Organising and Disorganising

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Book: Organising and Disorganising: A Dynamic and Non-Linear Theory of Institutional Emergence and its Implications. Dr Michael Thompson. Triarchy Press, 2008. [1]


From the publisher, the following description, of what I think should be a very significant book from a p2p point of view:

"Following his previous seminal work in this area, Thompson revisits the fundamental principles of Cultural Theory, strengthening his arguments and developing new perspectives. He explains how there are exactly five fundamental forms of societal life: the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the individualistic, the fatalistic and the autonomous, each of which is a way of disorganising the other four whilst depending on them for its existence, or it would have nothing to organise itself against. Through a range of examples and analogies drawn from his exceptionally broad experience, the author shows how best outcomes depend upon an essential argumentative process between these five socio-cultural forms. A flexible and dynamic organisational theory emerges which exposes the unfortunate consequences of any single form seeking to dominate the others.

Thompson proceeds to map the theories of Weber, Marx, Maine, Durkheim, Tönnies, Mary Douglas and others into the broad landscape of Cultural Theory, identifying 50 distinct varieties of social science on the way.

This book is important reading in these times of profound structural change. It is simultaneously a work of scholarship and a light-hearted, accessible and illuminating view on a world beset by apparently intractable problems such as climate change and the credit crunch. These problems urgently need Thompson’s type of solutions and corresponding institutional forms yet we systematically fail to recognise and support them. This book helps us to look beyond our own bias towards specific socio-cultural forms and opens our eyes to new organisational possibilities. Written in a lively and accessible style, Organising and Disorganising provides a language for communication across opposing views and a refreshing remedy for ideological myopia."


From the author:

"In the highly argumentative process that led to the siting of Arsenal Football Club's new stadium, all the actors - the market actor (Arsenal), the hierarchical actor (Islington Council) and the egalitarian actor (the Highbury Community Association) - were able to make themselves heard. Each of them was also responsive to, rather than dismissive of, the others. The result was the identification of an option - invisible to all the actors at the outset - that gave each of them more of what it wanted (and less of what it didn't want) than it would have got if it had managed to achieve hegemony and go it alone. Such outcomes are called "clumsy solutions", and they raise the question: "Why, if they are so satisfactory, are they so rare?".

The answer is, first, that each actor likes to think that it is right and, second, that social and organisational science has gone along with this, interpreting these sorts of messy but constructive engagements as instances of unwelcome contradiction rather than of essential contestation. Inter-organisational learning, in consequence, has been ignored; pushed to the sidelines by all these elegance-mongers when it should have been at the very centre of their attention. Remedying that fundamental defect - shifting inter-organisational learning from the sidelines to centre-field - is therefore the aim of this book.

There is no such thing as an organisation, is the main message, there are only ways of organising and disorganising: five ways of organising - the individualistic, the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the fatalistic and the autonomous (the first three being most evident in the case of Arsenal's new stadium) - each of which is a way of disorganising the other four. Since each of these ways of organising needs the the others, otherwise it would have nothing to organise itself against, subversion is inevitable. And if subversion is inevitable then good management must be concerned with clumsiness: with encouraging those subversions that are constructive for the pluralised totality and with discouraging those that are not. And if everything that is organised is plural - the by-product, as it were, of these five ways of organising - then the conventional definition of management as "management within an organisation" breaks down completely. All decision-making, on this anti-dualist view, takes place between the ways of organising, never within just one of them."


By Tudor Rickards, Professor of Creativity and Organisational Change at Manchester University:

"complex systems have what he calls solidarities each favoured by some people involved. These solidarities are recurring patterns of social coherence. They are labelled the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the individualistic, the fatalistic and the autonomous solidarities.

These four terms can be derived from the celebrated work of Mary Douglas, and a more recent ‘two-by-two’ grid of them can be found in an essay by Aaron Wildavsky (try googling Wildavsky and Culture Theory).

Readers may be more familiar with ‘two by two’ management grids (high and low levels of structuring, and high and low levels of groupiness), or maybe the two-by-two of sociological paradigms by Burrell & Morgan.

We need to know a little about cybernetics to see where Thompson has taken such treatments. Essentially he grasps one of the nettles too often ducked. What might be the mechanisms through which people (and groups) move from one ‘box’ to another?.

