Research in the Society of Organizations
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
Emerald Book Chapter: Hermeneutic philosophy and organizational theory
Frank J. Barrett, Edward H. Powley, Barnett Pearce
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Volume 32), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 181 - 213
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AND ORGANIZATIONAL THEORY
Frank J. Barrett, Edward H. Powley and
Our aim in this chapter is twofold: first, to review briefly the history of the
hermeneutic traditions; second, to examine its influence in organization
studies. We begin with a review of hermeneutic philosophy including
ancient Greek origins and Biblical hermeneutics. We then delve more
deeply into the work of 20th-century hermeneutic philosophy, particularly
Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, to demonstrate how hermeneutics
became a field that is concerned not only with texts but also with verbal
and nonverbal forms of action and the preunderstanding that makes any
interpretation possible. Finally, we explore how hermeneutic philosophers
claim that interpretation is the mode by which we live and carry on with
one another. In the third section, we suggest that the field of
organizational studies has discovered the relevance of hermeneutic theory,
a rarely explicitly acknowledged debt. In particular, we outline the
influence of hermeneutic theory on several figural areas, including culture,
sensemaking, identity, situated learning, and organizational dialogue.
Philosophy and Organization Theory
Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume 32, 181–213
Copyright r 2011 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
Keywords: hermeneutic philosophy; organization studies; interpretive
sociology; Heidegger; Gadamer; Ricoeur; organizational culture;
linguistic turn; identity.
Hermeneutic philosophy as a theory of interpretation of experience
emphasizes how we cope in the world and come to understand objects
and subjects. While its origins focus on the study of biblical texts and later
ancient and classical cultures, hermeneutics as a philosophy offers a way of
understanding the process of interpretation. Its influence today extends to
organization studies, where scholars studying culture, identity, sensemaking,
and learning draw on the philosophical tenets of hermeneutics to explain
human action, intentionality, and meaning in the context of organizations.
Our aim is to review briefly the history of the hermeneutic tradition and
examine its influence in organization studies. We begin with a review of
hermeneutic philosophy broadly, beginning with the ancient Greek origins.
We also review the emergence of Biblical hermeneutics, which is concerned
with the correct interpretation of sacred texts. Our main focus is the
emergence of philosophical hermeneutics, chiefly in the work of Heidegger,
Gadamer, and Ricoeur, to demonstrate how hermeneutics became a field
that is concerned not only with texts but also with verbal and nonverbal
forms of action and the preunderstanding that makes any interpretation
possible. Finally, we explore how hermeneutic philosophers claim that
interpretation is the mode by which we live and carry on with one another.
In the third section, we suggest that the field of organizational studies has
discovered the relevance of hermeneutic theory, a rarely explicitly acknowledged
debt. In particular, we outline the influence of hermeneutic theory on
several figural areas, including culture, sensemaking, identity, situated
learning, and organizational dialogue.
HERMENEUTICS: A BRIEF HISTORY
Greek Origins of Hermeneutics
In Greek mythology, Hermes was the Olympian god who was the primary
boundary crosser. The patron of travelers, orators, athletes, and thieves, he
was known as the one who brought messages from the gods to mortals and
182 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
as one not above a bit of trickery in the process. Crossing the boundaries
between the gods and mortals required interpreting messages as well as
conveying them. As mortals became interested in interpretation of what
other people said and did, often recorded in ‘‘texts,’’ they borrowed Hermes’
name for their work, calling it hermeneutics.
The Greeks in fact were quite concerned about the meaning of texts –
poems, dramas, Socrates’ dialogues. But there were two very different ideas
about hermaneutics in classical Greece; both were set out in Plato’s Protagoras.
In Plato’s hands, this was a dialogue between the esteemed and respected
sophist Protagoras and the iconoclastic Socrates (Plato’s teacher). Among
other issues was the interpretation of texts. Protagoras was a storyteller who
belonged to a long tradition of people who used what we would now call
‘‘narratives’’ and their ‘‘thick descriptions’’ as the way to develop character,
adjudicate disputes, and persuade people about public policy. In Plato’s hands,
Socrates was concerned with knowledge of unchanging realities. The two sides
of hermeneutics were the contemporary interpretation of the significance of
texts for present purposes (Protagoras’ view) and the reading through texts to
find out their true meaning (Socrates’ view).
Since Plato wrote this dialogue, Socrates won. When Plato banned poets
from his ideal Republic, he did so partially because he viewed them as
dangerous, creating expressions that fail to convey the truth. He warns that
poets are possessed by madness, tell wild stories, create false representations
of gods and heroes, and hence will corrupt the taste of the citizens. The idea
that hermeneutics was a way of finding out what the author ‘‘really meant’’
or of the truth embedded in the text dominated hermeneutics for most of the
subsequent centuries. In the past 400 years, however, the view associated
with Protagoras has come back into favor and has been enriched by many
Biblical Hermeneutics and Fredrich Schleiermacher
In Western history, hermeneutics became associated with the interpretation
of sacred texts. Biblical hermeneutics evolved out of a concern for the
correct methods for understanding the Bible. Through most of the Middle
Ages, true understanding of Biblical texts was relegated to a select few –
usually priests trained in theology who knew the lingua franca within the
Church hierarchy. During the Reformation, the question of correct
interpretation of sacred texts became a contested one. The Reformers felt
that Church dogma had obscured the meaning of scripture and spawned a
renewed interest in the meaning of scripture.
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 183
In the 18th century, scholars discussed the importance of understanding
these sacred documents within their living contexts, a principle known as the
‘‘canon of totality.’’ A group of theologians began to return to classical
Greek and Hebrew to understand the original meaning of the text. Some
even began to question whether scripture has the same meaning in every
time and in all places – in other words, ‘‘meaning is not fixed.’’ Some began
to see the Bible as a collection that required not just dogmatic theological
but also historical interpretation. In the context of this century, we
encounter the first important philosopher of hermeneutics.
Fredrich Schleiermacher, an 18th-century German philosopher/theologian,
struggled to reconcile the Enlightenment tradition of knowledge as an
egalitarian endeavor with his Protestant theology. Assuming that the
meaning of scripture is not relegated to only the hierarchy of the Church,
how does one discern the intent of the authors of scripture? He was the first
to propose that what is needed is a general theory of hermeneutics, a theory
of interpretation and understanding of all texts, not only sacred texts,
opening the door to looking at challenge of interpreting all forms of human
communication. Interpretation, he said, is a legitimate way of knowing that
is distinct from positivistic knowledge.2 He was the first to explicitly
articulate the principle that understanding cannot be accomplished by
isolating parts. Understanding the meaning of a text depends upon larger
context. Interpretation is circular, a movement back and forth between parts
There isyan opposition between the unity of the whole and the individual parts of the
work, so that the task could be set in a twofold manner, namely to understand the unity
of the whole by the individual parts and the value of the individual parts via the unity of
the whole. (Schleiermacher, 1998)
This is one of the first references to the hermeneutic circle. What
Schleiermacher has done is to call attention to the role of the reader. The
reader anticipates the unfolding whole as he or she encounters each word
and each sentence, and each word and sentence shapes the reader’s
anticipation of the unfolding whole.
He proposed a set of interpretive rules that are beyond the scope of this
chapter. But perhaps his biggest contribution, besides his influence on Dilthey,
was his sense of the goal of interpretation. For Schleiermacher, understanding
is a matter of inverting the process by which the text was written:
Just as every speech has a twofold relationship, both to the whole of the language and to
the collected thinking of the speaker, so also there exists in all understanding of the
184 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
speech two moments: understanding it as something drawn out of language and as a
‘‘fact’’ in the thinking of the speaker. (Schleiermacher, quoted in R. E. Palmer, 1969)
Understanding is a psychological, empathic accomplishment in which the
reader seeks to close the gap between his or her understanding and the
author’s beliefs and intentions to get inside the mind of the author.
Gadamer refers to Schleiermacher’s approach to hermeneutics: ‘‘to understand
the author better than he understood himself’’ (Gadamer, p. 192).
