Last updated, 25 Dec 2014
Mikhail Bakhtin and CMS
by John Michael Roberts
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) who lived and died in the Soviet Union was a philosopher of art, the carnivalesque, language, and literature (see Bakhtin 1982; 1984a; 1984b; 1987; 1990). Writing a diverse array of books and essays himself or working collaboratively with others, most notably that of Pavel Medvedev (see Bakhtin and Medvedev 1991) and V. N. Voloshinov (1973), Bakhtin’s work represents a sustained effort to theorise about everyday life and to take seriously popular culture. This is noticeable in one of his most celebrated concepts, that of the carnivalesque.
Developed from his account of the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais, Bakhtin (1984a) claims that the carnivalesque is a moment when the ‘lower orders’ blur the boundaries between high culture and low culture. For example, participants at local festivals often engage in raucous and rowdy behaviour that mock normal social divisions. Men might dress up as women to make fun of normal gender divisions, while high culture is ridiculed through parody and subversion. Carnival thus personifies the oppositional culture of the oppressed, of a ‘world turned upside down’, in which social hierarchies are inverted and where people are temporarily freed from their normal social relationships.
The grotesque symposium does not have to respect hierarchical distinctions; it freely blends the profane and the sacred, the lower and the higher, the spiritual and the material (Bakhtin 1984b: 231).
Critical management scholars have appropriated Bakhtin’s work on the carnivalesque and have used it to make sense of new and innovative types of protest against corporations. Boje (2001) for instance notes that several campaigns around the world to highlight the negative effects of social divisions can be seen as carnivalesque in form. Sweatshop fashion shows at some college campuses in the US are one notable instance of such a campaign, in which models parade across a catwalk wearing the latest clothing brands while announcers speak about the grinding poverty of the workers who make the clothes (see also Hazen 1993; Sullivan and McCarthy 2008; Styhre 2008).
But Bakhtin is also known for his groundbreaking work on dialogue and language, particularly his belief that language should be studied in its popular use and not as abstract, isolated and self-contained linguistic units. Language for Bakhtin therefore gains its identity through everyday dialogue, where utterances are mediated by ‘social accents’ and evaluations based on factors like class, gender, race, and so on.
According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky represents one of the first modern novelists to embrace this dialogical perspective.
In every voice he (Dostoevsky) could hear two contending voices, in every expression a crack, and a readiness to go over immediately to another contradictory expression; in every gesture he detected confidence and lack of confidence simultaneously; he perceived the profound ambiguity, even multiple ambiguity, of every phenomenon (Bakhtin 1984b: 30).
Dostoevsky was one of the first novelists for Bakhtin who managed to convey the dialogical, and hence ‘unfinalizable’, nature of words and utterances. Bakhtin terms this perspective as a ‘heteroglossic’ or ‘polyphonic’ approach to language, which refers to the centrifugal mixing of accents and evaluations that have the potential to elicit critical self-reflection through dialogue and debate (see Bakhtin 1981: 291).
Like the carnivalesque, heteroglossia and polyphony are Bakhtinian concepts which have been applied and developed by critical management scholars. Shotter (2008) for instance suggests that one advantage of Bakhtin’s theory is that it shows how organizational forms, and how we speak about these forms, are not closed but in a process of evaluative becoming by being part of a dialogic process. ‘Thus even in my speaking of an object, of, say, a “business plan”, a “spreadsheet”, a “person”, an “organization”…I am never speaking neutrally, indifferently, with no particular attitude’ (Shotter 2008: 510).
In addition, Bakhtin’s insights on language pose a challenge of sorts to the appetite of management to build a consensus across a workforce. Broadly speaking, a consensus about an issue is usually garnered by ensuring that mechanisms are in place to facilitate an inclusive type of dialogue amongst and across a wide spectrum of voices about the issue at hand. Bakhtin’s work demonstrates, however, that a consensus need not be built on heteroglossia. It might instead be built on what he calls ‘monoglossia’, which basically refers to the imposition of one ‘voice’, or ‘accent’, upon a diverse range of voices. In respect to organisational consensus, then, managers might very well invite contributions from employees towards a plan of action but in reality want employees to agree to the terms of a predetermined managerial outcome – a monoglossic management consensus (Jabri et al. 2008: 673-4; see also Cunliffe 2001).
