The paradoxical deployment of management by devices

(What’s new in contemporary management? This is what the sociologist is trying to explain Marie-Anne Dujarier. Professor at Paris Cité University (Institute of Humanities, Sciences and Societies/IHSS-Laboratory of Social and Political Change/LCSP), she is responsible for the master’s degree “clinical sociology and psychosociology”. His research focuses on the social supervision of activity by the institutions of employment, consumption and management. She notably published The Ideal at work (PUF, “Quadrige”, 2006), Disembodied Management (The Discovery, 2016), Troubles at work. Sociology of a category of thought (PUF, 2021). She also directed Misconceptions about workpublished in 2023, at Cavalier bleu, with a collective of forty researchers.)

Management is, for an employer, the means of getting things done; or, better yet, to get things done. This social practice has developed and formalized since industrial capitalism, and with the increase in the size of organizations.

Of the “managerial fashions” (Eric Abrahamson, 1996) have followed one another for a century in private and public companies, as in administration: Taylorism, Fordism, Fayolism, management by objectives, quality approaches, “total quality”, “participative approaches”, reengineering, benchmarking, lean management , agile method…

Today, what characterizes the ways of organizing production and creating markets is “disembodied management”. », with direction massively exercised through devices. The word is understood in the sense proposed by (philosopher) Michel Foucault (1926-1984) as a “relatively heterogeneous whole, comprising discourses, institutions, architectural arrangements, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, philanthropic proposals”. To update this list, we are adding management tools and IT systems.


These results come from multi-sited sociological research, carried out over ten years, in organizations in the private, public and associative sectors, through 131 interviews with executives and the employees they supervise, including eleven interviews with former executives undergoing retraining. and groups for analyzing practices by profession (human resources, IT, finance, consultants, etc.) or across professions with 150 other subjects. They allowed for further exploration of their actual work.

This qualitative and clinical survey was supplemented by a questionnaire carried out in partnership with the Association for the Employment of Executives (APEC), among 802 executives in the private sector. Participant observation combined with documentary analysis of the writings produced by these executives (slides, charters, reports, tables, etc.) makes it possible to capture their work carried out, while the qualitative analysis of forty curriculum vitae and a sociometric analysis of 1,109 job offers sent to them made it possible to identify the words used in this market employment, providing guidance on professional standards. As in the book Disembodied Management (which this article summarizes), here we emphasize the regularities and the presence of a social fact, more than the micro-variations observable according to the sectors, trajectories and social characteristics of the actors.

Used by the State to supervise populations and their actions, the devices are now also essential in large productive organizations, including private ones, to prescribe, equip, organize, pace and control human productive activity. The “what” to do, the “how” to do and the “why” to do are everywhere contained in devices, that is to say things, rather than stated by people.

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