Friday, May 1, 2015

How Culture Creates Reality: Ideology Versus Reality at Honest Weight

As many of you who read my blog know, I have interests in social theory, in comparative studies, in history, in social movements, and in the social and cultural construction of identity, community, and reality. These interests have been at the centre of my every waking moment and sometimes even in my dreams regardless of whether I was a student or whether I was working as an employee in some corporation somewhere. My life has been and will continue to be an intellectual life. The intellectual life is the only life, in my opinion, that really is worth living.

As someone interested in comparative studies and in the social and cultural construction of reality one of my favourite things to observe regardless of where I am is how humans behave and act. In the rest of this paper I want to explore how humans think and why they think the way that they do. I want to focus on an aspect of human behaviour at the place I work, Honest Weight Food Corporation. How humans at Honest Weight think and why they think the way that they do, by the way, is not peculiar or singular to Honest Weight. Human behaviour at Honest Weight is simply a microcosm of human behaviour generally in the United States and in the Western world.

In order to explore how humans think and why they think the way that they do I want to focus on one particular controversy at Honest Weight, whether staff members who are elected to the Board, one of the two most powerful centres at the Corporation, should be able to evaluate the Corporations management team of three, something done annually at the Corporation. Some working members and staff members of Honest Weight, the only ones who can run for the Board and the only ones who can vote for candidates for the Board, think that staff members, those who are paid workers at Honest Weight, on the Board should recuse, should absent themselves from evaluating the management team, the other power centre at the Corporation. Those who hold this position, and there are a significant number of working staff members who do hold this ideological position, usually have an argument that goes something like this. Since the management team makes significant decisions about the store, some of which might anger staff members, any staff member who is elected to the Board should recuse him or her self because there is a potential for him or her to abuse his or her position as a Board member and punish members of the management team for the decisions they made.

This position seems on the surface to be quite reasonable. I want to explore objections I and others have made to this argument, however. In the process of doing this I want to interrogate, excavate, and deconstruct the ideological assumptions at the heart of the argument that staff members should not be involved in the yearly evaluations of the management team.

The claim that there is a potential, perceived, or real conflict of interest in staff members of the Board evaluating the management team is grounded, in some instances, in the assumption that management are involved in the evaluation of staff. The problem with this argument is that the management team are not generally involved in the evaluation of staff either directly or indirectly. Front end or cashier staff, for instance, are evaluated by the head of the front end. Stock or grocery staff are evaluated by the head of grocery. As far as I know management is not involved in these evaluations whatsoever. If anyone has any empirical evidence to the contrary I would love to hear it. By the way, the broader ideological assumptions undergirding the notion that evaluation should be done by those higher in the status or class hierarchy is that those higher in the status or class hierarchy are simply more compentent at evaluation because they are higher in the class and status hierarchy.

Another claim, though this one more covertly and secretly, made by those who think Board staff members should recuse themselves from evaluating the management team is that staff Board members are simply not capable of evaluating the management team. This argument is grounded in the assumption that some people, usually those with a professional and bureaucratic background, have evaluation competencies that most staff workers, who don’t have professional backgrounds, simply do not. The empirical problem with this argument is that we have staff members at Honest Weight who do have professional backgrounds. The staff member of the Board who was recently excluded from evaluating the management team, for instance, has a professional background. By the way, this notion that some people have competencies that others don’t are grounded in ideological assumptions—some might call them fetishisations or universalisations—that some classes and that some status groups are superior to others.

There is one insurmountable empirical fact that undermines the arguments of those who claim that staff Board members should not be involved in the evaluation of management. And that is the fact that staff Board members have been involved in the evaluation of management previously. To my knowledge the issue of perceived or real conflict of interest was not raised by other Board members or the management team at the time about the fact that a staff Board member was involved in the evaluation of management. According to sources I have talked to the staff Board member who was at the centre of the recent controversy at the Corporation over whether staff Board members should evaluate management and who was excluded from evaluating the management team during the last management evaluation was part of an evaluation of the management team several years ago. That evaluation which, according to sources, involved the evaluation of data about the health of the store, involved observations of and interviews with the management team, and involved interviews with department heads who worked closely with the managers, was apparently quite professionally done. The controversial staff Board member, by the way, was only one of the evaluators, putting the lie to any notion that one staff Board member can bring down the entire management team. Other Board members involved in the process of evaluation, after all, can and do act as a check and balance on other Board member evaluators. Not one member of the management team, by the way, was fired as a result of this extensive evaluation conducted, in part, by a staff Board member.

Interestingly, the hours put into the evaluation of the management team during that evaluation several years ago was considerably more extensive than the nine hours of evaluation each of three Board members received from their three Board evaluators in 2015, perhaps one of the reasons some Board members are refusing to revive the practise. How such an evaluation, since at least a couple of the Board members on the evaluation team work other jobs during the day, could be anywhere near as professional or competent as the one mentioned above is beyond me. It is also beyond me how the management team could actually believe--though again I know people can make themselves believe almost anything--that the Board member under suspicion had any conflict of interest whatsover.

What is so interesting, at least to me, about a significant segment of the human population is that they don’t really care about empirical facts. When I pointed out to several Honest Weight members that a staff Board member was involved, in the past, in a successful and professional evaluation of the management team, I was generally met first with silence and then with the cliched “we just disagree” and "I understand your point of view" mantras. Absolutely no attempt was made to engage with and offer counterevidence to the empirical points I had made, something that even a moderately knowledgable intellectual knows is essential in intellectual disputation. The moral of this story? Most people create their own ideological realities and when they are challenged with real empirical evidence they simply ignore the points being made and restate their position in a way that seems like they are reading a catechism of how to speak "I understand your feelings" bureaucratese. Reality, in other words, when it conflicts with ideology, is simply ignored. And that, dear readers, is a far too common human behavioural trait. Don’t believe me? Listen to what comes out of the mouths of Michele Bachman or the members of the Wesboro Baptist Church.

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