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date: 25 May 2017

Organizations, Power, and Resistance

Summary and Keywords

In the last 30 years or so, the relationship between power and resistance has been theorized as a defining feature of organizations and organizing. While there is little consensus around its definition, a useful starting point for thinking about the organization–power–resistance relationship is to view organizations as political sites of contestation where various stakeholder groups compete for resources—economic, political, and symbolic. Much of the research on power, resistance, and organizations has emerged out of a critical tradition that draws on numerous theoretical and philosophical threads, including Marxism, neo-Marxism, critical theory, poststructuralism, and feminism. Common to these threads are various efforts to link power and resistance to issues of meaning, identity, and discourse processes. In this sense—and particularly in the last 30 years—there have been multiple efforts to theorize power as intimately connected to communication. This connection has become particularly important with the shift from Fordist (bureaucratic, hierarchical, centralized, deskilled) organizational forms to post-Fordist (flexible, flat, dispersed, knowledge-based) organizations that place a premium on decentralized, “consensual” forms of power and control (as opposed to the coercive methods of Fordist regimes). Exploring communicative conceptions of power and resistance shows how these phenomena are closely tied to the regulation of meaning and identities in the contemporary workplace.

Keywords: power, resistance, Fordism, post-Fordism, ideology, discipline, governmentality, Marxism, discourse

Defining the Terrain of Study

As Reed has stated, “Power remains the most overused and least understood concept in organizational analysis” (2006, p. 29). It is also perhaps the most contested term, with multiple, often competing, conceptions and definitions (see Fleming & Spicer, 2014, for an overview). In organization and management studies the concept had relatively little purchase until the 1970s, when researchers began to explore organizations as sites of political struggle. Prior to this period, the dominance of conceptions of organizations as sites of rational behavior and decision-making militated against explicit consideration of power as a constitutive feature of organizing, with its connotations of political, non-rational behavior. An early explicit reference to the relationship between power and organization is provided by Tannenbaum (1968), who argued that, “Organization implies control. A social organization is an ordered arrangement of individual human interactions. Control processes help circumscribe idiosyncratic behaviors and keep them consonant to the rational plan of organization” (p. 3). Note that here the term “control” is favored over the more political term “power” and, moreover, is still framed within a rational model of organization; control is only necessary because of the eccentricities of individual organization members.

In the 1970s there began a number of efforts to understand organizations as sites of power, a number of which were relatively functionalist in orientation. For example, resource dependence theory (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978) was an extension of open systems theory (Katz & Kahn, 1966) and explored the idea of organizations as systems of resource interdependence (both internal and external to the organization). Organizations are deemed to be powerful to the degree that they can manage the constraints that result from dependencies on other organizations or control the dependencies of other organizations on them. The most sustained efforts to conceptualize power, however, emerged out of critical, Marxist-influenced approaches that attempted to examine organizations as sites of political contestation between capital and labor. Such work is rooted principally in the premise that the capitalist organization rests on a structural contradiction between the privatized accumulation of value, on the one hand, and the socialized nature of its production (through work), on the other. Capitalist efforts to intensify the labor process through management of work are thus countered by worker attempts to resist such intensification efforts in order to maintain a degree of autonomy and control over the labor process.

By definition, then, the analysis of power requires a complementary understanding of resistance—a notion that has a similarly contested history. Like power, the dominance of the managerial approach made its usage relatively rare, except in pejorative terms—for example, employee resistance to managerial change initiatives. However, social theorists have long recognized that power and resistance are mutually defining. Weber, for example, defines power as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests” (1978, p. 53, emphasis added). While Weber distinguished between power and authority, with the latter defined as accepted or legitimate forms of power (in Weber’s terms, traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal forms of authority), subsequent interpretations of Weber largely elided this distinction in favor of a focus on organizations as legitimate systems of authority. As such, the dynamics of the power–resistance relationship was largely overlooked. The analysis of power thus requires a robust conception of resistance, but without reducing one to the other.

How, then, might power and resistance be distinguished? Barbalet (1985) conceives of power as the capacity to initiate, to get things done; resistance, on the other hand, he views as reactive, as an effort to impose limitations on this capacity. While this is a useful starting point, capturing as it does a relational conception of power common across a number of theorists, it frames power and resistance as largely behavioral, that is, as the ability of social actors to engage in particular practices. Thus, given the focus of this entry on examining communicative conceptions of power and resistance, more appropriate is Clegg’s (1989) discursive, meaning-based definition:

To the extent that meanings become fixed or reified in certain forms, which then articulate particular practices, agents and relations, this fixity is power. Power is the apparent order of taken-for-granted categories of existence, as they are fixed and represented in a myriad of discursive forms and practices. (p. 183)

Here, the behavioral exercise of power (i.e., the ability to be an agent who engages in particular practices) only makes sense in the context of the discursive construction of social realities that frame particular behaviors. In other words, social actors or organizations have power to the degree that they are able to construct taken-for-granted systems of meaning within which particular behaviors are seen as legitimate. Similarly, resistance can be seen as effective to the degree that reified, naturalized systems of meaning are questioned and become “up for grabs” in some manner.

The rest of this article, then, will discuss power and resistance as addressed in the field of critical organizational communication (and critical organization and management) studies, with a particular focus on critical research traditions that focus on issues of meaning and discourse.

Power, Resistance, and Critical Studies

The study of power and resistance in the field of organizational communication has been heavily shaped by the rise of critical approaches to organizations. With the emergence of the “linguistic turn” in the late 1970s (Deetz, 2003; Putnam, 1983), researchers began to conceptualize and study organizations not as stable and objective structures, but as the ongoing accomplishment of its members’ collective sense-making efforts. In other words, organizational communication scholars shifted focus from studying communication in organizations to studying the communicative accomplishment of organizing (Ashcraft, Kuhn, & Cooren, 2009). While much of this early work was descriptive in character, mapping out the everyday forms of communication (narratives, metaphors, rituals, everyday conversation, etc.) through which collective sense-making and meaning formation occurred (e.g., Pacanowsky & O’Donnell-Trujillo, 1982; Smith & Eisenberg, 1987), a small group of scholars argued that such sense-making is not evenly distributed across organization stakeholders, but is rather both medium and outcome of asymmetrical power relations. As such, the communicative accomplishment of organizing is a contested process, with different organizational actors attempting to shape organizational reality and “fix” meaning in different ways (e.g., Conrad, 1983; Deetz, 1982, 1992; Mumby, 1987, 1988).

