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Discourse with Working Americans

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Fat and Mean: Working in a System that Denies Narrative

Preliminary essay by Jeanne.

Gordon's work lends support to Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, from a totally different perspective. This move across disciplines and across perspectives is one of the ways to assess the validity of claims. Gordon was an economist (He died shortly after this book came out in 1996) at the New School for Social Research. The institution at which he taught establishes that his approach will be critical and "liberal" (though the word "liberal" is almost bereft of meaning these days.) Gordon's will not be apologetic reasoning, or as Elizabeth Mensch terms it "justificatory" reasoning (Mensch in Politics of Law at p. 23). Note the care we are taking to cross disciplines: Gordon is an economist; Kohn is a writer; Mensch is a professor of law.

Gordon's Fat and Mean revolves around the same central theme as that chosen by Alfie Kohn: the carrot and stick approach to teaching competency and getting people to work competently. Gordon says: "In an economy tending to rely on top-down systems of labor relations, such as were created in the United States after World War II, falling wages create strong pressures for an intensification of managerial supervision. Given a wage squeeze, the Stick becomes even more necessary than before." (Op.cit., at p. 70)

Gordon reports that in some outreach educational work with union people, he and his colleagues found in the "sharp recession of 1973-75" that the focus of discussions was not, as they had anticipated, on " job security and inflation," but on "the crude, arrogant and often gratuitous exercises of power" in the bureaucracies of their workplaces. Gordon reiterates often that our workplaces regard us as objects, to be supervised and manipulated. He has found that most of us, as workers, resent this behavioristic approach to our lives and work. We are, and wish to be seen as, intrinsically motivated humans, and we are unfulfilled and frustrated by a learning and work climate that denies us that humanity.

Gordon expresses this state of affairs best when he describes corporate downsizing, which is occuring regularly in the section of older (and hence more senior and more expensive) workers. To make the whittling down of this group seem less distasteful, the group is often referrred to as "deadwood." Gordon cites the work of Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan School of Business Administration (nota bene: another discipline discussing the same issues, with similar conclusions), who has studied downsizing carefully.

Gordon reports that Cameron says: "Productivity suffers, morale suffers, innovation gets squashed and companies get less flexible and less competitive." Gordon speaks of it as corporations "swinging their machetes wildly." Cameron speaks of the "brute force" of such downsizing: "That's like throwing a hand grenade into a crowded room--you don't know which 25 percent you are going to kill." (Quoted in Lord, Mary, "Where You Can't Get Fired," U.S. News & World Report, January 14, 1991, at p. 48.) Gordon reminds us that "[m]any more production employees than managers and supervisors have been hit by grenades. . . ."But the share of managers in total employment has been increasing since the reports of downsizing began, not decreasing. And corporate downsizers haven't known 'which 25 percent [they] are going to kill.'" (Gordon, Op. cit., at pp. 59-60.)

The random removal, by whatever means is given as the rationale, of the more expensive senior workers, is precisely that, random, not personal. And if it isn't personal, then your story, you, don't count. This speaks directly to the concept raised by Alfie Kohn, that rewards and punishment do not lead to the development of the intrinsic motivation that drives us to achieve. Rats and pigeons pecking at levers in cages do not have stories to tell, stories which give depth and perception to their lives. Workers supervised under the drastic rule-ridden bureaucratic corporate climate of the stick philosophy forget their stories, and tend, as Duncan Kennedy reminds us, "to behave in ways that fulfill the prophecies the system makes about them and about the world." (In Kairys, Politics of Law, at p. 54.)

It is one of the goals of Dear Habermas to reclaim those stories, and give back to our workers and to our students and to our selves the humanity that has been wrested from us in our stories.


Gordon, David M., Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Corporate "Downsizing". The free Press, New York, 1996. ISBN: 0-684-8288-1

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Arrogance and the Hierarchy
The Carrot-Stick Story, as Told by Alfie Kohn
The Unstated Assumptions that Destroy Narrative and Discourse

Management's Perspective

You are generally presented with this perspective both by the educational institution and by the corporate and governmental structure of our society. It's the perspective that says "People won't work unless they have to." It assumes that you have to "tip" people, or give them bonuses, or raises, or lots of "perks" to get them to do the ordinary tasks for which they were hired.

You and your friends complain about the corporate perspective regularly. You claim that you can't ever get a real person on the phone anymore, that customer complaints of the "it's broken" persuasion are heard by some clerk who answers his phone from 3 to 4 p.m. on Tuesday afternoons, and that's it. Sound familiar?

