The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction


The proximity of social distancing: Draconian laws and self-organising

1 April 2020

Dr Simon Addyman writes a reflective piece on the influence of Emeritus Professor Stephen Pryke's work and how it may contribute to our understanding of social order in light of COVID-19.

Dr Simon Addyman writes a reflective piece on the influence of Emeritus Professor Stephen Pryke's work and how it may contribute to our understanding of social order in light of COVID-19.

26 March 2020 was the memorial service for our colleague Emeritus Professor Stephen Pryke. Although many were unable to attend due to the coronavirus he was very much in Dr Simon Addyman thoughts on that day, and this prompted him to write a small piece about his work and his legacy.

“I cannot attend. But I am there. 26th March 2020.”

Professor Stephen Pryke was my PhD Supervisor. In that journey together he became my mentor. My colleague. My friend. Our shared journey will always and forever be incomplete. It is unfinalisable. The inseparability of mind and body. I stand now in his shoes as Programme Director for the MSc in Project and Enterprise Management. Today, in this moment, this communicative act of writing, how do I make sense of the relationship with the knowledge that Stephen gave me? 

Most of us, when we think of Stephen’s work think of Networks. Indeed, Stephen was a leading scholar in this area and his extensive publications will live on. But I want to start a dialogue with something else that I believe to have been central to Stephen’s work in understanding the phenomena of construction project organising and indeed society more generally: The Tavistock Institute report of 1966 entitled “Interdependence and uncertainty – A study of the building industry”. 

Of all the reports on the construction industry over the last half century and more, it is my understanding that this is the only report not produced by government or industry itself. It was produced by social scientists. Stephen and I were both practitioners before we came to academia and the recognition in this report of interdependence and uncertainty got to the heart of the ongoing (and unending?) conceptual challenge for construction project organising (Pryke, 2017:24). 

In fact, I would like to argue here, in these unprecedented times, that we can use these conceptual foundations to explore the social order that we find ourselves in as a result of COVID-19. Let’s start with a quotation. Here is what the report said about these two concepts: “These twin aspects of interdependence and uncertainty have been interpreted in terms of communication and information flow” (Tavistock, 1966:18). 

Perhaps I could start the discussion by referring to one of Stephen’s recent publications on ‘self-organising’ that I was fortunate enough to be involved in. Using findings from a research study led by Stephen, the paper used Social Network Analysis to identify ‘self-organising networks’ within hierarchical governance and contractual arrangements in complex infrastructure projects. While governance and contract mechanisms are necessary to comply with legislation, the study found that complex environments with high degrees of uncertainty and interdependence, and a need to communicate to search for information, led to the emergence of ‘self-organising networks’.

The paper concludes by suggesting that the "… findings underline the need for management scholars to recognize management patterns not procured through contracts, a bottom-up approach that emerges from the iterative communication of project actors working together to realize joint-project goals. This is in contrast to the top-down hierarchical and contractually prescribed structure that is not self-organizing" (Pryke et. al., 2018:37).

In today’s social (dis)order, as a social scientist and organisational theorist, I find myself reflecting deeply on this work. As a result of COVID-19 we find ourselves as a society with high degrees of uncertainty about what the future holds. Searching for information about how we manage the virus and our social lives. The interdependence between us in our need to remain socially distant, but coming closer together by finding new ways to communicate and (re)structure work and social life. How do we come to make sense of, and give sense to, this relationship between draconian laws to stay at home and be socially distant, with the phenomena of coming closer together through emerging self-organising networks? 

Drawing on the Tavistock Institute report and Stephen’s paper on self-organising networks, I use practice theory (e.g. Feldman and Worline, 2011) to understand interdependence, uncertainty, communication and information not as separate concepts, but as being mutually constituted. 

I would therefore like to propose that draconian laws and self-organising can be seen as being in an ongoing recursive relationship, unfinalisable and incomplete, always and forever in the process of becoming (Tsoukas and Chia, 2002; Rescher, 1996). 

And that is how today, in this moment of reflection, I see the relationship between my knowledge and the knowledge Stephen gave me in both his scholarly work and his friendship.

Thank you, Stephen. 

Pryke, S.D. (2017) Managing Networks in Project-Based Organisations. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (1966). Interdependence and Uncertainty: A Study of the Building Industry. London: Tavistock Publications.

Rescher, N., 1996. Process metaphysics: An introduction to process philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press.

Tsoukas, H. and Chia, R. (2002). On Organizational Becoming: Rethinking Organizational Change. Organization Science, 13(5), pp.567–582.

Feldman, M. and Worline, M., 2016. The practicality of practice theory. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 15(2), pp.304-324.