Posts Tagged ‘democracy

watercooler democracy: how rumors can democratize information at work – guest post by Katie Sobering

I’m posting this guest post about rumors and workplace democracy on behalf of UNT organizational ethnographer Katie Sobering.  Sobering recently virtually visited my “Organizations, Markets, and the State” grad course to answer questions about her ethnographic research on Hotel BAUEN, a worker recuperated cooperative located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In response to student questions about her published research, Sobering explained how she decided to focus on Hotel BAUEN over other collectivist-democratic forms.  By studying Hotel BAUEN’s trainings, meetings, everyday activities, and involvement in social movement activities, Sobering shows how we can use this case to understand how organizations pursue equality through practices such as job rotation and decision-making by consensus.  Sobering also depicted the challenges confronting the cooperative: securing ownership of the hotel, expensive, specialized maintenance of the facilities, and recruitment and retention of members. During the Q&A, Sobering traced her intellectual lineage and inspirations back to Joyce Rothschild’s seminal work on collectivist-democratic organizations and Rachel Sherman’s research on service work in hotels.  She currently is revising a book manuscript on her research.

Here’s Sobering’s take on rumors’ roles in workplace transparency, based on her research published in Work and Occupations:

“We’ve all heard rumors. Odds are, most of us have spread rumors every now and again. From the family dinner table to anonymous corners of the internet, people share unverified pieces of information to make sense of their social worlds. Rumors are especially common in the workplace, spurring the now well-known idea of the “watercooler effect.”

Managers, consultants, and academics alike have paid close attention to the role and repercussions of such informal communication at work. Much of this assumes that firms keep secrets. Thus, in lieu of access to information, workers pass rumors among themselves.

In the 21st century, transparency has become a buzzword, as work organizations like tech firms and startups flatten hierarchies, embrace informality, and remove barriers that traditionally limited access to information. Some organizations are experimenting with “radical transparency” while others warn that too much transparency can be counterproductive. Worker cooperatives and other participatory organizations often practice democratic transparency, recognizing that information-sharing is key to democratizing power. All this begs the question: in contexts of increased transparency, what is the role of rumors?

In my recent article published in Work and Occupations, I draw on long term ethnographic research in a worker-run hotel in Argentina to go behind the scenes in an organization in which workers enjoy a far more egalitarian environment than most U.S. employees experience on the job: extensive access to information, voice in the organization, and power over their jobs. I find that transparency does not quell the rumor mill. But rumors do have an important impact on the culture and practice of information-sharing.

Democratic transparency in Hotel Bauen

I conducted my research in Hotel Bauen, a twenty-story conference hotel located in the bustling center of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Built in the 1970s, the private owners declared bankruptcy in 2001 and shut down the property, leaving longtime employees out of work. In 2003, thirty former employees joined the growing movement of worker-recuperated businesses by occupying the abandoned hotel and forming a worker cooperative. Since 2004, Hotel Bauen has been open around-the-clock, hosting events, lodging overnight guests, and offering a meeting place and street-side café for passersby. Despite workers’ ongoing efforts to legalize their use of the hotel, the BAUEN Cooperative has grown from thirty founding members to 130 members in 2015. Today, it is one of the most iconic worker-recuperated business in Argentina.

Hotel Bauen is run by a worker cooperative: an organization in which all members are equal owners and govern through direct and representative forms of democracy. Since its inception, the cooperative has adopted formal policies and practices designed to make information widely available to the group. They have sought to create what Archeon Fung calls “democratic transparency,” an informational environment that allows people to collectively control the organizations that affect their lives.

First, in the BAUEN Cooperative, information is formally accessible to all members. Organizational records are kept in open book system that is available not only for managers or decision-makers, but also for members.

Second, the cooperative makes information proportional by sharing details about that which directly impacts the business and its members. While cooperatives in Argentina must hold as least one assembly each year by law, the BAUEN Cooperative organizes quarterly meetings to provide regular financial snapshots and open forums for discussion.

Finally, information is actionable through formal mechanisms that allow members to question and even overturn managerial decisions. With signatures of ten percent of the membership, members can convene an assembly of all workers to address and evaluate any decision or scenario in the cooperative.

Despite the transparency that the workers enjoyed in Hotel Bauen, rumors were part and parcel of daily working life. These whispers were often interpersonal in nature, passing hearsay about coworkers’ personal lives. But other rumors ventured into the inner workings of the organization itself.

I found that these rumors democratized information in two interrelated ways. First, rumors encouraged workers to participate in decisions, moving decision-making out of formal spaces and into the hallways where members of the cooperative could informally deliberate on the issue at hand. Second, rumors allowed members to oversee the managerial authority and empowered them to exercise their ability to hold the organization accountable.

