Academy of Management

So after 18 hours of travelling and an 8 hour time difference, I think I can safely say my circadian rhythm has been well and truly disturbed. My business class upgrade on the outgoing journey also definitely spoiled me for the return experience! I returned to the UK at 10am yesterday and just about kept my eyes open until 5pm, then awoke at 4am this morning. At least the early start has allowed me to make some headway with my laundry.

My first experience of the Academy of Management, probably the largest international conference of business and management academics worldwide, was mixed. While some of the sessions in the main program were of extremely high quality, others seemed very underdeveloped. The Academy is broken down into divisions, or interest groups. As I was attending events across multiple divisions I found it particularly interesting to see how the Academy serves, for some, in breaking down institutional silos and encouraging broader views of the topics by drawing audience members from across disciplinary boundaries as well as engaging practitioners. Nonetheless, I was also impressed with a strong feeling of homogeneity of methods and approaches which was slightly worrying in its indication that there is a clear perpetuation of a single way to do research in business and management studies, and that way relies upon survey data collection and statistical analysis. A colleague who shares similar concerns and I got into a very heated debate about this in one of the bars on Sunday evening, but perhaps that’s a tale best left to the imagination…

The role of conferences in academic research are multiple. They serve as a form of peer review of research methods and findings, presenting an opportunity for conclusions to be tested and questioned and in consequence strengthening research. Conferences also act as a vehicle for the dissemination of research findings to a broader interested public, a function which should not be underrated as it is often much more effective to absorb this information over a few days in a conference than to spend weeks and months reading books or articles on the topic. But this dissemination is also of importance to academics too, as an opportunity to find out what research is being done at other universities where we might not have contacts. Finally, though, this is also a mechanism for networking with colleagues and those in the position to recruit new staff in other institutions, as individuals have an eye to their future career prospects.

I found the conference extremely satisfying as an opportunity to meet people at other institutions who are interested in researching the same topics as myself. Since my research is in a very niche area, there are a very small number of academics across the globe studying the subject and it was fabulous to come together and meet in person for the first time. The career-driven networking, on the other hand, was very intimidating to observe and seemed to add a high level of tension to some social events. Nonetheless, in the current UK academic climate, where UK working conditions and research opportunities are looking fairly bleak in the wake of the Brexit referendum, it is perhaps not surprising that many are looking for fresh pastures.

My superiors will no doubt want to know if this expensive conference (in terms of travel costs) was worth the investment. Despite the long-haul discomfort and the disjointed feeling of culture shock, I would say that the activity was definitely a good one as a means of personal development and potential research improvement. If nothing else, I have returned inspired to write and develop my research in a number of different areas alone as well as with those interesting researchers I have met while away, and that’s no small thing.

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Conferencing in the USA

This post highlights some of the interesting features of attending the Academy of Management Conference in the USA, from a stranger’s perspective. For those who might look to attend these conferences in the future it may serve as a useful guide on what to expect, especially for those who consider themselves outsiders. I have never been to the USA, and in addition I am attending a conference focussed substantially on ‘mainstream’ or orthodox approaches to the study and practice of management which readers of this blog may have noticed is not exactly in line with my approach to management research.

I have found the travelling hard, as I have not only taken three days to adjust to the time zone, but also find that the jet-lag has manifested in physical queasiness and an inability to concentrate for long periods of time (something of a difficulty in a conference!). It doesn’t help, in these circumstances, to be travelling alone. There were some good perks from this though. I did get a complimentary upgrade to business class for part of my flights here as a result of being a solo traveller. Top marks for Delta! Unfortunately I have also been suffering from culture shock, less in terms of the US culture generally, and more in terms of the academic culture. This has led me to reflect on my shift in use of spoken language (I don’t think I have ever used the word ‘awesome’ so much in my life) and body language. Perhaps this will make its way into another post!

It’s now the third day of the conference and the first day of the main program. The conference started with a variety of ‘PDWs’ (that’s professional development workshops). But what counts as academic professional development? Some of these activities are fairly as expected, with events considering best practices for teaching and so on. However as the US teaching model is very different to the UK one, I have found that these have often been of limited use. Other PDW sessions have concentrated on particular research problems, writing development and bringing together people with similar research interests. Personally I have found these much more interesting, though the cynic in me notes these are part of the social bases of research development rather more than they may be about sharing intellectual material. Perhaps once I have contrasted these experiences with those of the main program I will be less of a cynic!

