Corporate pathology?

As a psychoanalytic practitioner one of the things that has always intrigued me is whether social institutions or formations can be ‘pathological’, in the same way that an individual can be described as ‘pathological’, or in the use of terms such as ‘psychopathology’ and ‘psychopath’.   According to my dictionary, the word ‘pathology’ is derived from the Greek pathos (‘suffering’, ‘disease’) and logos (‘reason’).    My dictionary goes to define ‘pathology’ as ‘the science of the causes and effects of diseases’.   It also offers a secondary definition: ‘Mental, social or linguistic abnormality or malfunction’.   It’s in this secondary usage that ‘pathology’ and ‘pathological’ is often used to describe social institutions.  The usage that particularly interests me is that of describing organisations or corporations as ‘pathological’.

This is linked to the wider issue concerning the degree that psychoanalytic ideas and practices that originated in the clinic and with individual patients can be ‘transferred’ (and often ‘translated’) to complex social structures and processes.  In some ways this seems like a bad case of anthropomorphism, i.e. attributing human characteristics to non-human entities.  However, with organisations things get a bit more complicated, in so far that organisations are themselves made up of human beings and all their complexities.  And, of course, there is a long tradition within psychoanalysis of applying analytical ideas to corporate bodies, e.g. the work of the Tavistock.

However, I think there are some particular difficulties and dangers in using terms such as ‘pathological’ to describe the (mal)functioning of organisations.   It’s one thing to argue that a lot of organisations seem to have more than their fair share of psychopaths, many of whom, according to some commentators at least,  seem eminently suited to senior management or political positions (leaving aside for the moment clinical issues concerning the term ‘psychopath’).   It’s quite another to describe an organisation, as a separate corporate entity, in these terms.   I think we need to be clear what we are saying here: is it that because a particular organisation has, for example, a number of people working for it who appear to have some form of psychological problem that therefore these problems will be expressed at an organisational or corporate level?   This may be the case but it is a form of reductionism, i.e. explaining social institutions and formations in terms of individual psychology.

Or is it about saying that ‘the organisation’, as a separate corporate entity, suffers from some form of abnormality and/or malfunctioning?   Of course, this whole argument is related to an even more fundamental one: the relation between the individual and the social, which in sociology is often theorised in terms of the the agency-structure debate.   And in many ways this argument is enacted within psychoanalysis itself.  For example, the object relations school are likely to argue that social life is essentially derived from the relationships between individuals.  Lacanians, on the other hand, would most likely problematise both the concept of the ‘individual’ and that of the ‘social’.

For not totally impartial reasons I think the Lacanian position has a lot going for it.  Furthermore, there is a growing body of research literature that utilizes Lacanian theory to explore the way organisations ‘colonise’ or ‘interpellate’ their members, and the role of fantasy as a form of managerial control.  However, I still think we need to be careful here.   And I think one of the reasons we need to tread carefully is in the use of the term ‘organisation’ itself…………..