Date of this Version

December 1991

Document Type

Discussion Paper

Publication Details

Stewart R. Clegg (1991) Postmodern Organizations in Management?

A paper presented to Bond University School of Business Seminar Series

School of Business Discussion Paper ; No. 16, Dec. 1991

© Copyright Stewart R. Clegg and the School of Business, Bond University


A distinction needs to be made between the axis of modernism postmodernism and the axis of modernity - postmodernity. The former has been the locus of major debates in the humanities, in aestetics, in politics, and latterly even in organization theory. This axis concerns interpretative schema and styles of analysis and rhetoric. The latter concerns the nature of phenomena themselves. It is the latter which I want to argue is the more important for organization analysis, when interpreted, in part, under some of the auspices ofthe former. Postmodernism, by contrast with modernism, has sought to highlight the importance of diversities, pluralities and ambiguities in analysis. In this respect much of organization theory has been classic modernism: it has sought the obliteration and minimization of difference in the explanatory frameworks it has pursued. Recently, in organization analysis, the burgeoning knowledge of East Asian business and organizations has functioned as a source of major empirical diversity in the narrative accounts of western, modernist organization theory.

Frequently this difference has been interpreted in 'culturalist' terms. As a prelude to developing a more adequate account of the specificity of East Asian, and in particular, Japanese organizations, these culturalist accounts need to be looked at critically. Once these inadequacies have been exposed we can move to a more detailed and sociologically fine-detailed account of culture in management in the Japanese context. It will be suggested that some aspects of the Japanese model that analysis constructs are sufficiently distinct to the features usually stressed under more orthodox modernist models that they offer the possibility of a different organizational universe. In the spirit of respecting pluralities when and where we find them, this could be considered a possible candidate for postmodern organization. By virtue of this re-specification of analysis in postmodern terms a central issue can be addressed. This central issue in the interpretation of Japanese management practice has been the extent to which it is transferable. To the extent that it is a unique, culturally embedded phenomenon, it is not. To the extent that it is a set of culturally disposed techniques, it is.

In this paper neither the attractiveness of cultural reduction nor technical abstraction will be endorsed. Instead, starting with a critique of the culturalist explanation, as well as an appreciation of the important role of technical innovation, the paper will argue that Japanese management has to be seen in the context of the institutional frameworks which enable specific practices to flourish. While these practices are by no means as unexportable as a unique cultural pattern might be, they are by no means so easily or implicitly transmitted that techniques framed within them will easily or readily work in quite distinct institutional contexts.

The central cultural concept in this paper is that of 'economic culture', a term explicitly introduced by Peter Berger (1987) in his book The Capitalist Revolution. A concept of economic culture implicated within institutional frameworks, particularly those stressed by Weber (1930) in his focus on accounting and financial conventions, is advocated as a concern with 'institutional frameworks' and the types of practical economic reasoning which they sustain on the part of key economic actorS. This is explored in the Japanese case by means of a systematic grid as an aid to understanding. The 'Japanese model' is assessed in terms of its postmodern possibilities.