As part of their studies, first year students in the Leadership for Change Master’s Programme are writing short memos on various social theories. We are publishing some of the memos on the LFC blog. The first set of memos deals with poststructuralism and its understanding of leadership and change.
A “will to know” is “a will to power”
Poststructuralism takes into account complexities, dynamism and nonlinearity. Due to this, it can be used to rethink problems of change and leadership in organizations and society.
Poststructuralism emerged in the 1960s as a result of political mobilisation and disillusionment with science and social progress. It was a criticism of established systems and attempt to answer questions, which structuralism was not able to answer.
If structuralism views the world as structural system with regularities that one can observe and identify, poststructuralism goes further: taking some insights from structuralism, it suggests that not everything has a straightforward explanation. It is important to look beyond and deeper. Things can have different roots than we are used to thinking.
Perhaps the most significant issue here is the question of power. If the world, as Friedrich Nietzsche suggested, is unruly, power is used to overcome this unruliness. Poststructuralists state that a “will to know” is “a will to power”. Knowledge claims are a means of power. Or, someone may attempt to represent their own interests as common ones (Merlingen, 2013). This can be further associated to the issue of change. Is it possible to be certain that certain changes are necessary in order to solve real problems, or are they proposed because of the interests of someone possessing power?
Eleanor MacKillop (2017) suggests looking at organizational change and leadership from a poststructural angle. She states that previous leadership studies defined leadership too narrowly, or did not define it at all. Instead, leadership should be understood as a “messy and relational” (ibid, p. 3) process which is strongly dependent on a concrete situation. It is also important here that the process of change should not be assumed as distinct: it is wise to take into account possible alternatives and, what is more significant, not to underestimate the role of conflicts (result of demands and grievances), which move changes.
MacKillop (ibid.) also highlights the influence of individuals, which correlates with the poststructuralist emphasis on agency. As a result, leadership is defined as “a constantly changing performance of organisational power, addressing grievances by mobilising different practices under the appealing and hollowed-out demand of leadership” (MacKillop, 2017, p.15). This leads to the idea that in a poststructuralist discourse, changes and leadership should be assumed to be closely related to a specific situation. There is no single universal model and direct answers. Power can be represented through leadership and used for implementing and ruling changes.
The importance of poststructuralism is that it allows us to understand change in a deeper way and from multiple points of view. A poststructural approach assumes that “the main thing in the structure is not the structure, but what leads beyond it” (Avtonomova, 1991). Identifying the structure of an object under analysis is not the main thing, but rather noticing which parts of it contain contradictions and may thus lead to changes.
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Deep ecologists as the post-structuralists of climate change
The Western way of organizing the society has led to disastrous consequences to the environment. The capitalist agenda of constant economic growth has exhausted natural resources and caused average temperatures to rise leading to the current crisis of climate change. Finding sustainable solutions to the problem has proved difficult. Arguably, this is due to our current societal structures. Not only are the physical structures such as energy grids outdated, but so are the mental structures. The throw-away mentality of consumers is keeping the harmful system alive.
Post-structuralism is about questioning the existing systems and showing how they came into power. It is concerned not only with how our society turned out to be the way it is but also whether there could be alternative structures. Poststructuralism may also give agency to those who are not presently in power, for example to the nature. If the current capitalist system and growth paradigm is preventing us from living in a healthy planet, should we re-evaluate how we as a society relate and function within it? Are the current structures meant to be broken, or is deep ecology just romanticism or utopist thinking? Only time will tell, but considering that the “great acceleration”, the visible impact of human activity on earth system begun only 70 years ago, our minds might open up for the post-structuralist agenda as well.
Poststructuralism may lead one to notice, for example, that the internationally recognized efforts towards a more sustainable future are based on rather neoliberal assumptions. To exemplify, reliance on technical solutions to solve environmental problems and Pigovian taxes are commonly supported efforts to fight climate change. However, this commonly accepted discourse has also been criticized of legitimizing and sustaining the structures that have been the cause of all environmental problems. Clearly, the critique has some grounds as we can see from the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change according to which global warming is highly likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 despite our efforts so far. Something needs to change, but how drastically?
The followers of the philosophical belief “deep ecology” believe that our society as a whole should change. Deep ecology is the belief that today’s environmental problems are symptoms of deeper problems in our society that require assessing, instead of fixing our current practices to be in line with environmentally correct mores (Reed & Rothenberg, 1992). Instead of e.g. developing greener cars or greener packaging materials, deep ecologists suggest we question our dependence on such products and reorganize our society (ibid.) The originators of the movement, such as the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, make calls for becoming one with nature and appreciating its intrinsic value. Beyond increasing efficiency and substitutions, deep ecologists question whether we should switch our lifestyles and systems altogether. Perhaps, deep ecologists could be thought of as the post-structuralists of climate change.
