This past weekend I attended the Organizing Equality conference at Museum London in London, Ontario. This conference brought together activists, academics, and community members to discuss various aspects of building more just worlds. This post shares the presentation I gave with my friend and collaborator, Dr. Rita A. Gardiner, on family as an organizational structure and diversity.
Rita is a scholar and teacher of Critical Policy, Equity and Leadership Studies in the Faculty of Education at Western University. (I highly recommend her 2015 book, Gender, Authenticity and Leadership: Thinking with Arendt). Our presentation is part of a longer work that is forthcoming in Gender, Work & Organization, and is available for “early view” through this link. The journal article is also a beginning point for us, as we would like to continue theorizing about the family, especially with respect to family values.
Family matters: An Arendtian critique
Imagine an organization that promotes itself as caring about diversity, multiculturalism, and equality. What happens when members of this organization bring forward complaints of institutional racism? Betty Sasaki (2001) describes such a scenario at a university where she teaches. Students held open forums to discuss institutional racism and occupied the president’s office to report on the forums. In response, the university administration expressed its disappointment in the students’ action, listing accounts of institutional diversity and multicultural success stories. Sasaki refers to these success stories as part of a “multicultural family romance.” What might this multicultural romance tell us about how family structure is used as an organizational model?
In this presentation, we explore how family functions as an organizing principle that underpins institutional structure or culture. Viewing the family as an organizing principle reveals troubling insights about diversity in organizational life. Although there are diverse kinds of family arrangements, the kind of family appealed to by organizations often privileges hierarchy and negate diversity.
By adopting Hannah Arendt’s critique of family as the foundation for organizational structure, we explore how diversity initiatives can suffer when family is used as an organizing principle. Another reason we turn to Arendt is because, on her view, praxis or agency (we use these terms interchangeably) and diversity are intimately connected. This connection is emphasized by her critique of the family as a structure of hierarchal sameness. For Arendt, a meaningful account of praxis requires space for difference and diversity to emerge.
Our presentation begins with Arendt’s historical distinction of the family as organizing principle. Here she differentiates between the public space of the polis and the private space of the household. For Arendt, the polis is the space where diversity flourishes since people are able to dialogue and debate with each other about issues that matter to them. This is because, in the polis, each man views the other as his equal. In the family, by contrast, it is not diversity of viewpoints but hierarchical sameness that prevails. Second, we explore how organizations can become more polis-like in their appreciation of difference. Finally, we point towards ways in which family as an organizing principle privileges a neoliberal conception of the heterosexual nuclear family.
The family and the polis: Opposing organizational structures
Arendt’s discussion of the family reveals that paternalism and hierarchy are intrinsic features of family as an organizing principle. Her original notion of family reveals a structure of rulership and sovereignty that denies diversity (or in Arendt’s terms, plurality). Arendt’s analysis begins with the rise of the Ancient Greek city-state, which had two distinct forms of human organization: the political and the private. The political, known as polis, was the privileged realm. For the Athenians, the polis “stands in direct opposition” to the family (Arendt 1958, p. 24, emphasis added). Because the family structure stands in direct contrast to that of the polis, the family is the paradigmatic space for hierarchical sameness.
We focus on Arendt’s critique of “the family” as an organizing principle in political contexts. She seeks to reclaim a vibrant, diverse political community of citizens from privileging of economics over political. Her argument is that family as an organizing principle is dangerous for a diverse political community. Here, we suggest that the family is also a dangerous organizing principle. Organizations structured along lines of family may limit their ability to foster diversity.
For Arendt, the household and the family are pre-political entities that comprise a pre-condition for a citizen’s political engagement. In the household, women and slaves spent their lives caring for the patriarch. They could not take part in political affairs of the polis, since they were not deemed citizens. Moreover, as the household exists outside of the political and legal realm, paternal rule is outside the law. Therefore, the patriarch could punish others as he chose. As Arendt (2005) describes “rulership was not located in the public realm but in the private sphere of the household, whose head ruled over his family and his slaves” (p. 91).