Broadly speaking, critical organizational communication studies have focused more heavily on the exercise of power than on resistance processes. Particularly in its early days, critical scholars emphasized managerial efforts to shape organizational reality and hence control employees more than employee efforts to resist such control processes. For example, Mumby’s (1987, 1988) early work addressed the “political function of narrative” in shaping organizational reality, examining the ways in which organizational storytelling functioned ideologically to reify managerial worldviews while simultaneously obscuring the sectional interests underpinning such worldviews. Similarly, Deetz’s (1992) work explored the “discourse of managerialism” that underpins decision-making and identity formation in everyday organizational life, in which an ideology of efficiency and rationalization shapes the communicative politics of experience.

More recently, scholars have begun to explore workplace resistance in more sustained and systematic ways, with efforts to examine the complex dynamics of power and resistance processes. This effort has been strongly interdisciplinary, with scholars from both organizational communication and critical management studies (CMS) attempting to tease out the intersection of power, resistance, discourse, and organizing processes (e.g., Ackroyd & Thompson, 1999; Collinson, 1994; Ezzamel, Willmott, & Worthington, 2001; Gabriel, 2008; Ganesh, Zoller, & Cheney, 2005; Mumby, 2005; Murphy, 1998; Prasad & Prasad, 1998; Thomas & Davies, 2005). Indeed, in the early 2000s two separate special issues of Management Communication Quarterly were devoted to examining organizational power and resistance dynamics (Fleming & Spicer, 2008; Putnam, Grant, Michelson, & Cutcher, 2005).

In many ways, however, the entire history of management thought is replete with studies of power and resistance, although it is typically not framed this way. As Barley and Kunda (1992) argue, while management theories can be read as sets of rational propositions about organizational behavior, they can also be viewed as rhetorics or ideologies, the objects of which are the frequently non-compliant employees who must be shaped to meet the organizations ends. The next section, then, examines power and resistance research within the broader history of management and organization studies framed as efforts to provide increasingly sophisticated ways to intensify the labor process (i.e., extract increasing amounts of surplus value) in the face of an often recalcitrant workforce. In this sense, the emergence of the modern organizational form can be seen as intimately connected to the dynamics of power and resistance. However, these dynamics have shifted as the capitalist organizational form has been largely transformed from coercive to consensual relations of power. Following Barley and Kunda (1992), then, the next section examines this shift, viewing management theories as discourses that construct the management–employee/power–resistance dynamic in particular ways.

Historicizing Power and Resistance in Management and Organization Studies: From Coercion to Consent

Marx’s (1967) analysis of work under industrial capitalism is a study of the coercive process through which surplus value was extracted from the expropriated worker in the “hidden abode” of production (i.e., the industrial factory). As Marx observed, the worker under industrial capitalism was essentially alienated by virtue of (a) the loss of connection to the product of his or her own labor, (b) the deskilled and deconstructed nature of work, and (c) the privatization of the means of production and the reduction of the worker to a (theoretically unlimited) quantity of labor power.

In this context, the history of organization and management thought during much of the 20th century is one of attempting to reconcile the alienated and resistant worker to the conditions of capitalist work and organization. As such, one can argue (as did Marx) that conflict is an inherent, constitutive element of capitalist relations of production. While they rarely acknowledged the problem of alienation, early 20th-century management theorists were quick to recognize the disjuncture between the management vision of the rational and optimally productive organizational form and the recalcitrance of employees in the face of this rational vision. Indeed, it is worth noting that in the United States between 1881 and 1905 there were 37,000 strikes involving 7 million workers in a total workforce of 29 million (Bederman, 1995, pp. 13–14). Concomitantly, labor unions emerged as a major political force, with membership rising from 487,000 to 2,072,700 during roughly the same period (Perrow, 1986, p. 57).

Two of the earliest management theories—scientific management and human relations theory—can be examined in terms of their efforts to manage employees in work contexts characterized by conditions of alienation and resistance. Frederick Taylor’s (1911/1934) theory of scientific management, for example, is the first systematic effort to address the problem of worker alienation (without ever using that term) from the capitalist labor process by tackling head on the problem of “systematic soldiering”—a collaborative effort by workers to deliberately restrict output in order to minimize the possibility of piece-rate reduction or, in many cases, worker layoffs. Scientific management, then, can be read as a response to workers’ collective efforts to maintain autonomy under industrial capitalism. Taylor attempted to solve the problem of systematic soldiering by removing the last vestiges of decision-making autonomy from workers and splitting the conception of work (the design of tasks) from its execution (Braverman, 1974). Taylor’s intervention in the struggle for control over the labor process thus placed the locus of managerial control in the worker’s body. If the body could be disciplined via careful (scientific) design of the work itself, then the worker’s ability to exercise autonomy would be greatly reduced. After Taylor, control of the labor process lay largely with management through their putative monopoly over knowledge regarding the labor process, with workers functioning largely to execute the instructions of management.

The first significant shift away from this coercive model of control came with the emergence of the human relations (HR) movement. While conventional management wisdom is that the HR movement was an effort to replace Taylorism as the dominant managerial paradigm (due to the latter’s deleterious effects on the worker), it is more accurately viewed as a superstructural addition to the Taylorist infrastructure of the mid-20th-century organization. As Braverman (1974) has correctly pointed out, HR theory represented less a paradigm shift in management thought and more an effort to mentally adjust workers to the ubiquity of scientific management and its acceptance as the default mode for organizing work.

Human relations theory emerged out of a set of studies conducted at AT&T’s Western Electric Plant in Cicero, Illinois (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939). Initially conceived as a classic scientific management study of lighting variation on worker productivity, anomalous results (worker productivity increased however the lighting varied) prompted researchers to shift their focus to exploring the “human element” in employee–manager relations. Over a 9-year period (1924–1933), researchers carried out a series of studies, all of which attempted in various ways to explore the social dimensions of worker motivation. As Perrow (1986) argues, these studies were the stimulus for decades of research in two main areas: leadership studies and small group studies. Both of these areas represent attempts to supplement managerial control of workers’ bodies with efforts to address the psychological and socio-emotional dimensions of work. For example, two of the research outcomes of the Hawthorne Studies were (a) a belief in the effectiveness of less authoritarian forms of leadership and (b) recognition of the potential productivity of the informal work group (an idea anathema to Taylor in his effort to destroy worker collaboration and eliminate “systematic soldiering”). Importantly, from a power and control perspective it is worth noting that HR theory makes no effort to humanize the work process itself; the entire focus is on how the worker can be mentally and emotionally integrated into extant forms of work.