Burrell and Morgan’s work helped generate a lot of debate about whether such movement was possible, or whether the belief systems of the boxes represented incommensurate paradigms.

Thompson’s solution is to add a fifth element. In doing so he mentions the principle of requisite variety, cherished by cyberneticians since it was developed by Ross Ashby, many years ago.

Ashby worked out the requirements for any configuration of any system to be stable (’we could see the stable states as ’solidarities’). These were the viable states of the system, which had the survival property of the appropriate degree of requisite variety

Dr Thompson takes Ashby’s principle a few steps further, invoking a formal proof that requisite variety for systems stability exists in five and only five solidarities bracketed together.

The formulation began to remind me of even more ideas, including one associated with Lawrence and Lorsch, a team of Harvard organizational theorists. They proposed that differing conditions shape organizations into different (sub)systems, with differing integrating mechanisms. This contributed to Harvard’s pioneering reputation for contingency models of organization. Thompson’s integrating device (the autonomous ’solidarity’) introduces his fifth component into the established ‘two by twos’.

The author makes it clear that he believes that organizational stability (viability) needs the existence of five solidarities. And not just any old five solidarities interacting in any which way, but mediated through his specified autonomous solidarity. In so doing he believes he gets around many of the difficulties of prevailing theories of social structures.

You will have to read the book to see if this ‘essay in persuasion’ works for you. I was partly already converted into accepting some of the basic ideas presented. Time will tell whether re-reading helps me reach a greater level of persuasion on other suggestions in the book." (


The Four Solidarities

Michael Thompson (Chapter 2):

"* For upholders of the individualist solidarity, nature is benign - able to recover from any exploitation (hence the iconic myth of nature, illustrated in Figure 2.1: a ball that, no matter how profoundly disturbed, always returns to stability) - and man is inherently self-seeking and atomistic (i.e. the way the methodological individualists assume man is). Trial and error, in self-organising ego-focused networks (markets), is the way to go, with Adam Smith’s invisible hand ensuring that people only do well when others also benefit. Individualists, in consequence, trust others until they give them reason not to and then retaliate in kind (the winning “tit for tat” strategy in the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game [Rapoport 1985]). They see it as only fair that (as in the joint stock company) those who put most in get most out. Managing institutions that work “with the grain of the market” (getting rid of environmentally harmful subsidies, for instance) are what are needed.

  • Nature, for those who bind themselves into the egalitarian

solidarity, is almost the exact opposite (hence the ball on the upturned basin) - fragile, intricately interconnected and ephemeral - and man is essentially caring and sharing (until corrupted by coercive and inegalitarian institutions: markets and hierarchies). We must all tread lightly on the Earth, and it is not enough that people start off equal; they must end up equal as well - equality of result. Trust and levelling go handin- hand, and institutions that distribute unequally are distrusted. Voluntary simplicity is the only solution to our environmental problems, with the “precautionary principle” being strictly enforced on those who are tempted not to share the simple life.

  • The world, in the hierarchical solidarity, is controllable. Nature

is stable until pushed beyond discoverable limits (hence the two humps), and man is malleable: deeply flawed but redeemable by firm, long-lasting and trustworthy institutions (i.e. the way the methodological collectivists assume man is, as in “Give me the boy and I will give you the man”). Fair distribution is by rank and station or, in the modern context, by need (with the level of need being determined by expert and dispassionate authority). Environmental management requires certified experts (to determine the precise locations of nature’s limits) and statutory regulation (to ensure that all economic activity is then kept within those limits).

  • Fatalist actors (or perhaps we should say non-actors, since

their voice is seldom heard in policy debates; if it was they wouldn’t be fatalistic!) find neither rhyme nor reason in nature, and know that man is fickle and untrustworthy. Fairness, in consequence, is not to be found in this life, and there is no possibility of effecting change for the better. “Defect first” - the winning strategy in the one-off Prisoner’s Dilemma - makes sense here, given the unreliability of communication and the permanent absence of prior acts of good faith. With no way of ever getting in sync with nature (push the ball this way or that and the feedback is everywhere the same), or of building trust with others, the fatalist’s world (unlike those of the other three solidarities) is one in which learning is impossible. “Why bother?”, therefore, is the rational management response.

