Review: The Formative Context of Organizational Hierarchies and Discourse by Crawford & Mills (2011)

Crawford, Janet Bell and Albert J. Mills (2011): The Formative Context of Organizational Hierarchies and Discourse: Implications for Organizational Change and Gender Relation GWO Gender, Work and Organization. Volume 18 Number S1

The aim of Crawford & Mills’ article
Crawford’s & Mills’ aim with this article is to develop Roberto Unger’s Constructive Social Theory with notions on:

– Organisational Hierarchy
– Organisational Discourse (language)
– Organisational change

Crawford & Mills apply Unger’s theory to an understanding of gender relations at work – they apply it to a current problem: employment equity.
Crawford & Mills base the employment equity on statistics from Canada where women fill far to few executive roles (only 15,1%) compared to men.

Unger’s theory
Unger believes that society is made and imagined – therefore it can be re-made and re-imagined. He believes that former theories limit human possibility by creating deterministic lists of frameworks and routines (he both mentions positivist science and deep-structure logic social theories). Therefore his theory has a formative concept, which means fundamental institutional arrangements, shared preconceptions, beliefs and values (social framework). These are taken-for-granted arrangements and shared beliefs that give coherence and continuity to the roles people enact and that guide how interests are defined and problems are approached. In tune with that he believes that each element of the formative context is revisable. Each changed element contributes to cumulative change and resulting in changes in formative contexts and formed activities and routines. The accumulation of change through incremental changes could eventually result in total reconstruction of social frameworks (the formative context). Thus Unger means that constructive social theory results in emancipation from a context where people are bound, passive objects and victims of the formative institutional and imaginative contexts people have created (e.g. roles and ranks).
Another important aspect of Unger’s vision is that social reconstruction depends upon agency and praxis. People have to act in order to get changes – they do not happen by themselves.

According to Unger language is socially constructed and maintained. Therefore language is the core of the change process. Language is a powerful enabler, but for organizational change to occur utilizing language as a lever it must be promoted, supported and practiced by those in positions of authority. This view makes Unger’s theory a top-down theory – meaning that change has to come from the top of the hierarchy.

Additional to Unger’s theory
Crawford & Mills mention the theorist Fiol that uses three phases in change theory: de-identification, re-identification and identification. De-identification means reducing the strength of the value individuals place on old organizational identities, e.g. to remove masculine and gender exclusive words such as “man hours” or saying “him” about an executive. Re-identification means encouraging a new identity e.g. replacing gender-exclusive words and phrases with gender-inclusive words and phrases. Identification illustrates replacing one formed routine with another, resulting in a shift in formative context, so basically a change of core ideology.

According to Crawford and Mills it is possible to change an organisation. Change is possible by:
– Acknowleding there is a problem.
– Active change of discourse – this starts by changing the everyday language.
– Changing the discourse incremental and cumulative, which is why change takes time and is a slow process.

So by changing a discourse in an organization you can change the organization itself. Crawford & Mills use the military as an example of a work setting with male dominance. By applying this theory, the military work setting should in theory be changed into a more gender neutral setting.

The quality of the article
The article is quite interesting since it offers some concrete tools for changing a problem – or changing a discourse. Any kind of organization wanting to make changes can in principle profit from this view. Nevertheless the article lacks empirical data and it is therefore difficult to say whether this theory is usable or not. Furthermore the article does not provide any time limit for a change to happen. I could imagine that a workplace would want to have some sort of a future prospect before they start a theoretical based perspective in practice. Unger says that depending on the entrenchment of the arrangements and preconceptions the more rigidly defined the hierarchies and roles, the longer a change takes – but exactly how long the article does not say.


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