Investigating lived experiences of organisational change through images and pictures

Louise Grisoni and Sylwia Ciuk
Oxford Brookes University


Organisational change, and organisational restructuring as a particular type of change, has enjoyed considerable attention from scholars and practitioners for a number of years. Much has been written on the topic from a predominantly managerial viewpoint with texts investigating the formal side of change including planning, implementation and evaluation of change initiatives. However, the lived experiences of change by those most affected have been relatively underexplored. A number of scholars (e.g. Sturdy and Grey, 2003; Kiefer 2002; Vince and Broussine, 1996; Fineman, 1993), have indicated that organisational changes are ‘very emotive events’ (Kiefer, 2002) and suggest that there is a need to incorporate a deep understanding of the emotional experiences of organisational members in order to better understand the organisation. Recently this interest has extended into the area of institutional work (Voronov and Vince 2012). As academic researchers in organisational studies we were interested in gaining insights into lived experiences, wanting to find out more about how the change process impacted on different staff groups and better understand how the changes affected the work of the organisation.

Our study focuses on a mid-range UK Higher Education Institution (HEI) which had recently embarked on a whole organisation restructure. In the UK, as with many HEIs worldwide, there is pressure to manage resources effectively, and many are undergoing significant organisational restructuring to address the need to be successful in an increasingly competitive global environment. Furedi speaks of ‘a new managerial ideology of quality efficiency and enterprise’ which has shaped higher education since the 1990’s. (2006:32) Typically, and in line with ideas around ’new managerialism’ in the Higher Education sector (Deem 2000, Deem and Brehony 2005) restructuring  includes a reduction in the number of organising units (Faculties/Departments/Schools), devolution of management responsibility from Faculty level to Departments/Schools and differing degrees of centralisation/devolution of administrative services and functions (Rich 2006). In our case study, major organisational restructuring involved a redesign of the whole administrative structure and significant changes to the academic structure (reduction of number of Schools and Faculties). All administrative staff and academic staff at the level of programme lead and above, many of whom had been with the university for significant parts of their professional lives, received ‘at risk’ letters and had to re-apply for their current role or new ones where these had changed. The purpose of the restructuring was officially aimed at improving the efficient functioning of the university, bringing consistency between faculties and roles with the aim to facilitate more cross Faculty working. Restructuring, as a project, lasted one year, however it was reported not to have been fully completed three years into the process.

In this paper, we introduce our research project, context and methodology. The particular focus of the paper is to critically examine our chosen methodology which included a mix of ethnographic, semi-structured interviews and visual methods, using images and collages, to access lived experiences. In addition, our research seeks contribute to an understanding of the emotional aspects of institutional work as identified by Vince and Voronov (2012). We understand institutional work referring to ‘the purposive action of individuals and organisations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting organizations’ (Lawrence, Suddaby and Leca 2009:215). Voronov and Vince acknowledge that ‘although the emotional underpinnings of institutional work have been acknowledged, they have not been systematically theorized or empirically investigated’ (2013:58). In our research we have given participants a voice to their experiences of change. We have grouped narratives associated with particular images and considered differences in experiences between groups of staff. Three of the most frequently chosen images have been selected to illustrate the complex, multi-layered and often conflicting views of the experiences of organisational change and associated emotions. We will conclude with a reflexive discussion of findings, strengths, limitations, dilemmas and recommendations for further study.

In the next section we establish the rationale for using visual inquiry methods to inquire into lived experiences of organisational change.

Why work with visual inquiry methods to make sense of organisational change?

In recognition of the emotional impact of organisational change we recognise that the way people interact with each other and perform their roles will be affected. In order to understand the impact of change on individuals and the organisation, we needed to access emotions and move them from the exclusive inner realm of the individual in order to concentrate on them as a pivotal means of social interaction through which we can make sense of experiences (Page, Grisoni and Turner 2013). We follow Brearley and Darso (2008) in their desire to find new ways to evoke the texture and complexity of experiences in organisational life and consider that methods which encourage non-representational reflections, allow for a less restricted range of connections and interpretation to be made, provoking more nuanced and contingent interpretations of and approaches to organizational inquiry. Such inquiry focuses more and more on the powerful irrational processes that influence organizational life and as such ‘any attempt to understand an organization must incorporate a deep understanding of the emotional experiences of its members’ (Barner, 2008:121).

Visual methodologies, as with other arts based forms of inquiry, allows for the possibility that we know more than we can say; and that the images access the range of human emotion making a more holistic contribution to our understanding (Grisoni 2012), an understanding that is derived or evoked through empathic experience  (Eisner 2008:7). Using images offers a compelling addition to more traditional research methods as Harper (2002) has further observed that interviews which employ visual images do not only elicit more information, but most importantly produce a different kind of information. Images ‘evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than do words’ (2002:13). Drawing on Barthes (1981) suggestion in relation to photographic images, we are interested in the elicitation that images provide.  Barthes distinguishes two aspects: denotative and connotative meanings associated with pictures. Denotative refers to literal descriptive meanings of an image – the culturally specific, apparent truth, evidence or objective reality that the image documents or denotes. Whereas connotative meanings refer to the cultural and historical context of a specific image as well as to the social conventions, codes and meanings that have been attached to or associated with a particular context and these meanings are developed out of lived experiences (Knowles and Cole 2008:43). The images may not contain new information but can trigger new meaning for the research participant (Collier, 1967; Schwartz, 1989). It is from the meanings ascribed to the images that we come to deeper understandings of the impact of organisational change and restructuring on individuals, their relationships to each other and to the organisation as a whole. As a result, visual research methods are well suited for value-laden issues which might otherwise trigger socially desirable answers (Meyerson, 1991). In addition, we hope that by using visual images we will learn more about participants’ experiences and be able to retrieve and explore the ‘marginalized, controversial, and disruptive perspectives that have often been lost in more traditional research methodologies.’ (Estrella and Fourinash 2007: 377). By encouraging participants to access and represent their emotional experience of a change process involving organisational restructuring, through the use of visual imagery, we aim to develop a rich picture which incorporates both emotions and events (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000). We want to be able to generate collective understandings of experiences and better understand how the change process has impacted of participants’ relationships to each other and to their work. In the next section we will describe how we worked with visual images and the methods used in our project.

Our Case Methodology

The primary inclusion criterion for the study was that participants were employed by the organisation when the restructuring announcement was made in 2011. Senior Managers had all gone through a process of reapplying for their roles and were responsible for implementing the changes. All administrative staff, as well as senior academic staff (from Head of Department and Programme Lead upwards) received severance letters and needed to apply for new roles. Some staff were promoted and others were not, some chose to take voluntary severance or retire early, others stayed on in lower graded roles with two-year protected salaries. Other levels of academic staff remained relatively less directly affected by the restructure although they may have new line managers and have moved Faculty or School. The specific timeframe selected for the study (2012-2013) was considered as an adequate time for the implications of the restructuring to start to crystallise and at the same time sufficiently recent for the participants to recall their experiences and particular events.

Our research methods included semi-structured interviews and focus groups. A total of 56 participants took part in the study.  We invited all those who had made a clear choice to leave the organisation in the course of the restructuring due to voluntary severance, early retirement or through career moves elsewhere to consider participating in the study. From a mail shot to 150 leavers, 16 responded and 12 were included in the study. Across the organisation other participants included: 9 senior managers; 13 academic staff, (including 6 leavers); 14 administrative support staff, (including 6 leavers). We also conducted 5 focus groups (totalling 18 participants) with groups of academic and administrative staff across the university. As a result, although the sample was not intended to be representative, we were able to collect a wide range of views collected into four distinct groups of staff. We wanted to build a qualitative, rich and nuanced picture of the lived experiences of organisational change. In addition, we included documentary analysis of relevant documents relating to the restructuring.
In face to face semi-structured interviews participants were invited to narrate their organisational history and career prior to restructuring and speak about what had happened to them during and following the restructuring process. The second part of the interview comprised an invitation to participants to select from a bank of 90 pre-selected images (chosen by the researchers from journals and magazines found in staff rooms), and assemble the images into a collage. This approach was developed by Ciuk (2011, 2012) and is labelled ‘narrative photo collages’. Participants were then invited to talk through their choices and feelings associated with the images and how they had chosen to group certain images together building a narrative of their lived experience of organisational change. This was a flexible process as any number of images could be selected and how images were grouped (or not) was left with the participant. An adapted process was used for the focus groups. One participant chose not to work with the images.

We have adopted a critical social research perspective investigating subjective thoughts and feelings in order to generate descriptive data (Silverman, 1997; Bogdan and Biklen, 1998). Our approach to qualitative research is therefore aimed to understand the micro-processes of everyday life in the critical tradition that questions the established social order with its dominant practices, ideologies and traditions. We combine content analysis for headline indicators with more nuanced thematic transcript analysis for in depth understandings of the data. The next section presents findings and discusses them at three levels, most frequently selected images; differences in choices made by group of staff: senior managers, academics, administrative support staff and leavers; lastly, how the combined messages build a picture of the impact of change on individuals and the organisation.

What are the messages behind the pictures?

In this section we present and discuss which images were chose and how participants grouped and narrated experiences of change around them. First, we provide an overview of which individual images were chosen most often and the emotions they evoked. Secondly we consider images chosen at a group level, including the three most frequently selected images by all groups. Finally we discuss a multi-perspective view of the emotions and responses to experiences of the change process represented by each group. Working with these three levels together we are able to offer a nuanced understanding of shifting emotions and their impact on the work of the organisation during the change process.

Pictures were purposely chosen by participants as they sifted through the 90 images, with no direction from researchers regarding how many to choose or how long to take. Our guidance was to select images that seemed to capture experiences of the change.  A time allocation of 60 minutes for the 2-part interview process was booked in diaries, but in several instances time overran to 90 minutes. We felt that it was important to give as much flexibility as possible to encourage participants engage as they preferred with the images in order to speak about their lived experiences of the change process. We noticed that participants engaged differently with this part of our data collection process. Some worked methodically allocating pictures into ‘accept’, ‘reject’ and ‘don’t know’ piles, then worked through the ‘don’t know’ piles for final decisions. Others spread the images out on the table and picked up the ones they wanted to keep. In focus groups some worked individually and then pooled their choices for a final group selection, others worked as a group from the start. The image selection process varied from 10 - 20 minutes, with virtually all engaged enthusiastically in a process which was unfamiliar territory for them.

Content analysis provides some headline findings where the range of images chosen varied from 4– 47 in number with senior managers choosing least, followed by focus groups, administrative support staff, leavers and academic staff selecting most. The table below shows the number of pictures selected by participants in each group. We would not recommend drawing any firm conclusions from the number of images chosen, for example: fewest images might lead us to conclude that these participants were least engaged in this part of the data collection process. Focus groups tended to select fewer final images, but took longer to discuss each selection and the various associations to them before making a final choice. Senior mangers tended to choose fewer images and this may be indicative of the operation of decision making processes within limited time availability. There is, however, a case to suggest that those most distressed by the change process chose most images, with similar images reinforcing particular aspects rather than selecting one image to represent the feeling or event. Difficulties in selection could in itself being a feature of distress, where little synthesis of what is more important or relevant is hard. One person (a ‘Leaver’) chose not to work with the images at all preferring to take a position of commentary on the whole process of change rather than tell a personal story.

Table 1.Number of images selected by participants by staff group.

Some participants created collages with groupings of images representing different aspects of experience or flow of events; others worked through each picture in turn and then placed their picture on the table to create a collage. Some images were chosen as they were representative of something: a feeling/emotion (confused, happy, sad, anger etc); an event (communication briefing events, the interview); or specific features or artefacts representing the organisation (a building site, students, colleagues, books and papers). In this way we can say that participants were working in both connotative and denotative ways with the images. (Barthes 1981, Knowles and Cole 2008).

I.    Individual Images

Not all pictures were chosen and some (7) were not selected at all. Those not selected included: a young waitress; a face of a sweating man; a UFO mask; a man looking through a camera lens; a formation of flying birds; communal hot baths and an image of a vampire about to take a bite. It is possible to group the images in relation to positive or negative connotations which catch the emotions that were present in many of the interviews (see appendix A), and many highly charged narratives were collected depicting the lived experience of change as a traumatic event:

‘I think the level of appreciation about how this was affecting us as individual people…[was missing](Academic)

‘It just completely overtook everything, every conversation. Hours and hours every day were spent talking about it’ (Administrator)

‘our world stopped and turned upside down …’(Administrator)

Those images eliciting negative associations (46) included narratives of control, feeling under threat, fearful, pressured, sad, belittled, disappointed, confused, uncertain and resistant. These were most represented in academics and administrators narratives. For example a picture of a woman in silhouette evoked the following response from one participant:

A sad image. It’s feeling lonely. It was difficult to find somebody who could relate to how I was feeling. (Academic)

For pictures that evoked more positive imagery (37), participants spoke of feeling supported, protected, hopeful, courageous and survival. Senior managers’ narratives were most positive, with fewer examples found amongst leavers who expressed hope that the restructuring would restore the organisation’s confidence and hope for a successful future.  There were also some who felt they had survived a difficult period of time and felt stronger for it. A few felt positive about the opportunities on offer, for example a picture of ‘people parachuting into fields’:

I think that is a positive one. New job, new opportunity. It is a bit of parachuting into a new role. It’s a sunny day. Green fields. You know, challenges. That’s how I felt in the summer of 2011. I thought “Well, this is not so bad. New opportunities here.”(Academic)

Some images elicited both positive and negative connotations at the same time. These tended to reflect strong interpersonal relations amongst per groups, in the face of external threat, most associated with senior managers. For example, an image of people under an umbrella sheltering from rain, collegiality (positive) in the face of adversity (negative):

This is – how I think a lot of people felt. In the shelter and under an umbrella. Stormy weather. There was a sense of collegiality around. People who had helped each other for a long time huddling together under an umbrella waiting for the storm to clear. (Administrator)

These illustrations of individual images help provide an indication of the intensity of feeling attached to the experiences of change. We found that several images quickly became grouped together in the collages producing an overall picture of a non-listening command and control approach to change which was experienced as judgemental and threatening by many. The disruption caused to both individuals and to the organisation through the process adopted of voluntary severance, recruitment and selection to new roles was significant and much tacit organisational knowledge about systems and procedures was lost or broken. Fundamentally, whilst some aspects of the restructuring, such as common structures across the university may have resulted in new productive connections between people, for others the reasons for the restructuring were not believed or accepted. Where this was the case participants also spoke of a lack of direction and vision for the organisation. Many felt that there was a mismatch between the stated aims of the restructuring and other goals mainly around efficiency savings. This led to a mocking cynical view of leadership in the organisation encapsulated in the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ image which described below represented uncertainty, muddle and incompetence. Responses to this varied and included resistance, disappointment, sadness, survival and hope. The next section considers how different groups of staff selected different imagery and begins to develop a narrative of change that demonstrates different perspectives according to staff group.

II Group Level Images

Different groupings of staff were drawn to particular images. The table below shows the images most frequently selected by each group. Three images stand out across all groups: ‘Red lecture room’; ‘Charlie Chaplin’ and ‘Books and Papers’ and these will each be discussed in turn. Each group chose different images for example, senior managers’ choices were more positive including: ‘man on springs’ and ‘orchestra’. By contrast images chosen most frequently by academic staff included: ‘Chinese army’ and ‘watch’ and those by administrative support staff include: ‘judge and jury’ and ‘clouds over people’. Leavers follow the choices made by others but ‘building site’ is an additional image of relevance to this group. Focus group choices of images most frequently selected include: ‘scar dog’; ‘police cordons’; ‘man, arms folded’ in addition to those already mentioned.

Table 2: Most frequently selected images by group of staff.

‘Red Lecture Room’

This image depicts a lecture style room with red seating. There are few people in the audience and a panel of people on the stage with one delivering an address. For many this image represents a key moment in the change process when the plans for restructuring were announced. Many were sceptical of the messages behind the need for restructuring, not convinced by the benefits that structural reconfiguring would benefit student experience and research synergies.

And this is a photograph of people being told what’s happening. Right, this is perhaps illustrative of how I felt that the changes were being communicated. Communication being essentially a one-way process where you’re asked to go to a meeting but you be told what’s happening, whereas communication is actually a two-way process. (Academic)

‘Charlie Chaplin’

This image was a still from a Charlie Chaplin black and white film. Two characters are stood in a factory by a machine and Charlie Chaplin is scratching his head. For some the image represented themselves and the uncertainty and competition they felt with colleagues.

This is me.A little bit confused.Thinking about the future.Thinking suspiciously about that guy with the hat on. It obviously looks like he’s older than me, you know but that’s somehow how I felt about the future – not quite so sure what’s gonna happen to the faculty, not so sure about what’s gonna happen to me. So that feeling of uncertainty and waiting in a sense. (Academic)

For others the Charlie Chaplin figure was a figure to have fun poked at, representing senior managers not knowing what impact the restructuring was having on other staff, not being clear about whether the changes would be successful.

Look at these people in charge of the process... you get the feeling of nothing getting done, and not being able to get on with it and all around  there’s all this disruption and confusion. (Administrator)

I like this one because obviously the idea is that something was being built but – and obviously in the picture something is being built – but they’re making a heck of a mess in the meantime. (Academic)

‘Books and Papers’

This image depicts metal shelving packed full of files, books and papers. For some this was representative of how they were being treated:

why should I be… pushed out, you know, because I don’t particularly want to do… to change now, when I’ve got a few years left. But I want to do my best and give my best to the job and to the Faculty, because it means a lot to me, [quietly] and I have pride in what I do. [Louder] Yes, and where we’re just being bundled up and… put on the shelves, and… I don’t know…we’re just being… your support staff [being treated as] one big mass, where we are all individuals and we all have important parts to play, really… (Administrator)

And for another the books and papers represented increasing bureaucracy:

Again, the perception is that there is far more bureaucracy. I’m trying to count the number of times that’s been said. (Academic)

III. Different perspectives of change and their impact on work

The discussion that follows illustrates different interpretations of images from each staff group, providing a multi-vocal view of experiences and emotions in relation to change.

Senior managers’ perspective

Positive images of change were a feature of senior manager’s perspective, with a forward looking perspective. This was indicated by choices of a picture of an orchestra with everyone working collaboratively from their particular part in the organisation:

Well… somebody has got a cello, somebody has got a violin, but they are with other violins and there are with other cellos… but they’re all contributing to the whole.... That’s what we’re all about, the students and that’s what it’s all for… teamwork or hands on the cello… Everybody working together to produce a beautiful effect. (Senior manager)

The ‘Orchestra’ picture viewed from an academic perspective plays down the creative and collaborative aspect of different parts working together and speaks more of imposition and control, everyone working towards a single direction, being part of a whole, rather than independent operating units. Taken in context these quotes have tinge of regret and resistance about them.