[Check out more about worker influence after the jump]

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how to know if you’re scott, and why you should keep posting things

So I’m reading James T. Kloppenberg’s magisterial (and very, very long) Toward Democracy for a long overdue book review. One of his central arguments is that democracy requires certain kinds of virtues that, paradoxically, democracy can also help to destroy.  Which gets me thinking about this skit:

On balance, last night’s SNL was good but not groundbreaking. Louis CK is always solid and I laughed a lot at his opening monologue, but there were no amazing insights this time around: he talked about race again, but not in a way his fans haven’t heard before. Baldwin-as-Trump is getting old, even though Baldwin double-dipping as Trump and O’Reilly is pretty impressive (I’m entirely willing to admit that maybe it’s just that Trump-as-president is getting old. I’m ready for the joke to be over). But there were two skits especially worth seeing, both off-set productions: the first was, as Matthew Dessem wrote at Slate, a “strong finish” to the “conversation” about that terrible Pepsi ad (you know, the one where we can all just get along if a famous reality star gives a cop a Pepsi). But the other skit, also getting some media buzz, is “Thank you, Scott,” in which singers thank a self-righteous couch potato for his social media posts. If you’re like me (and lots of other folks apparently), the skit stung a little bit. It’s funny cuz it’s true!

Except it’s not necessarily true. At least, not exactly. The skit seems to imply that the only meaningful way to participate in politics is direct democracy. Now of course going to protests, door knocking for campaigns, attending community meetings: all of that matters! A lot! But so, in fact, does conversation. Habermas and Arendt got a lot wrong in their (admittedly distinct) commitments to the public realm, but a big piece for both of them is doing just what folks like Scott (or, you know, blog writers and blog readers) might well be doing. I made a commitment to teach Arendt in my theory course for exactly this reason. To risk taking a line from a terrible Pepsi commercial—the “conversation” does in fact matter. In fact, these kinds of conversations are just as important as direct democracy, because they provide the opportunity to change your mind without having already invested in a previous commitment. Democracy works precisely because it’s members are willing to be corrected, to recognize better arguments or flaws in their own thinking. That kind of conversation is much harder when you’re at a protest, or even when you’re in a city council meeting or what have you, because you’re probably already there with a concrete agenda and it’ll be harder to dissuade you from it.

Of course power and misrecognition are big pieces of this story, things about which folks like Habermas and Arendt are often stunningly naive. (Look at Arendt on race, for example).  But just because conversations can be handled in better or worse ways doesn’t mean we don’t still need them.  And we need them in a spirit of willing self-correction and relative humility with an awareness that the conversation is itself a constitutive internal (rather than external) good.

This is where both Pepsi and Scott get it wrong. Because Pepsi (obviously) doesn’t actually care about “the conversation.” They care about selling Pepsi. And Scott cares about selling Scott. He wants to be seen by his social media followers as virtuous, on the right side of history, whichever history that may be. Scott is the worst kind of Goffmanian character: the above link was to MacIntyre, and I’m on drawing MacIntyre’s critique of Goffman from the beginning of After Virtue here. Such a character cannot meaningfully participate in democratic politics, at least not in a way that isn’t depressingly cynical and ultimately self-defeating. It’s no longer about ideas or arguments anymore, let alone harder slogs like justice, equality, and liberty: it’s just about looking good to get something (Pepsi sales, esteem, etc.).  Even the sorts of sympathy or pity the more “realist” Scottish Enlightenment types thought would save us are gone.  All we have is its veneer.

As Kloppenberg, and in different ways, Andrew Perrin and Nina Eliasoph, describe, there are forces within the history of capitalist democracy that move from the need to internalize virtue towards only the desire to look like we care. This is an old story of course—told most famously by Hirschman—but it’s worth acknowledging how a certain way of thinking about citizens as self-interested, profit-maximizing individuals forces exactly this false dichotomy between slacktivists and the true citizens in the streets.

Of course, I think it’d be great if more people participated in direct democracy. But it’d also be great if more people really did think of our civic life as a series of ongoing public conversations, for which social media is actually an excellent venue. Posting an article doesn’t make you a “Scott” but posting an article as a means of showing how great you are does. The point of posting an article should always be to open the door to a conversation, a conversation with people different from you who might well change your mind. That should be coupled with explicit participation in other forms of government and civil society too of course. But that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t important in and of itself. Thank you Scott? Maybe not. But thank you to those of you who do care about maintaining a public sphere. The conversation does, in fact, exist. And it’s not just there to sell Pepsi (or ourselves).


Written by jeffguhin

April 9, 2017 at 4:32 pm

call for papers on worker cooperatives in Organization journal

For those of you doing research on worker cooperatives, I ran across a relevant call for papers in Organization. One of the special issue co-editors is George Cheney, who published Values at Work (Cornell University Press) about how the Mondragon cooperatives in Basque, Spain have dealt with global competition.

The submission deadlines is Feb. 23, 2013. (Other calls for papers in Organization are here.)

“Call for Papers – Special Issue of Organization
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Written by katherinechen

October 26, 2012 at 4:46 pm