Les symboles et les objets symboliques dans les organisations: quand l’outil devient une médaille…

S.B. Ybema, M.. van Hulst, D. Yanow

Research output: Chapter in Book / Report / Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


[in English] Organizational scientists analyse patterns and processes in organizational life through such concepts as power, culture, identity, institutions, and so forth, notions that are not directly observable. What organizational researchers directly engage in their analyses of these concepts are the sayings, doings, and things that organizational actors generate and use. Much of what organizational science offers is thus based on analyses of language, acts, and objects that are in some way meaningful to those actors – such organizational artefacts as a friendly greeting in the corridor, a story about ‘the good old days’, gossip about a manager’s alleged fraud in his previous job, an organizational chart. In this chapter we engage the processes through which language, acts, and objects come to be treated as symbolic in everyday organizational life. How do organizational actors make (or unmake) meaning through talk, acts, and things? And how do social scientists make meaning of such meaning-making efforts?
Organizations are filled with human artefacts that work symbolically in representing and thereby communicating collective organizational meanings. Attention to the symbolic dimensions of organizational life began to develop in the late 1970s, as scholars became increasingly aware of the limitations of the technical-rational character of theorizing in organizational studies and began searching for alternatives. Importantly, this search coincided with intellectual ferment across the social sciences in general as theorists turned from structural-functionalism and took on board the challenges for empirical research posed by hermeneutics, phenomenology, and related philosophies: the so-called “interpretive turn.” The turn to interpretive philosophies and methodological presuppositions included “taking language seriously” (White 1992), treating it not as a transparent referent to what it designated, but as representative, potentially, of a wide range of meanings. This representative character is, as we shall see, what makes something “symbolic”; that is, as carrying or conveying some meaning other than its “literal” meaning. In empirical social scientific studies, including organizational studies, the analysis of symbolism has focused not only on language, but also on acts and objects.
Organizational symbolism became popular in organizational studies in roughly the same era as other meaning-focused concepts entered the field, primarily the idea of “organizational culture” (Smircich 1983, Frost et al. 1985). From the beginning, organizational culture studies identified symbols as the ways in which cultural meanings were created, manifested, communicated, and even, according to certain academic writings, controlled (Wilkins 1983; for a critique of the latter, see Kunda 1992). Although occupying a central position within the broader field of organizational culture studies, organizational symbolism also took on something of a life of its own, with its own edited collections (e.g., Pondy et al. 1983, Gagliardi 1990, Turner 1990, Rafaeli and Pratt 2006) and journal special issues (Administrative Science Quarterly 1983). Many of its topical areas of study – humour, metaphor, built spaces, stories and storytelling, for example – have developed into research fields in their own right. In what follows, we discuss three broad categories of human artefacts: language, acts, and objects. Although we treat them, for heuristic purposes, as separate, elements from two or more of these categories often work together in the communication, representationally, of human meaning, as the case example in section 5 illustrates.
Original languageFrench
Title of host publicationLa Theorie des Organisations: Les Tendances Actuelles
EditorsF.X. de Vaujany, A. Hussenot, J.F. Chanlat
Place of PublicationParis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)978-2-7178-6825
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Cite this

Ybema, S. B., van Hulst, M., & Yanow, D. (2017). Les symboles et les objets symboliques dans les organisations: quand l’outil devient une médaille…. In F. X. de Vaujany, A. Hussenot, & J. F. Chanlat (Eds.), La Theorie des Organisations: Les Tendances Actuelles (pp. 239-257). Paris: Economica.