Only when the patriarch entered the public realm did he become part of a legal framework based upon equality amongst (male) citizens. Thus we see that the family model represents an organizing principle that privileges the patriarch and denies diverse voices. This is because when family is used as an organizing principle, individual differences are suppressed. Hierarchy is constitutive of the concept of family. Wives, children, slaves and workers who depend on the largesse of the patriarch to survive cannot be free. In Arendtian terms, the ability for others to speak and act in public is, to a certain extent, controlled by the head of household. There was no opportunity for them to express their unique perspective in the manner the male citizen was able to once he left the household and entered the polis.
In contrast to the household, for Arendt the Athenian polis is an exemplar of a relational space, because it allows individual uniqueness to shine forth. She sees individual uniqueness as the ability for a person to be able to speak and act, with others. The Athenian polis is where male citizens could speak together, share their opinions, and make decisions for the future. But the Arendtian polis has broader, and more democratic, implications for organizational life.
Two qualities of the polis are important for our argument: plurality and natality. First, the polis is the space where plurality, as opposed to hierarchal sameness, appears. Plurality is the recognition that, as human beings, our lives are embedded in relationships. Plurality’s emphasis on sameness indicates equality. Conversely, Arendt’s emphasis on difference enables a robust appreciation for differences in perspective, situation, and history.
Arendtian “equality in difference” is not the same as modern-day notions of equality, which have their roots in Enlightenment thought. Arendt is concerned with how equality as sameness encourages too much focus on a person’s social role, on what they do, rather than on who they are. Focusing on what a person does obscures who they are as an individual, covering over their distinct identity. The uniqueness of individuals emerges as a result of recognizing each person’s diverse lived experiences, coupled with acknowledging their identity characteristics. When we do not acknowledge these diverse aspects of a person, we run the risk of ignoring the rich tapestry of human existence.
Plurality also encompasses collective action, which, in Arendt’s view, emerges out of robust dialogue and debate. For plurality to flourish, we need an environment that enables people to express themselves without fear of censure. This requires a recognition and appreciation of a person’s uniqueness and difference. Thus, plurality is a foundation for a meaningful appreciation of diverse voices within an organization. When plurality is diminished, so are the conditions for action and possibilities for change.
The expression of unique subjectivities is also indicative of natality, the second Arendtian feature of the polis. First, she describes natality as a person’s birth into a political community and equates it with freedom. Second, natality refers to our ability to act within deterministic structures. She means this in a radical sense, as beginning an action whose outcome no-one can predict or contain. Arendt is interested in how action occurs in community, thus enabling a person to act in concert with others. Even if an event initiates a new beginning, it is not action in an Arendtian sense if people work against each other.
The family: An inadequate model for organizations
Although Arendt deems the family to be pre-political in Ancient Greek thought, there have been attempts to model political and social organizations on the family model. Two prominent examples Arendt cites are Plato’s ideal city-state and early Christian organizing. Take Plato for example. His ideal state was to be ruled by a few philosophers. This few would be responsible for doing the work that had previously been shared amongst all citizens. In privileging philosopher-rulers, Plato’s ideal State did not allow for diverse participants to shape the political realm since most of them did not have any input. From Arendt’s critique of Plato, we can see that when the household becomes the model for politics, what was pre-political becomes anti-political.
Arendt is not against families per se, acknowledging they serve an important purpose in our private lives. However, the family is not an adequate model for organizational structures, because it is founded upon hierarchy and sovereign rule, which privileges homogeny over diversity. For organizations structured like a family, diverse perspectives are subsumed under the dominant institutional narrative. Hence, the family is an organizational structure ill-suited to promote praxis, and appreciate diversity.