Schleiermacher’s notion that interpretation is an attempt to reconstruct the
original meaning of the author is a notion that Gadamer will challenge.
Wilhelm Dilthey and verstehen
Dilthey was a biographer of Schleiermacher, and is regarded as the first
modern philosopher of history. He articulated the epistemological foundation
for the social sciences as distinct from the natural sciences. In order to
fully grasp the importance of Dilthey’s contribution, it is important to
revisit the Enlightenment world in which he lived, a century that had given
birth to the natural sciences. The early fathers of sociology, Comte and Saint
Simon, searched for a positivist ‘‘science of society’’ and envisioned a social
science that emulated the natural sciences. Under the influence of the
Enlightenment revolution, the task of the new discipline would be to explain
the relationship between the various parts of society as it evolves in
progressive stages toward a new social order, the industrial society. They
extolled the linear and incremental nature of scientific progress that draws
upon past experiences and discoveries contributing toward building
predictive theories. The task of social science, as in the natural sciences,
would be to identify recurring, unmalleable, and systematic patterns, and
transhistorical and valid principles to explain permanence among flux.
Dilthey, however, claimed that the human sciences call for a unique
methodological approach, that human phenomena cannot be grasped by
using the logic of the natural sciences. Human action, he argued, is
subjective, guided by motivations and intentions of actors. The natural
scientist is interested in abstract laws; the social scientist is interested in the
meaning that human actors ascribe to their actions. The appropriate method
for understanding actors’ motivation is the experience of empathy, or
verstehen. Rather than seek objective detachment, one should aim to
reproduce the experience of the actors.
Thus, the prime data that the human sciences seek to grasp are not objects
or atoms or events, but meaning. Dilthey moves to abandon the Kantian
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 185
notion of consciousness as sensation as if it were a matter of atoms
impacting the mind. Instead, he insists on the language of ‘‘erlebnis.’’3 In his
1960 classic Truth andMethod (discussed below), Gadamer makes a point of
emphasizing Dilthey’s use of the German word ‘‘erlebenis,’’ roughly
translated in English as ‘‘experience.’’ Originally the word designated ‘‘to
be still alive when something happens.’’ Gadamer points out that for
Dilthey, the word attempts to connote ‘‘the immediacy with which
something real is grasped,’’ something that makes a special impression of
lasting importance, such as encountering an exceptionally moving work of
art. Gadamer will challenge many of Dilthey’s precepts.
Martin Heidegger and the Understanding of Being
In order to understand the impact of Heidegger, it is important to appreciate
the context in which he studied, in particular the influence of his teacher,
Husserl, and the field of phenomenology. In his concern for disclosing
consciousness, Hilthey advances Dilthey’s concepts, particularly in his
emphasis on intentionality, but in a way that would be rejected by
Heidegger. While he would not be considered a philosopher of hermeneutics,
Husserl becomes an important figure in that several of his concepts,
including the role of language and meaning, are challenged by Heidegger
and Gadamer as they advance the philosophy of hermeneutics.
For Husserl, the meaning of an expression is dependent upon what the
speaker intends through the use of signs. Understanding is a mental process
of grasping the intentionality of the speaker conveyed in words. Signs are
representations of objects, and to understand one connects word-signs to
referents.4 A meaning intention is ‘‘an understanding, a peculiar actexperience
relating to the expression, which is presentyshines through the
expressionylends it meaning and thereby a relation to objects’’ (Husserl,
1900/1901, p. 302). Heidegger reacted against Husserl’s view of language as
signs that carry the speaker’s meaning and disclose consciousness. He reacted
against the notion of mental representations that carry meaning or intention.
In Heidegger’s view, Dilthey and Husserl were prisoners of the Cartesian
and Kantian separation of subject and object. In Heidegger’s view we have
not only inherited a misrepresentation of consciousness but also inherited a
misrepresentation of being itself from the early Greeks and the Enlightenment
philosophers. Whereas the Enlightenment view of knowledge
assumes separate and self-sufficient subjects and objects, for Heidegger
‘‘being’’ is holistic and integrated.
186 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
In Heidegger’s philosophy, when Dilthey, Schleiermacher, and Husserl
asked the question ‘‘how does the subject comes to know an object?’’ they
were missing the holistic context. Heidegger noted that in order for any
object to have salience for a subject, they are not separate entities but both
(subject and object) already belong to a world that allows the object to show
up as meaningful. There is already a preunderstanding of being that allows
objects to show up, the background world the basis upon which any object
is relevant or meaningful.
With this move, Heidegger makes a crucial ontological turn with
hermeneutics. Interpretation is not just meaning; it is grounded in a whole
set of background practices, a kind of preunderstanding that makes knowing
possible. We are beings-in-the-world, involved, absorbed, coping with an
entire referential totality of equipment and other beings. We are not
detached analytical monads. When one is absorbed in something, such as
when one is hammering a nail, reading a book, or listening to lecture, one is
‘‘being-in-the world’’ of referential totality and barely noticing background
practices. Only when there is a breakdown, when the hammer one is using
feels too heavy, or the chair one wants to sit in falls apart, does one see the
world as one of separate subject and object. When you describe an object,
such as a hammer as ‘‘too heavy,’’ you have taken the object out of its
holistic context within which one copes. The error that misled Descartes and
Kant and later Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Husserl is to view knowledge
and understanding as contents inside the mind. Rather, understanding is
‘‘being in the world,’’ an openness to the world.
Hermeneutics is more than a methodology for understanding; it is the
fundamental human condition of being. To say that understanding is our
mode of being means that we inhabit the world in a prereflective way, a way
that allows anything to show up as meaning something, a background set of
practices that orient us in the world. To understand is to understand the
projection of one’s possibilities of being. We are always already projecting
ahead of ourselves in time, disclosing possible worlds.5
What does he mean by the notion of preunderstanding? Preunderstanding
is our holistic background skills that give us familiarity, various particular
coping skills that hang together in coherent, coordinated ways, intermeshed
with referential totality of equipment, roles, and norms; these holistic coping
skills are our understanding that enable us to get around in the world and
allow us to make sense of everything we encounter. The notion of ‘‘pre’’ in
preunderstanding can be discerned in the following quote: ‘‘Any interpretation
which is to contribute understanding, must already have understood
what is to be interpreted’’ (Heidegger, 1962, p. 194).
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 187
Language, he claimed, is the house of being. We are ‘‘thrown’’ into a way
of talking and being that precedes us, so that our language speaks us rather
than we speak our language. This is an enigmatic claim. What might it mean?
It hits to the heart of Heidegger’s notion that ideas do not exist in the human
mind (or in the mind of some other Supreme Being) prior to being brought
into speech. Rather, ideas and concepts are language. Language is context
that expresses and determines who we are (Heidegger, 1971, p. 146).6
One implication of Heidegger’s insight is that the self is always already
participating in a context that guides the projection of meaning; knowing is
never an achievement of an isolated subject. One is already embedded within a
tradition of being.7 In fact, one only ‘‘has’’ an identity because of the relational
whole that gives meaning to one’s actions and the totality of surrounding
equipment. A mountain climber climbing a mountain is not detached and
analytical, not aware of a separation between self and world; he has an identity
only because of his holistic relation to the snow, rocks, ice picks, boots, etc. In
this way, Heidegger has taken a radical turn. He extends notion of
hermeneutic circle – not just relation between subject and text but also the
relationship between self-understanding and understanding of the world.
Hans Gadamer and the Fusion of Horizons
Many regard Heidegger’s student Hans Gadamer as the central hermeneutic
philosopher of the 20th century. His emphasis on hermeneutics within the
humanities became so central that Heidegger declared ‘‘hermeneutic
philosophy to Gadamer’s own cause’’ (Albert, 2002, p. 17). He looks at the
question of hermeneutics both as a set of principles or methodology for
interpreting meaning and as an ontology. His book Truth and Method is in
essence a history of hermeneutics. In this sense, the title of his book is ironic in
that he challenges the ‘‘method’’ of hermeneutics as a cognitive process of
empathy put forward by Dilthey and he offers as different way to consider
what we accept as truth.