Bramel and Friend (1981) note in their Marxist rereading of the original Hawthorne findings that while there is substantial evidence of worker resistance to managerial control efforts at Hawthorne, this resistance is reframed by the researchers as having a psychological explanation; indeed, Mayo believed that labor conflict was a form of group psychopathology whereby the dynamics of the work group amplified individual psychoses (Barley & Kunda, 1992). Human relations theory, then, focused on developing managerial competencies (leadership skills, communication skills, etc.) that enabled the development of group norms that were free of such pathologies and consistent with managerial objectives. This “human relations” perspective, Bramel and Friend (1981) argue, was an important rhetorical tool in downplaying structurally antagonistic worker–management relations and viewing any form of worker resistance as non-rational. In this sense, the only good (and rational) form of collective behavior was that which contributed to productivity.

In the 1960s human relations theory morphed into human resource management, as management theorists became increasingly aware of the disjuncture between the espousal of more humanitarian manager–worker relations, on the one hand, and the dominance of the large, formal, low-trust bureaucratic organization, on the other. As critiques of the large bureaucratic organization mounted (e.g., Mills, 1951; Whyte, 1956), management theorists began to articulate possibilities for manager–worker relations that reimagined the place of the worker in the labor process, with a particular focus on “meaningful work” and “employee voice” in organizational decision-making (e.g., Likert, 1961; McGregor, 1960).

This new managerial rhetoric saw perhaps its most complete articulation in the emergence of the corporate culture approach in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With the backdrop of a stagnating economy (and the coining of a new term, “stagflation,” to describe low growth and high inflation), disintegrating management–worker relationships, and widespread industrial conflict during the 1970s, corporate culture was viewed as the panacea for corporate ills and a potential source of competitive advantage in the face of growing international competition (particularly from Japan). Popularized by texts such as Peters and Waterman’s (1982) In Search of Excellence and Deal and Kennedy’s (1982) Corporate Cultures, organizations turned to forms of ideological control rooted in the shaping of employee sense-making and identity. Kunda’s classic (1992) ethnographic study of one such organization uses the term “normative control” to describe how the company actively sought to appropriate the “soul” of each employee in its efforts to create strong identification with company values. Indeed, the management literature during this time is replete with exhortations to managers to actively shape the organizational culture and increase employee commitment by, for example, identifying “organizational heroes” (employees who exemplify the corporate culture by going “above and beyond” routine job performance), promoting positive organizational stories, and instilling organizational “root metaphors” (“family,” “team,” etc.) with which employees could identify (e.g., Sathe, 1983; Wilkins, 1983).

In terms of the dynamics of power and resistance, however, the strength of the corporate culture orientation is also one of its weaknesses. That is, the focus on meaning and sense-making allows for more decentralized, less coercive forms of control whereby the internalization of corporate values predisposes employees to behave in ways consistent with company goals; on the other hand, the inherent ambiguity of corporate cultural meanings provides ample opportunity for alternative and resistant forms of employee sense-making (see, e.g., Young, 1989). As Martin (1992) suggests, the corporate ideal of a single, monolithic organizational culture that all employees buy into is somewhat chimerical, with the existence of multiple—sometimes oppositional, usually informal—subcultures being more typical. For example, Smith and Eisenberg’s (1987) study of Disney (an archetypal “strong culture” organization) shows how employees perceived the managerially promoted root metaphor of “Disney as drama” as too business-oriented and in violation of their own informal root metaphor of “Disney as family”—one that they saw as more consistent with founder Walt Disney’s vision of the company. As Smith and Eisenberg show, these opposing interpretive frames were an important factor in management–employee friction and subsequent industrial action by Disney employees.

The turn to culture among management theorists and practitioners exemplifies the shift in the dynamics of power and resistance from coercion to consent (Deetz & Mumby, 1990). That is, while early theories addressed problems of the recalcitrant worker by implementing coercive methods of work intensification, late 20th-century models of management rhetorically constructed the employee as a vital resource that, when empowered to do so, found value and meaning in serving the organization. In this sense, employees are ideologically constructed as co-participants in the construction of organizational control processes. Indeed, as Boltanski and Chiapello (2005) indicate, this evolution of work and organization to a focus on meaning and identity is the latest iteration of the capitalist “spirit,” or ideology, as capitalism transforms itself in response to the various legitimation crises that it has faced, as managerial, bureaucratic capitalism has come under increasingly intense criticism.

The next section, then, examines more closely the shift to ideological forms of control and the accompanying efforts at workplace resistance.

Power, Ideology, and Resistance

While for much of the 20th century management research only implicitly addressed issues of power and resistance, a more explicit examination of this dynamic can be found in a parallel literature that developed in the 1970s and 1980s. Braverman’s (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital was the first Marxist analysis of the capitalist labor process and the nature of work since Marx’s Capital, and it catalyzed a resurgence in neo-Marxist and critically oriented analyses of work in the late 20th century. This research tradition became known as labor process theory (LPT) (see Smith, 2016, for an overview of this tradition), and it thematized power and resistance as a constitutive feature of the capitalist labor process. Braverman argued that, under monopoly capitalism, work has been deskilled and degraded in order to both cheapen labor and decrease worker autonomy. Positioning workplace technology and scientific management as pivotal to this deskilling process, Braverman argued that Taylorism achieved three things in consolidating control of the capitalist labor process in the hands of management: (1) the dissociation of the labor process from the skills of workers; (2) the separation of the conception of work from its execution; and (3) managerial monopoly over knowledge about the labor process. Taken together, these elements enable Braverman to place managerial control of workers at the epicenter of the capital accumulation process, hence questioning conventional wisdom that views the history of 20th-century management thought as a history of progressive and increasingly enlightened approaches to manager–worker relations.

