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Activism in an Energy Utility
Uppsala University, Sweden and University of Exeter Business School, UK
University of Exeter Business School, UK
The separation between an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of organizational politics has become untenable in a rapidly
changing political landscape, where people engage in environmental activism in many different domains. To
understand contemporary environmental activism, we situate ourselves empirically within an energy utility,
Ordalia [pseudonym], a large corporation active across Europe and heavily criticized by external activists
for its carbon emitting operations. By merging Rancière’s method of equality and notion of ‘partaking’ with
literature on prefiguration in social movements, we analyse everyday green actions pursued by Ordalia’s
employees, which we conceptualize as ‘prefigurative partaking’. By focusing on six characterizing themes of
prefigurative partaking – aspirational, individual, professional, critical, loyal and communal – we have found
that employee activism is incremental, horizontal and boundaryless. We discuss these findings in relation to
recent calls for more fruitful exchanges between social movement theory and organization studies, arguing
that Rancière’s conceptualization of politics can help us study actions that span civil society and business.
This complements and expands our understanding of environmental activism as a dispersed set of actions
that can take place anywhere, and hence also at work.
climate change, employees, environmental activism, Jacques Rancière, prefiguration
The 4th floor is definitely crowded with wind people. It should just be brimming, look at this house!
Renewable people! There’s no pride today in what we’re doing! (Natalie, 2014)
Annika Skoglund, Division of Industrial Engineering and Management, Uppsala University, Lägerhyddsvägen 1, Uppsala,
752 37, Sweden.
847716OSS0010.1177/0170840619847716Organization StudiesSkoglund and Böhm
2 Organization Studies 00(0)
Natalie, an employee at Ordalia [pseudonym], a multinational utility company, wonders vividly
why her employer is not more active and proud concerning their wind power operations. After all,
Ordalia has been heavily criticized by external environmental activists for its polluting operations,
and would perhaps do better if renewable energy activities were given higher priority. The risk, her
wind power colleagues add, on multiple occasions, is that the company could be accused of green-
washing. Despite this obvious dilemma, some employees remain adamant that they desire major
changes in the environmental affairs of their employer. Yet, in their minds it is not enough to
develop, plan and construct renewable energy projects, such as large-scale wind power parks. They
desire immediate changes in the here and now. So, to improve their workplace’s environmental
record, they engage in mundane everyday actions in the office, such as walking up the stairs and
recycling colleagues’ lunch waste.
How can we understand these small, everyday environmental actions? In this article we argue
that there is a need to comprehend them as political moments. Complementing existing organiza-
tional research on ‘prefigurative politics’ (Boggs, 1977; Leach, 2013), and based on Jacques
Rancière’s (2016) method of equality, we conceptualize ‘prefigurative partaking’ to analyse every-
day environmental activism within a large corporation.
We know from the very inception of the field of organization studies that within organizations
literally everybody can take part in politics (Bacharach & Lawler, 1980). This ranges from overt or
covert infra-politics (Scott, 2005) and misbehaviour (Ackroyd & Thompson, 1999) to micro-
emancipation (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992), including a recent turn to performativity and ‘alterna-
tive’ forms of organization (Parker & Parker, 2017). Organizational politics have nevertheless
mostly been defined in relation to multifaceted deployments of ‘resistance’ (Courpasson, Dany, &
Clegg, 2012; Karfakis & Kokkinidis, 2011), commonly analysed as formations of opposition and
co-optation that summarize ambiguous control mechanisms with roots internally to organizational
hierarchies (Ekman, 2014; Mumby, Thomas, Martí, & Seidl, 2017).
This ‘inside’ perspective of organizational politics usually does not feature environmental
issues, to which the field has had little exposure. While organizational scholars’ interest in environ-
mental politics is growing (Goworek et al., 2018; Wittneben, Okereke, Banerjee, & Levy, 2012;
Wright, Nyberg, DeCock, & Whiteman, 2011), most of these studies treat environmental activism
as an external force that impacts, or enters, corporations and institutions from the outside (e.g.
Pacheco, York, & Hargrave, 2014). This location of activism in an ‘outside’ that can affect ‘inside’
decision-making (Wright, Nyberg, & Grant, 2012) is mostly the realm of civil society, the space
where contentious politics (Tarrow, 2011) is enacted by activist campaign groups, NGOs and social
Due to a renewed interest in social movements in organization studies (e.g. Briscoe & Gupta,
2016), there is an increased recognition of the blurred boundaries between civil society and corpo-
rations (e.g. Clegg, Geppert, & Hollinshead, 2018; de Bakker, den Hond, King, & Weber, 2013;
Yaziji & Doh, 2013). Authors have studied how people’s contentious politics enters the workplace,
for example as ‘labour activism’ (Marens, 2013) or sexual identity activism (Creed & Scully,
2000). It is thus important to recognize the potential of ‘insider activism’ as something performed
by ‘activists who are a company’s employees’ (Briscoe & Gupta, 2016, p. 673; see also Wickert &
de Bakker, 2018; Girschik, 2018). However, despite this ongoing blurring of the ‘inside’ and ‘out-
side’ perspectives of organizational politics (Davis, McAdam, Scott, & Mayer, 2005; Soule, 2012;
Weber & King, 2014), studies of environmental activism within organizations are relatively scarce.
While it has been argued that those corporations that foster internal green politics do so to create a
diversion, protecting the (polluting) status quo (Nyberg, Spicer, & Wright, 2013), the question of
precisely why employees’ activism can be conceptualized as a form of politics that
Skoglund and Böhm 3
leads to transformations remains unexplored in the field. In this article we thus discuss another,
transformative approach to politics, one that takes account of contemporary turbulent political
landscapes and new trends in activism, understanding politics as something much more diffuse and
dispersed than most organizational scholars acknowledge.
Sparked by our experience from within Ordalia’s wind power units in the United Kingdom and
Sweden, we explore a more quotidian and boundaryless environmentalism enacted by employees
at various levels, directly leading to incremental changes. Studying this type of activism requires
an approach that moves away from the dichotomy between organizational resistance (the ‘inside’)
and civil society activism (the ‘outside’). It demands an openness towards a heterogeneity of activ-
isms, not only demonstrations on the street, but also more mundane, everyday acts that can be seen
as part of wider politics (Huault, Perret, & Spicer, 2014). Following Huault et al., we therefore find
Jacques Rancière’s (2015, pp. 35–6) elaborations on ‘partaking’ incisive for understanding employ-
ees’ environmental activism – a conception we merge with recent contributions of ‘prefiguration’,
i.e. political actions with direct effects (e.g. Farias, 2017; Kokkinidis, 2015). With Rancière we
develop the concept of ‘prefigurative partaking’ to analyse a form of everyday environmental poli-
tics ‘in which desired outcomes are created in the here and now rather than projected into the
future’ (Reedy, King, & Coupland, 2016, p. 1554). It is an approach that affords us to recognize
how actions potentially can come about anywhere, ‘by the competence of all’ (Rancière, 2016, p.
114), and not just by politically adept persons in politically fecund spaces.
Activism and Politics in Organization Studies
The ‘inside’ perspective
Organizational scholars have studied how organizational members misbehave and resist manage-
rial control mechanisms since the inception of the field (e.g. Pondy, 1967; Schmidt & Kochan,
1972). Particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, this was often informed by Marxian analyses, prob-
lematizing the structural power relations between classes in the workplace (Braverman, 1974;
Burawoy, 1979; Thompson & Ackroyd, 1995). Since the 1990s, authors have been increasingly
interested in what has been called ‘micro-emancipation’ (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992), emphasiz-
ing ‘various forms of everyday emancipation which people mobilize to challenge managerial dom-
ination’ (Huault et al., 2014, p. 27). Authors have discussed a range of often informal resistance
tactics occurring in the workplace, such as cynicism (Fleming & Spicer, 2003), humour (Collinson,
2002) and sexuality (Brewis, Tyler, & Mills, 2014). Given the ‘quiet’, piecemeal nature of these
everyday political acts in the workplace, they have also been labelled ‘infra-politics’ (Böhm,
Spicer, & Fleming, 2008; Scott, 2005). This move towards ‘infra-politics’ reflects recent post-
structural affirmations of diverse and productive power relations happening at work (Courpasson
et al., 2012; Daskalaki & Kokkinidis, 2017), showing that less antagonistic political performative
actions are possible within corporate settings (Parker & Parker, 2017).
