Rethinking the Organisational: From ‘Form’ to ‘Forming’

Conference Paper (PDF Available) · September 2008with 14 Reads
DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1734.4882
Conference: Irish Academy of Management, At Dublin, Ireland
Cite this publication
The organisational theory literature has identified the emergence and evolution of organisational forms as a critical issue to be addressed, yet new ways of looking at organisational form have yet to be addressed and there are concerns about the largely ahistorical and aprocessual character of much organisational theorising. Most “new” theories that have been put forward continue to view form as something already formed, as an essence, with the attention focused on what constitutes form. Further, extant organisational theories, from the original Weberian ideal type through all other theories, be they in appearance ahistorical (i.e., contingency) or historical (i.e., ecological) and everything else in between, have taken recourse to history-as-process in order to create their classifications. However, in arriving at their classificatory schemes they have hidden the process-as-such, the process of “getting there,” the messiness of “forming,” as if everything else, thereafter, can be tidily encased in one of their “boxes.” History-as-process is never accounted for and once the classificatory scheme is operational no other boxes are possible thereafter; reification in the guise of universalisation has happened and “process” has ended. Seen thusly, a number of questions arise: does history end once we have classified?; does forming continue to happen once we have classified?; what about a way to theorise forming?; how to understand forming over form? More broadly, “can we think any other way” (Calás & Smircich, 2003: 49), such that we do not become enmeshed in, and continue to reproduce, the problems we encounter when thinking in a modern way? These questions lead me to begin outlining the contours to an alternative way of thinking and knowing and so arrive at processual knowing that might escape the modernist thirst for classification.While path dependence, as conventionally conceived, presents an avenue for overcoming the lack of historical contingency in mainstream organisational theories, it does not maintain an opening for forming. Here is where actor-network theory comes in to not only argue that organisational forming is ongoing, but also show how it is made unrecognizable by our modes of theorising. Of particular interest to this framing is the re-articulation of path dependence as a constructivist endeavour, incorporating the concept into actor-network theory through its reconsideration as ‘irreversibilility’.
Donnelly, P. (2008) ‘Rethinking the Organisational: From ‘Form to ‘Forming’, in E. Conway
(ed) Proceedings, Irish Academy of Management 11
Annual Conference, [CD-ROM].
Dublin: Dublin City University.
Donnelly, P. (2008) ‘Rethinking the Organisational: From ‘Form to ‘Forming’.’ Irish
Academy of Management. Dublin City University, Ireland (September).
College of Business
Dublin Institute of Technology
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This paper represents work in progress.
All constructive feedback is welcome.
The organisational theory literature has identified the emergence and evolution of
organisational forms as a critical issue to be addressed, yet new ways of looking at organisational
form have yet to be addressed and there are concerns about the largely ahistorical and
aprocessual character of much organisational theorising.
Mostnew” theories that have been put forward continue to view form as something
already formed, as an essence, with the attention focused on what constitutes form. Further,
extant organisational theories, from the original Weberian ideal type through all other theories,
be they in appearance ahistorical (i.e., contingency) or historical (i.e., ecological) and everything
else in between, have taken recourse to history-as-process in order to create their classifications.
However, in arriving at their classificatory schemes they have hidden the process-as-such, the
process of “getting there,” the messiness of forming,” as if everything else, thereafter, can be
tidily encased in one of their boxes.” History-as-process is never accounted for and once the
classificatory scheme is operational no other boxes are possible thereafter; reification in the guise
of universalisation has happened and “process” has ended.
Seen thusly, a number of questions arise: does history end once we have classified?; does
forming continue to happen once we have classified?; what about a way to theorise forming?;
how to understand forming over form? More broadly, can we think any other way” (Calás &
Smircich, 2003: 49), such that we do not become enmeshed in, and continue to reproduce, the
problems we encounter when thinking in a modern way?
These questions lead me to begin outlining the contours to an alternative way of thinking
and knowing and so arrive at processual knowing that might escape the modernist thirst for
classification. While path dependence, as conventionally conceived, presents an avenue for
overcoming the lack of historical contingency in mainstream organisational theories, it does not
maintain an opening for forming. Here is where actor-network theory comes in to not only argue
that organisational forming is ongoing, but also show how it is made unrecognizable by our
modes of theorising. Of particular interest to this framing is the re-articulation of path
dependence as a constructivist endeavour, incorporating the concept into actor-network theory
through its reconsideration as irreversibilility’.
