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DOI: 10.1177/1350508411420901
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Embracing essentialism: a realist
critique of resistance to discursive
power
Joe O’Mahoney
University of Cardiff, UK
Abstract
This article argues that, contrary to its detractors, essentialism is a necessary concept in
understanding resistance to managerial discourses. The article first suggests that essentialism,
under a critical realist framing, need not suffer from the reductionism or determinism found in
many 19th and 20th Century essentialized accounts of the self, arguing instead that the concept
adds analytical power to explanatory theorizing. Next, taking three common post-Foundational
presentations of resistance to managerialist discourses, the article proposes that, despite
protestations to the contrary, each relies on essentialist representations of both discourse and
the self. The article then seeks to tackle the ‘problem’ of essentialism head-on by showing its
potential for both framing resistance and building bridges between the post-Foundational, realist
and natural worlds.
Keywords
critical realism, discourse, essentialism, resistance
Post-foundational anti-essentialism
Whilst a strong and deterministic essentialism is always wrong and often dangerously misleading, a
moderate, non-deterministic essentialism is necessary for explanation and for a social science that claims
to be critical. (Sayer, 1997: 453)
Since Newton’s (1998) persuasive argument that neo-Foucauldian organization studies had failed
to avoid essentialist positions, the post-foundational movement has made significant theoretical
gains in seeking to explain, not only how normative forms of control impact the identities of
employees (Holmer-Nadesan, 1996; Meriläinen et al., 2004; Musson and Duberley, 2007; Thomas
Corresponding author:
Joe O’Mahoney, University of Cardiff, Cardiff Business School, Colum Drive Cardiff, Cardiff CF10 3EU, UK.
420901ORGXXX10.1177/1350508411420901O’MahoneyOrganization
Article
2 Organization
and Linstead 2002), but also how individuals resist such processes (Ainsworth and Hardy, 2004;
Roberts, 2005; Sveningsson and Alvesson, 2003; Thomas and Davies, 2005a; Whittle, 2005). In
these accounts a number of complex and inter-related arguments are frequently deployed to illus-
trate the ways in which subjects resist, undermine and distance themselves from managerial, or
capitalist, discourses. An adequate theoretical understanding of these arguments in toto is often
difficult as they frequently combine a number of philosophical positions or do not specify the exact
lineage of their thinking. Thus, to adequately understand and critique these arguments it is neces-
sary to unpick the theoretical threads which are used to weave their arguments.
In seeking to clarify these accounts of resistance, therefore, this article identifies three dominant
positions that theorists have drawn upon to conceptualize how employee resistance is possible
from a post-essentialist perspective. The first focuses on the concept of ‘the other’ in enabling the
‘incompleteness’ of any discursive constructions (Carroll and Levy, 2008; Essers and Benschop,
2007; Stavrakakis, 2008); the second shows that ‘spaces of action’ and ‘contradictions’ between
discourses develop space for resistance (Davies and Thomas, 2003; Holmer-Nadesan, 1996);
finally, the third uses the concept of ‘dis-identification’ (Fleming and Sewell, 2002; Fleming and
Spicer, 2004) to show how a ‘cynical’ distancing from managerial discourse can (and cannot) pre-
vent the colonization of selfhood (Holmer-Nadesan, 1996). Such categorizations cannot, of course,
be exhaustive or even mutually exclusive: whilst some authors adhere strongly to one perspective,
others develop two or more of these threads, sometimes consecutively, to forge their own unique
position on resistance. However, as I argue later, these three threads form the analytical bases upon
which most post-foundational scholars in organization studies build their conceptualizations of
resistance to discursive power in organizations.
In developing a post-foundational positioning, many authors explicitly claim a ‘rejection of an
essentialist view of human Nature’ (Roberts, 2005: 620). Such a rejection comes in part from a
movement away from the Marxist identification of ‘real interests’ (O’Doherty and Willmott, 2001)
where individuals have been argued to be simply ‘the personification of economic categories’
(Marx, 1867: 90) and in part from the rejection of political forms of essentialism found in neo-
colonial or patriarchal texts that derived characteristics of an individual (for example as oppres-
sive, superior, maternal or lazy) from the group they belong to (such as a society, tribe, race or sex)
(Tinker, 2002). The rejection of essentialism thus formed the basis of liberationist movements that
rejected sexism, racism or colonialism (Fuss, 1989) and drove the deconstruction of binary opposi-
tions such as male/female, white/black, rich/poor (Bacchi, 1990; Sayer, 2008):
if what we take ourselves and others to be are constructions and not objective descriptions, and if it is
human beings who have built these constructions, then it is … possible to re-construct ourselves in ways
that might be more facilitating for us. (Burr, 2003: 14).
