Quattrone (2015). Governing Social Orders, Unfolding Rationality, and Jesuit Accounting Practices: A Procedural Approach to Institutional Logics

by

Republished with permission. The original post was published on the ASQ Blog.

***

Authors:
Paolo Quattrone – University of Edinburgh Business School

Interviewers:
Federica Foce Massa Saluzzo – Universita´di Bologna
Daniela Iubatti – IESE Business School

Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/60/3/411

Question 1. An eye-opening element of your paper is the discussion on the procedural approach to logics in which you suggest that scholars should develop methodologies that allow them to explain what “cannot be framed”. In the case of the Jesuits what cannot be framed is God, or more generally social order. What would the “unframed” be in the modern corporation and who are the agents enacting the practices of the progressively updating logic?

Many things are unframed in the modern and corporate world; a ‘value’ to begin ASQ_v60n3_Sept2015_cover.inddwith. It is increasingly clear that we live in dissonant orders of worth (I refer to the work of David Stark, Boltanki and Thévenot and some work I am doing with Roger Friedland) and a ‘value’ cannot be reduced to shareholder’s values anymore. Enlarging the realms of the measurable (for example, from the ‘economic’ to the ‘environmental’ and the ‘social’) is not the solution in my view. Interrogating what cannot be framed, values in this case, and mediate amongst views, which are impossible to align anyhow, is a possible way forward to regain sanity in the financial word. Other ‘unframable’ categories are uncertainty, risk, volatility, complexity; but those are more immediate and obvious, although the approach to those tends to presuppose that these categories can be framed and do not overflow (as Michel Callon would say). I am currently doing some work on managing major programs (such as mega infrastructure projects). They are interesting sites to explore this impossibility of framing: the risks, the unknowns are everywhere and cannot be reduced.

You also ask about the agents of the updating logics. They are many as well. Technology, if we give agency to material objects, as Bruno Latour and Wanda Orlikowski would do, is surely one of these agents. As much as a medieval book, technologies of representation are increasingly affecting the way in which we imagine the future, our identities and rituals of interaction and social order. Nothing new here, but what is new is to think of technologies as procedures themselves which create spaces of engagement, exploration and mediation which constitute the fabric of institutional logics change.

Question 2. Your work provides alternative lenses to look at the relationship between rationality and techniques of representation, in the specific case of accounting. In the paper you suggest that today, accounting requires less reflection and inventio, having become a taken-for-granted institution. If you were to study rationality through contemporary accounting what would you expect to observe?

If I were to observe rationality through the narrow lenses of what accounting has become (at least in some mainstream departments of accounting of a university completely detached from the world of practice), I would see very little. Contemporary accounting glasses promise transparency but their lenses are opaque. The result is that a search for transparency makes us blind to what being ‘rational’ may mean in different spatial-temporal contexts. There is lot to be done in order to transform these lenses in prisms that are able to show multifaceted worlds. And, interestingly enough, in organization studies, very little attention is given to systems of representation, not to mention to accounting, although accounting is one of the most pervasive technology of calculation of the modern corporate world.

Question 3. Many studies test their theories on contemporary empirical contexts, while few do so analyzing specific contexts from the past. How did you choose this empirical context and how would you generalize your study in different contexts? What would you advice to students willing to follow your example and analyze historical data?

An articulated question that I’ll try to answer in sequence. How did I choose? It happened by chance, of course! Often one becomes interested in research sites and topics because of serendipitous encounters. My case was not different. It dates back to my PhD (a long time ago) in Palermo, my hometown in Italy. My supervisor, who loves history, asked me to look at the accounting books kept at the State Archive of Palermo. I naively thought this was going to be one of the most boring things on earth. It was instead the beginning of a very exciting journey of discovering, which is still ongoing. The paper in ASQ is just the last stop of this journey.

You ask me about generalization. I am not a historian (by no means I can claim I am) and therefore my primary interest in the evidence is theoretical not empirical. So I aim try to generalize in every work I do (also because being Italian we love abstraction and we tend to think, wrongly, that the empirical world cannot surprise us). How can we generalize from particular and unfamiliar cases? By linking them to general and familiar theoretical debates to de-familiarize us from them. This is, I think, what the paper does in relation to institutional logics. I think it always more difficult to look at the normal in a different way than to look at what differs from the norm. Accounting is a very ‘normal’ (and normalized) practice. It becomes interesting only if we look at it in a different way. History, in that sense, helps, as it is a form of ethnography that leads us not only to a different space (the Jesuit Order in my case) but also a different time.