Aiming to go beyond Marxian analyses, the ‘micro-emancipation’ literature has been firmly
focused on the resistance of workers, employees and managers against managerial and hierarchical
modes of domination. This has often resulted in wider political debates and struggles being ignored
(Scully & Segal, 2002; Spicer & Böhm, 2007). Chief among these broader societal struggles are
environmental issues, which previously have been neglected by organizational scholars. While it
has taken a long time for Shrivastava’s (1994) plea for authors in our field to recognize organiza-
tions’ often destructive relationship with the environment, there is now an increasing literature in
organization studies on environmental issues (Banerjee, 2003; Goworek et al., 2018; Wright et al.,
4 Organization Studies 00(0)
2011). However, there is still a predominant view that environmental politics is happening outside
The ‘outside’ perspective
It is commonly taken for granted that activism is located in the realms of civil society, conceived
as a space of ‘contentious politics’ (Tarrow, 2011) from which citizens can pose critique against
public and private organizations. This critique is commonly identified to be in opposition to some-
thing, an ‘anti’, so to speak, be it anti-capitalistic (Dixon, 2014), anti-identitarian (Eleftheriadis,
2015), anti-hierarchical (Kaufman, 2016), anti-militaristic (Sørensen, 2016, p. 3), anti-racist or
anti-colonialist (Luchies, 2015), followed by disruptive troublemaking, as in the Occupy move-
ment (Jaffe, 2016).
The environmental movement, in particular, has been a growing phenomenon. Many transna-
tional environmental activist groups, such as WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, chal-
lenge state institutions and corporate organizations to address environmental issues such as
pollution and climate change (Wapner, 1996). Given these environmental movements’ potential to
disrupt organizations, scholars have increasingly studied how (corporate) organizations engage
with such ‘troublemakers’ (Banerjee, 2003; Bertels, Hoffman, & DeJordy, 2014; Crotty, 2006;
MacKay & Munro, 2012). Hence, environmental activism is analysed as an external force that
impacts, or enters, organizations from the outside (Bansal, Gao, & Qureshi, 2014). Den Hond and
de Bakker (2007) argue that activist groups can be either radical or reformative and often target
more than one firm to accomplish change. With further interest in how managers respond to exter-
nal activism (Waldron, Navis, & Fisher, 2013), showing that corporations handle environmental
activists as stakeholders differently depending on the reputation and status of the activist group
(Perrault & Clark, 2016), there is either ‘recognition and integration of environmental concerns
into a firm’s decision-making process’ (Banerjee, 2002, p. 177) or activism is treated as a threat
that needs to be handled to calm the waters (Zietsma & Winn, 2008).
Blurring the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’
Despite the disconnect between the two strands of literature exemplified above, there are some
studies that seek to bridge the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ perspective with a focus on activism, suggest-
ing that it has more dispersed forms and targets (Jacobsson & Sörbom, 2015; Maxey 1999, Reitan,
2010). Hysing and Olsson (2018) show how public sector organizations can spur transformation
from the inside, as public officials act strategically from within these institutions to incrementally
change public policy in line with the values of global environmental movements. What they call
‘green inside activism’ is a form of activism that is closely connected with the wider environmental
struggle globally, and seen as more ‘pro’ than ‘anti’. That is, in contrast to civil society-based envi-
ronmental movements struggling against public or private organizations in calls for wholesale
changes, ‘green inside activism’ concerns changing these (often large) institutions incrementally
from within. This can directly involve transnational environmental activist groups, as they collabo-
rate closely with state institutions and corporate organizations (Dahan, Doh, Oetzel, & Yaziji,
2010; Wapner, 1996), as in WWF’s Green Office programme, where organizational members have
been empowered to act pro-environmentally (Uusi-Rauva & Heikkurinen, 2013).
Meyerson and Scully’s (1995, p. 598) seminal article on ‘tempered radicals’ describes organiza-
tional members who are ‘outsiders within’, that is, individuals who ‘may be playing parts in move-
ments bigger than themselves and their organizations’. These ‘tempered radicals’ can address race,
gender and other justice issues by working in sometimes very mainstream settings, following a
Skoglund and Böhm 5
tactic of small wins and local, spontaneous and incremental action. Similarly, Creed and Scully
(2000, p. 391) show how marginalized employees, as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and
transgender, queer, intersex (LGBTQI+) community, are ‘micromobilizing moments of social
movements’, directing transformation in workplaces. In relation to sustainability, Wright et al.
(2012, p. 1461) explore how managers perceive climate issues differently, one of their findings
being the managerial identity as ‘committed activist’. Similarly to studies of resistance within
organizations (Alvesson & Robertson, 2015), these studies nevertheless presume that complex
identity work is a fundamental part of the transformational process (see also Allen, Marshall, &
These and other contributions – some of which are based in the fields of business ethics and
corporate social responsibility (CSR) – have indeed pointed to a blurring of boundaries between
the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (Christensen, Morsing, & Thyssen, 2013; Hemingway & Maclagan,
2004; Sonenshein, 2016). Yet, what has been underexplored is how mundane, everyday forms of
action pursued from within corporate organizations can be conceptualized in relation to activist
politics, one being environmentalism and the quest for green transformations. That is, when
employees and other organizational members engage in actions at work in line with their personal
convictions for a cause, how do they constitute moments of politics? To complement the ongoing
bridging between organization studies and social movement studies, we thus wish to develop a
different approach that can afford to take into consideration contemporary turbulent political land-
scapes and dispersed expressions of environmental activism (Dauvergne, 2016; Jamison, 2001;
Scoones, Leach, & Newell, 2015). To accomplish this, we borrow a concept and practice from the
world of social movements, namely ‘prefiguration’, merging it with the political philosophy of
Rancière and applying it to our study of the corporate sphere.
Theoretical Frame: Prefigurative Politics and Partaking
The starting point for our approach to conceptualizing environmental politics is the understanding
that by engaging in direct action (e.g. see Doherty, Plows, & Wall, 2003; Epstein, 1991), anybody
anywhere can get involved in activist politics, even by piecemeal, ordinary, everyday efforts,
which, prefiguring a certain political aspiration, aims to create change in the here and now (cf.
Chatterton & Pickerill, 2010; Haug, 2013; Maeckelbergh, 2011, p. 4; Routledge, 2012). Hence,
activism as ‘prefiguration’ is conceived to thrive on values rather than ‘instrumental efficiency’
(Leach, 2013, p. 1004), and to have immediate effects due to political ‘ends’ being directly created
through their ‘means’ (Yates, 2015, p. 1). Prefiguration thus follows a ‘political process that allows
experimenting with alternatives in practice’ (Reinecke, 2018, p. 1299), something Horton (2006, p.
41) pedagogically clarifies in a study of the bicycle, suggesting that ‘green materialities’ facilitate
a living out and embodiment of a personal environmental politics in the everyday. Grassroots
social movements have thus increasingly engaged in prefiguration by a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethics
(Moore & Roberts, 2009) that will ‘just-get-on-with-it’ (Reedy et al., 2016, p. 1563), transforming
what is within their grasp. ‘Transformation’ is thus to be more incrementally understood, a bit simi-
lar to how ‘resistance’ lately has been studied – ‘not as a situated struggle against sovereign power
and authority, but as a transformative force that is distributed across spaces and times’ (Daskalaki
& Kokkinidis, 2017, p. 1304).
There is some emerging interest among organizational scholars in prefigurative politics.
Kokkinidis (2015) illustrates how three workers’ collectives in Greece engage in horizontal, egali-
tarian and inclusive practices of self-management that involve workers immediately and directly.
According to Farias (2017, p. 579), prefiguration is shaped by ‘praxis rather than ideology’, where
organizational members can get involved directly in a political movement ‘in which desired
6 Organization Studies 00(0)
outcomes are created in the here and now rather than projected into the future’ (Reedy et al., 2016,
p. 1554). In her ethnographic study of Occupy London, Reinecke (2018) studies protesters’ encoun-
ters with homeless people, examining the organization of prefigurative politics in civil society.
