Marching toward the end of enlightenment?

How management and organization scholarship can help explain new forms of anti-enlightenment organizing

By Dennis Schoeneborn

In the scholarly field of management and organization studies, which is traditionally primarily concerned with business firms and their performance, we can lately observe an increasing attention toward addressing some of the most pressing societal challenges of our times, such as climate change, pandemics, inequalities, etc. (see George et al., 2016). At the same time, one of the most striking societal challenges has found comparably little attention by management and organizational scholarship up until today: the rise of anti-enlightenment movements and the potentially corroding effects they have for democratic societies.

The rioters’ march on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021 has showcased in painstaking ways how democracies can be endangered through social movements that center around anti-enlightenment and “post-truth” sentiments, incl. conspiracy theories, “alternative facts”, or other negations of scientific reason (for an overview, see Farkas & Schou, 2020). In the same context, the question arises how the scholarly field of management and organization studies can help address and explain the emergence of such anti-enlightenment movements and how they organize themselves.

To study the phenomenon of anti-enlightenment movements (i.e. coordinated agitation against scientific reason and facts, democratic values, or the rule of law), I suggest three research areas in organizational scholarship are of particular relevance and that each (in one way or another) cross-connect to the neighboring field of media and communication studies: 

(1) Explaining organizational emergence and dissolution

First, management and organization scholarship can explore questions of organizational emergence and design. This may involve questions like: To what extent can new forms of anti-enlightenment organizing (e.g., conspiracy theorists like QAnon or science denialists like the anti-vaxx movement) be explained with existing organizational theories – or to what extent are novel theoretical vocabularies needed to account for these phenomena? Also, how can anti-enlightenment forms of organizing be dissolved or “deconstituted” (cf. Bean & Buikema, 2015)? For example, how to counter and delegitimize anti-enlightenment ideologies in the public debate, if they are based on entirely different language games (Knight & Tsoukas, 2019), where the same signifier may have completely different meanings (e.g., truth is what is factually right vs. truth is when it serves my own interests)?

(2) Studying transformations of how the public discourse is organized

Second, management and organization scholarship can explore transformations of how the public discourse is organized. For instance, how did the media landscape change, especially through the rise of digital media, and how do these changes affect the possibilities of deliberative dialog and public will formation in democratic societies (Bennett & Livingston, 2018). In a similar vein, organizational scholars have critically addressed the spread of “fake news”, incl. the erosion of “the public” into multiple fragmented “publics” that gather info by-and-large from within their own filter bubbles and echo chambers (see also Knight & Tsoukas, 2019; Foroughi et al., 2019). Furthermore, in the same context, the question arises how to “detox” an increasingly polarized public discourse (Ward, 2019)?

(3) Exploring socio-technological conditions of “organized immaturity”

Third, management and organization scholarship can explore the underlying socio-technological conditions under which anti-enlightenment movements tend to emerge. For instance, in a recent working paper, Scherer and Neesham (2020) propose the term “organized immaturity” (which alludes to the notion of immaturity or Unmündigkeit in Immanuel Kant’s theory of enlightenment). As the authors hypothesize, individuals’ delegation of decision-making to socio-technological systems (such as algorithmic filtering of content in social media) tends to lead over time to an “erosion of the individual’s capacity for public use of reason” (p. 4; version from Dec. 22, 2020). Put this way, the concept may also help explain some of the root causes of what observers of the Capitol Hill events termed the “spoilt child version of America – so ‘free’ [that] it ignored the truths, laws and decency that actually enabled that freedom” (Paton Walsh, 2020).

To conclude, while we can find some first and important steps in the direction of exploring anti-enlightenment movements, further research in this direction is urgently needed, also as a chance to demonstrate management and organization scholarship’s ability to address (and potentially help solve) large-scale societal problems. In the same context, a recent Call for Papers by the journal Business Ethics Quarterly (Scherer et al., in preparation) invites for scholarly submissions that address the socio-technological conditions of “organized immaturity” and neighboring phenomena.


Bean, H., & Buikema, R. J. (2015). Deconstituting al-Qa’ida: CCO theory and the decline and dissolution of hidden organizationsManagement Communication Quarterly29(4), 512-538.

Bennett, W. L., & Livingston, S. (2018). The disinformation order: Disruptive communication and the decline of democratic institutionsEuropean Journal of Communication, 33(2), 122-139.

Farkas, J., & Schou, J. (2019). Post-truth, fake news and democracy: Mapping the politics of falsehood. New York: Routledge.

Foroughi, H., Gabriel, Y., & Fotaki, M. (2019). Leadership in a post-truth era: A new narrative disorder? Leadership15(2), 135-151.

George, G., Howard-Grenville, J., Joshi, A., & Tihanyi, L. (2016). Understanding and tackling societal grand challenges through management researchAcademy of Management Journal59(6), 1880-1895.

Knight, E., & Tsoukas, H. (2019). When Fiction Trumps Truth: What ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ mean for management studies. Organization Studies40(2), 183-197.

Paton Walsh. E. (2020, Jan. 8). America was lucky to be saved by its democracy – even if some don’t realize

Scherer, A. G., & Neesham, C. (2020). New challenges to enlightenment: Why socio-technological conditions lead to organized immaturity and what to do about it. Working Paper (version from Dec,, 22, 2020).