Now the advice. Not sure I am the right person to give advice on whether historical work is worth exploring. I am too biased towards a yes! But think of how relatively ‘easy’ access is when doing historical works: the sources are there waiting to be discovered. They do not escape! But here is also where the easy part ends. Historical work, as much and possibly more than field studies, requires a long process of familiarization with these sources, especially if we go back a long time (I still remember the difficulties I had in understanding handwriting, abbreviations, notations, old Sicilian texts, archaic forms of accounting records, just to name but a few of these difficulties). The issue is also that the sources always change meaning. For me this happened often when I went back to them in the various iterations of the research process. Every time I knew something more about religious, cultural and economic contexts and practices and this made me see in the apparently ‘out there’ archival sources something new. This is possibly the most fascinating aspect I recall from the research, the moment of establishing a connection, for example, between ratio, rationality, accounting and late medieval practices of rhetoric and art of memory is something that has changed not only the way in which I looked at those sources but also how I now conceive of accounting as a contemporary practice. The rewards are huge if one is prepared to link, connect and explore primary and secondary sources in ways that are novel. Another aspect of going to the archive that is worth mentioning? One of the most relaxing things I have done in my life! Archives are interesting and relaxing spaces.

Question 4. The procedural nature of the Jesuits’ logics suggests a drastically different approach to institutional logics. Nevertheless Jesuits are a closed community that diligently and profoundly applies the procedures demanded within the college. In contemporary firms, community spirit and self-reflection are generally considered as less fundamental. How do you think that this contemporary lack of reflection relates to scholars’ understanding of institutional logics? More specifically, do you think that the common lack of reflection in the typical contemporary organization has brought scholars to observe the more substantialist rather than the procedural side of logics?

Are you sure the Jesuits were closed and the contemporary lack a community spirit (I would agree on the lack of reflection)? Let me respond with an anecdote. Once, when I was at Christ Church at Oxford, I organized a series of meetings on religion, institutions and practices. Participants disagreed on many things but we all agreed that nowadays there is more religion in business schools than in the Church and more business in the Church than in business schools! This is also what Michel Antebi suggests with his ethnography of Harvard Business School: the not said points towards the mystery of manufacturing morals and the belief in to a common spirit at Harvard.

This point also relates to the other things you ask. Some of the current literature on institutional logics takes such logics almost for granted: logics are not mysterious anymore. One can observe them in hospitals, markets, in the profession. The risk is to make them less interesting and powerful as heuristic devices. And once one has lost the mystery, what is left is only the material. Imagination, vision, feelings, emotions, and symbols are gone. This is possibly also why capitalism is so material: if one believes that everything can be reduced to a number, to a transaction, to money then the material is the only think one can think of. This applies to researchers as well; especially those who seek to operationalize statistically variables that cannot be reduced to a statistical issue. In Hebrew, the word ‘God’ cannot even be pronounced, otherwise mystery is lost. Uttering ‘God’ would be the “end of the world” (to quote Alessandro Baricco or to refer to Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory).

Question 5. The search for what cannot be categorically framed, “the unsaid”, is fundamental for scholars wishing to understand the dynamics involving institutional logics. Yet, for the logic update to occur a certain disposition is crucial. What do you think is the role of disposition of the agents both in your paper and more broadly in the debate on institutional logics?

This is a difficult question to answer, as my reply could smell of ‘ontological gerrymandering’. The first reaction would be: Of course dispositions matters! But would not that be a substantive answer? A possible way out is that if we interpret a disposition as a way of looking at the world (and thus in procedural terms) there is hope for not falling back into the trap of a positivist view of this disposition. In other words, I could be disposed towards the ‘other’ and what differs or not. The latter is dangerous and would make research a technical exercise of finding what we already know in a supposedly out there world; the former makes of research a journey of exploration into unchartered territory. So my question to you and the readers is: are you technicians or explorers? Both are useful but the latter is much more fun!

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: