— Cultural Sources of Newness

The “Other Pope” in Italy has an inclusive approach

Italy is the seat of the Roman Catholic papacy and of …… aesthetics. Antonio Strati from the University of Trento is essentially the research pope of the field “aesthetics and organizations,” which is “an original and critical European contribution to the study of organizations” (p.889).  Antonio’s most recent article in Sociology Compass takes an inclusive approach to surveying the theoretical development and the methodological state of the art of work in the field.   

The reader who wants a quick sense for what aesthetics has to do with organizations finds several definitions in the introductory paragraph to the article, such as “studies how individuals and groups act in organizations by heeding their feelings, desires, tastes, talents, and passions. … The intention is to show how these organizational interactions take place, and how the tastes of working people are educated so that they regard one way of working as elegant, another as coarse, yet others as unpleasant or even revolting… aesthetic judgements …are negotiated in the organizations and… give sense and value to social practices in organizations” (p. 880). The subsequent sections of the article provide a systematic review of the field that reveals quite clear differences in research interests and approaches pursued by leading scholars (dare I say high priests in keeping with my papal terminology?), contemporaries like Pasquale Gagliardi and Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, and reaching back to such forefathers as Georg Simmel (who is credited with having recognized as early as 1908 the importance of attending to the capacity of the body for sensory knowledge) and of course John Dewey.

Antonio shows that the field is not isolated from trends in sociology today. He summarizes that “the aesthetic understanding of work and organizational life emphasizes the materiality of every day work in organizations constituted by:

  • the activation/deactivation of the perceptive and sensory faculties and the sensitive-aesthetic judgement in workplaces;
  • the pre-cognitive influence of the sensory, emotional and aesthetic dimension of organizational artefacts, that is of the pathos of an organization’s palpable and not-material environment;
  • the performative nature of everyday management of the interaction between the corporeality of people and the materiality of artefacts;
  • the deep influence of art, personal knowledge and creativeness on work and organizational practices;
  • the stress on critical analysis of the every day working life in organizational settings owing to the emancipatory feature of aesthetics.” (p.883)

What was new for me in this article is the identification of four research styles. Common to them all is the “methodological awareness that aesthetic sentiments are also felt by those conducting the research” (p. 882). The four approaches are:

  • The archaeological approach, whereby “organizational aesthetics are investigated for the cultures and organizational symbolisms that they highlight” (p. 885).
  • The empathic-logical approach, which “looks at the pre-cognitive and emotional influence of the organizational artefacts” (p. 885) and identifies a “fourth level of organizational control besides the three identified by Charles Perrow (1972) – control based on direct orders, control derived from procedures, and control attributed to the ideological premises of organizational action” (p 886). Antonio suggests that the research process here entails three phases: immersion into the research context, interpretation, and illustration of the research results. “In the first phase, it is the empathic knowledge that prevails, so that the researcher surrenders to passive intuition, questioning him/herself about the sensations felt….in the second, empathic knowledge and analytical detachment balance each other. In the third one, the logical-analytical methods prevail….” (p.886)
  • The aesthetic approach, which “emphasizes the constant, collective, and social negotiation of organizational aesthetic in everyday work in organizations” (p. 886). Antonio positions himself in this approach and quotes an earlier formulation of his own, writing that this approach “posits the ‘complexity, ambiguity, subtlety and pervasiveness of the aesthetic in organizational routine’” (Strati 1992, p. 569; here p. 886). He adds that “the aesthetic approach has three components: the sensory knowledge of work practice; sensitive-aesthetic judgment on work and organization; the artistry of the performance of individuals and groups in organizational routine.” (p. 886). The process also involves immersion: “In the aesthetic approach, the understanding of organizational life is conditional on the researcher’s capacity to immerse him/herself empathically in organizational action and interaction, and to fashion research materials into open texts which stimulate evocative knowledge in those who read them. This is performed through the use of metaphors, the poetic language used, vivid descriptions of work and organizational practices….” (p. 886).
  • The artistic approach which “focuses on the artistic experience with the purpose of gathering information on the management of organizational processes even when these do not take place in the domain of art… The approach’s core concern is the flow of creativity and playfulness in organizing … as it happens in artistic performance … and what can be learned about organizational leadership from art worlds” (p. 887). Antonio adds that in this approach “specific attention is paid to the fact that, in organizations, increasing use is made of arts-based methods to grasp the dynamics of change and organizational development” (p. 887).

When an inclusive pope defines categories for a field in which one is working, surely one should find a home? Logically, I should position my work in the fourth approach, because that is where the emergence of artistic interventions in organizations is alluded to.  But, besides the fact that I don’t feel comfortable in any kind of box in any sphere of my life, the description of the fourth box leaves it particularly small (e.g. too narrowly focused on management without referring to other stakeholders in the process, and it is too biased to nice things like playfulness and creativity without attending to the multiple other kinds of processes in organizations that are unleashed or blocked by artistic interventions) and nothing is said here about theory or method. Maybe I should apply for a pilgrimage to Italy? (After all, Brian Arthur benefitted terrifically from what he called his pilgrimage to Ilya Prigogine–see my Thanksgiving post a couple of days ago.)

In closing, I want to remind us of the numerous aesthetic categories Antonio laid out in 2000 in his contribution to the volume edited by Stephen Linstead and Heather Höpfl. I find their range enormously stimulating in my research on artistic interventions in organizations:

  • Beauty
  • The sublime
  • The ugly
  • The comic
  • The gracious
  • The picturesque and the agogic
  • The tragic
  • The sacred

I emphasize the value of keeping this full set of categories in mind so that the current flurry of publications about beautiful leadership can be put into perspective as one important but not exclusive strand of research in this area. As Antonio stresses again in this 2010 article “the aesthetic dimension of work and organizational life, in fact, is anything but the organizational embellishment that anaesthetizes sensible knowledge” (p.889). He and scholars like Nancy Adler, Donna Ladkin, and Steve Taylor draw on the category of beauty “not to fulfil the aesthete’s dream of freedom, but rather to fashion organizations into better, more beautiful, and more enjoyable places in which craftsmanship, expert knowledge, and imagination interweave” (p. 889). These quotations illustrate the balancing act in which scholars are engaging in this field: advancing analysis of what is happening in organizations and seeking to contribute to improving the conditions in those organizations. How to manage that difference and balance consciously, rather than blurring the boundaries between analytical and normative research, is something we work hard at in the WZB, where one of the distinguishing features is “problem oriented basic research.” We seek to address challenges societies face in different fields by taking a theory-driven approach to defining, describing, and analyzing phenomena, from which recommendations for action for the stakeholders can then flow.

ps: I encourage readers not to limit themselves to Antonio Strati’s theoretical work, which I find fascinating but can appear far removed from the real world–he writes in a lively and evocative way when he is presenting his case material. I would also encourag publishers to invest more resources in editing the texts of our non-anglophone colleagues, so that the ugly stylistic and grammatical errors that slipped into this text on aesthetics do not get in the way of the reader.