Sutherland, Land and Böhm (2014) and Haug (2013) provide empirical illustrations of how this
DIY culture is about creating ‘free’ and horizontal spaces without obvious organizational leaders.
Notably, horizontal organizing is in these studies identified within either a social movement or an
Such grassroots, anti-hierarchical and self-organizing ways of living – seemingly without being
dominated by more powerful social and political institutions – have been influential in prefiguring
alternative organizing (Chatterton & Pickerill, 2010; Parker, Cheney, Fournier, & Land, 2014).
Prefiguration therefore exemplifies an activism that is based on more immediate, autonomous and
grassroots organizational actions than those used by formally institutionalized political movements
(Böhm, Dinerstein, & Spicer, 2010). The key concern to accomplish ‘alternative’ organizing is a
radical democracy and fundamental equality allowing partaking by anyone who is in some way
affected by a decision (King & Land, 2018). Similarly, prefigurative politics can transgress the
boundaries of what Jacques Rancière calls ‘the police order’ (Rancière, 2016, p. 114; Rhodes,
Weight, & Pullen, 2018), i.e. existing, preconceived and institutionalized boundaries of politics
that are organized and fixed (Rancière, 2003). This ‘policing’ of politics that Rancière criticizes is
clearly visible in the narrow realms of party politics, but also extends to what is commonly under-
stood as more radical, grassroots politics. There too, activism often follows routinized, sometimes
narrow, practices (Sutherland et al., 2014), which Rancière would not associate with ‘politics
proper’, since that requires continuous transformation by how new ‘ways of being, seeing and say-
ing’ are invented (Corcoran, in Rancière, 2010, p. 7).
Prefiguration bears more than a passing resemblance to Rancière’s (2016) method of equality.
‘Equality’ is for him an axiomatic principle that makes it possible to assert intellectual solidarity to
study how ‘anyone’ can begin, speak up and enter the political stage (Rancière, 2016, p. 114). He
argues that politics often instils a relationship of dependency between those with the knowledge of
inequality (politicians, activist leaders, academics) and their followers (Rancière, 1999; see also
Sutherland et al., 2014). Hence ‘equality is not given, nor is it claimed; it is practiced, it is verified’
(Rancière, 1999, p. 137). Instead of embracing activism by starting with the premise that an unjust
inequality between people, groups and societies has occurred (Pellow, 2000), it should be
approached by an affirmation of equal ‘partaking’ (metexis) (cf. Rancière, 2015, pp. 35–6). Politics
as partaking is thereby a boundaryless action (arkhêin), and not a quality within subjects, and not
confined to specific organizations (p. 36).
How, then, can we apply Rancière’s method of equality to the study of environmental politics
within a polluting company? First, we need to assert ‘the competence of all’, in order to study how
‘anyone’ can speak up and enter the political stage (Rancière, 2016, p. 114). Second, we will need
to recognize political moments as something other than acts of resistance, that is, as contingencies
that arise when ‘the order of the sensible’ is disturbed or disrupted (Huault et al., 2014, p. 23). And
third, this demands an attentiveness to actions that respond to ‘dissociation’, i.e. ruptures in what
was previously thought (Rancière, 2014, p. 75). Conclusively, our analytical emphasis is on actions
rather than beings, or even identities, where ‘partaking’ gives rise to political moments. Politics is
consequently to be studied as a boundaryless, dispersed movement of uncalculated sayings and
doings that follows uncharted paths.
Following Rancière, it is not so important to identify the ‘internal activists’ (Wickert & Schaefer,
2015, p. 107; Girschik, 2018) or ‘organizational activists’ (Spicer, Alvesson, & Kärreman, 2009, p.
552) who are perhaps engaging in productive resistance (Courpasson et al., 2012). Instead, ‘partak-
ing’ opens a new way of studying how people pursue politics by sayings and doings. Here we
Skoglund and Böhm 7
should note that, for Rancière (2014, p. 12), it is a ‘prejudice that speech is in opposition to action’.
Similarly, it has been argued that there is a corporeal performativity, or embodied prefiguration,
attached to speech, putting into doubt the separation between talk and action (Esterhammer &
Dick, 2009; see also Felman, 2003). This leads us closer to ‘prefigurative partaking’ as a concept
useful for the study of sayings and doings that are conceived as dispersed political actions with
direct transformational effects – even within the corporation – normally not associated with pre-
Specifically, this merger of prefiguration and partaking points us to forms and processes of
everyday activism that are often not heroic, but incremental and consisting of comparatively small
efforts arising out of dissociation and ruptures in the taken-for-granted, i.e. more direct and demo-
cratic challenges of consensus processes (Rhodes et al., 2018), including the realm of what we
normally associate with politics. In contrast to Farias’ (2017) emphasis on emotions and intimacy
in her study of hospitality towards the Other within a porous intentional community, we therefore
suggest that prefigurative politics also can thrive in more impersonal and boundaryless ways.
People do not necessarily have to develop affinities with each other, but with a cause shaped by a
boundaryless knowledge movement, which opens up for an analytical acknowledgement of any-
one’s ability to partake politically, regardless of their hierarchical position. It points to an explora-
tion of more horizontal and anonymous relations, which, in comparison to Huault et al. (2014), do
not necessarily correlate to collective empowerment or emancipation processes. Prefigurative par-
taking is hence an important aspect of organizational politics that encompasses wider political and
social issues – such as environmental degradation – within the organizational setting of everyday
life at work.
The utility under study, Ordalia, was founded in the early 20th century by a state government to
secure industrial and public needs for electricity and heat. Ordalia’s average turnover has been in
excess of €14bn each year between 2012 and 2017, employing an average of 27,000 people across
Europe. The company develops, constructs, operates and sells electricity and heat with a mixed
portfolio of coal and lignite, gas, nuclear, hydropower and large-scale renewables.
The research has been limited to Sweden and the UK, with one of the authors visiting the vari-
ous wind power development units of Ordalia (see summary in Table 1). It started with a short pilot
study to build trust in 2012/13. A non-disclosure agreement between the company and the research-
ers was agreed in 2014. The bulk of the empirical material was collected between 2014 and 2015.
The lead researcher was given a personalized entrance card, often appearing as if she belonged to
the company. It was thus easy to be included in the daily office chats, while the participants,
according to the research ethics, were required to be informed about the presence of the researcher.
In October 2015, the two authors also interviewed the senior vice president of strategic develop-
ment via Skype. The main researcher also attended meetings, videoconferences, a Friday kettle bell
exercise session, and had informal conversations during coffee breaks, lunches, post-work beers
and one dinner. The progress of the study was reported to the company’s environmental director,
who then reported the findings to the board of directors.
All interviews were voluntary. Employees at different levels and with various work tasks within
Ordalia’s wind power development units were invited by email or by direct contact in the office
(see Table 2). The interviews were about one hour long, semi-structured and transcribed, and were
individually designed depending on the specific work tasks of the interviewee. That is, a wind
8 Organization Studies 00(0)
power project manager was expected to talk about different environmental aspects to an ocean
analyst or financial analyst. Generally, we covered several topics, from personal history, profes-
sional background, everyday work tasks, career situation, geographical location, engagement in
corporate leisure activities and relation to colleagues locally and in other countries. Our study was
not originally designed to address issues of equality in the Rancièrian sense framed in this paper.
And, in contrast to Courpasson et al. (2012, p. 806), we did not pose specific questions about
‘resistance’ per se. Rather, the interviews aimed at getting closer to the employees’ environmental
interests, such as knowledge and opinions about environmental problems, energy sources, climate
change and wind power. We also asked about experiences of meeting external activists, opinions
about the media picture, examples of crucial environmentally hazardous events, employee envi-
ronmental initiatives and Ordalia’s overall operations, core values, ethics and environmental man-
agement. All the interviews were focused on environmental issues, but some interviewees chose to
express additional opinions about other ‘political’ topics, such as gender issues and Thatcherism
The research design aimed to provide details and rich examples important for a qualitative study
that seeks depth about a specific topic (cf. Coyne, 1997). Even though a rigorous targeting of spe-
cific participants sometimes uses ‘saturation’ as a quality criterion (Morse, 1995), we chose not to
follow such a methodological practice (O’Reilly & Parker, 2012). A richer variety of prefigurative
partaking, and its opposite, would only have been possible to explore with extended access to other
units at Ordalia, and an exhaustive account of environmental activism at Ordalia was not our aim.