Scherer, A. G., Neesham, C., Schoeneborn, D., & Scholz, M. (in preparation). Socio-technological conditions of organized immaturity in the 21st century. Special issue in preparation for Business Ethics Quarterly (submission deadline: 31/05/2021).

Ward, S. J. A. (2019). Ethical journalism in a populist age: The democratically engaged journalist. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

About the Author

Dennis Schoeneborn is Professor of Organization, Communication, and CSR at Copenhagen Business School and Visiting Professor of Organization Studies at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. In his research, he mainly focuses on organization theory, organizational communication, digital media and communication, corporate social responsibility and sustainability, as well as new forms of organizing.

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Sustainability claims: In what sense are they performative?

By Lars Thøger Christensen

The number of products advertised as “green” or climate neutral has exploded in recent years, according to several newspaper articles. Should we be alarmed? To some extent, yes. In addition to cases of blatant fraud and manipulation, there is reason to be concerned when a plethora of green labels for products – ranging from milk over burgers to gasoline – competes for attention, especially when the variety confuses understandings of what it means to be sustainable.

Moreover, since carbon offset programs tend to obscure the fact that neither air travel nor fashion clothing is or can be CO2 neutral, the need to question and test green advertising claims is more pressing than ever. It is therefore commendable that politicians and NGOs in some countries call for more control with corporations that claim to market green or CO2 neutral products. 

The growth in green advertising claims attracts increased scrutiny, regulation and control.

At the same time, the expansion in green advertising claims illustrates the growing social, political and economic premium put on sustainability. Even if many such claims are superficial and hypocritical, their combined existence is performative beyond what individual corporations, NGOs and regulators can imagine and control. 

When all social actors express the significance of sustainability, something has changed.

Scholars of communication often emphasize that communication is constitutive of organizational and social reality. Communication, in their view, is performative because it does something more than simply describe a preexisting reality. Yet, in what sense does this logic apply to issues of climate change and the broader sustainability arena? 

To what extent has communication performative potential in the sustainability arena?

Critics of the performative view on communication view argue that green messages often fail to change anything, either because the senders are insincere or because larger social forces, such as profit motives or efficiency demands, override any talk about sustainability. The power of sustainability communication to shape organizational practices is therefore often described as naïve or overly optimistic. These are important objections to the performativity perspective. Yet, communication still plays a significant role in instigating better practices.

The articulation of sustainability ideals is often “the leading incident” in its performance (Austin, 1962, p. 8).

It is certainly true that sustainability communication is insufficient in and of itself to ensure more sustainable practices. Some sustainability claims may even prevent organizations from moving in the right direction. Nonetheless, communication about sustainability is an important dimension of sustainable action. Without a communicative engagement of major corporations with the values and ideals of sustainability, changes in that arena are likely to be significantly slower. 

Interestingly, critique and control of sustainability claims may help such claims to perform.

Talk about sustainability and green products tend to attract attention of critical stakeholders and increase internal and external pressure to walk the talk. Bold statements combined with public exposure and critique are important dimensions of what we might call the performativity “cocktail”. Green advertising claims and public statements about CO2 neutrality can be used to apply pressure on corporations and remind them of their promises. If major corporations, out of fear of attracting negative stakeholder attention, decide to remain silent on the sustainability issue, critics and regulators have less material to work with. In other words, a willingness on the part of corporations to expose themselves to critique is key.

Communicative performativity in the sustainability arena is a macro phenomenon.

Obviously, an organization does not become sustainable by simply “talking green”. In fact, it is a mistake to think of performativity – especially in complex areas such as sustainability – as a result of discrete and isolated organizational messages or claims. It doesn’t work that way. Even with the best intentions, green talk takes considerable time and effort to materialize into more sustainable practices. Moreover, it is rarely an organizational effect. Performativity is an outcome of multiple claims that are repeated and reformulated again and again over time and across multiple organizations, public as well as private. The sedimented effect of such dynamic interaction that lead to what Butler (2010) calls “socially binding consequences” (p. 147).

The performativity of sustainability claims should be understood as sedimented effects of multiple claims and understandings. 

The communicative performativity of sustainability claims involve reactions of stakeholders, competitors, legislators and consumers who are variously affected, inspired or provoked by the claims to expect and demand better practices. Still, there is no guarantee that the claims will stimulate significant changes. That, of course, is true for all types of messages. Messages and claims can be ignored, forgotten or outright contradicted by subsequent claims or other types of action. Without the claims, however, society and the physical environment is likely to be worse off. The trick is to use them actively to remind the senders of their social and environmental responsibilities. 

Further readings

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Butler, J. (2010). Performative agencyJournal of Cultural Economy, 3(2), 147-161.

Christensen, L. T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2020). Talk-action dynamics: Modalities of aspirational talk. Organization Studies

Fleming, P., & Banerjee, S. B. (2016). When performativity fails: Implications for Critical Management StudiesHuman Relations, 69(2), 257-276.

About the Author

Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. 

Photo by Helena Hertz on Unsplash