Dignity and Membership: A Route to the Heart of How Dignity Is Done in Everyday Interaction

Laura Mitchell


What is dignity? Without doubt, it is a problematic term surrounded by ambiguity and contradiction, one addressed in a wide variety of ways by different contributors within this collection. From the perspective of those interested in the conduct of empirical research, dignity presents a particular problem not dissimilar to qualities such as leadership or enterprise: it appears simple enough to identify until one tries to grasp it, when it then becomes an object of questionable validity. Unlike leadership or enterprise, dignity is something rarely discussed or represented outside situations of extreme discomfort or dehumanization. As such, although dignity has strong heuristic power in moral narrative, its existence as a tangible part of everyday interactions in organisations is not clearly defined.

L. Mitchell (*)

Keele University, Staffordshire, UK

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 37

M. Kostera, M. Pirson (eds.), Dignity and the Organization,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55562-5_3

Dignity is imputed to be a mystical or transcendent quality of human beings, outlining their unique worth. Yet, dignity is simultaneously understood as an ongoing property of lived experience, a social worthiness that is an outcome of symbolic and material interactions between persons. These views are often conflated in discussion, and each attempt to study the topic involves some work on behalf of the researcher to tease these issues apart.

The first part of this chapter explores this conceptual complexity and argues that in organisation studies we should consider dignity as an outcome of interaction. The discussion is based upon the disjuncture between empirical and conceptual approaches, and outlines two views of dignity: as transcendent or as performative. This approach contends that the transcendent concept of dignity is problematic, but that the performative concept of dignity may be reconciled with certain elements of contemporary transcendent notions of dignity and explored as more than ‘mere’ performance. Looking at the dynamics of membership and accountability (Munro 1996), the second part of this chapter proposes that a view of how individual members are called to account to justify the worth of their actions goes to the heart of how dignity is done in everyday interactions in organisations.

This approach presents an alternative and radical respecification of dignity that locates dignity as contested: as negotiated in the processes of interaction, not as an inherently possessed property of individual human spirit. The third part of the chapter delves into how the everyday negotiation of contested interpretations and understandings forms a background for the doing of dignity. This section emphasises that it is possible to examine the performative activities of organisational inhabitants through their presentation and management of narrative and symbolic accounts. Through this process it is evident that the attainment or denial of dignity is subject to relations between individuals as members of broader groups. Such membership groups, including organisations, have significant influence over the ability of the individual to achieve dignity and to negotiate the competing influences of contradictory justificatory demands. This has significant consequences both for business and for attempts to foreground dignity as a matter of management.

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