and/or running our own businesses. Lacking the purity of an academic from the humanities. Of course, there are plenty of these types about – and in my view it is all the better for the variety – but the overall make-up of the typical business school is somewhat different. In reality, I would compare business schools – or the one’s I have worked in at least – to a zoo or perhaps (more kindly) akin to my local Yorkshire Wildlife Park. Now stick with me for a moment as I explain my somewhat strained – but entirely accurate(!) – metaphor. 

Durham University Business School (looking beautiful and somewhat zoo-like)

The modern business school is without doubt comprised of the most heterogenous set of individuals of any of the departments (or faculties) in the University. It houses a variety of different “beasts” side by side, packed in to offices (often sharing) in to its given space. On top of the obligatory management, marketing, accounting, finance, and economic disciplines that it naturally incorporates (to ensure it retains its obvious position as the University cash-cow), business schools will attract and incorporate a range of different species of scholars. For instance, in my time within business schools I have encountered those who gained a doctorate in psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy, anthropology and law, who subsequently migrated and found a home within this environment. Indeed, I am also one of those academics having gained a PhD in Politics in 2010 and finding myself very unexpectedly a few years later in a business school. In addition to this variety of disciplines there are also a vast range of methodological stances available here to see enclosed in this environment: positivists, realists, pragmatists, constructivists, Marxists, feminists and yes, even, post-structuralists – the list goes on. All working side by side, if not together. It is a melting pot, a veritable cornucopia of disciplines, outlooks and perspectives.

Now this comes with some difficulties no doubt for those in charge of the “zoo” – the Dean’s of business schools have to juggle the competing interests and needs of very different groups in ways that other zookeepers of more homogenous enclosures might have to. However, and to leave my metaphor behind (I promise!), the massive upside of this situation for business schools in a research and funding landscape that incentivises interdisciplinarity should be at this point quite obvious. The integration of these multiple disciplines and philosophical perspectives provides the possibilities (but by no means a guarantee!) for cross-disciplinary research and new ways of thinking about issues. My own experience of this came upon entering Durham University Business School (as a research officer/administrator) over ten years ago as a slightly petrified post-doctoral scholar, struggling to break into academia. I had similar misconceptions about business schools at the time but quickly learnt of the possibilities of this interdisciplinary environment. It was possible to sit over lunch or in a research seminar with scholars from such a variety of disciplinary backgrounds that you would have wildly different perspectives on any given topic, with the possibility of learning so many new insights. Of course, in reality there were the common difficulties of research silos and thankfully less common difficulties of entrenched and at times arrogant, uncharitable disagreement, but these made up the wild and wonderful soundtrack of the zoo I inhabited (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!). 

The most rewarding element of this multidisciplinary business school environment for me personally, was that I brought a knowledge of political theory to a whole set of issues that could explain phenomena in a totally different way. Of course, business scholars had long been using Rawls, Habermas, Rorty and other well-known political philosophers for a couple of decades by this point, but other emerging, celebrated theorists from my home discipline were either less well known or (as I learnt) completely alien. It was not as instrumental as perhaps I make it sound here (some Machiavellian effort to secure career advantage), but instead naturally as we discussed issues around power and domination in the workplace, theorists such as Prof. Philip Pettit (and his concept of non-domination) came to mind to me first. This allowed me to have something different to say, a new perspective albeit not necessarily an automatically valuable or interesting one. It took me a while to develop what I saw as a new and potentially interesting take on workplace democracy that drew directly on Pettit (and other neo-republican political theorists’) work. A potential starting point for the development of a 3* ABS journal article – which acted as a sort of “magical key” at the time to enter the world of the business school (previous articles I had written in politics journals were considered meaningless suggesting a rather large counter argument to my “business schools as the bastions of interdisciplinarity” perspective that stands even now). 

In any case, the result of many months of writing drafts with my then colleagues at Durham Prof. Mark Learmonth (now Nottingham Trent University) and Prof. Carole Elliott (still my colleague(!) but now University of Sheffield), was the creation of a paper entitled: Non domination, Contestation and Freedom: The Contribution of Philip Pettit to Learning and Democracy in Organizations. The paper went on to be published in the journal Management Learning and even to win their 2015 prize for paper of the year – something I can only attribute to the interdisciplinarity of the paper. Not something that led especially to an increased citation rate but a paper I am very proud of nonetheless. 

Anyway, to end the blog post, I include the abstract of the paper below and the official link to the paper here and on my website a pre-publication version of the paper here with my other outputs:

This article provides a reading of the civic republican ideas of the political philosopher Philip Pettit in order to make new contributions to learning within organisational life. Our aim is to achieve non-domination in the workplace, and we suggest how Pettit’s work, through the provision of a democratic constitution and development of the resources of individuals and groups, might inspire eminently practical ways in which to increase freedom and minimise asymmetries of power at work. Such asymmetries have long been an ingrained feature of organisations, confounding even the most progressive attempts to increase opportunities to learn and act within organisations. We do not, therefore, underestimate the problems involved. Nevertheless, we advance our arguments as new – but practicable – contributions to progressive forms of management learning. 

If you decide to read the article, then I hope you enjoy it. If not, then I hope this post at least acts as a somewhat biased testament to the business school as a site for interdisciplinary work that offers the potential to draw upon a range of perspectives which like my foray in to this field was unintended but has led nonetheless to interesting results.

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