Gadamer explores numerous meanings of the term ‘‘understanding.’’ He
draws on Heidegger and Aristotle in arguing that understanding is
essentially an application, a practical ‘‘know-how,’’ a capacity to do or
apply something. This is a departure from Dilthey’s notion to claim
methodological rigor; understanding (verstehen) is a cognitive process of
empathic re-enactment. For Gadamer, understanding is less a cognitive
achievement than a practical one. To understand something is to be able to
apply a skill, such as a cook engaged in cooking or an engineer designing a
188 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
tool. He draws upon Heidegger’s notion that understanding is always also a
self-understanding, a realization that it is I who am capable of cooking or
doing. This is the way in which understanding is my primary way of being in
the world, the mode of my participation in the world.
Gadamer adds another dimension to what it means to ‘‘understand.’’
Understanding is related to agreement. To understand a text is akin to
entering a dialogue between conversation partners seeking to achieve some
kind of common ground. This is not the same as grasping the author’s
intention. Understanding is always translation, a matter of putting things
into words, taking something foreign and articulating it in terms that are
familiar. Understanding, application, interpretation, and translation are
terms that are almost interchangeable for Gadamer.
Since interpretation is a translation, an attempt to take something foreign
and relate it to familiar words, it is impossible to get outside of prejudice. In
fact, this is perhaps the most radical of Gadamer’s points and as direct a
challenge to Enlightenment view of knowledge as we are likely to find:
prejudices are conditions for understanding. One can never get outside of
one’s words in order to grasp a text:
We are always already embedded within an historical tradition and cannot get outside of
it in order to get a ‘‘truer’’ picture of the text. There is no place to stand outside of
history and/or culture to get a better grasp of things. Even becoming aware of this
doesn’t help: ‘the standpoint beyond any standpointyis pure illusion.’ (p. 376)
There is no direct access to a world unmediated by language. We always
inherit interpretive biases in the form of language. Biases bring forth
meaning by anticipation, expectation, and projection. Understanding, then,
is a projection of the horizon of the reader that meets the horizon of the text.
Gadamer introduces an important phrase that many cite as one of his core
contributions to the field of hermeneutics: understanding is a fusion of
horizons. The dialogical encounter between reader and text expands or
contracts the reader’s world. Drawing directly upon Heidegger, prejudices
and biases are our openness to the world, they are the conditions that allow
us to experience anything.
Gadamer is interested in the possibility of openness when he suggests how
to approach the ‘‘other’’ as we enter dialogue with a text, a person, or an
event. He calls for the acknowledgment that one’s truth claim should be
taken seriously and that one should approach the ‘‘other’’ with a willingness
to accept the others’ differences, a willingness to allow our horizons to be
challenged. Gadamer inherits the term ‘‘horizon’’ from Husserl who used it
to refer to perspective or viewpoint, but appropriates it in non-Kantian
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 189
ways. He writes: ‘‘The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything
that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the
thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion
of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth’’ (Gadamer,
1960, p. 302). Understanding is a ‘‘fusion of horizons,’’ the meeting of
differences. ‘‘A horizon is not a rigid boundary but something that moves
with one and invites one to advance further’’ (Gadamer, 1960, p. 245). The
reader of the text extends or projects his or her horizon toward a text,
another person, or an event. The text, person, or event is no immaculate
object, but comes with its own horizon or historical context and projects its
horizon outward to the reader. I play out a possibility of my own being
when I interpret a text.
Gadamer’s privileging of language is an important contribution to the
field of hermeneutics: ‘‘Being that can be understood is language.’’ For him
language is not only a means of communication. Any understanding that
cannot be put into words is no understanding at all. Drawing upon
Heidegger’s notion, it is language that makes thought possible, a direct
contradiction to the Enlightenment view in Kant, Schleiermacher, Dilthey,
and Husserl that holds language as carrier of meaning.
Paul Ricoeur: Metaphor, Narrative, and Selfhood
Paul Ricoeur is another significant figure in the development of
hermeneutics (1967, 1981, 1984). His philosophy touches many disciplines,
including psychoanalysis, religion, ethics, literary criticism, and linguistics.
It is far beyond the scope of this chapter to summarize his work, but suffice
it to say that his theory of hermeneutics is woven throughout. In some ways,
his entire philosophy is a philosophy of reading. More so than Heidegger
and Gadamer, Ricoeur made an impact on literary studies, particularly in
his analysis of the structures of narrative and metaphor. The notion of the
‘‘text’’ as metaphor for speech and action becomes a central theme in his
work. We are always reading, or interpreting discourse in the form of
speech, action, or texts.We have inherited knowledge embedded in texts, the
meaning of which is concealed and must be revealed through the work of
hermeneutics. All facets of life in this sense are like portions of text to be
deciphered and interpreted.
A theme that concerned Ricoeur was the notion of selfhood. For Ricoeur,
each person is obligated to strive for self-understanding8 – we are beings
190 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
who inquire into ourselves, who seek to understand who we are. More
importantly, for our purposes here, self-understanding is a hermeneutic
achievement and occurs through ‘‘signs deposited in memory and
imagination by the great literary traditions’’ (Ricoeur, 1995, p. 16). The
Stanford Encyclopedia claims that this is the core theme of Ricoeur’s work
and that he has written a philosophical anthropology of the ‘‘capable
person,’’ one that acknowledges the vulnerabilities and capabilities that
humans display in their activities.
Ricoeur outlines two different genres of hermeneutics. One is an approach
toward texts with faith, openness, and willingness to grasp the sacred, hence
his influence in the field of theology. His analysis of metaphor and narrative
emphasizes the potential for novelty and new understanding. The other
approach is the ‘‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’’ the attempt to demystify, the
assumption that one must get behind the disguises of the text. Ricoeur called
Marx, Freud, and Nietzche ‘‘masters of suspicion’’ who approached human
consciousness as deceptive and attempted to uncover its falseness to arrive
at something more authentic.9
Identity and selfhood are not stable or pregiven constructs. We must
construct a coherent identity to become intelligible to ourselves. We rely on
stories and narrative emplotments to make discrete events intelligible and
connect disparate experiences. We are engaging in narrative construction
whenever we ‘‘bring together facts as heterogeneous as agents, goals, means,
interactions, circumstances, and unexpected results’’ (Ricoeur, 1984, pp. 42–
45). Through narrative we are able to discern a larger whole apart from each
One constructs different kinds of stories to account for a myriad of
disparate events. Stories give form and relate events to one another. They
allow us to attribute causality and intention to events. When we talk about
an action as a manifestation of intent, we are positing a plot but doing so
The paradox of emplotment is that it inverts the effect of contingency, in the sense of
that which could have happened differently or which might not have happened at all, by
incorporating it in some way into the effect of necessity or probability exerted by the
configuring act. The inversion of the effect of contingency into an effect of necessity is
produced at the very core of the event: as a mere occurrence, the latter is confined to
thwarting the expectations created by the prior course of events; it is quite simply the
unexpected, the surprising. It only becomes an integral part of the story when understood
after the fact, once it is transfigured by the so to speak retrograde necessity which
proceeds from the temporal totality carried to its term. (Ricoeur, 1992, p. 142)
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 191
We reflect upon actual experiences and draw upon a tradition of narrative
from various cultural sources to create a sense of constancy and identity:
As for the narrative unity of a life, it must be seen as an unstable mixture of fabulation
and actual experience. It is precisely because of the elusive character of real life that we
need the help of fiction to organize life retrospectively, after the fact, prepared to take as
provisional and open to revision any figure of emplotment borrowed from fiction or
history. (Ricoeur, 1992, p. 162)
There is a sense of vulnerability and fragility in Ricoeur’s view of
selfhood. Narrative provides a cohesive fabric that links the disparate
moment to moment of our lives.