In fact, one can say that we have studied a minor phenomenon at Ordalia. In studies of employee
minorities, it is nevertheless crucial to purposefully talk to engaged employees to learn about their
potential insider activism (Creed & Scully, 2000; Girschik, 2018; Wickert & De Bakker, 2018).
This is a common approach in studies interested in theory generation rather than sampling issues
(see Courpasson et al., 2012). It is also close to Rancière’s more elaborate ‘poetics of knowledge’,
which seeks to bridge between disciplines so as to work close to the research participants and a
specific theoretical topic (Guénoun, Kavanagh, & Lapidus, 2000). Being aware that ‘the relation-
ship of the researcher to the field contributes to the construction of it’ (Melucci, 1995, p. 42), we
thus stayed close and open to the research participants with Rancière’s method of equality in mind.
Table 1. Summary of empirical material.
Empirical material Description
Participant observation (1 day) Department meeting and site visit at Swedish wind power park,
Observations (1 day) Information to general public about wind development, Southern
Shadowing (1 day) Project manager, female, headquarters, Sweden
Shadowing (1 day) Director of Ordalia Wind, female, headquarters, Sweden
Shadowing (1 day) Project manager, male, headquarters, Sweden
Shadowing (2 days) Environmental manager, female, Western Swedish office
Participant observations (20 days) Ordalia headquarters, UK
Participant observations (3 days) Ordalia office, Northeast UK
Participant observations (4 days) Ordalia office, Southwest UK
Interviews Sweden 16 recorded and transcribed
Interviews UK 17 recorded and transcribed
Continuous feedback meetings Director of environment, Environmental manager (Sweden), HR
manager Ordalia Continental, Country manager (UK).
Skoglund and Böhm 9
We also needed to be able to analytically grasp the extensive empirical material, including a
co-analysis by the two authors. The transcribed interviews were coded twice, and partly translated,
to explore different layers and details. The analysis required an intense period of reading and re-
reading transcripts, monthly repeated discussions between the authors, and iterations between
theory and empirics (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006; Huber & Brown, 2017). For the first step
of coding, we used colour codes to highlight three sometimes overlapping themes; green for
Table 2. Summary of anonymous interviewees.
Swedish interviewees Age Title
Anna 25–30 Project coordinator
Bodil 35–40 Environmental assessment manager
Cecilia 35–40 Project manager
Desiré 45–50 Juridical expert
Erik 35–40 Project manager
Fredrik 50–60 Environmental assessment manager
Gunilla 25–30 HR business partner onshore wind
Hedvig 40–45 Director of onshore engineering
Ivan 35–40 Onshore wind business analyst
Julia 35–40 Project manager
Karl 40–45 Onshore wind business analyst
Lennart 35–40 Project manager
Miriam 45–50 Director wind power development
Nils 35–40 External environmental assessment consultant
Olivia 35–40 Employer brand officer
Pia 40–45 Director of environment
Rosmarie 40–45 Environmental manager
Simon 45–50 Senior Vice President of Strategic Development
Adam 45–55 Senior commercial manager
Beatrice 30–35 Valuation modeler
Clarke 35–45 Senior project manager wind development
David 30–35 Operations and maintenance manager
Eva 35–40 Onshore sites manager
Felicia 35–40 Project administrator
George 35–45 Project manager
Helen 35–45 Environmental officer
Ian 45–50 Interface manager
Jane 50–60 Director of law
Kirsten 30–35 Environmental and contents manager
Liz 35–40 Project administrator
Martin 30–35 Project administrator
Natalie 35–40 Operations readiness officer
Olga 35–40 Ocean analyst
Peter 35–40 Valuation modeler
Richard 55–60 Quality manager
Stephen 30–35 HR manager continental
Thomas 45–50 Country manager UK, Director Ordalia offshore wind
10 Organization Studies 00(0)
descriptions of environmental problems with wind power; blue for how employees meet external
resistance towards wind power and for the focus of this article; red for employees’ confrontation
between knowledge about environmental problems and everyday experience of environmental
(dis) engagement at Ordalia. After the first step of coding, we tried to come closer to dissociation
(Rancière, 2014, p. 75) and characterizing themes of ‘prefigurative partaking’ by means of a sec-
ond order of codes. Dissociation arises out of the confrontation we first noted, and can be further
understood as an experience of disruption. Our analysis should thus not be misunderstood to hone
in on ruptures that are created by the employees in acts of resistance (Karfakis & Kokkinidis,
2011). We rather see the political act as that which follows upon dissociation in the attempt to heal
ruptures, a healing process consisting of sayings and doings that accomplish a productive uncharted
and direct transformation.
After new discussions and readings, we finally agreed to explore six second-order codes of
prefigurative partaking: aspirational (envisioning the future), individual (micro-managing one’s
own impact), professional (using one’s professional knowledge), critical (voicing ruptures), loyal
(accomplishing the green employer) and communal (fuelling interest among colleagues) (see
Figure 1). Inspired by Czarniawska (1997), we present the details of these as a narration, consisting
of a compilation of these characterizing themes that take place at different times and places. We do
not hide the corporeality of sayings and doings, while also shedding light on a movement of
‘actions’. Importantly, during this analysis we excluded other potentially interesting effects of
utterances and rhetorical talk within a known ‘ethos’ and profession (Billig, 1995) to rather illus-
trate how one employee can contribute to different forms of prefigurative partaking (second-order
Prefigurative Partaking at Ordalia
Aspirational prefigurative partaking
The 4th floor is definitely crowded with wind people. It should just be brimming, look at this house!
Renewable people! There’s no pride today in what we’re doing! And I don’t know if it’s because we’re
now a bit tarnished with ……I don’t know, non-success or whatever? I think it’s fair to say if the company
fostered a bit more pride in what we’re doing, then maybe we’d also seek more. You know, have a bit more
atmosphere around working for something hard…. The ideology is really blossoming now! (Natalie,
When Natalie says top-down management should be prouder and engage more to create an ‘atmos-
phere’, the utterance prefigures a ‘renewable people’. Not a people imagined to come, but one that
is already there, unseen and neglected. Repeatedly, others agree with this desire for future top
management engagement with those working with renewables, even if they should not be used as
‘a kind of green wash for the company’ (Eva, 2015; see also Desiré, 2012). As Lennart (2013) adds,
‘the fundamental reason for why I work must be there, some sort of environmental connection,
strong connection to the environment’. It is a human–environment relation that is preferred, to
establish coherence between ‘beliefs and also with what you are doing’ (David, 2014). Several oth-
ers agree, saying it would be very difficult to work with anything other than renewables (e.g. see
Richard, 2014; Eva 2015). Drawing on her previous experience as an employee within another
energy utility, Natalie (2014) warns us:
Visiting the lignite operations was like visiting hell because really I saw this guy, he was carrying something
heavy on his shoulders completely covered in soot and the whole power plant was just nasty and there’d
Skoglund and Böhm 11
been this horrible incident (…) a guy had fallen in, into some hot material I don’t know really, something
left over in the process and he actually burned to death. Oh that sounded so horrible, he fell in, he sat
halfway buried and burned to death slowly…slow roast, they couldn’t get him out (…) How can you go
back and work on such a horrible project? No, that has to be avoided to all costs.
Figure 1. Structure for analysing prefigurative partaking.
12 Organization Studies 00(0)
David (2014) emphasizes that ‘it’s nice to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem’.
It is by prefiguring renewables as the future that Ordalia is imagined to ‘take a lead on getting the
emissions down’ (Jane, 2014). Aspirational prefiguration calls out for grassroots change and new-
ness. ‘[W]e as a world need to look at things from the grassroots and just completely overhaul the
way we do things’, Liz (2015) proposes. Richard (2014) adds that ‘instead of economic growth we
have to have sustainable growth’.
