Governance and the centrality of failure: a comedy of errors

Professor Cate Watson
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

[Read the full paper here]

Professor Cate Watson argues that we need to recognise the importance of comedy in human affairs – and in sociological research…

‘Good’ governance is widely accepted as essential to the effective functioning of organisations, whether in the corporate sector or the public sphere, and codes of good governance are common, setting out the norms required and warning organisations to ‘comply or explain’. Yet repeatedly we see that governance fails. Indeed, all governance fails to some extent, if only because there are so many more opportunities for things to go wrong than right (Malpas and Wickham, 1995).

Why has this not aroused more interest among social scientists? It is as if we are in denial – if governance fails it is seen as an aberration rather than an inherent characteristic of the act of governing.

This is our first error. We have a deep-seated belief in rationality – we assume that if something doesn’t add up it is not the world that is at fault but our own inadequacy – we haven’t measured up properly. Mulkay (1988) says this is because we privilege ‘serious discourse’. Instead, he says, we should pay attention to humorous discourse which accepts discrepancies as commonplace and is therefore alert to the contradictions and absurdities in social constructions of reality.

Our second error is linked to the first and concerns the contest between process and substance. We have a tendency to view substance as primary – processes merely being the forces that move substances around. Bergson (1913) opposes this view. He says we have a ‘mechanistic habit of mind’ which leads us to reify as ‘things’ ongoing processes, abstracting these from the continuous flow of time and pinning them down like a butterfly collector’s specimens. In an intuitive but unexpected move this insight led Bergson towards a theory of comedy and the comic as that which attempts to exert control but signally fails (the parallel with governance is exact). This is expressed in Bergson’s much quoted phrase that comedy emerges as the result of ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’ (Bergson, 1980, 84). For Bergson, comedy is effected when some rigidity is applied to what is properly supple i.e. when thingliness interrupts the flow of process, trips it up and brings about its downfall. The world can never live up to our aspirations for it because in abstracting substance from process we impose misunderstanding. An error is inserted at source that will forever frustrate our attempts to arrive at perfection. (The ultimate metaphor of the banana peel gag as the human fall from grace is a subliminal but pervasive theme in Bergson’s work.)

All this suggests that we should adopt a different approach to examining governance failure. We need to look at it from a comic perspective.

Take the European Union (EU)…please.1 The EU provides a fascinating example of governance failure and attempts to remedy this. Traditionally, governance in the EU relied on the ‘Community Method’: a hierarchical model in which directives were issued and member states complied (or not). But expansion, made the Community Method largely unworkable, so newer forms of governance were applied, most notably the Open Method of Coordination (OMC). The OMC is a means by which member states cooperate in the development of National Action Plans (NAPs) which are then monitored in line with agreed indicators. These are implemented and, so the theory goes, competition between member states results in the rapid diffusion of best practice (Börzel, 2018). The idea is to increase democracy and participation with member states taking greater responsibility for developing and implementing policy. That these newer forms of governance have also failed is shown in a number of studies.

For example, Schout et al (2010) looked at attempts to integrate environmental policy across the EU through the ‘Cardiff Process’. They found that the assumptions underpinning the OMC, i.e that less hierarchical forms of governance would result in self organising networks and produce the expected outputs, fell wide of the mark. Instead, member states, unused to taking ‘shared responsibility’, preferred to take no responsibility at all. In the end the Cardiff Process was quietly dropped. Schout et al suggest the whole thing arose through a mistaken diagnosis of the ‘problem’ to be cured in the first place.

Smismans’ examined new models of governance around Occupational Health and Safety. In an ironic reversal, Smismans (2008,876) found that while policy actors and stakeholders appeared to be happy with levels of participation associated with the old Community Method, the new instruments of governance raised ‘concerns about technocratisation, procedural complications and predominance of national administrations’. Indeed, Papadopoulos (2010) says that far from enhancing participation, democratic accountability has been undermined by the OMC.

In both these examples, the utopian vision of increased engagement ran up against the buffers of bureaucratic systems, associated rigidities, and narrow self-interest, producing perverse and farcical outcomes. But it is not just that governance so often fails to achieve what it set out to, which would not be very funny, but that in doing so it delivers the opposite of what was intended, thereby pointing up the universality of Amiel’s (1906) ‘Law of Irony’,

…life is a perpetual combat; it wills that which it wills not, and wills not that it wills. Hence what I call the law of irony – that is to say, the refutation of the self by itself, the concrete realization of the absurd.

Attempts at governance fail not least because of our failure to recognise the absurdity of so many of our social institutions and our reliance, despite the overwhelming evidence of its shortcomings, on rationality and belief in the superiority of serious discourse. Adoption of the comic frame is not intended to undermine ‘serious’ research (or to trivialise failure) but only through acknowledging the importance of humorous discourse do we come to the full realisation of the inherent paradox within governance. Governance is the attempt to impose order on a chaotic world, if attempts at control did not always fall short of their intended outcomes governance would not be necessary.

Of course, governance is by no means alone in giving rise to the ironic reversal from which emerges the unanticipated consequence (Watson, 2018). Most of us are familiar enough with this as an everyday phenomenon. Hooker (1960) defines irony as the distance between what is said and what is meant. If the distance is sufficiently great it produces absurdity. This can be adapted for use by social scientists as the distance between intended and unintended outcomes. Looking around at recent events there can surely be no better time for social scientists to start taking seriously the sociology of the absurd.

Cate Watson is author of Comedy and social science: towards a methodology of funny, Routledge, 2015.

1 I am indebted to Henny Youngman, ‘Master of the one-liner’ for this.

Amiel, H-F (1906) Amiel’s Journal. Available at: h/8545 -h.htm

Bergson, H. (1980). Laughter. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press. 

Bergson, H. (1913). Creative evolution. New York: MacMillan.

Börzel, T. (2018). Governance approaches to European integration. (KFG Working Paper Series. 84) The Transformative Power of Europe, Freie Universität Berlin. Available, http,//www.polsoz.fu- .pdf

Hooker, W. (1960). Irony and absurdity in the avant-garde theatre. Kenyon Review,22(3), 436- 454.

Malpas, J., and Wickham, G. (1995). Governance and failure: On the limits of sociology. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 31(3): 37-50.

Mulkay, M. (1988). On humour. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Papadopoulos, Y. (2010). Accountability and multi-level governance, more accountability, less democracy? West European Politics, 33(5): 1030-1049.

Schout, A., Jordan, A., and Twena, M. (2010). From ‘old’ to ‘new’ governance in the EU: Explaining a diagnostic deficit. West European Politics,33(1), 154-170.

Smismans, S. (2008). New modes of governance and the participatory myth. West European Politics, 31(5), 874-895.

Watson, C. (2018). From accountability to digital data: the rise and rise of educational governance in the UK. Review of Education, 7(2),390-427.

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