In contrast, the entrepreneurs and innovators whom I have met, including the practitioners and writers who are attending the conference, have been really refreshing. They want to engage with management scholarship, and are very clear on why they are here and the sort of problems they hope academia has the solutions to. Talking with these people helps to ground all this intellectual work in a more pragmatic sense, exposes issues with conventional epistemologies and presents a great sounding board for ideas.

This conference is a very significant one for the academic job market, so there is also a clearly evident and aggressive level of networking going on in some places. There is also information sharing between academics about their institutions and what it is like to work there which is very interesting, especially for critical scholars who are turning that reflective lens inward on the academic world and the production of knowledge.

From today, the main research focus of the conference begins. So there will be a follow up post – watch this space!!

Teresa May wants to abandon human rights, and over 800 years of British history.

In yesterday’s news headlines, one major candidate for leadership of the Conservative Party has claimed that Britain should want to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. This argument has derived from a history of struggles over the rights of prisoners and foreign national extremists. Yet it overlooks the long history of contested relations between the government and the people in this country.

Some analysts have pointed out that the recent referendum more closely addressed an expression of a feeling of lack of control or powerlessness rather than the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty. In this, the events of the past few days reflect an extremely long history of British contention between rulers and ruled which has encompassed much more than the British Islands.

My previous post on the Magna Carta highlights how that 800 year old document marks the shift away from religious to secular law, and specifically challenges the Government (in this case the Crown) to recognise the basic needs of ordinary people, to be able to sustain themselves despite the demands of the Crown to provide funds and soldiers for ongoing and fruitless war with France. Enshrined in this document was the concept that the monarch was not above the rule of law, and subsequently, further movements such as the Chartist movement made the same claims about the governing authority of Parliament, claiming that not only was the monarch not above the law, but neither were those of the House of Lords or House of Commons.

Fast forward several hundred years and persistent war in Europe had spread across the declining Empires of France, Russia and Britain, against those of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. This Great War was only shortly followed by another, as financial penalties enforced on the aggressors were wholeheartedly rejected by a population driven to the far right through austerity.

The parallels with today’s situation in England, Brussels and Greece, in particular, are frightening. The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was an outcome of these Imperial conflicts and an attempt to assert the worth of the individual as something that cannot be overruled by the State. No matter the argument for the ‘greater’ need or purpose of the nation, no individual should be denied life, liberty, due process before the law, freedom of thought, assembly and association. It is this agreement which prohibits police brutality, imprisonment without trial, forced labour and many other terrible instances of state domination of individuals or groups.

In British Law, the ECHR is incorporated into domestic use through the Human Rights Act. Yet in debates over terrorism and illegal migration, there have been numerous attempts to deny these rights to specific individuals. Regardless of the worthiness of these individuals, would you trust current politicians to maintain these rights for you and yours while denying them to someone else? The matter of freedom of expression and association is crucial here, as we enter a time of political upheval and passionate differences over what our future as a nation, in business and civic life, might look like.

This poem, which you may have encountered before, directly addresses these issues of individual rights and the power of the state. Scrutinise those who would strive for power carefully, for we may not like what they do with it.

 

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What makes an organization alternative?

The type of organizations we usually discuss in business management are conventional large corporations, often multinationals or occasionally SMEs, startups and family businesses. However, there is a bit of an embedded assumption which is perpetuated by doing so, that this type of organization and its embedded values is the only legitimate means of acting on the world. A recent response to this type of thinking is the focus on ‘alternative’ organization, where research has tried to highlight the importance of voluntary and co-operative organizations as different ways of addressing a social or market ‘need’, but using structures which embed a different set of priorities or ethics. These organizations are often left out of discussions when students learn about ‘organizational behaviour’, so in a recent lecture on Contemporary Issues in Management, we made a point of ensuring this was featured; not only to stress the importance of different organizational structures, but also to highlight how easily we come to accept the ‘normal’ or most frequently used way of thinking about a problem as the ‘truth’. One example of organization I will discuss below also indicates how easily we can be seduced by the promise of new technology, but that when we look more closely it’s often possible to see that this novelty conceals repetition of existing structures and approaches.

Dr Mangan’s lecture for Keele students provided a few different definitions and examples of ‘alternative’ forms of organization, including the different purposes an organization may have, specifically purposes which are not directly linked to the pursuit of profit. However, many small or entrepreneurial businesses will not always talk about the pursuit of profit as their main aim, but will rather stress their product or service and how important they feel that is to their identified market. Equally, many defenders of the ‘mainstream’ approach to business argue that it is ‘common sense’ that profit is not the main ambition of most businesses, but is nonetheless an important motivator for companies to improve their product or service.