Finally, mention must be made of Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor.
Traditionally, linguistic philosophers viewed metaphor through the lens of
rhetoric, the notion that metaphor is the substitution of one word for
another. But for Ricoeur metaphor is powerful not because of its literal
meaning. Rather, metaphors have the potential to open up worlds of
meaning. When grappling with metaphor, the reader suspends familiar
understandings or literal interpretations of the sentence. Metaphors force
the reader or listener to take on an active role, connecting the words to
larger contexts. Ricoeur writes that metaphor ‘‘forces conceptual thought to
think more’’ (1977, p. 303). Not all metaphors have this potency. ‘‘Dead’’
metaphors, through repetition, have achieved the status of myth and no
longer open a horizon of possible meanings. ‘‘Live’’ metaphors insist that we
actively engage to allow a new idea to emerge for us. New, living metaphors
invite us to see something through something else and to notice new
dimensions, and thus keep human thought alive and exercise the
imagination. Ricoeur’s version of the hermeneutic circle challenges the
reader to be open to the emergence of new meaning: ‘‘We must understand
in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand’’ (Ricoeur
quoted in Simms, 2003, p. 351).
In sum, the field of hermeneutics has had an influential role in the social
sciences and organization studies specifically. By challenging the normative
assumptions associated with positivism, hermeneutic theory raises questions
regarding the nature of knowledge within the field of social studies itself. In
the second part of this chapter, we revisit the logical positivist assumptions
that guide most organizational research efforts in order to appreciate some
of the challenges many have raised through a hermeneutic lens. We then
explore four areas that have been influenced by hermeneutic theory:
organizational culture, sensemaking, organizational identity, and dialogue
as an intervention into organizational learning.
192 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
META-THEORETICAL ASSUMPTIONS THAT
GUIDE ORGANIZATION STUDIES
We must begin by acknowledging that hermeneutic approaches to social
science remain a minority approach. In fact, most research in organizational
studies remains committed to a logical positivist view of knowledge,
consistent with the Enlightenment philosophers, one that emulates the
natural sciences (see Barrett, 2008). The predominant view that guides most
organization studies and research makes an attempt to show that the
author(s) have tried to eliminate the appearance of interpretive bias. The
assumption is that social science should be a value-free enterprise. This view
advocates building on prior knowledge to formulate hypotheses and the use
of quantitative methods to measure social and psychological processes
through experimental or quasi-experimental designs. Researchers often use
surveys and questionnaires that uncover aggregate differences between
classes of individuals, groups, and organizations. When researchers discuss
how they worded items on surveys, they do their best to demonstrate that
they have eliminated interpretive bias. In fact, they refer to these surveys
using impersonal value-free terms from the natural sciences – ‘‘instruments.’’
The assumption is that the researcher should remain uninvolved with the
subject under study so as not to cloud the findings or reaffirm one’s
normative expectations; the researchers should approach the problem as if
objective facts are waiting to be discovered. Like the model used in the
natural sciences, the researcher should ‘‘let the facts speak for themselves,’’
contributing toward the advancement and accumulation of knowledge
through incremental fact-oriented research.
This approach has given birth to functionalism, a view that social
structures are shaped by imperatives and that they adapt toward the
maintenance of social order.10 Structural functionalist researchers believe
that below the surface of appearances and individual particularities, there
are deeper structures, regularities that can be explained in terms of cause
and effect. What is deemed ‘‘knowledge’’ is based on objective explanations
that causally connect verifiable patterns that become translated into
transhistorical formulas codified in the acontextual language of mathematics
(and statistics). This empirical rigor will lead to the accumulation of
knowledge: the search for reliable patterns among the contingencies of
observable events has led scientists to mount a program of research that
seeks to provide the last word, to solve problems once and for all.
So where does this leave the influence of hermeneutics? In fact, many,
especially in recent years, have raised doubt about the possibility of a
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 193
neutral, value-free inquiry. These voices are strongly influenced by the
interpretive turn and claim that it is impossible to document ‘‘objective
facts’’ without some a priori theoretical and value-laden lens, a view that
reflects Gadamer’s notion of knowledge as a projected horizon. These
theorists hold that what passes for truth is historically and contextually
contingent. ‘‘Facts’’ are negotiated achievements within communities of
agreement that reflect and reinforce interests and standpoints. What we take
to be ‘‘fact’’ is always already guided by some prior theoretical lens that
deems it worth noticing, a notion that Heidegger would endorse. When one
begins with the facts, one has already advocated an implicit theory that
coincides with common sense and the status quo within some community.
These communities have been called interpretive communities, discourse
communities, communities of practice, and communities of knowing.
Indeed, anthropological studies of scientists engaged in research and theory
construction have demonstrated that the activity of research is a negotiated
achievement, that the ‘‘facts’’ of science are social constructions (see
Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Knorr, 1981). These studies have shown that
establishing ‘‘facts’’ is often a competitive enterprise between scientists
within various interpretive communities and rather than unbiased detached
observers, scientists are often deeply invested in which facts emerge as
legitimate and which are overlooked.
Gouldner (1979) argued that theory is informed by domain assumptions,
background dispositions that favor particular beliefs and values. What
Gouldner has called ‘‘domain assumptions,’’ Heidegger might refer to as the
essence of hermeneutics – the background conditions that allow anything to
be deemed known or knowable. Gouldner claims that the researcher’s
personal experience and sentiment do in fact shape social research. Social
theorists’ interests and internalized prejudices often remain resistant to
evidence that would surface them. Whether a theory is accepted or rejected
is due partly to the tensions and sentiments it generates. For Gouldner all
social theory has both political and personal relevance, despite what the
formal methods books might say. When the theorist confronts the social
world, he or she is also inevitably confronting his or her own values and
preferences, a point that resonates with Gadamer’s philosophy.
In the 1930s a critical approach to social theory emerged in the Frankfurt
school, one that was influenced by the controversy that Heidegger had
begun in Germany. These scholars challenged the traditional view and
claimed that social scientists always operate with tacit theoretical biases. To
name one, Habermas (1972) proposed that the approach to knowledge
production can be linked to three different cognitive and ideological
194 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
interests that generate different forms of knowledge for different purposes.
First, empirical–analytical knowledge reflects a technical interest for the
purposes of enhancing prediction, control, efficiency, and effectiveness, an
approach that he would argue generated much of the organizational
literature on strategy and structural contingency. Second, the historical–
hermeneutic theories have a practical purpose of improving mutual
understanding, exploring how various actors make sense of their worlds
and how norms and schemas evolve to legitimize certain activities over
others. Finally, an emancipatory approach to knowledge creation seeks to
expose forms of domination and exploitation in the service of transforming
social institutions, creating better and more rational social worlds. One
could argue that the Frankfurt School took hermeneutics in a different
direction, fostering a school of critical theory, a theoretical orientation that
demonstrates how privileged positions of autonomy and power exclude or
marginalize subordinate actors. Critical theory is enjoying a growing interest
in organization studies (see, e.g., the work of Wilmott, Knights, Alvesson).
Ricoeur wrote about the importance of critical self-understanding in a
way that challenges one to be open to novel possibilities and the emergence
of new meaning. In this vein, Gergen’s work might be viewed as a challenge
for organizational researchers to self-reflect. He called for ‘‘generative
theory’’ (1982), knowledge that challenges established theoretical terms.
Rather than simply concerning ourselves with construct validity, perhaps
researchers need to reflect on the implications of theoretical terms and
concepts. Generative theory poses the following question: how are patterns
of action enabled and constrained by the theoretical terms we use? In this
vein, Gergen claims that theory creation and theory testing are hermeneutic
enterprises. Theory does more than reflect objective truth; it also serves to
facilitate or constrain modes of action. This is taking Heidegger’s
ontological claims and considering the implications. Gergen proposes that
theoretical terms reinforce or transform the preunderstanding that allows
the world to show up as it does. Theories not only reflect or predict the
world but also reinforce or challenge ways of being. Gergen goes so far as to
propose that knowledge can become an intervention into social practice;
perhaps bolder forms of theorizing can enable innovative repertoires of
action, challenging the status quo and advancing alternative social forms.
