EGOS 2011 stream: THE DUBIOUS ROLE OF NUMBERS IN ORGANIZATIONS

December 12, 2010

The following EGOS stream may also be of interest to SSF people.

Have a good break,

Yuval

THE DUBIOUS ROLE OF NUMBERS IN ORGANIZATIONS

Sub‐stream #39, EGOS 2011 Colloquium, Gothenburg

Conveners:Christian Huber, Helmut‐Schmidt‐University, Hamburg, Germany (huber@hsu‐hh.de)Martin Messner, HEC Paris, France (messner@hec.fr)Tobias Scheytt, Helmut‐Schmidt‐University, Hamburg, Germany (Scheytt@hsu‐hh.de)

Numbers are ubiquitous phenomena in organizations. Whether we look at the ‘classics’ of calculativepractices, like accounting or budgeting, or whether we look at practices like performancemeasurement, the evaluation of product quality, the assessment of strategies, or the identification ofhigh potentials as future leaders – we can identify a seemingly endless and growing stream ofnumbers that swamp all kinds of organizations and action nets.  Numbers can have an orientating and ordering effect, helping organizations to discoveropportunities, to evaluate success, but also to distinguish between different qualities of its activities.Hence, numbers are a powerful resource in organizing and decision making. However, they can alsoplay a critical role in shaping organizational and societal life more generally. The financial crisis tellsus that risk management, a field heavily coined by an intense use of numbers and quantitativeapproaches of evaluation (Power, 2008), has not only not protected from the collapse of financialservices institutions, but has amplified the breakdown of  banks and put the world economy at theedge of a collapse.   Accounting studies have significantly added to our understanding of the production and consumptionof numbers as a specific, intricate and subtle procedure. Counting and calculation put organizationalentities in relation to each other (Power, 2004, Edenius & Hasselbladh, 2002). By referring to acommon signifier, like units of money, such practices transform incommensurable entities intoabstract, but comparable quantities which then often lie at the heart of many contemporaryorganizational practices (Miller 1993, Vollmer, 2007).

In contrast to accounting research, the field of organization studies is surprisingly silent when itcomes to the discussion of numbers and related practices. When looking at core journals of the field,studies that highlight the role of calculation and quantification in organizations are quite sparse.Given the practical importance of numbers, we think that it is time for the community oforganizational theorists to re‐consider the role of numbers and calculative practices in theassemblage of organizations and action nets.  We thus invite submission of papers that elaborate on the critical role of numbers in organizationallife, assembling, transformation and reassembling. Both empirical and purely theoretical papers arewelcome, as long as they offer surprising, interesting, novel stories or conceptualize the use ofnumbers, and the practices of counting, calculating and quantifying, in innovative ways. Topics andquestions that we are interested in include:Numbers and reassembling: What is the contribution of numbers, numbering systems, counting andcalculation to the (re‐)assembling of organizations? How do numbers intervene in such processes,whether deliberately employed or as a more hidden power resource, and how and why do they attimes become obligatory passage points for organizational action (Callon, 1986)? Do numbers add tothe onward tendency of hybridization of organizations (Kurunmäki, 2004), or do they rather serve topurify otherwise hybrid actants (Latour, 1993)?Numbers and change: if we consider that organizations permanently change – why do numbers andthe practices of counting not change to the same degree? I.e. why do (changing) organizationssometimes employ the same odd calculative practices that have been employed for decades? Doesthe “trust in numbers” (Porter, 1996) also imply a trust in particular calculative techniques forproducing numbers? What new or innovative calculative practices are emerging in organizations? Dorecent developments in social and environmental reporting (Gray, 2002), accounting for emissions(MacKenzie, 2009), or knowledge reporting (Mouritsen, Larsen, & Bukh, 2001) constitute “new”forms of using numbers, or are they simply extensions of the “old”? What helps some fashionable(Abrahamson, 1991) classic concepts to succeed and radical new forms to fail regarding theirtranslation from the level of ideas into actions (Czarniawska & Joerges, 1996)?