The way we talk about companies and businesses tends to include a lot of fundamental assumptions about their structures and strategies, functions and purposes which we then hold in our minds as a basic model of what ‘an organization’ is like. The assumption that profit is an important ‘reward’ or motivating factor is one of these assumptions, as is the focus on a link between ownership, responsibility and reward. Underlying these debates is a fundamental question about what we (that is, society as a whole) value. Organizations that are ‘alternative’, make a point of valuing more than economic success and trying to explore different ways of organizing themselves in order to promote those values. In order to do so, they often disrupt ‘common sense’ approaches to reward or ownership. Sports organizations, for example, often stress rewards for the work which are not financial, but rather promote status in a community and self-respect through personal achievement. A system of values which is increasingly popular is the democratic system of peer-to-peer service provision, yet not all organizations promoting this are necessarily ‘alternative’.

We can look at publications such as the Harvard Business Review as examples of where certain ‘common sense’ knowledge about business is often presented as ‘truth’. In HBR, there is often talk about ‘value creation’, but usually only in the context of ‘shareholder value’, i.e the pursuit of profit. There is also regular concern over economic growth and productivity. Again, this is not to say these things are unimportant, but they are discussed very differently in less well known and more critical outlets. Compare this article on concerns about the study of economic growth in HBR, with this one, in Aeon. Yet HBR is much more widely read, and has greater impact on the business community, as well as it’s aspirants such as business management students.

So, to return to the question of identifying alternative organizations. Here’s my challenge; is Uber an ‘alternative organization’? I put forward this example because, like many similar companies such as AirBnB, this is considered part of a growing peer-to-peer or ‘sharing economy’ which has emerged in a response to a search for low-cost or sustainable alternatives to traditional business models. Uber is certainly a different sort of company and service which promotes value for customers and has had significant worldwide impact, very quickly. It has been widely reported as a disruptive element in the transportation industry. Uber disrupts conventional models of employment and control, as drivers are self-employed and are not ‘signed up’ to a specific shift pattern, instead working whenever they choose. Yet this is not so different to working for a taxi firm. The rate charged is still set by Uber (using demand algorithms), they take a commission from each driver’s earnings and exert indirect control through the driver rating system. The company relies upon high levels of technology among the population of its users and Uber’s focus is primarily upon the technology as a liberating mechanism for drivers and customers. Yet the benefits seem to accrue primarily to customers, with few advantages for the self-employed driver.

Uber has been discussed in HBR specifically in terms of it’s ‘value creation’ but the concept of value creation focuses on benefits for investors or shareholders, as well as ‘value’ for consumers in the sense of a competitive product, but not necessarily ‘value’ as it is determined by all stakeholders. Uber is a notable case as it’s rapid success challenged not only the market dominance of other providers (notably US yellow cabs and London black cabs), but also their traditional role in and contribution to local tourism. In response, these organizations have released their own competitive phone applications to address consumer value. Debates on the long-term success of any of these organizations continue to focus on how long they can maintain ‘value’ (in the sense of being financially solvent), and whether they can maintain a high speed of innovation. But such debates continue to perpetuate the idea of value as no more than a financial measure of success in the marketplace. It is perhaps more interesting to look at the ways in which transportation services are being provided through alternative forms of organization by groups who genuinely want to reconsider the market model of competition, ownership and reward. In some cases these groups are integrating services such as Uber into worker ownership structures, whereas other services rely on wholly different models such as community car clubs.

In summary then, I would argue that Uber does not ‘fit’ the model of an alternative organization, but that the ways in which some cooperative groups are banding together indicate it is not intrinsic to the technology; rather it is that the values of Uber are too closely in line with ‘business as usual’.

