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Things fall apart? Discourses on agency and change in organizations

Caldwell, Raymond (2005) Things fall apart? Discourses on agency and change in organizations. Human Relations 58 (1), 83 -114. ISSN 0018-7267.

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The history of the concept of ‘agency’ in organizational theory over the last 50 years makes dismal reading. From a position of unbounded optimism that organizational change could be managed as a rational or planned process with a transparent agenda, we now confront restructured workplaces characterized by new forms of flexibility, hypercomplexity and chaos in which the nature, sources and consequences of change interventions have become fundamentally problematic. How did this occur and what implications does it have for our understanding of agency and change in organizations? Should we assume that rationalist concepts of centred agency are no longer viable, or should we welcome the plural and promising new forms of decentred agency emerging within organizations? This article presents a selective interdisciplinary history of competing disciplinary discourses on agency and change in organizations, classified into rationalist, contextualist, dispersalist and constructionist discourses. Although the four discourses clarify the meta-theoretical terrain of agency in relation to organizational change theories, the growing plurality of discourses challenges the social scientific ambitions of the research field to be objective, cumulative or unified. It is concluded that the future for research on agency and change in organizations is characterized by new opportunities for empirical investigation and intervention, but also by mounting threats to the epistemological rationale of objective knowledge and the efficacy of practice.

Item Type: Article
Keyword(s) / Subject(s): agency versus structure, change agency, decentred agency, discourses
School or Research Centre: Birkbeck Schools and Research Centres > School of Business, Economics & Informatics > Organizational Psychology
Depositing User: Raymond Caldwell
Date Deposited: 26 Jul 2010 10:02
Last Modified: 17 Apr 2013 12:17

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