Ok, the orchestra picture – that’s how I saw the restructuring impact – we were all playing the same tune and walking in the same direction. Every faculty in the university is in line with the strategy. (Academic)

I think it’s the reality of being part of a much bigger organisation and people have been used to being in separate Schools, we are now part of the University, not a small part of the School with the bigger University. (Academic)

A second image of a young man leaping forward with springs attached to his feet also presents a hopeful positive view:

So that if we could make it work, it would give us a really good foundation for going forward in the future as a joined-up organisation. And I think I saw that these things, I think are about the whole, my sense of the whole organisation and of the Faculty, ok? So, these things are more about how I felt I wanted to operate for the Faculty sake, and this again, I would say, is more about the Faculty and the whole organisation, that there was this, you know it gave us a bit of a coiled spring to move upwards and outwards from. (Senior Manager)

Academic perspective

Academic staff gravitated to more negative connotations in particular regarding comments about direction and leadership and feeling controlled and homogenised. A picture of the Chinese red army drew comments about Stalinism and there being no room for disagreement or input into the process:

The view was recognised by a senior manager, but later in the narrative this was defended as not what was really happening in their view:

‘But I think this picture, it’s the Chinese politburo, or whatever it is, is, again, the perception of how people feel that that place is run, that there is a cadre at the top, who will dictate to the next cadre down. And the great masses bear the brunt of that, because everything is implemented without consultation or feedback, etc., etc.

.....but when we do try and consult on something the levels of response and enthusiasm for response are so appallingly low, it’s quite difficult to come to some reasoned opinion of what the Faculty thinks.’ (Senior Manger)

A picture of a watch drew comments about how long participants had left to work and how they might spend that time. The restructuring created a sense of pressure and urgency to consider these things:

Time. The watch. Time is ticking. You start to think about being here for 20 years; you start thinking about time’s ticking. What does the future hold? You know – what am I going to be doing and all that in ten year’s time – you know – other than retire. Is there something you should be thinking about? So I’d say there was a time element here as well. Is it time to go along, is it time to do something different? (Academic)

Administrative support staff perspective

Administrative support staff represented greatest amounts of stress and pressure in their explanations. There were certain key turning points in the change process that provoked strong reactions such as: receiving an ‘at risk’ letter which meant their current role would no longer exist and that they would be able to apply for other roles in the restructured organisation; seeing the new organisational chart for the first time – and not being able to locate one’s current post there; applying for a job and the experience of the job interview(s).

A picture of ‘black clouds over people’s heads’produced the following response from one participant, which shows the impact of living with restructuring in mind:

I did have a big black cloud over me of rain, ‘cause it was just constantly there, when you went to bed, when you woke up you had this thought that you won’t gonna have your job and I think I probably…  I was quite fed up, did a lot of thinking at the time: did I want to stay, did I want to go? Generally, probably quite angry that I’d been put in a situation that I hadn’t chosen. (Administrator)

The picture of the face of a cartoon dog with a long scar across one side helped one person speak about the risk they felt they were under:

Even the dog. I think that’s just sort of alarm and also I suppose that’s sort of being, feeling of being in the firing line, so to speak.

Q.Why the firing line?

I don’t know. I think it’s just one of those phrases, really. But you certainly felt at risk. Yeah, it is a frightening experience, to know that your job’s at risk. (Administrator)

This participant went on to explain the personal circumstances that led to a strong sense of personal insecurity during the restructure and illustrates how important contextual information is when trying to understand particular explanations and how important family circumstances, such as new babies, marriages, mortgages, a partner made redundant etc. contributed to the sense of insecurity.

I’d only been in the job eight or nine months when it started and that’s the worst thing to explain to someone, cause if, worst-case scenario, I didn’t have a job at the end of it that’s it – it’s a difficult thing to explain to another potential employer and it’s something that’s difficult to articulate – I mean certainly you can’t articulate it in a CV. (Administrator)

A picture of a man in the dock facing the judge was also one of the more frequently chosen images by administrative staff, resulting in a sense of disempowerment and victimisation:   

This made me think of the vague feeling of being judged but also of the sense that you know it’s an authority figure sort of imposing everything. And you know, you’re not having a chance to determine your own destiny....And again this just sort of makes you think of the mood people were in. That sort of dark mood, with sinister intention and pressure. (Administrator)

Leavers’ perspective

The group of leavers selected pictures which generated thought and disappointment. There was also some further support for the sinister intention expressed by administrators, amongst administrative staff who chose to retire early. A sense that they knew their days were numbered and that they felt certain people had their cards marked because they did not fit with the new shape and requirements of the restructured organisation. A senior manager acknowledged that this might be a view held by some, and in this example refers to academics:

And if I talk about the appearance first, the number of images here which... I think sum up people's perceptions of what we were talking about: the fallout in terms of the restructuring. I think for many people, the process itself felt like this trial. That all of a sudden people were asked to justify themselves. And when we're talking about the people who didn't... who applied... sorry, decided not to apply for the Principle Lecturer roles earlier... I think it was very much opting out of being put in front of a judge and jury, as it were, saying: “I don’t want to play this game, I don’t want to be part of it”. And I think for far too many people, the whole process felt a little bit like a very personal judgment on their character and what they were doing, as though they had done something wrong in the past. And the reason that we were doing the restructuring was to get rid of them or make it better. So, that’s… and I don’t think it was about that, but I think that… I’m acutely aware that’s a perception of some people. (Senior Manager)

We have shown that a range of emotions were evoked through the use of visual images in the research process, and that these varied by staff group. One question we wanted to seek feedback from participants was whether using visual images added anything more to what they had spoken about in the first half of the data collection process. For some it felt a bit ‘contrived’ (Administrator), but most enjoyed the process and the opportunity to position images in relation to each other revealed groupings that revealed different aspects of their experiences in a different way to the question/answer format of a semi-structured interview. The example below show how the images helped unlock further insights for one participant:

Well, it’s one of these things, isn’t it? You said… if you just said how did I feel… I don’t know that… I wouldn’t necessarily…doing that [working with the images] helped me to clarify my thoughts. I suppose that’s where I’m coming from. It… it gets you thinking about how you actually felt and how you felt at different points in time, so I could… I could see in these [the images] a kind of representation of how I felt along the way, which I guess is difficult to articulate. And I said things in this last section that didn’t come up in all of the other stuff, cause it’s only just occurred to me , it’s kind of different, I suppose, and just seeing… seeing it in a different way. I think it is really interesting. (Administrator)

We can summarise that change was clearly an emotional event for those involved. Senior managers were more positive about the purpose, process and the outcomes of the restructuring with a forward looking attitude. The upheaval caused to administrators andacademics was recognised but spoken of as a necessary part of the process, something that had to be gone through and now things had moved on. Academic and administrative staff tended to mistrust the official stated purpose of the changes and whether they would achieve the stated results. Cost saving was felt to be the more likely explanation. The changes disrupted roles, identity, and organisational processes for most of these people to a greater or lesser extent. Many were still suffering sometime after the official end of the change implementation and found the research process helpful in giving voice to their experiences.

Actually, just talking about it [just now], I could feel a lot of tension in my stomach again…

For some leaving the organisation was the preferred option, moving jobs or taking early retirement and a severance package. Whilst these people shared the painful memory of the restructuring process and how they or people around them had been treated, there was a more thoughtful side to the narratives of leavers who expressed disappointment in the organisation, that something had been destroyed and not necessarily yet replaced with something better.

In terms of understanding these differences between groups of staff, those with most power: senior managers and to a certain extent leavers, were able to demonstrate that they had moved on through the restructuring process. Those with least power were most emotionally affected in terms of feeling threatened and helpless (administrators) or most attacking and angry (academics). There is no doubt that this impacted on their view of the organisation and how new roles were taken up, disrupting work patterns, relationships and the desire to make the new structure work. Some but not all felt personally stronger as a result of their experiences, others were still uncertain.


Our study demonstrates the richness of data collected through the use of pictures and images, which helped participants talk about organisational change and the emotional  roller coaster that accompanied their lived experiences and how that impacted on their disposition towards their work and the organisation. For some, participants were reminded of painful negative experiences of their own treatment and the treatment of others around them. Whilst stirring up strong emotions in participants is something researchers need to be alert to when using visual images in their data collection processes, there is also a very positive dimension to this approach. On more than one occasion participants thanked us for enabling them to tell their story and for listening to them in a way that had not happened before. We were thanked for listening and were told the process had been therapeutic, helping participants move on in their personal journey, feeling more engaged with their roles and the contribution they could make to the organisation.

In terms of methodology several aspects are worth reflection. Firstly, by inviting volunteers to participate in the study, those with a gripe, or negative view of the organisation were more likely to want to have their say, and this could explain the larger proportion of  negative views compared to positive views of the change process. Those who had come to terms with the restructuring process and who had moved on in an emotional and organisational sense may no longer feel so closely connected to the opportunity to explore their lived experiences. This assumption is worth further examination in future studies.

Next, as reflexive researchers we too were drawn into the study and noticed parallels in our own experiences of change and recognise this may have influenced our original choices of pictures. It is possible to work with the advantages our experience brings, whether that experience has been positive or negative, in that it facilitates empathy with participants’ stories. There are practical aspects of the study that are worth raising here. For example the number of images selected seemed large for some participants and whilst most declared that working with the images brought new insights and was helpful, some didn’t feel it added much to what they had already said. We wanted to provide enough stimulus to allow a wide choice that might ‘speak to’ participants and selected what we considered to be a range of images that might evoke different emotional responses: such as a crying baby, a lonely old woman; police cordons and barbed wire, as well as celebratory pictures such as a man leaping from a boat; a strong woman; a carnival. Too small a number of pictures might lead to a reductionist and somewhat hackneyed approach to associations of change and remove the rich complexity that we found from our study. Another option might have been to invite participants to select their own image either before or during the interview, that way our researcher bias influencing the range of choice would be removed, but organisational issues concerning the research process would be introduced: what if participants didn’t bring a picture and one picture might not reveal sufficient range and depth. Asking participants to make a collage either before or after the interview is an option, but requires more research time and on-going commitment from participants which may or may not be forthcoming.

Finally, whilst part of our analysis focussed on choices made in relation to single pictures, the depth of this analysis has limits and could be viewed as reductionist in approach in that the wider context of the individual participant is lost.  We found that stories told in relation to whole collages provided a much richer narrative, contextualising choices of images, offering insights into the changing and shifting nature of emotions at different points in the change process. Individual pictures do not provide these insights and we recommend the combination of approach in future studies. We found that participants relationship to the work of the organisation also changed, sometimes prompted by key events such as a severance letter, or the outcome of an interview process. Certain pictures evoked these moments, and enabled participants to speak of how their disposition towards the organisation was affected. We have found that these aspects are inextricably intertwined and change over time; they are not fixed, although memories of particular events will tend to reinforce certain emotions. The use of picture and images and the creation of collages as representations of the lived experience of change provided an opportunity to focus on the complex multi-layered and often conflicting views of the emotions involved in organisational change. We recommend that other researchers build on this approach which makes a contribution to those researchers who consider organisations as places where emotions reside, are played out and affect how individuals relate to each other, understand their rolesand contribute to the work of the organisation.


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Frequencies of Images choice grouped by staff group

Command, control and threat

Image Focus Groups Leavers Senior Managers Admin Staff Academics Total
Red lecture room 3 8 2 6 5 24
Books & papers 0 7 4 4 4 19
Chinese army 1 5 2 2 5 15
Judge & jury 0 2 2 4 2 10
Guillotine 1 2 1 3 2 9
Woman shush 1 3 0 1 3 8
Woman with knives 0 2 1 3 2 8
Dog & man 2 1 0 2 2 8
Barbed wire 1 1 2 1 2 7
Chocolates 1 2 1 1 1 6
Held by police 2 1 0 1 1 5
Hoodie & gun 2 1 0 2 0 5
Barbie 1 2 0 0 1 4
Boxer 0 0 0 0 3 3
Hand on heart man 0 2 0 0 1 3
Mice 1 2 0 0 0 3
Factory 0 2 1 0 0 3
3 canoes 1 1 0 0 0 2
Paparazzi 0 0 0 1 1 2
Green eyes 0 0 0 0 1 1

Loneliness, sadness, distress

Image Focus Groups Leavers Senior Managers Admin Staff Academics Total
Crying child 1 1 2 3 1 8
Silhouette of woman 0 4 2 0 1 7
Old woman stairs 1 2 0 2 1 6
Tsunami 0 3 1 0 1 5
Window 1 2 0 0 2 5
Profile of woman 0 0 0 1 2 3
DNA 0 1 1 0 1 3
Fat waist 0 0 0 2 0 2
Smokey face 0 0 0 1 0 1
Cars in queue 0 0 0 0 1 1

Hope, Growth, Possibility, Opportunity

Image Focus Groups Leavers Senior Managers Admin Staff Academics Total
Tree in hand 1 3 3 1 3 11
Building site 0 6 3 2 0 11
Tree & roots 0 2 3 1 1 7
Scaffold 2 1 2 0 1 6
Round class 0 4 0 0 2 6
Young people 0 2 2 0 1 5
Graph & pulley 0 2 1 1 1 5
Papers & faces 0 1 1 0 2 4
Ladders 2 0 0 1 0 3
Balloon 0 1 0 1 1 3
Birds on arms 0 0 0 1 1 2
Carnival 0 0 1 0 1 2
Brain 0 0 1 1 0 2
Woman leader 0 0 0 0 1 1
Tape 0 0 1 0 0 1


Image Focus Groups Leavers Senior Managers Admin Staff Academics Total
Watch 1 3 3 2 4 13
Scar dog 3 2 0 1 2 8
Thinking man 0 5 0 1 1 7
Rubbish van 0 2 1 2 1 6
Parachute 0 2 1 0 2 5
Whistle 0 3 0 1 1 5
Pills 0 1 0 1 1 3
Actors on stage 0 0 0 1 0 1

Collaboration and support

Image Focus Groups Leavers Senior Managers Admin Staff Academics Total
Umbrella 2 1 2 2 2 9
Orchestra 0 2 4 2 1 9
Jumping from boat 0 4 2 1 2 9
Happy family 1 1 1 2 1 6
Human stack 0 2 2 2 0 6
Runners 0 0 0 2 1 3
Skiers 0 0 0 1 2 3
Teacup 1 0 0 2 0 3
Pipe players 0 0 3 0 2 2
Striped T shirt 1 1 0 0 0 2
Dancer/dolls 0 0 0 0 1 1

Uncertainty, not knowing

Image Focus Groups Leavers Senior Managers Admin Staff Academics Total
Charlie Chaplin 4 6 3 4 3 20
Clouds over people 2 1 0 4 3 10
Tornado 2 3 0 3 2 10
Blindfolded man 1 4 0 3 0 8
Scales 1 2 2 2 0 7
Goldfish 2 2 0 1 1 6
Ships wheel 1 3 1 0 1 6
Steering wheel 0 1 1 2 2 6
Piggy bank 1 1 0 1 1 4
Net & people 0 4 0 0 1 5
Spinning top 1 1 0 1 0 3
Jack in a box 0 2 0 0 1 3


Image Focus Groups Leavers Senior Managers Admin Staff Academics Total
Arms folded man 3 1 1 0 2 7
Foreclose on banks 1 3 0 1 1 6
No no no 1 1 1 0 3 6
Police cordons 3 2 0 1 0 6

Subjectivity Dead and Reborn: Managers’ Narrative Work to Maintain Agency in Paradoxical Contexts

Klaus Majgaard, Copenhagen Business School

Subjectivity is not a possession you can be sure of. It is hard work to maintain the agency and reflexivity that constitute the status of a subject. To managers this can be a quite paradoxical affair – claiming an autono-mous and extended agency while, at the same time, being a part of the organization that is managed. This paper explores subjectivity as a fluid, narrative achievement – negotiating passages through this paradox. The exploring is done as collaborative endeavor engaging four public executives in sharing stories about agency. The study draws attention to the metaphorical structuring of organizational space as ways to define distances and subjective positions that both enables the performance of managerial agency and, at the same time, expresses its inherent paradox – leading to circles of breakdowns and restorations of agency.

I. Introduction: The Paradox of Managerial Agency

Public reform calls managers to meet conflicting demands in new ways. In a report for the National School of Government (UK), Bennington & Hartley (2009) identify the need for a new adaptive leadership that tackles complex, tough and cross-cutting problems in ways that cre¬ate new kinds of coherence across multiple borders of sectors, services, and levels of govern¬ment. This recommendation is quite consistent with the claim for a more networked approach to governance and public value-creation (Stoker, 2006; O’Flynn, 2007; Osborne, 2010; Benning¬ton and Moore, 2011). Peters (2010) suggests that public managers “go meta” – that they raise their perspective from managing well-defined hierarchies to orchestrating complex responsive processes in networks and taming the confrontation of its struggling logics. Following these lines, Peder¬sen & Tangkjær (2013) suggest a range of analytical, community-building, critical-reflexive, creative and performative skills as the normative pillars of reflexive leader¬ship in the involving network state.

This development intensifies a paradox, which seems to be inherent in the development of management thinking (Griffin, 2002; Stacey 2007): On the one hand, managers are assumed to posses a subjective autonomy. They can somehow overview the organization and its institutional landscape and – from this Olympic position – intervene in order to ensure balance and coherence. On the other hand, managers are inescapably parts and participants in exactly these organizational and institutional settings. The paradox might be put in the following way: In order to manage, you must do it on behalf of some normative whole (welfare society, organizations, cross-sectorial networks, public value). Yet these wholes can only be claimed from a position that can be nothing but local and particular. Wholes (the universal) can only exist as particular (following the central dialectic of Hegel, 1807/1988).

This paradox constitutes a central premise for managerial agency. Sometimes the paradox freezes into a mere dichotomy: You are either an autonomous subject or just a part or a function of a self-regulating system. Often managers oscillate between these two, equally alienated polarities (Griffin, 2002).

The paradox cannot be seen as just a “mishap” of communication or a flaw of logic. Rather, it can very much be generative of both the agency and the reflexivity that constitute the status as a subject. Cunliffe and Jun (2005) address how dilemmas of public management can drive a move from mere reflection to a more radical reflexivity. Where reflection is about understand¬ing a problem and developing new strategies for solving it, reflexivity is a more existential openness towards basic assumptions and attitudes. Along similar lines, Cunliffe (2009) distinguishes between essentialist approaches assuming managers as self-identical and self-certain subjects and existential approaches opening the very question of being in the world. Shotter (2008) differentiates between solving problems and struggling with difficulties, where struggling means an open-ended and collaborative search for how to make sense of paradoxical situations. In reflexive struggling, it is not a subject - sure of itself – trying to find a way. It is unique and responsive processes enabling us collaboratively to be who we are.

Instead of assuming a landscape of pre-conceived subjects and systems, we are encouraged to nurture an openness to participate in the responsive processes of becoming from which agency emerges. However, taken to an extreme this could create a new one-sidedness - idealizing a pure responsive being as yet another abstraction. We could become so eager to drive out any “objectivist” or “rationalist” figures of speech that we do not see that these fig-ures are productive metaphors. Admittedly, speaking of autonomous subjects, self-regulating systems, pre-conceived plans and rational solutions implies a somewhat alienated and reified perspective. But alienation is not just a veil to be lifted, but also a constitutive moment in the becoming of agency (Hegel 1807/1988). The figures of speech cannot be understood literally but they can be taken seriously metaphorically (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Alvesson and Spicer, 2011). Sometimes we get stuck with these metaphors – their inherent paradoxes freeze into a dilemma that allows for no coherence or sense (double bind – Bateson, 2000). Agency breaks down. But even these breakdowns can be openings to a possible refinement of the metaphorical structuring and sensibility.

It is the ambition of this paper to explore the paradoxical constitution of managerial agency and reflexivity. Its contribution is to describe how the paradox is actually generative in constitut¬ing agency and reflexivity, and how breakdowns and restorations of the metaphori-cally structured sense making are moments in this constitution. And moreover, it is seeking a way to study these processes live.

