Contemporary Management Issues

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WORKERS PLAYTIME? UNRAVELLING THE PARADOX OF COVERT RESISTANCE IN ORGANIZATIONS

Peter Fleming
p.fleming1@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au

André Spicer
a.spicer@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au

Department of Management
University of Melbourne
Parkville, Vic 3010
Australia

Chapter for Paradoxical New Directions in Organization and Management Theory. Edited by Stewart Clegg. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

(Second Draft) July 2001

The problem of whether employee resistance is possible under corporate relations of power that target the very hearts and minds of workers has become an increasingly important issue in recent critical organization studies. With the advent of ‘cultural cleansing' (Strangleman and Roberts, 1999), ‘designer selves' (Casey, 1995) and other forms of ‘normative controls' (Kunda, 1992) related to culture engineering and teamwork numerous studies have argued that the very capacity for workers to resist management has been insidiously undermined. In the past workers could usually resist corporate controls because they tended to be less normative but when the very identities of workers are intentionally controlled dissent is all but erased from the discursive landscape (Willmott, 1993). The problem with such a pessimistic reading of new management technologies, of course, is the unwarranted exaggeration of the success of management power and the underestimation of the myriad of ways some workers resist corporate control, even under the most claustrophobic hegemonic conditions (Thompson and Ackroyd, 1995). Just because open, overt and collectivised forms of resistance characteristic of Fordism are less prevalent today does not necessarily mean that the recalcitrant worker has finally been subdued. Indeed, a recent stream of research has pointed to more covert, quotidian and even ‘subjective' modalities of worker resistance in ‘high-commitment' organizations, which were perhaps missed in the past because of their subtly and ostensible innocuousness (Fleming and Sewell, forthcoming). In light of attempts to broaden definitions of worker opposition an array of employee practices have been highlighted as possible strategies of resistance to cultural control. Joking, irony, cynicism and scepticism, for example, have been documented as ‘weapons' workers may use to block and resist new types of corporate domination at the level of selfhood, as our review will shortly demonstrate. In evaluating the research investigating these expressions of resistance, however, we have identified an interesting tension, or paradox, regarding their effectiveness as forms of opposition. Some commentators have argued that resistance articulated in the form of humour, irony and cynicism may have the paradoxical outcome of inadvertently reproducing the domination workers seek to escape because they are given a specious and illusionary sense of freedom and disengage from more ‘material' and traditionally located resistances. Indeed, Collinson (1992, 1994), du Gay and Salaman (1992) among others demonstrate how resistance through joking and cynicism, for example, can actually assume the (paradoxical) status of consent due to the ‘safety valve' effects they can have in certain power relationships (also see Fleming and Spicer, 2000). In this chapter we attempt to unravel this paradox by surfacing the models of power underpinning judgements of ‘effective' or ‘ineffective' resistance in relation to humour, irony and cynicism. It is suggested that those interpretations that consider humour, irony and cynicism ineffective outright still implicitly employ a singular model of power that judges all forms of opposition against the standard of radical upheaval and economic transformation (Fleming and Sewell, forthcoming). Such an approach is, of course, important for highlighting the cases in which some types of resistance are inadvertently functional to a dominant system of power, but it may also marginalise many other forms of transgression that...
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