Taking the view that[w]here new organizational forms come from is one of the central
questions of organizational theory” (Rao, 1998: 912) and has been since Weber’s (1946, 1947)
formulation of the ideal-type bureaucracy, I seek to address some of the concerns with extant
ways of theorising the organisational. As noted by Donnelly (2007), the literature has identified
emergence and evolution of new organisational forms as a critical issue to be addressed (e.g.,
Academy of Management Journal, 2001; Child & McGrath, 2001; Daft & Lewin, 1993;
DiMaggio, 2001; Foss, 2002; Graetz & Smith, 2006; McSweeney, 2006; Organization Science,
1999; Palmer, Benveniste & Dunford, 2007; Pettigrew, Whittington, Melin, Sanchez-Runde, van
den Bosch, Ruigrok & Numagami, 2003; Romanelli, 1991), often presenting the issue as being
driven by ‘new times,’ yet what is more evident in the literature is that the need for new ways of
looking at organisational form, be it ‘old’ or ‘new,’ has yet to be addressed. It has also raised
concerns about the largely ahistorical and aprocessual character of much organisational
theorising, and lamented the dearth of empirical work that is historical and processual in
Mostnew” theories that have been put forward continue to view form as something
already formed, as an essence, with the attention focused on what constitutes form. Further,
extant organisational theories, from the original Weberian ideal type through all other theories,
be they in appearance ahistorical (i.e., contingency) or historical (i.e., ecological) and everything
else in between, have taken recourse to history-as-process in order to create their classifications.
However, in arriving at their classificatory schemes they have hidden the process-as-such, the
process of “getting there,” the messiness of forming,” as if everything else, thereafter, can be
tidily encased in one of their boxes.” History-as-process is never accounted for and once the
classificatory scheme is operational no other boxes are possible thereafter; reification in the guise
of universalisation has happened and “process” has ended. Linking the concerns of both Daft
and Lewin (1993) and Zald (1993), I seek to contribute to the discussion through incorporating
process and history to help us understand organisational form(ing), both old and new, in so doing
following through on the argument for knowing the organisational as an ongoing process.
Pursuing calls to develop more historically informed theory implicitly raises
metatheoretical questions about extant approaches to understanding organisational form. In what
follows, I address these questions, first, by proposing that the organisational theory literature in
its quest for form” requires to be periodised as a modernist endeavour that seldom reflects on its
own creations, and, second, by re-inserting history into this argument, I suggest an approach to
move out of some of the literature’s current limitations.
I turn to the notion of path dependence, in recognition of the calls for more historically
informed organisational theory. I explore the limitations of modern thinking generally and posit
the need for a new framework that will facilitate both problematising and studying
organisational formin a manner that moves beyond thinking in terms of boundaries and
essences towards a more processual way of thinking. I argue for abandoning modernity in
favour of adopting a way of thinking (a metatheoretical framing) that facilitates conversing
differently about what we currently call organisational form. In elaborating on this framing, I
explore the tenets underpinning conventional thinking about these issues, with a view to
exposing their limitations and clarifying the grounds on which an alternative approach might be
Of particular interest to this framing is the incorporation of path dependency into actor-
network theory through Callon’s (1991; 1993; 1994; 2005) reconsideration of the concept of
irreversibilility” and the intellectual contribution an actor-network approach can offer by way of
viewing organisational form(ing) as a materially heterogeneous relational performance rather
than a sequence of temporally ordered and causally connected events. When reconsidered under
this approach to irreversibility, path dependence has potential in contributing to an (a)modern
perspective towards issues of organisational form(ing).”
While differing views on organisational form have emerged, they very much involve a
particular way of understanding, in line with what Cooper and Law (1995: 263) refer to as a
‘distal theory of organisations.’ They have emerged from a macro organisation theory
perspective concerned with the creation and maintenance of boundaries, with categorization and
classification and with the very notion of form’ itself. The view from the existing literature,
coming as it does from a largely determinist and positivist perspective, limits understanding
through establishing the world as external to cognition, collective action or experience, rendering
organisations as “hard, tangible and relatively immutable structures” (Burrell & Morgan, 1979:
4), completely determined by their environment and knowable through a search for “regularities
and causal relationships” (Burrell & Morgan, 1979: 5).
Consistent with this way of understanding, the perpetually dynamic is placed into a field
of stasis and stabilized for the purpose of scientific study (Burrell, 1996), such that organisations
appear as static entities capable of being partitioned out and classified. Current ways of
understanding also both lock into, and are locked in, such dichotomous thinking as micro/macro,
inside/outside and new/old. The notion of form’ itself, being a noun, conjures up the sense of
something that is always-already formed,’ of something that has shape, of something static, of a
mode of existence or manifestation. Hence, to study form, as understood in this light, is to study
something that already has form’ or has essence.
In short, the same theories, tools, and ways of understanding, which were developed to
analyze notions of the organisational at a particular time, namely bureaucracy, and in a particular
way, namely ‘ideal types’ arrived at through social science, are being deployed in attempts at
generating knowledge about the organisational in ‘new times.’ Concurrently, theories,
definitions and classification systems are used in the literature, and espoused as definitive means
for studying form, even though their use is the subject of ongoing debate over how to theorise,
define and classify form. Essentially, then, in being obsessed with classification, which is the
only way they assume it is possible to know “organisation,” dominant organisational theories
continue to privilege “formover “forming.”
Can we think any other way” (Calás & Smircich, 2003: 49), such that we do not become
enmeshed in, and continue to reproduce, the problems we encounter when thinking in a modern
way? There seem to be some possibilities within contemporary thinking. As I now move on to
discuss, path dependence presents an avenue for overcoming the lack of historical contingency in
mainstream organisational theories.
