A Son and Father Talk about Organization Procreation

written by Dave Fearon, Sr. & Dave Fearon, Jr.

“We share this paper in conjunction with the Practice Podcast Episode 30 where Dave and I have our first recorded conversation about social enaction with more to follow. It’s an interesting and rather unique look at the hidden power of everyday conversation.” – Dave, Sr.

Organizational Behavior Teaching Conference

Pepperdine University

Malibu, California

June, 2007

A Son and Father Talk About Organization Procreation

David S. Fearon, Sr. Ph.D 

Central Connecticut State University

New Britain, Connecticut

[email protected]

David S. Fearon, Jr., PhD

John Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland

[email protected]


This is a father and son talk in reverse. Recent PhD son tells vintage PhD father new “facts of organization life”; how close analysis reveals organizational properties emerging in situated conversational interaction of their members. Father wonders how this dissimilar view of organization procreation changes teaching how organizations are “made”.

Why organization procreation?

The conference theme – Looking back. Looking forward on OB teaching – and its historical moments at Pepperdine University in 1997 and 2007 brought to mind this question. Do our theories of organization sufficiently reveal to learners how organizations are made, so that they may better manage the making thereof?

Participants were invited to join in an open episode of a son and father talk that has spanned the coasts, the OBTC at Pepperdine decade, a familial generation, sociological eras, and two differently formulated OB careers. What started over twenty years ago as father and son talks, father instructing son from his knowledge of organization theory and organizational behavior to son teaching father what he has now codified in his 2005 University of Santa Barbara doctoral dissertation as social enaction. Fearon, Jr. asks whether organizations can be understood and described as they emerge through the situated conversational interaction of their members

Looking back, the “father” (David Fearon, Sr.) in this session’s parody of a father and son talk earned his PhD in 1973 under the mentorship of Peter Vaill, who is one of those visionary management educators who developed his teaching in the earliest OBTC’s. An undergraduate Sociology major graduating form Colby College in 1965, the father has nurtured a career-long fascination with human being organizations. Teaching, consulting, and writing about effective organizations and teaching Organizational Behavior, the father seeks better ways to show learners and readers how they are also sources of the organization theories they put into practice.

Looking forward, the “son” (David Fearon, Jr.), also an undergraduate Sociology major also graduating in 1989 from Colby College, devoted the first 17 years of his career to the study of social organization with emphasis upon close analysis of human interaction. He is attuned to his father’s love of the question of effective organizational behavior, but is rightly dissatisfied with now traditional and conventional organization science answers. Now an academician and researcher, the son has created a perspective and methodology he terms social enaction. It is rooted in the conversational analysis methodology, also drawing upon complexity and emotions research. He points OB researchers and teachers to a particular operation of talk that performs social ordering and brings forth a social domain of organization which is the organization as it exists in the moment.

The social enaction view is of all members continually designing and practicing their talk-in-interaction to bring forth a social context for their joint actions. They behave the organization by talking to each other, accomplishing social order as it is performed.

Talk-in-interaction is an ordinary operation requisite to practice of any kind. The practice of talk enacts social organizations readily familiar to OB learners. A class meeting, for example, is an encapsulated form of social organization which they can be taught to observe a co-procreators. This may be a promising way to redirect OB learner attention from a traditional outside-in view of organizations representing organizations as things made by the few to govern the work of the many to an inside-out view of live organizations,

made fresh daily by the many with appreciative guidance to and from the few referenced by them as managers or teachers.

The gradual and troubling realization by the senior Fearon is that he has been teaching OB and Management with standard theories that are largely representational in nature. Researchers build models and symbols for learners and practitioners to grasp as if what is modeled is what a social organization is – a structure, a culture, or other prominent reoccurring patterns. The troubling aspect is not that these theories are wrong nor wrong to teach; but, do they take the management learner deep enough to where they can see procreation happen, as has the son, in real-time constitutive moments of an organization life? Are organizations what authorities – scholars and managers – say they are? Do OB learners have enough ways to make up their own minds about how organizations are made? Is it possible that they, themselves, are the makers of experience also known as their social organizations?

Father asks son, Can OB learners benefit by discovering how their talk-in-interaction constitutes social organization and its transformation? What difference might it make to their outlook on their future in business organizations, if OB learners can see that the very act of organization procreation is under their personal management and of all whom they would lead and manage?

Perhaps so, replies son. Perhaps organizations are not “things” to be built according to external rules for practice, but are living practices of participants enacting social organization by making references recognizable, indicating relevant next actions, assessing prior actions, adjusting to troubles, and remaining accountable to criteria members negotiate with the interaction itself.

Why social enaction?

Summarized next are ‘facts of organization procreation’ son taught father with the session participants listening in, then joining in.

1. Social Organization

       • the practice of organizing socially

       • communication (talk in interaction) is the main method of organizing.

              – Content of talk (symbolic information)

              – Practice of talk (linguistic processes and behaviors)

2. Teaching Social Organization

       • If the information is the most important part of social organization, can the practices be de-emphasized?