Written a few year later, Richard Edwards’s (1979) Marxist analysis of the capitalist labor process is similarly structural in its orientation but focuses more explicitly on the dynamics of control and resistance in the workplace. Edwards argues that the labor process is a site of class conflict, and hence the workplace is an inherently “contested terrain” where the struggle between the interests of capital and labor play out. Capitalists attempt to minimize opportunities for worker resistance by implementing progressively more complex regimes of control. Thus, the early stages of capitalism required only “simple” control, involving personal relations between owners and relatively small groups of employees. Control was exercised directly through the personal sanctioning and rewarding of employees. As monopoly capitalism grew, however, such direct control was not feasible given the increasing distance between workers and management, requiring the development and introduction of “structural” forms of control, which Edwards divides into two types: technical and bureaucratic. Technical control is epitomized by Henry Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly line to the labor process. By setting the form and pace of work, the assembly line minimizes worker opportunities to exercise autonomy. Moreover, the technology itself mediates the relationship between workers and management, depersonalizing the control process and hence obscuring the antagonisms between labor and capital. Similarly, bureaucratic control depersonalizes the control process through the institutionalization of job descriptions, regulations, HR processes, wage scales, and so forth. In this sense, Edwards argues, “bureaucratic control institutionalized the exercise of capitalist power, making power appear to emanate from the formal organization itself” rather than from relations between unequally powerful people (1979, p. 145). Edwards explores how bureaucratic control is far more totalizing than simple or technical control in that it involves the total behavior of the workers, that is, not just the expectation of a hard day’s work for a fair day’s pay, but also the employees’ “demeanor and affections” toward the organization (1979, p. 148).

Research under the broad aegis of labor process theory takes seriously the idea of the indeterminacy of labor under monopoly capitalism—that is, given the status of labor as a commodity, there is an inherent gap between the potential of labor power as purchased by the capitalist, and the realization of that labor potential in the labor process itself. The raison d’être of management, therefore, is to control (i.e., optimize) the capacity of workers through consensual processes in order to turn indeterminate (potential) labor into determinate (actual) labor. As labor process theorists show, however, this indeterminacy plays out in numerous ways in the labor process, in part because of the agency of workers. Moving beyond Braverman’s and Edwards’s structural analysis, then, many “second-wave” LPT scholars address the actual dynamics of work “at the point of production” as workers and managers (as the representatives of capital) pursue their particular interests. In this context, the concept of ideology is key: How is the subjective experience of work mitigated by efforts to discursively construct social actors as workers? In Althusser’s (1971) famous terms, how does the labor process and its managerial agents interpellate (from the French, interpeller, to hail or address) social actors as subjects within the regime of industrial capitalism?

Perhaps the most important early effort to address these workplace dynamics is Michael Burawoy’s (1979) neo-Marxist ethnographic study of an industrial workplace—a study that explicitly focuses on the “subjective” aspects of work. Taking as his starting point Gramsci’s (1971) observation that under U.S. Fordism hegemony is “born at the point of production,” Burawoy asks the question: “Why do workers work as hard as they do?”—a reversal of the standard question that motivates 20th-century management thought: “Why don’t workers work harder?” Burawoy’s answer to this question focuses on the collectively produced ideology of the shop floor, rooted in the game of “making out” (informal, unsanctioned efforts to exceed the production rates at which the piece-rate bonuses kick in). Burawoy’s analysis of this game provides an important corrective to and extension of classic Marxist analyses that see workplace power relations as a simple expression of deep structure capitalist relations of production. Making a distinction between relations of production (the social relations specific to the capitalist mode of production) and relations in production (the collection of informal workplace relations and social practices, e.g., the game of “making out”), Burawoy argues that the latter functions to obscure the antagonisms and contradictions that characterize the former. Thus, workplace relations in production (expressed in part through the game of “making out”) perform an ideological function by “securing and obscuring” the process by which surplus value is produced, hence muting the potential class conflict within worker–management relations. In this sense, Burawoy’s study captures the shift from coercive to consensual forms of organizational power and control or, as he puts it, the shift from “despotic” to “hegemonic” regimes of capital–labor relations.

Burawoy’s study is important in its efforts both to theorize power at the intersection of subjective experience and the larger structural mechanisms of industrial capitalism and to view power as essentially contested in the dialectical struggle between control and resistance. In some respects, this set the stage for an explosion of research conducted in the 1980s that drew heavily on critical and neo-Marxist research to explore the workplace as a dynamic site of control and resistance. Within LPT itself debates about the nature of the capitalist labor process and the concomitant dynamics of control and resistance have evolved into two broad camps. On the one hand, scholars of a realist/materialist bent have remained loyal to the core principles of a Marxist/Bravermanian analysis, arguing that the “indeterminacy of labor” should remain central to an analysis of the labor process, particularly as it relates to the role of labor in generating surplus value in capitalism. Moreover, the relation between capital and labor is defined by a “structural antagonism” in that the material conditions of capitalist relations of production place capital and labor in structured opposition, although such antagonism may produce various contextually driven worker responses on a continuum from consent to outright resistance (see, for example, Reed, 2009; Thompson & Ackroyd, 1995; Thompson & Smith, 2000/2001). On the other hand, a number of scholars inspired by post-structuralism (in particular by the work of Foucault) have focused on the indeterminacy of identity as the defining feature of contemporary capitalism (see, for example, Knights, 1990; Willmott, 1990, 1994). In such analyses, “identity work” is seen both as the principal means through which workers seek a sense of “ontological security” (Giddens, 1991) within capitalism and as the focal point for management control of employees (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002). This latter camp identifies the “missing subject” as the principal lacuna of the Braverman-inspired wing of LPT and has worked to theorize how subjectivity has become a key focal point of control, particularly under the new management practices of neoliberalism (see Thompson & Smith, 2000/2001, for a pointed critique of this Foucault-inspired camp).

However, the internecine debates of LPT (and, indeed, other critical traditions within organization and management studies) must be contextualized within broader shifts in the dynamics of capitalism itself. Although the nature of these shifts is in some ways still up for debate, there is a broad consensus among many theorists that the 1980s witnessed a tectonic shift from Keynesian capitalism to neoliberal capitalism, with an attendant transformation of organizational structures from Fordist to post-Fordist. The next section addresses these shifts and their implications for issues of power and resistance.

