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Townley and Foucault

In: Philosophy and Psychology

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® Acodemy of Management Heview 1993, Vol. 18, No. 3. 518-545.

FOUCAULT. POWER/KNOWLEDGE. AND ITS RELEVANCE FOR HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
BARBARA TOWNLEY The University of Alberta
Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault. I argue that human resource management (HRM) may be best understood as a discourse and set of practices that attempt to reduce the indeterminacy involved in the employment contract. Here I reread HRM practices from a Foucauldian power-knowledge perspective and suggest that this provides an avenue to reorient contemporary, historical, and comparative analyses of the area.

A glimpse at human resource management (HRM) texts would seem to give light to a comment by Beer, Spector, Lawrence, Mills, and Walton (1984) that HRM is a series of seemingly disjointed activities. This notion echoes an earlier view of Baldamus (1961: 347) that what is encompassed by HRM's subject matter is "anything from supervision, incentives and profit sharing to machine-paced production, methods of training and employee selection." Often this heterogeneity is excused in terms of HRM's reflecting the ad hoc and reactive nature of its origins (Jacoby, 1985; Niven, 1967; Ozanne, 1967). What the heterogeneity of HRM highlights, however, is the importance of an organizing principle, or analytical focus, as opposed to common sense description, which gives HRM practices a theoretical coherence. HRM's heterogeneity stresses the importance of an order "that turns a set of bits, which have limited significance on their own, into an intelligible whole" (Turner, 1983: 191). The ordering of material necessarily makes reference to an underlying theoretical model because statements are made about what subject matter is important, if not why. Underlying most studies of HRM, although often remaining implicit, is what may be identified as a systems maintenance or functionalist perspective....

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