Last updated, 22 Aug 2014
Overview on Lacan and Organization Studies
by Kate Kenny
(From Kenny, 2009: please see published paper for citation)
For years, authors have drawn on psychoanalytic thinkers including Freud and Klein in order to shed light on organizational processs. Psychoanalysis enables a broader understanding of social life than offered by social theories operating within the traditional (and persistent) ‘agency/ structure’ dichotomy. This means moving beyond a reductionist account in which subjects’ behaviour is either fully determined by social structures, or voluntarily and freely chosen by the agentic subject. Beyond determinism and voluntarism, psychoanalysis enriches our understanding of how we are caught up in unconscious desires and fantasies, and how these inform how we engage with the world (Gabriel 1999; Schwartz 1987). This broadens our perspective on life in organizations.
The arrival of Lacan in studies of organization is however a relatively recent phenomenon. In general, the appeal of Lacan is that he provides a way of understanding how the workings of psyche affects how people act, in complex ways. In particular, Lacan’s ideas allow us to think how wider social forces intersect with psychic processes, enabling a greater focus on the social and political aspects of life than may have been available via previous psychoanalytic theories. For Lacan, human experience is structured linguistically and so the realm of language, the symbolic order, is central to his thought. He shows us that subjects are, a-priori, marked by a sense of lack, a desire for fulfillment (Lacan 2006c). The developing subject continues to desire unity with an other into adulthood, and because language is so central to human life, this leads to a compulsion to identify with particular elements, or signifiers, within the symbolic order. As Lacan describes it, the subject receives a ‘major determination’ from being caught up in the signifying chain; the subject’s position is strongly influenced by ‘the itinerary’ of particular signifiers (Lacan 2006a: 7). More than influential, therefore, the symbolic order is ‘constitutive’ for the subject (Lacan 2006a: 7). To gain a coherent and stable sense of self, as subjects we seek signification from particular ‘core symbolic elements’ (Vanheule and Verhaeghe 2005: 301) in our social worlds. We are compelled to seek recognition from particular phenomena as we attempt to overcome the inescapable lack that marks human experience (Driver 2005; Lacan 2006b; Pavon-Cuellar 2010: 46). We therefore subject ourselves to these elements that frame our sense of identity and influence relationships (Vanheule and Verhaeghe 2005). These can include aspects of our work lives (Harding 2007).
Unfortunately however, subjects are not provided with a solid, complete sense of self by the symbolic order. Rather, a lack inscribes the Other; ‘something is always missing’ and so the recognition we are offered is always incomplete (Stavrakakis 2010: 63). This does not mean that subjects abandon the pursuit of wholeness within the symbolic; rather, they actively cover over the gaps and flaws in the Other, holding on to the promise of final satisfaction. The childhood fantasy of becoming whole or complete by gaining a place in the other’s desire, proves to be a persistent one. Despite being thwarted, we continue to desire recognition within the symbolic, and these ‘investments’ implicate us in the reproduction of particular discourses and forms of power (Parker 2005a: 106).
In summary therefore, symbolic identification represents a miscognition, but one in which we are frequently trapped (Driver 2005: 1097). This notion has helped scholars to study political movements (Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Žižek 1989), discourses of racism (Hook, 2007), gender and sexuality in society (Butler 1993) and more recently, management (Hoedemaekers 2009; Roberts 2005) and organizations (Kenny 2010). What these approaches share is the idea that the subject jostles for a perceived place in the Other’s desire, in an ongoing quest for a promised fulfillment. In so doing, subjective identification can reinforce the symbolic order. This helps us to see, in the context of workplaces, how ‘the credibility of the lacking Other’ paradoxically remains in place even where this other is problematic. By showing how desire drives identification with certain powerful discourses, and highlighting the complexity of this, Lacan provides us with a way of understanding the interplay between subjects’ search for recognition, and powerful discourses (Fotaki 2009; Harding 2007; Parker 2005b). These ideas represent a fruitful way to approach the study of organizations as they help us to understand why people are compelled into identification with particular forms of power, even where these are apparently flawed or even oppressive (Stavrakakis 2010).