Being true to the above-mentioned understanding of the paradox, this endeavor calls for engagement. Managers cannot be studied as a field of objects. Rather they must be invited for a dialogue. Having been a public manager for many years – and knowing the fragile nature of managerial agency from within – it has been quite straightforward to convene a small community of Danish welfare managers. Together we have set off to explore the constitution of agency and reflexivity in their struggling with dilemmas of welfare reforms.  This paper reports on the narrative and experimental work done in this community.

The next section accounts for the development of this approach to the exploration of managerial agency. The rest of the paper shall oscillate between presenting conversations in the narrative community of managers and developing a philosophical understanding as a kind reflection of the themes raised in the conversation. The major themes appearing is: the realization of recognition and reciprocity as the basis of agency and the attempt to find a common normative orientation (section III), the experience of organizational of distances needed to be bridged (section IV), struggling with dilemmas of trust and refining the ability to perform judgment (section V). Each theme will contain an iteration of conversation and concept development. Together the rounds of dialogue form a kind of experimental social ontology.  In the next section (VI), I shall reflect on what kind of endeavor this is and how it contributes to the understanding of subjectivity. Finally, the participants reflect on how to carry on this dialogue (section VII).

II.  Looking for Trouble - a Narrative-Actionist Approach

The next step is to convene a community of management practitioners in order to explore how agency is created and maintained in ways that unfold and transform the inherent para-dox: Claiming the legitimacy of a normative whole but from a local and particular position. Claiming subjective autonomy while at the same time realizing your dependence – that what you do and say is determined by the responses of others in myriads of local conversations.

What must be looked for is how paradox is a generative moment in the becoming of manage-rial agency. This means looking for trouble – that is small cracks and breakdowns in the ongoing sense making. This could be difficulties (Shotter, 2008, p. 174) or moments of being struck (Cunliffe, 2004, p. 410). Troubles are the stuff narratives are made of – or put differently: narratives are a basic way to understand and transform paradoxes and dilemmas that cannot be reduced to problems to be solved (Bruner, 2002). In a way, narratives constitute a circle of breakdowns and restoration of agency (very clearly illustrated by hero stories, Campbell, 2008).

According to Shotter (2008), difficulties concern orientations, relations, and attitudes: “…they can be to do with attitudes, inclinations, tendencies, or ways of orienting ourselves towards the phenomena that concern us that are implicit in the metaphorical nature of much of our language-intertwined activities” (p. 174). This passage contains a key for the further investiga¬tion. What is said is that the metaphorical structuring of our being in the world (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) can be the source of paradoxes and dilemmas. Since this structur¬ing is not just a question of merely “how to express things” but is basic and constitutive of us as beings these difficulties are of an existential nature. Speaking of organizations in terms of spatial and hierarchical metaphors placing management above the organization - we recreate the paradox of managerial agency. Picturing causalities of means and ends, problems and solu¬tions, value chains or reflective levels - we are constantly placing the agent at a distance of what is caused. Trouble might arise when we literalize these figures of speech (Shotter, 2008, p. 18). But this is not just bad language habits that can be cured with an appropriate dose of reflexivity and systemic training. The metaphors are defining us as a community – they are what we are. However, this does not preclude us from exploring and transforming them from within.

Engaging in collaborative narrative exploration with management practitioners, we can get an im¬portant inspiration from Kempster and Stewart (2010). They observe “…a dearth of in-depth contextualized empirical research on becoming a senior manager” (p. 205). Therefore, the researcher Steve Kempster and the director James Stewart engage in co-producing an auto-ethnographic narrative about James’ first months as a senior manager in a business firm. The method was “…building out from a detailed diary towards a thematic co-constructed story” (p. 209). As James enters the new position a palace coupe is set in motion - with a major turn around of power. He has to cope with conflicts of loyalty, secrecy, control of information and shifting identities. The story is summed up as a movement from novice to master – acquir¬ing a “situated curriculum” and being a legitimate member of the community of prac¬tice: “James has now become a fully accepted member practicing a particular role s a result of the access provided through legitimate peripheral participation and the associated pattern of activities that formed the situated curriculum that he experienced” (p. 215). In the perspec¬tive of this paper, the reading would be slightly different: What James is facing are real dilem¬mas. Whatever he does it can be morally contested according to some standard in the commu¬nity (damn if he does, damn if he doesn’t). This expresses the inherent paradox that whatever claim he makes to a normative context it is particular and therefore contestable. Existentially, he is inescapably guilty, and this is a constitutive moment of agency. I do not know what it would mean to be “coping”- and what “curriculum” or “pattern of activities” would constitute “mastery”.  Is it to win the game? Is it surviving? Being legitimate? To maintain a sense of integ¬rity and coherence? Or maybe just to go on in the dance of conversation?

To this discussion, Barge and Little (2008) offer the concept sensibility. This is not so much a set of skills or activities but rather a phronetic understanding of the different commitments within a community. Here the manager is a “bricoleur” or a “language tinkerer” allowing some liv¬ing unity of moral and aesthetic commitment to appear (ibid, pp. 514-519). In doing this, the managers realize “the historicity of the conversational moment” (p. 516), that is that they respond to a situation in a way that derives from the reflexive use of the resources and wis¬dom of a tradition or community of practice (p. 513). Any such context is not a given “frame” or a substratum of determining conditions. Rather it is an emergent quality of conversation itself. Historical wisdom is continually being created and re-created in each unique encounter. Barge and Little do not deal explicitly with paradox and dilemmas, and yet you can find im¬portant clues for this. Being sensible, the practitioner maintains a productive tension between moral-aesthetic commitments. Actually, contradictory, ambiguous, and confusing utterances can heighten awareness of what is going on – provoking heedful response: “A context needs to be created that legitimates the use of a seemingly jarring move but does not freeze meaning making or create a position of being stuck in the conversation, not knowing what to do next” (p. 512). Agency needs coherence, but this does not diminish the need of tension. Following these lines, we could still consider the productive contributions of breakdowns of conversa¬tion and agency. Maybe being stuck can be a most promising state provoking a refining of sensibil¬ity and expansion of understanding?

The exploration of this paper is well guided by both Kempster and Stewart (2010) and Barge and Little (2008). The ambition is here to develop the approach according to the following assumptions:

(a)    Agency and reflexivity are not properties of the individual but qualities and resources made possible through the ongoing process of conversation.
(b)    This process is inherently paradoxical – it proceeds as a struggle between competing claims and commitments, each eager to define the “whole” from their particular posi-tions. This means that any utterance can and will be contested - and whatever meaning that is ascribed to it is a tentative and transitory result of ongoing negotiations. This para¬dox is inherent in the metaphorical structuring of conversation.
(c)    Agency and reflexivity involves sensibility – understood as openness to the conflicting com¬mitments of the community that is created and re-created in the conversational prac¬tice and its metaphorical structuring.
(d)    This means that communication consist of breakdowns and restorations developing sensi¬bility, reflexivity and the basis of agency.

In refining these points, a most valuable companion is Hegel’s phenomenological exploration of the constitution of spirit – which I interpret as the sphere of conversation (Hegel 1807/1988; Pippin 2008).  This exploration takes off exactly from within this sphere and moves forward as a dialectic testing of the assumptions made at each stage. Put very briefly: He starts assuming a singular consciousness perceiving the world. From this assumption we cannot account for the possibility of us actually communicating. Next step is to assume interre¬lated self-conscious beings. This necessitates a struggle for recognition - that is making a claim of being someone who can speak and justify actions and who is to be taken seriously. If recognition is not mutual, if the other is met as a mere instrument or a function, the very foundation of subjectivity is eroded, since you cannot confirm your own subjectivity through the recognition from someone who is not recognized. A kind of spiritual death arises (di Giovanni, 2009). Reciprocity is the law of subjectivity. In Hegel’s narrative this basic conflict must be resolved through the establishment of mutuality in recognition, and this implies the actors to orient themselves towards of more universal horizon of norms. This horizon can, however, only exist in particular situations. Our openness (sensibility according to Barge and Little, 2008) towards this horizon is, according to Hegel, developing through a circle of stages: from an immediate and implicit confidence, to estrangement, reification and problematization, and finally to recognizing it as what makes us who we are - understanding it as exactly what makes the conversational moment unique.

In the narrative exploration of agency I shall return to this string of points using them as prisms of reflexivity in making sense of how the conversation proceeds and how it can en-lighten what it means to be a managerial agent. Let me first account for how we set off doing the narrative work.

Convening a Narrative Community

As mentioned, I have myself been a public executive both in central and local government. For more than twenty years I have been intrigued by the complexity and dilemmas in performing the craft of public management. Getting stuck has sent me in different directions – convening people, exploring dilemmas, writing papers etc. Now being in a position of a researcher, it seemed a straightforward move to address some practitioners who are involved in welfare reforms whirling up lots of conflicting de¬mands. I explained that my interest was the way they cre¬ated and maintained a position from which to act in the midst of all these changes. Starting off, I was a bit nervous that this interest could seem too speculative to really engage them. But I was received with almost an eagerness to start the exploration.

Having worked with the four executives before, it was a challenge to make the metamorpho-sis from fellow-practitioner to researcher. I still think I am both. But the change has meant me taking a more observing and moderately facilitating position in the group.

So far our exploration has proceeded through three stages (being quite inspired by Shaw, 2002):
- First, I made a narrative interview with each participant where they told a story of their life and craft as managers (for about 2 hours each). The interviews were transcribed and ana-lyzed.
- Secondly, I wrote an invitation for a gathering. The invitation told a story about what I have noticed in their stories, mentioning each of them and suggested some themes we could ex-plore together. The themes were: What it means to create value, what distances in the organiza¬tions mean, and what it means to be authentic. The seminar took place in the first days of January 2014 at an old beach hotel (knowing the risk of a phone call from their politi¬cal bosses would be minimal these days). This resulted in 5,8 hours of transcribed conversa¬tion.
- Thirdly, after the seminar each participant is identifying questions and experiments that en-able them to try out new openings in their work. Each has agreed to document this work by writing diaries and/or inviting me to observe.

Later, this summer, we are meeting for another seminar exploring the stories of the experi-ments. This methodology oscillates between making stories, doing experiments, and remaking sto¬ries – and so on.

This is an extended version of a working format from the MPA-programme at the Copenhagen Busi¬ness School. The last two years students have been taking part in dilemma workshops where they brought sto¬ries of present managerial dilemmas and explored them in a collabora¬tive ways. Finally, they tested the potentials of their practice by doing ‘moderately brave acts’ in their home organiza¬tions. The extended study might contribute to the further development of such narrative-actionist approaches to management education. I also consider it a kind of experimental social-ontology developing new understanding of agency through experimental dialogue.

This paper reports on the first part of this ongoing study – using as mentioned Hegel (1807/1988) as a companion.

III. Call for Recognition

Example #1: Being Overwhelmed – Letting Go

R4:    …they are simply so marked by conflicts and enormous emotions and enormous resistance, those episodes I can think of that taught me something about the nature of change. And one of them took place…when did it take place? One and a half year ago, I think. Where I was called – by a letter – to a demonstration at our XX educational programme, where some students and staff had…Well, they were extremely dissatisfied with some of the changes we were carrying through. They wanted me to come, be there and listen to what that had to say. And when I arrived there in the morning, there were oil barrels burning, there were banners and there were…(laughing a bit), there were megaphones, and there were…And I thought: “This is simply like attending something I don’t seem to have met since the ‘80’ies with squatters n’ such” (laughs again). It was really massive. And I thought: “Wow, what is it ex-actly I should do with myself in this…?” Well, then there were rabble-rousing speeches in that yard and, at that moment, I wasn’t supposed respond a lot. But then we entered a lecture hall where I was sup¬posed to stand down there on the podium with all the students and staff sitting all the way up the rows. And then they had arranged it in such a way that they had eight – what do I know – points of cri-tique, and then I was asked to respond (everybody in the group is laughing and mumbling now).

It is like she is leading us through an inferno. What she says seems to animate everybody while we are starting our seminar at the top floor at an old beach hotel shortly after New Years Eve. She continues.

R4:    What I have been thinking a lot about since then is if one should have…if I should have accepted it like I did or if I should have broken out of the situation in some way. But I sensed it that way…without any¬one saying so, I sensed that it was really, really important to be there – to dare standing there – and in some way being present in all this. And it simply was so difficult – because it was a critique of local manage¬ment, which is referring to me, and it was a critique of the principal, with whom I share manage¬rial responsibility, and it was, in general a critique of the College and its development – and it was “neo-liberal” and there were no limits to what it was…OK, but we came through this half a day – and I…I can’t remember what I answered to the eight points of critique. But I answered something – and through the day we came.”

Listening to this raises a lot of reflections. The overwhelming event seems somehow to seize her and draw her into a Kafkaesque Trial. She is telling about when to be supposed to respond or not, being placed on a podium, being confronted with accusations. She cannot remember what she said - but came through the day. On the other hand, she tells about being quite active – she sensed it was “really, really important” to be there, just be there, no matter how sense¬less and nightmare-like the scenery appeared. It seems to be about letting go of any conscious reflection and reason – because exactly this makes sense in some kind of way. This reminds me that she earlier told me that her “body sometimes runs in front of her head” – which could be interpreted as a kind of separation, but which she experiences as a strength she has a grow¬ing trust in. Nevertheless, she also tells of periods where body and head came together in a very fulfilling way. I am very eager to explore this. Who is it that decides just to be there?

While making these “plans” for the conversation, it takes a quite different turn. She sums up the story:

R4:    Hell, it is so difficult to establish a constructive relation between management and staff in the system, I am in, because it is almost inherent that you as a professional is opposed to anything that is different from yourself. Especially, if it is something in a power relation, where someone has a higher formal author¬ity. And exactly the educations I am in charge of have critique as part of their DNA. Yes.”

Q:    Yes? (pausing)

R1:     This thing about critique being a part of the DNA all together, that it is a condition we all have to deal with…I both agree and disagree because what I believe to be the real challenge is, that is that we in our jobs are capable of formulating something meaningful. Not just in a superficial sense but at the basic normative levels.

The conversation continues to explore the interaction with welfare professionals and how to state a mission that resonates in “the deep ocean…down there where our basic assumptions of how life should be lived are encapsulated and can be caught” (the words of R1).

Without Recognition – No Rationality
Three voices are at play in this report – the narrator (R4), me listening (Q), and the response that set the direction of what happened next (R1).

According to Hegel (1807/1988), no singular consciousness (or voice) can sustain itself. The point is that if we assume singular minds we cannot account for the fact that we do communi¬cate. He demonstrates this by exploring from within what it would mean to be a singular conscious¬ness. First, he assumes just sensing the world. Doing this, you, at least, need some general concepts to make sense of it (“here”, “now”, “red” etc.). Next step is, therefore, to as¬sume that we as singular minds perceive the world by interpreting under certain predicates. Any situation can, however, be interpreted under a multitude of predicates. There is an irreduci¬ble semantic complexity. We cannot see the object of thought as some singular sub¬stance relying on itself but rather as an entity being determined in its multiple relations to other entities. We cannot meet the world as a collection of substances but rather as a totality of relatedness. Having taken this step, it is quite inevitable to include us in this relatedness. We perceive the world because we take part in webs of relations, which allow us to create and maintain a meaningful language and forms of expression.

So far, the first part of Hegel’s  Phenomenology. Having established ourselves as participat¬ing and self-conscious beings, we observe the need to somehow sustain ourselves in these pro-cesses. We acquire the world by negating its otherness (making it our own). What we need to sustain ourselves is something we can relate to – negating its otherness – without destroy-ing it. This “something” can only be another self-conscious being. This is the prelude of Hegel’s anal¬ysis of the struggle for recognition. He assumes the meeting of two self-conscious beings with each having a claim to define the situation. There is a scarcity of interpretation – every possible interpretation cannot be made. We can fight to the end – or, Hegel assumes, some is to submit to the power of the other. They become Master and Slave. This relationship is, how¬ever, doomed. For the Master, it is impossible to sustain integrity (agency/reflexivity) by be¬ing recognized by someone who is not himself recognized. On the other hand, the Slave has more existential possibilities: By fearing death, he is open to his own existence and finitude. And by working for the Master, he is in a creative relationship to the world and his own exist¬ence. The only way to resolve this is for recognition to become mutual. To maintain this, it is necessary to constitute some universality of norms that each is committed to. In this way, any violation is somehow leading to a conflict that paves the way of a more rich and encompassing recognition (Honneth, 1992).

The story above could be read as an enactment of the struggle for recognition. Clearly, the students and staff must feel violated (“extremely dissatisfied”) by changes decided by manage¬ment. This violation is in the narrative partly interpreted under the heading “neo-liberal¬ism”. In reaction to this, they involve the narrator in a course of events that very much seem to violate her integrity. They stage a “trial” where she, first, is accused in the yard – with no access to respond – and, afterwards, brought to “the court”, placed on a podium and pre¬sented with “the eight points of critique”, now with a chance to make her defence. In a way, she is dehumanized and made a representative of “neo-liberalism”. She interprets this under the heading of “professions with a DNA of critique” and being against ideas coming from the outside world. The story bears witness that the basis of agency and reflexivity is eroded in this kind of relationship. The narrator finds herself separated: One part made an object, just coming through the day, not even remembering what she said. Another part of her acknowledg¬ing the value of being there – maintaining a kind of subjective autonomy. The para¬dox of managerial agency is expressed in this split.

Also in the very event of the story being told, a much less dramatic struggle is enacted – that is the struggle to define what this story meant and how to proceed in the conversation. In my listening I am preparing to explore deeper into the constitution of subjectivity in this extreme situation. But my fellow conversants bring our talk on another, more normative track – we start to look into the “deep ocean of ethical belief” in order to “catch” some values and assump¬tions that can bridge the gap between managers and professionals. This is, indeed, quite consistent with the dialectics of the struggle: Since the absence of reciprocity leads to a breakdown of agency, the parties have to re-install reciprocity on a new level orienting to¬wards a universal horizon of norms.

IV. Distances

Example #2: What Happens Out There?
The conversation sets out to identify some ideals of what value is created at the front end of the welfare activities. But being strategic managers, there is a long way to the front end. It can be a struggle just to know and agree about what is going on:

R1:    When I came to X-town (…) I met reality in all its horror and diversity. And I just want to make clear (knocks on the table), nobody is going to treat me that way when I get old! That’s for sure. Where you ….you get...if you for example broke a hip you could risk to be placed in a wheel chair – and you could sit there till you died. Because it was all about taking care of you, getting your food, your medicine, and see¬ing that you didn’t get cold. That is: Care – isn’t it? Damn it, nobody should leave me there. (…) Then I used one and a half year to discuss with the managers of my (…) resort in order to decide if we did it in the way I perceived it or we didn’t do it the way I perceived it. And where they started saying that we didn’t do it the way I experienced it. But we kept on discussing it because it was me who could de¬cide when the conversation was over (laughs)”.

    And a bit later, following R1:

R3:    (…) Almost all evaluations show that a range of prioritized measures and tools that have been sanc-tioned politically are used for not a damn thing. That is if you ask local professionals and management and so on. The scary example of this is what is called the National Standards, which are targets for each area, and which were evaluated last year or the year before. And in which there was invested a lot of political and official capital – and which experts and professionals were involved in writing, so they could be so good as possible. Then the evaluation comes which shows that frontline profession¬als do not use them at all (giggling in the room)(…) We were wildly proud of them (the standards), and (the former minis¬ter) came with them, they were wrapped and everything…and then…my first sen¬tence was: “This can¬not be true that we use so many resources on something that doesn’t matter. Both politically and in gov¬ernment administration”. A kind of being annoyed about it. But it has slowly evolved a new kind think¬ing in me - about: What is it, then, we can do to make tools be used in an¬other way?”