From Fordism to Post-Fordism

The Fordist organization and its accompanying Keynesian economic system was the dominant institutional form of the 20th century. In many respects the emergence of Fordism was a product of class struggle, as workers collectively organized to secure better working conditions, pay, and benefits. The resulting “social contract” between capital and workers ensured relative organizational stability, with secure employment being provided in exchange for worker commitment to providing a “fair day’s work.” In this sense, Fordism was synonymous with the age of managerialism, in which bureaucracy provided the administrative structure for long-term stability. Bauman (2000) characterizes the Fordist period as “heavy” or “solid” modernity in which “capital, management, and labour were all, for better or worse, doomed to stay in one another’s company for a long time to come, perhaps for ever” (p. 57). Power within such a system is rooted in a rationalized system of rules and regulations that, ideally, treat everyone according to a set of universal, quasi-legal principles. This system is modern rather than pre-modern in its construction of individuals as sets of skills and qualifications rather than as belonging to a particular social group or kinship structure. In addition, the “common good” of this system arose out of its institutional solidarity and large economies of scale that enabled the socialization of production, distribution, and consumption. Faith in rationality and long-term planning provided a sense of ontological security through the social contract and career guarantees. Social actors had access to good jobs as well as the fruits of mass production at the point of consumption. In this sense, the figure of the sober, impersonal manager served the cause of democracy, providing a bulwark against forms of irrationality that threatened liberty and social order.

In the Fordist institutional context issues of power and resistance are framed principally in terms of manager–employee relations. Indeed, most of the research coming out of the LPT tradition discussed above largely takes this Fordist structure as the starting point for analyses of power and resistance. The work of Braverman, Burawoy, Edwards, and others assumes a playing-out of workplace power and resistance dynamics around the basic mistrust and antagonism between management (as the representatives of capital) and workers. Research is largely framed in terms of worker resistance to managerial control efforts. A classic example of such analyses is Collinson’s (1988, 1992) critical ethnography of a truck-making factory that explores shop floor workers’ efforts to maintain spaces of resistance in the face of managerial efforts to impose a new, more collaborative organizational culture. Two aspects of Collinson’s study are relevant here. First, he effectively demonstrates how worker resistance efforts are intimately connected to identity work around issues of class and masculinity, with workers constantly attempting to demonstrate the superiority of their work knowledge over the perceived feminized, theoretical knowledge of the white-collar managers. Second, Collinson’s study provides insight into what effectively are the last throes of the classic Fordist organization, as the 1980s witnessed the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the post-Fordist, flexible organizational form.

The emergence of post-Fordism and neoliberalism—what Bauman (2000) refers to as “liquid” of “light” modernity—had a significant impact on how scholars conceptualized and studied the relationship between power and resistance. Conventional wisdom has it that the post-Fordist organization—based largely on Japanese management principles of Toyotism—had a positive effect on processes of organizational democracy and participation. The shift away from centralized and hierarchical bureaucratic forms to flatter, decentralized, and more flexible organizations created, it was argued, higher-trust manager–worker relationships, particularly with the emergence of team-based decision-making and shifts away from deskilled work to skilled “knowledge work.” In this context, workers were seen as having much greater decision-making autonomy and investment in their work.

As many critical organization scholars have shown, however, this putative transformation to flatter, more democratic organizations and “knowledge work” hides a broader, more insidious shift that is underpinned by the transition from Keynesian to neoliberal capitalism. Two early critical studies of the transition from Fordist to post-Fordist organizing provide initial insight into the “darker” side of post-Fordism. Graham’s (1993) critical participant-observation study of a Subaru-Isuzu plant located in the rural Midwest shows how the implementation of a team-based assembly line and “just-in-time” (JIT) production processes greatly increases the level of work stress experienced by employees, resulting in both individual and collective forms of resistance to managerial control efforts. Similarly, Barker’s (1993, 1999) study of an electronics company examines the effects of its transition from a hierarchical, bureaucratic form to team-based decision-making. Rooted in the earlier groundbreaking work of Tompkins and Cheney (1985), Barker shows how, over time, the employees autonomously developed a form of “concertive control” where work decisions are made based on “value premises” that are internally generated by the teams themselves. As such, work teams produce an internally generated “disciplinary” form of control that, Barker suggests, is far more intrusive on individual workers’ autonomy than the old centralized management structure.

Barker’s study speaks not only to a transformation in the structure of organizing in the late 20th century, but also to a change in the theoretical tools employed to examine this shift. While critical studies of power and resistance in the Fordist workplace drew principally on neo-Marxist traditions (Gramsci, Althusser, Habermas, etc.), studies of post-Fordist work drew largely on developments in post-structuralism (and particularly the work of Foucault) to explain the new regime of power (and resistance to it) that characterized post-Fordism. Broadly speaking, one might characterize the analytic shift that accompanied this new empirical reality as one that moved from a focus on ideological struggle under Fordism, to a focus on processes of discipline and governmentality under post-Fordism and neoliberalism. From an organizational communication perspective, such a shift recognizes the increasing importance of organizations as communicative sites of power, meaning, and identity formation.

From Ideology to Discipline and Governmentality

Critical organization studies in the 1970s and1980s favored analyses of the relationship between ideology and power/resistance, with a focus on how communication and discourse processes functioned to systematically distort underlying material relations of power. In much of this research, possibilities for resistance and social transformation were seen as defused by the ways in which discourse ideologically reframed sectional interests as universal, reified social realities as natural, and obscured underlying contradictions (Deetz, 1992; Giddens, 1979). Many of these analyses accepted as given the Fordist split between a hegemonic managerial class and a subordinated and/or resistant employee class. The emergence of post-Fordist organizing, however, brought into play a different set of conceptual tools for understanding the transformation of the relations of production and its attendant capital accumulation process. In particular, critical researchers began to examine the novel ways in which communication and discourse processes became closely connected to the intensification of human capital in every sphere of human life, including life beyond the workplace.

