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Functions of Dysfunction: Managing the Dynamics of an Organizational Duality in a Natural Food Cooperative

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We report the results of an ethnographic study of a natural food cooperative in which we found an inherent tension in its mission between idealism and pragmatism, and we explore

We report the results of an ethnographic study of a natural food cooperative in which we found an inherent tension in its mission between idealism and pragmatism, and we explore the dynamics through which that tension was managed and engaged in day-to-day governance and activities. Insights from participant observation, archival data, semi-structured interviews, and surveys provide a detailed and holistic account of the intergroup and intragroup processes through which the co-op negotiated its dualistic nature, as embodied in its hybrid organizational identity. The findings suggest that the value of each side of the duality was recognized at both the individual and organizational levels. Members’ discomfort with the duality, however, led them to split the mission in two and identify with one part, while projecting their less-favored part on others, creating an identity foil (an antithesis). This splitting resulted in ingroups and outgroups and heated intergroup conflict over realizing cooperative ideals vs. running a viable business. Ingroup members favoring one part of the mission nonetheless identified with the outgroup favoring the other because it embodied a side of themselves they continued to value. Individuals who exemplified their ingroup’s most extreme attributes were seen by the outgroup as prototypical, thus serving as “lightning rods” for intergroup conflict; this dynamic paradoxically enabled other ingroup members to work more effectively with moderate members of the outgroup. The idealist–pragmatist duality was kept continually in play over time through oscillating decisions and actions that shifted power from one group to the other, coupled with ongoing rituals to repair and maintain relationships disrupted by the messiness of the process. Thus ostensible dysfunctionality at the group level fostered functionality at the organizational level.

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  • 2014-09-01