Both are describing how they realized the distance between management and professional practice – the one coming from an interest organization to a municipality, the other coming from the field of political counselling and facing the fact that political victories are sometimes practical failures. It strikes me that all of the participants have a very developed vocabulary for describing distances and what it means to manage at a distance. One speaks of “powerless¬ness of power” and describes managing as “pushing a whirlwind” (R2), another speaks of the naïve belief of a “prolonged arm” pushing academic knowledge into professional practice (R4). Yet another speaks, as already mentioned, of the “depth of the ocean” (R1). And the last mentioned narrator (R3) remembers how they used to believe that “they could turn on the light in the classroom by pulling a switch in the Ministry”. Now he finds it necessary to distin¬guish between managing “upwards” (politics) and “outwards” (professional practice) (R3).

Struggling with Estrangement
Hegel’s “Spirit” can be understood as the normative sphere of conversation (Hegel, 1807/1988). As mentioned in the last section, norms emerge as self-conscious beings try to develop and sustain relations of mutual recognition. Our attitude towards this normativity can evolve through different stages and qualities. In Hegel’s narrative, it starts as the implicit confidence of just being a member of the community (Sittlichkeit). Spirit is at home but is quite blind to its inherent contradictions. In the Greek Polis, male Greeks could agree upon hav¬ing a democracy without reflecting on the exclusion of women, slaves, and barbarians. At some moment, these contradictions will cause a breakdown of this implicit and felt unity. At the next stage, we are as singular beings relating to a context of norms. To make these norms our own is a process of enculturation (Bildung) whereby we become social beings. But alas, this process is also laden with conflicts. As soon as we see social structure outside ourselves, and as soon this structure is personalized in authority figures, cracks are appearing: maybe institutions represent interests of special groups and individuals? The suspicion of hypocrisy is everywhere. Any utterance has a front and a backside: What was really meant? What mo¬tive is at play? This conflict is resolved by realizing that any universal norm can only exist as particular and local (Moralität). The realization is brought about by a new struggle for recogni¬tion – for which I shall return in the next section.

The evolving spirit is clearly reflected in the dramatic structure of a hero’s journey (Campbell, 2008). You could start off as a very capable official being a trusted advisor for the minister. Together you have won political battles and launched very profiled reform campaigns. Sud¬denly, a split appears. Political victory becomes a practical failure - and this can, in turn, be¬come a political problem: “I can see it creates a hell of political problems for my minister that we actually introduce tools (…) which are not well thought through” (R3, introductory inter¬view). This realization has encouraged an increasing interest in implementation and capacity building. A new minister has made clear that “context-independent” policy development is not ac¬cepta¬ble. According to the official this demands a new division of labour – you have to cre¬ate special¬ized units some working “upwards” towards the minister and some working “out¬wards” towards local government and practitioners. A rather small office is established to take care of the service upwards, while a large group of consultants are dedicated to outwards im¬plemen¬tation efforts – working together with supervisory agencies, university colleges, evaluation institutes etc. A new methodology of change is being developed, including measures of progression, change theory, community building etc. In the ministry, this collides with a culture where upward functions are most prestigious and career promoting. A suspi¬cion is that some are trying to “monopolize” the contact to the minister. It also turns out to be difficult to coordinate the complexity of both launching national reform (top down) while at the same time mobilizing professionals through network initiatives (bottom up).  
Worth noticing is how the narrative is organized by a division between the symbolical (ideol-ogy) and the substantial (whether the tools actually are working). At the first stage, the complexi¬ties of educational practice are displaced into an ideological sphere, and this is ena-bling visible and symbolic interventions into practice. Somehow, complexity strikes back and express itself in the form of “an implementation gap” and a “hell of political problems”. At the next stage the dichotomy between ideology and substance is copied into the internal organiza¬tion of the ministry – as upward and outward functions. Each has certain priorities and ways of working. “Up” mobilizes technologies of the political craft – how to form a coali-tion in parliament. “Out” concerns new technologies of building capacity and involving practition¬ers. The boundary conditions are in this way doubled. But the two dimensions can be conflicting: Both within the ministry (prestige and career opportunities) and in the outside world – top-down initiatives that damage the credibility of the effort to listen to and involve practitioners.

The paradox of managerial agency is, thus, express in the metaphorical structuring of organiza¬tional space. Since it is impossible to sustain the claim to act (launch reforms) from an uncontested position above the “system”, different and conflicting claims are organized into different dimensions of the topography – the upward and the outward.

V. Dilemmas of Trust

Example #3: Knowing When to Trust
During the night, the conversation goes on to explore how managers develop a sense confi-dence in their own judgement. One participant became a CEO about one year ago:

R2:    (One) acts in a room that is not free of power and interest. You know, there are sitting people around the table. Some might have wanted your position if you just have arrived. And somebody might not want you any good, and some might have interests that are opposite to what you want. And there - I think - it is challenging. There you have to place yourself well and comfortably at the end of the table. (…) There has been a balance between me having a relatively high degree of trust in what the XX-man-ager tells me: “Things are just about this way”, then I can…of course, I shall challenge it and ask about it, but of course I also need to have trust that he is not totally going to bullshit me. And here I must admit that it could have gone wrong. I could have been derailed and sent in town with something not valid. So, there must be a balance between needing to trust but also taking the seat at the end of the table.

R1:    But it is about having trust in your surroundings, isn’t it? Well…now…we are some who regularly re-ceive new politicians. And what happens every time we receive new politicians, that is that we would do anything to make them succeed. In a way, we actually take care of them. That is, we protect them against the evils of life, don’t we? And in reality, this is what happens when a new CEO takes the chair – the people below wouldn’t like you to fail, because…

R2:    No, you’re right…

R1:    …the organization will look bad, won’t it? So, looking at it this way, you can be pretty sure that you will get help in the beginning. You get help until you turn out to be a bloody bastard (everybody laugh). And you can choose not to become that. So, looking at it that way, I think we sometimes overestimate the significance of how we act ourselves…”

Managers are finding their way through a landscape of contradictions – on the one hand, every¬body has got their own interests and strategies, on the other hand, we are, in the end of the day, dependent on each other, needing to rely on others’ support. They can let go of no of these claims. Just believing in romantic unity of community would to ignore actual conflicts. But turning organization into an atomized battlefield would equally ignore our inter-de¬pend¬ence. Whatever, you cannot calculate your way through the dilemma. In the end, as men¬tioned, you must not overestimate the significance of your individual acts. You can qualify your participation (e.g. “…choose not to become a bloody bastard”) and rely on the responsive¬ness of the collaborative and co-creative processes of our interaction.

Realizing the Ethical Moment
In the beginning of example #3, we find an observing spirit trying to read the game and the context. There is a front and a backside to everything. It might look like collaboration, but in reality, it may be highly competitive. This characterized the stage of estranged spirit – being in an objectify¬ing and reflective relation to itself. Transcending this, Hegel (1807/1988) stages a new struggle of recognition, this time not between Master and Slave, but between the Beauti¬ful Soul and Common Moral Consciousness (see also Beiser, 2009).

The Beautiful Soul is a moral genius – having withdrawn from the battles of the world to a more ideal sphere where he can set up norms autonomously. He keeps honest and authentic by avoiding compromises and corruption of any kind. On the other hand, Common Conscious¬ness emphasizes the obligation to act and do your duty in daily life – no matter having to deal with power and corruption. In the struggle, the two combatants start blaming each other. The Beautiful Soul accuses the other of accepting the split between ideals and doings, front and back and thereby of corruption and getting dirty hands. Common Consciousness answers that no one can do anything but act. Even the Beautiful Souls acts. The claim for purity is itself hypocriti¬cal – and an expression of moral narcissism. So the struggles go on – back and forth. Hegel brings it to reconciliation – the Beautiful Soul must realize that universal values can only exist as concrete and particular, and Common Consciousness must acknowledge that mor¬ally staged acts can have dubious motives. “No body is a hero to his valet” - but here, it is the valet, who has got a problem. Each recognizes itself in the other – for better or for worse. We witness a restoration of spirit. The I recognizes itself as part of a We – the We in recog¬nizes itself in the I.  Forgiveness emerges and raises Spirit to what Hegel believed to be Abso¬lute Knowledge (Beiser 2009, p. 224).

However, we need not follow him doing this step. Rather we could read the conversation be-tween R1 and R2. No paradox is resolved here. The new CEO still has to be trustful while, at the same time, not ignoring that power is at play. Any ideal of trust demanding an oneness of interest would, in fact, betray any attempt to exercise trust in real life. We are involved in particu¬lar interests and games of power. But realizing this, we can recognize these as exactly our power games. They are not abstract patterns realizing themselves through our acts. They are plain and simple what we do to each other, right here and right now. They are only real in the uniqueness of the event. In a way, they connect us and enable a sense of interdependence. Maybe this is implied in “being helped”, “choosing not to become a bastard” and “not overestimat¬ing the significance of our own acts”.

The conversation at the beach hotel will continue for yet another hour before the participants will retire to their rooms. They will be exploring a lot more into how they develop and refine their sense of judgement and confidence. Next day, they will continue. And before they leave they will reflect on how this dialogue makes sense to them and what kind of “brave acts” it might encourage. We shall return to these final reflections soon. But first I shall discuss how the endeavour makes sense in understanding agency as a fluid, transitory, narrative achieve¬ment.

VI. Discussion

Embracing Rationality
Listening to these stories, we may reconsider the productivity of rational and spatial figures of speech. To constitute managerial agency, you need to establish a distance between the manag¬ing and the managed. This is done by the use of a variety of spatial and orientational meta¬phors – about dimensions (upwards and outwards), hierarchies, and causalities. An organiza¬tional topography arises and stages the manager as an autonomous agent with an extended agency running through a battery of technologies such as e.g. new implementation methodolo¬gies. But in the very setting of these distances, the paradox of managerial agency is inherent: From where do you exercise this autonomous power when you, at the same time, are a very local participant wandering the landscape being sketched in the same moment? This means that your claim to an autonomous position must be contested, tentative and transi¬tory.

As a reaction to the alienated language of autonomous subjects and reified systems, both Stacey (2007) and Shotter (2008) seek to develop a way to describe responsive processes that are not dependent on rationalist and objectivist metaphors. In stead of autonomous subjects coping with pre-given realities that are regulated by their own “hidden” and “underlying” mecha¬nisms, they enable us to speak of what is obviously going on – that we participate in a dance of conversations finding our way “from within”. Following these lines, it is still im¬portant to acknowledge the productivity of rationalist and objectivist metaphors. They are constituent features of becoming a managerial agent. It is by enacting the paradox you be¬come a manager.

Teaching public managers, I have often worked hard to “deconstruct” objectified organiza-tional topologies. To recognize yourself as a local participant and to understand that you can develop organizational practice by qualifying your own participation is quite invigorating. But from this, participants need to make a re-claim for rational agency. They still need to “deal with” questions of boundaries, structures, objectives etc. But they can do it with an awareness of the inherent paradoxicality. And in a Hegelian perspective, this means rationality in a higher sense (Pippin, 2008).

Appreciating Getting Stuck

This may teach us to acknowledge the value of getting stuck. Often conversation and learning are described as on-going processes expanding organically from within. Kempster and Stew-art (2010) perceive learning as a process of legitimate peripheral participation where the nov¬ice is introduced to a situated curriculum and, in the end, becomes a master capable of coping with the dilemmas of the trade. To Barge and Little (2008), sensibility can be nurtured to create living unities of contradictory obligations – avoiding getting stuck. If we, however, acknowledge paradoxicality as a constituent feature of becoming an agent, you must get stuck. Get¬ting stuck is no just a problem or a barrier you need to “cope with” by developing certain “learning strategies”. Getting stuck is existential – it is the moment of destruction and recrea¬tion of agency. You are not just “living through” or acting “in a context” of paradoxes, break¬downs, and restorations. In Hegel’s narrative, the Slave realized existential opportunities of agency by facing the destruction implied in not being recognized. The manager facing the hos¬tile staff and students in the lecture hall had no extended agency – could do nothing but sense the value of staying. You exist as this repeated circle of minor and major breakdowns and restora¬tions. It is when getting stuck you are on to something.

Rehabilitating the Hero Story

What could it mean to be an “authentic leader”?  The craze of authentic leadership is an object of critique by Alvesson & Spicer (2011) who interprets it as exactly a kind a worship of heroes and phantasies of subjective autonomy. In the light of the narrative work done in this commu¬nity, I think another ideal might be in place. Authenticity need not be seen as a quality of the individual leader – e.g. a kind of being expressive about who you “really” are, being true to values or having a coherent life story. Authenticity could be a quality emerging in conversa¬tions – a shared sense that we can talk of what is important in language that is meaningful (Taylor, 1992).

Alvesson and Spicer (2011) seem quite eager to unmask the myths of the hero leader in order to allow us to understand leadership as a more ambiguous phenomenon. But maybe the point of the hero story is not to mask moral ambiguity but to play with it (Campbell, 2008): The hero is called to adventure. After having resisted, she gives in, leaves home, often guided by a mentor. She passes the threshold where opposite values are set in motion, and she must strug¬gle with paradox and dilemmas. The struggle continues till the point of despair – and “rebirth” where dichotomies are transcended. In this opening new conceptions of the “whole” can be formed. And now she must return home – with the Stolen Elixir or the Golden Fleece. Also on the way home, dangers are lurking, and Penelope’s suitors have to be kicked out. The newly gained openness toward complexity must be integrated into the daily practice. Such stories are not monologues but unfold collaboratively in myriads of conversations – both in daily encounter and in more staged interviews. The circle of travel-ing and returning are not necessarily sequences but can as well be simultaneous moments and a dialectical movement being present in the conversation her and now.

VII. Brave Acts: How to Go On?

The gathering is ending. Guests are leaving. But as they take off, they propose questions they would like to explore in the continuous work we are doing together. There is a very strong sense that they somehow take part in a grander narrative – about the emergence of a new idea of a welfare society emphasizing participation, inclusion, and community building. There is a need to “stop blaming Leeman Brothers” (R3) and the financial crisis for what they “have to” do.  The rhetorical figure of “burning platforms” is worn out. They set out to explore a Story with a capital “S” as well as more personal stories (Barge and Little, 2008, distinguish between Discourse and discourse). Almost on the verge of leaving, a few quotes:

R3:    To me, what stares me in the face is what we talked about right before we went down to return ours keys. Which…in fact, to build this super-construction (a grand narrative of welfare) upon all the tricks of leadership we have been talking about for the last 24 hours. That is, how we through our leadership brings further this story that, I think, is needed to realize the thoughts we are devel¬oping each of us. That, I think, is an enormous challenge…and on the other hand (…) it has been ly¬ing underneath every¬thing we have been talking about.  
R2:     (…) what I take home with me – and I was thinking about this last night when I was falling asleep – is that I now have used one year to place myself a bit in the chair, and now I think it is important to (…) to step forward on the stage saying: “There is something I want, there is also something I dare. And now I dare us to go in this direction” (…) I’ve – how to put it – I’ve got all the bricks, and also the rudiments of a grand story”
R1:    (…) something I know I’ll have to work with the next half a year – or three quarters of a year – is that thing about carving a deeper track. That is, we are going to use the first months of 2014 to test New Wel¬fare. We are building test environments where we try out new ways of working, new practices, be-fore we launch them…”
R4:    (…) I think it is this way… the thing about focusing on the transformation on core services by persis-tently, continuously and repeatedly working with a strategy, as we have made a lot of efforts to do, which is all about the core services. When I came to the XX College, there was a strategy about hav-ing more students and more revenue from the EU and that kind of things, which no one in the organiza¬tion thought was about the core services. Now we actually have coined a strategy – with help from our employees - which is about education…”

They are, clearly, up to something. In the next weeks they will write to me about what experi-ments they undertake and they document this work and invite me to observe. The conversa-tion goes on.

VIII. Conclusion

This study has looked into the paradoxical constitution of managerial agency and reflexivity. Its ambition has been to describe the narrative work done by managers as a way to struggle with the paradox of being autonomous subjects and, at the same time, being part of the object managed. To this it has engaged in a dialogue with a community of public executive sharing stories about agency.

Listening to the stories, we have had a chance to follow the struggling to negotiate a passage through the paradox: being objectified and victimized while intuitively sensing the value of staying, just being there (example #1), realizing the powerlessness and failing of high-profiled initi¬atives and trying to re-define a position to act from (example #2), and seeing your vulnerabil¬ity in the power games of the organization while seeking a ground for trust (exam¬ple #3). Strug¬gling their way through these dilemmas, positions of agency break and new ones ap¬pear.

The wording of the narratives draws attention to the metaphorical structuring. Metaphors are used to define a distance between the manager and the managed that is a necessary condition of management. At the same, time this exactly expresses the inherent paradox making any “solution” transitory. Subjectivity appears to be a transitory narrative achievement attained by some kind of metaphorical structuring.


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The Influence of French National Culture upon an American Workplace

Debra J. Borkovich
Robert Morris University

Robert Joseph Skovira
Robert Morris University

Foreign ownership of U.S. companies is more prevalent than ever. Over sixty years of business studies reflect that learning from other cultures results in new ideas for management, organization, and innovation; however, due to cultural misconceptions multi-national corporate misunderstandings occur. This interpretive study explored the cultural disconnects, miscues, and contradictions between affiliated companies by observing 76 employees of an American corporation acquired by an international French company. The influences of the stronger French national culture and management style upon the weaker nascent organizational culture of its American subsidiary resulted in a culture shock that paralyzed its U.S. technological and economic growth. Unique to this qualitative inquiry was the implementation of agile ethnography, an interactive participant-observation methodology bounded within the workplace.


Agile ethnography, culture shock, acculturation, ethnocentrism, national culture, organizational culture, France, U.S.

In an era of global and technological competition, foreign corporate ownership of U.S. companies is more prevalent than ever. Over sixty years of business studies reflect that due to cultural misconceptions, international corporate misunderstandings and discord often occur. Hofstede (1996) argued: “Culture is at the root of institutional arrangements. . . . The causality between institutions and culture is circular; they cannot be separated” (p. 531). This paper is a description and analysis, as an agile ethnographic inquiry (Skovira, 2012), of a parent company’s organizational culture and ethnic influence, which is French, upon the organizational culture of its U.S. subsidiary corporation. 

This essay describes and analyzes the cultural disconnects, miscues, and contradictions between two affiliated companies which differ in nationality. This agile inquiry explored how a French corporation, embodying French culture, framed its interactions with its subsidiary American company; and fully expected the subsidiary company, its child, to patently understand and unquestionably accept it’s meanings.

This monograph describes how the consequences of corporate influence manifested in a culture clash of high and low context situations, divergent systems of meanings, dissimilar language, vocabularies, and idioms, differences in business practices and customs, and awkward social situations.  Research suggests that the influences of French national culture, the self- and world-proclaimed arbiter of good taste, are inherent in the organizational culture of the French corporation and management style.  

This strong national unified French culture, so different from the U.S. melting pot of immigrants, influenced the organizational culture of its American subsidiary resulting in an almost paralytic culture shock (Oberg, 1960) from which it never fully recovered. These critical differences in nationality, global business practices, management styles, and language, coupled with foreign ownership, are often sources of contradiction, conflict, misunderstandings, and uncertainty.