These solidarities, in varying strengths and patterns of pairwise alliance, are clearly discernible almost anywhere you care to look: in debates over water engineering in South Asia (Gyawali 2001); in the international fora where delegates struggle to do something about climate change (Thompson, Rayner and Ney 1998; Verweij 2001); in the different ways international regimes cope with trans-boundary risks such as water pollution (Verweij 2000) and municipalities go about the business of transport planning (Hendriks 1994); in the various ways households set about making ends meet (Dake and Thompson 1999); in the different diagnoses of the pensions crisis in countries with ageing populations (Ney 1997); and in the different panaceas that are variously championed and rejected by theorists of public administration (Hood 1998), to mention but a few.

In all these examples we find that each solidarity, in creating a context that is shaped by its distinctive premises, generates a storyline that inevitably contradicts those that are generated by the other solidarities. Yet, since each distils certain elements of experience and wisdom that are missed by the others, and since each provides a clear expression of the way in which a significant portion of the populace feels we should live with one another and with nature, it is important that they all be taken into some sort of account in the policy process. That, in essence, is the case for clumsiness: the case that I have tried to be persuasive about in the previous chapter."

A Cultural Theory of these patterns

Michael Thompson (Chapter 2):

"A quick recapitulation of the argument so far - a recapitulation, moreover, that brings in the fifth solidarity - is a sensible first step on the way to this proper theory, and it can be set out in the form of five crucial observations. All five are to do with what is involved in going from the classic markets-and-hierarchies distinction to the cultural theory scheme with its five “eddies”: its five recurrent regularities within an endless transactional flux.

“Economic incentives and (or, perhaps, versus) social sanctions” is one way of explaining the markets-and-hierarchies framing. Hierarchies enforce the law of contract, without which markets would not work, and they also do other vital things (such as repelling enemies); markets then get on with the wealth-creating process of innovating, bidding and bargaining. Each, we can see, needs the other, though of course there is always considerable disagreement about just where the line between these two transactional realms should be drawn - most famously, perhaps, in the titanic struggle, in the first half of the last century, between Keynes and Hayek. Keynes wanted a major role for hierarchy; Hayek saw that as “The Road To Serfdom” (Hayek 1944) and wanted the line pushed back as far as it would go. Either way, as Keynes pointed out, a line has to be drawn, thereby winning on points, as it were (“Game, set and match”, in the estimation of his most recent biographer [Skidelski 2000 p285]).

The same sort of uneasy symbiosis is evident in what is called “the new institutional economics” (which, since it goes back to Williamson’s 1975 book, is really quite long in the tooth: a bit like Oxford’s New College, which was new in the fourteenth century). In this framing, spiralling transaction costs (as changing technology, for instance, renders quality control more difficult and expensive) lead to market failure and to the hierarchy having to step in to set prices; and, conversely, markets taking over when transaction costs fall (as, for instance, they recently have - to almost zero - on the Internet). Each of these ways of organising, moreover, is seen as promoting a distinctive rationality - procedural and substantive as they are sometimes called: hierarchies being primarily concerned with propriety (“Who has the right to do what and to whom?”); markets being much more outcome-focused (“The bottom line”). In this way, each rationality legitimises one of these ways of organising and, in so doing, renders it viable in an environment that contains the other.

Cultural theory does not reject this classic distinction, but it does add the following crucial observations:

1. You cannot have hierarchies without hierarchists, nor markets without individualists.

That is, the organisational requirements of the whole - the pattern of relationships - must somehow be internalised by the parts. The pattern-making, in other words, goes both ways - from the whole to the parts and from the parts to the whole - and this goes on in such a way as to strengthen that pattern and differentiate it from the other patterns. In this way (and like the chicken and the egg) each becomes the cause of the other: we create the patterns and the patterns create us. Individuality, in consequence, is not within each of us but between us: the individual, in Jon Elster’s memorable phrase, is inherently relational.

2. If two rationalities are justifiable, as they obviously are here, then the upholders of those rationalities will have to have different convictions as to how the world is and people are: different social constructions of nature, physical and human. Otherwise they could not justify their different actions as being self-evidently sensible and moral, the world and people being the way each of them insists they are. And, for contradictory certainties such as these to persist, there must always be sufficient uncertainty as to how the world, and the people in it, really are.

3. Since markets institute equality (of opportunity) and promote competition whilst hierarchies institute inequality (status differences) and restrain competition, there are two discriminators at work here.