Besides being visionary, several utterances strongly support what Ordalia is already doing.
Rosmarie, whom we meet frequently, adds to this by proudly wearing a badge on her collar depict-
ing wind power turbine blades and always talking warmly about ongoing and future wind power
projects. Once, during a coffee break at the Swedish headquarters, we meet a fellow, male wind
power fan – who, like Rosmarie, has blades on his collar – and they start chatting about their
mutual vision for wind power. Wind power is prefigured as the future ‘where things are happening,
and where one can make a difference and contribute to, yes what can we call it, a better world or
something’ (Lennart, 2013). And it is of importance not to ‘aim for the lowest level of environmen-
tal engagement, rather the highest level’ (Fredrik, 2012). Pia and Rosmarie often speak about this
ambition when we report back about the research, but admit it is difficult to gain internal support
for everything they would like to accomplish top-down.
Individual prefigurative partaking
There is a general aspiration to pass environmental engagement on, via both the intranet and physi-
cal meetings. Imposing green thinking on others is nevertheless seen as problematic since this
‘doesn’t go down well, it comes across as preaching’ and it ‘doesn’t make life easy’. Rather, secret
individual do-it-yourself approaches unfold to sort others’ garbage when they have used the wrong
bin in the office kitchen (Eva, 2015). In comparison to the Swedish headquarters, where recycling
bins have been implemented as part of the office design (Figure 2), the offices in the UK have more
haphazard recycling systems. And during a dinner with the UK office manager, we are inclined to
think he cares more about gender issues than environmental issues (Fieldnotes, 2015-09-24).
Tellingly, Liz (2015) confirms that she had to put up recycling bins on her own initiative in one of
the other UK offices.
I just set the bin up, I didn’t ask anyone I just did it. I think most people kind of, if you make something
easy for people they adopt it don’t they, so I think recycling is quite an easy one really, there’s more that
we could all be doing, definitely, you know like having the heating on when the window’s open, well that’s
just silly so things like that…
Another example of an individual DIY approach is Olga’s (2014) everyday walk up the stairs in
the UK headquarters to the first floor, instead of taking the lift. Her behaviour is broached at the
well-equipped toilet, where deodorant is frequently used. ‘I feel guilty’, she tells us and Natalie.
‘Do you have much to feel guilty about?’ Natalie retorts. ‘We always have things to feel guilty
about, don’t we?’ (Fieldnotes, 2014-11-07). Cecilia also climbs the stairs in Sweden, but eleven
floors and mainly for exercise after lunch, adding that it saves electricity too (Fieldnotes, 2013-10-
29). Others are voluntarily micro-managing their own environmental impact at work by turning off
their computer screens every night (Richard, 2014). Beatrice and Olga ask us to forward their wish
that Ordalia introduces more top-down initiatives for similar everyday energy savings. Taking
prefigurative actions on one’s own is, however, preferred by Eva (2015): ‘I’ll go by train to places
and if people ask, I’ll say why I go by train, it’s that sort of thing.’ Laughing and leaning back in
the chair, Eva plays down her actions as ‘armchair activism’.
Skoglund and Böhm 13
Professional prefigurative partaking
Prefiguration can also occur when employees merge their will to improve their impact on the cli-
mate with their professional knowledge, but are reluctant to engage in violent actions. Hedvig
(2013) questions whether it is ‘right to take militant action to make a change? No, I don’t think so.
That is why I wanted to engage differently, with knowledge, really’ (Hedvig, 2013). This is repeated
on several occasions not only in terms of their work with renewables, but also their attitude towards
the lignite operations. Nils, an external environmental consultant involved in Ordalia’s wind devel-
opments in Sweden, exemplifies that if he ‘can be involved and get a say then [he would] have a
bigger influence than if [he] would be on the outside, something like, say, sending in appeals as a
private person’ (Nils, 2013). There is thus a strong belief in changing the world via professional
work, spanning from going out on extra excursions to make sure that there are no oil spills from
Ordalia’s constructions (Kirsten, 2014), to taking horse riders out on tours around wind power
plants to convince them of their compatibility with equestrian sports (Liz, 2015). Other examples
of extra actions beyond what is required by top-down management include: more detailed life
Figure 2. Erik showing a recycling bin at the Swedish headquarters.
14 Organization Studies 00(0)
cycle assessments; waste management on site; delaying new wind projects due to spawning sea-
sons; and to ‘push environmental conditions on to contractors and to justify environmental costs’
(Kirsten, 2014). Here the professional prefiguration relies on the authority of being a big player in
the market for large-scale wind power projects. Nevertheless, a dejected Peter (2014) mentions that
Ordalia misses out on its capacity to empower the employees as professionals in renewables, which
is why he took it into his own hands but failed:
We don’t have any magazines that cover or we don’t have any office posters showing environmental things
(…) or big things happening. I don’t think there is much engagement from the office point of view, you
don’t see much (…). All you see is a couple of miniature wind turbines otherwise you don’t know what the
business is. I’ve asked to put a TV screen at reception showing our [wind power], I’ve experienced when
I’m always visiting one of our competitors, they were proudly showing off the project they were building
(…). I’ve asked and they took 6 months to put something up [at the reception] and then it disappeared after
2 weeks (…), just disappeared for no reason. (Peter, 2014)
There can of course be many reasons why the TV screen next to the receptionist was tuned into
something else, commonly some news channel. The lack of symbols for wind power exemplified
at the UK headquarters, did, however, spur professional partaking to break through, in an attempt
to respond to the rupture in what was actually done and what was shown – to make the everyday
work with the renewable projects more visible (Figure 3). In Sweden, the wind power development
office is on the contrary filled with symbols at individual desks, and in the common space there is
a Lego model of a wind power turbine used by visiting children of the employees.
Critical prefigurative partaking
In comparison to aspirational, individual and professional partaking, there are examples of more
angry and critical prefiguration that is openly negative, especially about the lignite operations.
Figure 3. Northern UK office entrance with wallpaper showing offshore wind turbines.
Skoglund and Böhm 15
I actually think that Ordalia has done a lot of stupid things in this ReNew [pseudonym] affair and in
retrospect, the whole tour of Europe, really, it was much better when we were, when we kept to Sweden
and the Nordic countries. (Julia, 2013)
The earlier move to lignite is deemed to be ‘strange’ (David, 2014) and ‘bizarre’, since it is ‘the
dirtiest of the dirty coals in a totally different market’ (George, 2015). The lignite is still believed
to be lucrative for Ordalia, which is why those profits are envisioned to be used for new tech-
nologies at the same time as ‘it’s better just to move away from there as soon as we can, without
affecting the communities that live around that area’ (Natalie, 2014). Bodil (2012) suggests that
it should ‘be phased out’, even if Ordalia’s official position is that ‘all energy resources are
equally valuable and one has to have all of them in one’s portfolio’. She suggests that ‘we
should not have coal power. We should phase it out. That might be something one shouldn’t say,
something which is not politically correct, but …eh…I think so’ (Bodil, 2012). It is not only
lignite that is imagined as being sold off or phased out, but, as Martin (2015) envisions when
the recorder is turned off, Ordalia should also close down coal operations, as Greenpeace
demanded. Olga (2014) confrontationally prefigures the same from the UK headquarters, argu-
ing ‘well we should just get rid of the lignite, shouldn’t we, just close it all down’. Adding that
due to the complexities with closing down an operation employing a lot of people, ‘Ordalia
really has to have incredibly clear strategy and defensible arguments as to why things need to
change and we need to say, even though we are a progressive, idealistic company, our main
focus is renewable energy’ (Olga, 2014).
Even though the wind power operations are celebrated, there remain critical statements of dis-
sociation leading to strong questioning of the organization’s overall environmental engagement. The
travelling habits, for example, are regarded as ‘crazy’ from a CO2 perspective (Eva, 2015), and
Ordalia’s environmental engagement overall is not recognized as visible (Anna, 2013). Hedvig
(2013) thinks the ‘core values, both environmental and safety issues, should have been more sup-
ported’. Instead, ‘we get to solve a lot of things ourselves’. Others find it ‘really hard to understand
Ordalia’s environmental management, because ‘I’ve tried and I’ve found it really hard to understand
who manages what’ (Kirsten, 2014). Kirsten remarks that nobody cares about everyday work prac-
tices, and wishes she herself could ‘get more involved in our travel’ habits and waste management.