This ethnography describes how the high context and polychronicity of French business culture neither aligned nor reconciled itself to understanding the American predisposition and comfort in a low context monochronic environment (Hall & Hall, 1990). And low context Americans, who expected explicit meeting agendas,  powerpoint presentations, clock-management, and fixed schedules made no sense to the French who demanded its employees to be implicitly prepared, debate-prone, philosophical, socially-networked, time-elastic, and wired-in to HQ and each other at all times. To illustrate these outcomes, the business meeting venue presented a fertile social environment to observe and interpret these disparate systems of meanings that formed the bedrock of each national and organizational culture.

This research explored how a French parent company displayed influence, power, and control over its American workforce and leadership group. Mumby (1988) argued that organizational power and control stems from hegemonic cultural domination; and his theory offers support that this U.S. subsidiary became the victim of its own lack of national and organizational cultural awareness and intelligence. One might say that in this scenario, hegemonic French national cultural domination resulted in a paralysis of culture shock, seriously jeopardizing a subsidiary company’s economic viability, growth, and social-cultural maturity.  But first, it was necessary to explore how other anthropologists, social scientists, and business management theorists perceived social-cultural relationships between France and the U.S.

The Literature

National vs. Organizational Culture

Since publishing his first organizational study in 1968, Hofstede (1996) asserted that culture manifests itself within individuals in different ways and that culture can be categorized into two primary groups: 1). National Culture (nation, region, or ethnic); and 2). Organizational Culture (business or social group). Schein (2010) also argued that occupations have universal cultures: “global to the extent that members are trained in the same way to the same skill set and values” (p. 21).

National culture is a phenomenon that one learns early in life through the social-cultural environments of family, neighborhoods, social class, religion, gender, teams, and school. It determines the identity of a human group through values, symbols, heroes, and rituals the same way as personality determines the identity of an individual. For example, Hofstede (1994) described nationality as an attribute that we did not choose: “We are born within a family within a nation, and are subject to the mental programming of its culture from birth” (p. 12).

Conversely, we become socialized to an organization’s culture upon entry into the workplace, and unlike national culture, an individual’s encounter with business culture is subject to change each time an employee voluntarily or involuntarily departs one position and commences a new one. Schein (2009) suggested that: “Organizational cultures ultimately are embedded in the national cultures in which an organization operates” (p. 61). Similarly, the work environment of business plans, mission statements, managerial concepts, economic competition, technology integration, and workplace mores contribute to organizational cultural development (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2010).

Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) asserted that national and organizational cultures are two different phenomena, national culture based upon “mental software acquired during the first ten years of our lives” (p. 284); and organizational culture acquired during adulthood as we enter a work organization environment “with our values firmly in place” (p. 284). These rites and ceremonies in the business culture are recognized as the organizational practices of heroes, rituals, and symbols; and those ties which bind us within the family, close friends, religious and ethnic groups as our core values. Figure 1 illustrates Jordan’s (2003) anthropological perspective of an organization as a web of interacting cultural groups that appear as nested subcultures, cross-cutting cultures, and other overlapping professional cultures outside the organization which contribute to the greater national and societal whole.

The literature confirms that researchers were clear in their agreement that national culture differs from organizational culture; that individual human socialization is impacted by self-actualization and group dynamics; and occupational culture is nestled somewhere in between. From this collective understanding of national and organizational culture, the research pursued documented rationales describing the unique attributes and discriminators associated with the differences between French and American management styles and business routines.

Franco-American Cultural Dis-Connection

Theorists have long espoused that the influence of nationality on organizational cultural theories remains a taboo and polarizing subject. Hall (1989b) concisely described the differences between French and American business practices with his statements about national interests: “The Frenchman’s first loyalty is to France . . . Americans do not put their national interests ahead of everything else, so that business and Government are seldom on the same side working together” (p. 112). Hall (1989a) further opined that:

The Gauls have never been easy for the northern Europeans, the
Americans, or the English to understand. . . . French culture is a
mixture, a mélange, of high and low context institutions and
situations.  . . . Americans will encounter more resistance than
they are used to. One does not move in and win the French
overnight.  (p. 109)

Comparing the nationalistic cultures of the U.S. and France, Hofstede (1996) further offered this example of two national identities with his statement: “A culture clash exists between American and French thinking. Neither side seems to be aware that the other side speaks from a different context” (p. 527).  

Referring to the cultural and political differences between France and Spain, philosopher and mathematician, Pascal (1660), is widely cited as the creator of the aphorism, “There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees which are falsehoods on the other” (No. 294). Hofstede (1996) editorially commented that this boundary distinction could be equally applied to France and the U.S. with: “For ‘Pyrenees,’ why not fill in ‘Atlantic’?” (p. 527). Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) further supported Pascal’s statement with the rationale that: “The idea that the validity of a theory is constrained by nationality was more obvious in Europe, with all its borders, than in a huge borderless country such as the U.S.” (p. 337).   In concert, Hooker (2003) likened the U.S. melting pot metaphor to the Americans’ struggle with multiculturalism by: “universalizing rationality” (p. 331). Hooker (2003) proffered that the disparate peoples of the U.S. are bound together, not by common cultural heritage, but by a shared rulebook. Could two national constructs and two organizational strategies be more different?                             

Methodology - An Agile Approach to Ethnographic Inquiry

This research project was designed as an exploratory and descriptive qualitative approach to inquiry utilizing interpretive ethnography. Literature further indicated that prior qualitative organizational studies (Jordan, 2003; Kunda, 2006; Schwartzman, 1993; Van Maanen, 2011) viewed through the lens of the researcher’s fieldwork, captured the rich detail of workplace culture in ways that a quantitative survey-driven statistical approach could not. Geertz (1973) argued that “thick description,” defined fieldwork by explaining the concept with this passage: “Doing ethnography is like trying to read a manuscript – foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, written in transient examples of shaped behavior” (p. 10). Thus the methodology ultimately selected was ethnography, specifically agile ethnography (Skovira, 2012), as the inductive process of inquiry performed by a participant-observer.

Agile Ethnography

Agile ethnography (Skovira, 2012), evolved from a conceptualized methodology theory researched over a ten-year period now practiced as an interactive form of adaptive and flexible participant-observation. It was chosen for its rapid, short-term, non-static research process designed to capture the multi-layered, -leveled, and -matrixed social-cultural environments of a fluid business situation. An agile ethnography is epitomized by the constraints of time and access; the boundaries of a facility, department, or discipline; the interchangeable, overlapping, and cross-cutting cultural groups; and the researcher’s limited performance period, hence its name agile.

Agile ethnography copes with and overcomes the ever-changing and evolving organizational events through maneuverability, flexibility, and the ability to rapidly adapt to dynamic scope and environmental changes. Skovira (2012) asserted that the term agile (in this context) emanated from Larman’s (2004) information systems development methodology meaning rapid and flexible response to change, maneuverability, and iteration. True to Skovira’s (2008) original intent that agile ethnography “is also a way of raising critical questions about elites who fund, control, and manage” (p. 373), the application of this methodology to a well-defined short-term fast-paced business setting was ideal. Befitting this methodology, the events and interactions of the social-cultural groups were repetitively observed and recorded in a bounded workplace environment over a period of 120 days. Figure 2 depicts three converging components essential for a successful agile ethnography: fluid process; dynamic environment; and an adaptable flexible researcher; all of which are agile.

Research Question and the Role Players

The goal of this study was to explore how a foreign parent company’s national culture influenced the organizational culture of its U.S. subsidiary, by observing the impact of these cultural differences on American business groups’ social behavior and decision-making processes. Literature affirmed that the French and American national cultures are often at odds, miscommunicate, ignore cues and clues, and generally don’t listen, learn, and benefit from their differences (Hall & Hall, 1990; Hofstede, 1996; Hooker, 2003; Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2010). Therefore, to observe this phenomenon from a business perspective, the overarching research question for this study was: “How does the national culture of a French parent company influence business meetings and group dynamics within the organizational culture of its U.S. subsidiary?”

For the purposes of this research, pseudonyms were used to protect the anonymity of the organizations. Therefore, the players were known as, ABC Inc. (“ABC”), a U.S. Mid-Atlantic subsidiary company; and ABC-SAS (“SAS”), the French parent company. A sample size of 76 participants, representing eleven social-cultural groups, was solicited from ABC’s pool of 250 professional and managerial employees. The sourcing commenced with the Communications Department and by extension expanded throughout the Human Resources, Finance/Accounting, Purchasing/Contracts, Information Technology, Proposals/Tendering and Project Management/Engineering groups, focusing on those that experienced sustained or routine interaction and relationships with the parent company.

Although informant discussions and examination of artifacts were also employed to collect data for this study, the primary instrument was participant observation, as field notes of routine practices, rituals, symbols, mundane activities and heroics were copiously detailed in journals. Of particular interest were the employee interactions during business meetings and other group dynamics communicated through oral conversations (language, vocabulary and lingo); body language, movement, and facial expressions (physical cues); semiotics (signs and symbols); organization of meeting rooms (furniture, seating arrangements, distance); appearance (dress. manners, mannerisms); and lengths of meetings; all representing explicit and tacit cultural exchanges of information.

The Ethnography

When ABC and SAS employees meet, the culture clash is palpable. You can feel it. The French and American business cultures collide because they instantly experience miscues, misunderstandings and frustrations due to their lack of universal context (Hall & Hall, 1990) that prominently stands in the way of mutual understanding and progress. Their cultural patterns, “ordered clusters of significant symbols that man makes sense of the events through which he lives” (Geertz, 1973, p. 363), are uniquely different and although they make perfect sense to a particular society, to anyone else they appear to be “in a world otherwise opaque” (p. 363). 

SAS. The parent company of ABC is located in Paris, France, in a small upscale boutique facility. SAS headquarters (HQ) is comprised of approximately fifty staff employees and executive management whose total worldwide annual revenue (including all the affiliates) exceeds $500M €s. SAS has a long and storied European history evolving through French, German, and British mergers and acquisitions since 1883 and is a well-known and respected engineering research, development, and manufacturing entity worldwide. In 2007, it entered the U.S. market with its acquisition of several American firms, including ABC, to complement its business portfolio and complete its worldwide persona as a major industrial player. The intimate and elegant Paris space that houses only the parent company executive management team and their administrative assistants is geared to impress, not to research, develop, or manufacture anything. Geertz (1973) eloquently described this treatment of French culture as a “symbolic system . . . according to the core symbols around which it is organized, the underlying structures of which it is a surface expression, or the ideological principles upon which it is based” (p.17).

The Paris office of SAS is formal, fashionable, elegant, well-furnished and appointed as befitting a corporate headquarters of an international company. The employees are sophisticated, well-dressed and properly accessorized, and everyone speaks, reads, and writes in English, as well as French. One might surmise that perhaps living up to the reputation of being the world’s arbiter of good taste is not only a physical and economic achievement, but also a daunting psychological challenge. 

ABC.  ABC Corporation (ABC) is an engineer-centric Mid-Atlantic U.S. corporation owned by a French parent company with global reach, known as SAS. Striving for years to obtain name recognition in the U.S., ABC never achieved the identity and respect that its parent company and foreign subsidiaries enjoyed throughout the world. This is evident by its modest structure in a suburban economic development park ten miles from a major metropolitan area and forty miles from its airport. ABC’s unassuming facility is home to approximately 250 U.S. employees and various foreign ex-patriots and visitors, who serve the company in the areas of engineering, manufacturing, and technology. For the most part ABC operates independently from its foreign HQ, with the exception of weekly risk management conference calls; business meetings every month with representatives from SAS in attendance at ABC; quarterly and annual meetings in France; and monthly, quarterly, and year-end financial reports converted to and submitted in Euros (€s) and translated to French for the Paris executives. The hierarchy in France is content to permit the autonomy of ABC as long as the U.S. subsidiary is profitable, amenable, and responsive to HQ’s requests for meetings, updates, and reports. However, make no mistake, the French power, control, dominance, and influence over the Americans are maintained at all times, overtly and covertly.     

Organizational Structures.
SAS is portrayed as an organization that values people, relationships, and networking as its most important assets, strives for commitment and loyalty (jobs for life), utilizes listening and communicating as its methodology, and targets personal empowerment as its goal. In “Reframing Organizations,” Bolman and Deal (2008, pp. 121-122) describe this unique and somewhat similar form of business arrangement as the Human Resource Frame. When an SAS employee visits ABC, he or she represents HQ and therefore has explicit authority or the implicit appearance of authority regardless of the leader’s position with the company. Only relevant ABC parties are invited to SAS meetings; therefore you must be important enough to be there. The French expects all invitees to come prepared, behave properly, and participate willingly in debates and discussions; because the information that SAS employees bring with them is seldom shared outside of their own social-cultural network. 

A culture clash is inevitable because ABC’s informal Structural Frame (Bolman & Deal, pp. 118-120) is based upon organization, timeliness, discipline, a well-defined management hierarchy, and dedicated to results – not personal feelings and long-standing relationships. Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) explained this American point of view with their theory of small-power-distance.

In the small-power-distance situation, subordinates and superiors
consider each other as existentially equal; the hierarchical system is
just an inequality of roles, established for convenience . . . so that
someone who today is my subordinate may tomorrow be my boss.
. . . According privileges to higher-ups is basically undesirable, and
everyone should use the same  parking lot, restrooms, and cafeteria.
(p. 74)

Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) further argued that “There is no research evidence of a systematic difference in effectiveness between organizations in large-power-distance versus small-power-distance countries. . . . The important thing is for management to utilize the strengths of the local culture” (p. 75). And Hooker (2003) explained that: “The sort of decentralization that is periodically fashionable in U.S. business is very unnatural for the French. Decisions of any significance typically must be ratified in Paris” (p. 23). Therefore, contrary to the pyramidal centralization of a French-owned business and the flat structure of its HQ, a large American business with a global reach relies on the decentralization of management, operations, and the corresponding accountability to achieve its corporate success through worldwide growth.

Culturally, SAS is founded from a home country with large power distance and strong uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010) and its overall corporate structure reflects a hierarchical business model of a “pyramid of people [with] the general manager at the top of the pyramid and each successive level at its proper place below” (pp. 304 - 305).  Although a well-defined structure and authority-driven hierarchy are essential to its functional global success, the French people are still of paramount importance at SAS. And these close, intimate, long-term business relationships are reflected differently at HQ where the business structure is flat, simple, and collegial with all senior management reporting directly to the President. Management’s unconditional loyalty and commitment to the President and his policies, as well as to its French national and organizational cultures, are expected and willingly given; and they are rewarded with a supportive, collegial, respectful, remunerative, and nurturing social-cultural environment in return.  Hooker (2003) described the French management style as a polychronic organization based on relationships rather than tasks. “One manages people rather than projects. [Organizations] are flatter, because the boss can keep tabs on many people at once. . . .This is consonant with the greater ‘power distance’ typical of polychronic societies, where the decisions of the boss are less likely to be questioned” (p. 31).

Business Meetings and Group Dynamics

 “The most important management ritual continues to be the formal meeting” (Deal & Kennedy, 2000, p. 70).  Nothing is more commonplace than meetings in organizations. “In the West we believe that meetings should exemplify our basic values or pragmatism, task orientation, efficiency, and rationality. We are frustrated when we find that meetings do not seem to accomplish or display these values” (Schwartzman, 1993, p. 38). This ethnography rapidly discovered that the French and American business management styles and cultural perceptions were as vastly far apart as the ocean that separated the two countries. ABC meetings with SAS were not eagerly anticipated; they were tolerated.

Chronicity, Time, Context, Proxemics, Kinesics, and Language

SAS employees prefer face-to-face meetings to build relationships and network; and to remind the U.S. subsidiary just who is in charge. Costs of travel and lost time are never deterrents to SAS management, and they visit the U.S. frequently.  Not surprisingly, the ABC employees prefer conference calls and telepresence meetings because they can simultaneously work online with laptops and smartphones. The cultural interpretants described below help to explain why these two groups view business meetings so differently.

Chronicity. A meeting between the French and American employees is a timeless (literally) social-cultural event; at least from the perspective of the French. An SAS meeting starts late, ends late, newcomers enter at any time, lunches and breaks are long, personnel leave at will and walk about, take or make calls, disappear from the conference room for extended periods of time, jump up and greet late arrivals and continue to make small talk while others wait patiently for the meeting to resume. No one really explains anything and typically nothing gets decided. The ABC participants ponder and fume under their breaths and informants commonly report, “Why are we wasting so much time? If I could leave, I could get other things done!”  ABC employees perceive the French as time wasters, socialites, and somewhat lazy (that is, until they experience a late night never-ending meeting with them). 

On the other hand, the Americans arrive on time and are in their seats. They want an Agenda, handouts, or a power point presentation (they want to be briefed). They watch the clock, they get impatient and frustrated; they want to stick to the schedule; they look grim; they want to finish with a plan in hand; and they want to go home on time. Hooker (2003) described this American trait with elegant efficiency.

The U.S. is perhaps the most thoroughly monochronic society,
at least as gauged by slavery to the clock. A visitor must explain
if he is five minutes late; even three minutes may call for a brief
or mumbled apology. . . . There must be a really good excuse for
being ten to fifteen minutes late [and you better call ahead]. (p. 26)

But the French are wondering, “What is the rush? Why all this impatience? It is still early.”  Hooker (2003) further explained that: “In a polychronic culture, time is elastic” (p. 26). Unlike their monochronic linear American counterparts, the French prefer to work on many projects simultaneously without strict regard for meeting times and hard completion dates.  This is not a small and minor cultural difference between the Americans and French. Different interpretations of the importance and awareness (or lack thereof) of time-keeping and maintaining strict schedules represents a deep chasm between the parties, resulting in disruptions, misunderstandings, frustration, annoyance and even hurt feelings, typically by the Americans who are left waiting with little or no explanation. It is amazing that anything ever gets accomplished at all when these two cultural groups meet.  

At least two reasons could be attributed to the lack of empathy from the French visitors to their American colleagues. First of all, the French manage their time much differently from the Americans. They break for long midday meals and dine much later in the evening for their final meal.  Hall and Hall (1990) argued that the French use meetings, meals, and informal chats as relationship builders; for without the established baseline relationships of respect, trust, and camaraderie, little can be accomplished let alone agreed upon. What the American didn’t realize was that they were expected to establish relationships with their SAS colleagues through socialization first; and if trust and camaraderie had been adequately accomplished the meetings would have gone smoother. Unfortunately, the French elements of relationship-building and socialization do not relate naturally to the American business experience founded upon impersonalization and efficiency.

Additionally, unlike meetings strictly between Americans, the French rarely make decisions at the first or second meeting and debate is always essential. ABC’s employees refer to this situation as wasting time in a meeting because a decision or action plan is rarely decisively reached by its conclusion. Without a decision, an action plan, and a person assigned to the task, an American employee concludes that the meeting is an abject failure. But to the French, not to engage in debate infers that a U.S. employee is unprepared to discuss important issues, or worse, is perceived as an ill-prepared superficial American, one who requires copious background information or explanations to bring the individual up to speed because he or she cannot handle more than one complex issue at a time. The high context (Hall & Hall, 1990) French, those whom rely on complicated business and social networks and are constantly engaged in complex conversations and relationships, value research and preparation; therefore, they feel they do not need to be briefed all the time. 

Briefings, a popular U.S. business practice, are essential to Americans, who are usually running from one meeting or task to the next and rely upon receiving a review of essential information at the onset of each action. American business people are generally considered monochronic (Hall, 1989b) sycophants to schedules and doggedly attentive to one project or task at a time; and their French counterparts are polar opposites. In the U.S. business environment, time and schedule are adhered to in the strictest of protocol, resulting in another serious cultural disconnect between the French and American employees.  

