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Rethinking Emancipation in Organization Studies. In the light of Jacques Rancière's Philosophy


  • Isabelle Huault

    (DRM MOST - DRM - Dauphine Recherches en Management - Université Paris Dauphine-PSL - PSL - Université Paris sciences et lettres - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)

  • Véronique Perret

    (DRM MOST - DRM - Dauphine Recherches en Management - Université Paris Dauphine-PSL - PSL - Université Paris sciences et lettres - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)

  • André Spicer

    (WBS - Warwick Business School - University of Warwick [Coventry])


The demand for emancipation was once something we only associated with oppressed social groups such as Women, Workers or the colonized who were seeking to escape from various forms of domination which they had long been subjected to. Today, some of the most privileged groups in our society such as middle managers and professions talk about their thirst for emancipation. They seek this precious and awe inspiring goal through participating in management courses (Gosling, 2000), reading various forms of management literature which promises to turn them into revolutionaries (Jacques, 1996), and engaging with various journeys to free themselves from the shackles of thought control and simply 'be themselves' at work (Fleming, 2009). Corporations routinely sell themselves as a route to emancipation for their consumers and employees. One only needs to think about the recent advertisement for Virgin which replaced the famous images of the revolutionary Ché Guevara with Richard Branson. The message seems to be clear - it is not just radical political movements that can provide emancipation, corporations can too! The fact that emancipation has lost its anchor in radical political movements and shocks and scandalizes some. For others, it is a kind of an indication of how endlessly flexible and omnivorous capitalism is insofar as it is able to adopt nearly anything - include forms of virulent anti-capitalism - to further itself. While these two explanations are certainly appealing, we think that the widespread adoption of this culture of emancipation actually underlines the increasing uncertainty and fragmentation that has taken place around the term. For us this is due to a shift in focus of understanding of emancipation. Previously, emancipation was understood as a form of wide-scale transformational change in society achieved through intellectuals enlightening people who find themselves dominated. This notion informed studies of emancipation for many years. The result was that research on emancipation tended to focus on either documenting large scale challenges to capitalism and management or agitating for emancipation through a progressive enlightenment of the audience. This approach to emancipation began to fall out of favour as it was accused of being too grandiose - subjects were positioned as victims of managerial knowledge which they could only escape from through the progressive enlightenment under the tutelage of critical intellectuals. Such disenchantment led researchers to turn their focus towards more minor forms of micro-emancipation whereby people momentarily escape from domination in their everyday life through minor activities (eg. Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). This focus produced a deep body of literature that documented the various ways individuals seek out micro-emancipation in the workplace (eg. Zanoni and Jensens, 2007). However, recently we have witnessed some important questions being asked around this research agenda. In particular, some are concerned that it has begun to fundamentally constrain how we think about forms of emancipation, creating a myopic focus on small-scale struggles and fundamentally ignoring many of the broader social struggles that challenge management. In this paper we seek to overcome these problems associated with macro as well as micro-emancipation by positing a new conception of emancipation offered in the recent thought of Jacques Rancière. For Rancière, emancipation should not be seen as an ideal to be reached, but as a postulate to be acualised in day-to-day practice. He points out that equality can be actualized by interrupting the order of sensibility (rather than through quotidian everyday acts), through creating a sense of dissensus (rather than collaboration and attempts to create consensus), and attempts to singularize the universal (rather than through fragmentary struggles). By focusing on these three processes, Rancière enables us to see a range of emancipatory struggles that we were blinded to by both accounts of marco-emancipation (which went looking for grand revolts) as well as micro-emancipation (which focused on everyday transgression). In particular it enables us to register the kinds of emancipation movements that have frequently been left out of accounts of emancipation in organization studies. These include the self-education movements, proliterian intellectual movements, as well as forms art. Rancière's account of emancipation allows us to extend how we think about processes of emancipation in and around organizations in three ways. First, it allows us to register activities in our theoretical gaze that we had previously ignored or discounted. Macro-emancipation focuses our attention on collective movements which are organised and micro-emancipation focuses our attention on often individual every-day activities which are not organised. In contrast, Rancière draws our attention to various emancipatory movements that are often collective, but are not formally organised. This broadens the range of forms of emancipation we can study. Second, Rancière allows us to rethink how exactly emancipation works. Instead of focusing on creation of new states of freedom (as studies of macro emancipation do) or attempts to seize fleeting forms of freedom (as studies of micro emanciption do), Rancière's work allows us to see how emancipation involves the transformation of the sensible. This re-orients our studies to how emancipation movements seek to change what and how we actually see the world. Finally, Rancière allows us to move beyond the assumption that contemporary resistance is fragmented and disorganised by registering how individual forms of resistance are experienced as an embodiment or singularization of universal struggles. Doing this allows us to recognise the link between the specific demands of many resistance movements and more universal claims such as dignity, recognition, and justice. By making these three contributions, we hope to move beyond either an elitist account found in studies of macro-emancipation and the banal account found in studies of micro-emancaiption. In order to make this argument, we proceed as follows. We begin by reviewing the two dominant conceptions of emancipation. First we look at three different modes of emancipation that have been successively pursued - political emancipation, economic emancipation and ideological emancipation. We then look at the ways in which organization studies has suggested these struggles take place - through 'macro-emancipation' or 'micro-emancipation'. In this review we highlight the shortcomings of these two existing conceptions of emancipation. We then introduce a third conception of emancipation inspired by the work of Jacques Rancière. After we have outlined this, we then draw out the implications of this for the study of emancipation in organization studies. We conclude by sketching out what new areas of emancipation this allows us to understand and perhaps engage with.

Suggested Citation

  • Isabelle Huault & Véronique Perret & André Spicer, 2010. "Rethinking Emancipation in Organization Studies. In the light of Jacques Rancière's Philosophy," Post-Print halshs-00536318, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:halshs-00536318
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Calas, Marta B. & Smircich, Linda, 1993. "Dangerous liaisons: The "feminine-in-management" meets "globalization"," Business Horizons, Elsevier, vol. 36(2), pages 71-81.
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