Agency and Change: Re-evaluating Foucault’s Legacy
Raymond Caldwell, Birbeck College, University of London, London, UK
Michel Foucault’s work marks an important break with conventional ontological dualism, epistemological realism and rationalist and intentional notions of individual action and human agency. In these respects his ideas have had an enormous influence on postmodern organization theory and analysis, as well as related forms of social constructionism. In particular, Foucault’s ideas have led to a rejection of agency-structure dichotomies and a move towards process-based ontologies of `organizing/changing’, that create new problematics of agency as discourse, talk, text or conversation. While this ontological shift toward nominalism has often provoked a counter-reaction against the `death of the subject’ and the corrosive influence of postmodernism, there have been few attempts to explore how Foucault’s decentring of agency is related to new, more positive and potentially emancipatory discourses that redefine the relationship between agency and change, resistance and power in organizations and society. Here it will be argued that Foucault’s legacy can be re-conceptualized as a theorization of the decentring of agency consisting of four key components: discourse, power/ knowledge, embodiment and self-reflexivity. Redefined within Foucauldian organizational discourses, decentred agency can lead to new possibilities for the exploration of agency as discourse and the broader dispersal of agency in organizations. It will be concluded, however, that Foucault’s concept of agency fails as a theorization of change: it breaks the link between the voluntary choice or desire to `act otherwise’ and the moral, political and practical possibilities of `making a difference’.
Key Words: autonomy • de-centred agency • discourse • embodiment • identity • reflexitivity
Organization, Vol. 14, No. 6, 769-791 (2007)
Filed under: Foucault