       • Or are they fundamentally intertwined?

       • And can the practice of talk become a starting point for understanding organization?

3. The “Social” in Interaction

       • Social = mutual efforts to orient overt behaviors to the recipients ‘mind’ by making them relevant  and understandable to what the recipients could perceive.

       • Speakers orient to assumptions of mind – largely through public evidence to support private associations.

4. Key dynamic of social organization:

       • Mutual efforts to accommodate other minds do not need to be fully successful to operate.

       • The grasping for commonality in performing for, and showing comprehension

       • The transforming of action produced by showing differences from other’s possible assumptions.

5. Social Enaction

       • A technical description of other-orientation in talk

       • Addressing processes and phenomena with empirically distinguishable features that constitute any instance of enaction.

       • Participants use such evidence to understand each other. Researchers can also draw from this evidence.

       • Methods: Conversation Analysis and Ethnomethodology

       • Enaction is the main operational, experiential, and empirical realm of talk-in-interaction and organizational relating.

6. Three meanings of ‘enaction’

       1. To perform: as the behavior of talk, and as orientation for an audience.

       2. To bring forth in the details of ongoing performance a scope of activity and area of relevance that is social in general effect and for specific contingencies, describable as a social domain of interaction.

       3. To warrant (make law-like): To establish one’s indications as comprehensible and warrant that intelligibility by has happened so far, what ‘ought’ to happen next, what is ‘ordinary’ for the context, or what is explicitly pointed out to be ‘special.’ Participants may hold each other accountable to expectations, and treat deviations as trouble to the course of their interaction, and the quality of their relationships.

7. Social Enaction illustrated

       01 Laura: So. Anything you guys want to add? or,

       02 (1.0)1 ((Laura looks up at others, Nat reads from her notes))

       03 Natalie: Backup tapes and a microwave.

       04 (1.5) ((Laura finishes a bite of pizza she took at “microwave”))

       05 Laura: Backup tapes and a microwave?=

       06 Natalie: =Um:­hm= ((said while drinking, nods slightly))

       07 Laura: =Uh huh huh huh. uhhh okay,

       08 (1.0)

       09 Laura: Are you gonna put it up there ((Natalie stands))

       10 so we don’t forget?

       11 ((Natalie goes to newsprint easel and writes items on the agenda.))

Enaction as Performance

  • Acting socially is also showing an audience how one’s performance is socially recognizable.

              01 Laura: So. Anything you guys want to add? or,

              02 (1.0)

              03 Natalie: Backup tapes and a microwave.

              04 (1.5)

Bringing forth a social domain of relevance

       • Natalie’s two items provide her audience with a limited ‘scope of relevance’ for recognition.

       • Laura’s question provides a conditional ‘area of influence’ for relevant next actions (to confirm or expand upon suggestions)

       • But it is Natalie’s performance that enacts the interpretation for a social domain (confirms)

              Natalie: Backup tapes and a microwave.

              (1.5) ((Laura finishes a bite of pizza she took at “microwave”))

              Laura: Backup tapes and a microwave?=

              Natalie: =Um:­hm= ((said while drinking, nods slightly))

Warranting action in their social organization

       § Natalie can invoke the ‘ordinary’ – justifiably relevant to confirm agenda suggestions.

       § Laura’s laugh might (we speculate) indicate an alternative relevance – explaining the odd pairing – less justifiable in context of introducing agenda topics.

       § She then calls for warranted ‘formal’ method of preserving agenda items.

             05 Laura: Backup tapes and a microwave?=

             06 Natalie: =Um:­hm= ((said while drinking, nods slightly))

             07 Laura: (laughs) (1.0)

             08 Laura: Are you gonna put it up there so we don’t forget?

Fundamental or banal?

       Can the practice of talk become a starting point for learners to better understand acts of organizing?

       Will it not ground their attention to managing organizations on moments when members talk themselves        forward in action?

       Is this how people become and remain an organization?

       Is the agenda of this meeting, for instance, the product and structure of the meeting – the ‘offspring’ of their discussion?

       Or, do these practices that procreate the conditions of scope and relevance for further practices sufficiently account for the “socially organized?’

       Is social enaction all there is to social organization when boiled out to basics?

       Or, is this level of detail simple too banal to be of significant for students of organization science?

These were the sorts questions posed by the son and pondered by the father. None were answered in the time allotted for the session. It may be fairly concluded that consensus among participants was that these are intriguing questions. It is not banal.

The father spoke of how he is shifting the focus of his undergraduate organizational behavior course from an outside-in viewing to an inside-out viewing. He is saying that the study of not of organizations as entities per se but of humans being organizations. He invites each learner to notice themselves talking with one of more others with whom common purpose emerges in observable and memorable conversation. He asks them to consider how talk is followed by practices appearing to be organized. Could this, he asks, be managing at its most elemental level? Making organization happen?


Fearon, David, Jr. (2006) Social Enaction: How Talk-in-interaction Constitutes Social Organization. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services.

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Designed by Anthony Rivera