In this context, the work of Foucault (1979, 1980, 2008) has been particularly influential. Rejecting what he termed “sovereign” or top-down models of power associated with traditional political theory, Foucault (1980) argued that power should not be seen as a negative force—something that is imposed on people and that prohibits and negates—but rather as productive and dispersed throughout the social body. Power, for Foucault, is intimately connected to knowledge. That is, the central issue is not discovering what is true and what is false, but rather creating a history of truth in which the “games of truth” are identified. That is, how do particular “truth effects” make particular subjects possible? For Foucault, then, power is productive in the sense that it produces particular subjects, truths, and systems of inclusion and exclusion.

In its application to critical organization studies of power and resistance, Foucault’s work has been taken up in two broad ways: through his conception of “disciplinary power” (Foucault, 1979) and through his notions of biopower and neoliberal governmentality (Foucault, 2008). With disciplinary power, the main focus is the individual subject. That is, what kind of self is produced through the application of disciplinary mechanisms? Most famously captured by Foucault’s use of the metaphor of the Panopticon, knowledge in this sense is a field visibility that normalizes and individualizes social actors. Such a notion of discipline can be used to analyze management theories from Taylorism to corporate culture to Toyotism, each of which constructs a different employee-subject about which managerial knowledge is generated. With biopower and neoliberal governmentality, on the other hand, the main focus is “life itself.” Biopower is a diffuse apparatus of control intended to encourage flows of capital within the marketplace. In this sense, Foucault argues, human beings and capital are fused, and social problems are framed in terms of investment or divestment in human capital. As such, social relations are entirely mediated by the market. As Munro (2012) indicates in contrasting disciplinary and biopower, “Instead of fixing bodies and confining them, they are being encouraged to circulate, to exchange and, most importantly, to compete” (p. 53). Thus, while the principal form of subjectification produced through disciplinary apparatuses was the docile, useful, and normalized individual, the exercise of biopower through neoliberal governmentality constitutes subjects as (embodied) human capital, constantly engaged in competitive social relations through the construction and ongoing management of an entrepreneurial self.

Neoliberal governmentality thus entails a new conception of the subject, in which social actors are to be governed as autonomous and responsible individuals, freely choosing how to behave and act—what has been termed an “enterprise” or “entrepreneurial” self (Bröckling, 2016; Du Gay, 1996; Miller & Rose, 2008). The post-Fordist workplace, then, can be seen as a principal site through which the neoliberal subject is produced and reproduced. Work and identity are articulated together in ways closely connected to the particular conception of freedom and democracy built into neoliberal political and economic thought and practice—a form of freedom rooted in the market and entrepreneurial behavior.

Such a conception of the working subject is summoned by the post-Fordist and neoliberal restructuring of work and the workplace itself, in which Fordist career stability and strong internal labor markets have been replaced with insecurity, precarity, and employee hypermobility (Kalleberg, 2009; Ross, 2003). This shift in the nature of work reflects the corporate pursuit of improved returns through the creation of “leaner” organizations in which “unnecessary” (i.e., costly) functions (HR, customer service, custodial work, parts production, etc.) are externalized and only “core” functions (product creation, branding, etc.) are retained—a process that Weil (2014) argues has resulted in the “fissured” workplace. For example, out of a global workforce of 750,000 dedicated to making Apple products, Apple directly employs only 63,000 of those workers. Indeed, it is these “core” workers who are most subject to the discourse of the market and entrepreneurialism described above, and who must continually reinvent themselves to retain their value to the company. As Neff (2012) has effectively illustrated in her qualitative study of unemployed Silicon Alley high-tech workers, many such workers have internalized this discourse of precariousness, recognizing that the system of “venture capital” of the old Fordist system has become “venture labor” under post-Fordism. In other words, in the post-Fordist workplace much of the risk of doing business has also been externalized.

For the most part, critical organization studies have focused much more heavily on the disciplinary aspects of contemporary organizational life than on the exercise of biopower in the process of organizing. Focus generally has been on how managerial discourses and practices produce and regulate the “appropriate individual” (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002) in the context of post-Fordist organizing processes. Consistent with Foucault’s focus on the relationship between the subject and power, many critical studies explore the various ways in which employees are the objects of knowledge of managerial discourses (e.g., Holmer Nadesan, 1997; Hoskin & Macve, 1986; Jacques, 1996; Knights & Willmott, 1999; McCabe, 2007; Townley, 1993, 1994; Tracy, 2000). Tracy’s (2000) Foucauldian ethnography of emotional labor on a cruise ship, for example, shows how employees engage in constant processes of self-surveillance in order to engage in appropriate displays of emotion in the presence of passengers. Her study effectively shows how disciplinary processes are enacted as forms of self-subordination. Jacques’s (1996) historical study explores how the very notion of “employee” is a construction of managerial discourse during the early days of industrial capitalism. The book shows how the creation of the idea of “employee” enabled an object of managerial knowledge to come into being. Through a genealogical analysis, Jacques explores how an ostensibly objective body of knowledge (managerial thought) is historically contingent and the product of particular “games of truth,” the goal of which is the disciplining and normalizing of the employee as an object of knowledge.

One of the main criticisms of this body of research is that its focus on disciplinary regimes within post-Fordism had led to the neglect of employee agency and forms of resistance to these regimes. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the heavy reliance on Foucault’s (1979) analysis of discipline has resulted in resistance being theorized out of organizational life (Newton, 1998; Thompson & Ackroyd, 1995). The principal critique here is that while Foucauldian studies have focused on the structure and function of managerial discourses and practices, by and large employee engagement with these discourses and practices has been overlooked. In this sense, it is argued, the actual empirical study of employee subjectivity has largely been ignored.

