Becoming in the Middle. Towards a New Materialist Perspective on Middle Management Positions in Education
PhD Thesis by Maria Hvid Dille
This doctoral research explores the complex and challenging processes of becoming in middle management positions within public educational organizations in Denmark. The research elucidates how selected teachers, affected by recent policy reforms, come to perform an informal middle management position by working closely with school management in developing and facilitating certain organizational agendas, such as strengthening the professional development of fellow teachers and ultimately student outcome. This includes honing overall school teaching practices and stimulating general pedagogical reflection.
In the literature on middle management, the complexity of this position is often discussed in terms of its middle-level location within a hierarchical form of organizing, thus highlighting issues relating to being stuck or sandwiched in-between different organizational levels. These include the struggles involved in navigating the contrasting logics of the strategic apex and the operating floor, or the simultaneous expectations of a superior and a subordinate. However, less research has explored middle management as a practice that permeates hierarchies and other formal structures. This means that the more subtle, informal and blurred constructions of middle management, and related effects when becoming in middle management positions, have been mostly left unattended.
This research develops a constitutive approach inspired by organizational discourse and new materialist theorizing that allows for a rethinking of notions of hierarchy and formality by theorizing how relations of multiple discursive and material elements take part in constituting middle management. By implication, this approach enables a view of middle management as an ongoing becoming that unfolds via the precarious practices of everyday work – in and through a mesh of policy reforms, expectations, teacher tasks, colleagues, school management, relationships, students and more. Hence, the research contributes with a reconceptualization of middle management that challenges the presumed hierarchical organizing and formal position of a middle manager in the extant literature.
The dissertation empirically explores the becoming of middle management positions through a multi-sited and ethnographic inspired case study of two primary and lower secondary schools’ efforts to improve school practices by enhancing the functions of middle managers. Manifested through three article contributions, the research specifically examines, in the first article, the potential of developing methods that are sensitive to the discursive and material relations constituting middle management positions. In doing so, the article utilizes the concept of multimodality as a way to empirically approach the constituting dynamics of discourse-materiality relations. It does so by arguing that we sensitize, and thereby retool, our methods towards multimodalities, such as language, images, feelings, bodies, spaces etc., when generating data.
The second article analytically unpacks the identity construction processes and inherent challenges relating to simultaneously enacting a position as a teacher and a middle manager. The article’s findings show how identities are performed in and through the everyday practices of middle management work and teaching work. Thus, highlighting the identity construction process as a form of identity entanglement.
Finally, the third article explores the complex and muddled work practices of middle managers and their effects. The findings show that middle management work becomes in blurred and moving ways across multiple discursive-material elements, such as structures and formal job descriptions, but also collegial relationships, feelings, tasks, technologies, spaces and times etc. This produces an entanglement of clear/unclear distinctions that configures their work as liminal – an ongoing social limbo – contributing with both complexity-maximizing and complexity-reducing aspects in everyday work.
In closing, this dissertation discusses the effects of becoming in middle management positions in a Danish educational context. It highlights that, although the complexity of this position has been addressed at the level of local government as well as nationally, with the intention of improving the legitimacy of the teacher as a middle manager within their local schools, these ‘formalizing’ initiatives seem to only address a small part of the complexity. What they do not address are the more ‘fluid’ effects that appear in the cracks of everyday work and relate, for example, to compensating strategies to get things done or being available to help colleagues at all times. Hence, this research hopes to create awareness around the legitimacy of the more fluid effects – beyond notions of middle management work as a formal position within the school hierarchy.