In a criticism that can also be applied to mainstream organisational theory in general,
Kieser (1994: 612) notes that sociologists, in favouring grand theories that bother little with
historical details that disconfirm their theories, would be seen by many historians as people who
state the obvious in an abstract jargon, lack any sense of differences in culture or time, squeeze
phenomena into rigid categories and, to top it all, declare these activities as ‘scientific’.” Given
the inferior position they accord history, Kieser (1994) calls for the abandonment of models that
are conceptualized separately from that which is to be explained, in favour of analyses that are
more interpretive and inductive, i.e., integrationist. For those of an integrationist position, the
concern is with activating the potential of history to enrich organisation studies through both
employing and challenging its social scientistic counterpart:Ultimately, the issue is how do we
combine a positivistic programme of theoretical and empirical cumulation with the enriching
possibilities of the humanities” (Zald, 1993: 516, emphasis in original). In similar vein, Kieser
(1994: 619) proffers that[h]istorical analyses do not replace existing organization theory; they
enrich our understanding of present-day organizations by reconstructing the human acts which
created them in the course of history.”
Thus, an integrationist position recognizes that current organisational forms have been
shaped by past events and that their course of development has been influenced by the broader
context. More specifically, an integrationist position entails interest in “processes of
organisational change, development of organisational forms and variations across societal
settings, path dependencies and continuities in organisational ideas and practices” (Üsdiken &
Kieser, 2004: 323).
In recognition of the calls for more historically informed organisational theory, I now
turn to the notion of path dependence. To be clear, pitching itself between ahistorical
organisational theory and atheoretical history, path dependence is as much embedded in
modernity as other mainstream approaches to doing organisational knowledge. Nonetheless, as I
explain later, bringing in path dependence through an integrationist position as my entry point
allows me to suggest a way to escape the modernity of conventional approaches to
organisational form(ing).”
Path dependence – an idea through which “history” is commonly made visible – emerged
as an alternative perspective to ‘conventional economics’ in the 1980s through the work of David
(e.g., 1985, 1987, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2001) and Arthur (e.g., 1988, 1989, 1990, 1994). Path
dependence refers to dynamic processes involving irreversibilities, which generate multiple
possible outcomes depending on the particular sequence in which events unfold. The path
dependence approach holds that a historical path of choices has the character of a branching
process with a self-reinforcing dynamic in which positive feedback increases, while at the same
time the costs of reversing previous decisions increase, and the scope for reversing them narrows
sequentially, as the development proceeds. As already noted by David (2001: 23), the core
content of the concept of path dependence as a dynamic property refers to the idea of history as
an irreversible branching process.” Similarly, Hacker (2002: 54, emphasis in original) argues
that “path dependence refers to developmental trajectories that are inherently difficult to
reverse.” Thus, preceding steps in a particular direction induce further movement in the same
direction, thereby making the possibility of switching to some other previously credible
alternative more difficult. In an increasing returns process, the probability of further steps along
the same path increases with each move down that path. This is because the relative benefits of
the current activity compared with other possible options increase over time” (Pierson, 2000:
252, emphasis in original).
Those who are not familiar with the path dependence approach think that it is no more
than recognition that history matters.” However, the approach not only recognizes the impact
of history, but also shows that a decision-making process can exhibit self-reinforcing dynamics,
such that an evolution over time to the most efficient alternative does not necessarily occur. In
general, path dependence refers to situations in which decision-making processes (partly) depend
on prior choices and events. It recognizes that a decision is not made in some historical and
institutional void just by looking at the characteristics and expected effects of the alternatives,
but also by taking into account how much each alternative deviates from current institutional
arrangements that have developed in time. An outcome thus depends on the contingent starting
point and specific course of a historical decision-making process.
Antonelli (1997: 661) attributes the emergence of path dependence to the failure of
existing economic models to handle the dynamism and complexity of path-dependent processes,
with Arthur (1990: 99) distinguishing between ‘conventional economics,’ which largely avoids
path dependence, and the ‘new positive feedback economics,’ which embraces it. From an initial
interest in the emergence of new technologies, path dependence arguments have since become
prevalent in such areas as the spatial location of production, regional studies, the development of
international trade, institutional sociology, political science and policy studies (Donnelly, 2007).
More recently, path dependence has entered into strategy (e.g., Booth, 2003; Brousseau
& Chaves, 2005; Maielli, 2005; Mueller, 1997; Nerkar & Paruchuri, 2005; Rao, Vijaya & Peter,
2004; Stack & Gartland, 2003, 2005; Teece, Pisano & Shuen, 1997) and organisation studies
(e.g., Araujo & Rezende, 2003; Bruggeman, 2002; Donnelly, 2007; Greener, 2002; Heffernan,
2003; Noda & Collis, 2001; Schmidt & Spindler, 2002; Sonnenwald, 2003; Sydow, Schreyögg &
Koch, 2005).
