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Telling Stories

So much for the story of the evolution of the research but what have I actually done as a result of these changing aspirations? The backbone of the thesis is the idea of narrative. I present a number of such narratives in the form of life histories, designed to reflect the experiences of people who are managers at the start of the 21st Century and who have all completed a critically orientated masters in management, and all of whom I have taught. These narratives are intended to be more than merely ‘data’. I wish them to stand as accounts of the lives of managers in their own right, as stories that may interest, inform, amuse, move or provoke their readers. However, in order to adequately theorise such narratives, in a way recognisable as academic research, it is unavoidable that these stories are thematised and generally dissected but I also wished to preserve their integrity as stories, no matter how contrived and edited such accounts must be by my authorship. This wish was stimulated by a feeling of obligation to the people who had taken part, many of whom had become friends during the course of the research. I felt that I had a duty to them to present their stories as accurately as I could, according to my understanding of what they wished to communicate about themselves, to do justice to their struggles, hopes and (usually mild) suffering. It was only as my theoretical work developed that this desire was reinforced by the ethics of historical narrative central to the work of Ricoeur (1985; 1992; Kearney 1996a), who became an important influence on the development of my analysis, confirming me in my intuition of how a certain ethics of representation should guide me.

I would argue that preserving the stories in a way that is faithful to their original narrated form has enabled me to better understand the ways in which identity is worked upon and modified. One can trace how contradictions, tensions, constraints and opportunities can go both unrecognised and recognised, and the efforts individuals make to construct a coherent sense of self from the seeming chaos of ‘ordinary’ lives. As the empirical work progressed it also became clear to me that such an approach underlined the complexity and heterogeneity of individual responses to the shared social context of their lives. Retaining these narratives in the form of individual stories provided an important safeguard against seeing such managers as a univocal group all responding in similar ways. Wishing to treat the stories in this fashion inevitably meant gravitating towards the idea of my interview transcripts being a form of life history.
Life histories are usually more the province of biographers and historians than social scientists. Feminist epistemology has also made a strong case for their use in sociological research as a way of re-discovering marginalised voices and countering the dominance of patriarchal interpretations of the world (Cotterill and Letherby 1993; Griffiths 1995). A similar impulse appears to lie behind the classic ethnographies of working life by writers such as Beynon (1975) in the 1970’s and, more directly, by edited collections of working life histories such as ‘Work’ (Fraser 1969). A relatively forgotten but striking example of the use of life stories, not just to chronicle individual voices but also to paint a rich portrait of a place and time, is Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’ (1972). Through the stories of a cross-section of villagers, Blythe builds up a vivid picture of social change in a Suffolk village from the beginning of the 20th century to the mid 1960’s. A better known example of this approach in the US is the work of the Chicago School, most notably represented by Studs Terkel (1970), who again attempts to build up a rich picture of working life for those whose voices are rarely directly heard, as opposed to their indirect and abstracted representation by others. There are some problems, from an academic researcher’s standpoint, in simply presenting such stories as if they represent people ‘as they are in their own words’. All of such collections are premised upon the ‘political’ motivation that such voices deserve to be heard and many are avowedly left-wing in seeking to present a version of history with the usual class preferences inverted, the history of the ‘common people’ (Harrison 1984). Even if one wished to remove the influence of these motivations there is still the problem that the processes of selection, editing, and framing of these narratives is generally opaque. In addition, such stories tend to be assumed to be straightforwardly referential of an actual life and external reality rather than an account constructed cooperatively between discussants in a particular social context (Stanley 1992). Nevertheless, foregrounding the stories themselves can still make an important contribution to the understanding of identity. In too many accounts supposedly based on storytelling the actual stories are demoted to a fragmented and supporting role, subordinated by the author’s wish to assert their own identity over others. I have placed my narratives at the heart of the thesis and before their analysis in order to avoid this demotion of the stories as stories.
It might seem odd to position a generally elite group within society, managers, alongside the marginalised and silenced that form the subjects of the life histories I have mentioned. It would be ludicrous to suggest that they are in the same position as casual agricultural labourers in 1930’s Suffolk. I would maintain, however, that managers’ voices are not often heard, and that they are more often spoken for than heard speaking. The seemingly never ending deluge of management texts, consultancy products, and research papers that constitute what being a manager is meant to be like are overwhelmingly normative and prescriptive, constituting an endless uninterruptible shout, drowning out the experiences of those who are trying to manage to be managers.
To summarise my discussion thus far, my principle aim in this thesis is to develop a rigorous theoretical approach to the underlying processes of narrative identity construction whilst trying to retain the richness and distinctiveness of stories as accounts by living, hoping and suffering individuals, following in the ethical and methodological tradition of Ricoeur. In this way I hope to contribute both to the debates concerning managerial identity and to what is sometimes referred to as the ‘CMS project’ (see Fournier and Grey 2000; Parker 2002a) and its prospects, a project that I also have a stake in as a self-described CMS academic. For the desires of many CMS academics to challenge what might be thought of as the ideology of managerialism are frequently centred on an attempt to transform the idea of what a manager is, and what an organisation is, and by extension to transform the identities of those who think of themselves as managers. CMS consists (largely) of academics, mostly within management departments and business schools, who have only a limited scope for direct engagement with management practice, most often through their teaching (Parker 2002a). An understanding of how individuals come to constitute themselves as managers and how, or even whether, they incorporate any changes to this identity as a result of coming into contact with CMS ideas is, I would argue, of central importance to any critical project that wishes to go further than throwing an occasional, and usually unnoticed, theoretical spanner into the machinery of the vast production line of conventional management knowledge. What then does ‘being a manager’ actually mean and how has CMS responded to the mainstream academic answer to this question? The rest of the thesis could be read as a variety of attempts to answer this question but some initial discussion of this issue will provide some useful context in my introduction.

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