Resistance through compliance: The strategic and subversive potential of frontstage and backstage resistance

S.B. Ybema, M.M. Horvers

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Cynicism, gossip, foot-dragging, simulation of productivity, etc. have been regarded by some scholars as manifestations of resistance that are subtle and unobtrusive, but still real and effective. Denying their strategic and subversive potential, others have argued that such informal, indirect or infrapolitical demonstrations of subversion are risk-free and ineffective, and, because members shy away from acting on their critique, that they should be re-evaluated as mere compliance. Refuting an either-or framework, we ask the more pertinent, empirically grounded, and underexplored question of how resistant and compliant behaviours are performed in situ. This allows us to discern and examine different forms and effects of infrapolitical strategies. Building on an ethnographic case-analysis of a planned change programme in the Amsterdam municipality’s Department of Work and Income (DWI), this paper explores in detail how organisational actors subtly synthesise compliance and resistance in their situated positionings vis-à-vis a change initiative, and how such ambiguous positioning becomes consequential. We describe two distinct infrapolitical strategies, which we term frontstage and backstage resistance. While frontstage resistance derives its subversive potential from mixing open protest with implicit complaisance, backstage resistance functions via a benign appearance of carefully staged compliant behaviour.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1233-1251
Number of pages19
JournalOrganization Studies
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Compliance, infrapolitics, organisational change, performance, routine resistance, resistance to change


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