Booth (2003) notes that path dependence has only recently entered organisation studies
due to the analytical problems encountered by existing approaches in accommodating the
complexity and dynamism of path-dependent processes. Our existing organisational theories fail
to address how what we have come to identify as a given organisational form has been achieved
in practice. Different to structural contingency, institutional, ecological and transaction cost
theories, and in pursuing a more integrationist approach (Üsdiken & Kieser, 2004), path
dependence activates the potential of history to enrich study of the organisational generally. In
pursuing a more processual and historical approach to studying the organisational, path
dependence is not replacing existing organisational theory; rather it can help enrich our
understanding of present-day organisations by reconstructing the process through which they
came to be, shaped by their past and influenced by their broader context.
Thus, through the concept of path dependence, there is now the possibility to move
beyond ahistorical organisational theorising. In the opinion of Hirsch and Gillespie (2001: 87),
Path dependence deserves credit for bringing history back into analysis […] stimulating
economists and other social scientists to address the limitations of their largely ahistorical
models.” It seeks to assess how process, sequence and temporality can be best incorporated into
explanation, the focus of the researcher being on particular outcomes, temporal sequencing and
the unfolding of processes over time.
However, notwithstanding the contribution of the path dependence perspective, and its
potential in facilitating the study of forming,” it does not help in showing how “formhas come
to be privileged over forming.” To all intents and purposes, path dependence operates within a
modernist worldview. While it recognizes that accidental and contingent factors play a role in
the initial stage of path formation, it nonetheless seeks to explain subsequent path dependence
through the macro-causal reasoning of self-reinforcing and/or reactive sequences (Mahoney,
2000). Later on I go back to this point and reconsider path dependence, nonetheless, in a
different mode, which may make it a step to get out of this impasse; yet, in order to do so the
modernist worldview must be reconsidered. For this purpose, I enrol now an actor-network
theory (ANT) perspective through the work of Bruno Latour.
Latour (1993) offers another analysis of the modern condition.” In his view, modernity
involves the creation and maintenance of two distinct ontological zones (see Figure 1 below),
with all that is nonhuman ascribed to nature and all that is human ascribed to culture.
Accordingly, the work of scientists is focused on one zone or the other, treating the world
according to either the authority of the natural sciences, on the one hand, or that of the social
sciences, on the other. In either case, the work of scientists is to explain, to purify, the world
they see in their terms. Those coming from the perspective of nature, the realists, seek to
naturalize society by integrating it into nature, while those coming from the perspective of
culture, the constructivists, seek to socialize nature through digestion by society (Latour, 1993).
Error! Bookmark not defined.
Figure 1: Modernity according to Latour (adapted from Latour, 1993: 11).
Hence, looked at through the lens of the natural sciences, all that has to do with
organisation is governed by natural laws. Looked at through the lens of the social sciences, it is
we humans who create organisation according to our own free will. Accordingly, organisation is
either transcendental, having an existence ‘out there,’ or it is immanent, having an existence ‘in
here, and great effort is expended in ensuring that both views remain ontologically pure – e.g.,
paradigm wars.” Nature deals with things-in-themselves, while culture deals with humans-
amongst-themselves, such that people and things, humans and nonhumans are kept separate.
At the same time, and without apparent contradiction, modernity treats nature as
immanent in the sense that its laws are mobilisable, humanisable and socialisable, in essence,
knowable, through manipulation by the modern knowledge-making apparatus (e.g., laboratories,
questionnaires, experiments, statistical analyses, research organisations, scientific institutions).
Accordingly, the laws of nature can now be discovered, such that organisation can be known,
albeit they still remain transcendent. Similarly, culture is simultaneously treated as transcendent
in the sense that it has its own laws and outlasts us, with conventional ways of knowledge-
making “stak[ing] out the limits to the freedom of social groups, and transform[ing] human
relations into durable objects that no one has made” (Latour, 1993: 37). Hence, our freedom to
create organisation according to our own will is circumscribed by the laws of society, albeit these
laws are our own creation.
Escaping Modernity?
Viewed from this perspective, modernity provides no means of escape from ‘old’ ways of
thinking and knowing and so provides no useful avenue for articulating and studying the
organisational differently, for modernity is part and parcel of the way organisations have been
conceptualized and studied. Thus, how can we articulate and study the organisational
differently? I argue that one way around this impasse is to imagine, as Latour (1993) has done,
that we have never been modern. His amodern (or nonmodern) thesis rests on exposing, and
then tying together, the practices that underpin modern ways of thinking and knowing. By
making these operations visible, he provides a way to reconsider our understanding about
Purification, Translation and Networks
As already discussed, having created two separate ontological zones, modernity’s focus
remains on maintaining that separation. As such, to be modern is to be concerned with
maintaining the established purity of nature on the one hand, and of society on the other: to be
modern requires engaging in the practice of purification. Such practice, in turn, requires
categorization and classification, with things-in-themselves assigned to nature and humans-in-
themselves assigned to society.
Thus it is that, through purifying, forms can be identified. They can been classified and
categorized according to an abstract set of features (e.g., environment, structure, authority-
control, decision-making, workers, operations, core/non-core, communication, culture, etc.),
such that they are rendered static, permanent, timeless, universal and, above all, knowable. In
being purified, they become ideal-types against which to measure and verify that which pertains
to them. But the question is, in order to purify, what has the knowledge-making enterprise left
out? Thus, to focus on the practice of purification is only part of the story, for there is another
practice, that of translation, on which modernity depends for its existence and yet which
modernity denies at the same time.
