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Notes: Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2011). Discursive manifestations of contradictions in organizational change efforts



Citekey: @Engestrom2011-yr

Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2011). Discursive manifestations of contradictions in organizational change efforts: A methodological framework. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(3), 368–387.


Summarize: This paper clarifies the concept of contradiction in activity theory and introduces a methodology for identifying contradictions reflected in discourse of an organization. “Four types of discursive manifestations, namely dilemmas, conflicts, critical conflicts, and double binds, could be effectively identified in the data.”

Reflect: This introduced approach could be combined with NLP techniques. It seems directly applicable to analysis of promisingness judgments.


Abstract Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to introduce a new methodological framework for the identification and analysis of different types of discursive manifestations of contradictions. Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on the dialectical tradition of cultural-historical activity theory. The methodological framework is developed by means of analyzing the entire transcribed corpus of the discourse conducted in a change laboratory intervention consisting of eight sessions and altogether 189,398 words. Findings – Four types of discursive manifestations, namely dilemmas, conflicts, critical conflicts, and double binds, could be effectively identified in the data. Specific linguistic cues were a useful first level of approaching the different types of manifestations. Critical conflicts and double binds were found to be particularly effective lenses on systemic contradictions. Research limitations/implications – The paper points to the need for theoretical and conceptual rigor in studies using the notion of contradiction. Further empirical testing of the framework is needed and may lead to more refined or alternative categories. Practical implications – Dynamics of different organizational change interventions may be effectively analyzed and compared with the help of the framework. Originality/value – The paper presents an original, empirically-tested methodological framework that may be a valuable resource for analyzes of contradictions driving organizational change. (p. 2)

Contradictions are often mentioned as a significant factor behind organizational change. However, the meaning of the term contradiction is commonly left vague and ambiguous. (p. 2)

In sum, in current organizational literature and research, contradictions tend to be watered down in three interrelated ways. First, they are not theoretically defined; instead they are equated with a number of other terms, the exact meaning of which is left vague. Second, contradictions are depicted ahistorically, as a universal feature of organizations, without embedding them in the socioeconomic formation of capitalism. Third, contradictions are commonly presented merely as constellations of competing priorities which need to be combined or balanced. (p. 3)

In sum, we will address the following questions in this paper: how well does our proposed framework of discursive manifestations work in the analysis of data from an organizational change intervention? What kinds of dynamics can be found among the four kinds of discursive manifestations in a longitudinal intervention? How might (p. 3)

the framework of discursive manifestations serve as a tool for identifying and elaborating organizational contradictions? (p. 4)

Dialectical contradictions (p. 4)

As Wilde (1989, p. 102) points out, dialectical contradictions are different from the contradictions described in the principle of non-contradiction. Dialectics deals with systems in movement through time. The elements of a dialectical contradiction relate to each other within the moving structure, historically. A dialectical contradiction refers to a unity of opposites, opposite forces or tendencies within such a moving system (p. 4)

At least since Benson’s (1977) and Heydebrand’s (1977) early papers, many if not most of the authors in organizational studies who use the notion of contradiction either explicitly or implicitly refer to dialectical contradictions. (p. 4)

Our own concept of contradiction stems from Marxist dialectics (Marx, 1990). (p. 4)

First, contradiction is a foundational philosophical concept that should not be equated with paradox, tension, inconsistency, conflict, dilemma or double bind. (p. 4)

Second, contradictions are historical and must be traced in their real historical development. The primary contradiction of capitalism resides in every commodity, between its use value and (exchange) value (p. 5)

Third, developmentally significant contradictions cannot be effectively dealt with merely by combining and balancing competing priorities. (p. 5)

Focusing on inner contradiction requires that we analyze the concrete historical system within which the contradiction takes shape; dealing only with external contradictions means escaping this crucial theoretical challenge. For analysis of inner contradictions at the level of organizations, we need a theoretical model of the systemic “anatomy” of organization. (p. 5)

In the present context, the idea of “thirdness” refers to the generation of novel mediating models, concepts and patterns of activity that go beyond and transcend the available opposing forces or options, pushing the system into a new phase of development. (p. 5)