A full typology, therefore, should contain the other two permutations: equality without competition (egalitarianism) and inequality with competition (fatalism).

4. Since it is possible to contemplate both hierarchies and markets without having to be convinced that either’s version - of how the world is and people are - is true, and since the same holds for egalitarianism and fatalism, there may well be a fifth way of organising (it is called autonomy) that is stabilized by the deliberate avoidance of the sorts of coercive involvement that are entailed in the other four. However, hermits (as the upholders of autonomy have been dubbed) do not transcend the social sphere, because they stabilize their distinctive way of organising in contradistinction to the others. If the four “socially engaged” forms of solidarity were not there the autonomous life would not be liveable. The objection - “four permutations and five solidarities” - recedes once we realise that the cross-over point of our two discriminators corresponds to a rather strange “all-zero” permutation (this will become clearer in the next chapter when these discriminators are recast, more correctly, as a transaction matrix).

5. Though each pattern is made up of individuals and their transactions, we should not assume that an individual is part of only one pattern.

Indeed, as Lockhart (1997) has pointed out, people who strive to keep all their transactions on just one pattern are hard to live with - we call them fanatics!

In general, if transactional spheres - workplace and home, for instance - are fairly separate then an individual may lead different parts of his or her life in different patterns.26 Just because we are physiologically indivisible it does not follow that we are socially indivisible; hence the need to think in terms of the dividual, and to take the form of social solidarity (the pattern together with its viability conditions) as the unit of analysis, not the individual.

These, then, are the barest bones of cultural theory. In the chapters that follow I will try to put some dynamic flesh on these bones (particularly on the fifth bone - the form of solidarity as the unit of analysis) and I will try to do this in a way that will make sense to students of institutions: no easy task, given my anti-dualistic and unobvious starting point. But cultural theory does have one thing in its favour: its even-handedness. Where students of institutions have long been faced with a stark choice - methodological individualism or methodological collectivism - cultural theory offers a welcome, and perhaps surprising, escape route: “a plague on both your methodologies!”

The fifth solidarity: Autonomy

Michael Thompson:

"Yet, for all their differences, these four directions do have one thing in common.

As you move in any of these four directions, as well as getting more of what you want, you also get more and more involved in coercive social relations: more followers (in return for promised rewards) if you’re an individualist, more excluded if you’re a fatalist, more rights and obligations if you’re a hierarchist, and more and more like everyone else if you’re an egalitarian. It is possible, however, to become disenchanted with coercion: to want less and less, not more and more, of these diverse satisfactions. In that case you will be behaving rationally if you do the opposite to what all these proverbs tell you to do: that is, if you move back towards a sort of “absolute zero” - a point where transactions, far from being maximised, are minimised. This, of course, is what the hermit does.

The prospect of “heavy scenes” deters the hermit from moving in the “grouped” direction; the awareness that “in getting and spending we lay waste our lives” ensures that he does not career headlong towards the “ungrouped” solidarities. To fully understand how the hermit manages to avoid these twin pitfalls we need to consider something that is not easily grasped: the social construction of time. Each of the three patterned solidarities projects its distinctive time structure out into the future, so as to ensure that the promises it makes to its constituent individuals are delivered, and seen to be delivered. The promises they make, of course, are different - enhanced statuses for the loyal (hierarchy), profits for the skilled and daring (individualism) and eco-catastrophies avoided for those who tread lightly on the Earth (egalitarianism) - but they are all, in their different ways, coercive. Since the avoidance of coercive social relationships is the first essential of the autonomous way of life, the hermit will have to disengage himself from all these time structures if he is to stabilise his life around the things he prefers. Small wonder, then, that he opts for a rationality of immediacy, taking no thought for the morrow and considering, instead, the lilies of the field. Hermits, it is worth pointing out, can be found in some unlikely places. Keynes, for instance, though professionally engaged (in the Treasury, throughout the Second World War) in the challenging business of finding the means by which Nazi Germany could be overcome, managed never to stray far from the autonomous attractor. He was famously dismissive of elaborated time perspectives (“In the long run we are all dead”), saw scarcity as a temporary phenomenon (a blip caused by “the economics of industrialism”) and remained confident that, very soon, we would not need to bother even about the short term."