Concurrent with purifying the messy world in which we live, modernity engages in
translation (see Figure 2 below). Here, far from separating humans from nonhumans, their
contacts are amplified, mixing together humans and nonhumans, without bracketing anything
and without excluding any combination, in the process creating hybrids of nature and culture in
the form of networks of humans and nonhumans. Different from the practice of purification,
which involves separation, the practice of translation involves the threading together of any or all
of these actors into a network that makes sense. It entails interconnecting these heterogeneous
elements and viewing them as performing relationally, as interacting to produce what we
contingently call organisational form, with one actor seeking to redefine the meaning of the other
actors, enrolling them into a position, such that its interests also become theirs.
Error! Bookmark not defined.
Figure 2: Latour’s amodernity (adapted from Latour, 1993: 11).
What results from the practice of translation are hybrids, networks that are both
contingent and emergent. They are contingent in that their relations are never fixed for all time,
such that the actor-networks could come asunder should the interests of any actors diverge.
Similarly, they are emergent in that they do not appear ready formed, as pure essences that
always-already existed.
However, this very practice, the practice of translation, is denied any visibility or
acknowledgement within modern thinking. While the flexibility and fluidity afforded by the
modern way of thinking is facilitated by the work of translation, for it is here that humans and
nonhumans are threaded together to form a network that realizes the everyday, it is not until this
network of associations achieves some degree of relative stability that it becomes amenable to
purification, and thereby that it becomes visible for classification. Purification reclaims the
network from the hybrid ontology of its formation, and renders translation invisible in the
process. Thus, purification obtains in the case of organisational form when we no longer think of
the diverse materials that go into its performance, but, instead, simply see it as a thing in and of
itself. Purification is successful when the threads that bind these heterogeneous materials
relationally fall out of view and are simply taken for granted.
Translation and Purification – Exposing Modernity’s Dichotomy
In summary, both practices, translation and purification, are vital to constituting the
world we live in, with one dependent on the other. Without the practices of translation, those of
purification would be without meaning, for we would be dealing with nothing but pure forms
with no possibility of these forms being combined to arrive at some new form. Likewise,
without the practices of purification, those of translation would be hindered, restricted or
discarded, for without pure forms we would have nothing to thread together to create new forms.
However, with its emphasis on knowing through purification, modernity takes hybrid
networks formed through translation and cuts them intoas many segments as there are pure
disciplines” (Latour, 1993: 3), severing the ties that link nature and society. For example, in our
case dealing with the organisational, we deal with the topic through the lenses of economics,
psychology, sociology, anthropology, communication, computer science, business, and so on.
We go even further within each discipline, segmenting further as, for example, in the case of
business where we use the lenses of marketing, organisation studies, finance, accounting,
management science, and so on.
And we go yet further, as with organisation studies, for example, with the focus breaking
into strategy, organisational theory, organisational behaviour, international management, human
resource management, and so on. And we could go yet further again, if we were to look at the
various theories within organisational theory, for example, structural contingency, institutional,
transaction cost and ecology theories. Thus, the network of threads and links that go into
constructing the organisational become severed to form neat compartments such that what we
notice of the organisational is only behaviour, only employees, only social context, only
products, only consumers, only transactions, only contracts, only balance sheets, only
technology, only computer modelling, and so on.
Through this separation, even though imbroglios of humans and nonhumans are
multiplying and proliferating, the distinct ontological zones remain steadfastly separated and
delimited from each other as if the world were divided into such neat categories, into which
anything and everything could be easily slotted. Being truly modern, therefore, requires that we
regard the practices of purification and translation as separate, while at the same time subscribing
to the work of purification and denying that of translation. To do otherwise, to attend to both at
the same time and to acknowledge the proliferation of hybrids, is to question our modernity and
to make us “retrospectively aware that the two sets of practices have always already been at work
in the historical period that is ending” (Latour, 1993: 11).
It is through recognizing the work of translation that Latour (1993) unveils modernity as
but one half of a configuration that denies its other. It is through recognizing, and legitimizing,
the practices of translation as necessary to those of purification, and through recognizing both,
together, as a distinct, coherent and mutually reinforcing configuration, that it is possible to
recognize that we have never been truly modern. As I discuss next, this argument has important
implications for the study of organisational forms.”
As we have seen, modernity initially emerges from the conjoined creation of humans-
culture and nonhumans-nature, and then masks its own creation through treating each source
separately. Meanwhile culture-nature hybrids, though denied, continue to proliferate. However,
it is precisely this very ability to separate humans and nonhumans, while at the same time
denying the creation of hybrids, that weakens modernity and bolsters Latour’s amodern thesis.
In proposing such a thesis, Latour seeks to retain modernity’s ontological zones and its practices
of purification and translation, only this time both practices are to be considered as operating
simultaneously, and not separately.
