Moral Mazes

Aaron Swartz

Moral Mazes is a 1988 book from sociologist Robert Jackall that documents an investigation into the world of corporate managers in the United States. In the introduction, Jackall writes that he ‘went into these organizations to study how bureaucracy – the prevailing organizational form of our society – shapes moral consciousness.’ He called the book, ‘an interpretive sociological account of how managers think the world works.’

Jackall describes the ‘fundamental rules of corporate life’: ‘(1) You never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as a boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and you keep your mouth shut.’

Based on several years of fieldwork conducting interviews with managers in several large corporations in the early 1980s, Jackall argues that bureaucracy as implemented in the large American corporations he investigated ‘regularizes people’s experiences of time and indeed routinizes their lives by engaging them on a daily basis in rational, socially approved, purposive action; it brings them into daily proximity with and subordination to authority, creating in the process upward-looking stances that have decisive social and psychological consequences; it places a premium on a functionally rational, pragmatic habit of mind that seeks specific goals; and it creates subtle measures of prestige and an elaborate status hierarchy that, in addition to fostering an intense competition for status, also makes the rules, procedures, social contexts, and protocol of an organization paramount psychological and behavioral guides.’

Jackall first starts with a history of American business specifically looking at changes in organizational structure during the creation of large corporations in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution changing American industry. The changes in American industry indicated a need for a professional management class which in turn began to change the organizational culture of American business emphasizing rational decisions centered on money based measures such as profit and loss (i.e. rational choice theory).

Next Jackall describes the results of his interviews of managers at various levels of large and medium sized companies. Perhaps the most important finding is that successful managers are dexterous symbol manipulators. They provide a public face and may be categorized as providing emotional labor as one of their major activities. They must be able to work well with others and to sublimate their emotional and psychological needs to the demands of others. The very ambiguity of their work and its assessment leads to the feeling that, ‘instead of ability, talent, and dedicated service to an organization, politics, adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats.’

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