Dr. Collette Oseen, Visiting Graduate Professor, Master of Arts—Integrated Studies, teaches in the MAIS program and in Work and Community Studies at Athabasca University as well as in Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta. She also works as a consultant specializing in the non-hierarchical workplace. She holds a Ph.D in feminist organizational theory (University of Alberta), and has published a number of articles and chapters in books dealing with feminist organizational theory and its practical application for organizing.

SSHRC Grant Summary (Grant Women and Change)

Awarded for 2003-2006

RESEARCH SUMMARY. Transformatory Organizing: Skill sharing and entrustment in the construction of the effective, contiguous non-governmental organization

The objective of this research project is to explore a persistent controversy in feminist organizational theory and its implications for organizational practice: are non-hierarchical or contiguous organizing strategies employed by non-governmental organizations [ngos] more effective in terms of better outcomes for women than hierarchical organizing strategies? A number of feminist organizational and development theorists have asked why women and women’s needs are persistently marginalized, even in the popular micro-funding [small business loans] projects undertaken by ngos which are specifically devoted to alleviating that. These theorists have concluded that it is hierarchical organizing strategies which are a key barrier to women’s full participation as subjects in shaping a world that suits them, arguing that organizations which do not learn how to counter women’s marginalization inside the organization through contiguous rather than hierarchical organizing will not have learned the organizing skills to be able to counter women’s marginalization outside the organization. More specifically, these feminist organizational and development theorists have defined contiguous organizing as sharing all the skills of organizing, including the skills of leading and of political strategizing. However, a crucial aspect of their analysis is missing. How exactly are all the skills of organizing to be shared by people who, by definition, are not the same? And if they are not the same—if they are different--how is the recreation of organizational hierarchies to be avoided? These are important lacunae which have not been addressed .

In response to these intertwined questions of the research objective, this study will analyse contiguous organizing for its links to better outcomes for women. However, uniquely in terms of previous research, I will also analyse how contiguous organizing is actually realized among women who are always and inevitably different. In order to effect the research objective, I will deploy a number of interlinked research strategies. FolIowing Brown’s (1992) longitudinal case-study approach, I will likewise focus, through a longitudinal case study, on the micro-lending ngo, usually staffed only by women, and the only ngo in Edmonton specializing in micro-funding. I will analyse the organizing strategies employed by the staff for their effectiveness, in terms of the proportion of women funded from the pool of those who fall below LICO or low income cut-off, and those whose incomes rise above the LICO. Secondly--and uniquely—this research project will analyse how contiguous organizing is actually realized within the micro-lending ngo staff, among women who are different, so that hierarchical organizing relations are not recreated. It is this link between the different who are involved in the process of sharing organizing skills that I wish to explore further by using the Irigarayan notion of entrustment, or the construction of a contiguous relationship between the woman who wants and the woman who knows, a notion that has been further theorized and practiced by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective [MWBC]. Irigaray maintains that entrustment, which embodies in our actions the creation of contiguous relations between the different, operates to subvert the ongoing construction of hierarchical relations between the different in our symbolic structures, and by extension and for the purposes of this research project, the different who work together and who are not, and never can be, entirely the same. Part of my research strategy involves building on my initial discussions with Helen Brown (1992, 2001) on skill sharing in the development of contiguous organizing strategies, and with the MWBC (1990, 2002) on their practice of entrustment. This examination of entrustment allows us to focus on how the sharing of all the skills of organizing actually takes place, and to examine whether relations between the different can be constructed contiguously, in our analysis of the effective non-governmental organization. It allows us to ask: can we apply this knowledge to create a space for women to participate fully as subjects in shaping a world that suits them?

This research addresses a fundamental question of feminist organizational theory and practice: can we separate the means from the ends? Can we disregard our organizing strategies as irrelevant to the outcomes we seek? This research is an attempt to answer that question, and in terms of its practical implications, is an area of intense interest to both theorists and practitioners, to feminists, to the ngo and development community, to policy makers, and to non-government and government funders.


If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Collette Oseen.

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