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.
The 'real world'
Since reification is concerned with “… taking something that does not really exist as a physical object, and treating it as though it were an object or a physical thing” (Billing's blog post), pivotal to this discussion is the notion of what is – and isn’t – “real”.
To begin with, there are our present actual sensory contacts with things and events in the ‘outside world’. Secondly, there are our own bodily sensations that we are aware of in the here and now. Both of these are real and tangible. We know these ‘facts of life’ in the instant that we experience them. This present reality exists. But it doesn’t get us very far in terms of organizational dynamics – or life in general.
Social construction of meaning
What is important for our broader purposes is what these things and events mean.
That is, how do we perceive, interpret and evaluate them? What sense do we make of them and what conclusions do we draw? What beliefs do we associate with them? What attributions do we make about the things and events that we are aware of through our senses? And so on.
But our awareness of the things that we experience and the meanings that we ascribe to them do not themselves exist ‘in reality’. John O. Stevens, in Awareness, refers to this as “fantasy activity”. “This,” he says, “includes all mental activity beyond present awareness of ongoing experience: All explaining, interpreting, imagining, guessing, thinking, comparing, planning, remembering the past, anticipating the future, etc.”
So all of these ‘meaning-making’ activities involve reification. We use symbols – primarily words – to navigate our way through ‘the world’. We name things that we and others experience and then use these as surrogates for the actual human (sensory) experience. If we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to function – at least at the ‘higher order’ levels of existence that we associate with being human.
As we take part in the world, we use these (word) symbols to communicate with each other, through the gesture-response process that George Herbert Mead describes. So, from this perspective, reification is implicit in the ongoing process of communicative interaction. It arises because the clusters of words we use to describe our current experiences (including those we remember and aspire to) are not the experiences themselves. But without abstracting from our experience by using words, our experience would be meaningless. Language gives us the capacity to communicate with each other in meaningful ways. It provides the ‘framework’ for our understanding. But it is not the same thing as our understanding. Less still is it the same as the experience itself.
As I said in Informal Coalitions, people get together in organizations and ‘make things up’. Some of the things that they unavoidably co-create enter the formal arenas of the organization, as policies, structures, systems, procedures and so on. Others remain in the shadows. Either way, these socially constructed ‘objects’ (also reifications) act back on the ongoing sense-making interactions that comprise everyday organizational life. And this acting back again requires people to perceive, interpret and evaluate these formal and informal 'objects' anew, in the context of their current, local situation.
For me, then, the problem is not one of reification per se but how we deal with it. We tend to forget that the words are just words, the sense-making and interpretive frameworks just frameworks, and the constructed meanings just constructed meanings. As Mowles says, if we do so, we risk seeing regularities where none exist.
These abstractions should not be confused with the reality of everyday experience. In particular, we need to guard against the tendency for the words (and, in particular, the more complex concepts and constructions of which they are part) to take on a ‘false concreteness’ and life of their own. Just because we can name something doesn’t mean that it exists as a tangible object. Or that it that can be designed, built and controlled in a predictable fashion.
At the same time, I would suggest that it is equally unhelpful to dismiss all forms of reification, such as the use of sense-making models and frameworks, on the basis that these might distort practice. As George E. P. Box said, "All models are wrong but some are useful". Indeed, the suggestion that reification and related models and frameworks should be avoided, is itself a framework for making sense of the world and engaging in practice!
In response to comments on an earlier post (here), I referred to Etienne Wenger’s notion of the “duality of meaning”. By this, he means to suggest that what he calls “participation” (the active process of people in interaction) and reification are interwoven and complementary (see Communities of Practice). Reifications emerge out of participation and these reified forms (i.e. the 'imprints' of past sense-making) inform ongoing participation.
Wenger describes the meaning-making process in a way that appears broadly consistent with the way that I think of it, and that adds usefully to it – albeit using different language. It also seems to me that there are many more overlaps than conflicts between Wenger’s process-based and social view of the way in which meaning is negotiated and the complex responsive process perspective set out by Ralph Stacey and his colleagues. However, Stacey himself does not appear to share this view, at least as judged by his brief discussion of Wenger’s work in Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, 5 Ed. (100-101).
I'm sure that this discussion will continue!