The Myths of Corporate Culture: Myth 2 Corporate Culture is Fluffy

Myth 2: Corporate culture is “fluffy”

After reading Michel Foucault’s deeply moving and oft-disturbing Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, I don’t know of another book that so radically changed the way I thought about the role of the education, health “care”, and the state.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault book cover
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

Well, on the role of the state, maybe James Scott’s Seeing Like a State ranks up there. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argued that 18th and 19th-century western European institutions like hospitals, asylums, schools, and prisons were used to institute new forms of governmentality. These “govern-mentalities”, or ways of thinking about the role and function of the state and ones civic-mindedness or civility, sought to transform state subjects into self-governing citizens. When I think about the relationship between education and the state, I recall Robert Fulham’s now iconic book, “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten”.

Reading through the list of tenets we can see the resonance between the project of educational institutions and their relationship to statecraft.

All I ever need to know I learned in kindergarten by Robert Fulghum

The Role of Education

Schools, through their disciplinary tactics, helped to create self-governing citizens that, it is intended, will have respect for their state and see themselves as part of a larger “imagined community” (Benedict [1983]2006). Foucault makes clear that these notions of fair play, good (state authorized) behaviour, and self-responsibility were part of a larger project to incite the embodiment of dispositions favourable to the state. This is a bio-politics: a politics focussed on the regulation and control of bodies. Educational initiatives worked in tandem with other institutional programs, such as the role of medicine and the hospital.

Contemporary businesses sometimes function like institutions of the 19th century: they seek to institute particular ways of doing things and create self-governing employees that enact the behaviours that are in accord with the vision of the company.

The Desk

A wonderful example of the disciplining of bodies is something as innocuous as the desk–be it a school desk or a desk in a cubicle farm. Marni M. Presnall, in her wonderfully object-oriented doctoral dissertation about the role of the desk and its relationship to writing teases out the complexities and histories rendered silent by the seeming utility and innocuousness of the school desk.

Presnall argues that “Design and critiques of the school desk invoke cultural values and ideologies through which new furniture becomes a symbol. As the form of education becomes attendance, and the space of education becomes classrooms furnished with individual school desks, children become subjects by sitting in desks, and sedentary learning equals progress.” (36).

Desks code for or become symbols for grand ideals like “progress”–in both broader social and sometimes narrower business contexts. What kind of work does it do to rethink the role of the desk altogether? There are plenty of organizations that, likely understanding the broader role of function and form that have opted for diverse working spaces that open the possibility for creativity and ideas not tethered to the “primary” function of the desk (Check out Google and Pixar and the Google Garage). Yet, these “open” and “collaborative” spaces may also have other effects, like eliminating privacy and rendering workspaces as fields of potential surveillance (Foucault 1975, see also Siek and McNamara 2016).

Behavioural and social scientist at RAND Corporation, Kate Siek, argues,

“For example, an Industrial Psychologist might recommend an open office plan as a way to inspire teamwork and collaboration by ‘leveling the playing field’ and creating a more relaxed and creative work environment. However, an Organizational Anthropologist might know that such formats also negate any spaces for privacy and essentially turn the entire office into a kind of Foucauldian Panopticon – where your every move is visible and known by your employer. Why we want that kind of control over employees and what the consequences are for employees are the kind of question an Organizational Anthropologist might explore, and what alternative recommendations to the design would accommodate a need for privacy.”

One of the beauties of anthropology is an attention to the seemingly mundane, like furniture, and its relationship to the broader relationships of power, influence, and history that come together in the creation of meaningful spaces.

Now, is corporate culture fluffy? What do you think?

Foucault, Michel. 1975. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Presnall, Marni M. 2016. The School Desk and the Writing Body.

See also the excellent questions posed by Kate Siek and Laura A. McNamara:

Organizational Culture and Change

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