Workshop Series: Mats Alvesson
Grandiosity, illusionary acts and zero-sum games in contemporary society and its institutions
A seminar with Professor Mats Alvesson hosted by UQ Business School
This book argues that we, in particular in the West, live in an age of grandiosity. The mundane and trivial are, whenever possible, being transformed into something much more aesthetic and appealing. Value is seemingly increased or enhanced with minimal cost – just through adding a more desirable label or image. There is a boosting of claims of progress, achievements and extraordinary qualities of individuals, occupations, organizations and societies. This has frequently less to do with substance – ’real’ improvements or practices/material reality living up to fantastic claims are rare. Contemporary grandiosity is not like older forms, intended to celebrate elite superiority and easily identified as symbolism enhancing, but is more subtle, democratic and is intended to conceal through claims to illuminate the truth. There is a symbolic pollution of the world through the extensive production and distribution of images loosely connected to, or contradicted by, material reality – a reality becoming more and more ambiguous.
The contemporary economy can be seen as an economy of persuasion. Firms and other institutions are increasingly focusing on rhetoric, image, branding, reputation, and visibility. Production of goods and services becomes less of a crucial issue compared to the management of demands and expectations. A steadily increasing amount of talent, energy and resources are devoted to persuasion. More and more people become imagologists (to borrow Kundera’s expression in Immortality), either as a full time profession or as an important dimension (part-‐time activity) of their work. Persuasion and the promotion of grandiosity go hand in hand.
Grandiosity produces experiences of a pedagogical, aesthetic and uplifting world, but the costs are high: behind the pink and gold, the grey and sometimes black flourishes. Imperfect reality reminds us about the superficiality of inflated titles, CV's, higher education, branding investments and other forms of image management. Organizations and other institutions and those supposed to benefit from them suffer when window dressing take upper hand over substance. People’s experiences -‐ increasingly fluctuate between grandiosity and emptiness -‐ something that reinforce narcissism.
The talk is based on Alvesson: “The triumph of emptiness. Consumption, higher education and work organization”. Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
Mats Alvesson is Professor of Business Administration at the University of Lund, Sweden, and a part-‐time professor at the University of Queensland Business School, Australia. He has published a large number of books on a variety of topics, including Reflexive Methodology (with Kaj Sköldberg, Sage, 2009, Second edition), Understanding Organizational Culture (Sage, 2012, Second edition), Understanding Gender and Organization (with Yvonne Billing, Sage, 2009, Second edition), Knowledge Work and Knowledge-Intensive Firms (Oxford University Press, 2004) and Changing Organizational Culture (with Stefan Sveningsson, Routledge, 2008), as well as Interpreting Interviews (Sage, 2011), Qualitative Research and Theory Development (with Dan Kärreman, Sage, 2011) and Metaphors We Lead By (edited with André Spicer, Routledge, 2011).