Generative theory claims that social science can be a powerful influence in
constituting people’s experience, clearly an appreciation of hermeneutic
philosophy. By creating linguistic categories, distinctions, and causal
attributions, scientists are publicly defining reality that guides people by
shaping the way they talk about life and how they report their own and
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 195
others’ experiences, indeed, how people actually have experiences. It would
be difficult for a person in 19th-century Europe to describe himself or herself
as high in emotional intelligence. However, in modern organizations the
term has become a lens for self-reflection as well as behavioral assessment.
Foucault took this one step further: social scientists help to create what is
taken to be normal and legitimate. Further, a limited set of inferences for
actions flows from these a given set of theoretical terms. For this reason,
Foucault acknowledges the hermeneutic power of researchers by referring to
scientists as ‘‘authorities of delimitation.’’ In the same vein, Anthony
Giddens’ highlighted the double hermeneutic of social science, contending
that social scientists play a prominent role in shaping the discourse by which
people carry out their lives.
In sum, hermeneutic philosophy has had a growing influence on the
practice of social and organizational research, claiming that the researchers
are indeed biased and that researcher’s choices are interpretive moves. These
moves have consequences for how social science activity is conducted, what
topics are chosen, what methodology is adopted, and how we conceptualize
the consequences of such knowledge. In the next section we briefly touch
upon some of the substantive areas that have been influenced by hermeneutic
HERMENEUTICS AND ORGANIZATIONAL
In the second section we briefly traced the evolution of the field of
hermeneutics. In the previous section we suggested that the traditional
canons that inform organizational research are being challenged from
several corners influenced by hermeneutics. Now we suggest some of the
areas in which hermeneutic philosophy has influenced organization studies.
We suggest that the interpretive perspective can be seen in the areas of
organizational culture, sensemaking and identity, and situated learning.
Hermeneutics and Studies of Organizational Culture
While structural functionalism remains a strong orientation since the birth
of the field of organization studies, interpretation and meaning have become
increasingly focal. Max Weber borrows from Dilthey’s notion of verstehen
as central to understanding human action in organizations. Several
196 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
researchers have picked up on this thread of interpretation. Silverman’s
1970 book was one of the first to make interpretation and meaning-making
central. Andrew Pettigrew (1979) called attention to organizational culture
in a seminal piece. He suggests that organizational culture comprises a
broad amalgam of motives, feelings, actions, belief systems, meanings, and
interpretations bound up in myth and ritual and is imbued early in an
organization’s life cycle. His view of how culture develops in organizations
follows a functional view, although his conception of culture is a meaning
system inculcated by founders and embedded in structures and routines.
From a hermeneutic lens then, cultural roots are an embodiment of
individual actors’ meaning-making and interpretive schemes – a foundation
of verteshen. Pettigrew believes that in understanding organizational actors’
motives and actions, scholars may detect cultural patterns.
Another key turning point was the special issue of Administrative Science
Quarterly in 1983 devoted to the study of organizational culture. The editors
half apologetically write that ‘‘culture as a root metaphor for organization
studies is a new idea, redirecting our attention away from some of the
commonly accepted ‘important things’ (such as structure or technology) and
toward the (until now) less-frequently examined elements raised to
importance by the new metaphor (such as shared understandings, norms,
In the past 20 years, culture has indeed become a legitimate topic in the
field of organization studies, and is grounded in many of the epistemological
assumptions of hermeneutics. Schein’s (1985) influential book Organizational
Culture and Leadership argued that organizational culture is
concerned with the shared values, norms, and assumptions of a group or
organization. Language and symbols increasingly become legitimate topics
for research as culture research addresses the taken-for-granted, shared,
tacit background ways of seeing. Since culture research includes a focus on
meaning and the process of meaning-making, researchers seek a close
relationship to the data. They become interested in looking for exceptions
rather than only focusing on verifying a priori hypotheses that focus on
structures. Qualitative research methods, including ethnography and interviews,
are legitimate source of data. Researchers including John van
Maanen, Peter Frost, Joanne Martin, Mary Jo Hatch, and Haridmos
Tsoukas made important contributions to the growing research on
interpretation, meaning, and culture in organizational settings.
Another important contributor was Turner (1990) who furthered an
appreciation of cultural processes, symbolism, and qualitative research
methods. He was key contributor to the Standing Conference on Organizational
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 197
Symbolism (SCOS), an important European movement devoted to symbolic–
interpretive studies of organizational cultures. Researchers became interested
in myths, stories, discourse, rituals, values, and beliefs. Some of the important
edited collections are those by Pondy (1983), Frost (1985), Jones, Moore, and
Snyder (1988), Turner (1990), Gagliardi (1990), and Smircich (1983). Martin,
Frost, and others began to raise important debates regarding whether cultures
are unitary or differential with conflicting subcultures. Some began to explicitly
call attention to the role of the researcher as co-constructing rather than only
reflecting cultural themes, a move that mirrors Ricoeur’s emphasis on the role
of the reader in co-constructing the meaning of a text (Smircich, 1995; Van
Maanen, 1995a, 1995b). Trice and Beyer (1984) further developed the symbolic
theme in their studies of ceremony and ritual practice in organizations.
The debate set forth by Joanne Martin and others reawakened organizational
scholars to the study of culture. She called particular attention to
nuanced understandings of cultural roots using a metaphorical logic. She
argues that scholars studying culture from a functionalist, unitary perspective,
considering culture a variable in organizational research miss an alternative
approach, that is, culture from a symbolic standpoint, one that incorporates a
wide range of ‘‘thick descriptions’’ (Geertz, 1973). The metaphorical and
symbolic paradigm enables scholars to ‘‘look beneath the surface, to gain an
in-depth understanding of how people interpret meanings of these [cultural]
manifestations and how these interpretations form patterns of clarity,
inconsistency, and ambiguity’’ (Martin, 2002, p. 4). She and other scholars
following this broadened view of the scholarship of culture seek to understand
the role of human action in organizational life through a richly complex and
diverse set of symbols, artifacts, experiences, and emotions and their
Hermeneutics and Sensemaking
The literature on sensemaking is also informed by hermeneutic theory.
Sensemaking is concerned with how people construct meaning, constrain
action, and construct identity. Sensemaking researchers strive to articulate
the distinction between the routine of organizational life in which the
subject–object distinction is not salient and the sensemaking efforts that
occur after a breakdown. Sensemaking is explicit and ‘‘visible’’ under
conditions of surprise and unmet expectations, when events are perceived to
be different from what was expected, or when the meaning of events is so
unclear that actors do not know how to engage the world. These are the
198 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
moments that Heidegger describes when he outlines the shift from the
‘‘ready to hand’’ mode in which one is in a state of absorbed coping or
immersed in the flow of events to the ‘‘unready to hand mode’’ in which
action is disrupted and people must reflect or introspect to access reasons for
engaging. The scripts and rationales that people look for in attempting to reengage
the world are drawn from organizational and institutional settings,
past routines, plans, and procedures. This recalls Heidegger’s preunderstanding
of being and Ricoeur’s notion that we draw upon metaphors and
narratives in the culture to construct coherent understandings.
Weick and others posit that sensemaking within the ongoing stream of
activity, people begin to notice and bracket, they carve cues from an
undifferentiated flux. Imposing labels triggers a particular kind of diagnostic
treatment and will suggest modes of acting, managing, coordinating, etc.
Weick writes, ‘‘people make sense of things by seeing a world on which they
have already imposed what they believe.’’ ‘‘Imposing labels’’ is not unlike
Gadamer’s emphasis on the formative power of language and the projection
of horizons.11 What is important for our purposes is to highlight the way that
sensemaking research highlights meaning-making and interpretation as
ongoing activities involving noticing, bracketing, and labeling, meaningmaking
efforts to reduce uncertainty and transience and begin to create order
out of chaos that predisposes people to act in certain ways: ‘‘In the context of
everyday life, when people confront something unintelligible and ask ‘what’s
the story here?’ their question has the force of bringing an event into
existence’’ (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 410). Weick and others
echo Ricoeur’s sensitivity to stories as necessary cultural resources meaningmaking.