You will hear complaints about seniority unless it's you who has almost earned some seniority. Then you will hear complaints that the corporation always fires people just before their interests vest. You'll hear complaints about the costs of seniority, balanced about complaints about no jobs with benefits available. And that no one really wants to do any work any more. The management people talk about our economy having become a "service" economy, but that's a euphemism for saying that no one wants to get his/her hands dirty doing real production work. That's not what social scientists mean by a "service economy." We mean one that puts some emphasis on providing the services people need. They mean an economy in which everyone is a consultant/leader and no one really "does" anything.

How do you know it's a management perspective in the "justificatory" sense? Well, if it explains how things aren't perfect but they're better than they've been in years, and, anyway this is the best of all possible world, then you're probably hearing a "justificatory" position. Want to learn more about this rhetoric? Look for Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction Harvard University Press, 1991.

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The role of education is to sharpen your critical thinking skills. That means our approach is "critical." We ask if it really is the best of all possible worlds, and what we might do to make it better. And right after we've asked that of the corporations we ask it of the educational institution, of the legal system, and, then, for good measure, of ourselves. This is called "reflexive methodology." Corporations who follow the carrot and stick theory do very little reflexive methodology. Their supervisors are sure they're always right. That's the arrogance of hierarchy. And we are each and every one of us susceptible to that sin of pride. Reflexive methodology asks that we take the trouble and the brains to listen for other stories, to criticize, that we may make it better.

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Narrative Teaching

Narrative teaching is about interactive, reflexive teaching. It's basic premise is that "we" are engaged in the enterprise of learning. Sometimes the teacher can help. Sometimes the teacher is herself confounded. But that doesn' matter. For we are to engage in this enterprise together. Each of us thinking independently and interdependently.

In behaviorism, the teacher has goals and sets up situations that will elicit the performance he wants to reinforce. But in genuine education, we are not eliciting the "right" answer, we are seeking the creative synthesis of every data base we can access to help us discover the best answer until more information comes along. Education consists of both an understanding and ability to access the databases of knowledge, and the process of synthesizing that information into creative responses to the problems of living.

We used to insist on your memorization of the database. In the days of TRIVIA, that's how we judged how smart you were, by how much you knew of our common database. The knowledge explosion as we approach the millennium makes such simplistic results unworthy of the enterprise of higher education. The results we seek now and in the future are the effective accessing of the information, and the ability to synthesize sets of the data. Jerome Bruner said: There is, perhaps, one universal truth about all forms of human cognition: the ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man's environment." (In Minow, Making All the Difference, at. fn. 14, p.53.) We expect you to be able to gather evidence, interpret it in light of competing theories, and set up alternative plans of action to prevent an asteroid from crashing right into us.

What's narrative? And whay do we call it narrative learning? Because all data are set in context. And the context shapes the meaning of the data. One of the ways we come to understand context is through stories. Stories give us clues as to why you and I think as we do. As long as we share the same context, similar stories, there is no problem in our understanding and our discourse. But when our lifeworlds, our stories are very different, we lose the thread of understanding. This journal is about listening to stories, hearing words and phrases that for us might mean one thing, and yet, for another, mean something very different. This journal is about recording these stories, as they grow, as they change through the long dialog of our learning, making them into texts, so that we can read them and their meaning into the texts of our tradition, and then helping to retell the stories, to make them into texts that will make discourse possible. It is a very special kind of learning. It is interactive, communicative learning. We cannot do it alone. The discourse cannot go in just one direction. This is narrative learning.

Narrative in the Workplace

To the extent that the carrot and stick theory of management is adhered to, individual narratives, personal stories, don't matter. In the unambiguous world of behavioristic manipulation behaviors can be trained. Especially if the reward is food or some other essential hygiene factor. (A hygiene factor is one that appears not to motivate but to be essential for minimal performance even so. Money is a hygiene factor. It doesn't motivate people to work harder or better, or even to work at all if they can get money without working. Nonetheless, without money, we cannot survive in our world -- at least not with the current welfare laws. One reference: Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards, at pp. 132-33 -- Kohn doesn't use the term "hygiene," but he clearly refers to the concept.)

But people do have stories. They don't like being silenced, having no control over their lives. Freire educated Brazilian peasants to understand that they could take control, without formal education, without being certified, without their master's permission. Women have learned to listen to young girls, to recognize the extent to which they have been silenced, and to give voice once more to their stories. Each of us has a story. What we lack is the voice to tell it, the good faith of others to grant our difference in the seeing and the telling of it, and the forum in which to share it. But stories we have.

Well, now, that is pretty arrogant of me. I've just included all of us, and left out creatures, large and small. Too long in the arrogance of hierarchy of the academy. I struggle for forums for us, for we are the ones who, unlike rats and pigeons, are determined to control our own environment, make our own decisions, choose the elements of our stories. But if I pause for a moment, those white-footed mice come to mind. I knew them long ago, in the early 70s, when pursuing my Ph.D. They were psychology mice, the kind Martha Minow tells us have rights as experimental laboratory animals until one of them escapes and becomes just an ordinary mouse in the lab, to be caught and terminated as a pest! Mice like that, that's who I'm remembering. They have a story, too.