She adamantly proposes that this would ‘make people think more about their travel and offsite
operations and things’ (Kirsten, 2014). Besides, there are ‘recycle bins [in the UK headquarters] but
all the waste gets taken into just a big bin at the bottom, so there’s no recycling (…) if we really
cared we would try and do something about that’ (Kirsten, 2014). Due to similar issues, Beatrice
(2014) adds that her ‘view of Ordalia’s engagement with the environment gets worse and worse’
over time. Olga is even more elaborate in her critique:
You shouldn’t go through life causing a negative impact, I think if you are just happy to sit in the upper
echelons of a European utilities company with your head in the sand with regard to environmental issues
then you shouldn’t be there, do you see what I mean? It’s not so much head in the sand sometimes, there
are some people that think about the bigger picture and there are some people that just don’t think. (Olga,
Loyal prefigurative partaking
Despite existing strong negative critique, there are recurring loyal expressions of ‘faith in the
organization’ (Helen, 2015). Alongside utterances of faith and belief in the organization, it is
acknowledged that ‘Ordalia has also got its problems’ (Karl, 2013). Some ‘screen out’ what
16 Organization Studies 00(0)
happens outside the wind power operations (Julia, 2013), pointing to the path dependency of
energy technologies (Karl, 2013) and the fact Ordalia ‘hasn’t got the greenest track record of com-
panies’ but at least tries to turn itself around (Felicia, 2015). Loyal prefiguration is thus about say-
ing something critical followed by a disclaimer, as David (2014) does when he explains that
Ordalia cannot ‘just jump and do as an organization like Greenpeace demands because it is a big
company’ with economic responsibilities, where a transition to renewables would not be possible
‘without having these other units’. Ian points out a clear ‘anti’ in the form of ‘an elephant in the
room’, saying that even if Ordalia is ‘doing the right thing’ by ‘going down this renewables route’,
in Germany, ‘Ordalia owns two of the most polluting power stations’, and ‘everybody who knows
the industry knows that it is there’ (Ian, 2014). Prefiguring a change loyally, Ian (2014) backs this
up with a recurring disclaimer: ‘It’s the same for other companies as well, it’s a reality of energy,
and we have to have it because we’re at the start of a different energy’ situation. A similar argument
is reflected in discussions with Miriam, director for wind developments in Sweden, at whose desk
there is a comic strip of typical arguments against nuclear power, oil, coal and wind (Figure 4).
Even though implicitly critical, loyal partaking concerns prefiguring a positive relation to
Ordalia, with sayings such as: ‘we work in a way that I think I can stand for’ (Cecilia, 2013), ‘the
soul of Ordalia is a positive one for the environment’ (George, 2015) and ‘there is nothing that
Ordalia does that I feel that I could not, I do not think everything is handled perfectly, but there is
nothing that I feel is totally to be condemned’ (Desiré, 2012). The loyal statements prefigure
Ordalia’s core as genuine, being based on green ambitions, and often seen as misrepresented by the
organization itself, for example in criticizing huge discrepancies between the true green intentions
of Ordalia and the awkward PR campaigns generated by the CSR unit that fail to show what the
organization and its employees are really doing (Desiré, 2012; Bodil, 2012). Desiré (2012) paints
her own, what she believes to be more accurate, green picture of Ordalia, similar to how Julia
(2013) emphasizes ‘that Ordalia is unfairly criticized in newspapers’ and Jane (2014) protects her
employer at a dinner party:
Figure 4. Comic strip at a desk in an open office at headquarters, Stockholm.
Skoglund and Böhm 17
For the first time someone felt sorry for me working in Ordalia because of the media attention and
everything, headlines and everything else, so negative, but I mean I don’t know, I’m not fettered by it and
that’s because I know that Ordalia are doing quite a lot of good things and the media picture is not the real
accurate and true one.
Communal prefigurative partaking
Having personal conversations to promote wind power to strangers, friends and family members is
something some of the employees do, especially in the UK. It is easier in the UK than in Sweden,
where ‘everyone is opinionated’ and the external critique is immense (Fieldnotes, 2014-10-03).
The British employees also take conventional political actions by signing Greenpeace petitions,
paying membership fees to the Green Party or the campaign ‘38 Degrees’, and promoting wind
power or other environmental improvements to their local MPs (Members of Parliament).
Sometimes, Ordalia UK incorporates the employees as citizens by asking them to write privately
to their MPs. At other times, the employees do so on their own initiative. Richard (2014) is even
active in the Transition Town movement, which he admits is only loosely connected to his environ-
mental ambition at Ordalia. Organized environmental actions have also been arranged outside the
office for the employees. Some at the Southwest office have cleaned nearby beaches, and there is
a desire to do the same close to the UK headquarters. Lest we forget, volunteering for the research
project behind this article also exemplifies communal prefiguration, by virtue of how it spurs
uncharted environmental discussions. A total ‘culture change’ is deemed necessary (Martin, 2015),
to enable going beyond the traditionalists (Desiré, 2012). It would even be ‘worth annoying some
people to get the results’ (Martin, 2015). David (2014) imagines that environmental get-togethers,
perhaps by going out in nature together, could spur his UK colleagues to become more ‘Swedish-
like’. He suggests a trip to the Arctic region and regular meetings on Fridays over coffee and cake
to watch documentaries about climate change (David, 2014).
In a less organized way, communal prefiguration was suddenly fuelled when a photo from a site
visit to the German lignite operations was passed around. Some employees were very surprised
that Ordalia had lignite operations, since they were used to thinking of the renewable operations in
the UK only. Employees thus came together to express mutual disgust with the polluting opera-
tions. Another time in the UK headquarters, four employees share nostalgic flashbacks from ‘the
old times’, when, as they say, Ordalia UK was run by activists. Together they contemplate how the
green engagement looked when things were less ‘corporate’ (Fieldnotes, 2014-10-23). Stephen
also talks about his visit to the Southwest office, where his colleagues complained to him about the
fruit basket being delivered all the way from London (Fieldnotes, 2014-10-15).
The above empirical narrative has revealed different modes of prefigurative partaking, in the form
of everyday sayings and doings, as enacted by employees at Ordalia. We will now discuss how
these everyday actions can be thought of as environmental activism transgressing organizational
boundaries, theorizing environmental activism pursued at work. We argue that prefigurative par-
taking occurs as organizational members respond to moments of dissociation (Rancière, 2014, p.
75), which leads to a questioning of parts of the established order. This questioning is driven by an
attempt to heal ruptures, i.e. the irritating experience of disturbance, by enacting direct, incremen-
tal changes based on the realization of a new world in the here and now. As our empirical analysis
has shown, the most important elements in prefiguration are: an ongoing ‘movement’ based on the
dissemination of knowledge about environmental problems and a dispersion of activism (Scoones
18 Organization Studies 00(0)
et al., 2015); the situatedness and instant creation of a ‘new world’ at work and perhaps even
beyond; and, in the spirit of Rancière’s principle of equality, a radically horizontal form of organ-
izing that cuts across established organizational hierarchies, be it at Ordalia or between Ordalia and
others. What becomes visible is how activism is becoming more dispersed and boundaryless in the
current turbulent political landscape, without being confined to, and limited by, what is called ‘civil
society’. Environmental activism, with our concept of prefigurative partaking, is testament to a
more fluid and generous space of political action. We will now discuss three aspects of the concep-
tualization of prefigurative partaking in more detail; namely incremental change, horizontal organ-
izing and boundaryless activism.