As such, there is an ongoing tension between “praxis” and “organizations.” This tension arises because action is boundless. This boundlessness means no-one can predict the final outcome of any action. Indeed, Arendt maintains this moment of action passes whenever an organization is formed. Consequentially, there is a permanence to organization that action can never have, because of the latter’s transient nature. Additionally, bureaucratic organizations often erase difference, as people hide behind policies, and procedures. In bureaucracies, who a person is matters less than what their role is. The ensuing problem with this hierarchical way of operating is that people become disillusioned because their ability to flourish is negated by bureaucratic structures.
Family as organizing principle
Despite the tensions between action and organizational structure, there are two concrete insights an Arendtian analysis of family brings forth that help us rethink how to promote diversity within organizations. First, Arendt reminds us that hierarchical structures must be tempered with opportunities for people to dialogue about diverse perspectives. Our introductory narrative of the students’ attempt to deal with institutional racism through open forums seems indicative of natality. These spaces sought to begin new conversations about racism, thus enabling a plurality of perspectives to be expressed. This kind of collective action is less likely to rely on hierarchal sameness because there are different viewpoints coming together to work on a given problem.
The second Arendtian insight is that collaborative decision-making across various levels of an organization better promotes diversity. Allowing diverse groups of people to provide input allows for a greater diversity of voices. Although decisions may be the final responsibility of a leader in a hierarchical structure, finding avenues to collaborate across levels of an organization promotes dialogue that moves beyond superficial commitments to diversity. For Arendt, sharing diverse viewpoints is important to guard against group think, and encourage thoughtful exchanges. This encourages the group to act in a cohesive manner while respecting different perspectives. According to Arendt, it is through someone’s actions that we come to an understanding of who they are. Thus, a polis-like organization acknowledges that its members are always more than their institutional functions suggest.
Although Arendt rejects hierarchies, we suspect that many organizations will have to find ways to promote diversity within hierarchal structures that may be impervious to change. As our initial story shows, in not complying with institutional norms, the student organizers were perceived as bad family members. With hierarchal sameness, good family members are expected to subordinate themselves to the dominant institutional narrative. The challenge for promoting diversity is to cultivate the sharing of diverse perspectives, while maintaining political goals of organizational and societal change.
Family and neoliberalism
Our final point concerns how family as an organizing principle privileges a neoliberal conception of the heterosexual nuclear family. Unifying notions like family can obscure inequalities and uniqueness. At first glance, the traditional nuclear family presents itself as requiring hierarchy for the sake of equality. As Patricia Hills Collins (1998) notes “A well-functioning family protects and balances the interests of all its members—the strong care for the weak, and everyone contributes to and benefits from family membership in proportion to his or her capacities” (p. 64).
Yet such a patriarchal family model holds women to be primarily responsible for caring. Even when the traditional family is more diverse in its composition such as queer parents or a stay-at-home dad), Wendy Brown argues this family structure remains one of hierarchal sameness. Brown (2015) states, “The persistent responsibility of women for provisioning care of every sort, in and out of the household, means that women both require the visible social infrastructure that neoliberalism aims to dismantle through privatization and are the invisible infrastructure sustaining world of putatively self-investing human capitals” (pp. 106-107).
These examples point to ways in which neoliberalism perpetuates gendered inequalities. It is worth being aware of how the heterosexual nuclear family is often connected with neoconservative conceptions of family values that privilege Western conceptions of the family as Christian, white, heterosexual and middle-class. As such, family as an organizational principle may reinforce gender and other social inequities.
In this presentation, we have questioned how family is used as an organizing principle. Judith Butler (2004) suggests that “the social norms, such as the patriarchal human family, that still underwrite our ‘formal’ conceptions of universality” need to be interrogated (p. 191). Arendt’s critique of family as an organizing principle provides one such interrogation.
An Arendtian interrogation reveals that family as organizing principle denies diversity in favor of conformity. This critique also offers possibilities for destabilizing homogenizing tendencies within organizations, and effecting social change by helping us to recognize taken-for-granted ideas about societal organizing. In conclusion, revising our notion of family, as well as re-thinking and re-doing diversity within organizations, could “give birth” to new organizational structures that promote diversity.
A complete list of our references is accessible through this link.