Seeing through organization: the experience of social relations as constitutive

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Virginia Tech

This study reframes the relationship between people and organization to reveal the constitutive quality of social relations. While agreeing with Karl Weick that organization emerges in the process of interaction, the study goes beyond Weick to examine in greater depth the quality of that interaction. A systemic perspective is adopted, according to which people exist in relationship to one another and are made different by their interdependence; people like organizations are constituted by their social relations. The quality of their interaction thus determines the consciousness they bring to the organizing process and the nature of organization itself. The study explores how people are shaped by their interactions with others and considers the implications for both individual and organization.

The conceptual framework for this study is grounded in the work of Mary Parker Follett and family systems theorists. While Follett’s ideas prove useful in elucidating the process of organization generally, family systems theory speaks to the psychology of that process. In this study, the two are theoretically integrated to capture the human dynamic that fuels the patterns of relating that constitute organization. The resulting framework is used in the analysis of encounters between supervisors, the people who report to them, and the people to whom they report.

Field research for this study was conducted at a federal agency through interviews with supervisors regarding their experiences interacting with others in the workplace. The interview was designed to address two broad research concerns: (1) how individuals see themselves and their actions shaped through interaction; and (2) how individuals experience interaction as enabling them to act. In the presentation of findings, different patterns of interaction are identified and illustrated with accounts from the interviews, highlighting the factors that contribute to each pattern’s underlying dynamic. The implications of these patterns for how we think about organization are then addressed.