Fear of the Formal: On Organizational and State Phobia

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference abstract for conferenceResearchpeer-review


Over recent decades, institutions exhibiting high degrees of formality have come in for severe criticism. From the private to the public sector, and across a whole spectrum of actors spanning from practitioners to academics, formal organization is viewed with increasing doubt and skepticism. In a “Schumpetarian world” (Teece et al., 1997: 509) of dynamic competition and incessant reform, formal organization appears as well suited to survival as a fish out of water. Indeed, formal organization, and its closely overlapping semantic twin bureaucracy, are not only represented as ill suited to the realities of the contemporary organizational world, but equally a key source from which organizational problems themselves emerge. Whether in the form of state planning and the various evils associated with this (Hayek, 1944), or in the form of large commercial organizations sapping shareholder value, the unanimous verdict is that formal organization is an obstacle to be overcome.
For that very reason, critics, intellectuals and reformers alike have urged public and private organizations to break out of the stifling straightjacket of formality, to dispense with bureaucracy, and to tear down hierarchies. This could either be done under the headline ‘Gov 2.0’ that re-envisions the function of government as a platform around which creative citizens collaborate (O’Reilly, 2009), or by adopting a whole new mindset where a organo-centric view of the world is replaced by a more democratic, co-creative, ecosystem-approach. It could also be achieved by creating carnival-like ‘bonkers organizations’ with ‘zanies in charge’ (Peters, 1992), by ‘firing all the managers’ (Hamel, 2011) or by simply ‘organizing without organizations’ (Shirky, 2008). Although the solutions proffered are quite diverse, they are nevertheless built around a common narrative: On the one hand, we have the recent past with its rigid organizations, managed through bureaucratic and formal structures, and supported by theories and principles coined before the middle of the twentieth century. On the other hand, we have the present or immediate future, producing radical new conditions and challenges that cannot be adequately met by relying upon structures and principles inherited from the past. In our present, it is stated, complexity rules, everything changes and organizational arrangements therefore need to be supple, adaptive and ‘permanently beta’. This narrative revolves around a departure from a formal or bureaucratic mode of organization, and the simultaneous embracing of a more informal and spontaneous mode of organizing.
In this paper, we explore this ‘fear of the formal’ indicating its genealogy and its contemporary manifestation in relation to recent and ongoing reforms of organizational life and state administration. At the same time, we seek to indicate the continuing constitutive significance of formality and formalization for both the securing of organizational purposes and the individual freedom, and for ‘stateness’ itself. Formality we suggest should not be approached in a morally expressivist manner. We must not confuse ‘unjust formality’ in terms of the standards set for it by management consultants or social theorists, with formality ineffective for the purposes it holds itself to.
Original languageEnglish
Publication dateDec 2014
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014
EventThe Second Workshop on the Analysis of Bureaucracy in Society: Perspectives on Bureaucracy in Society - Oslo, Norway
Duration: 1 Dec 20142 Dec 2014
Conference number: 2


WorkshopThe Second Workshop on the Analysis of Bureaucracy in Society

Cite this