Prefigurative partaking and incremental change
All six forms of everyday actions illustrated in our narration are testament to unassailably big envi-
ronmental problems generated via Ordalia’s operations, which act like ‘an elephant in the room’
(Ian, 2014). Contrasts between employees’ knowledge about environmental problems and these
operations result in dissociation. Rancière (2014, p. 75) calls this the sensible being disrupted; what
is thought and sensed is deeply disturbed. In response to this dissociation, we observed the micro-
management of employees’ own behaviours, i.e. individual prefigurative partaking. But individual
responses are not enough. Ordalia’s ‘dirty’ lignite operations are portrayed by the employees as
path-dependent, market-driven and even in need of something bigger and more abstract attached to
the everyday actions, such as ‘faith’ (Helen, 2015). For this reason, critical prefigurative partaking
stands out, thriving on a strong contrast between acquired knowledge about environmental prob-
lems and Ordalia’s polluting operations. Critical prefigurative partaking voices ruptures in a more
aggressive and confrontational way (Karfakis & Kokkinidis, 2011), with desires to phase out or
close down the huge lignite facilities employing thousands of people. The employees quickly turn
an ‘anti’ into a ‘pro’ in efforts to accomplish constructive transformations.
One could read these prefigurative calls as either naive or cynical (Fleming & Spicer, 2003).
Yet, our findings suggest that environmental actions are positively embraced and not spoken about
as if in ‘denial’ (Allen et al., 2015). Indeed, it was expressed as crucial to be part of the solution
(wind power) and not the problem (lignite operations) (David, 2014), exemplifying how employ-
ees can work for a cause in the here and now. Meyerson and Scully’s (1995) concept of ‘tempered
radicals’ is fitting here, as the Ordalia employees we studied were ambiguously supported by parts
of the organization and external environmental movements alike. Their actions range from small,
individual voluntary DIY approaches at work (Doherty et al., 2003; Eleftheriadis, 2015; Moore &
Roberts, 2009), including walking up the stairs and sorting other’s waste, to creating facilitative
structures without help from top-down management, such as providing recycling bins.
Hence, we found that everyday actions unfold dynamically and lead to direct effects (Yates,
2015), but also to more uncharted multi-directional and diffuse transformations (see Reitan, 2010)
that are piecemeal and less antagonistic (Briscoe & Gupta, 2016). There is consequently no clear
opponent to counter or ‘anti’ to struggle with (Rancière, 2016, p. 113), but efforts to ‘alter’ by
‘screening out’ and detaching from Ordalia’s and other companies’ polluting operations. Taking
actions where possible leads to a more fluid and dispersed ‘transformational force’ (cf. Daskalaki
& Kokkinidis, 2017, p. 1304). This shows how actions are more about doing than planning
(Maeckelbergh, 2011), based on a fundamental impatience with a discrepancy between present and
future. In our case, employee activism is thus to productively lead the way forward, mainly by
enacting ‘renewables’ or ‘the green’ (Horton, 2006), nurtured by a will to change in the here and
now (Eleftheriadis, 2015).
Skoglund and Böhm 19
In line with existing conceptions of ‘tempered radicals’ (Meyerson & Scully, 1995), ‘insider
activists’ (Briscoe & Gupta, 2016) and ‘social change agents’ (Sonenshein, 2016), we can hence
understand how and why environmental activists choose to work in polluting organizations, being
embedded in very contradictory organizational experiences. Analysing their sayings and doings
with Ranicère’s notion of equality and politics as partaking brings forth the formation of a van-
guard position, exemplified in the proposal of a new route for Ordalia: renewables only. Similar to
the aspirational partaking calling for ‘a renewable people’, critical partaking calls for a renewable
Ordalia, showing both what it means ‘to begin’, arkhêin, and to break with the old and take the lead
(Rancière, 2010, p. 29). Why wait for someone who ‘happ[ily] sits in upper echelons of a European
utilities company with [the] head in the sand’ and ‘just don’t think’ (Olga, 2014)? This suggests the
various direct actions, taken by employees, lead to incremental changes, even if system-wide alter-
ations are nurtured and a wider politics invoked (Huault et al., 2014), especially in communal
prefigurative partaking. Troublemaking civil society activism (Jaffe, 2016) is downplayed by the
employees who question aggressive actions, by an affirmation of positive DIY changes at work
that are ‘pro’ the environment. This is consequently a form of employee activism that anyone can
partake in. It is an activism as superfluous to the hierarchical formal organization as it is fake for
those who police activism as a civil society phenomenon and underdog heroic act on the outside of
Prefigurative partaking and horizontal organizing
The basic Rancièrian principle (Rancière, 2015, pp. 35–6) that anyone can get involved in activism
via political partaking leads us to delve further into, not a bottom-up grassroots employee activism
that still echoes a presumed struggle with top-down managerial hierarchies (Courpasson et al.,
2012), but the echo of horizontal organizing, a modus operandi of many social movement organi-
zations (Farias, 2017; Leach, 2013). Our findings suggest that employees’ uncoordinated prefigu-
rative partaking was not narrow minded, but dynamic, plural and diverse; which Farias (2017) also
observed in her study of an intentional community that continuously nurtured porosity via hospital-
ity and new friendships. Similarly to Kokkinidis (2015, p. 847), we thus experienced how ‘diverse
opinions flourish[ed] rather than being suppressed’, and how everyday productive forms of criti-
cism emerged via a freedom to speak up at work (Huault et al., 2014). Employees even seem to be
ahead of their bosses in terms of environmental action, thriving on the contrast experienced
between their own green ambitions and the top-down environmental inaction. An alternative form
of organizing consequently unfolds at Ordalia with ‘non-universalizing, non-hierarchical, and non-
coercive relationships and forms of power’ rooted in ‘shared ethical commitments’ and diffuse
collectivism (see also Parker & Parker, 2017; Reitan, 2010, p. 15).
The affirmation of possible horizontal organizing, rather than bottom-up movements, does
however rely on more than Rancière’s equality principle, depending on the empirical access to
various managerial levels and the empirical findings that follow. Even if critical prefigurative
partaking points upwards with quests for a necessary change of a far too slow and unwilling
managerial top, two of our closest research participants can be considered part of that very top
(the director of off-shore wind and the environmental director). Both engaged in green politics,
historically and beyond their current professional roles, facilitated this research project and
opened up the possibility of close investigation of their employer. Seeing the possibility to use
our findings to accomplish more change towards a ‘green Ordalia’, both were also very aware
of the fact that no matter what they did or said, it would always be interpreted as greenwashing
by the ‘outside’. Hence, methodologically placing these two particular participants at the same
20 Organization Studies 00(0)
level of ‘partaking’ as project assistants, coordinators, environmental managers, project manag-
ers and financial analysts, shows that they also contribute to a horizontal, rather than bottom-up
or top-down, movement.
Related to this circumstance and in contrast to some existing literature, we generally encoun-
tered how organizational leaders avoided top-down attempts to regulate employees’ (environmen-
tal) subjectivity (cf. Spicer et al., 2009). We did find some examples of a language of ‘the good
citizen’ and what others categorize as civil society engagement in environmental issues at work and
beyond (Nyberg et al., 2013). And instead of fearing or ridiculing it, some employees desired more
leadership from their bosses in terms of environmental issues, by conceiving green issues oppor-
tunistically (Ekman, 2014).
Prefigurative partaking and boundaryless activism
Rancière’s conception of politics encourages us to go beyond the separation between internal
organizational resistance and activism in civil society, as well as the debate in organization studies
regarding more fine-grained acts of resistance, via humour and cynicism, and radical revolutionary
acts (Huault et al., 2014). While Huault et al. explore previously neglected forms of ‘emancipation’
in the workplace with the help of Rancière, our approach is more attuned to the current turbulent
political landscape and the emerging world of ephemeral, quotidian connectivity, networks and
knowledge dissemination (Maxey, 1999). This implies an activism disconnected from a specific
activist citizen, worker and target group (Mercea, 2016), focusing instead on an understanding of
activism as distributed and dispersed, i.e. a boundaryless movement.
Although prefiguration has been criticized for having a tendency to depoliticize (Smith,
Goodhart, Manning, & Markoff, 2017, p. 101), our findings suggest that a polarized view of poli-
tics as being there, or not, is difficult to maintain. Understood as prefigurative partaking, politics
can be appreciated differently in the form of the everyday actions taken by a polluting corpora-
tion’s employees, who thrive on their exclusive knowledge position, based on insights into both the
core corporate operations and environmental problems. The employees are capable of a bridging
that few others are, exemplifying a knowledge position that differs from say, Greenpeace, who can
only criticize Ordalia for its negative impacts, with little interest in promoting the positive impacts
as anything other than greenwashing.
