Remembering While Forgetting: The Role of Automorphism in City Management in Warsaw

By Czarniawska, Barbara | Public Administration Review, March-April 2002 | Go to article overview

Remembering While Forgetting: The Role of Automorphism in City Management in Warsaw


Czarniawska, Barbara, Public Administration Review


"Before it becomes a political issue, the will to forget is an anthropological one: man has always harbored the desire to rewrite his own biography, to change the past, to wipe out tracks, both his own and others."

--Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

The Study and Its Vocabulary

The focus of my interest in the study on which this article is based is an action net that can be called "managing the city of Warsaw," and an organization field that can be named "big city management. (1) This description, however, is not formulated in the terms used in the field, and therefore needs some explanation.

In society as we know it, a person who produces to make a living has to sell. Usually, producing, as a type of organizing, is further connected to more organizing actions, such as purchasing, marketing, financing, investing, and recruiting. These interconnected actions can be called action nets, in the sense that it is the actions rather than actors that are connected (Czarniawska 1997). Obviously, the actors influence the shape and kind of actions performed, but for many generations of merchants and producers in the same institutional order, production required marketing and selling.

Those action nets cover the entire global economy, but a researcher can single out any piece that seems to make sense. There is also a constant structuring taking place within nets themselves. Some actors attempt to fix their piece of an action net so that it will have to change according to their wishes. In market theory, the result is sometimes called "nasty networks" (Brunsson and Hagg 1993), or, in social psychology, a "clique." On the other hand, some actors may decide to mobilize their part of the net, creating a collective actor including even non-humans, such as Callon's (1986) "actor-network." Such collective actors can then undertake certain common actions, such as petitioning the government to change roles or remove regulations, or even boycotting such rules and regulations, which non-humans often do.

Often, however, it is more than a part of one net that needs to be mobilized. Nets are repeated all over the place: There are many production nets and sales nets, and it is very likely that in the same time and place they will look alike. One speaks of an organization field, which hosts people and organizations involved in similar action nets (DiMaggio 1983). They might never meet one another, but they feel a community of practice, as, for example, "those who deal in public investments." Their community is not only spiritual; there are special organizations promoting contacts in the organization field, such as norm and standard institutions, professional associations, and more or less formal lobbies. Thus, a part of a net that become mobilized ("public investors in Warsaw") establishes contact with a similar part of other nets ("public investors in big cities") and can exert impact within or even outside its field.

Within the field of city management, Warsaw's problems, as reported by my interlocutors, can be seen as both typical and special. City finances, transportation, water, and waste systems are typical problems in big cities. Warsaw is additionally a big city administered while a transformation of the institutional order was taking place. Institutional order here has a wider meaning than a set of formal institutions: It is a set of social practices considered legitimate in a given place and time. It is against this background that the management of Warsaw was taking place in 1994-95, which was the time of the study.

The attempts to forge a new institutional order--within and outside city management--made use of models existing in other places. To understand how these models were used, the notion of translation can be of aid.

In order to denote the transfer of ideas and practices from one context to another, one traditionally speaks of diffusion. But "diffusion" suggests a physical process subject to the laws of physics.

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