Sensemaking efforts are efforts to create a plausible story (Weick et
al., 2005). Stories become more plausible when they link with prior stories,
when events can be seen as exemplars of familiar principles and stories.
Identity construction is at the base of sensemaking activities and undergirds
the efforts to stabilize meaning. Following Weick, ‘‘people learn about their
identities by projecting them into an environment and observing the
consequences’’ (1995). In 1985, Albert and Whetten (1985) first adopted
the construct of ‘‘organizational identity’’ to connote those facets of an
organization that are central, distinctive, and continuous. They proposed
that identity is an interpretive construct and can only be understood through
interpretive methods. The proper method for understanding identity is an
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 199
‘‘extended metaphor analysis.’’ They claimed that public identity is conveyed
‘‘through signs and symbols’’ such as logos, signs, slogans, etc. (p. 95). The
growing research in the field of organizational identity has emphasized how
identity is an important hermeneutic key through which organizational
members make sense of issues.
Dutton and Dukerich, for example, used the lens of identity to understand
several issues in the Port Authority. Identity impacts issue interpretations,
emotions, actions, and adaptation processes. Beliefs about identity shape the
meanings given to events and what solutions should be deemed legitimate.
They are very close to Heidegger’s hermeneutics, the background assumptions
that allow objects to show up as meaningful, the basis upon which
events, people, and things make legitimate sense. In Heidegger’s scheme, this
background assumption becomes foreground and explicit when there is a
breakdown of some kind. Indeed, the employees of the Port Authority began
to talk about identity issues when their sense of identity was disconfirmed
and when they were embarrassed and angry by the negative press because of
the way they dealt with the homeless population. When they were
ontologically threatened, they began to wonder ‘‘who are we?’’
Weick also picks up on this theme in his analysis of Mann Gulch.
Smokejumpers’ tools, narrative, symbols, and actions represent their identity
and act as handles in a Heideggerian sense that enable coping and managing
in challenging circumstances. Sparrowe (2005) draws on this notion as well.
He argues that identity is constructed through self-constancy and understandings
of experience in the world that is interpreted as trust and reliability
in a person (being ‘‘relied on’’ or ‘‘counted on’’) and conceptions of character
or individually possessed and enduring qualities:
Ricoeur does not deal explicitly with authenticity. However, the relationship between
character and self consistency offer interesting possibilities for linking authenticity to the
narrative selfy. Character is a response to the question, asked by the subject about
himself or herself: ‘what am I?’ But self consistency is a response to the question asked by
others, ‘where are you?’ [Ricoeur, 1992, p. 165] Authenticity cannot be meaningful if the
self is empty of character, but it cannot be real if it ignores the dynamics of lived
experience. It is the narrative self that unites character and self consistency. (p. 430)
Identity involves a dynamic relationship between ‘‘what we are’’ and
‘‘where we stand’’ in relation to lived experience. Weick’s analysis of Mann
Gulch highlights both the tragic misidentification of character and the effect
on the smokejumpers’ lived experience, which led to their unfortunate fate.
Their tools, with which they most closely identified, impeded their ability to
deal effectively with the dynamic situation they faced.
200 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
Hermeneutics and Narrative Approaches to Organizational Studies
If identity construction is a narrative process, involving narrator and taking
account of audience in forming and editing components of one’s story, what is
the role of leadership? Ricoeur’s narrative theory offers some fruitful
implications. For Ricoeur, self-understanding is a moral imperative. The self
is a narrative project in which one weaves a story of coherence to unite
disparate experiences. Sparrowe explicitly uses Ricoeur’s hermeneutic
philosophy that leaders’ authentic self-awareness is made possible by attending
to the narrative construction of self that includes the voices of others. He
draws on Ricoeur’s narrative project, moreover, to suggest that leaders narrate
their self-concept, which potentially influences identity construction and that
followers mimic identity of their leaders (Luthans & Avolio, 2003).
Ricoeur’s influence in this domain is ‘‘texts,’’ and the ‘‘emphasis is on the
discursive or linguistic nature of experience’’ (Sparrowe, 2005, p. 424).
Ricoeur’s concern is about lived experience and living texts unfolding
through time and space, through the action and emotions of actors enacting
their stories. The practice of emplotment is the means by which ‘‘we try to
inhabit worlds foreign to us’’ (Ricoeur, 1988, p. 249) and thus negotiate the
path between experience and narrative. To negotiate such a path means one
must possess self-understanding and self-awareness to link past to present
and present to future in narrative sense, to make sense of unexpected events,
and heterogeneity of agents, goals, interactions, and the like.
Ricoeur’s influence in leadership development, namely the role of narrative
as a means to self-awareness and self-understanding, is the foundation for
emotional and social intelligence. According to Sparrowe, the root of authentic
leadership is the ‘‘authentic self.’’ Management consultants use a narrative
approach in a coaching context to create emplotment as a way to foster selfawareness
through reflection. In leadership development practice, one asks
leaders to articulate personal narratives concerning the success or obstacles in
work relationships, that is, the examination of autobiographical texts, and
what might be done to learn from personal constructions. Responses are in the
form of stories and critical incidents that help individuals identify effective
leadership moments and experiential markers they use as ‘‘handles’’ to enable
their personal effectiveness – these touchstones are anchors for future
effectiveness. Such a process of aided self-inquiry requires deep reflection,
self-analysis, authenticity, and the examination of discursive turns.
Ricoeur’s influence in organizational studies is also active in the domain
of managerial communication. Czarniawska-Joerges and Joerges (1988)
offer several examples of linguistic turns in organizations. For them,
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 201
language in organizational life reflects a rich and nuanced understanding of
meaningful organizational constructions, cultural contexts for organizing,
and symbols and meaning systems. Talk in organizations, they contend,
enjoins intentional and communicative acts with managerial action, that is,
use of language and narrative represents one organizing force for routine,
quotidian work. They cite the example of ‘‘labels’’ in organizational talk,
which serve to organize objects and work. Linguistically, labels classify and
organize how people perceive and understand packets of organizational
life, and yet organizationally they ‘‘carry their own implications for action’’,
that is, labels consolidate information and due to their meaning suggest
appropriate diagnoses and action, thus becoming prime movers for enacting
In all of these examples, the role of values shapes the narratives and
identities of leaders. In managerial communication, linguistic markers shape
the means by which people think about and enact organizational
responsibilities, and leaders often set those markers. Leaders possessing
self-understanding and who master emotional self-control influence followers.
The self-narratives they construct have power to inspire others to action
because they are grounded in leaders’ set of ethical concerns, value sets, and
moral orientations, which, according to Luthans and Avolio (2003), followers
are more likely to adopt.
Hermeneutics and Situated Learning
Heidegger and Gadamer view knowledge and understanding as practical
application. The notion that understanding is practical activity has
influenced the literature in the area of situated learning. Theorists of
situated learning and ‘‘practice’’ draw upon hermeneutic philosophy to
make this point. Several organizational researchers have been influenced by
Bourdieu (1977, 1984, 1990), Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992), and Giddens
(1979, 1984). Bourdieu’s concept of habitus sees social actors as embodying
tacit, preconscious expectations (‘‘intentionless intentions’’). Giddens’
structuration theory looks at the background structures and interpretive
schemes, and the shared fundamental assumptions that organize the way
actors construe meaning, choose actions, understand events and experiences,
and serve as templates that allow individuals to process incoming
information efficiently, to notice, select, remember, learn, and extrapolate
whole gestalts from partial data. The background of mutual understanding
and the basic orientation in Gidden’s theory is informed by Heidegger’s
202 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
preunderstanding of being. In structuration theory, they are the basis upon
which individuals organize beliefs, values, preferences, and meanings into
structures of knowledge.
