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Foucauldian Studies and HRM Essay

When considering about human resource management (HRM) being understood as discourse, it is necessary to connect Foucault’ s theory on discourse with employee selection as a crucial part of human resource management. Though Foucault himself not a specialist in HRM, it appears that numerous organization studies scholars tend to drawn on Foucault’s ideas for the purpose of re-analyzing and re-understanding HRM. (Barrantt, 2001) The reason is that Foucault’s understanding of the relationship between discourse, truth and power implies how we should regard HRM from different perspective and put it into re-consideration.

Generally, discourse could be understand as ‘ a set of concepts, expressions and statements that constitutes a way of talking or writing about an aspect of the world, thus framing the way people understand and act with regard to that aspect of the world’ (Watson, 2002: 118). And in Foucault’s view, discourse is a flexible term. In one of Foucault’ s book, The Archaeology of Knowledge, published in 1969, was an outstanding work of post-structuralism example. He believes that discourse is a statement unity. It talks about the statement (enonce), which is a rule for the discursive expression to become meaningful.

In Foucault’ s view, the statement has some special archeological meanings. The rules give the meaning of its existence. The meaning of the statement is dependent on the context where it presents. So discursive framing provide a language to representing a topic (Foucault, 1969). So discourse is more than language. It is the way we understand or interpret the world. Due to discourse is shaped or unshaped by society and culture, there are various discourses. The same as for HRM, it can be understand and interpreted from a different perspective. There is no doubt that Foucaultdian studies give new understanding of HRM.

This paper will analyze and critically think of three contributions of reframing HRM Foucaultdian studies give. The first part will analyze human resource management as discourse. It focuses on how Foucualtdiansm understand HRM in different perspectives. The second part will discuss the relationship between HRM and power, which includes how Foucault decodes power, its relationship with knowledge or truth, and how HRM associated with power. The third part will focus on one important aspect of HRM, employee selection, to explore how employee selection can be understood and interpret in different ways.

Finally, a conclusion will be drawn based on previous discussion. HRM as Discourse Generally, HRM are treated as a set of practices that regard human as resource to achieve companies’ targets or interests. It is a product of modern society. From managerial perspective, human resource management featured with ‘rationality, optimism and authoritarianism’ (Legge, 1995). Numerous scholars have explored human resource management from Foucualdian perspective. Generally, the discourse in HRM is associated with power.

Poole (1999) argued that it is probably happened that the discursive analysis contains the description of the HRM discourse related occasion. It will provoke the issue between the subjects who have the right to speak and its influence on employees. When it comes to Foucault, he did not study in HRM but attracts a number of scholars of HRM. Townley (1993) was a representative who put the relation between HRM and Foucault’ s disciplinary power into consideration. She argued that HRM could be best comprehended as a discourse and provides Foucauldian analyses of distinctive feature of HRM.

Because Foucault provided a hint that there are interconnections between discourse, power and truth. So Foucault gave HRM discourse much place to be considered from new perspective (Du Gay et al, 1996). From Foucauldian perspective, HRM is to ‘impose order on the inherently undecidable-the employment contract’ (Legge, 2005:345). It is excising of power that allow managers to manage. Following Foucault’s theory, it is argued here that the subject plays a critical role in HRM. To support this, Foucauldian studies lay emphasis on the influence of the subject in HRM.

In human resource management, ‘the subject plays a more active role’ (Barratt, 2003). The process of HR management witnessed examination and identification of the subject. Foucualt (1988) himself argued that individuals are influenced and influence others by their certain means. All aspects of HRM including employee selection, company’s culture and performance appraisal are the product of subjectivity. Take performance appraisal for example, employees have to subject to an authoritative appraisal system to confess their performance at work (Townley, 1993).

It can be regarded as an action of subjective power. Emphasizing on subject gives space for diverse understandings and interpretations of HRM. Despite of the dominant understanding of HRM from managerial perspective, HRM can be something else because post-structuralism and Foucaudian studies propose that there is no definite understanding of a topic. For example, Nayab (2011) argued that HRM could be interpreted in five ways. The fist is normative perspective, which separates HRM as personnel management and strategic human resource management.

The second is to consider HRM in a critical way. It is believed that the reality showed the contradiction between traditional HRM and the new one. The ‘behavioral Perspective’ is different from others. It put more emphasis on their performance. The purpose of HRM is to guide and manage employees in order to ‘attain the desired performance’ (Nayab, 2011). Seen from the systems perspective, HRM concerns about the outcome of human resource. It is a factory that using employees as material and producing organizational turnover.