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Post-structuralism as critique
To begin to understand post-structuralism, one should start by attempting to understand structuralism, as post-structuralism builds upon the ideas of that, keeping some elements and rejecting others. One of the key tenets of structuralism is that nothing should be examined in a vacuum, but rather that everything is built up of small parts and the parts should be examined by way of their relation to other parts. That is, we should not consider anything to be truly autonomous, but the actions and perceptions of those parts around them affect them, whether they realize it or not. A second key tenet is that meaning emerges through distinction, that is, what a part means and how it is perceived is not a quality of the part itself, but rather a meaning that is assigned to it through interaction with other parts. Third, this understanding of meaning mentioned as the second tenet can be transferred to all aspects of society and behavior, and a meaning can be assigned to anything. Finally, the assignment of meanings can be codified to become rules, with the ultimate goal of being able to make global rules/laws.
As for how post-structuralism differs from structuralism, it considers that the underlying goal of structuralism, that is assigning laws and meaning to parts, to be fundamentally wrong. According to post-structuralism, attempting to assign meaning is a way of influencing power and the way that this power and these meanings are applied, if they should remain absolute, are ways of exerting power. Skepticism is a key part of post-structuralism and asking why something is the way it is and going back to see how the current situation came to be is a key feature.
To better understand, we will look at an imaginary example of a civil uprising in an African republic. A structuralist outlook on this type of uprising would look at the root causes and interactions that are happening and happened. It would consider the impact of colonialism on the system of government and how that government was formed, it would consider the interaction between intra- and interstate interest and how these formed the uprising, and above all, it would attempt to remain neutral.
A post-structuralist view allows criticism. So, when looking at the root causes of the civil uprising, it might criticize the decisions made in the colonialist era, examine the rhetoric of leaders that they consider to have led to the event, or perhaps if the conflict is over, offer a criticism of allowing a peacekeeping operation to take place, seeing it as, in the end, forcing a world view on the nation that previously did not exist. That is, it could see the peace keeping operation as ethical and good as ending the conflict, but criticize it for merely ending the conflict and imposing a new system on the country while not understanding and treating underlying factors thus resulting in an unsustainable negative peace. To conclude, the key points to understanding post-structuralism are understanding the world as interactions, critiquing the way things are, and seeking new solutions by way of abandoning status quo thinking.
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Can post-structuralism really lead to change?
Social theories are often a reflection of their time. Poststructuralism also became popular both inside and outside academia following the student and worker revolts against established political, economic and social systems, which took place in the Western world in 1968 (Merlingen, 2013).
While retaining some features of structuralism, “post-structuralism objects to the structuralist idea that the world is completely comprehensible through analysis of systems and structures. Post-structuralism contests a basic structuralist idea that underlying all phenomena are deep structures that shape phenomena” (Farmer, 2010, p.89). From the post-structuralist perspective, the emphasis is made on unknowability, luck or human agency. The basic principle for post-structuralist approach is the lack of foundation for any phenomena (ibid.).
In order to understand the use of the post-structuralist theory better, let’s have a look at its concrete application in management and leadership in organizational change. Applied in management, the post-structuralist theory questions administrative-bureaucratic power and the rational-hierarchical perspective. The anti-administration perspective suspends judgment and gives attention to everything that happens. Anti-administration is presented as a model for management thinking and action. It includes not only mainstream ideas, but also ideas of people who are excluded and marginalized, for example subordinates dealing with their supervisors, minorities and women and financially poor clients and citizens, considered as “others”.
The “Other” also refers to ideas from discourses that are not dominant, for example, non-mainstream economics or ecological views. Anti-administrative thinking is designed to include style of management and contemplations that includes voices excluded from, or marginalized, in traditional discussions of governance (Farmer, 2010).
In her poststructuralist research on leadership in organizational change, Eleanor MacKillop argues that organizational research literature often excludes mess, conflict and power, offering instead leadership definitions and factors for successful change. In her article, she offers a critical explanation of leadership in organizational change.
What is known as “critical leadership studies” has, to some extent, emphasized the meaning, complexity and relational dimensions of organizational leadership, highlighting the changing definition and practices in leadership, opening up possibilities for alternatives. However, according to MacKillop, those studies also have limitations. She suggests filling this gap via discourse theory combined with a case study. The notion of discourse refers to a specific series of representations and practices through which meanings are produced. She gives particular importance to concrete cases, as leadership is a dynamic process in which participants, roles and influences develop over time. Overall, MacKillop argues that “leadership can be represented as a set of multiple and changing practices, pragmatically deployed by organizational subjects to re/draw alliances and, ultimately, exercise power” (MacKillop, 2017, p.2).
As illustrated in the above examples, post-structuralism can offer different ways of framing any analysis. However, it is also important to recognize the limitations of post-structuralism: it does highlight the issues and provides alternatives – but does it really offer solutions? Therefore, the question remains whether post-structuralism can really lead to change.