Many employees we talked to expressed annoyance about how the company is portrayed by
Greenpeace and other external actors in Sweden. Here, loyal prefigurative partaking thrives on
contrasts between negative ‘external’ media pictures and positive ‘internal’ experiences of every-
day environmental work at Ordalia. That is, the employees wish that the external ‘talk’ would cor-
respond better with the actual internal ‘walk’. In comparison to a long-standing negative media
picture in Sweden, Ordalia has a genuinely green reputation in the UK. Loyal prefigurative partak-
ing hence mainly happens in Sweden, whereas communal prefigurative partaking dominates in the
UK, where British employees aim to improve the environmental record of the company, i.e. ‘walk
the talk’. This exemplifies ‘rhetorical speech’ seeking to assert a collectivity (Rancière, 2016, p.
73), and perhaps even a search for affective ties based in praxis (Farias, 2017) and in situ experi-
mentation (Reinecke, 2018). Consequently, while not shying away from the existing environmen-
tal problems at Ordalia, the environmental everyday actions result in loyalty. Hence, dissociation
and ruptures (Rancière, 2014) are healed by direct actions, boundaryless insofar as they transgress
the political spectrum (Meyer & Tarrow, 1998), exemplifying how environmentalism has devel-
oped into a more dispersed and diffuse movement (Jamison, 2001), suggested to be increasingly
defined by everyday actions (Loftus, 2012).
Skoglund and Böhm 21
In this article we have studied organizational politics by analysing everyday environmental actions
among employees of the energy utility, Ordalia. Using qualitative research methods, including
participant observations, shadowing, interviews and conversations, we have first positioned our-
selves empirically within an organization producing both electricity and pollution, and second,
analysed the empirical material by merging Rancière’s method of equality and notion of partaking
with the social movement concept of prefiguration. Developing a conception of prefigurative par-
taking, we have theorized everyday environmental activism pursued by Ordalia employees at
work. From our empirical material, we have categorized six characterizing themes of prefigurative
partaking, which cannot be pinpointed as a politicization either from the ‘inside’ or from the ‘out-
side’ (cf. Clegg et al., 2018): aspirational, individual, professional, critical, loyal and communal.
Our analysis shows how employees, when faced with what Rancière calls ‘dissociation’, i.e. a
disruption of the sensible world they inhabit, engage in positive action, aiming to transform and
create another world in the here and now. This kind of activism cuts across established organiza-
tional hierarchies, engendering a radically horizontal form of politics. Our concept of prefigurative
partaking thus facilitates the study of activism in a turbulent political landscape, where actions
become more dispersed and boundaryless, discarding traditional understandings of politics and
activism inside or outside of organizations (Rancière, 2016, p. 113).
This approach offers three main contributions. First, employees’ environmental activism should
be understood as being incremental based on a ‘pro’ agenda that alters rather than counters. Second,
this form of activism can be conceived as horizontal, from which an uncharted alternative form of
organizing unfolds. And third, it is based on a collective movement (rather than on an organized
collective of actors) that is boundaryless insofar as the employees hold an exclusive bridging
knowledge position that connects the ‘inside’ with the ‘outside’, transgressing traditional forms of
organized politics. Affirming Rancière’s method of equality and analytically focusing on ‘prefigu-
rative partaking’, this furthers the existing problematization in organization studies of the ‘inside’
and ‘outside’ perspectives in the merger with literatures on activism (Soule, 2012), giving a deeper
theoretical grounding for explorations of a broader array of activisms that permeate organizations.
Hence, our findings show how activism at work can transcend institutional boundaries (cf.
McAdam & Scott, 2005), or what Huault et al. (2014) call the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ of
With Rancière’s political philosophy, not only can we affirm a wider array of spheres that can
be seen as properly political, but also a wider array of actions (Huault et al., 2014). Instead of
focusing on ‘negative conceptions of protest’ or ‘political and intellectual elites who “see the
truth”‘ (Ibid., p. 42), we have applied an outward-looking process (cf. Maeckelbergh, 2011), ena-
bling us to affirm ‘positive assertions’ of environmental engagement among employees who enact
dissensus instead of seeking consensus (Huault et al., 2014), often by deploying an everyday envi-
ronmentalism (Loftus, 2012) that is more ‘pro’ a specific cause rather than ‘contra’ a specific actor.
In comparison to anti-identitarian (Eleftheriadis, 2015), anti-capitalistic (Dixon, 2014) and anti-
hierarchical (Kaufman, 2016) activism, pro-environmental activism may thus be easier to pursue
at work. It aligns more easily with certain corporate, including profit-seeking, goals (Meyerson &
Scully, 1995), and is less threatening to business in comparison to other types of struggle (cf.
Briscoe & Gupta, 2016).
Consequently, we argue that prefigurative partaking leads to incremental changes in the here
and now (Maeckelbergh, 2016). Such an outlook of organizational politics is, we believe, what
Cooper (1986) had in mind when he conceptualized organization as ‘disorganization’. It comple-
ments what we know about infra-politics within organizations (Scott, 2005; Böhm et al., 2008) in
22 Organization Studies 00(0)
that it spans presumed organizational boundaries, allowing it to ‘reflect the larger trends and poli-
tics of society’ (Zald & Berger, 1978, p. 825). Hence, our analysis has highlighted that employees
can prefiguratively partake and thereby infuse transformation within many topics, including envi-
ronmental problems caused by their employer. Despite earlier studies’ incessant illustrations of
how political engagement is utilized by capitalistic forces (e.g see Cederström & Marinetto, 2013;
Nyberg et al., 2013), we have emphasized the ways in which employees’ political engagement can
lead to transformations (Parker & Parker, 2017).
Our main argument is thus that activism should neither be empirically policed, and kept at a
morally safe distance ‘externally’ to corporations, nor should it be theoretically policed, confined
to explanations seeking to pin activism down and confine it to causal categories or a ‘true’ activist
identity (Bobel, 2007). Such an open and dispersed view of activism is perhaps of increasing
relevance, as digital communication is reshaping social connections, including politics. Yet, this
dispersion also means that other, already well-understood, organizational processes should not be
excluded from our view and analysis. For example, organizational control mechanisms via CSR
(Costas & Kärreman, 2013), sustainability (Wright et al., 2012) and market mechanisms (Adler,
Kwon, & Heckscher, 2008), are equally valid frames of evaluation and scrutiny. Yet, to speak
according to Rancière (2010), activism cannot be confined – neither inside nor outside corporate
organizations. Activist politics is a dispersed phenomenon and should be studied, and thereby bet-
ter understood, as such.
Annika Skoglund’s contribution to this article has been funded by the Swedish Energy Agency, project num-
ber P36616-1. Steffen Böhm’s contribution to this article was supported by a British Academy Mid-Career
Fellowship. Skoglund and Böhm have also received funding for their co-research from The Swedish Energy
Agency, project number P39673-1.
Annika Skoglund https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2898-9995
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Annika Skoglund is Associate Professor at Uppsala University, Sweden and honorary Associate Professor at
the University of Exeter, UK. Her research interests and teaching experience are closely linked to cross-dis-
ciplinary approaches within climate social science and alternative entrepreneurship. She has investigated the
interface between politics and organizing on various empirical arenas, particularly in relation to child and
youth activism as well as corporate activism in Hungary. She has in addition developed audio-visual methods
for the study of how new organizational forms unfold when social and environmental problems are solved in
Steffen Böhm is Professor in Organisation and Sustainability at University of Exeter Business School, UK. He
holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. His research focuses on
the political economy and ecology of the sustainability transition. He has published widely in journals such as
Organization, Organization Studies, Social Movement Studies, Journal of Business Ethics, Environment and
Planning A: Economy and Space and ephemera: theory & politics in organization (a journal he co-founded
in 2000). He has also published five books: Repositioning Organization Theory (Palgrave), Against
Automobility (Blackwell), Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets (Mayfly), The
Atmosphere Business (Mayfly) and Ecocultures: Blueprints for Sustainable Communities (Routledge).