Sociologist defends bureaucracy from the business school. An interview with Paul du Gay

I met Paul du Gay one February morning in his office in Kilen, an amazing building of the Copenhagen Business School where the Department of Organization is located. In this podcast, du Gay revisits the different moments of his career so far. As his En elogio de la burocracia has recently been published in Spanish, the conversation takes off there, with stop overs in retailers and Consumption and Identity at work, and the puzzling notion of “cultural economy”, in order to finally land in Du Gay’s own experience as sociologist working in business schools and his current research on “what makes an organization” with Signe Vikkelsø. Many thanks to Antonio Stecher and Vicente Sisto – our critical management, identity and work experts at Estudios de la Economia– for discussing and suggesting questions for this interview.

Q1a. Considering that most of the followers of this blog are Spanish speaking, let’s start our conversation with a question about your book In Praise of Bureaucracy that has recently been published in Spanish by Siglo XXI.The book responds to rather different types of criticisms against bureaucracy (post-modern left, romantics and the new management). What they all have in common is that they regard bureaucracy as an expanding formalism without content, which we normally associate with Weber’s “iron cage” expression. However, you argue, that what these different lines of thought don’t see is that for Weber the civil service was not an alienated activity but a particular “life order” with its own specific ethic, which would be jeopardized by the expansion of the new public management, threatening the balance between the different gods of the modern world. In the last couple of years we have had one of the biggest student revolts in decades in Chile and the students’ most consistent claim has been “public education”. Your book could be a good tool for them. They could argue that the defendants of private education and managerialism in universities do not see what they are losing, the values of bureaucratic organizations. My question now is that, after almost 40 years of neo-liberalism, perhaps the issue is not anymore how can bureaucracy resist but how can you start building new bureaucracies again? How do you create this particular life order?

A1a. [10.45 mins.] 

Q1b. Sometimes, we perhaps too easily accept the concepts of crisis or the end of bureaucracy, but it may be that bureaucracy itself resists. How much space for resistance is there in your work about bureaucracy?

A1b. [3.16 mins.] 

Q2.Before your work on bureaucracies, you wrote a lot about transformations in companies, particularly in the retail sector, which was published in your Consumption and Identity at work. You studied the expansion of new modes of entrepreneurial actions that were transforming not only the management of companies (now flexible, personalized, and so on) but also the way the workers’ (for instance: sales people) identity was built. These early works were shaped by a particular context, I think, the British sociology of the early 90s, after the post-modern sociology of people like Lash and Urry, but strongly influenced by cultural studies (and their emphasis on discourses, bodies, identities in the making and so on) and the governmentality approach of Rose, Miller and others. Today the context is very different. We live, as you say somewhere else, in another ‘moment of theory’, perhaps more French inspired, oriented towards detailed descriptions, objects, assemblages, and so on. In this new context, how would you now approach the empirical study of managers and workers in places like supermarkets or department stores?

A2. [5.54 mins.] 

Q3. My third question is about “cultural economy”.You have been a central figure in expanding the use of this particular label. As you say in different places, “cultural economy” means different things. First, it means a kind of “cultural economic sociology” that assumes that meaning is not only in art or religion but everywhere, including economic activities, such as management, marketing, consumption, and therefore, the tools provided by the “cultural turn” are very suitable to study economic life. Second, it has also been used in a more general sense, for instance in Amin and Thrift’s Handbook, as a kind of interdisciplinary space, perhaps like organization studies or STS, where different social scientists, anthropologists, geographers, critical management, sociologists, who study economic issues can meet. Third, “cultural” can be seen as an adjective of a certain epoch or economic practices. In your work about stores, you talk about “retailing being an increasingly hybrid activity” and also in your discussion about epochalism. Today, the label is not only yours but it has even been institutionalized in a Journal and there are some sub-variations as well, such as Cultural Political Economy. The question is, what is “cultural economy” and what would you do with this label today?

A3. [8.44 mins.] 

Q4. The fourth question is about your own identity at work. You did your PhD with Stuart Hall in the Sociology department at the Open University, where you later worked for many years, and your work was quite sociologic, or at least strongly attached to sociological literature (for instance Weber’s work). Later on, you moved to the Business School in Warwick and now you are part of the Department of Organization at yet another Business School (even though a quite particular one, CBS). The question is: what do you think your early sociology background brings to a place like CBS and how much your early way of practicing social sciences has changed working at business schools?

A4. [8.24 mins.] 

Q5. To finish, I would like to ask you if you could tell us more about the project you just mentioned, your current work on “what makes an organization”. Could you please tell us what this is about?

A5. [5.01 mins.] 

José Ossandón

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