Sub-theme 76: The Topological Imagination: Space, Time, and Organizational Form

Timon Beyes
Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany
Robin Holt
University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Christina Juhlin
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Call for Papers

This sub-theme complements organization theory’s by-now well established ‘topographical imagination’ – investigating organization’s sitedness, its everyday spatial multiplicity and contestation, and its spatial poetics (Beyes & Holt, 2020) – with a ‘topological imagination’ attuned to the spatial interplay of organizational form, connectivity and deformation. How can we understand and study organization in its spatial formations? Camps; zones; platforms; enclaves; markets; grids; (free)ports; networks. And how does the study of such topologies alter our understanding of organization?
Mathematically understood, topology deals with spatial types, generating their own ‘forms’ and ‘lines’ that remain consistent even in situations where they are subject to deforming forces. In technological terms, it similarly denotes properties of technological objects or processes that remain stable even if its physical settings or its application and uses change. In the past decades, topological thinking has been resuscitated in fields such as Cultural Theory (Lury et al., 2012), Science and Technology Studies (Mol & Law, 1994; Marres, 2012), Human Geography (Allen, 2011; Crang &Travlou, 2001; Latham, 2011) and Anthropology (Gros et al., 2019), and it has also begun to make its presence felt in the spatial study of organization (Ratner, 2022), culture (O’Doherty, 2013) and of alternative entrepreneurship (Redmalm and Skoglund, 2020).
In bringing topology to organization theory this subtheme proposes that ‘the organizational’ (or ‘organizationality’) comes in different spatial types or forms. Organization is (and always has been) performed in a topologically heterogenous manner, predicated on and propelled by multiple topological figures and figurations such as neighbourhood, enclave, playground, marketplace, network, grid, camp, or even crossroads. These figures are to be understood processually, as ‘spacetimes’ or ‘spacing’ (Beyes and Steyaert, 2012), since they ‘deform into one another’ (Lash, 2012, p. 264; emphasis omitted). In this sense, topological analysis has been framed as the study of ‘spaces of deformation’ (Günzel, 2007), revealing and provoking the ways in which more or less stable elements (structures, techniques, material forms) of organization are continually connecting and transforming, but nevertheless still reproducing themselves.
Topology can then be understood as a way of investigating forms of organizational space – spatial formations – that retain certain properties while allowing for continuous – situational, relational – transformations. Topological thinking thus allows for thinking together the ‘knot’ of sameness and fluidity, of continuity and change, that marks organizational space, while staying away from assumptions of stable spatial hierarchies or scales or dialectics and their power differentials. The potency of topology, therefore, is its sensitivity to how power works spatially (see Allen, 2011; Collier, 2009). While attuned to visible (and non-metaphoric) spatial forms such as camps and prisons, topology registers the “quieter, less brash forms of power than domination and overt control” (Allen, 2016), forms which mediate and pattern life almost invisibly, making centralized power an effect, not a cause, of circulation (Foucault, 2009, 18-19; see also Berlant, 2016).
As sociologists Noortje Marres and Celia Lury have argued, moreover, topology is more than a theory adopted to help us see spatial forms and their everyday deformation; it has become a performative logic or device which shapes organized life (Lury, 2013; Marres, 2012). Consider today’s electronic space of ‘topological computation’ (Parisi, 2012: 165). Organization is both shaped by and embedded in ‘a global topology in which almost any point can connect to any other, mobilizing resources on a planetary scale’ (Wark 2016: n.p.). Given the now ubiquitous and pervasive computerization of organizational life, the notion of topology helps think and explore the abstracted and usually invisible spatialities of digitized informational grids and linkages that span, control and shape organization: sets of points and their connectedness, their (electronic) vectors and software-based operations, their atmospheric, sensory and affective force (Beyes et al., 2022; Juhlin and Holt 2022).
This sub-theme is therefore dedicated to exploring and mapping different organizational topologies (and their interplays): how we might identify and understand organizational forms as topological forms, and how organization takes form through different topological shapes, as ongoing processes of spatial formation or figuration. This both entails and takes us beyond classical and orthodox spatial figures of organization. We invite empirical, historical and theoretical explorations of, for instance (and merely indicatively):

  • networked and platform topologies as the perhaps prevalent contemporary topological forms;

  • logistical topologies that shape how organization takes place;

  • the limits and dissolution of organization and organization form;

  • algorithmic forms of topological computation and their organizational power;

  • urban topologies that shape everyday organized life (from playgrounds to neighbourhoods);

  • the breakdown and repair of social infrastructures - from schools to finance systems

  • historical and contemporary topologies of the market place, the enclave, the grid, the zone, the camp and other ‘classic’ spatial forms of organization;

  • the political mediation of proximity (as opposed to belonging) in e.g. citizenship, membership, and other forms created from relation;

  • artistic renderings of, and experiments with, spatio-organizational forms, so prevalent in recent art practice;

  • alternative topological figures that help us make sense of today’s predicaments of organizing;

  • the aesthetics of organizational topologies, such as spatial and visual representations and prefigurations of organizational form;

  • idealizations and distillations (e.g. polis, distopia/utopia) of organizational form;

  • the rationalization of movement in artistic practice (e.g. choreography) as well as contemporary work practices (e.g. food delivery).

We envisage the sub-theme to develop and map a topological imagination in, and for, the study of organization, to be translated into a special issue or a handbook of organizational forms.


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Timon Beyes is Professor of Sociology of Organization and Culture at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. He is working on the spatialities, technologies, atmospheres, colours and publics of organizing.
Robin Holt is Professor of Strategy and Aesthetics at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. He is studying the nature of organizational form in relation to its inception (entrepreneurship) and maintenance (strategy).
Christina Juhlin is a PhD fellow at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, where she researches the politics of organizing urban development and how it is marked by for instance nostalgia, loss and optimism and how such affective attachments give shape to space; and on how critique and resistance takes place.