Continually progressing forward in the workflow is also a U.S. business cultural norm. In American football, this phenomenon is described as keeping the chains moving; always gaining yardage and never giving up ground; regardless of the pace. In a monochronic culture, “time is an empty vessel to be filled with activity . . . it is essential that moments do not slip by unfilled . . . [because] time is money” (Hooker, 2003, pp. 27 - 29).  ABC’s mantra could have been, “Don’t waste my time.”

Hall (1989a) likens action chains, these situational frames, as a cultural process that once initiated, must be completed. The monochronic, one-thing-at-a time ABC style was totally disrupted by the French polychronic behavior capable of abruptly breaking the American action chain. Similarly, the multi-tasking, polychronic French are apt to be involved in many activities with several different people at any given time, placing completion of a task in a category below the importance of being sociable to others. Linear task-oriented American business people found the disruption of sequential action chains a difficult concept to comprehend.

Collaborative lasting social networks are not prevalent at ABC, because American employees rarely establish long-term business and personal relationships, often changing jobs multiple times over the span of a career, unlike their French counterparts who favor “jobs for life” (Carton, 1998). American business people are mobile, impatient, and short term goal oriented, as reflected by ABC employees who are constantly searching for copies of Agendas on the conference room tables before the meeting comes to order. ABC employees quickly scan memos and reports prior to the start of a meeting and rely heavily on copies of the pertinent literature made available immediately before the meeting commences. “Paperwork is always important in low-context cultures, when compartmentalization blocks the free flow of information” (Hall & Hall, 1990, p. 161). If the documentation isn’t available on the conference room table or via email on the laptop or smartphone prior to the meeting, ABC personnel are uninformed nonparticipating attendees. And if a meeting Agenda has not been prepared and distributed in advance, they arrive clueless. In this ABC low-context environment information moves slowly, generally from the top down; and one does not ask for information that doesn’t affect the group’s present mission or the individual’s immediate task at hand.

Time and Context. The American linear meeting requires a rigid adherence to a schedule, albeit constrained by an agenda with no extra time allotted for deviation or off-topic discourse. The ABC meeting is intended to conclude with decisions made, action items set, and enough time for all to depart to make their next appointments. There is no room and no forgiveness for off-topic discussions or new business. Refreshments are rarely served, as being sociable would slow the process. The American chairperson has full control of the meeting and will request that participants table their off-topic conversations for private or off-line meetings; alternatively, if new topics are relevant they will be added to the Agenda of the next meeting. 

The clock is ticking . . . end of story.

SAS employees are high context individuals who don’t feel the need to explain situations in great detail to their American counterparts. They arrive prepared and often without a meeting agenda (to the consternation of the Americans), as everyone from HQ knows what is to be discussed and why. Hall and Hall (1990) succinctly describe this high context scenario from the French perspective.

Like every other national group, the French expect foreigners to
be just like them. Because the French make it their business to
be highly contexted, they expect other people to be similarly
well-informed. Therefore, they don’t give other people much
information because to do so would be an insult. (p. 108)

Unfortunately, their ABC colleagues never realized that they were being served a supreme compliment; and if they had the cultural intelligence to understand the protocol of French meetings, the outcomes might have been very different.

“The polychronic French think nothing of changing plans at the last minute. This is very unsettling to most Americans . . . who consider such behavior irresponsible” (Hall & Hall, 1990, p. 89).  The ABC employees could not comprehend that their French colleagues are highly involved within their own information networks of family members, friends, colleagues, and customers and managing and maintaining these relationships will always be their top priority in order to function properly in their culture. The high context environment of French business culture (Hall & Hall, 1990) demands that all attendees arrive fully prepared, implicitly understanding the purpose of the meeting and its background, with few words of introduction and little explanation provided by the chairperson who called the meeting. Therefore, in the eyes of the French there is no need for an elaborate Agenda, background materials, or a lengthy introduction because providing the topic is generally enough. The lower context environment of American business culture (Hall & Hall, 1990) demands a thorough and detailed explanation (every time) why a meeting is required and a rationale why a meeting is postponed or canceled.  In contrast to the French predisposition, memory recollection from previous meetings is not a high priority within a low context environment.

Other events occurred that slowed a meeting’s progression much to the dismay of the Americans. For instance, the French consider lunch as a two hour break for socializing and networking; therefore work is held in abeyance until the meal is over. ABC typically envisions a working lunch in order to save time.  Mid-morning and a mid-afternoon breaks were also called by the HQ employees, not at all uncommon for American business meetings to schedule restroom breaks or to check phone messages; but in addition to these breaks, the SAS employees took frequent smoke breaks, as well, as smoking remains a popular cultural pastime in France. Furthermore, the SAS visitors are frustrated by a lack of time to introduce and discuss items not on the agenda, inadequate opportunity for debate, and a general lack of eloquent and philosophical conversation (Hall & Hall, 1990). The French are intensely involved with people; and both welcome and tolerate interruptions as an opportunity to learn new and discreet information. They favor deep discussions seeing no need to reach a decision or consensus at the conclusion of the first or even second meeting. 

The ABC employees were not especially annoyed with the habits and practices of the SAS personnel, as many found them amusing and worthy of off-line conversation, but they were visibly distressed and vocal in their complaints when the waiting periods extended, the meeting Agenda was disregarded, and the schedule completely abolished. Although Americans are known to have a high tolerance for uncertainty and risk (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010), it was clear that in this instance, the ABC employees were tense, uncomfortable, and stressed with a temporal situation they could not control. Americans are slaves to time, punctuality, and schedules and expect everyone else to be, as well.
If only each social-cultural group could see how their respective habits and routines accumulated into patterns of behavior, the outcomes might have been less surprising and meetings may have proved interesting and informative. These multicultural differences were disconcerting to both Americans and French due to a general lack of understanding and empathy for each other.

Proxemics. ABC’s management and staff meetings are generally held in small shabby conference rooms with gray walls, dark industrial carpeting, and few (if any) windows; although most have glossy dark cherry wooden conference tables, padded chairs, and a wall-sized white board. Unfortunately, the large tables and chairs tend to bump against the walls as attendees enter and depart the area as most conference rooms are too small and crowded to accommodate the large furniture. American attendees accept this inconvenience with smiles and laughter as they wait to file in and out of the room in single file, as if elementary school children behaving politely at the behest of their teacher. Real embarrassment occasionally occurs when a person must stumble and squeeze behind the occupied chairs and against the walls in order to exit the room to accept cell phone calls or to make the long trek to the restrooms.

Alliances and loyalties are also evident through the seating arrangements of ABC employees at meetings. Departmental, project, or staff members tend to sit together for support and quick conferences. Junior staff members and deputies often sit next to their respective senior managers, even forcing extra chairs into small spaces to stay together within their social-cultural groups. Despite the loss of personal space, this is one occasion when American employees will sacrifice their comfort and loss of space for the protection of a business allegiance among the security of their own group when confronted with the unknown (strangers or issues). In these awkward circumstances, the employees’ reliance upon their group leaders and their physical group cohesion is a clear indication of how ABC employees cope with the cultural dimension of uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010).

Despite this anomaly, most of the time the ABC employees do not like to relinquish their personal space and are visibly uncomfortable when their elbows or chairs touch each other in small crowded spaces. The Americans often appear annoyed when they do not have enough table space to open their laptops, spread out their notebooks, and arrange their coffee cups, pens, and smartphones, and prefer empty seats or chairs between attendees, when possible. Hall (1990a) coined this obsession with personal space, “proxemics,” to identify how each cultural group keenly expressed its own spatial relationships with distance. The ABC employees value their personal space almost as much as they value their time; however, for esprit de corps and alliances to their own groups they put up with the discomfort and inconvenience as long as they can rely on the chairperson to stick to the schedule, stay on topic, and adjourn on time.

Conversely, the SAS employees were not bothered by the proxemics (Hall, 1990a) of closeness, as the small room lent itself to more physical contact, relationship building, and tête-à-tête, of paramount importance to the French culture of intimacy. SAS employees preferred sitting close together to enable personal side-bar discussions (in French) when warranted. Observations of the ABC employees during a meeting reflected that intimacy had no real place in American business meetings because it distracted from maintaining one’s own personal space and the intent of the meeting which was to accomplish its purpose and be over! Although the meetings took place on ABC’s turf, which should provide a home court advantage, the physical constraints of the conference room and the proximity of the participants immediately placed the advantage with the French visitors, once again a reminder that SAS always called the shots.

How could the ABC employees know that those born or inured to the French culture do not mind small spaces and intimate surroundings; that the French actually relish the togetherness and favor proximity as essential to relationship building (Hall & Hall, 1990)?  Again, ABC employees seemed unaware that their counterparts at SAS were complete opposites in terms of their own unique national and organizational cultural perceptions. And when the groups meet, neither party makes or realizes a connection is needed to reach cultural understandings. 

Kinesics. When meetings between the French and Americans start or end late and frequent breaks are taken, ABC employees are visibly uncomfortable and anxious. They constantly look at their watches, check their mobile phones for emails and voice messages, fidget, look bored or impatient, roll their eyes or wink at each other, all the while consciously or unconsciously signaling to the group and its leader that it is time to wrap it up, make a decision, take a vote, or table the meeting for another date and time. Birdwhistell (1970) coined this symbolic and coded body language, “kinesics,” a voiceless paperless way to communicate physical messages throughout the cultural group. Hall (1990b) referred to this unspoken give and take as the “silent language [explaining that] culture exists on two levels: overt culture, which is visible and easily described, and covert culture, which is not visible and presents difficulty even to the trained observer” (p. 61). The ABC employees had no problems reading the overt physical, aural, visual, written, and oral signs and cues among each other, regardless of the social-cultural group or occupational discipline he or she represented. Interpreting these types of overt cultural units appeared to be a universal language at ABC, and as easy as understanding “yes” or “no.” Unfortunately, reading the covert cultural signs displayed by employees of SAS were difficult to recognize, let alone decipher.

Body language was not disguised by the Americans who often exhibited their discomfort, frustration, boredom, and stress, particularly when the meeting appeared to be out of control, did not resolve the open issues, and attendees were not free to leave on time. ABC’s kinesics were exhibited through the overt body language of yawning, eye-rolling, low groans and murmurs, wild and noisy shifting of body positions in chairs, and during particularly long meetings some employees actually rose from their chairs, stretched and walked around the conference room table as if to signal it was time to take a break. In contrast, the French were restrained and guarded; rarely showed their dispositions visually and vocally; and generally utilized their native tongue to express their thoughts and strategies to “insiders” only (those that fluently spoke and understood the French language).

Language. To add insult to injury, the visiting SAS employees were all fluently bi-lingual and completely unaware that they were showing-off to the ABC employees when they easily crossed between speaking in English during the formal meeting and performing their intimate side-bars with each other in French. Nevertheless, the French were very aware that being conversant in English provided the added advantages of confidence, power, and even intimidation. The Americans considered this tack rude and arrogant; but the French considered the tête-à-tête as a natural way to conduct a private conversation, even in public. Hall (1989b) noted that: “Language is by its very nature a highly contexted system . . . and dependent [upon] meaning” (p. 60). Personal relationships generally share a high context of understanding (tacit, implicit); impersonal relationships are typically low context (overt, explicit) and require more detailed explanation to reach a mutual understanding. And the French had mastered this artful endeavor.

Recap. From the ethnographer’s perspective, this repetitive meeting scenario between SAS and ABC is likened to two teams competing on a TV game show with no successful outcome, because one team believes it is appearing on the “The Price is Right” and the other team is positive it is on “Let’s Make a Deal.”  Each team is completely focused on following different rules and systems of meaning and discourse; therefore, no team can succeed (win) because they are not playing the same game. “Culture is the unwritten book with rules of the social game that is passed on to newcomers by its members” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 26). If you don’t know (learn) the rules you cannot play the game successfully, and winning is completely out of the question. It is a puzzlement; for without the proper rules the puzzle (game) cannot be solved. Summarized in Table 1 are the study’s findings, evidencing genuine social-cultural disconnects in leadership, status, context, power distance, risk avoidance, language, movement, time, and space. 

Discussion and Interpretations

The results of this study indicated that a strong national cultural group displayed considerable influence, power, and control over a nascent weaker diverse American organizational group; contributing qualitative ethnographic data to a research field that is predominantly survey-driven and statistically quantitative. Each player, ABC and SAS, represented two distinct and disparate national and organizational cultures based upon its country of origin, inherent corporate values, and learned business and social-cultural practices. This ethnography interpreted their influences and complicated relationships by examining the communities of practice, systems of meanings, symbols, and language exposing the multicultural disconnects, contradictions, miscues, different worldviews and fields of experience between a foreign parent company and its acquired U.S. entity. Agile ethnography provided the ideal vehicle to accommodate a fluid, fast-paced, dynamic, ever-scope-changing social-cultural business environment constrained by time, access, and physical location.  For a more detailed account of this study, the reader is advised to access the researcher’s full manuscript (Borkovich, 2012).

Although these multicultural differences experienced by both groups appeared obvious to the researcher, the meeting participants were so preoccupied with their own personal agendas and objectives that they seemed oblivious to the conflicting actions around them. ABC and SAS approached every meeting armed with different languages, vocabularies, slang, lingo, practices, habits, meanings and symbols, based upon very disparate national cultures, organizational experiences, and worldviews.

During the course of this study, the U.S. employees were observed to cope with a variety of issues and constraints, attempting to balance the formal edicts of its foreign parent company with the informal requirements of its American management. Founded five years prior, ABC had not existed long enough to develop its own mature and strong organizational culture to withstand external forces that were not always mutually beneficial to its survival. Therefore, the stronger national culture of the French parent company easily overwhelmed the weaker nascent American organizational culture. The U.S. subsidiary became the victim of its own lack of national, organizational, and occupational cultural awareness and intelligence resulting in a never-ending paralysis of “culture shock” (Oberg, 1960) from which it never fully recovered. This agile ethnography revealed a number of unresolved cultural issues, problems, and controversies, and consequently raised almost as many questions as it answered. 

Culture is a social game (Hofstede, 1968); who we are; how we get along; and how we
do things around here. The French parent company’s mature and sophisticated corporate culture played its ethnocentric “cultural-social game” successfully by learning, communicating, sharing rules, clearly identifying the players and defining their roles. Its American subsidiary never learned how to play its “game” because the naïve employees were completely unaware there was a game to be learned and played. Their complicated relationship evolved from the onset of a dramatic culture shock when ABC was acquired by the French, and it never completely dug out of the hole it created for itself. And the French, either oblivious to the Americans’ dilemma, or perhaps content in the driver’s seat, made no efforts to change this negative cultural perception to repair and improve the Franco-American relationship.

For instance, the French preferred to operate among personal networks of intimate relationships and tacit understandings. During meetings they were perfectly at ease clustered closely together while sitting or standing, polychronically jumping off-topic, and effortlessly moving from English to French when a tête-à-tête was warranted. And the French were well-aware that being bi-lingual provided added business advantages of confidence, power, control and intimidation.  Just observing this public intimacy made the Americans uncomfortable, ill-at-ease, and over-whelmed preferring their monochronic tasks, detailed briefings, personal space, adequate elbow-room, the sound of American English, and their Western protocol to take all private conversations off-line or out-of-site.  Nevertheless, the Americans had a silent secret weapon that confounded their sophisticated French counterparts. They had kinesics (Birdwhistell, 1970).  Body language was not disguised by the Americans who often exhibited their frustration, boredom, and stress, particularly when meetings appeared to be out-of-control, did not resolve open issues, and attendees were not free to leave on time. They stretched, groaned, yawned, rocked their chairs, rolled their eyes, and checked their watches and smartphones. The French, who perceived time as elastic, considered these American reactions as incredibly rude, not realizing that linear Americans perceived time as an invaluable commodity, merely desiring to commence the next meeting or task.

Hofstede (1996) offered a context disconnect by comparing the U.S. and France with the statement: “A culture clash exists between American and French thinking. Neither side seems to be aware that the other side speaks from a different context, not even such a thing as a national context from which theories are written and criticized” (p. 527). Oberg (1960) explained this phenomenon with his theory of culture shock, a full immersion process with four stages: “the honeymoon phase, regression, adjustment, and recovery periods” (p. 177). Social scientists agree that not all culture clashes need to result in negative encounters when a period of adjustment is provided, described as a recovery or adaptation phase known as acculturation (Hofstede, 1996). The French business culture, management style, and overt nationalism imposed constraints, rules, and at times a paralytic fear of failure upon its U.S. subsidiary that manifested in a severe culture shock. Figure 3 illustrates the U-shaped curve of culture shock through acculturation. For the past five years, ABC has remained in a quagmire between phases two and three.

According to Deal and Kennedy (2000), the failure lies in management when it ignores the influence of culture on individuals and groups or does not read the culture correctly. In the ABC workplace, when cultural adaptation to the French practices and management style did not occur, neither the American nor French leadership provided culture and language lessons, intercultural business training, or social activities to familiarize the employees with the practices and routines of their parent company. Instead, when employees felt frustrated, anxious, abused, or ignored, they often left the company due to new opportunities, lay-offs, firings, retirement, or to pursue self-employment. ABC informants offered that the need to find and join new situations where the employees could fit in and feel valued and appreciated evidenced a transient non-nurturing business environment, contributing to the impossibility of the Americans’ understanding of the French cultural system dedicated to national loyalty and jobs for life.

The high context of French business culture could not align or reconcile itself to understanding ABC’s predisposition and comfort in a low context environment. Both the French and the Americans overtly displayed an attitude of ethnocentrism, a belief that one’s culture, norms, mores, and practices reflect the center of one’s world, the only world that really matters. Oberg (1960) remarked that this attitude of cultural pride is not uncommon as, “[e]thnocentrism is a permanent characteristic of national groups” (p. 180). Ferraro (2006) explained the American point of view with: “We take our culture for granted, assuming that our behavior is correct and all others are wrong, or at the very least strange” (p. 35). The construct of ethnocentrism provides insight into why ABC and SAS employees are merely visitors looking into the windows of each other’s culture. Until ABC actually experiences true acculturation, the Americans and French can only be friendly strangers and varying degrees of distant colleagues.

ABC’s employees spent the past five years within its organizational work environment continually exposed to unfamiliar national cultural influences imposed by its French parent that they neither understood nor could relate. Indicative of this researcher’s observations of group dynamics at ABC, culture shock was evident in individuals’ feelings of powerlessness, estrangement, lack of self-confidence, and distrust of others. The U.S. employees’ lack of spontaneity and joy in their work and co-workers reflected a lack of cultural awareness that fed on a perpetual state of paranoia inhibiting individual career growth and overall maturity as a corporation.

In a corporate acquisition, be it domestic or foreign, it is customary for the acquired organization to become a subculture in the larger culture of the acquiring company. Schein (2009) observed that although corporate culture implications are not considered upfront during an acquisition, when an acquisition goes south or acculturation does not result favorably, cultural mismatches are often blamed. Schein (2009) further warned that: “If you do not manage culture, it will manage you” (p. 215).

