Sub-theme 59: Organization, Professionalism and Office as a Vocation [merged with sub-theme 27]

Haldor Byrkjeflot
University of Oslo, Norway
Anne Roelsgaard Obling
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Thomas Lopdrup-Hjorth
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Call for Papers

In the aftermath of the financial and sovereign economic crises, the acceptability of our organizational and managerial models – public as well as private – has come to be questioned with a new sense of urgency. Although neoliberalism ‘survived the financial meltdown’ (Mirowski, 2013), the quest is now on for finding alternative principles, axioms and adages that will allow for the construction of good organizations.
This, however, is no easy task. Managerial and organizational theories modeled on economics have not only brought our economies down (Dobbin & Jung, 2010). They have also come to dominate business school research and teaching (Khurana, 2010) and, gradually, infiltrated the general outlook of managers (Ghoshal, 2005) as well as organizational members everyday working lives. Across public and private organizations, market principles and modes of conduct have been celebrated as benign for individuals and organizations (Davies, 2011). With constant rounds of re-engineering, increasing levels of work-related stress, corporate scandals, and drastically rising inequality, however, the rhetoric of economists and of those praising the general superiority of market principles have become increasingly implausible and problematic. But where is one to look for resources for countering current organizational pathologies?
One approach to ‘constructing good organizations’ is to reengage with some of the practices, ideals, and principles of conduct that neoliberalism, and its associated theories and programs (such as, Agency Theory, Transaction Cost Economics, New Public Management, Governance, etc.), has sought to discredit and delegitimize. Here, the anti-neoliberal figure par excellence appears to be the state-employed (or state-sponsored) office-holder or professional worker not subject to market-like discipline. Such a person, whether a soldier, a doctor, a state-bureaucrat, a teacher, a university professor, etc., has traditionally been associated with a vocation and a commitment to values and norms of conduct that are incompatible with the tenets of ‘economic man’ (Marquand, 2004; Rohr, 1998).
In this sub-theme we wish to explore the potential of ‘office-holding’ and professionalism for constructing good organizations. Spurred by Khurana and Nohria’s (2008) call to turn management into a profession, the time is ripe for examining and analyzing what kinds of organizational and ethical potential is held in store by the vocational vocabularies of professions/professionalism (Abbott, 1983; Freidson, 2001); see also Evetts (2013) and Brint (2015) and ‘office holding’ (Weber, 1978; Minson, 1998; Condren, 2006; Uhr, 1994; Rohr, 1998; du Gay, 2007; Strathern, 2008). Rather than succumbing to allegations of being ‘rent-seekers’ and inefficient bureaucrats, professionals and office-holders have deep normative commitments essential to constructing viable and good organizations. Such commitments express an ethos of responsibility which is essential for fulfilling substantive and important societal goals.
In the light of persistent contemporary organizational pathologies and a pressing need for finding new ways of tackling these, we invite contributions that explore and revive the notions of office and professionalism as well as the distinct ethos that goes with them. We invite empirical as well as theoretical contributions and papers that deal with office-holding, the production of personhood and the changing roles of professional ethics and moral agency in both public and private sector organizations as well as in hybrid organizations.
Questions and themes that may be addressed include but are not limited to:

  • Classic and contemporary discussions about the relationship between professions and organizations as well as the history and theory of the ethics of office and professionalism
  • Contemporary challenges for and reformulations of professionalism and public service ethics
  • Change and reform of public institutions and the effect on the relationship between organizational and professional logics as well as conduct, duties and ethics of public servants and professional groups
  • The relationship between personhood, moral autonomy and the role of state and governance in contemporary liberal democracies
  • The connection between the practical conduct of public officers and the production of a well-functioning and responsible civil state
  • Case-specific discussions about the practical conduct and case-based reasoning of office-holders
  • The changing role of professions and professional functions/expertise in contemporary societies



  • Abbott, A. (1983): “Professional Ethics.” American Journal of Sociology, 88 (5), 855–885.
  • Brint, S. (2015): “Professional Responsibility in an Age of Experts and Large Organizations.” In: D.E. Mitchell & R.K. Ream (eds.): Professional Responsibility. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 89–107.
  • Condren, C. (2006): Argument and Authority in Early Modern England: The Presupposition of Oaths and Offices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davis, G.F. (2011): Managed by the Markets: How finance reshaped America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dobbin, F., & J. Jung (2010): “The Misapplication of Mr. Michael Jensen: How Agency Theory Brought Down the Economy and Why It Might Again.” In: M. Lounsbury & P.M. Hirsch (eds.): Markets on Trial: The Economic Sociology of the U.S. Financial Crisis. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 30, Part B. Bingley: Emerald, 29–64.
  • du Gay, P. (2007): Organizing Identity: Persons and Organizations ‘After Theory’. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Evetts, J. (2013): “Professionalism: Value and Ideology.” Current Sociology, 61 (5–6), 778–796.
  • Freidson, E. (2001): Professionalism: The Third Logic. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Ghoshal, S. (2005): “Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices”, Academy of Management Learning and Education, 4 (1), 75–91.
  • Khurana, R. (2010): From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Khurana, R., & N. Nohria (2008): “It’s Time to Make Management a True Profession.” Harvard Business Review, October, 70–77.
  • Marquand, D. (2004): Decline of the Public: The Hollowing Out of Citizenship. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Minson, J. (1998): “Ethics in the Service of the State.” In: M. Dean & B. Hindess (eds.): Governing Australia. Studies in Contemporary Rationalities of Government. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 340–363.
  • Mirowski, P. (2013): Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neo-Liberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. London: Verso.
  • Rohr, J. (1998): Public Service, Ethics and Constitutional Practice. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
  • Strathern, M. (2008/09): “Afterword: the disappearing of an Office.” Cambridge Anthropology, 28 (3), 127–138.
  • Uhr, J. (1994): “Managing the process of ethics training.” In: N. Preston (ed.): Ethics for the Public Sector. Education and Training. Sydney: The Federation Press, 161–178.
  • Weber, M. (1978): Economy & Society. 2 vols. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Haldor Byrkjeflot is Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, Norway. He has directed research programs on comparative management and public sector reforms, publishing on topics related to comparative employment and management systems, health care reform and reputation management. He is currently a board member of SCANCOR and editoral board member of 'Organization Studies'.
Anne Roelsgaard Obling is Assistant Professor at the Department of Organization at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Her research interests include charting the continuities and changes in the ethos and persona associated with public offices. She is part of the research program “Office as a Vocation: Re-instating the ethics of office in public service”.
Thomas Lopdrup-Hjorth is Assistant Professor at the Department of Organization at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research interests include the history of organization and management theory as well as contemporary and historical problematizations of Danish civil servants. He is part of the research program “Office as a Vocation: Re-instating the ethics of office in public service”.