The last one is ‘agency or transaction cost perspective’ (Nayab, 2011). This understanding is putting HRM as a mediator of conflicts for the purpose of minimizing the cost. The five understandings of HRM are thinking HRM from different perspective, which inspire the new understandings or some changes against the dominant way of managing human resource. However, the most important stakeholder in HRM may be employee, because it is the opposite poison against managers also the employee’s voice is increasingly needed in modern HRM. The dominant understanding of HRM is hinking and defining from a managerial perspective. Actually, the employee’s view on HRM varied based on the HRM models (Whitener, 2001) Fiona Edgar and Alan J. Geare (2005) did some research on exploring employee’s voice on HRM. The result showed that employees tend to keep a positive attitude towards soft HRM model and resist the traditional and hard one. However, the current HRM needs some change in order to meet employee’s need for self-development. It is possible that the different understandings of HRM push the revolution in both theoretical and practical field.

HRM and power Michel Foucault is famous for his critical studies on power, knowledge and discourse. However, according to Foucault (1980), discourse has no definitive explanation. It could be understood in various perspectives. There is no definite truth in the world. People always impose their subjective consciousness upon the truth. So it is hard to keep the right way to the truth seeking. (Wetherall, 2001) Classical theory represented by Marx implied the traditional understanding the relationship between knowledge and power (Barratt, 2003).

Ideology is regarded as a tool for power. It covers the truth so that people who are governed subject to managing without resistance (Braverman, 1976). However, one main defect of his theory is that he neglects the subject. He defined individuals at work as representation of economic or employment relations (Knights and Willmott, 1985, 1989). In Foucault’s theory, the connection between power and knowledge is complex. Power is everywhere. Also, we have to put human subject into consideration.

The reason why discourse is important is that the point of Foucault’s theory not only lies in how the language expresses meanings but also in what is the relationship between the discourse and the objective behind, or what kind of power imposed (Luke, 1999). In the Order of Discourse, Foucault (1971) claimed that the notion of exclusion is well known in our society, but the most obvious one is prohibition. In other words, not all the topic is allowed in a certain occasion and not everyone is given the right to speak out everything. Discourse itself is not an important issue.

However, the prohibition behind the discourse surprised us due to its connection with the desire and power. In addition, there is another kind of exclusion principle, which is the opposition between reason and madness. On one hand, the discourse of a madman no doubt will be regarded as invalid and unreliable. On the other hand, the madman is given the gift of predicting and revealing the truth. So in fact, there is no definite so-called “madness”(Foucault, 1971). The abnormal itself presents the control from a certain group of people.

Or in other words, power defines the truth the madness to convince people. In terms of knowledge, Foucault (1971) argued that power create knowledge, they are connected with each other. Also, knowledge is only available to the public only when stated within discourse. He claimed that knowledge and truth are not independent and objective. They are connected closely with power and become the legitimate protection for power operating. As Foucault stated it in The History of Sexuality ‘Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, and more than silences are.

We must make allowances for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power: it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. ’ (Foucault, 1980) Also, the power displayed in Discipline and Punish helps us to critically think about the self-regulation, which can be applied into workplace.

It mentioned the disciplinary power. As Foucault (1977) observed, the prison designed by Jeremy Bentham is a technique of the panoptic gaze. The central tower makes prisoners to discipline themselves. So when it comes to the workplace, the panoptic gaze also normalizing individuals’ behavior. In 1950, Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger put forwarded the Hawthorne effect (French, 1953). They observed the performance of labors in an electric factory. They found that when the lights become brighter, workers tend to discipline themselves and the production will increase.

This kind of self-regulation also can be seen in modern workplaces where CCTVs and call centers are facilitated. It is a sort of ‘info-normative control’ (Frenkel et al, 1995) that evaluates employees’ performance objectively. But also the monitoring may damage the culture of leaning form each other and lay too much stress on workers (Knights & McCabe, 2003). However, it seems that power is everywhere but it does not mean power is everything. Knights and McCabe also argued that power is not possessed by certain group of people, even the disciplinary power cannot decide the individual’s behavior.

Foucault (1980) supposed that when individuals put power into action, they are given their own identity and meaning. Subjects are getting gradually split from the collective class, but it is neither individualism nor collectivism (Knights, 1994). It should be treated dialectically. So the power has its influence on knowledge and discourse. Or even the disciplinary power promotes self-regulation and make employees subject to the power. However, the impact of the subject cannot be neglected. It interacts with power and discourse.


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