Understanding Organizations through the Modern and Symbolic-Interpretive Lenses
Events and phenomena that occur in people's everyday lives can be looked at and interpreted through different lenses. In the field of sociology, these 'lenses' are termed as "perspectives," which defines and describes a specific "worldview" through which people might interpret a specific event or phenomenon. These perspectives can be applied in different areas or domains of a person's life; perspectives being sociological in their nature, they are almost always reflective of realities experienced by people, even if they differ in cultural and social backgrounds. Among the well-known perspectives in understanding social events and phenomena are the modernist and symbolic-interpretive perspectives. The modernist perspective is, by extension, known to be the anti-thesis of critical theory, another well-known perspective in the field of sociology.
In the sections that follow, these perspectives will be discussed in-depth and in more detail, particularly when applied to the study and analysis of organizations. In addition to an understanding of these perspectives, a discussion of both perspectives' theoretical frameworks and a comparative analysis of each perspective's merits ensure that a broader context will be developed in understanding and analyzing organizations. The framework discussion and comparative analysis shall posit that both modernist and symbolic-interpretive perspectives complement each other in that they provide different worldviews from which organizations can be studied and analyzed. Each perspective has its own merit, advantages and disadvantages when applied in the context of organizational studies.
II. Theoretical Framework: The Modern Perspective
Modernist perspective traces its roots to the development of sociology, specifically when "positive sociology" had emerged at the same time as the "scientific method." The rise of both concepts in human civilization centuries ago highlights the very nature of the modernist perspective itself: it has "closure, certainty, and control" (Mumby, 1997, p. 4). However, modernist thought evolved to also incorporate the reality that truths and observations are also based on people's "sense of being-in-the-world." Thus, the modernist perspective is objective and rational, but is aware of the social realities that people "construct" in their minds when interpreting a specific event or phenomenon. A manifestation of this integration between the rational-objective and recognition of a socially constructed worldview is the development of meritocracy, wherein "rewards" or recognition are given to people through a rational-objective process (Pearce, 2005, p. 970).
Interestingly, the modernist perspective can also be best understood through its anti-thesis, which is the critical theory perspective. As critical theory perspective draws its basic concepts and ideas from the work of Karl Marx, who discussed how modernism caused detriment and oppression rather than success among societies, modernism could also be understood based on what it is not as determined by the critical perspective. Willmott's (1993) analysis of modern organizations showed that modernism as applied in the workplace setting encourages the individual to pursue one's self-interest and individualism, but not at the expense of the organization. Instead, self-interests and individualism can still be pursued while 'embracing' the organizational values and culture. The author criticized this perspective as it goes beyond 'behavior conditioning,' going so far as to 'program' people to recognize and embrace values that seek to subjugate them under the control or power of the organization or institution (p. 537).
Modernist perspective, then, promotes rationalism, objectivism, and individualism, but this is almost always in the context of hierarchy, of being an essential part of the whole and superior that is the society, institution, or organization. Principles and values of objectivism and self-interests respond to a higher form of control or power that is manifested through a 'greater collective' (i.e., society, institution or organization).
III. Theoretical Framework: The Symbolic-Interpretive Perspective
Symbolic-intepretive perspective strongly reflects the symbolic-interactionist tradition, wherein realities and truths are developed based on symbols and discourses produced from interactions among people (or "social actors"). It goes without saying that for this perspective, an institution or organization's identity is developed as such because of its people and the kind of interaction that they have with each other. However, the point of analysis for this perspective is to study groups, organizations, and societies based on what is, rather than what they have (Gibbs, 2009, p. 91). Thus, social realities and identities that describe a group or organization actually reflect the kind of interaction among the people/actors who belong to it (group or organization).
One of the important concepts in symbolic-interpretive perspective is that people (social actors, or members of the group or organization) play an active role in shaping the identity and even structure of organizations and societies. This process of creation is triggered by the inherent awareness of people, that their actions, behavior, and even the symbols and artifacts they exchange with each other would have an impact and affect not only the dynamics within the organization or society, but inevitably, these will also change its very nature as well. Thus, what could happen is not only creation, but a "re-construction" of organizations and institutions (in effect, of social realities) within the social space of actively interacting individuals and groups (Jokinen et al., 2006, p. 99).
In symbolic-interpretivism, individuals have a role in constructing their realities, actively so that they can actually define these realities based on the kind of interaction and exchange they choose to engage in. However, a caveat to this kind of understanding of this particular perspective is that it assumes that individuals are indeed active actors contributing to functional and productive interactions that could help develop functional construction of realities. Dysfunction in the form of passive or destructive interaction or engagement could also lead to a dysfunctional construction of social reality, causing detriment to the kind of organization or society that would be developed based on these dysfunctional forms of interaction/exchange (Racelis, 2005, p. 75).
The next section provides a comparative analysis of the two perspectives, contextualized in the understanding and analysis of organizations.
IV. Comparative Analysis of the Two Perspectives (and an Application to Organizational Studies)
From the concepts and principles that govern modernist and symbolic-interpretive perspectives, they can help understand and analyze organizations based on their own merits -- that is, how each perspective will help organizations understand themselves more towards further enhancement or improvement.
The modernist perspective, as discussed earlier, is rational, objective, and promotes the self-seeking nature of the individual. However, these values are subjugated by the 'macro reality' that objectivism operates through a hierarchical system, wherein control or power over rational, objective, self-seeking individuals become manifest as one approaches the top of the pyramid of hierarchy or role status in the organization or society these individuals belong to. Applied in the context of organization studies, this perspective is most appropriate in understanding organizations as most organizations exist with a hierarchical structure. Workplace settings and corporate environments are perfect examples of organizations that adhere to the principles of modernist perspective: these organizations promote rationalism, objectivism and competition (manifestation of the self-seeking culture) among its members/employees to promote organizational objectives of maximum productivity (Cooper, 1989, p. 497).
Symbolic-interpretivist perspective, on the other side of the coin, puts the individual as having the central, critical role of determining the nature and dynamics of an organization. While the modernist perspective draws its strength from people adhering to a specific set of values and traditions within a hierarchical structure, symbolic-interpretivism draws strength from the individual and the kind of interaction/exchange s/he produces with the organization or society s/he belongs to and operates in. Because individuals and their interactions with each other shape the nature and dynamics of the organization, the organization that could be developed would be primarily flat -- that is, hierarchies do not exist, as members recognize the significant role and contribution of each individual in developing the organization (Panda and Gupta, 2001, p. 5). The symbolic-interpretivist perspective, in fact, is characterized in flat organizations…
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