In this paper, we will focus on discursive manifestations of contradictions. In organizational life in general, and in change efforts and interventions in particular, contradictions are to an important extent manifested and constructed in patterns of talk and discursive action with the help of which actors try to make sense of, deal with and transform or resolve their contradictions (Engestro ̈m, 1999; Taylor and Van Every, 2011). (p. 5)

Discursive manifestations of contradictions (p. 6)

Hatch (1997) analyzes managers’ ironically humorous remarks as constructions of contradiction. She point out that “ironic remarks taken in context allow us to pinpoint aspects of experience that are constructed as contradictory by those producing or responding to the remark” (Hatch, 1997, p. 278). (p. 6)

Within the framework of activity theory, Engestro ̈m (2008) analyzed discursive disturbances in the work of a television production team specialized in live broadcasts of professional bowling contests. Disturbances were defined as deviations from the normal scripted course of events in the work process, interpreted as symptoms or manifestations of inner contradictions of the activity system in question. (p. 6)

The production team used a variety of ways to deal with the disturbances, but not a single instance of open conflict or innovation attempt was found. (p. 7)

The analysis led to the conclusion that a pressing inner contradiction was developing between the expected higher ratings and revenues (demanded new outcome of the activity) on the one hand and the existing stable instruments and rules of the activity (“There is only one way to cover bowling, and what we do is right”) on the other hand. (p. 7)

We will discuss four types of discursive manifestations of contradictions, namely dilemmas, conflicts, critical conflicts, and double binds. (p. 7)

“Dilemmas” are traditionally studied in social psychology as means for understanding processes of decision making, moral reasoning, social representations and ideologies. (p. 7)

A dilemma is an expression or exchange of incompatible evaluations, either between people or within the discourse of a single person. It is commonly expressed in the form of hedges and hesitations, such as “on the one hand[…] on the other hand” and “yes, but”. In ongoing discourse, a dilemma is typically reproduced rather than resolved, often with the help of denial or reformulation. (p. 7)

“Conflicts” take the form of resistance, disagreement, argument and criticism. (p. 7)

Vuchinich (1990) found five formats of conflict termination, namely submission, dominant third-party intervention, compromise, stand-off, and withdrawal. (p. 8)

“Critical conflicts” are situations in which people face inner doubts that paralyze them in front of contradictory motives unsolvable by the subject alone. (p. 8)

“Double binds” (Bateson, 1972; Sluzki and Ransom, 1976) are processes in which actors repeatedly face pressing and equally unacceptable alternatives in their activity system, with seemingly no way out. (p. 8)

This impossibility is commonly expressed with the help of desperate rhetorical questions of the type “What can we do?” A double bind is typically a situation which cannot be resolved by an individual alone. Thus, a discursive elaboration of a double bind typically involves an attempt at a transition from the individual “I” to the collective “we”, such as “we must”, “we have to,” loaded with a sense of urgency. The resolution of a double bind requires practical transformative and collective action that goes beyond words but is often accompanied with expressions such as “let us do that”, “we will make it.” (p. 8)

We may think of the analysis of contradictions in discourse data as similar to the peeling of an onion (Figure 1). (p. 8)

Manifestation Features Linguistic cues Double bind Facing pressing and equally unacceptable alternatives in an activity system: Resolution: practical transformation (going beyond words) “we”, “us”, “we must”, “we have to” pressing rhetorical questions, expressions of helplessness “let us do that”, “we will make it” Critical conflict Facing contradictory motives in social interaction, feeling violated or guilty Resolution: finding new personal sense and negotiating a new meaning Personal, emotional, moral accounts narrative structure, vivid metaphors “I now realize that[…]” Conflict Arguing, criticizing Resolution: finding a compromise, submitting to authority or majority “no”, “I disagree”, “this is not true” “yes”, “this I can accept” Dilemma Expression or exchange of incompatible evaluations Resolution: denial, reformulation “on the one hand[…] on the other hand”; “yes, but” “I didn’t mean that”, “I actually meant” (p. 9)

Table I. Types of discursive manifestations of contradictions (p. 9)

