‘It Was Such a Handy Term’: Management Fashions and Pragmatic Ambiguity*
Journal of Management Studies, 2006, vol. 43, issue 6, 1227-1260
abstract This article builds on constructs that authors have labelled strategic ambiguity, interpretative viability, umbrella constructs, and boundary objects, and suggests that these constructs all articulate a central concern for collective action and the role of ambiguity therein. It characterizes as pragmatic ambiguity the condition of admitting more than one course of action, and elucidates and operationalizes this new construct. Drawing on the sociology of translation (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1987), it argues that pragmatic ambiguity is both the result and the resource of a collective process of intéressement occurring during the rise in popularity of a new management approach. Following Benders and van Veen (2001), the article posits that pragmatic ambiguity increases during the rise of a management fashion. It provides empirical evidence in support of this claim by means of a longitudinal analysis of quality management (QM) concepts as articulated by several authors both before and during the Quality Movement of the 1980s and 1990s. The analyses of QM texts show that concepts became vaguer, more ambiguous, and more general as the Quality Movement gained momentum, suggesting the presence of a positive feedback loop between pragmatic ambiguity and popularity. In addition, the data illustrate how pragmatic ambiguity was achieved and sustained textually, and how it was supported by a variety of social, linguistic and rhetorical factors.
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