In the last few years, however, studies of employee resistance in the context of post-Fordist organizing processes have proliferated. Given the managerial focus on discourses of “identity regulation” as a principal disciplinary practice, it is not surprising that much of the resistance research has examined how employees negotiate these discourses. As such, resistance studies prioritize struggles over meaning and identity, invariably examining individual or micro-level rather than collective forms of resistance where “the self” and its definition is the focal point of struggle (e.g., Ashcraft, 2005; Collinson, 2003; Fleming & Sewell, 2002; Fleming & Spicer, 2003; Gabriel, 1999; Hardy & Phillips, 1999; Knights & Morgan, 1991; Knights & Vurdubakis, 1994; Roberts, 2005; Sotirin & Gottfried, 1999; Trethewey, 1997). In this context, researchers have examined how “discourses of managerialism” (Deetz, 1992) are resisted through everyday employee discursive strategies including humor (Lynch, 2002; Mumby, 2009; Rhodes & Westwood, 2007), irony (Trethewey, 1999), and cynicism (Fleming & Spicer, 2003), among others. Much of this research speaks to the relative instability of employee identity in the face of both increased organizational demands and increased precariousness of employment situations and concomitant employee efforts to secure greater “ontological security” (Giddens, 1991). Here Collinson (2003) usefully distinguishes between “ascribed” and “achieved” selves, with the latter capturing current neoliberal relations between self and work whereby employees attempt to counter a constant sense of insecurity by reflexively performing various selves (conformist, resistant, and dramaturgical). Collinson’s essay nicely captures how the self has become an important site of struggle in terms of corporate efforts to intensify the labor process and employee efforts to resist that process of intensification.

While this work has been useful in providing insight into struggles around meaning and identity, it has also been criticized for focusing on “decaf resistance” (Contu, 2008); that is, privileging the playful engagement with language and meaning in ways that disconnect resistance from its radical roots associated with social transformation. Such resistance, it is argued, leaves extant neoliberal power relations unchanged. Indeed, in an apparent confirmation of Contu’s argument, Fleming and Spicer (2003) show how cynicism functions ideologically to reproduce existing power relations precisely because we function under the illusion that—as cynics—we are not the victims of ideological obfuscation. Such a position fails to recognize how the ideology of cynicism confuses organizational control with internalization of organizational beliefs. That is, if one does not identify with the organization, then one is not subject to control. However, as Fleming and Spicer show, subjectivity is not “interior” to the individual but rather externalized in sedimented organizational practices. Thus, one can be cynical about one’s place of work while at the same time behaving in ways that actively serve its ends. Struggles around discourse and meaning, then, frequently leave the materiality of organizational power relations intact.

More recently the study of power as enacted through neoliberal governmentality has come to the fore in critical organization studies (Fleming, 2014b; Hatchuel, 1999; Munro, 2012). In this regard, Fleming’s (2014b) development of the concept of “biocracy” is useful. Adopting this term to describe the exercise of biopower in work contexts, Fleming argues that the post-Fordist regime of power promotes freedom of expression and “lifestyle” attitudes to work in contrast to Fordist efforts to discipline and control employees. This new regime of power is both medium and outcome of the neoliberal conception of human beings not simply as participants in an economic exchange relationship, but as the living embodiment of capital. Fleming identifies four elements that distinguish biocracy from other previous regimes of workplace power:

  1. 1. Social subjectivity. Under biocracy the social aspects of work are highly cultivated and viewed as an important source of value production. This contrasts significantly with work-life under Fordism, where managerial efforts focused on eliminating any forms of informal interaction, deemed antithetical to productive work. Under post-Fordism, workers are encouraged to bring creativity and spontaneity to their work. Such creativity, it is argued, also requires that organizations allow employees to bring their “authentic selves” to work in order to promote full engagement with work, thus emphasizing the lack of distinction between work and life (Fleming, 2009). Thus, while the “corporate culture” craze of the 1980s and 1990s expected employee identification with and commitment to a clearly defined culture, the new biocratic organization attempts to capture the workers’ unique personal attributes and ability to self-organize and put them to work to create profit.

  2. 2. Space. While Fordist organizations maintained a strict spatial separation of work and non-work, post-Fordist organizations attempt to eliminate this bifurcation as a way to access “life itself.” In other words, aspects of the self traditionally associated with the non-work realm (home life, personality, sexuality, “lifestyle” activities, etc.) are increasingly incorporated into the official site of work as a way to draw on the cultural and social capital of employees. Moreover, the blurring of work and non-work boundaries makes it increasingly difficult for employees to distinguish between their professional and non-professional identities.

  3. 3. Time. Under Fordism work was carefully and strictly punctuated; the beginning and end of the workday was calibrated to the minute or second, with strict enforcement of rules regarding breaks in the working day. Processes of control were premised on the ability of managers to intensify the labor process at the point of production. Under post-Fordism, the blurring of the spatial boundaries between work and non-work contexts are accompanied by increasingly ambiguous distinctions between time “at” work and time “away” from work. Under biocracy the pressure to work is diffused well beyond “official” working hours, as post-Fordist organizations increasingly exploit the extent to which work, identity, and entrepreneurialism are linked under neoliberalism.

  4. 4. Economic valorization. Post-Fordist organizations increasingly draw on unpaid labor as a way to increase surplus value. Here, “unpaid labor” refers not to those employed directly by an organization (e.g., unpaid interns) but to forms of “communicative labor” that occur as people engage with company products and meanings, or else engage in social interaction via branded meanings and products. For example, companies now routinely create online discussion sites that enable customers to help each other solve technical problems; bloggers (typically women) blog about their daily lives, incorporating discussion of branded products (e.g., specific brands of clothing) into their accounts; and gamers provide innovations for new editions of online games.

Taken together, these elements of post-Fordism point to a fundamental shift in the power dynamics of organizational life. In particular, they draw attention to how, under neoliberal capitalism, the new struggle is not just between capital and labor but between capital and life; that is, all life potentially becomes work by virtue of capital’s ability to capture it in order to produce economic value. A number of theorists—particular those coming out of the Autonomist Marxist tradition—have referred to this development as the rise of the “social factory,” in which the production of value occurs outside the formally designated employment context (Gill & Pratt, 2008; Hardt & Negri, 1999; Land & Taylor, 2010; Lazzarato, 2004). In particular, researchers point to capitalism’s shift away from the exploitation of material labor in the formal employment relationship as the means by which to produce surplus value, toward the exploitation of immaterial labor, the goal of which is the production of value through meaning and signification. In this sense, value-adding work takes the form of communication, with the concomitant erosion of the distinction between work and life. Capital, then, is socialized to the degree that it is “becoming part of the very environment, the bio-political context in which life is lived” (Arvidsson, 2006, p. 30).

