Over recent days there have been several lively discussions on self-organization across a number of blogs. The latest comments on the first of my own two posts, #6 by Stephen Billing and #7 by Chris Mowles, have centred on a separate but related aspect of organizational dynamics known as “reification”. This occurs when people treat something that is an abstraction as if it really existed - or ‘thingify’ it, as I have called it elsewhere.
Both Billing and Mowles see this as severely limiting our understanding and practice. This is because it can deflect attention from what’s happening in the ‘here and now’ of people in interaction. Billing has since restated his concerns about this phenomenon in the post Be Aware of Reification on his own blog. And Mowles’s last comment takes the argument into what he sees as the risks in using models and frameworks to inform management practice. These, he suggests, similarly reify complex social phenomena by “… [taking] on a life of their own [and] seeing regularities where no regularities exist.” His comment draws on the work of philosopher Axel Honneth, and it reflects the view of organizational dynamics put forward by the University of Hertfordshire’s Complexity and Management Centre, where he is a Fellow.
These are powerful voices ranged against the notion of reification as a potentially useful aspect of organizational dynamics. And, in many respects, their arguments resonate with my own views (see, for example, Leadership is a "doing word" and The wiggly world of organizational dynamics). At the same time, I think that these concerns might be underplaying the pervasive role that people’s reification of their everyday experience has on the construction of meaning and organizational outcomes.