Due to the dominant nationalistic corporate culture that SAS developed in France and globally over the past 125 years, it continually expanded its organizational culture through the entry of new people with new worldviews, assumptions, and different experiences. For ABC’s successful cultural transition to SAS, it must be wary of, but not fearful or paralyzed by these cultural differences, or it will surely never climb out of its paralytic quagmire. The true goal will be to draw upon the social-cultural intelligence of the surviving ABC employees to adapt to its parent creating a new vibrant, collaborative, and sustaining business culture built upon each corporation’s strengths; or alternatively, try to survive independently within the behemoth French corporate structure as a unique niche subculture. It remains to be seen if both ABC and SAS can survive as two separate entities or as an allegiance of one.

Limitations and Future Research

This study had certain limitations. First, the ethnography involved a single foreign vs. domestic business scenario and did not provide for investigative studies of other nationalities and ethnicities for comparison purposes. Given the uniqueness of this particular and singular research situation, there remains a need to test our findings by conducting more research of other multicultural business relationships. Second, the theoretical framework of foreign ownership of an American company should be compared against against other Franco-American parent-child business models to test its potential transferability. Third, the agile approach to this ethnographic inquiry did not disclose longitudinal findings, more typical of a multi-year traditional ethnography. Although this study did not collect such longitudinal data, a follow-up study of the same subjects following a reasonable absence would favorably contribute to comparison data  and subsequently open alternative avenues for continued research.


This study suggests that Geertz (1973, p.13) was correct when he elegantly argued that the “mastery of a country’s language . . . does not mean that we understand the people. Finding our feet . . . encompasses much more than talk.” Although this agile ethnography did not discover a cohesive intercultural mesh between a French parent company and its U.S. subsidiary, it revealed a number of unresolved cultural issues, problems, and controversies, and consequently raised almost as many questions as it answered. These and other incongruous nationalistic and organizational practices and customs were disconcerting to both the French and the Americans due to a mutual lack of understanding, a dearth of empathy, and an unwillingness to learn from each other. Furthermore, this study revealed that a strong nationalistic singularly-focused cultural group can have considerable influence, power, and control over a nascent weaker organizational group with multiple disparate worldviews and fields of experience; one that has not yet “found its feet.”


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Video "talks back": a dialogic combination of unedited video footage, interview data and fieldnotes

Clare Mumford
Open University Business School, UK

This paper discusses a relatively uncommon use of unedited video footage of project group meetings as a dialogic element alongside other data in an emergent process of ethnographic interpretation.  The empirical research in question used video recordings alongside interviews and fieldnotes to develop alternative understandings of what was going on in social encounters. 

The paper includes three aspects: a discussion of the epistemological compatibilities of using video alongside other forms of data in an intertextual approach; an empirical example of video's dialogic role and effects upon both the emergent interpretations the unfolding relationships with research participants; and some suggestions for appropriate conditions and the risks, of using video data in such a way. 

Keywords: Bakhtin, dialogue, interpretative research strategies, silence, video

A review of the organizational research methods literature seems to indicate that the dominant paradigm being applied to unedited video footage is that of ethnomethodology or conversation analysis (eg. Heath, Hindmarsh and Luff, 2010; Llewellyn, 2011) in which the video data retains prime position even if it is accompanied by a certain amount of ethnographic contextual support.  In this paper I offer an alternative perspective which highlights the interesting potential of video footage when it is used alongside other qualitative data such as fieldnotes and interviews in a dialogic research strategy.  Because this alternative perspective seems to illuminate a gap in the organizational field - a gap incidentally that does not seem so large in other disciplines such as anthropology (e.g. Pink, 2009) or educational studies (e.g. Goldman, 2007) - this paper offers an empirical example of such a dialogic approach as well as a contribution to the discussion about the epistemological and methodological requirements needed to use video data in this way.

The empirical example comes from the use of video recordings of project group  meetings alongside participant interviews and fieldnotes in an ethnographic "polyphonic" (Bakhtin, 1984)  study of an inherently personal and secret phenomenon: staying silent in project group discussions.  The core research interest in the study was in exploring how participants talked about what they withheld from project group conversations, and how they made sense of the notion of silence/withholding from within the ongoing flow of interaction.  The methodological premise was to develop a dialogue across the data - that is, the video recordings of the original project meeting, my own participant observer account, and other project group members' interview accounts - not in order to develop truth claims but for an exploration of intersubjectivity and difference.  I was seeking to use the discursive lens of participants' post-meeting accounts to explore how the sensemaking about the private activity of staying silent was positioned against the backdrop of our shared attendance, and the flow of social interaction, in the meetings.  Rather than featuring as an objective account of interaction from which processes of social order or social semiotics can be drawn impartially by the researcher, my study used video footage in a more interpretative and intersubjective way - in a way that encourages video to "talk back" - to review different perspectives on the same encounter. 

Many will be quick to point that a simple combination of data such as video footage, interviews and fieldnotes is problematic given the different types of knowledge that are produced.  My intention here then is to investigate the intersections where such difficulties lie and to discuss the limitations but also, I hope, the interesting potential of using video in this way.  The paper draws on Bakhtin's work on dialogism (Bakhtin, 1981, 1984) and develops the notion of dialogism along two different lines - intertextuality and polyphony - in order to discuss the ways in which video data played a role in the research both across the dialogue with other data forms and with research participants.
The structure of the paper is thus: I firstly summarise some of the key qualities of video data, how these qualities have tended to be used in EM/CA  methodological approaches in organizational research, and why I considered them appropriate for a more intersubjective methodology.  Then I define what I mean by polyphony and intertextuality before providing three empirical illustrations of how video was used, and what effects it had, in this dialogic approach.  I end by offering some tentative thoughts on when, and under what conditions, such intersubjective use of video might be applied.

The methodological uses and qualities of video data

The type of video recording that I concentrate on here is unedited, fixed-camera footage in which the recording of a situation of social interaction is designed as much as possible to be a neutral representation of the unfolding of events.  There are a number of good summaries of the history of video in research, and the range of types and uses to which it has been applied (e.g. Erickson, 2011; Jewitt, 2011; Goldman et al, 2007), and I do not repeat such comprehensive coverage here.  

I draw on the literature on qualitative research methods across disciplines to discuss three core qualities of unedited video recordings which distinguish this form of data from others and which indicate where difficulties of data-combining may lie:

  • the intricate level of detail portrayed in video recordings;
  • the ability to replay this detail in a way which collapses time and space;
  • the sense of impartiality and independence from researcher involvement.

While these qualities have been championed for EM/CA purposes in organizational studies, I argue that they also serve for more interpretive research purposes. 

Level of detail

Perhaps the most obvious quality of video recording is its ability to reproduce minutiae of social interaction capturing temporal and sequential detail (Jewitt, 2011; Lemke, 2007).  Video recordings show who was present, their appearance, individual positions, movements, gaze and interactions, as well as the presence and use of objects and the visual appearance of the local environment (Dicks et al, 2006). 
Workplace studies and multimodal studies, strongly associated with the tradition of EM and CA (Jewitt, 2011; Kress, 2011), have very effectively utilised video's preciseinteractional detail in ways which explore what Knoblauch and Schnettler term the "paradigmatic case" of video use, Goffman's interaction order (Goffman, 1983), in which there is a common focus of attention among the participants recorded.  Examples include medical rooms, classrooms, and museum settings (see Jewitt, 2011) in which the coordination of verbal and non-verbal action, both between participants and between them and their surroundings, is recorded. 

What has so far been (at least less explicitly) used in organizational studies work is the affordance of such detail as a full record of an ethnographic experience of an event at which the researcher was present.  Lemke (2007) notes that anthropological video and film, with a lineage back to Mead and Bateson in the 1950s, highlights how little is attended to in fieldnotes and how much more one can see when one views the footage again with a different research question. The important point being made here is that video footage allows a return to the setting to see what was missed the first time in a way that other modes of recording in the field may not allow (Heath, Hindmarsh and Luff, 2010). 

Notwithstanding this point, as Pink notes (2007), the recording of the "visible" should not be confused with the "real".  The camera's gaze does not capture material aspects which may be made relevant by the actors but which are out of frame, either temporally or spatially; moreover, there are other non-visual phenomena which may also have relevance in interaction but which video recordings do not retain, for instance, emotions, temperature or odour (Knoblauch and Schnettler, 2012).  The contention here is that other forms of data may be useful according to the research question being pursued.

The collapse of time and space in replay

Lemke (2007) notes the temporal and spatial collapsing of "attentional spaces" as we analyse video, with its qualities of visual realism and audio fidelity, from within our real-time lived experiential space.  There is a sense of presence and immersion as we review the footage, he suggests: this is decreased, and the analytic distance concomitantly increased, as we manipulate and denaturalize the recording through rewinding, fast forwarding, slowing down or speeding up the images. 

EM/CA studies utilise this analytical distance to work with tiny fragments of data in intricate detail (Snell, 2011), to show how social order is produced or how meanings emerge in social semiotics (e.g. Llewellyn, 2011; Kress, 2011).  The research interest here is the social interaction which is made relevant by the social actors in the video's image: it is the visible data. 

However, others have used the replay of more lengthy sequences in real time as a prompt to recreate the experience of being there (e.g. Pink, 2007) or for phenomenological understanding of another's experience (e.g. Erickson, 2007; Hopper and Quinones, 2012).  Lemke (2007) points out that the immersive qualities of video can be powerfully affective and produce emotion in those who view it in much the same way as we acknowledge cinematic film can do (see for instance Elsaesser's (2009) discussion).  In this sense, I propose that video is not inherently different to the emotive, context-recreating potential of interview or fieldnote data. 

Lemke attributes the much greater use of video clips at micro-scale to its simply being easier to manage in a research setting, given the time-consuming nature of video analysis (Heath, Hindmarsh and Luff, 2010: 66), and suggests that one of the challenges is to find ways to use the "meso or macroscale" of video in order to explore how meanings are made not just in the moment but across longer timescales, as social relationships emerge, problems are solved, and so on (Lemke, 2007: 45).  The question here is: under what methodological conditions does such a use of video over longer-term periods become appropriate and rigorous?  What ways can be found that render longer strips of interaction easier to work with?

Impartial and independent

The highly naturalistic quality of unedited recordings lends itself to the idea that a voice featured in video has a sense of "standing for itself" (Dicks et al, 2006: 92) without researcher mediation.  Dicks et al (2006) suggest that the meaning of what is shown in video recordings is more open than, and lacks the "hierarchical tying down of meaning" that is present in, fieldnotes by comparison.  Writing is inherently selective, with choices of what to leave out; fieldnotes necessarily contain the researcher's subjective perspective.  Likewise, interview data has been the subject of much methodological discussion in terms of how the data is co-constructed (e.g. Gubrium and Holstein, 2003).  In contrast, the connection between the amount of detail retained and the potential for replaying and sharing later with others suggests that this is "what really happened" for the people involved, that it is an accurate account of what the participants said and did.  The researcher becomes less of an interpretive conduit through which the story is told to others, as the object of the recording takes over the representation of the participant. 

Indeed, much of the discussion about video methods has addressed how to minimise researcher subjectivity, both in relation to data capture techniques (e.g. Luff and Heath, 2012 on camera positioning; Muntanyola-Saura, 2012, on the potentially intrusive impact of the camera on the naturalness of the interaction) and in relation to processes of data analysis (e.g. Tutt and Hindmarsh, 2011, on multiple-researcher analysis; Snell, 2011, on systematic observation techniques.)  The "naturally occurring" data in EM/CA studies aims for no researcher involvement in the interaction portrayed in the video (Jewitt, 2011).

Impartiality and independence, however, is often acknowledged as more difficult in the analysis stage: many authors have noted the subjective experience of viewing and analysing video data (Erickson, 2011; Hopper and Quinones, 2012; Pink, 2007; Tutt and Hindmarsh, 2011).  Rather than video data providing an objective, consistent version of what happened between autonomous individuals, the interpretation of its meaning becomes situated within the relationship between observer and content.  Meanings are open, as Dicks et al (2006) note, and they are ambiguous.  While the interpretations made in fieldnotes may be more frontloaded and occur at the time of writing as the research question informs what is observed, the interpretations of video data happen later.  The question then becomes: to what extent is this a problem, blocking the way to the development of "one true reading", rather than a methodological device to work with in order to explore the different ways in which the interaction can be interpreted?

The context and positioning of video data

The relationship between text and context has long been a source of discussion within EM/CA studies (and indeed started before video became such a prominent method of data collection: see Duranti and Goodwin, 1992; Moerman, 1988; Watson and Seller, 1992).  Much of this discussion might be conceptualised as one-way, in that it concerns what contextual material is needed in order to interpret the video adequately.  Some authors such as Knoblauch and Schnettler (2012) and Pomerantz (2005) have proposed the use of ethnographic material to support video analysis on the grounds that meanings are not wholly contained within the interaction and can, and should, be supplemented by interpretive understandings generated from outside the video's frame.  One might summarise the situation as video data being given top billing, with other data playing the part of supporting cast. 

There are other theoretical positions for video data where it is not the primary object for analysis.  Haw and Hadfield (2011), for instance, discuss uses of video for reflective, projective and/or participative purposes, in which video features as a tool but not the main data, albeit in most cases it is not unedited fixed-camera footage that they discuss in this way.  Pink (2009: chapter 6) similarly discusses the elicitation uses for visual  materials in her ethnographic work, distinguishing between using the medium to represent sensory experience and to research such experience.  The relationship in these situations between researcher and participants is now only partially mediated via video recordings: there are other forms of data which are generated outside of the video, and into which the video feeds.

The next two sections define a little more precisely what I mean by "dialogic" in order to set out how video footage was positioned in a dialogic research project.  I summarise two dialogic lines - of polyphony and intertextuality - through which video played an active, "talking back" role in my research.  The first line concerns the impact on relationships with research participants, the second concerns the relationship with other data objects.

Dialogue as polyphony

What Bakhtin's work emphasizes is the relatedness of individuals, how the meaning of a word is a shared outcome of interaction (Bakhtin, 1981).  Bakhtin does not downplay active agency but rather autonomy, depicting the individual as actively seeking meaning by participating in relations with others (Gardiner, 1998; Ramsey, 2008).  The first sense of dialogue then refers to the mutually constituting relationships which unfold between researcher and research participants.  The attention in this line of dialogism is on the living relationship between people, and working out the best way to proceed as relationships unfold (Shotter, 2010).  Cunliffe and Karunanayake (2013), for instance, draw on Fine's work on the self-other relationship to encourage a concentration on "hyphen-spaces",  in which the mode of engagement between researcher and research participant is recognised as fluid over time, and the choices about identity - who to be and how to act in this situation now, given the multiple dimensions that one might draw on (female, middle-aged, British, etc) - are constantly revisited.
Dialogism through a polyphonic lens moves research towards a relational methodology which tries not to subjugate and overpower the independent voices of research participants, but which instead aims to see the world as it is experienced and talked about by those participants themselves and which is mindful of the powerful effects of how the research process can represent people.  I offer examples below of how video recordings had an impact on the development of my relationships with research participants as my study progressed.

Dialogue as intertextuality

My second line of dialogism - as intertextuality - is that which takes place essentially as an analytic process: the internal dialogue which is produced as the researcher reviews the data collected in its different forms and seeks to create some form of emplotment (Czarniawska, 2004).  The term "intertexuality" originates in Julia Kristeva's work on Bakhtin's dialogism and points to the way in which the meaning of a text is not contained within itself but is generated from its relationship to other texts (Allen, 2000).   Issues raised in the research methods literature concerning the intertextual relationships between different forms of data tend to be about ontological and epistemological compatibilities and conflicting theoretical perspectives (e.g. Kress, 2011; Pink, 2011) and matters of academic rigour (Alvesson et al, 2008). 

While the idea of intertextuality is sometimes seen as having lost some of Bakhtin's original emphasis on human participants in his use of the term "dialogic" (Lesic-Thomas, 2005), it is for this reason that the word suits my purpose here: for its prioritisation of the relationships between texts and data rather than between people.  The research study's human participants have now become replaced by data objects.  This intertextual dialogue is not with research participants directly, but with research data which has become fossilized and finalised in form if not in meaning.  Data is broken up from its original chronological order, compared against other materials, and reconceptualised in terms of emergent concepts or themes (ten Have, 2004).  The video footage effects on this dialogue are explore further below.

Video's active role across the two dialogic lines

It was in the crossover between the data collection and the data analysis that the role of video was felt most sharply in my research, and the crossover of polyphonic and intertextual lines was  most acute.   In ethnographic work, the stages of data collection and data analysis often overlap (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007) as the researcher collects data, makes initial interpretations, and then tests these out with the collection of more data. 

I suggest that video data's fine-grained detail, some which is inevitably missed by the ethnographer during the original event, leads to the potential for more open and ambiguous readings of the interactions in the video footage.  The interpretative readings of the video change depending on the context in which the recording is replayed and what other data texts are available at that time.  As the interpretations of the video change, so does the ongoing development of relationships with research participants.  This then changes again the context for viewing the detail of the video.  A dialogic process is developed in a way that is slightly different than that which would be facilitated by the use of interview or fieldnote data alone. 

Three examples of this process are offered below after a brief overview of the research setting and the methodology to set the scene.

Background to the empirical example - studying silence

The research site was an inter-organizational project group in the UK.  The group comprised representatives of a university team and two local authorities: a County council and a City council.  The purpose of the group was to deliver a set of community consultation events for the future enhancement of a site owned by the City council.  The university was involved to test out some innovative co-design ideas for how to run the community consultations. 

My research interest was in how the participants in the group made sense of the idea of staying silent (that is, silence as withholding communication rather than silence as an acoustic gap in the conversation).  I was interested in what people were noticing, and making relevant, when they talked to me later about what they had withheld from project meetings.  Data collected consists of video recordings of project group meetings, fieldnotes which record the story of my involvement in the project group (I am also present in the video recordings) and individual interviews with each group participant after every meeting for their accounts of their own silence.  These individual interviews were recorded in fieldnote form, apart from a final, longer reflective exit interview with each group member which was audio-recorded.  The final exit interviews occurred three months after the final video recordings were made and a month after the project had been completed, and hence were an opportunity both for participants to reflect on the full project lifecycle as well as for me to ask questions about my early interpretations of the data materials.

The people represented in the video recordings are therefore individuals with whom I was involved in an ongoing working relationship at the time of recording.  They are not (substitutable) representative human forms engaged in an impartial strip of interaction, but people whose phenomenological experience I was seeking to understand.  The videos that were created were of the only shared social events in which all project groups members participated.  Since this interaction was the research interest, the choice of what to record was straightforward.  Other than these regular meetings, the group members worked in different spaces, with different colleagues, for different organizations, although there was some continuity of project work, and hence an ongoing relationship, between the two local authorities. 

The video footage is one medium through which data was captured.  The individual post-meeting interviews were an additional form of data of equal importance.  Within the interviews, participants made relevant particular aspects of the meeting, sometimes very specific moments, that were problematic or noteworthy to discuss with me in relation to the notion of silence.  The video recordings offered an opportunity to re-view the meeting with a different lens, using participants' discursive accounts to try and understand how the account might make sense as part of a new narrative of what was happening.  The phenomenon of silence therefore was situated not wholly within the video nor wholly within their (or my fieldnote) account of the meeting, but emerged from a relationship between the forms of data.  It was the difference between the data that was of interest.  The changing stories, and sensemaking, about silence were tracked as the project unfolded over six months.

Video in dialogue - three examples

The three examples below were all chosen because they relate to situations where the post-meeting interview conversations included some reference to a strip of interaction which, at least in theory, I should be able to find in the video recordings.  Hence they provide a good demonstration of how the different types of data were used together.  They also however demonstrate the problem of respecting the polyphonic independence of voice for the research participants as my inferences become based in my own embodied sense of what is going on and my own responses to what the video is showing when looking through these lenses of others' accounts. 

