How can we understand the world around us? This question is as relevant to a manager as it is to a philosopher. From a common-sense perspective, the answer might seem obvious. We observe events, draw on our own experiences, or on the past experience of others. We assess evidence and draw conclusions that we then use to inform our actions. We assume that, with the right information and a rigorous approach, we can get the answers we need. However, in the social world – the world of people and the world of organisations – this approach often doesn’t seem to work. People do not behave as we expect them to – and the context in which we operate is constantly shifting, where what happened in the past is often little help when we are trying to predict the future.
The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin appreciated that the social world is resistant to the kinds of analysis that are suitable for the study of the natural world, and tried to differentiate the two spheres. For Bakhtin, the key currency of the human world is not the physical object, but our own interpretation of the world, expressed in the form of texts or signs – or discourse. In Bakhtin’s words, ‘the entire methodological apparatus of the mathematical and natural sciences is directed towards mastery over reified objects that do not reveal themselves…and communicate nothing of themselves’ whereas, ‘In the human sciences, as distinct from the natural and mathematical sciences, there arise the specific problems of establishing, transmitting, and interpreting the discourse of others’ (Holquist, 1981: 351). The object of the human sciences is therefore not the human, but the human as producer of texts.
A central element of Bakhtin’s understanding of discourse is its social nature, where all discourse is created and maintained explicitly with reference to the Other (those humans that are not me) – where the centre of human life is not the individual, or the group, but the network of dialogical relations between them. In short, we cannot fully understand the social world by studying humans as objects, either on an individual or a group level, but only by studying the ongoing dialogical network of communications between individuals, where ‘Language lives only in the dialogical interaction of those who make use of it’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 183). In essence, we all act jointly, as a collective ‘we’: when someone speaks, their words are always partly shaped by the words of others (Shotter, 1980). For Bahktin, ‘there is no knowledge of the subject but dialogical’ (Holquist, 1981: 16).
The term polyphonic originates in musical terminology, referring to a form of music where, unlike orchestrated forms of composition, in which each voice fits harmoniously into a constructed whole, two or more independent voices relate to each other contrapunctually, for example, with jazz (Shotter, 2008). Bakhtin applied this principle to the novels of Dostoevsky, arguing that ‘a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels…a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 21). Booth argues that, for Bakhtin, Dostoevsky’s fiction is able to capture the essential multi-centeredness, or ‘polyphony’, of human life, with the world essentially a collectivity of subjects who are social in essence. We come into consciousness speaking a language already permeated with many voices – where language is fundamentally social, and any analysis of the individual in isolation from the many voices that constitute it will be essentially lacking (Bakhtin, 1984: xx-xxv). In emphasising the multi-voiced nature of humans, Bakhtin effectively calls into question any idea of a single, unified truth (Bakhtin, 1984, 82).
In the context of the study of organisations, Belova et al. (2008, 493) note that Bakhtin’s ideas arrived in the English-speaking world at a time of transition from modern to postmodern perspectives, feeding into a growing interest in notions of language, narrative, authorship and representation. They identify two presentations of polyphony in the organisational literature: as a textual strategy in writing research narratives; and as a tool for analysing organisations as discursive spaces where multiple voices engage in a contest for audibility and power.
Belova et al. note that various authors have suggested that polyphonic narratives can represent a useful alternative to traditional positivist discourses, where introducing the voices of others into a narrative can prevent any one group from dominating the story (e.g. Keenoy and Oswick 2004). Oswick et al. (2000) analyse scripts of conversation in which various organisational members personally and collectively construct meanings of an event. By paying attention to how various accounts intertwine to generate complex interpretations, they suggest that organisational events are constituted by polyphonic rather than univocal sensemaking, proposing that the transition from individual to organisational learning is a both a complex and a contested process. Questions have been raised, however, as to whether narratives can be truly polyphonic, with Czarniawska (1999) doubting that the voices of others can ever genuinely be represented, as the author always has the final say.
Belova et al. cite examples of work presenting organisations as discursive spaces shaped by a polyphonic dialogue of voices. Here, far from being the sum of individual actions, organisations represent complex webs of interactions (Hazen 1993). Polyphony, Carter et al. (2003: 295) suggest, is always present in organisations even if it is often silenced by dominant voices, where there is ‘a persistent plurality of different linguistic constructions that shape organizational reality.’ Kornberger et al. (2006), drawing on Bakhtin, Kafka and Lyotard, suggest that organisational polyphony is made up of different languages that embody and reinforce differences between different groups and members of an organisation. They argue that the role of managers in managing polyphony is to navigate between and translate the heterogeneous discourses, where this process of translation enables managers to engage with diversity without having to unify or erase the differences that enrich organisational life. Bakhtin’s ideas in this area unsurprisingly resonate particularly in studies of self and personal identity. For example, Iedema et al. (2003) suggest in their research on doctors’ identity that doctors find themselves balancing several contradictory discourses, making it difficult to understand whether their front-stage talk forms part of the self, or whether it is performed for public consumption. Jabri et al. (2008), focusing on change communications and team learning, suggest that polyphony can help in understanding organisations as comprised of multiple discourses, where interpretation becomes part of the message creation process.
Cunliffe et al. (2004) approach polyphony in the context of narratives and temporality, seeking to reframe narrative research in organisations as a fluid and dynamic process open to the negotiated interpretations of its many participants and situated within a wider context. They argue that meaning unfolds in a narrative performance, within the dimensions of time and context, as storytellers and listeners discuss their experiences and interweave their own narratives in a polyphony of competing narrative voices and stories. Vaara and Pedersen (2013) contend that organisational strategising involves polyphony, where multiple antenarratives provide alternative and competing bases for an organisation’s strategy. Vaara et al. (2016) highlight studies of narrative in organisations undergoing change that highlight polyphony, for instance, Collins and Rainwater’s (2005) examination of bottom-up stories of change relating to the corporate transformation of Sears, highlighting the complexities and polyphony in them, and focusing on ideas and voices that were excluded from the dominant narrative. They also note how Buchanan and Dawson (2007) have highlighted the problems of monological research accounts that stifle multiple interpretations and plurivocality. For Jabri et al. (2008), applying Bakhtin’s ideas to organisational change requires a rethinking of the process of change itself, recognising that it is only in polyphony that we can appreciate the totality of change. Putting this into practice, Jabri et al. argue that we should focus on creating change dialogues, rather than seeking to identify a single monophonic vision, and that change agents should engage persons in ongoing conversations about what they see and what needs to be done.
I believe that Bakhtin’s ideas of polyphony and dialogism are powerful approaches to understanding the complexities of the social world, and its resistance to positivist theorising. However, they clearly present a practical challenge in how we can to understand and present the world in a way that is feasible. We can argue that totalising approaches to the social world are fundamentally misleading, but they have the distinct advantages that they are both feasible to undertake and their clarity can form the basis of action. Is it possible to present a polyphonic world in a way that actually helps us to navigate the social world and to make decisions in it?
In the practical business of managing change, I proposed that an appreciation of the polyphonic, dialogical nature the social world can help us in two key ways. Firstly, it encourages us to listen to a broad range of voices, not just the powerful, on the basis that all contribute to the workings of change through their dialogue with others, where we should not assume that dominant voices determine the ‘truth’. Secondly, an understanding of the polyphonic nature of the social world leads to an appreciation that each individual is unique, with a unique understanding of the nature of change, and undertaking their own unique journey through change.
In summary, although there are good reasons why we seek to simplify the social world, and to identify unwavering rules of behaviour, a polyphonic approach reminds us that the ways that we attempt to view the world do not necessarily coincide with the way it is.
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