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Understood Complexity: Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ E:CO Issue Vol. 11 No. 3 2009 pp. 1-15

Academic

Understood Complexity: Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of
the People’—On Complexity, Sense-Making,
Understanding, and Exit/Voice/Loyalty
Tom Eide

Diakonhjemmet University College, NOR

‘Understood complexity’ is a term of Albert Hirschman (1976) whose economicpolitical theory of ‘exit’ (‘vote with your feet’) versus ‘voice’ (feedback or use your
influence for change) (1970), has often
been used to (try to) understand whistleblowing (Alford, 2001; Maclagen, 1998). Real complexity is not linear and cannot be
adequately studied an model of ‘A causes
B’. Complexity entails ‘A causes B’ in a
situation wherein ‘B causes A’. Bateson in
his ‘ecology of the mind’ understood the
circularity of the hermeneutic of complexity; while Weick did not in his theory of sense-making. I argue in this article,
via an examination of a play of Ibsen, that
circular thinking spiraling towards new
insight(s) is much more a possibility of
literature (studies) than of social science.
Social complexity theory needs (at least
partially) I believe to methodologically
merge with literary studies.

Introduction: An Enemy of the People:
A Drama on Whistleblowing

L

iterature is an indirect phenomenon. On
the one hand, it is a product of the author’s artistic imagination; on the other, it represents aspects of our lives and the world
in which we live. I will explore Ibsen’s representation of complexity in his realistic drama An enemy of the people (1882).
The plot takes its point of departure in
the discovery that the water at a Spa is polluted
and in a concerned employee’s unsuccessful
attempt to make the management take action
to stop the pollution. The plot develops as a
case of whistleblowing. Ibsen exposes the organizational response to the whistleblower, resulting in the whistleblower’s persecution and in retaliation against him. To my knowledge,
the drama is the first literary work to make the
Eide

pollution of the environment, the struggle for
environmental protection, and whistleblowing, its central issues. My focus is on how Ibsen dealt with the complex (organizational) phenomenon of whistleblowing and making
moral sense of it.
Whistleblowing is discussed in major
research literature, starting about 100 years
after Ibsen wrote his play (Bok, 1981; Elliston
et al., 1985; Petersen & Farrall, 1986; Alford,
2001; Johnson, 2002; Bowers et al., 2007;
Micely, Near & Dworkin, 2008). There is no
consensus either on the term ‘whistleblowing’
or on the role of morality involved. I understand ‘whistleblowing’ as an act of an employee to make information on illegitimate practices
within an organization known to the responsible management and if necessary going to the public with that information. The whistleblower grapples with ‘exit’ (to leave the organization and/or avoid conflict) and ‘voice’ (make the problematic situation known), wherein

‘loyalty’ (to the organization, to the society
at large and/or to one’s own morality) plays
a major role in what gets decided and/or happens (Hirschman, 1970). Ibsen’s drama mirrors in many ways the chaos and complexity of whistleblowing. As a work of dramatic art, the
play has a clear plot and a tight structure composed in five acts, which suggests order, balance and meaning. I believe that the harmony of the form helps the reader make sense of the
complexity and chaos of the content. The play,
I will argue, offers ‘understood complexity’.
The drama takes place in a small town
at the Norwegian coast. The prosperity of the
town is based on the running of a spa—the
Baths, which every summer attracts a lot of
visitors and patients. The doctor at the Baths
suspects that the drinking water is polluted.
He sends samples to a university laboratory
and his suspicions are verified. He then sends

1

a report to his superior, the chairman of the
board of the Baths,...
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