Affinity and dissent

July 29, 2015

Strongly hierarchical cultures prize consistency and loyalty above independent thinking and creativity. They are stereotypically hide-bound in their resistance to novelty and dissent. This is a constant source of frustration to well-meaning bureaucrats and scientists in large public institutions. So what would explain this pattern of behavior?

If you map object relations theory onto organizational behavior patterns, you can see that the glue that holds a hierarchical organization together is affinity. Mature levels of affinity that can tolerate disappointment (and even censure) are cultivated through patronage and compliance checks, so that subordinates take for granted the correctness and support of their supervisors. You could say they identify with their superiors emotionally the way a dependent child identifies with a parent, internalizing a sense of guilt when they find themselves at odds with their organization’s rules and expectations.

Jane Jacobs argues in Systems of Survival that there are market-oriented cultures that diverge from this model, prizing creativity and intellectual independence above loyalty and generosity. But even firms that are market-oriented in structure can have hierarchical internal cultures that resist independent thinking and suppress dissent. A family business can be very conservative in its values, prone to patronage politics and hierarchical modes of thinking. The business where I work now is a good example of this.

Why is dissent and rule-changing such a painstaking process? In the modern world, democratic decision-making is the norm, and almost all laws and statutes are subject to public discourse and review. But in practice, organizational change is a cumbersome process characterized by high levels of risk and resistance.

To answer this question, you might ask, what conditions foster and encourage dissent? Jacobs would argue that these are market conditions, those governed by strong expectations of honesty and autonomy, where contracts are entered into freely and in good faith. She characterizes markets as naturally open to diversity, in which collaboration among strangers and aliens is the norm. In contrast, hierarchical organizations are closed systems, competitive and secretive with outsiders, and their internal relationships are characterized by top-down dependencies rather than egalitarianism and autonomy.


What, then, are the psychosocial conditions that foster and encourage dissent? They must be characterized by horizontal rather than vertical distributions of status, that is, peer-to-peer relationships. Friendships as opposed to families, colleagues as opposed to supervisors and subordinates, acquaintances as opposed to authority figures.

And there is an important element of trust involved in mobilizing dissent. For creative solutions to arise from independent thinking, there has to be a sense of confidence in the intentions and credibility of the innovator. Here the tension between affinity and dissent is at its most paradoxical. Because the strong bonds of affinity in hierarchical organizations impose a sense of guilt on those who dissent, but in the absence of trust, dissent would go nowhere.

This is perhaps related to the argument Jacobs makes that hierarchical and market-oriented cultures are deeply symbiotic. Perhaps a market-oriented culture nested within a hierarchical society could tap into a sense of affinity just strong enough to inspire trust, but not intense enough to smother dissent. In the same way, a hierarchical organizational culture nested within a market-oriented business model is reluctantly susceptible to organizational change – there are a few important changes going on where I work that show how successful dissent can be when market pressures are in play.

The implications for the study of neoliberalism and Martha Nussbaum’s ideas about the frontiers of justice are interesting. I’ll try to circle back to the topic of trust in market-oriented relationships at some point, to explore how trade and affinity are related. In my earlier concept map of aggression and love labors, I situated commerce in a quadrant governed by rational decision-making and love, as opposed to irrational decision making and aggression. That’s not how I typically think of commerce, but that’s the direction Systems of Survival is leading me in as I explore aggression theory in connection with the Cultural Cognition Project now.

In particular, I want to look at risk-perception as a cultural cognition phenomenon that is governed by both issues of affinity and measures of the credibility of dissent. I want to build on this thought-provoking paper from the Cultural Cognition Project in situating risk communication in a neoliberal state where liberalism is the ostensible ethos of public discourse, but (and this is something the CCP does not adequately address) hierarchically-oriented mega-firms play a decisive role in programming the mass media and setting the policy agenda.

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