Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

Three Minutes of Silence: Thinking in Duration in Organization Studies

Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

Three Minutes of Silence: Thinking in Duration in Organization Studies

Article excerpt


In this paper I wish to make, or perhaps force a link between three very distinct sets of debates in organization studies. The first concerns the status of 'memory' in organizational terms, and how to best preserve shared knowledge, as defined by Walsh & Ungson (1991). The second deals with the repression and expression of emotion in organized settings, as exemplified in the classic work of Arlie Hochschild (2003). The third is a less well known methodological debate about the politics of 'giving voice' and 'remaining silent' (Morrison & Milliken, 2003). At first glance all three debates - concerning memory, emotion, voice - seem to share a common social psychological orientation. But exploring the character of this common thread is not primary what I want to set out to achieve. I wish instead to demonstrate that what is at stake in all three debates is how organization studies 'thinks with' and 'thinks against' its participants. I want to propose that what makes for the difference between these two strategies is taking seriously the temporal structuring of human action. To illustrate this claim I will work through an extended example - the use of public collective silence as a commemorative practice.

What would happen if all the members of my family disappeared? I would maintain for some time the habit of attributing meaning to their first names. In fact, if a group has affected us with its influence for a period of time we become so saturated that if we find ourselves alone, we act and think as if we were still living under the pressure of the group. (Maurice Halbwachs [1925]1992: 73)


The term 'organizational memory' has been used by both organization theorists and information scientists for some three decades. In a review of the field, Walsh & Ungson (1991) define organizational memory as the distributed storage of shared knowledge in an organization across an number of separate 'retention facilities' or 'bins' (including 'individuals', 'structures' and 'cultures'). This conception of memory as the retention of knowledge in discrete informational units spread across separate storage mechanism is taken direct from the 'standard' computational model of mind in cognitive science as it is applied to the study of memory (see Schachter, 1996; Baddeley, 1986). Seen in this way memory is a process of encoding and retrieving knowledge in the form of representations which are stored across multi-level cognitive architecture. As Corbett (2000) astutely notes, Walsh & Ungson merely transpose this logic, substituting organizational for cognitive structure. An unfortunate consequence of the transposition is that brings with it all that is problematic about the 'standard model', in particular the representational framework in which cognition and memory is analytically situated (for exposition see Coulter, 1979; Harré & Gillett, 1994; Shorter, 1990).

In cognitive terms, memories are treated as representations of past perceptions which are subject to bias and degradation during the process of their storage and retrieval. The analytic concern is then with the accuracy of a given memory relative to the original perception (and indeed with the representational coherence of this initial perception). But this approach treats remembering as a passive, near mechanistic process of managing information. This is starkly at odds with how remembering occurs in everyday settings, where it constitutes an active communicative practice of establishing the significance of the past to ongoing matters at hand (see Middleton & Brown, 2005; Middleton & Edwards, 1990 passim). seen in this way remembering is a social practice rather than simply the exercise of a mental faculty. Persons invoke and collective negotiate versions of the past, drawing on the accounts of others as well as a potential host of other mediating objects, including common narratives, 'official history' and artefacts varying from mementos, diaries and photographs to public records. …

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