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ORGANISING AND DISORGANISING: A Dynamic and Non-Linear Theory of Institutional Emergence and its Implications by Michael Thompson. Triarchy Press, Devon, 2008.

EVEN its name has been controversial: Cultural Theory (CT hereinafter) has been described as the theory of plural rationalities, theory of socio-cultural viability or simply as grid-group analysis. The CT label, however, has stuck, since all the other, more accurate, terms are a mouthful; but it has brought this new social science theory into conflict with other theories and studies of culture. This turf battle has hardly deterred its intrepid band of practitioners, who maintain that this is an exciting theory-in-making that ‘ that famous beer, refreshes parts that other theories cannot reach.’ Although they trace CT’s silsila, to use a Sufi term, back to French sociologist Durkheim and down to the late Mary Douglas, its current set of votaries range across disciplines, from mathematicians and engineers to business theorists and even former policemen who find CT’s applicability to problems they confront in their subject areas much more insightful than its competitors. Cultural theorists are feisty in their claim to have distilled the essence of a century worth of sociology and anthropology from far-flung climes, and applied their generalized conclusions to explaining problems in modern society. These heretic activities are anathema to conservative social science academia.

Michael Thompson’s Organising and Disorganising is the latest CT publication which lives up to that feisty reputation. Mixing everyday problems with debates in organization theories, this slim volume is both a reply to CT’s critics as well as an exploration of new avenues of further research. What Thompson sets out to convince his readers is baldly stated at the outset: there is no such thing as an organization; that there are only ways of organizing and disorganizing; that there are only five such ways which are mathematically demonstrable; and that decision-making takes place not within but between these different ways. It takes Thompson nine chapters to present his case; and if one buys into his arguments, they demand a serious shift in the way one thinks about collective social endeavours and the conflicts and contradictions they ceaselessly suffer.

The book begins with an example of conflict that generally emblazons local newspapers, but is quickly forgotten afterwards and rarely analyzed for insights. When Arsenal Football Club needed a new international class stadium, it convinced the local municipal council to accept its expansion plans which required the demolition of several low rent housing blocks and shops. Immediately, a third social solidarity, the normally ephemeral civic movement, sprang up, with protests and petitions flying, as happens with most development projects in the North or the South. Ultimately, it was the ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ generated by this third egalitarian grouping from the information rejected by the market players (Arsenal) and the hierarchic bureaucracy (municipal borough) that found for Arsenal a brand new stadium in a previously hidden locale, for the local council more office and housing space, and for the egalitarians, traditions untrammelled as well as the ‘greenest’ stadium in UK – a constructive engagement resulting in a virtuous win-win for all three social solidarities that would not have been possible if it had only been a ‘public-private partnership’ between the first two.

Thompson uses CT to explain the social dynamics behind this as well as other interesting examples – the emergence of the overground A and underground B teams in the Everest expedition, similarities between Himalayan Sherpa and Swiss Davos villagers in strategy switching as they cope with the market and the environment, and the failure of prestigious international research and development organizations to see the fallacy behind the myth of Himalayan degradation because of their unpluralized policy terrain. These examples are used with telling effect to demonstrate some of the more theoretical arguments of CT that would otherwise have remained dry and not as pertinent to everyday situations.

In Thompson’s presentation, CT has emerged from a marriage of two schools of thought, one from social anthropology and the other from natural resource ecology. The former identified five forms of social solidarities present everywhere and at all scales, global to household. Using two discriminators – transactions symmetrical or asymmetrical and competition fettered or unfettered – CT generates four permutations of organizational destinations that hold the different solidarities in place: the world of bureaucratic hierarchism where competition is fettered and transactions are unequal between its constituents, the realm of market individualism with unfettered competition in an equalized level playing field, the bounded and unranked cooperatives of egalitarian activism, and finally, the atomized world of fatalism. The social sciences have mainly considered the first two, the world of bureaucratic socialism and that of free market individualism, but mostly ignored civic movements and the otherwise passive masses that only react (or more correctly are incited to do so by the other three) during elections and revolutions, whether of the market or the comrades. Thompson not only brings these two onto the social map but adds a fifth, the hermit category at the intersection of the two discriminators that has withdrawn temporarily from social interactions, only to emerge as a reformer or entrepreneur in a different solidarity than the one it initially withdrew from.

It is the concepts of creative destruction in the ecocycle from resource ecologists together with the hermit category which Thompson uses to give CT its dynamic character. Often the critics of CT have mistaken the five solidarities as static typologies, but dynamics is inherent between them as they respond continuously to the changing world. A climax forest community with its ordered ecological niches will invariably collapse due to storms, forest fires or market lust. The resulting compost will begin a process of renewal and anarchic exploitation by pioneer communities that perforce will lead to orderly conservation and back to a climax community anew. Excessive bureaucratic hierarchism’s collapse into socio-economic stagnation gives way to enclaves of activism and entrepreneurial opportunism. Eventually markets will plead for a strong state to bring back order and enforce the law of contracts. With CT’s insights, Thompson is harsh in his criticism of ‘sustainable development’ as the promulgation of the hierarchist’s hegemonic myth of stability within its controlled pockets: to market individualism all development is sustainable and to egalitarian’s activism no development is sustainable!

Thompson uses the last part of the book to map out the social science masters using CT’s four-fold typology. If uncertainty is inbuilt into the partially correct views of each social solidarity’s thinking of how the world is and works, it is as if each has got hold of a different part of the social elephant. And there are ‘50 different ways of getting the elephant not quite right: 25 dualistic ways, 10 trinitarian ways and 15 unitarian ways.’ Every giant figure in the social sciences can be attached to one or the other of these classes, from Sir Henry Maine (1861) to Ferdinand Tonnies (1887) with his Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Lindblom, Weber, Etzioni and others. Many of these 50 possibilities are as yet unpopulated, which is why this CT approach opens up tremendous possibilities of future research.

By opening up the process of social change from one-way, single tipping, such as from bureaucratic socialism to free market or vice versa, to twenty different possibilities among the five social solidarities in an inherently uncertain and complex world, CT sees the dynamics as not an arrow or even a pendulum but as a flock of starlings marvellously afloat but forever changing. Thus, argues Thompson, CT puts us in a better position to understand society and finesse our attempts to change it. An audacious claim, no doubt, for what political scientist Dennis Coyle has called the theory that is thankfully not yet king, but hopefully providing social scientists the motivation to challenge and make original contributions.

Dipak Gyawali