 

The masquerade of and with numbers: Are numbers camouflaging the reality of organizations or dothey help us better understand such reality? There is still a strong belief in the neutrality andobjectivity of numbers even if it is a commonplace that numbers are part of the “mechanisms ofhope” (Brunsson, 2006) that disguise the complexities of organizing and organizations. So how andwhy is objectivity often ascribed to numbers in (re‐)assembling organizations and action nets? Whatdoes really happen to qualities – of an individual, product, organization or whatever – whentransformed into quantities? What role do numbers really play in legitimating organizationalactivities and in connecting them to wider institutional logics (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Scott, 2008)?Numbers and gender: Empirical research shows that tasks like counting and calculation inorganizations are to an overwhelming degree done by male members of organizations. Hence, isnumber crunching a male business – and why? What social mechanisms influencing the role ofgender in organizations (Alvesson & Billing, 2008) are fostered or hindered by numbers? Or can theuse of numbers add to gender equality as numbers ‘make all things equal’?Aesthetics, emotions and numbers: How do numbers influence everyday organizational practices andthe way they are carried out? Do they purify such practices (Latour, 1993) from emotions andaesthetic connotations? What is the specific teleoaffective structure (Schatzki, 2002) that numbersimpose on organizational practices? Are numbers mostly boring or annoying? And if so, what would anumber make an interesting one in the context of organizations and/or action nets? What emotions,if any, are associated with numbers? Is there perhaps a fetish around numbers and what is the(mythical) background for it? Or can we identify something like numbers kitsch?  The above list of topics and questions is of course not exhaustive. Hence, papers that highlight otheraspects of the role of numbers in (re‐)assembling organizations are appreciated. We are lookingforward to challenging and likewise interesting discussions in Gothenburg.For any organizational aspect (submission process, deadlines etc.) please refer to the Egos‐Website(www.egosnet.org).References:Abrahamson, E. (1991). Management Fashon.  Academy of Management Review, 21(3), 254‐285.Alvesson, M & Billing, Y. (2009). Understanding Gender and Organizations. 2ndedition. London: Sage.Callon, M. (1986). Elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the Scallops and theFishermen of St Brieuc Bay. In J. Law (Ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology ofKnowledge? (pp. 196‐233). London: Routledge.Czarniawska, B., Joerges, B. (1996). Travels of Ideas. In: Czarniawska, B., Sevón, G. (Eds.): TranslatingOrganizational Change. Berlin: de Gruyter, 13‐48.Edenius, M. & Hasselbladh, H. (2002). The Balanced Scorecard as Intellectual Technology.Organization, 9(2), 249‐273.Gray, R. (2002). The social accounting project and Accounting, Organizations and Society. Privilegingengagement, imaginings, new accountings and pragmatism over critique? Accounting,Organizations and Society, 27(7), 687‐708.Kurunmäki, L. (2004). A hybrid profession––the acquisition of management accounting expertise bymedical professionals. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 29(3‐4), 327‐347.Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Boston: Harvard University Press.MacKenzie, D. (2009). Making things the same: Gases, emission rights and the politics of carbonmarkets. Acccounting, Organizations and Society, 34(3‐4), 440‐455.Meyer, J. W., & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth andCeremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340‐363.Mouritsen, J., Larsen, H. T., & Bukh, P. N. D. (2001). Intellectual capital and the ‘capable firm’:narrating, visualising and numbering for managing knowledge. Accounting, Organizationsand Society, 26(7‐8), 735‐762.Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in numbers: the pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton:Princeton University Press.Schatzki, T. R. (2002). The site of the social: a philosophical account of the constitution of social lifeand change. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.Scott, R. W. (2008). Approaching adulthood: the maturing of institutional theory. Theory and Society,37, 427‐442.Vollmer, H. (2007). How to do more with numbers: Elementary stakes, framing, keying, and thethree‐dimensional character of numerical signs. Accounting, Organizations and Society,32(6), 577‐600.

One Response to “EGOS 2011 stream: THE DUBIOUS ROLE OF NUMBERS IN ORGANIZATIONS”


  1. Hi Yuval,
    Thanks for this interesting information about this EGOS stream.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: