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Action Research: Disjuncture and Institutionalisation

This is the next installment of my action research project which is a documentation and analysis of the use of bureaucracies in delivering support services, the public, private and third sector…

Leon Festinger
Leon Festinger

You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: An Existential Phenomenology Method’ by clicking HERE.


This part of the research project starts to unpack the disjuncture which takes place between the policy environment, the actual practice going on in the service and the complicated nature of the lives of people who exist under these policy ‘downsourcings’.

Here I raise an important question about who becomes embodied as a ruling class of individuals who sit at the top of power differentials and introduce theoreticians like Dorothy E smith as means to start mapping the social realities of exisiting in such principal-agent complexes.



I was having a discussion with someone who offers me advocacy about the horror of complicity last month and he asked me what I meant by it.  The horror of complicity, I said is something which is deeply uncomfortable that relates to one side of cognitive dissonance.  Leon Festinger originally coined cognitive disonance with respect to situations where individuals experience psychological stress because they hold two or more contradictory beliefs, values or ideas.  As a psychologist he studied how individuals reacted in these situations to change the ideas until they become consistent.

An example might be how someone believes themselves to be an ethical and moral agent but has their pension invested in environmentally and socially disasterous stocks and shares. On discovering that they are living a lifestyle of holidaying around the world as they are taking dividends from sales of arms, they struggle to reduce the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing by making certain rationalisations.  A part of them is horrified with the fact that they are complicit with the destruction of lives for their comfort.

That horror of complicity might also be experienced in the individual who discovers that when they are selling or accepting smart phone upgrades, they are involved in the destabilisation of the Democratic Republic of Congo as that is where the Coltan minerals are mined; the horror of complicity may be associated with a man coming to realise that they are sexist and never really recognise the wishes and feelings of women unless they mediate his desires.

This notion is the stuff of nightmares as in the mix of cognitive dissonance there is a presence which disrupts the positive image which we need to have of ourselves.  A lover wants to think that they are enacting love, a thinker likes to believe that they are being aware, investment bankers favour the outlook that they are generating economy, a civil servant wants to be understood as being civic…



Leon Festinger offered a critical perspective on a psychological theory which has been extremely influencial in shaping our world – behaviourism.  The propensity for people to reach for the easy-to-hand behaviourist tropes of reinforcement is very ingrained in western societies.  The originator of Behaviourism was B. F. Skinner who carried on from Pavlov who is famous for articulating the development of the conditioned reflex.  This outlook created the basis for the idea of positively reinforcing (reward/carrot) someone doing what you want, and negatively reinforcing (punishment/stick) what you dont want as behaviours in others.

Festinger argued the inadequacy of stimulus-response conditioning accounts of human behaviours after studying under Kurt Lewin – the social psychologist widely quoted as originating Action Research method.  There various problems with the behaviourist approaches from setting up ecologies of perverse incentives that encourage individuals to game the system to get rewards to the damage which gets done to cognitive reflexes when mixed ratio reinforcement is encountered.  Put simply, you really mess people up when you alternate between punishment and reward; it generates gambling behaviour…

What is more are the systems effects that are generated when various people are put into a matrix where there are power disjunctures, allocation of statused roles and procedures which must be followed that force reward and punishment.  Not only are people who are subjects of the institution forcibly conditioned, but those who are employed to staff the procedures are forcibly conditioned too; if they dont do what they are told they are punished by the system, and ultimately their families are punished or held to threat because that is how they earn their bread.



This is an excerpt from the 1979 film ‘Scum’ directed by Alan Clarke starring Ray Winstone, Mick Ford, Julian Firth and John Blundell. It follows the brutal life of young adults inside a British borstal


All in all, who is to question the systems themselves ? Now-a-days we find that industries are actively repelling the collectivisation of unions and what union forces there are exist as neutered forces in the political economy.  Most people cannot afford being a part of a union or contemplating strikes because, say, they felt that they were complicit with human rights violations of the systems they work within.  Most people are too nervous to raise questions about structural issues which form the year-in-year-out downstream problems which are dealt with ad hoc and piece meal (such as underfunding social care).

The truth is great in films and fiction, in our heads and poems, but when it comes down to it, speaking truth scares the ka ka out of people for a multitude of reasons.  Often people deal with their cognitive dissonance down the pub on evenings to help wilt down the discomfort which is pushing the values they once were in love with out, like a cookoo in a nest.  To try to deal with the dissonance people chuck token offerings at monolith charity organisations, which like them, side step many big issues (such as alcohol causes cancer) – at least this is what one person confessed to me without provokation.


Carrot and stick

Disjuncture and Institutionalisation

A policy culture has declared that services will be outcome focused and commissioners which sign up to outcomes based commissioning approaches are often unaware of the fact that knowledge of, and tools for measuring outcomes on the ground are limited in their scope, if not outright deficient. Tools which do exist are often unpopular with staff who feel that the work of measuring takes them away from the ‘real work’ and do not accurately represent their achievements [3].