For instance, if we look at how bureaucracy is talked about in the literature we see that it
is comprised of various purifications: a stable environment; a hierarchical structure; authority
that is centralized, command-and-control, directed by top-management; workers that are
dependent, controlled, trained to follow orders, costs to be minimized; operations that are
vertically integrated, employ standardization and has its own workforce; work that is organised
according to task specialization; boundaries that are fixed and static; communication that is
vertical, formally passing through the hierarchy; and so on. These various categories for
classifying bureaucracy are themselves purifications. Centralization, for example, is premised on
authority, decision-making and control residing in top management, with the latter comprising
people, positions, titles, offices, subordinates, expertise, reports, and so on. But, what is missing
from here? The assumption is that bureaucracy is always the same and never deviates from
comprising all of the actors noted. However, this overlooks that the slightest change to the list of
actors associating with bureaucracy translates the latter into a hybrid. For example, is a
bureaucracy that outsources some of its tasks to a service provider in a low-cost country, using
information and communications technologies to create a seamless operation, still a bureaucracy
or is it something else? To all intents and purposes, while all else has remained the same, the
bureaucracy’s fixed and static boundaries have changed and it no longer does everything in-
house employing its own workforce: the bureaucracy actor-network has been translated. As
such, we are not dealing with a bureaucracy, as classified, but with a hybrid that is neither a
bureaucracy nor a virtual organisation. It is something other for which there is no name.
It is in this light that the “proliferation of hybrids thus denies the success of purification
and, therefore the possibility of having ever been modern” (Calás & Smircich, 2003: 51). Hence,
the double separation between humans and nonhumans, on the one hand, and between the work
of purification and that of translation, on the other, needs to be reconstructed (Latour, 1993). In
making visible the work of translation, therefore, any analysis would be rethreading the many
bits and pieces that go into making the organisational, thereby regaining the complexity of the
ties that bind the organisational together.
Following Latour, then, I adopt a metatheoretical position, my ontological starting point,
that considers that the networks that weave the organisational together do exist and that our
modern ways of knowing have provided us with but a partial, essentialised, and static
understanding of what we currently conceive as organisational form. It is also from this position,
as I will soon explain, that path dependence returns to my analysis.
Rethinking “History as Progress” – From Modern to Amodern Temporality
Modernity’s sense of time passing comes through always seeking to break with or abolish
the past and leave it behind. The moderns separate themselves from their past through
Copernican revolutions, epistemological breaks, epistemic ruptures so radical that nothing of
the past survives in them” (Latour, 1993: 68). In so doing, they sense time as an irreversible
arrow, as progress. This experience of time as a revolution, always having to start over again,
can be seen in the treatment of organisational form in the literature. For example, Miles et al
(1997) contend that a particular organisational form has been a feature of each major period in
business history. In the period since the Industrial Revolution, they suggest, the United States
has moved through the machine age, with its hierarchical, vertically integrated organisation
form, to the information age, and its network form, and is now at the threshold of the knowledge
age, with what they call the cellular organisational form.
For Latour (1993: 72), modern temporality is “outlined by a series of radical breaks,
revolutions, which constitute so many irreversible ratchets that prevent us from ever going
backward.” Given this conception of the passage of time, and in conjunction with calendar time,
modernity’s irreversible arrow presents but two options in ordering time: forward for progress, or
backward toward stagnation/regression. The moderns treat the return of the past as archaism, for
to treat it otherwise would be to undermine the temporal ordering and the sense of time passing:
the arrow of time is unambiguous, such that moving forward requires breaking with the past,
while moving backward requires breaking with the modernizing effort. Latour (1993) suggests
that modern temporality has little effect on the passage of time. He argues that the past not only
remains but also returns, with the practice of translation mixing up humans and nonhumans of
different times. A good example of temporality is the debate of recent years within the
organisational literature surrounding bureaucracy (Donnelly, 2007). There are those who
suggest that bureaucracy is outmoded, a thing of the past, and that post-bureaucracy has taken its
place. However, there are others who see bureaucracy continuing, such that, in Latour’s terms,
the past is mixed with the present to create hybrids that become purified, for example, Ashcrafts
(2001, 2006) ‘feminist bureaucracy.’
When consideration is given to the work of translation and to hybridization, modernity’s
essences are exposed as being no more modern than they are revolutionary, for they are seen as
blends of different periods, ontologies and genres. Modernity’s temporal order becomes
disturbed such that a historical period will give the impression of a great hotchpotch” (Latour,
1993: 73). Rather than an irreversible, ordered, continuous and progressive flow, time becomes
reversible, turbulent and more akin to a whirlpool than a linear flow, such thatevery
contemporary assembly is polytemporal” (Latour, 1993: 74).
For modern temporality to function, “the impression of an ordered front of entities
sharing the same contemporary time has to remain credible” (Latour, 1993: 73). Counter-
examples and exceptions cannot be allowed to proliferate for this would undermine the temporal
order and render talk of stagnation, regression, and archaism impossible. There could be no
break with the past. In recognizing the work of translation and the proliferation of hybrids,
modern temporality falters and becomes untenable for it is anything but homogeneous.
Latour (1993) sees time as a contingent outcome of the relational performance among
entities, not as a general framework. He suggests that it is necessary to pass from the temporal
ground on which modernity (and its antimodern and postmodern critics) operates to another,
which incorporates seeing that temporality, in and of itself, has nothing temporal about it.
