Astrology and Alchemy-The Occult Roots of the MBTI: Psychologists and Managers May Be Surprised to Discover That the Origins of the World's Most Widely Used Psychometric Instrument Lie in Pre-Modern Systems of Knowledge

By Case, Peter; Phillipson, Garry | European Business Forum, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Astrology and Alchemy-The Occult Roots of the MBTI: Psychologists and Managers May Be Surprised to Discover That the Origins of the World's Most Widely Used Psychometric Instrument Lie in Pre-Modern Systems of Knowledge


Case, Peter, Phillipson, Garry, European Business Forum


There appear to be no reputable investigations into the influence of astrology and alchemy on organisation and management, which is surprising given the continuing popularity of astrology. Aside from some research into how marketing executives are using astrology to target products and services more effectively, a small number of business books written by professional astrologers and some interest in the financial world, the field remains largely unexplored.

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Why does astrology appeal to the executive world? Where and how is it being deployed, and what are the organisational consequences? In this article, we look at the sociological and organisational dimensions of astrology and offer a theoretical justification for researching astrological interests and practices using Gibson Burrell's 'retro-organisation theory'. We also apply retro-organisation theory to an analysis of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), one of the most widely used psychometric instruments in the world today.

Astrology and alchemy are still very much taboo in the academic world. There is a real danger of attracting ridicule or even contempt from the academic community simply for daring to express a professional interest in these subjects. Our purpose is to look at some of the unacknowledged ways in which this pre-modern cosmology informs patterns of conduct in order to contribute to a better understanding of its influence in the organisational world.

The renaissance of spiritual and occult understanding

In justifying his own 'astrological experiment', Jung observes: "In no previous age, however 'superstitious,' was astrology so widespread and so highly esteemed as it is today". Although penned in the early 1950s, Jung's remark still holds true today. Interest in astrology, along with other forms of alternative knowledge and cosmology such as Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism and complementary medicine, has enjoyed a renaissance over the last 25 years. Many of these systems trace their origins to non-European and pre-modern roots.

This renewed interest reflects a search for meaning within systems of knowledge that approach the world in a less objective way than modernist, scientific approaches. As Ritzer (1998) says, while rationalisation and more accountability are being lauded in many institutions, a countervailing desire is emerging in certain segments of the population that are seeking to re-enchant their disenchanted world. Indeed, the West appears to be exporting the ideologies and technologies of global capitalism while simultaneously importing Middle Eastern and Oriental occultism.

The renewed interest in alternative occult approaches may also represent a nostalgic throwback to a 'golden age' when life was less complicated. Spurious and misplaced though such nostalgia may be, the re-emergence of astrology could be seen as part of a broader pattern of a new medievalism emerging in the West as bodies of knowledge that were marginalised by modern science are creeping back into vogue. Today, these systems are deployed in innovative ways that differ from, yet draw on, pre-modern applications.

Curry (1989) says astrology was a consistent aspect of cultural life in the 18th Century for the 'relatively poor and powerless' and constituted 'a kind of plebeian science of life', which resonates with some of the tenets of retro-organisation theory. As Burrell puts it:

"We should ask about the peasantry today, yesterday and tomorrow, for this category has been hidden from organisational behaviour for far too long ... Life in organisations is much more of an everyday story of country folk than we imagine ... To understand today we must engage in retro-organisation theorising."

An important aspect of Burrell's work is the celebration of knowledge and practices that have been marginalised under modern industrial capitalism--witchcraft, herbalism, astrology, alchemy, and so forth. …

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