Constitutional management & Corporate Cultural Theory


“Between private, subjective perception and public, physical science there lies culture, a middle area of shared beliefs and values”

Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982:194

Companies can and do build unique constitutional orders, and there’s lots of potential to apply the field of Constitutional Political Economy to the study of organisations. One example of constitutional management that I am especially interested in is Market-Based Management (R), which treats the institutions that generate economic prosperity as being analogous to the institutions that improve corporate performance.

My desire to understand corporate culture in a broad way, rooted firmly in social anthropology, led me to the Grid/Group (or “Cultural Theory”) typology pioneered by Mary Douglas. I was fortunate to meet her several times before she passed away and we worked on an application of Cultural Theory to organisational behaviour. I have attempted to bridge cultural theory with an epistemic and institutional approach to economics, and highlight some methodological parallels with Austrian economics.

Douglas 1970 - GG1

Some of the examples of the usefulness of a Cultural Theory approach to organisational culture are internal prediction markets, and whistleblowing. In terms of the latter, I provide an explanation for why legislative and internal systems typically fail, and suggest ways to nourish a culture of dissent as a strategic advantage. My work on whistleblowing led to several trade journal articles and some media coverage.

“[Adam] Smith had no typical understanding of sympathy but rather came to terms with the concept through a very careful observation of others. It’s an outsider’s view and that is why it is so perceptive” (Cowen, T., 2009, ‘Create your own economy’, Dutton, p.170)

On 15th March 2015 I decided that I would no longer participate in the research community that explores Grid-Group Theory. I had an outline for a book project but recognised that it’s not a priority, and probably will never be one. Rather than become a hermit in order to study the world, I just wanted to become one.

“Why should he write, he would ask, when he could read fifty times as much in the time it would have taken him to produce some academic article of little worth” (Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber) – in reference to the Russian academic Apollon Grigoriev

“This has been my last hunt. Too old. Farewell, beasts that I shall not kill. You are one of the fascinating and cruel faces of life, and life is passing away. What must be done will be done by others. Farewell.” (Ryzhik, in ‘The Case of Comrade Tulayev’ by Victor Serge, (New York Review Book [1950], 2004))

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 19.00.22I still have plans to run an MBA course called “Corporate Cultural Theory“. I am collecting cases and if I find sufficient interest (either from co-instructors, universities, or potential students) then I will pick it back up again.

For an indication, see my 2007 article: “Towards a Corporate Cultural Theory“. It was published as a working paper by the Mercatus Center, and it also appeared in a Semiotics course on Cultural Theory.

I also believe that Cultural Theory can help to explain the fascinating social dynamics that occur in Office Christmas Parties. Just after the launch of ‘The Office‘ there was a fly on the wall documentary called ‘The Armstrongs‘. You can find some episodes on YouTube, but the pilot episode (filmed in 2003) isn’t available. After I blogged about the series I received a DVD through the post from one of the production team. This is important because it focused on the Christmas Party. And indeed it’s no coincidence that the high point of the UK series of ‘The Office’ was Tim and Dawn’s kiss, which occurred at a Christmas Party. My ambition was to conduct an anthropological study of the Christmas Party. One day

If you are considering doing research in this area, please get in touch. I have lots of material and ideas but they are now dormant.

Leave a Reply