Modern temporality is but a contingent effect, the result of a performance that, through
purification, reassembled, hooked together, systematized the cohort of contemporary elements
to hold it together and thus to eliminate those that do not belong to the system” (Latour, 1993:
74-75). Purification has always operated, classifying essences as belonging to different times,
but “[i]t is the sorting that makes the times, not the times that make the sorting” (Latour, 1993:
76, emphasis in original).
For instance, if we take as our analytical starting point the year an organisational form
becomes generally accepted, we can trace the process of sedimentation through time, such that
the year the form became generally accepted “is formed of as many segments as there have been
years since” (Latour, 1999: 172). This process of sedimentation is unending, with each year
contributing to, including challenging or revising, the actor-network that has grown from that
initial point of general acceptance. For Latour (1999: 172), the issue is one of “treating
extension in time as rigorously as extension in space. To be everywhere in space or always in
time, work has to be done, connections made, retrofitting accepted.”
From an amodern perspective, therefore, there is no break with the past, rather it is
revisited, repeated, surrounded, protected, recombined, reinterpreted and reshuffled” (Latour,
1993: 75), such that the past permeates the present. Labels such as “archaic” or “advanced” are
unnecessary as amodern temporality recognizes that the work of translation brings together
heterogeneous actors from all times; it recognizes polytemporality. It is from this perspective
that I now turn back to path dependence.
As discussed before, path dependence moves beyond rational choice analysis – which
suggests that institutional development is a product of adaptation to an institution’s environment,
where the array of options is unlimited and the only issue is that of assessing the advantages of
each optionby countering that options are often a function of time and sequence, in addition to
environmental conditions, such that history matters as much as knowledge of contemporary
conditions. However, path dependence has been criticized for subordinating agency to historical
accidents through its emphasis on explaining the role of temporally remote events in shaping or
determining the present and the future (Stack & Gartland, 2003).
Countering this, advocates of path creation (e.g., Garud & Karnøe, 2001) seek to
emphasize the role of human agency in shaping and interacting with the environment, rather than
view lock-in as either a historical accident or a random event. However, both path dependence
and path creation lead us back to a modern way of understanding: e.g., determinism versus social
constructionism, and dichotomous thinking, such as, macro/micro, structure/agency.
Moving away from a modern understanding of path dependence, I draw theoretical and
methodological insights from Callon’s (1991; 1993; 1994; 2005) acknowledgement of the
historicity and durability of actor-networks through his reconceptualization of the concept of
irreversibility. Callon’s argument about irreversibility allows for a reconsideration of path
dependence in the language of ANT.
ANT, Irreversibility and Path Dependence
Irreversibility relates to the historical continuity of particular actor-networks and the
extent to which they shape future processes of translation. Irreversibility, produced through the
multiplication of connections and the weaving of alliances and relations, describes the
evolutionary process in which a network passes from a state of flux and divergence to one of
strong stabilization and the disappearance of problems through closure. Closure can be deemed
to have taken place when the punctualised actor-network renders itself indispensable to other
actors, becoming an obligatory point of passage (Callon & Law, 1982) in a larger network of
actors. The greater the irreversibility in a network, the more stable ‘norms’ we might expect to
find in place; explanations of events and their causes become stabilized, and these shape the
‘frames’ which actors use to determine future events.
Callon (1991) posits that the degree of irreversibility of a translation is contingent on two
factors: (1) the degree to which it is possible to return to a point where the translation in question
is but one among many; and (2) the degree to which the dominant translation both shapes and
determines future translations. In defining it thus, Callon is asserting that the irreversibility of a
translation is a relational matter. Translations, he argues, no matter how secure they appear, are
notionally reversible, and the only way to measure their irreversibility is to put them to the test.
Further, translations are open to challenge by competing translations and their irreversibility
when facing such assault lies in their durability and robustness, which are also relational
As Callon notes, actors are hybrid groupings of heterogeneous materials facing the
continuous threat of internal dissension. As such, no translation is assured of permanence.
However, irreversibility can be said to increase to the degree that every actor is inscribed in a
bundle of interrelationships” (Callon, 1991: 150, emphasis in original), where “strength is the
outcome of a long process of accumulation, weaving of alliances and relations, from micro-
positions constructed first as little gaps or differences lodged in the interstices of existing
configurations” (Callon, 2005: 12). Seen thusly, attempts to redefine, and so change, an element
in such tightly coupled networks would result in a general process of retranslation. This leads
Callon to propose the following: “the more numerous and heterogeneous the interrelationships
the greater the degree of network co-ordination and the greater the probability of successful
resistance to alternative translations” (1991: 150). However, a translation’s robustness and
durability says nothing about how it shapes and determines subsequent translations. Here,
Callon argues, a translation is irreversible where it engenders further “translations that are
intended to prolong its life or extend its scope” (1991: 150-151).
