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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Passion with an Umbrella:
Grassroots Activism in the Workplace

Maureen Scully and Amy Segal

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Task Force Working Paper #WP13

Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference “Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999


Approaches to change tend to be too cynical or too sanguine. We found that neither we nor the activists we interviewed were in a position to conclude whether optimism was misguided or warranted. Suspended judgment may be the only stance in the face of an organizational change that is fraught with dualities and characterized by piecemeal efforts. This new approach to social action may be consistent with a postmodern temperament. Postmodern theorists such as Lyotard (1984) encourage us to reconsider and move beyond grand, totalizing theories, such as Marxism, Freudianism, or Darwinism, and look instead to local, contextualized accounts of everyday sense-making and action (Nicholson, 1990).

A new approach to understanding change is occasioned. For example, if a totalizing theory like Marxism prevails to explain the status quo, then anything short of fundamental questioning of the bases of capitalism on the part of employees will appear to be a mere trifling with superficial change, a case of "false consciousness." By such a standard of dissent, the actions we observed do not seem very dramatic and believers in their efficacy seem naive.

However, if a set of local accounts is substituted, change can be conceptualized differently. Local accounts are more likely to emphasize multiple factors that give stability to power relations, but that do so in a way that is both reinforcing and precarious. Sources of disruption exist alongside forces of reproduction and may come unexpectedly from surprising quarters in ways that cannot be predicted and do not fall into one theoretical story line. Blackler (1992:282) urges organizational theorists to incorporate alternative approaches to change, drawing, for example, upon the work of critical legal theorists such as Unger (1987): "Anomalies and inconsistencies within an existing context help expose its general nature...Changes in formative contexts [the arrangements and beliefs that people take for granted] piecemeal." If we take this view of social life, then the piecemeal actions we observed may shift power relations, sometimes haltingly and modestly, sometimes suddenly and more profoundly. We do not have to wait for a wildcat strike to be sure that radical change is happening. The depiction of activists as guerrillas, rather than an organized phalanx, is appropriate to symbolize how they attack the status quo sporadically and from different directions. Taking this view, the menu of types of change can be expanded and more styles of radical action can be appreciated.

Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether we should be hopeful or pessimistic about the prospects for altering power relations. Blackler (1992:282) may be too sanguine in asserting that, "Cumulatively such [piecemeal] changes can significantly change a formative context." A postmodern approach should not be an invitation to conclude too happily that many small actions will add up to a big change. Nor should it require concluding nothing at all. Feminists have critiqued postmodernism for leaving room for agnosticism about social actions (e.g., Moi, 1985).

It is tempting to return to a grand theory or overarching account that can give us standards by which to gauge whether real change has happened and to expose when there has been too little change relative to the vastness of inequality. The problem is that a grand theory becomes not a useful umbrella but an all-encompassing and inescapable shield; it hides the significance of local action. At the same time, looking at the fragmented action revealed by a postmodern stance can leave us frustrated that we lack some overarching point of reference. This lack is all the more disconcerting when we care about how people make change in the face of palpable inequality. Postmodern agnosticism makes it hard to take a stand, but sometimes our efforts to redress inequalities will make us say, simply and declaratively, that there is too much inequality. Parker (1995) lays out such a stance, which retains skepticism and conviction.

This paper begins the project of calling for a new way to think about change without being too cynical or too sanguine. We want an intermediate approach to change that allows us to be sanguine enough to say that change has happened (attention to the local) and cynical enough to say that the changes are not enough (a grand theory that makes evaluative claims). Activists within organizations need the umbrella that top management can provide in order to enact their passions. This umbrella cannot be too encompassing nor confining: activists need the space to voice their passions and experiment with strategies for change. Similarly, we conclude this paper with the sense that researchers need the umbrella of some kind of modest or middle-level theory in order to make passionate claims about the nature and sufficiency of resistance and change within organizations. The alternatives are too big an umbrella (grand theory) or no handle at all on which to hang fragmented observations (dispersed local accounts). Organizational researchers and activists alike may need both passion and an umbrella.

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