Constructing ‘the workplace learner’ subject.

Harman, Kerry (2008) Constructing ‘the workplace learner’ subject. In: 8th International Conference on Organizational Discourse: Translations, Transformations and Transgressions, 23rd - 25th July, 2008, Queen Mary College, University of London. . [Conference or Workshop Item]


This paper explores the way learning theories, in providing ‘the truth’ about workplace and organisational learning, also work to construct particular modes of subjectivity as seemingly natural for workers. A Foucauldian post-structural account of the discursive construction of subjectivity guides the analysis and discussion (1980; 1982; 1988; 1991a; 1991b; 1998). This account draws attention to the complex interrelationships between power, knowledge and subjectivity ( Dean, 1994, 1999; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982; Gane & Johnson, 1993; Gordon, 1991; Mills, 1997; Patton, 1994; Rabinow, 1984; Ransom, 1997; Weedon, 1987). These ideas are applied in this paper to examine the effects of workplace learning discourses (Latour, 1987; Rose, 1999a; Weedon, 1987). I suggest that the inscriptions of learning produced in organisational learning texts provide a language for talking about work, workers and learning, and make the workplace and workers ‘imaginable’ in a particular way. It is in this sense that knowledge is never neutral as it works to produce particular objects and subjects as seemingly natural (Butler, 1992; Edwards, Nicoll, Solomon, & Usher, 2004; Fairclough, 1992; Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn, & Walkerdine, 1998; Mills, 1997; Potter, 1997; Weedon, 1987).
This paper focuses on two key texts that have been influential in shaping discussion around learning at work, The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1990), and Cultivating Communities of Practice (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). I analyse these ‘mainstream’ organisational learning texts by examining the subject positions they construct for workers, more specifically, the ways ‘the workplace learner’ is constructed in both these texts. I propose that Senge’s text works to construct the workplace learner as ‘the reflective practitioner’, an autonomous subject who is able to separate themselves from the politics of the workplace and objectively and rationally enhance workplace practices. In contrast, the Wenger et al. text works to construct the workplace learner as ‘the collaborative subject’, unproblematically aligned with the broader goals of the workplace and part of a shared (and seemingly unified) workplace community.
I focus on these two texts rather than texts from the critical management literature for the very reason that they have become ‘mainstream’. In other words these are the ways of ‘knowing’ workplace learning and ‘the workplace learner’ that have won the prize of authority (du Gay, 1996) in the institutional context of the workplace in the contemporary moment.
A theme developed in this paper is translations of knowledge (Foucault, 1998). For example, the analysis exemplifies the shift in the way a communities of practice discourse has been used and the shifting purposes to which this discourse has been put. This reinforces the Foucauldian notion that discourses can be used for different and sometimes opposing purposes (1998).
In the above case a communities of practice discourse, which was formerly connected with a strategy for acknowledging the situated nature of knowledge production and thus connected with resistance to more traditional accounts of knowledge production such as those associated with the academy, has been appropriated by organisational theorists and is now connected with a managerial strategy for regulating worker conduct.
This analysis foregrounds the productiveness of discourse. Rather than suppressing subjectivity, discourses construct subject positions (or ways of ‘being’) for workers to take up. While this is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing, for example any of these subject positions might be appropriated by workers and used for their own purposes, understanding oneself in only one way, that is, with a fixed and unified subjectivity, is always at the expense of other ways of knowing. It also draws attention to the political implications of theories, for in constructing particular conceptualisations of ‘the workplace learner’ as seemingly natural, particular interventions for acting on this subject are enabled (Rose, 1989, 1996, 1999b).

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Research Areas: A. > Work and Learning Research Centre
Item ID: 5699
Useful Links:
Depositing User: Dr Kerry Harman
Date Deposited: 20 May 2010 12:54
Last Modified: 13 Oct 2016 14:19

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item


Activity Overview
6 month trend
6 month trend

Additional statistics are available via IRStats2.