No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Barbara Czarniawska (*1948) studied Social and Industrial Psychology and obtained her PhD in Economic Sciences. She is Senior Professor of Management Studies at the Gothenburg Research Institute School of Business, Economics and Law. In her research she applies a constructivist view of organizing, with a focus on action nets. Her methodological interest is in fieldwork techniques and the narrative approach in social science studies (Gothenburg University, 2022).

Czarniawska criticizes existing methods and theories of organizational research; for example, they mainly look at compliance, or at power, and pay too little attention to other aspects (Aljets, 2015). She uses anthropology to investigate complex organizations. Her approach, based on Malinowski, Douglas, Geertz and Latour, emphasizes the interpretative performance of the actors rather than simply taking social reality as a given. It is organizational actors who create organizations and therefore they are the main source of understanding what organizations really are. The social construction performance of actors is central, in order to be able to understand an organization in its social totality through their actions, their interpretations and multiple interactions. She traces step by step how actions at the micro level result in the overall picture of the organization at the macro level in its practical, symbolic and political dimensions. Organizations are multicultures that unite several orders under one roof. Her analyses deal with the process-based understanding of interactive meaning-making. In doing so, she understands organizational theory and practice as genres of narratives embedded in other narratives of modern or postmodern society.

Czarniawska sees organizations as nets of collective action, undertaken in an effort to shape the world and human lives (Von Groddeck, 2015). These action nets are embedded in organization fields. Collectively shared or negotiable stories turn actions into organizational reference chains. Organizational research should analyze how stories in science and practice are constructed, used or applied in a misleading way. To understand institutional changes, changes in stories in the organization must be tracked. Images of paradoxical circumstances arise when one observes organizational practice with rational or causal-logical criteria. In practice itself, paradoxes are interpreted as challenges to be solved. These "deparadoxes" (Luhmann) are always current solutions that shift the paradoxes into the future and thus keep processes of change in motion. Czarniawska analyzes organizational events as serials, to understand how stories are turned into topics and how they must be continuously adapted to new circumstances or the challenges of the current situation. Series evolve over time and reflect current fashion in organizational areas. In doing so, organizations are constantly looking for their identity, which they actively create and shape.

Organizing in the Face of Risk and Threat

Czarniawska and colleagues examined what is organized to deal with risk and threats. They looked at the actual and virtual links between collective actions. In response to a concrete threat or catastrophe, the crucial question in practice is: what should be done and how? When it comes to a hypothetical risk, the actions unfold according to the bureaucratic precept, with long and complicated discussions about whose responsibility it will be. Czarniawska indicates that it was the normative aspects of law that led to bureaucracy, while assigning responsibilities within a network is a way of meeting the punitive aspects of law in advance. The effectiveness of this is questionable. While there is an ongoing process to establish entities for threat and risk, they may be of little use. The action net concept is used for organizing at an early stage; through creating, stabilizing, maintaining and recreating connections between collective actions. A catastrophe is not the right time to worry about organizational boundaries and division of labor. In a crisis it is no longer important who should do what, only that it is done. After a storm in Sweden, private individuals helped each other and government officials. Several companies offered financial support and performed tasks far beyond their competences. Preparedness is important, but knowing what to do and how to deal with future disasters is more important than who should do what. After the collapse of the bridge between Gothenburg and the island of Tjörn, it was reconstructed very quickly, as most of the relevant rules were relaxed. Czarniawska indicates how important timing is when organizing around threat and risk. During preparatory work, it may be wise to determine in advance which actions may be required and to practice linking them on an ad hoc basis. Otherwise, the division of responsibilities may result in hubris rather than plans for future actions. Organizing effectively does not mean that uncertainty has to be reduced, but that uncertainty has to be accepted as part of the human condition and that action is necessary in spite of it - with the courage that comes from much practice and improvisation. Czarniawska concludes with the words: "We would argue that never-ending improving plans, refining structures and applying subtle distinctions about the division of responsibilities create a vicious circle that must be broken in favor of well-practiced improvisation."


Aljets, E. (2015), 'Czarniawska-Joerges, Barbara (1992), Exploring Complex Organizations', in: Stefan Kühl (ed.,) Schlüsselwerke der Organisationsforschung, Wiesbaden: Springer.

Czarniawska, B. (ed., 2009), Organizing in the Face of Risk and Threat, Cheltenham/Northhampton: Edward Elgar.

Groddock, V. von (2015), 'Czarniawska, Barbara (1997): Narrating the Organization. Dramas of Institutional Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.', in: Stefan Kühl (ed.,) Schlüsselwerke der Organisationsforschung, Wiesbaden: Springer.