Yet, politics aside, philosophically speaking, a rejection of essentialism is only1 logically nec-
essary for ‘strong’ social constructionists, who cannot accept the non-discursive ontological sta-
tus of essence (Sayer, 2000). However, many who are less catholic in their ontological claims also
reject explicitly any notion of essences in their theorizing (see for example, Bergström and
Knights, 2006: 353; Caldwell, 2007: 100; Fleming and Spicer, 2003: 161; Linstead and Thomas
2002: 75; Stratavakis, 2008: 1041; Sveningsson and Alvesson 2003: 1164; Thomas and Davies,
2005b: 727). In claiming this position, accounts frequently utilize discursive theorizations of
identity, claiming to replace the essentialist view of the self with one which is ‘fragmented, partial
and discontinuous’ (Taylor, 2004: 124) or ‘unstable, fragmented and susceptible to frequent
rewriting’ (Webb, 2004: 724).
O’Mahoney 3
Such a movement has begged the question of whether resistance can be adequately conceptual-
ized once essences such as interests have been disregarded (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1995;
Fairclough, 2005; Thompson and Warhurst, 2003). Many critical realist scholars, for example,
have long argued that post-foundational accounts of identity and resistance are inadequate without
reference to a non-discursive reality (Archer, 2000; Reed, 1997; Sayer, 1997). With rare exceptions
(Marks and Thompson, 2010), however, the critical realist critique of post-foundational accounts
in organization studies has not considered recent developments in post-Foundational conceptual-
izations of resistance, focusing instead on the nascent period of discourse studies when it seemed
justified to approaches as simply ‘neo-Foucauldian’ (Knights and Vurdubakis, 1994) or when the
movement could be substantially critiqued by focusing solely on the work of David Knights and
Hugh Willmott (Newton, 1998). Although, this is no longer the case, the realist critique, in organi-
zation studies at least, still often focuses on safer territory such as the lack of structural under-
pinning to presentations of discourse (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1995; Fairclough, 1995; Thompson
and Warhurst, 2003) or the perceived inadequacies in post-Foundational conceptions of agency
(Archer, 2000; Fleetwood, 2005; Mutch, 2002; Reed, 1997). This article, therefore, argues that
there has been a lacuna in the critique of recent post-Foundational accounts of resistance and their
rejection of essentialism. Key questions that remain unanswered are: What are the ontological
implications of recent post-foundational conceptions of resistance? To what extent is it possible to
avoid essentialism in conceptualizing such forms of resistance?
This article holds that avoiding such questions for fear of being labelled an essentialist is unten-
able as ‘the alternative to philosophy is not no philosophy, but bad philosophy’ (Collier, 1994: 17).
It therefore seeks to tackle the essentialism question head on by arguing three points regarding
identity and resistance. First, the article argues that that not all forms of essentialism associated
with resistance are ‘bad’. Within a Critical Realist framework, some essences, necessary for an
adequate understanding of the social world, can avoid the charges of determinism (that action and
subjectivity are determined by essences) and reductionism (that the self is merely the sum of its
parts) that are frequently made by those who reject the concept. Second, using the three dominant
threads used by post-Foundational writers to theorize resistance, the article argues that essences are
evident in many of these accounts and should be explicitly acknowledged rather than be denied or
hidden in ambiguous language. Third, the article shows that the acceptance of a more sophisticated
form of essentialism can be better supported by a (critical) realist, rather than a strong social con-
structionist, ontology, and that the commitments of critical realism are not only compatible with
many constructivist accounts of resistance but also enhance their explanatory power.
In making these points, the article does not seek to contradict the empirical findings of discur-
sive analyses of resistance, nor does it accept the incorrect, reductionist and determinist forms of
essentialism found in patriarchal or neo-colonial accounts of the self (Tinker, 2002). Instead, the
article aims to provide greater explanatory power and conceptual clarity to current conceptions of
resistance to discursive power through a reclaiming of essences within an emergent and stratified
ontology. Such a view, it argues, is fundamentally compatabilist, capable not only of building
bridges between realist and constructivist notions of identity, but at a wider level, offering oppor-
tunities for dialogue between the natural and social sciences.
Essence: a critical realist perspective
Critical realism (CR) is an ontological perspective that distinguishes what exists (ontology) from
what we know about its existence (epistemology). The ontology of CR is both stratified and
emergent (Bhaskar, 1978, 1979) two concepts which require a brief explanation: ‘Stratified’