Organizations are, in addition to being actors in their own right, physical places. People interact, live, and experience life in organizational settings, whether it be their workplaces, churches, or voluntary associations. Much of our bodily experiences is structured by organizations. Surprisingly, the physical/bodily experience of organizations doesn’t get much attention in organizational theory. Feminist perspectives are a big exception, of course. Philip Selznick also emphasized how ideals were “embodied in action” through organizations in his distinct brand of pragmatism. But most organizational theory fails to take into account the physical experience of organizations.
One of the reasons I really like Shamus Khan’s book, Privilege, is because it provides a rich empirical window into the physical embodiment of organization. Of course, Khan’s purpose in writing the book is not primarily to inform organizational theory. His study is about how privilege is reproduced in an elite private boarding school – a system that has increasingly emphasized merit over inherited wealth as the key to elite access. He shows that rather than confer elite status simply through association, the school teaches students how to feel and act like someone of high status. The school provides a setting where students can master the physical and cultural practices of the elite and learn how to physically navigate the social hierarchies they will face in their adult lives.
[The students] literally must know what the various postures feel like and internalize the many different poses necessary to succeed in the myriad dimensions of an elite existence. In learning to embody a variety of interactions – how to flop onto your teacher’s couch and compose yourself at a formal dinner, each with equal ease – students learn to negotiate the dense, yet subtle content of hierarchical relations. By learning how to comfortably yet respectfully relate to those above them – teachers – students learn a crucial mode of elite interaction. This mode consecrates hierarchy by respecting it and by acknowledging the formality required in certain situations; at the same time, the ease with which successful students navigate the density almost denies the existence of hierarchical relations. And there is a clear difference between this kind of interaction – respecting the hierarchy while making it disappear – to the one with staff – where it is the people themselves who disappear (70).
The book provides numerous examples of how students learn (or fail to learn) to feel “at ease” in these hierarchies, preparing them for life outside of the walls of the school. Students who physically acclimate themselves and embody the school’s ideals are able to translate their skills and knowledge to other settings and thereby gain access to elite circles of influence and wealth.
Khan’s private school is an extreme but accurate representation of what people experience in any organizational hierarchy. Every organization has “rules of the game” that determine how people gain access to elite circles and generate influence. In most organizations, these rules are applied situationally, requiring the individual to adapt her posture and physical demeanor to show competence and understanding. Individuals who do this excel beyond their mere capabilities or knowledge. Individuals who never quite figure out how to “feel at ease” in their organization sputter and live a frustrated existence. We all know of very capable individuals who struggle with intra-organizational politics because they just don’t seem to fit in. Sometimes it’s hard to really put our finger on what exactly makes that person a poor fit, but it’s something that we pick up in just a few minutes of observing that person interact with others. There’s something physically obvious about not knowing how to fit in.
At the psychological level we know that individuals’ physical presence matters a great deal to the outcome of an interaction. A person’s height or posture can have an impact on the balance of power in an interaction. One thing we learn from Shamus’s study is that learning physical presence is an organizational and cultural phenomenon. What works in one setting may not work in another. Therefore, to understand power dynamics across organizations, we really need to understand the ideals of that organization and pay attention to the ways that individuals learn to embody those ideals.