There is also considerable feeling from clientside that these ‘tools’ of measuring stand in the way of producing the support that the clients need. Indeed the bureaucracies which are injected into so many social circumstances go a good way to alienating people who need the support. This helps them decide to be ‘hard to reach’ due to the reduction of their problems to tick lists which do not reflect their actual life, circumstances or experiences. As well as this, it considerably reduces the complexities imposed on people’s lives from the outside and preserves dignity through a sense of autonomy.

“The categories and concepts of ideologies substitute for actual relations, actual practices, work processes, organisation, practical knowledge and the reasoning of actual individuals; the expressions of a textually mediated discourse” [87]. This has an institutionalising effect in those dynamic social spaces, and it decouples that section of the population without the bureaucratic literacies, or a developed ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ [110], necessary to gain engagement with the world as how it is run thus creating and perpetuating an underclass.

An institutionalized society results in an infantilized reality; by stripping trust and agency from it’s professionals and individuals, the state necessarily takes on the responsibility of the things that go wrong. Centralized power takes on centralized responsibility. When people embody the worst, least productive results, it is often borne of the unfreedoms (As Amartya Sen put it [13]) which have shaped their behaviour and abilities.

More systematic research is needed to look into the effect of using different kinds of outcome measurement approach both on service users and service providers; specifically ones which do not manifest unfreedoms. Participatory approaches to assessment and measurement have an important role to play in restoring equity in a depersonalized and deterministic culture.

Experience, as concept, is contested as to its epistemological status, and thus its usefulness in knowledge claims. This must be challenged if we are to avoid institutionalizing vulnerable people. Institutional ethnography is a methodology which relies fundamentally on people’s experience taken from the perspective of those being ruled. Here Dorothy Smith articulates what is meant by the use of ‘ruling’ in the development of an institutional ethnography:

“In describing the ideological rupture and locating it in a ruling class, I am not using the model of manipulation of ideas from behind the scenes, the model of ideology as ideas designed to deceive and to fool the innocent, put forward consciously and with malign intent by a ruling elite. This model is quite inadequate to analyze the phenomenon we are concerned with. We are describing, rather, a set of positions in the structures that “rule” (manage, administrate, organize, and otherwise control) [54]”.

Thinking, informed by interests arising in the work of ruling and relevant to getting that work done, develops in overlapping circles of discourse. People who occupy such positions come to view the world in distinctive ways by virtue of their participation in the ruling structure. They have working relations with others similarly placed. They have similar problems, experiences, concerns, and interests:

“In the formally and informally organized circles of discourse the ‘social’ or intersubjective character of their interests and experience is accomplished. A ruling class does not exist merely as an ideologically homogeneous collection of individuals standing in an identical relation to the means of production. Rather, a ruling class is the basis of an active process of organization, producing ideologies that serve to organize the class itself and its work of ruling, as well as to order and legitimize its domination. Ideologies take for granted the conditions of ruling class experience.

They give social form to its interests, relevance’s, and objectives. Its specific historical character builds the internal social organization of the ruling class as well as its domination over others. Its overall character, however, depends upon, and takes for granted, the social relations that organize and enforce the silences of those who do not participate in the process; those who are outside it. It is important to keep in mind that we are not talking about the control of ideas in an abstract sense.

Rather, we are talking about control over the means of producing and disseminating ideas and images – that is, control over the educational process, over the media, and so on. The silence of those outside the apparatus is a silence in part materially organized by the pre-emption, indeed virtual monopoly, of communications media and the educational process as part of the ruling apparatus” [44].


Michel-Rolph Trouillot makes the point that “Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural” [64].


Harold Innes discusses the concept of ‘monopolies of knowledge’ in his work as an Economic Historian and teacher of Communications Theory: “What is monopolized is the control over the structuring of space and time.The ruling group, organized institutionally (e.g. the Christian church) and backed by a particular type of communications technology (e.g. parchment), maintains its power by formulating a particular conception of time. It is a monopoly, in the case of the church, because the intricate rationalization of this conception are mastered and actively discussed by a relatively small group of clerics [65].

As a knowledge technique, Institutional Ethnography fits well with Action Research, Participatory Action Research and Existential Phenomenology as methodologies because they all move to value the first hand situated, non-professional experience which is commonly ruled out of agential expression [54].

As a study, it takes experience, not as truth, nor as the object of inquiry, but as the departure point for sociological inquiry. Institutional ethnography utilizes observational and interview data to demonstrate experience as methodologically central to a robust analysis. The technique’s argument suggests that individuals’ experiences are a way to understand the social relations of the setting which is the focus of study.

When they are mapped and disclosed, the process makes those experiences understandable in terms of the ruling arrangements which run through both the organisation and their own experiences. From this we can start to build a constructed picture of what opportunities are available to individuals within the ruling apparatus, and of the available human capabilities; the development approach pioneered by Amartya Sen [13] and Martha Nussbaum [28].

The substantive argument is that using experience as data holds analyses accountable to the everyday actualities in the lived world. Campbell illustrates this perspective with an inquiry which uncovers how a ‘quality improvement strategy’ in a long term care hospital was used to re-organise caregivers’ values and practices towards a market orientation in which vocational care values are compromised by this development [54].