Bakhtin’s approach is also helpful in showing that organisations are formed not only through centralised managerial codes but also through centrifugal forces that disrupt organisational hierarchies and strategies. These clashing forces frequently produce dialogical narratives amongst employees about ongoing changes in an organisation. These in turn affect the internal identity of different employees that often create dialogic selves which go on to either help stabilize or disrupt specific monoglossic values in an organisation (Beech 2008; see also Barge and Little 2002).
Others build on this dialogic approach but integrate it more thoroughly with economic, political, and social processes related to the historical system of capitalism. On this understanding, dialogism is mediated at various levels of abstraction by the contradictory organizational forms of capitalism – a perspective that draws on a more Marxist and materialist reading of Bakhtin (see Collins 1999; Gaudio 2003). This approach is an interesting use of Bakhtin because it moves beyond what is probably a more dominant social constructionist reading of some of his key ideas in management studies.
Bakhtin’s materialist work also dovetails with some other theoretical ideas that have become popular in some critical management circles. In particular, the materialism of Gilles Deleuze, especially his work on affects and the expressive (non-significatory) potential of language, clearly shares affinities with some of Bakhtin’s work. Perhaps this is one reason why Deleuze made passing favourable remarks about Bakhtin (see for example Deleuze 2005: 75). In addition, Bakhtin’s insistence on studying language and utterances as they are actually used by ordinary people for debate and critical reflection provides an extremely useful resource for critical management scholars who wish to explore participatory models in the workplace. Such work could also overcome various problems evident in some alternative frameworks in this research area, such as those indebted to the ideas of Jürgen Habermas which often tend to verge on idealism. It would be interesting if future work in and around Bakhtin and critical management studies sought to expand and elaborate on these areas.
For all of these reasons Bakhtin’s ideas remain an extremely useful source for critical management studies and contain great potential to build new areas of research for the discipline.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1982) The Dialogic Imagination, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1984a) Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1984b) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1987) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. V. W. McGeee, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1990) Art and Answerability, trans. V. Liapunov, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. and P. N. Medvedev (1991) The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, trans. A. J. Wehrle, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Barge, J. K. and M. Little (2002) ‘Dialogical Wisdom, Communicative Practice, and Organizational Life’, Communication Theory 12(4): 375-397.
Beech, N. (2008) ‘On the Nature of Dialogic Identity Work’, Organization 15(1): 51-74.
Boje, D. M. (2001) ‘Carnivalesque Resistance to Global Spectacle: A Critical Postmodern Theory of Public Administration’, Administrative Theory & Praxis 23(3): 431-458.
Collins, C. (1999) ‘Applying Bakhtin in Urban Studies: The Failure of Community Participation in the Ferguslie Park Partnership’, Urban Studies 36(1): 73-90.
Cunliffe, A. (2001) ‘Managers as Practical Authors: Reconstructing our Understanding of Management Practice’, Journal of Management Studies 38(3): 351–70.
Deleuze, G. (2005) Cinema 1: The Movement Image,trans. H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam, London: Continuum.
Gaudio, R. P. (2003) ‘Coffeetalk: Starbucks and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation’, Language in Society 32: 659-691.
Hazen, M. A. (1993) ‘Towards a Polyphonic Organization’, Journal of Organisational Change Management 6(5): 15-22.
Jabri, M., Adrian, A. D., and Boje, D. (2008) ‘Reconsidering the Role of Conversations in Change Communication: A Contribution based on Bakhtin’, Journal of Organisational Change Management 21(6): 667-685.
Shotter, J. (2008) ‘Dialogism and Polyphony in Organizing Theorizing in Organization Studies: Action Guiding Anticipations and the Continuous Creation of Novelty’, Organization Studies 29(4): 501-524.
Styhre, A. (2008) ‘Critical Management Studies and the Agélaste Ethos’, Journal of Organizational Change Management 21(1): 92-106.
Sullivan, P. and McCarthy, J. (2008) ‘Managing the Polyphonic Sounds of Organizational Truths’, Organization Studies 29(4): 525-542.
Voloshinov, V. N. (1973) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik, New York: Seminar Press.