References (works within CMS drawing on Lacan are in bold)
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of ‘sex’. London: Routledge.
Driver, M. (2005). From empty speech to full speech? Reconceptualizing spirituality in organizations based on a psychoanalytically-grounded understanding of the self. Human Relations, 58, 1091-1110.
Fotaki, M. (2009). Maintaining the illusion of a free health care in post-socialism: A Lacanian analysis of transition from planned to market economy. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 18, 141-158.
Gabriel, Y. (1999). Organizations in depth: The psychoanalysis of organizations. London, Sage.
Harding, N. (2007). On Lacan and the ‘becoming-ness’ of organizations/ selves. Organization Studies, 28, 1761-1773.
Hoedemaekers, C. (2009). Traversing the empty promise: management, subjectivity and the Other's desire. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 22, 181-201.
Hook, D. (2007). Foucault, psychology and the analytics of power. Hampshire: Palgrave.
Kenny, K (2009) 'Heeding the Stains: Lacan and Organizational Change', Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol 22. No. 2, pp 214-228 Download Article
Kenny, K. (2009). Passionate attachments at work. European Group for Organization Studies (EGOS), ESADE, Barcelona, 2nd-4th July. (paper under review at Organization Studies).
Kenny, K. (2010) ’Beyond ourselves: Passion and the Dark Side of Identification in an Ethical Organization’. Human Relations, vol. 63 no. 6., pp857-873
Lacan, J. (2006a) ‘Seminar on “The purloined letter”’, in Ecrits: the first complete edition in English. B. Fink, H. Fink and R. Grigg (eds). New York: Norton: 6-48.
Lacan, J. (2006b) ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’, in Ecrits: the first complete edition in English. B. Fink, H. Fink and R. Grigg (eds). New York: Norton: 671-702.
Lacan, J. (2006c). ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I’, in Ecrits: the first complete edition in English. B. Fink, H. Fink and R. Grigg (eds). New York: Norton: 75-81.
Laclau, E. & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.
Pavon-Cuellar, D. (2010). From the conscious interior to an exterior unconscious: Lacan, discourse analysis and social psychology. London: Karnac.
Parker, I. (2005a). Qualitative psychology. Introducing radical research. Maidenhead, OUP.
Parker, I. (2005b). ‘Lacanian discourse analysis in psychology: Seven theoretical elements’. Theory and Psychology 15: 163-182.
Schwartz, H. (1987). On the psychodynamics of organizational totalitarianism. Journal of Management, 13, 41-54.
Stavrakakis, Y. (2010). Symbolic authority, fantasmatic enjoyment and the spirits of capitalism: Genealogies of mutual engagement. In C. Hoedemaekers & C. Cederstrom (Eds.), Lacan and organization (pp. 59-100). London: Mayfly Books.
Vanheule, S. & Verhaeghe, P. (2005). Professional burnout in the mirror. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 22, 285–305.
Žižek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London, Verso Books.
Other works within CMS drawing on Lacan's ideas (feel free to add more)
Cederström, C. and C. Hoedemaekers (2010). Lacan in Organization, London: MayFly Books
Contu, A., M. Driver and C. Jones (2010). Special Issue - Jacques Lacan and Organization Studies, Organization, 17(3)
Cremin, C. (2010). Never Employable Enough: The (Im)possibility of Satisfying the Boss's Desire, Organization, 17(2): 131-149
Driver, M. (2010). Learning as lack: Individual learning in organizations as an empowering encounter with failed imaginary constructions of the self, Management Learning, 41(5): 561-574
Driver, M. (2009). Encountering the Arugula Leaf: the Failure of the Imaginary and its Implications for Research on Identity in Organizations, Organization, 16(3), 353-369
Jones, C. and A. Spicer (2005). The Sublime Object of Entrepreneurship, Organization, 12(2): 223-246
Vidallet, B. (2007) Lacanian theory's contribution to the study of workplace envy, Human Relations, 60(11): 1669-1700