A good example of this process is Land and Taylor’s (2010) qualitative study of a “new age” clothing company. Land and Taylor show how the primary product of the company is not the clothing itself, but rather the ecological messages that are built into the company brand. An important part of the value-adding process, however, is the immaterial labor of the company employees. This involves not just their formal work designing T-shirts and advertising the brand, but also the active incorporation of their “off-duty” leisure activities into brand management and promotion. As Land and Taylor indicate, employee leisure activities (e.g., kayaking, skateboarding) become an important source of economic exchange value as they are “captured” by corporate discourse in order to enhance the authenticity of the brand.

In sum, we can point to the confluence of a number of factors within neoliberal governmentality and post-Fordist organizing that speak to the exercise of a regime of power that is distinct from that exercised under Fordism. These include: (1) the increased role of communication in constituting social actors’ relation to work and, indeed, in constituting economic value; (2) the increasingly diffuse and dispersed nature of power that saturates most aspects of life, creating a “social factory” in which all forms and contexts for interaction are potentially monetizable; (3) the emergence in the last 30 years of an “enterprise culture” in which identity construction and personal fulfillment is enabled through a full engagement with a market mentality in all spheres of life—work, home, relationships, etc.; and (4) the institutionalization of risk, insecurity, and precariousness under neoliberalism combined with its transfer from companies to employees and individuals—a shift that Neff (2012) describes as a transformation from venture capitalism to “venture labor.”

The issue of resistance becomes particularly complex if, indeed, the site of struggle has shifted from that between capital and labor to that between capital and life. If there appears to be no “outside” to work, if life unfolds entirely within capital (Arvidsson, 2006), then how do spaces for resistance emerge? At least two possibilities seem to be developing. First, a number of writers are addressing the possibilities for refusal; that is, rather than engage in resistance practices within the sphere of work, there is a move toward refusal of the premises on which work in neoliberal capitalism is built (Fleming, 2014a; Frayne, 2015; Paulsen, 2014, 2015). Paulsen (2014), for example, has coined the term “empty labor” to problematize the notion that post-Fordist work environments are all-encompassing and that the intensification of the labor process is an endemic feature of such work. As his study suggests, many employees spend a great deal of their time at work (sometimes half or more of their working hours) engaged in private, non-work, activities. As he indicates, this means that “wage labor does not always include work” (2015, p. 362). Indeed, his study brings us back to the original Marxist premise that what capital purchases is not a specific amount of labor, but the potential to labor (i.e., labor time). In this sense, Paulsen’s study points to the complexity of the labor process under post-Fordism and the frequent inability of managers to understand what “work” means. Such studies speak to the Autonomist Marxist argument that the very conditions that create insecurity and precarity also provide the possibilities for novel connections and movements that can result in a radical transformation of the social (Hardt & Negri, 1999). In this sense, the “common” always exceeds the ability of the global capitalism to capture it.

Second, the last few years have seen the emergence of a number of global movements for social justice, many of which attempt to connect the global circuits of capital to social, political, and economic inequities across issues of class, race, sexuality, geography, etc. In this sense, there has been a call for a “globalization from below,” which pits grassroots movements against the power of transnational corporations (TNCs) and the transfer of wealth to a mobile class of super-rich (Ganesh et al., 2005; Hardt & Negri, 1999, 2004). In organizational communication studies specifically, scholars are increasingly adopting post-colonial perspectives to explore the intersections of organizing, globalization, and the possibilities for social transformation (Broadfoot & Munshi, 2007; Papa, Auwal, & Singhal, 1995; Ul-Haq & Westwood, 2012). The Occupy movement, locally organized resistance against corporate privatization of public resources like water (e.g., Otto & Bohm, 2006), collective organizing against food insecurity, among others, all point to the possibilities for collective efforts that move beyond the micro-politics of everyday life and present real challenges to macro-level structures of power. All these examples speak to the possibilities for grassroots organizing as an essential form of engagement with structures of power and, indeed, a more praxis-oriented (Gramsci, 1971; Mumby, 1997) approach to resistance and change than much of the recent “decaf” research of resistance suggests is possible.


The purpose of this article has been to provide an overview of research that examines the relationship between power and resistance in organizations. First, it argued that although power was not a focus of study until the 1970s, it has implicitly framed management research since its inception in the early 20th century, as researchers sought to address the structural antagonism between capital and labor. Thus, even when management theories did not explicitly address workplace power issues, they can be read as rhetorics or ideologies (Barley & Kunda, 1992) that attempt to construct antagonistic workplace relations as cooperative. In general, the historical trajectory of management thought has been to move from coercive to more consensual conceptions of power and control. Building on this shift to consensus-based conceptions of organizational power, the article then examined the relationships among power, ideology, and resistance, with particular focus on the Marxist-inspired labor process theory tradition that emerged in the 1970s. Inspired by the work of Braverman (1974), research in this tradition returned to the roots of Marx’s analysis of capital through examination of the consequences of the indeterminacy of labor. Exploring the processes—discursive and non-discursive—through which this indeterminacy of labor plays out in the workplace, scholars in the labor process tradition examine the intersection of power and resistance “at the point of production” as capital seeks to both secure and obscure surplus value and employees seek to retain autonomy.

This process is complicated, however, with the shift from Fordist to post-Fordist organizations and from Keynesian to neoliberal capitalism. With this shift, communication processes become more central to capitalism as the site of struggle over surplus value production shifts from the indeterminacy of labor to the indeterminacy of meaning (Mumby, 2016). In other words, value is increasingly tied to the ability of organizations to both capture social processes and tie employees’ identity management to the labor process. In this sense, “Contemporary capitalism does not first arrive with factories; these follow, if they follow at all. It arrives with words, signs, and images” (Lazzarato, 2004, p. 190). Such a shift has far-reaching implications for the place of work in life, given its potential to capture all of life in order to create economic value.

Finally, it should be noted that the relationship between power and resistance is increasingly complex, as what “counts” as an organization has become more problematic. Under Fordism, it was—relatively speaking—possible to fairly clearly identify the stakeholders in the struggle for control over the labor process. Under post-Fordism the actual sites of labor have proliferated to such an extent that leisure and labor are increasingly co-constituted (Gregg, 2011). In this sense, the locus of the power-resistance relationship has shifted. Particularly as the “enterprise self” has become a ubiquitous and defining feature of identity management processes, economic calculability has become a defining feature of our broader life projects. In this sense, resistance is perhaps less about opposing—individually or collectively—the capitalist production process and more about finding ways to refuse engagement with this process entirely.

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