A Stupidity‐Based Theory of Organizations

27 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2012

See all articles by Mats Alvesson

Mats Alvesson

Lund University

André Spicer

City University London - Sir John Cass Business School

Date Written: November 2012


In this paper we question the one‐sided thesis that contemporary organizations rely on the mobilization of cognitive capacities. We suggest that severe restrictions on these capacities in the form of what we call functional stupidity are an equally important if under‐recognized part of organizational life. Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications. We argue that functional stupidity is prevalent in contexts dominated by economy in persuasion which emphasizes image and symbolic manipulation. This gives rise to forms of stupidity management that repress or marginalize doubt and block communicative action. In turn, this structures individuals' internal conversations in ways that emphasize positive and coherent narratives and marginalize more negative or ambiguous ones. This can have productive outcomes such as providing a degree of certainty for individuals and organizations. But it can have corrosive consequences such as creating a sense of dissonance among individuals and the organization as a whole. The positive consequences can give rise to self‐reinforcing stupidity. The negative consequences can spark dialogue, which may undermine functional stupidity.

Keywords: bounded rationality, identity, ignorance, knowledge, power

Suggested Citation

Alvesson, Mats and Spicer, André, A Stupidity‐Based Theory of Organizations (November 2012). Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 49, Issue 7, pp. 1194-1220, 2012, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2160669 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6486.2012.01072.x

Mats Alvesson (Contact Author)

Lund University ( email )

S-220 07 Lund, SC Skane

André Spicer

City University London - Sir John Cass Business School

106 Bunhill Row
London, EC1Y 8TZ
United Kingdom

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