When preconscious expectations transform to situated learning and action,
organization members, as agentic, social actors, engage with physical world in
counterintuitive ways. They come at the world with fresh eyes and
innovativeness. Background assumptions shape the world, but when called
into question, when preconscious becomes explicit, new opportunities to
engage emerge. Situated learning informs the relationship between action and
the context of performance, so, for instance, in organizations, situated
learning is about contextualized behavior Take, for example, facing a life or
death moment in an organization (Powley, 2009). Actors’ situated actions
occur in context of a perpetrator, victims, emotions evoking fear and hope
simultaneously, and counterintuition. The inhabited world of the crisis
moment takes on new meaning and new significance such that physical objects
possess a qualityWeick, borrowing Heidegger, describes as thrownness, or the
capacity for ‘‘bricolage, making-do,y[or] staying in motion to cover new
options’’ (Weick, 2004, p. 76). Weick emphasizes the improvisatory nature of
dealing with constant change and notes that exposure to thrownness feels very
much like dealing with the unexpected in a liminal space. He further states
that ‘‘thrownness puts a premium on recovery, resilience, and normalizing,
without calling attention to the fact that these moods are at a premium’’ (p.
76). In a sense, the crisis moment exacerbates ‘‘thrownness.’’
Weick’s (2004) conceptualization of ‘‘thrownness’’ in managing represents
one application of liminality in management practice. Liminality as an
organizational phenomenon is at the heart of situated learning and action. It
calls on individuals to consider and question their habituated relationships
in favor of new actionable possibilities. For example, in organizational
change interventions, the change process represents ritual space where
liminality is a core feature: in an out-of-normal-operations context,
organization members experience thrownness as they negotiate nonroutine
relationship interactions, discover new knowledge about others and work,
and bond together to create new enabling opportunities for the organization.
Many times in such large system change programs, the intervention
space represents an intentionally constructed liminal experience, so
organization members step outside formal roles to engage with others
throughout the organizational system and work toward a change objective
(Powley, 2004; Powley, Fry, Barrett, & Bright, 2004).
Moreover, situated learning is a reaction against cognitive and behavioral
views of learning. While cognitive learning theories emphasize the inner
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 203
state of the individual, situated learning holds that learning is not simply a
matter of transmission of acontextual knowledge from one person to
another. Rather, learning occurs within a particular social and physical
context and often involves activity (over passive reception). Seeking to
eschew the image of internal cogitation that precedes action, Suchman
(1987) states that ‘‘we generally do not anticipate alternative courses of
action, or their consequences, until some course of action is already under
way.’’ Several example illustrate our point: Seifert and Hutchins (1992) take
a situated learning perspective in their study of decision making on a Navy
ship; Lave studied people using mathematical knowledge within practical
settings; Orr (1996) studied the learning practices of Xerox’s service
Essential to organizational learning is access to legitimate peripheral
participation (Lave & Wenger, 1990), understanding how to function as an
insider. This recognizes that learning is much more than receiving abstract,
acontextual, disembodied knowledge. It is a matter of learning how to speak
the language of the community of practitioners. Brown and Duguid (1991)
refer to organizations as communities of practices, groups of people who
learn by practice and participation. Their studies of how newcomers learn
how to do tasks that insiders do recalls Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s view
of the person as embedded within a horizon of meaning and the view of
understanding as practical know-how.
One insight from Gadamer’s Truth and Method that has been influential is
the belief that prejudice is part of all experience, we live within a tradition
that shapes us, and the Enlightenment ideal of perfect knowledge is
unattainable. Operating under the illusion that one is without prejudice is to
be dominated by prejudice. This idea has been influential in a number of
areas, but one that has particularly benefited is the area of dialogue and
deliberation. From such a perspective, individuals potentially overcome the
temptation to treat the other as an object and the temptation to rise above
the other (see Rasmussen, 2002). The moral tone of the hermeneutic
experience is to seek openness, and openness to the immediate hermeneutic
experience and to approach the other as a ‘‘Thou’’ (Buber, 1958) are
perhaps two ways to address the role of dialogue.
204 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
Gadamer’s notion of openness has influenced discussions of public
discourse (for a critique of applications of Gadamer to public deliberation,
see Rasmussen, 2002). In the field of organizational development and
organizational learning, the notion of dialogue has its roots in Gadamer and
possibility of the intersubjective. For example, we look to contributions
from Senge, Issacs, and Argyris. Their work focuses on the role of dialogue,
the practice of engagement and openness, and considering the other as
subject rather than object. Dialogue, conversation, discussion, and
communication are not, in their view, functional apparatus or semantical,
objective constructions sui generis. Instead, these communicative acts in the
organizational setting are a part of routines, practices, and emergent
organizing occurring in the flow of work; they represent social modes for
interaction, engagement, learning, or developing others. Through them
social actors create relationships, make connections, and encounter others
as social beings (Gergen, Gergen, & Barrett, 2004). Perhaps the most
prominent influence of the hermeneutic tradition in this domain is the place
of verbal and nonverbal forms of action and preunderstanding that makes
interpretation possible. With interpretation as a focal point of dialogue and
deliberation, forms of dialogue shape meaning systems and action and
thereby influence social actors’ action with and toward others. Practically
speaking, dialogue becomes an actionable strategy by which organizational
actors may influence, engage, enable, empower, or whatever suits them.
Another contributor to this field was Chris Argyris (1974) who saw
dialogue as a basis for professional competence and practice. At the heart of
his work are conversational dynamics based on underlying assumptions one
has about self and others, and the systems and structures in which they
operate. In the spirit of Gadamer’s call to approach a text with openness, for
Argyris, understanding underlying assumptions within conversational
dynamics, through mechanisms of self-understanding and reflection, opens
one’s possibilities for action and engagement. For him dialogue is about
collaboration and action in ways that foster not only personal growth but
also organizational learning.
In the field of organizational change and team learning, Peter Senge
(1990) and his colleagues at MIT have emphasized the role of dialogue.
Dialogue in this view is an essential practice for becoming a ‘‘learning
organization.’’ Their approach to organizational learning resonates with
Gadamer’s notion that expansion of horizons creates new possibilities for
being. This group differentiates dialogue and monologue or dialogue and
discussion. The purpose of discussion is to persuade or to sell something, to
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 205
reach closure on meaning, and to justify and defend assumptions. Dialogue
is open inquiry. The purpose of dialogue is to inquire with the intention of
learning and being changed, to pay attention to the unfolding of meaning,
and to uncover and examine assumptions. For Senge, Argyris, and their
colleagues, dialogue and deliberation become mechanisms to produce
deliberate, coordinated action and predictable results in terms of both
individual behavior and organizational performance.
More specifically, principles of dialogue guide the process of inquiry
involved in learning organizations. In both academic study and practical
contexts, individuals are encouraged to suspend judgment, show respect for
differences of thought and being, and regard each other as colleagues.
Theorists Senge and Argyris, for example, emphasize reflection and inquiry
skills that are the foundation of dialogue. In practice, they contend that for
individuals to truly learn from self and others, they must balance inquiry
and advocacy, and refrain from defensive behavior – all reflective openness.
Similarly, Gergen speaks of transformative dialogue. This is what one
might refer to as an appreciative hermeneutic, that is, an active, engaged
relational orientation, mutual self-disclosure, and openness to surprise that
could demand painful self-examination – a hermeneutic of appreciation
rather than suspicion and a critical stance so often typical of academic
We have reviewed the history of hermeneutics from the ancient Greeks to
late 20th century, highlighting the way in which philosophers have
considered the nature of understanding and interpretation. We reviewed
the formative contributions of Schleimecher and Dilthey and focused on the
20th-century philosophers Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur and how
the nature of learning and understanding has shaped our interpretation of
the world. From ancient to modern philosophers, we highlight the shift in
hermeneutics from textual, methodological concerns to the study of
interpretation. Our approach lends legitimacy to the knowledge of and
approaches to interpretation as a field of study, separate from positivist
views of science.
