Power, Subjectivity and Strategies of Resistance: The Case of the Acme School

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The central aim of this study is to provide a critical analysis of oppositional practices in the workplace by exploring the role of worker subjectivity in shaping and articulating contemporary strategies of resistance. First, a theoretical analysis will be presented which seeks to challenge many of the dualistic assumptions that have underpinned traditional studies of resistance. It is argued that the reentry of subjectivity into the analysis of resistance provides a means for escaping these dualisms and retrieving the analytical and empirical significance of oppositional practices. The argument suggests that although subjectivities are indeed effects of power, and that individuals are positioned in relation to dominant discourses - and therefore constituted as having certain interests - power is not fixed and thus cannot completely or permanently determine identity. This instability of power makes apparent certain fragilities within these dominant discourses and makes them liable to threats and seductions from subject positions within different or competing discourses. It is suggested that these fractures and competing subject positions afford small but important spaces for resistance. The second half of this essay presents a detailed case study of the Acme School. Semi-structured interviews were conducted and analysed to explore the subjective experiences of resistant members of Acme toward recent government reform initiatives. Two dominant strategies were identified: 'resistance through distance' and 'resistance through persistence' and it was demonstrated that an understanding of different subjectivities is vital to appreciating how these distinct strategies emerged.

INTRODUCTION

Despite the increasing attention paid to oppositional practices in the workplace, Collinson (1994) suggests that important analytical questions about the relationship between the nature of power, the human subject and resistance remain unexplored. The neglect of such questions, it may be argued, stems partly from the ascendancy of the managerialist agenda in organisation studies. Such a perspective has traditionally conceptualised resistance as a reactive process, one that is understood as an obstacle, or an irrational nuisance that needs to be overcome in the process of rational and prudent organisational change. A characteristic of this managerialist perspective has been the relegation of workplace resistance to a self-evident and secondary theme within the broader literature on the change process. Consider, for example, Lewin's Force Field Analysis (1951), which remains one of the most common theories of change and resistance employed in the management of the change process (Pinnington & Edwards, 2000:222-229). Lewin's model offers a normative description of workers' seemingly natural tendency to resist. This tendency or 'force' to resist, it is suggested, can be overcome if appropriate measures such as employee participation in the change process are taken (Coch and French, 1948). More significantly, Lewin's model implies a primary concern with individual factors that cause people to resist, and in doing so neglects to seriously consider the local, historical as well as the broader structural factors. To this end, Jeremier, Knights and Nord (1994) contend that the most widespread way of conceptualising resistance has been to understand it as 'a reactive process where agents embedded in power relations actively oppose initiatives by other agents'. Put more simply, resistance is generally seen as a group of seemingly homogenous blue-collared employees collectively opposing specific initiatives of management.

However, since Braverman's (1974) revival and reconstruction of Marx's original thesis, a large body of critical literature has developed attempting to challenge the dominance of the managerialist agenda in organisation studies. In spite of this 'critical edge', Knights (1990: 297) has argued that the bulk of this literature, like the managerialist approach, has been based on relatively simplistic views of society and the human subject. …