In Institutional Ethnography a researcher goes about exploring and understanding their own, or someone else’s everyday life in a structured way. Institutional Ethnography is located as a research strategy in the theoretical approach known as ‘social organisation of knowledge’. Here experience is the centre point of the analysis; it is where it begins and it is to where it returns in a process which makes clear the meaning of how the experience came to happen as it did [54]. The objective of making the analysis is to open up possibilities for the people who live the experiences to have more scope to move and act in a constructive way.

This happens via the mechanism of empowerment of the individuals with knowledge surrounding their experiences. The strong similarities with aspects of Participatory Action Research, particularly in context with Fals-Borda are obvious: “Participatory Action Research is a philosophy and style of working with people to promote people’s empowerment for changing their immediate environment – social and physical” [45].

Dorothy E. Smith and other researchers claim that this form of analysis offers something for all those whose lives are subject to ruling relations. In their book ‘Knowledge, Experience and Ruling Relations’, Campbell and Manicom show how “working up individual experience so that it is objectively administrable is a practice of domination” [47].

Dorothy Smith instructs us to “begin from the actualities of people’s lives” if we want to understand what is happening to them. Smith is one of the feminist scholars for whom women’s experience remains of key methodological importance, even as it has become contentious in post modern/post structural circles.

Women’s experience is a measureable example of an underclass. “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward; it is always contested, and always therefore political. The study of experience, therefore, must call into question its originary status in historical explanation. This will happen when historians take as their project not the reproduction and transmission of knowledge said to be arrived at through experience, but the analysis of the production of that knowledge itself” [46].

Here it is worth again mentioning Trouillot’s thesis in his book ‘Silencing The Past’ where he establishes that in the creation of every fact, there is the creation of a silence. It is these silences that we are particularly interested in here [66]. Institutional Ethnography relies on interviewing, observation and documents as data. As an approach it is distinct from other forms of ethnography by treating those data not as the topic or object of interest, but as “entry” points into understanding the social relations of the setting.

The idea is to tap into people’s expertise in the conduct of their everyday lives – their “work” – as Smith frames it. The conceptual framing of everyday experiences heard, read about, or observed, constitutes one of the distinctive features of an Institutional Ethnography; another is its political nature. It is an exploration of how people’s lives are bound up in ruling relations that tie individuals into institutional action arising outside their knowing.


“Institutional ethnography allows one to disclose (to the people studied) how matters come about as they do in their experience and provides methods of making their working experience accountable to themselves… rather than to the ruling apparatus of which institutions are part” [67].


Being a part of a system which administrates and controls aspects of one’s life means that the aspects which are administered are controlled. We are set in a situation niether to develop understandings through opportunities, nor become socialized to the thinking or values which bring about the system. In this parent-child situation, the parent remains the gatekeeper and the child remains the dependent, by dint of special information being withheld from the living, learning environment. By special information I mean the agential knowledge needed to create, recognize, engage in and act upon opportunity.



[3] Morris, William (1884) “Useful Work v. Useless Toil”, Lecture given to the Hampstead Liberal Club, ISBN-10: 0141036702

[13] Sen, Amartya. (2000). Development as freedom. New York, Anchor Books. Page 87

[28] Nussbaum, M. C. (2013). Creating capabilities: The human development approach.

[44] Smith, D. E, 1987, The Everyday World As Problematic, Boston: Northeastern University Press, ISBN-13: 978-1555530365, Page 57

[45] Fals-Borda, O. And Rahman, M. A. (eds.), 1991, Action and Knowledge: breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research, 1st Ed, New York, Apex Press, ISBN-13: 978-0945257578, Page 16

[46] Scott, J. 1991, ‘The Evidence of Experience’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Summer, 1991), pp. 773-797, The University of Chicago Press, Accessed Online 20/06/2015

[47] Campbell, M and A Manicom (Eds), 1995, ‘Knowledge, experience and ruling relations’ Toronto: University of Toronto Press, ISBN-13: 978-0802007209, Page 10

[54] Marie L. Campbell, Institutional Ethnography and Experience as Data, Qualitative Sociology, March 1998, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 55-73

[64] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘Silencing The Past: Power and the Production of History’, Beacon Press books, Copyright 1995, ISBN 978-0-8070-4311-0, Page 106

[65] Alexander John Watson, ‘Marginal Man; The Dark Vision of Harold Innis’, copyright 2006 University of Toronto Press Incorporated, ISBN 0-8020-3916-2, Page 328

[66] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, ‘Power and the Production of History’, Beacon Press books, Copyright 1995, ISBN 978-0-8070-4311-0, Page 26

[67] Smith, D. E, 1987, The Everyday World As Problematic, Boston: Northeastern University Press, ISBN-13: 978-1555530365, Page 178

[87] Dorothy E Smith, ‘Textually Mediated Social Organisation’ International Social Science Journal, 36, no 1 (1984): pp 59-75

[110] Adrian Furnham, Joseph Marks, Tolerance of Ambiguity: A Review of the Recent Literature, Psychology 2013. Vol.4, No.9, 717-728



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