Organizational death

Bell, Emma; Tienari, Janne and Hansson, Magnus (2014). Organizational death. Culture and Organization, 20(1) pp. 1–6.



Death is an integral part of organizational life, not only in talk and symbolism but also in a very real physical sense. Despite numerous examples which illustrate the importance of organizational death as a meaning-making construct, scholars of organization have only rarely treated death as an explicit focus of study. Examples such as those above illustrate the pervasiveness of notions of death in constructing visions of an organization’s past in relation to its present and future. They can be seen as arising from the fact of human mortality and our need to live with constant awareness of it, which in turn gives rise to many aspects of social and cultural organization (Bauman 1992). This includes the possibility that organizations themselves constitute an immortality project that enables us to avoid confronting the inevitability of our own death (Becker 1973).

The aim of this special issue is to explore the theme of organizational death in a way which takes into account recent developments in understandings of death which have shifted away from narrowly individualistic framings of dying and bereavement, towards an understanding of organizations and cultures as based on the maintenance of continuing bonds between the dead and the living (Walter 1999). This move away from the sequestration of death from everyday life in the twentieth century (Mellor and Schilling 1993), and its reintegration into various aspects of social and cultural organization in the twenty-first century, is potentially significant in shaping representations meanings and identities in organizations. We argue that there is a need for new perspectives that take account of these theoretical and societal shifts that have fundamentally reshaped lived experience of death and loss in late modern society (Bell and Taylor 2011).

This special issue is based on selected contributions to a workshop hosted by the Culture, Organizations and Markets Group at Keele University in 2012. In organizing the workshop, we wanted to bring together scholars with an interest in exploring changes in understanding organizational death, and to start an interdisciplinary research conversation based on analyses and interpretations drawn from a variety of sociological, philosophical, psychological and psychoanalytical perspectives. We also wanted to create a supportive and receptive space within which to explore these issues. Having already approached organizational death in different ways (Bell and Taylor 2011; Hansson and Wigblad 2006; Vaara and Tienari 2008), we were struck by the taboo that continues to surround this theme in organizational research contexts. In bringing together workshop contributors, we found that they, too, had stories to tell about the discomfort that talking about organizational death sometimes provokes and also the particular kind of interest that it generates, for example, amongst academics at conferences. They also talked about the revealing ways in which audiences respond to talk about death, for example, by remaining silent or introducing humour as a way of dealing with discomfort.

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