Furthermore, a high frequency or heavy concentration of some cues in some parts of the discourse may in itself be an indication of something important that is not fully captured by looking only at the actual manifestations. (p. 9)

Intervention and data (p. 10)

To demonstrate and examine the potential of this conceptual framework, we will analyze data from an organizational change intervention conducted in 2008 and 2009 with the management group of municipal home care for the elderly in the City of Helsinki. (p. 10)

This effort was made in 2008-2009 by means of a change laboratory intervention (Engestro ̈m, 2007). The change laboratory is a method for developing work practices by the practitioners in dialogue and debate among themselves, with their management, with their clients, and – not the least – with the interventionist researchers. It facilitates both intensive, deep transformations and continuous incremental improvement. The idea is to arrange on the shopfloor a room or space in which there is a rich set of representational tools available for analysis of disturbances and for constructing new models of the work activity. (p. 10)

The change laboratory sessions began with the viewing and dicussion of a series of videotaped interview excerpts and service encounters from the field. These led to a preliminary attempt to analyze the situation in historical and systemic terms, and to examine critically recent solutions implemented in Sweden and the UK. Starting with the third session, the work was focused on the design of the service palette, first its general structure, then its substantive contents and textual formulations. In the eighth session, the participants discussed the experiences gained in testing the service palette in practice. (p. 11)

Linguistic cues for discursive manifestations of contradictions (p. 11)

To identify rudimentary linguistic cues in a large corpus of discourse, the cues need to be simple and unambiguous, preferably so that they can be picked up by a computer program, even with the help of the “find” function of MS Word. (p. 11)

For dilemmas, we identified the occurrences of the word “but” (in Finnish, “mutta”). For conflits, we identified the occurrences of the word “no” (in Finnish, “ei”); we purposefully excluded all other linguistic forms of the basic negative. (p. 11)

For critical conflicts, we could not determine a rudimentary linquistic cue comparable to “but” and “no”. Critical conflicts are by their very nature personal, and they are expressed by means of emotionally and morally charged accounts. The common linguistic characteristic of such accounts is their narrative structure accompanied by vivid metaphors. There seems to be no simple way to identify them, so we did it by careful reading of the corpus. (p. 11)

For double binds, we identified the occurences of rhetorical questions, that is, questions expressed without expecting an answer. (p. 11)

we first picked up all question marks in the corpus, then read the associated utterances carefully to identify rhetorical questions. (p. 11)

The quantitative results of this step of our analysis are presented in Table II. In the table, the numbers in parentheses represent the average frequency of the given cue per minute in the data. (p. 11)

First of all, the “but” expressions are consistently fairly frequent across the sessions. (p. 11)

Second, the frequency of negative “no” expressions is consistently high through the sessions, more than twice the relative frequency of the “but” expressions. (p. 12)

Third, narrative structures peppered with vivid metaphors are extremely rare in the data. This may indicate that this type of management context, combined with the Finnish cultural heritage of not showing one’s emotions, does not favor the explication and elaboration of critical conflicts. (p. 12)

Finally, the frequency of rhetorical questions is quite high in the first two sessions but drops radically after that, to practically disappear in the last three sessions. This may indicate a presence of aggravated double binds at the beginning of the process. Conceivably the double binds may have been set aside, perhaps even partially transcended or resolved, in the ensuing design efforts oriented toward the generation of a new pattern of practice. (p. 12)

These tentative observations may be solidified or refuted in the next step of the analysis (p. 12)

Dilemmas and conflicts (p. 12)

We identified a total of 38 dilemmas and 41 conflicts in our data. (p. 12)

Dilemmas and conflicts are very commonly associated with whole clusters of several “buts” and “nos”, so a one-to-one correspondence is not to expected. (p. 13)

The occurrence of conflicts confirms the observation tentatively made on the basis of the cues: this intervention was all through a conflictual process. (p. 13)

One of the repeated dilemmas in our data had to do with the tension between the proclaimed services officially available on the one hand and the actualy limited or missing capacity to provide those services on the other hand. (p. 13)