For Callon, the mechanism of normalization, which both accompanies and measures the
degree of irreversibility of translation, serves to make
a series of links predictable, limits fluctuations, aligns actors and intermediaries,
and cuts down on the number of translations and the amount of information put
into circulation. It operates by standardising interfaces – that is, by standardising
and constraining actors and intermediaries … [– a]nd if the relationship between
actors is normalised, it may contribute powerfully to the production of systemic
effects. This is because its elements are only able to rearrange themselves by
making use of well-defined elements which adopt compatible standards. The
stricter the compatibility rules … the more alternative translations are disqualified
and the more predictable choices become. A network whose interfaces have all
been standardised transforms its actors into docile agents and its intermediaries
into stimuli which automatically evoke certain kinds of responses. The rules of
co-ordination then become constraining norms which create and control deviance:
the past engages the future. In a word, irreversibilisation, taken as the
predetermination of translation and as the impossibility of a return to competing
translations, is synonymous with normalisation. (1991: 151, emphasis mine)
Accompanying normalization is the potential for the establishment of norms or standards: the
greater the precision and quantification of norms and standards, the greater the irreversibility of a
successful translation. Hence, Callon suggests, a “network which irreversibilises itself is a
network that has become heavy with norms … [and] slipped into a codified metrology and
information system” (1991: 151). Taking irreversibilisation of translation and its normalization
together renders it possible to posit that challenging certain translations would prove expensive.
A successful challenge would entail undoing existing translations and constructing new ones
through mobilizing and enrolling actors into new networks.
For instance, the example of the QWERTY keyboard illustrates how both path
dependence (David, 1985) and ANT (Bowker & Star, 1999: 13-14) treat irreversibility. Seen
through a path dependence lens, both accident and contingency were at play at the outset
followed by increasing returns in QWERTY winning out (David, 1985). Bowker and Star (1999:
13-14) mention QWERTY in outlining several dimensions of standards. In the same way that
path dependence stresses accident and contingency at the outset, Bowker and Star acknowledge
the accidental and contingent character of standards in noting, “there is no natural law that the
best standard shall win” (1999: 14). However, Bowker and Star’s concern is not only with the
origins and lock-in of standards, but also with their consequences, with the work they do as
information infrastructures, with the inner workings that go into keeping them invisible and
making them work like “magic,” with the work they do in ordering human interaction, with
challenging the silences surrounding these workings. From an ANT perspective, QWERTY
emerged as a standard not because of positive feedback mechanisms, but because sufficient
actors have continuously been mobilized and enrolled to the QWERTY actor-network to
withstand challenges and render it irreversible. From the manual through the electric typewriter,
the QWERTY keyboard has since become indispensable to such things as computers and touch-
screen airport check-in kiosks and, in so doing, has moved beyond trained typists to encompass
anyone who uses these technologies.
Thus, while path dependence takes irreversibility for granted, with each event within the
chain a reaction to temporally antecedent events, and thus dependent on prior events, the ANT
view of irreversibility allows for its treatment as a relational matter. In so doing, rather than take
irreversibility for granted as a blackboxed self-reinforcing mechanism, irreversibility can be seen
as the contingent outcome of mobilizing and engaging actants in an actor-network, a blackbox
that can be opened up and reworked. It is this conceptualization of irreversibility that is of
Through the contributions of Latour’s (1993) amodern thesis and actor-network theory, I
have sought to demonstrate the possibilities to look beyond the limitations of path dependence
theory, while still addressing the concerns in the literature with regard to process, history and
new ways of theorising and studying organisational form(ing). Of particular interest to this
discussion is the re-articulation of path dependence as a constructivist endeavour (Latour, 2002),
incorporating the concept into actor-network theory through its reconsideration by Callon as
‘irreversibilility’ (1991; 1993; 1994; 2005).
In addition to offering the possibility to add theoretical depth to path dependence, ANT
also addresses the critiques of path dependence regarding structural determinism (e.g., Garud &
Karnøe, 2001; Greener, 2002; Stack & Gartland, 2003, 2005) and privileging of stability over
change (e.g., Boas, 2007; Greener, 2002). ANT’s flexibility in seeing path dependence,
conceptualized as irreversibility, as a materially heterogeneous performance allows for following
the process through which, for example, organisational form becomes locked-in, while at the
same time maintaining an opening for ‘forming.’ As viewed through an ANT lens, the
structure/agency dualism dissolves in favour of actors performing relationally. Equally, although
irreversibility points to stability, such a state remains contingent and is at all times dependent on
the multiplicity of actors hidden from view through blackboxing holding together and continuing
to perform relationally. Thus, while path dependence can provide us with a persuasive account
of how history comes to be rooted within organisational form(ing), ANT provides us with a
richer insight into the process through which materially heterogeneous actor-networks come to
be simplified to the point where irreversibility becomes significant.
Through ANT, therefore, writing process and history means adopting a material
semiotics and a reflexive stance. As Callon (1991: 154) notes, an “actor has a variable geometry
and is indissociable from the networks that define it and that it, along with others, helps define.
So it is that history becomes a necessary part of the analysis. And it is in following the actor-
networks as they co-evolve and irreversibilise that we may more clearly see the complexity of
historical becoming” (Touraine, 1988: 11).
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