Psychologists, way back then, who believed that mind was more complex than levers and rewards and punishment, decided that just maybe, these laboratory mice weren't the world's best subjects. After all, if one was creative enough to escape, we know what happened to it. So all these mice bred in laboratory cages might be genuinely different from real mice in the real world, kind of like college sophomores just might be different from real people in the real world.

Inspired, they decided to go out in the fields and catch real mice for their experiments. They found and brought to their laboratories white-footed mice. They build for them a cage that would not be manipulative and controlling. They put in a cave, but equipped it with a door that could that the mice could open and close. They put in one of those wheels such little creatures can use to run in place. But they included a switch the mice could maneuver to turn the wheel on and off. They put lights in the cage. But they included a switch, again that the mice could reach and nameuver, to turn the lights on and off.

They then proceeded with their experiments. They turned the cage lights on, only to find that the little white-footed mice promptly turned them back off. Another time they tried turning the lights off when they found them on, only to the little white-footed mice promptly turn them back on. They tried stopping the wheel when a mouse was running in it, ony to find that the mouse would switch the wheel back on. And if they turned the wheel on, the mouse would promptly switch it off. If they opened the cave door, the mice would close it. If they closed it, the mice would open it.

Over the years, these mice and their researchers became my friends. I no longer know where my fantasy picks up from their original story. I lost the article years ago. It was found, in the 80s, by one of my graduate students, who made me a copy that I have duly preserved somewhere in the thousands of papers that gave birth to Dear Habermas. I know it's here. I'll find it one day. Or let me know, if you know which journal it's in. I need it. I need to remind myself that they're real - those white-footed mice. As real as my students, who perversely turn off the switches when I turn them on, and promptly turn them on when I turn them off.

And there I was on the verge of concluding that behaviorism was OK for rats and pigeons, but it just won't do for me in all my humanity. Hah! We can imagine what my white-footed mouse friends would say to that attitude of arrogance. Too long within the hierarchy of the academy she was, and too eager to "fulfill the prophecies the system makes" about me and my world." (Duncan Kennedy, in Politics of Law, at p.54.)

Teaching in the Narrative-Free Workplace

Preliminary essay.

There is no way that we know how to prepare you for the 21st Century and the invasion of asteroids, aliens, or just fellow terrestrians who are trying to pierce holes in our atmosphere or blow us to smithereens in the name of profits. We're not even sure which of these forces you should take most seriously. Rest assured, armageddons are rare. The apocalypse is probably not now. And even if it were, we aren't qualified to teach Apocalypse 345, section 02. We were trained in continuing enlightenment, which doesn't even qualify us for postmodernism.

Never fear, though. There is hope. Habermas says there is. And lots of people who claim to know claim that he is a great thinker. At any rate, he promises us hope, if we will but engage in discourse. This is NOT, we repeat, NOT, a guarantee that he is right. But then, no one seems to be offering any guarantees. At least discourse should do no harm.

Discourse means a willingness to listen to all who make up our community, to listen in good faith, and to help them find voice. In the present marketplace, not much geared to either permitting voice or listening in good faith, there are some sanity-preserving steps that you can take:

  1. Recognize that there is a system context within which we are operating.
  2. Recognize that no individual is in complete control of both his/her behavior and the system behavior. Take responsibility for what you can control and let the rest go. If you know it and it helps, say the Serenity Prayer.
  3. Recognize the much smaller sphere of community in which you DO have a voice.
  4. Within that smaller sphere acknowledge the unstated assumptions on which you are operating. State them. At least to yourself.
  5. Within whatever sphere you can manage listen to others in good faith. Even the bad guys sometimes make valid claims. Honest!
  6. Within whatever sphere you can manage help others to find voice and be heard.
  7. Go in peace, and make friends with as many asteroids, aliens, and all the earthlings you possibly can. I mean, who knows?

References on Management Theory

Online Search

SEARCH TIPS: Try this: Choose EDUCATION, then search for MANAGEMENT THEORY. On the list of results from that search, you should find: Business and Economy Management. And under that the link: Ohio Qualtiy and Productivity Forum. Click on the Forum link, and you're in a Deming site. Now Deming is cited as a leading guru by Alfie Kohn, so that will tell you that he's not going to be a behaviorist following the carrot and stick theory. Then just explore! Go find the behaviorists. Find the radicals. Just don't forget to question, and settle down into a little critical thinking. Have fun!

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