The three examples show different outcomes from the intertextual dialogue between my fieldnotes of the meeting, individuals' interview accounts of the meetings, and the video data.  In the first example, the video data "confirms" a participant's account.  In the second, the video in some ways "denies" the participant's account, and in response I seek to collect more data which may help interpret in a way that makes sense across the two pieces of data.  In the third example, the video shows an interaction which features in a participant's account which I had originally missed from the meeting.  However, the meaning of this interaction is "re-narrated" (Ramsey, 2005) by another participant’s account of the same meeting and by subsequent viewing of the wider collection of video footage. 

All names are pseudonyms and some identifying details have been removed to maintain anonymity.  In the fieldnote extracts, some details in square brackets have been added to the original text in order to make the sense clear to the reader.

Example 1 - Sean

This example illustrates how the video footage confirmed part of an account provided by one of the participants but stays neutral on another aspect until much later in my research project when additional data shows a possible new reading of the participants' interactions in the video.  This extract is taken from fieldnotes written about my first in-depth interview with Sean, one of the university team members of the group, after one of the early meetings of the project group:

[Sean] said he tempered his language, saying things like "bit of a problem" when actually it was a huge problem.  He said that at the previous meeting he recalled saying something to this effect, when people were talking about the process but he really wanted to talk about the substantive content. 

I said I remembered this, and referred to the transcript [of the meeting] which I explained I had not completed so it may not be totally accurate yet, and wasn't sure if I'd be able to find the place in the text.  I did, and showed it to him, and he said yes that was it. He thought they were using the wrong metrics.  I asked, "Who sets the metrics?" and he said well ultimately as lead, he did.  I was confused at this point, why had he not had these discussions before the meetings so people knew what they were trying to achieve then?

Below is the extract from the transcript which we identified in the conversation above (NB - Kerry and Alison are members of the project group which we will meet in the next examples).  At this point in the video, Sean is speaking after the group has spent about ten minutes discussing the consultation site after one of the group had made reference to a comment from a member of the public at the first consultation event:

When I later re-viewed the video, Sean's story of tempering his language is clearly visible to me in relation to the conversation and the position of this strip of interaction in the wider text of the meeting.  I interpret him as trying to remain polite while he is feeling quite frustrated about the amount of time spent discussing aspects which he feels are peripheral to the real evaluation work which is needed. I remember feeling frustrated too at this point in the meeting, and that we were wasting time.

Example 2 - Kerry and Paul

The second example seeks to find a narrative provided by one participant Kerry, one of the university team members of the group who has been newly appointed into the role.  The narrative does not seem to correspond either to my own direct experience of the meeting or to my later reading of the video images. 

Kerry told me, after a meeting about two-thirds of the way through the project, that she had not asked Paul, one of the local authority officers and the only local authority representative at this particular meeting, whether he approved of the project planning for the next event, even though she felt he looked really uncomfortable during the conversation about it.  She continued: this was the reason she had asked him later in the meeting if there were any other issues he wanted to raise. 

My fieldnotes of that meeting do not include any perception of Paul looking uncomfortable.  Nor is it something which Paul relates independently in my interview with him after the same meeting.  When I watch the video again, during the footage of the discussion about the workshop I do not detect any indication, either through his speech or body language, of Paul's discomfort.  Kerry's description of asking Paul if there are any other issues he wants to raise can however be matched to a strip of interaction which occurs towards the end of the meeting, at a point when they have just fixed a date for another event.  Her question seems to be prompted after she looks down at her notebook for a few seconds and runs her eye down the page, rather than from a cue more directly from Paul.

I did not want to deny Kerry's post-meeting account, to subjugate her view to my own, but I wondered how she had come to the interpretation that Paul was uncomfortable.  I was finding it difficult to read Kerry's account of her actions as being responsive to Paul directly.  On my next viewing of the full video, the fact that Kerry's line manager is absent from this meeting caught my attention.  Kerry is having to describe and account all by herself for the consultation events they are planning: she is using the university's research language without Sean to guide her, possibly for the first time.  Her talk about discomfort was now interesting to me for a different reason. She talks at the beginning of the meeting about talking recently to other research groups who are also doing co-design work and how she found their work incomprehensible. The more I review the video footage of the meeting and read its content against previous discussions with Kerry, the greater the sense I get that it is not really Paul with whom Kerry is in dialogue: her talk seems to be reflecting other conversations, and other concerns, from previous meetings and other fora. 

The following is taken from my fieldnote of a phone conversation with Kerry about four weeks after the meeting in question.  At this point in the conversation, we had just started talking about how I was still busy with the transcription of that meeting and what I was noticing from it:

I said, "I've been really interested [while doing the transcript] because there were a couple of times [in the video interaction] when you referred to something which wasn't really in reply to what Paul had said, but referred to what you thought he was thinking, and that was interesting given what you had said afterwards to me about the conversation.  For instance, [in the video] you were saying "don't worry about it [the consultation event] being too complicated".  I had been wondering if you had already been worrying about that yourself and if the design team had been talking about it."  "Yes definitely," she said immediately, "Yes, was that the meeting when we had just come back from [European trip]?"  I said, "Yes I think so."  She said, "We'd had one meeting and there was only a week to go, and it was a nightmare."

Of course, this is an intersubjectively produced line which I proposed and Kerry accepted and elaborated on through reference to the European trip.  Nevertheless, what emerges from this point is a different way of talking between me and Kerry.  Triggered by my response to the video footage, a theme of competence starts to develop in our discussions: the stress of feeling incompetent and unknowledgeable, how her stress changes as she starts to understand more about co-design and can better explain and justify what the university team is doing.  Neither in Kerry's initial account of what she kept silent about in the meeting nor in the video-recorded conversation is there any reference to stress.  It is a line that becomes increasingly coherent, however, as the data accumulates.  During her exit interview at the end of the project, Kerry noted:

[N]one of those events was designed until the last one had taken place which was also what made it very stressful ..because it's like, two weeks before we didn't know what that exhibition was, we were responding to what had come out of the workshop, two weeks before, we went to [Europe], came back, bam. 

It was quite hard for me because at .. I didn't really know what I was doing ... I you know I, now I can talk about co-design til the cows come home.

Example 3 - Alison and Nina

The third example comes from a dialogue with different individual accounts, which the video footage problematizes, about an incident in one of the project meetings.  A strip of interaction, which I had completely missed in the meeting at the time, is referred to afterwards by Alison, the City council representative.  However, the meaning of the interaction which is captured in the video is "re-narrated" when it is placed alongside other data and reviewed within the wider footage of the meeting. 

About half way through the project, a tense argument erupted between two members of the group - Nina, one of the County council representatives, and Sean, the same protagonist as in Example 1, from the university.  Gradually the whole group was dragged into the debate.  The argument was about the contentious design and wording of a poster which Nina had produced.  Due to another engagement, Nina had had to leave the meeting before the natural end of the argument.  Once she had exited the room, the topic soon changed to the next item on the agenda. 

What was remarkable to me was not the behaviour of Sean or Nina; rather it was that of Alison, the City council officer, and how she had sided with Sean rather than with the local authority officers from County council who I thought of as her more natural allies.  In my fieldnotes, I noted the embarrassment I had felt on Nina's behalf during the argument; the furious tone that Sean had taken, and Alison's dogged maintenance, rather than pacification, of the argument, her immediate support of points that Sean raised, and her insistent questioning about whether Nina had followed the correct procedure for approving local authority communications.   Extract 2 from the transcript illustrates some of the conversation in which I had felt the most embarrassment for Nina, when she was attempting to defend her actions but had to admit that she had not routed the poster through either council's communications team.

In my fieldnotes of my interview with Alison after the meeting, when I asked her how the meeting had been for her in general, her immediate answer focused on the argument and downplayed it as "just Sean", referencing a theme often mentioned to me, that Sean and Nina did not get on well:

"Well that was just Sean, I try not to say anything to undermine anyone or say anything that would offend.  That whole poster thing was difficult but we were already talking about the subject so I continued.  It was awkward but it wasn't a big deal.  You can probably tell that I have different opinions than Nina" - I said: no, not really, I guess I wouldn't know what to look for - she continued, "We often play good guy, bad guy and have different styles.  Some people won't take to my style, others won't to Nina's, it's just a person's way of working and is not a big deal.  You probably saw when Nina had to leave, I said to her on the way out, 'Are you alright?' and she had said yes."

This last exchange that Alison mentions, between herself and Nina as Nina was leaving, was not something that I had noticed during the meeting.  When I watched the video recording again that evening, however, I saw: as Nina moves around the table to the door on her way out of the meeting, Alison, who is sitting at the corner of the table nearest to the door, looks up at Nina as she approaches.  Alison says something to her which is not caught on the audio-recording to which Nina nods and responds - again not audible - before she exits the room.  The video recording in effect confirmed Alison's story that she was making sure that Nina was OK and that in fact the argument was not a big deal.  It diminished the shock I felt about Alison's behaviour initially in the meeting.

When I interviewed Nina shortly after this, what was noticeable in her talk was the frustration and anger she expressed towards Sean, but the complete lack of unprompted reference to Alison's role.  From the fieldnotes:

I asked her about Alison's position at the meeting, because I had been surprised by it, that I had kind of expected Sean's position but not Alison's.  She [Nina] said that Alison was in a difficult position, she had approved the poster, she was on the email circulation list, but maybe she just hadn't had time to look.  She said Alison had said to just carry on with the stuff, which was fine but a bit difficult.

Nina had not used this line to defend herself from Alison's criticism in the meeting, and I wondered why not; this was the first time I had heard that Alison had had an opportunity to approve the poster prior to the meeting. Alison's reference to the interaction in the video, in which she makes sure Nina is alright, now became recontextualised.  She seemed to have been attacking Nina in the meeting for something which Alison herself could have addressed if she had reviewed the email she had been sent.  Her invoking in Extract 2 of the agreement made between the two councils, in which the County is responsible for all the communications work, now might be read slightly differently, as absolving herself from this responsibility.  Alison's subsequent appeal during our post-meeting conversation to the interaction between herself and Nina shown in the video now takes on a less altruistic and more of a defensive tone.

I could simply take their interviews as discursive accounts acting as positioning work (Potter and Wetherall, 1987).  However, when their accounts are used as a lens through which to review the video interaction, what is highlighted is the delicate interpersonal work being carried out by the local authority officers.  Not only does the interaction within the strip in Extract 2 take on new meaning, but new strips in the footage of this meeting and of previous meetings which seemed unremarkable at the time now start to "talk back" and suggest a new line of interpretation.  Themes emerge such as: the importance placed by Alison on City council reputation and authorised processes of communication in order to be covered and accountable (reflected in lines 15-16 of Extract 2); and the difficulties for the County council officers of delivering this inter-organizational work, which is aiming to try a new approach with the university and which does not fall under a clear corporate banner, without the required level of interest or involvement from the City council (e.g. lines 8-10 of Extract 2).  In my research project on silence, what I was now noticing was the potential importance of issues that were not being raised in the post-meeting interviews with me, but which emerged from the dialogue between the texts.

From this point on in my research, I started to notice and infer different meanings to moments of interaction between the three local authority representatives.  In my individual conversations with them, I followed up the issue of the relationship between the County and City councils and what the risks were in this project.  Alison noted that this project came from more senior managers and she was being trusted to develop the new relationship with the university team as a potential source of project support in future; Paul and Nina noted that the project is a way for the County to try and patch up the historic bad relations with City council, that each of them gets on well with Alison individually but hint that what they really need is to get the attention of more senior managers.  I talked about the two storylines to each local authority "side".  These are narratives which made sense across the variety of interactions involving these individuals and which explicate the changes in their actions across different social settings. 

In summary, the table below traces and compares the key steps in my analysis of these three examples.  All three columns start with my own attendance at the relevant project meeting and move on chronologically to show where the video footage "talked back". Of course, the overly-simplified representation  should be borne in mind since the table implies that the three processes were separate - that is, that my interpretations were not informed by the wider set of materials being collected and the ongoing discussions with other participants in the group.  

Discussion: video as active player in interpretation

[This section (and conclusions) needs much more work, refining and editing.]

The necessary condition for using video in such a dialogic way would be a conceptual shift in the relationship between the video footage and other forms of data, a shift which itself transforms the positioning between the creator of the video, those who are featured in it, and those who subsequently view it. I suggest therefore that there are both intertextual and polyphonic considerations that need to be clarified in such a research strategy.  [needs elaborating] 

I would contend that there were certainly benefits from using video data in this way.  The combining of these different types of data did seem to be productive.  The first experience of the project meetings - as the meetings unfolded in real time - was captured in my fieldnotes and emphasised the emotional content and my own embodied thoughts and observations.  The subsequent experiences of it, in video-replay form, through the lens of post-meeting accounts, produced new and alternative ways of reading the footage.  These new readings highlighted the complex and sensitive inter-personal negotiations which were impacting upon how the project unfolded.  While some of the interpretations in my research may have been reached via video data analysis alone (a discourse analysis of the audio footage would undoubtedly have noted the oppositional organizational stances taken up by the local authority representatives, for instance), without the interview data or fieldnotes I doubt that the more subtle relationships would have emerged between Sean and Kerry, as Sean tried to let his team members take control for themselves and Kerry struggled to understand co-design, or between Nina and Alison, as they both managed the personal and professional implications of the way the other person was delivering the project work.  Moreover, without the video recordings' detail of social interactions against which to read the individual accounts and compare my own fieldnotes, I would have been unlikely to be prompted to ask about potential lines of inquiry which were not immediately made relevant by the participants themselves. 

What then are the circumstances in which such a combinatory, dialogic approach to unedited fixed-camera video footage might be appropriate, and what are the risks?  I offer some tentativve thoughts.

Acknowledging video as partial account

In my study, video was being used to both represent action in replay and to reflect on the meaning of the actions (Haw and Hadfield, 2011).  Arguably the necessary condition for such use of video data is not to look for consistent patterns of social action across the different forms of data, in a "who people really are" approach, but to look for "who people are being" between the situations.  The conversation which occurs after the interview therefore stands as action in that moment, oriented towards the relationship with the researcher, and is not conceptualised as a truthful commentary about "what really happened" in the meeting.  Both the video interaction and the interview interaction are analysed as situated and as showing partial realities of an ongoing ethnographic, intersubjective nature.  The ontological underpinning is that we are always dialogically responsive to the social situation taking place and therefore often inconsistent in our actions.

As an example: one of the surprising aspects I encountered was the analytic difference from the outputs from the digital audio recorder and the video camera (the former was placed on the table to ensure I could hear the meeting conversation clearly).  Each machine was switched on at a different time and therefore had slight differences in conversation start and finish points.  Even with these small time differences, there were interesting comments missed on video but captured on the audio recording!  The longer strip will always be an illustrative cut rather than the whole view.  The research therefore has to deal with plausible stories rather than positivist truth claims.

Positioning video data as equal to, not more important than, other data

Lemke (2007)'s argument, above, was that small details of interaction may be given too much significance when video data is used in an EM/CA setting but that the analysis of longer strips of video interaction is difficult and time-consuming.  The way in which this issue was addressed in my research was by using the individual participant account as the lens for analysis.  Each individual account highlighted something different in the video recording, and made different micro-interactions of interest.  It rendered only some aspects relevant in a particular pass through the footage.  Sometimes this required that the full length of meeting footage was reviewed, such as with Kerry's example above, to investigate how the individual accounts could be read.  Even then, the analysis was a stripped down process which was not covering every single detail but seeking to apply one account and to consider its implications for the interactions which took place.  The larger ethnographic corpus of material then developed the plausibility of the story of which the micro-detail in video served as an illustration.

The relationship between video data and other forms of data is therefore one in which the video data does not take priority but is conceptualised as a representation of what happened at a particular moment, with multiple potential interpretations of the interaction, and an aid to prompt further data collection.

Collapsing the time, but not the chronology 

The methodology did run the risk of retro-fitting into the data what might never have been there at the time.  The recordings of the project meetings can be replayed in any order without sticking to the historic chronology.  The danger of this is in undermining the emergent "becoming" (Tsoukas and Chia, 2002) nature of relationships, and developing the 'it was ever thus'-type stability of the narrative.  It was necessary therefore to constantly bear in mind the timeline of what happened when, so that interpretations would not be inappropriately retro-fitted and made more consistent than could be really justified. 

An uncomfortable polyphonic admission?

The above point leads on to one of the uncomfortable questions that arose during my analysis of the data: whether I was diminishing my participants' autonomous voice through this research methodology.  The position I was taking on occasions was to question the stories I was being told because of the intertextual "talking back" of other data, particularly the video data because of its fine-grained detail.  One of the limitations of this study was that I was the only one reviewing the video recordings.  The analytic power relationship in that sense was unequal.  In an ideal situation, the participants too would have had time to sit through and provide their own commentary for the five recordings of the meetings, which ranged from one to two hours.  However, while this would undoubtedly have produced a different interview conversation, whether it would have made my final research outputs more meaningful or more equitable is debatable.  I suspect that some of my discomfort was due as much to the comparative and contested nature of the accounts between the participants, and my own face to face involvement with them, as to the privileged availability to me of video footage. 

I would argue that the video footage, by highlighting contested stories, sometimes prompted me to ask a more nuanced, but also perhaps rather more direct, set of questions (which at times felt challenging) which participants could choose to accept or deny.  The participants' theoretical positioning in the research was as capable social actors and co-constructors of their stories.  While other researchers have used mediating objects with the research participants to encourage their talk (e.g. Slutskaya et al, 2012), the use of video played a similar, but more dialogic role: the video recording, and the object of the transcripts which were made from the recording, were prompts for both me and the research participants in our dialogue together.  The participants' accounts indicated how the object of the video-recording should be viewed, and I as researcher re-analysed.  My re-analysis raised more questions that I could then ask.  Accounts still count, as it were; video simply hints to where the next set of interesting questions might be. 

The second part of my answer to the charge of diminishing participants' autonomous voice and creating my own story is to admit my guilt.  My inferences came from a dialogue in which I was actively involved.  Not to acknowledge my own embodied thoughts and feelings in response to participants' actions would be to downplay my own role and human experience. This may also be one of the necessary conditions in which such a dialogic use of video becomes appropriate: when the researcher is in the frame and is reflexively co-constructing data alongside the other research participants.

Concluding comments

Czarniawksa (2004) expresses some doubt about whether a “true” polyphony can ever be achieved since researchers will always have the final say.  Instead, she recommends that the author learns to speak different languages: in this case, the non-human dialogic talking-back of the video footage did seem to be helpful as part of my learning attempt to interpret other people's personal and invisible concerns. 

There are undoubtedly epistemological issues that need to be carefully considered when combining video, interview and fieldnote data, in terms of the different types of knowledge produced and the different claims that can be made from using them.  However, I suggest that using them alongside each other is justifiable in an intersubjective dialogic research strategy in which the researcher is also an active participant.  Such a dialogic strategy does not fix the problem of representing the authentic voice from the field, but it does facilitate a mindful tracking of what inferences are being made about what data.  My assertion here is that using unedited video footage in interpretive research within an ethnographic methodology can be a way of acknowledging the human in front of the camera as well as the one which the notion of reflexivity acknowledges as being situated behind the camera.  The challenge that remains is not one of how to combine different forms of data but to present the multiple and possibly divergent stories that emerge.


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