Another recurring dilemma was that between the official principle of equally and comprehensively competent home care workforce on the one hand and the realization that many of the home care workers were in fact not competent (p. 13)

s excerpt as dilemma, not as a double bind. There were three kinds of conflicts in our data, namely: (1) those between the standpoint of a home care manager and the perceived standpoint of the researchers; (2) those between the standpoints of two or more home care managers; and (3) those between the standpoint of a home care manager and an the perceived standpoint of authorized text, rule or practice. (p. 14)

Critical conflicts and the primary contradiction in home care (p. 15)

The personal agony stems from the fact that the manager has also nursing competence and understands substantively the medical need of the client, yet as a maneger and “gatekeeper” she cannot accept the need and offer the services the client would want. Thus, the conflict is not between the manager and the client, it is between the manager as nurse and the manager as gatekeeper. (p. 15)

The two critical conflicts are both related to the primary contradiction between use value and exchange value in home care work. The foundational purpose and use value of home care is help. (p. 16)

A home care manager is torn between two opposite but mutually dependent motives: to provide help and to contain costs. This primary contradiction is experienced as personal conflict between one’s role as a helper and one’s role as a bureaucrat. (p. 16)

From double binds to secondary contradictions (p. 16)

Among the double binds in our data, one core theme stood out above the others. This was the theme of reduction and fragmentation of services to separate minimum chores vs the principle of holistic assessment, care and activation of the client. (p. 16)

Moreover, additional three double binds were focused on the closely related theme of making clients passive vs finding, supporting and activating their own resources. (p. 16)

There were two other themes represented by two double binds each, namely the need for coordination and overview of services vs the prevalence of low-level tasks of “dirty work” in the current practice, and the need to get the client committed to her care vs existing tools that exclude the client from joint negotiation. (p. 17)

The core theme of the double binds indicates that secondary contradictions in current home care stem from an object split into two poles. The home care pole consists of fragmented tasks of routine maintenance of the client’s life (p. 17)

The client’s pole consists of the old person’s life resources and threats. (p. 17)

These life needs generally do not fit into the list of necessary tasks to be peformed by the home care worker. In everyday practice, there is a deep gap and constant struggle between the to poles of the object. This contradiction is indicated with the help of the horizontal lightning-shaped arrow in Figure 2. (p. 17)

The two poles of the object are mediated by actions. In the discourse of the home care managers, three distinct spheres of action may be identified. The sphere of execution of standard chores dominates home care work. It tends to marginalize and exclude the two other spheres. The first one of these marginalized spheres of action is the coordination of services, the handling of “the totality in a manageable way” in the words of home care manger 7 above. The other one is the activation of clients’ resources. (p. 17)

What gives rise to these contradictions? Cost containment seems to be the prime source (p. 17)

the top manager actually spelled out the historical tendency of the neoliberal (p. 17)

new public management that has strongly influenced the City of Helsinki over the past ten years. (p. 18)

Conclusion (p. 18)

The obvious next step is to conduct comparative analyzes between multiple Change Laboratories or similar organizational change interventions. Especially, the rudimentary linguistic cues, the outermost layer of the methodological onion (Figure 1), may take a quite different shape if a particular social language (Bakhtin, 1982) dominates in an organization. (p. 18)

Overall, analyzes of the dynamic movement and evolution of different types of manifestations and their various combinations or strings over time will benefit from the use and testing of theoretical models of organizational transformation. Within activity theory, the theory of the stepwise cycle of expansive learning (Engestro ̈m, 1987; Engestro ̈m et al., 2007; Engestro ̈m and Sannino, 2010) is an obvious framework for such analyzes. (p. 18)

We used critical conflicts and double binds as windows into systemic contradictions in the activity system under scrutiny. (p. 19)

Of course, a discursive identification of systemic contradictions is in itself only a hypothesis, to be tested and revised in practical transformative actions. Concrete studies on agentic uses and resolution efforts of contradictions in organizational change efforts are sorely needed. (p. 19)

Engestro ̈m, Y. and Sannino, A. (2010), “Studies of expansive learning: foundations, findings and future challenges”, Educational Research Review, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 1-24. (p. 19)