We have also traced the influence of these philosophers in organization
studies. In the last section we suggested that interpretive perspective has
206 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
found its way into the organizational studies in areas such as organizational
culture and symbolism, sensemaking and identity, organizational narratives,
studies of situated learning, and dialogue. Dilthey’s notion of verstehen
underlies the interpretive approach to cultural analysis. The study of culture
examines organizational actors’ meaning systems and interpretations of their
context, values, norms, and assumptions over technology and structure,
much like an archeologist resurfaces artifacts that represent prior ways of
seeing and being which now are embedded in current practice. Moreover,
culture studies have gained acceptance, particularly since being grounded in
hermeneutics and its focuses on language, symbols, norms, values, and
We traced the influence of hermeneutics in Karl Weick’s work on
sensemaking. As in the hermeneutic tradition, sensemaking researchers rely
on interpretative means to articulate distinctions between the routine of
organizational life in which the subject–object distinction is not salient.
Sensemaking involves a number of hermeneutic practices to interpret action
and activity in organizations, such as noticing or bracketing.
We took note of Heidegger and Ricoeur’s influence on identity, narrative
studies, and leadership. Constructing selves results in examining taken-forgranted
experiences. Organizational life often unfolds in a reified fashion
with little thought for origins or assumptions, except when self-analysis and
reflection enable an individual to see beyond the situation. Such analysis
could demand significant attention depending on the circumstances that call
for self-understanding. Moments of crisis represent one opportunity. The
examination of narratives as living texts, however, can be a powerful
mechanism for anchoring the self or awakening the self to new possibilities,
and leadership development was a corresponding domain of practice.
The influence of hermeneutics is also prominent in the field of
organizational learning and dialogue. In these areas of study, individual
action and agency are critical. Social actors make sense of their experience,
transform it, and enact their lives and worlds based on their understandings.
Their preunderstanding shapes the transformation and enactment, and, not
until called into question through some outside force, they remain tacit.
In the context of dialogue, hermeneutics influences interpretive means to
construct language and communicative acts. These acts shape meaning
systems and are stylized for a given context and the relationships in which
they are used. As we have shown, the role of dialogue does not operate
solely at the individual level, but also represents opportunities to form
meaning at an organizational level.
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 207
The influence of hermeneutics in organization studies is rich and continues
to be an important, yet less recognized research domain. Our aim has been to
draw attention to the historical underpinnings of hermeneutics and its
influence in organizational theory. As other philosophical traditions
addressed in this volume, hermeneutics offers nuanced understanding of the
worlds scholars create and inhabit, which we see as beneficial to future
opportunities for organization studies.
1. At least one interpretation of this is that they had a conflict between an ‘‘oral’’
and a ‘‘literate’’ interpretation of texts. Plato’s dialogue Protagoras is a good
example: Protagoras saw ‘‘texts’’ as providing narratives and the basis for thick
descriptions that provide guidance; Socrates saw ‘‘texts’’ as imperfect (‘‘rhetoric’’)
and wanted to substitute ‘‘knowledge’’ of what the good, the beautiful, and
the true ‘‘is’’ (emphasis on the grammar of the verb ‘‘to be’’). See Levine (1998,
2. By expanding hermeneutics to consider not only textual understanding but also
all modes of understanding, he would introduce the theme that will be developed in
the 20th century by Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur.
3. Later Husserl will take this concept and interpret it in Cartesian terms through
the lens of intentionality; Heidegger and Gadamer will go in quite a different
direction. What is important to note for our purposes here is that the concept of
‘‘erlebnis’’ becomes an epistemological concept.
4. Later philosophers, notably Richard Rorty, will refer to this as the ‘‘mirror
theory’’ of language, the notion that the function of words is to mirror or reflect the
5. Gadamer will make this Heideggerian notion of ‘‘historicity of being’’ a central
part of his theory of prejudice as essential for understanding, a point we will explore
6. This is a theme that Charles Taylor will take up in his essay Interpretation and
the Sciences of Man.
7. In addition, as Gadamer will contend, the ‘‘other’’ that one seeks to know is
part of a larger tradition as well. Gadamer will call this liken understanding to the
fusion of horizons, a point we will explore below.
8. Self-understanding is accomplished through interpretation: ‘‘there is no selfunderstanding
that is not mediated by signs, symbols, and texts; in the final analysis
self-understanding coincides with the interpretation given to these mediating terms’’
(Ricoeur, 1991, p. 15).
9. Ricoeur wrote an extensive study of Freud and dubbed psychoanalysis as a
hermeneutic practice, a discipline that interprets human consciousness as the
expression of desires.
10. Talcott Parsons built on these concepts and furthered a functionalist view that
saw society in terms of self-maintaining, homeostatic systems with specific
208 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
mechanisms that support the internal stability of society; while he acknowledged that
humans are capable of voluntary action that might change those structures,
structures tend to persist nevertheless. Parsons’ influence on the field of organizational
studies was and remains strong, most notably in the school of structural
11. The sensemaking framework, however, is not entirely consistent with the
hermeneutic philosophers we have reviewed here: Weick and others continue to hold
out for an objective, ‘‘real’’ world apart from interpretation; also the phenomenological
view of the self found in Husserl and his student Schutz; a Cartesian subject–
object dualism that Heidegger and his students sought to overturn.
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Frank J. Barrett, PhD, is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard Business
School where he also works in the Program on Negotiations. He is a
professor of Management in the Graduate School of Business and Public
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 211
Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and is Area Chair
of the Management group since 2004. He is also on the faculty of Human
and Organizational Development at the Fielding Graduate University.
Frank has written on metaphor, masculinity, improvisation, organizational
change, and organizational development in the Journal of Applied Behavioral
Science, Human Relations, Organization Science, and Organizational
Dynamics as well as numerous book chapters. He wrote Generative Metaphor
Intervention: A New Approach to Intergroup Conflict (with David Cooperrider)
that won the award for best paper from the Organizational
Development and Change Division of the Academy of Management in
1988. He won the best paper award again in 2003 for Planning on
Spontaneity: Lessons from Jazz for a Democratic Theory of Change, a paper
he co-authored with Mary Jo Hatch. He is also a jazz pianist.
Edward H. Powley, PhD, assistant professor of management at the Naval
Postgraduate School, teaches organizational behavior and studies organizational
healing, positive change, trust, and organizational crises. He has
consulted and conducted research with Prudential Retirement, U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Navy, Roadway Express, and the
Society for Organizational Learning. He worked previously for the World
Bank and the Corporate Executive Board. He received his doctorate from
Case Western Reserve University and master’s from The George Washington
Barnett Pearce (PhD, Ohio University, 1969) is a professor emeritus in the
School of Human & Organizational Development at Fielding Graduate
University. He has served on the faculties of the University of North Dakota,
University of Kentucky, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Loyola
University Chicago, in the position of department chair at the latter two
institutions. Improving the quality of communication has been his driving
professional commitment, first taking the form of developing a conceptual
understanding of communication, known as ‘‘the Coordinated Management
of Meaning’’ (CMM), and, more recently, integrating scholarship with the
practice of designing and facilitating communication, particularly in public
meetings about community issues. He is a member of the core faculty at
Fielding of the Dialogue, Deliberation & Public Engagement graduate
certificate program, and a founder of the Transforming Communication
Project. As a practitioner, he has worked on six continents through the
nonprofit Public Dialogue Consortium and the for-profit Pearce Associates.
212 FRANK J. BARRETT ET AL.
He has published nine books, including Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds
Collide (with Stephen Littlejohn), Interpersonal Communication: Making
Social Worlds, and Communication and the Human Condition. His most recent
publications include the book Making Social Worlds: A Communication
Perspective and the article Toward a New Repertoire of Communication Skills
for Leaders and Managers published in The Quality Management Forum.
Hermeneutic Philosophy and Organizational Theory 213