[EDIT – you can find some more excellent thoughts on contemporary issues around corporate approaches to value here and on alternative organization here]

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Work, dirt and stigma

Dirty work is not only that work which is grubby or unpleasant, but also that which carries a stigma. We, as human beings have many rituals of order, from marking different periods of life as spaces apart from each other (such as the transition from child to adult), to keeping the vegetables and meat on separate shelves in the fridge. Certain topics and substances have been identified as having a sort of universal stigma or taboo, in that societies and cultures from many different times and places seem to manage them carefully; notably substances such as blood have this significance. Yet the strange part is that even when people who work with blood and encounter it everyday have been cleaned, sanitised and removed from their place of occupation, they often encounter behaviour based on the persistence of that ‘taint’. This concept is the basis of Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma, which relies upon the idea that we often hold an idea of a person in our heads which is different from the qualities of the person in front of us. For Goffman, this is ‘virtual’ versus ‘actual’ identity and the gap between these two sets of characteristics is stigma.

When we think about work, then, it’s pretty clear that some types of work carry a polluted ‘virtual’ social identity, an identity tainted by association with the substance or status of work. Dr Hamilton has conducted a number of studies on work undertaken with animals, much of which involves contact with ‘dirt’. In her recent study with Professor McCabe, she looks at contemporary meat production, as compared with our expectations set out by the classic studies such as Ackroyd and Crowdy’s study of slaughterhouse workers. She pointed out that even within these industries, there are clear hierarchies, and some work might still be considered ‘dirty’, while other work is carefully distinguished as ‘above’ such pollutants. It is also the case that some workers might be simultaneously repelled and drawn to, dirty work.

This suddenly reminded me of a job I worked in prior to my career as an academic. As a customer account manager for a national company, I worked in a very clean and tidy office complex on an industrial estate. I spent hours on the telephone managing the relationship of the organization with our key customers, trying to ensure that we always met our contractual obligations and kept their business. However, this company was a waste disposal firm which had diversified from office cleaning and sanitary waste, to all kinds of specialist waste regulated by special environmental legislation as well as pest control (a function they had acquired through a corporate takeover). Our employees would visit client’s premises regularly to collect their waste and transport it to our disposal centres, which were distributed at key locations across the country.

This was a particular problem for some of our remote customers based in the rural countryside. For some sites, a waste collection van would have to drive for five hours to make the round-trip to collect the waste. If the building was locked or access by van prevented due to roadworks, the client would often complain to me by phone that the waste had not been removed, and my role was to liaise with the manager of our disposal centre to arrange a staff member to visit the site again. These repeat visits would often involve convincing staff to work unpaid overtime, to travel to sites where the waste might very well be overflowing the containers so visiting these sites could involve a long trip in a pungent van.

This work may well have been stigmatised by it’s contact with pollutants, from bins full of nappies or sanitary towels, through to used needles collected from tattoo parlours, hospitals or rehabilitation centres. But the contact with the ‘dirt’ of the job didn’t change in essence when workers were asked to work overtime – the difference lay in the fact that extra hours often didn’t result in extra pay.

This work was often rejected by employees. The managers of the disposal centres also often rejected the request for secondary visits, so my work largely involved persuasion and cajoling of these workers on the one hand, while also convincing our customers to keep their accounts with us. This work did not involve contact with pollutants, and as such bore little obvious stigma. Yet this work, having contact with the aggressive emotions of customers and the defensive attitudes of managers carries its own ‘taint’ – such emotion work is usually the undervalued preserve of women (see previous post).
This anecdote highlights the sort of hierarchies and distinctions in an organization that focuses on an industry classically ‘tainted’ as dirty work. Can the hierarchy ameliorate the stigma? Do you think that my work as a customer account manager was stigmatised by the industry we worked within? Plenty of food for thought here.

Doing Difference

Gah! Talk about technical hiccups. Sorry readers – for some reason my transfer of posts from the other blog to this one automatically did not go as planned. But the good news is, this means there are many new posts to come! This one is based on a lecture about gender difference given to students on my module Contemporary Issues in Management.


 

We often think about difference as something natural. ‘We’re all different from each other,’ we like to think, ‘everyone is special in some way.’ Yet we rarely think about how collective (and individual) difference is something that is a careful production of regular maintenance work and activity. Women are often more aware of this than men, because there are certain unspoken rules we are explicitly taught by each other about ‘correct’ or ‘good’ appearances – (unintentionally) smudged eyeliner or mascara is a definite faux pas, and not wearing makeup is itself sometimes a political statement.

But this work of emphasising similarity or difference is not only evident in women’s makeup, but also in a wide number of other everyday actions and activities. Standing in a queue quietly, with upright stance and facing forward, for instance, signifies something different to standing in a queue while slouching at an angle and talking to a friend nearby. The second type of behaviour conveys the message; ‘I’m in this queue, but it’s not terribly important to me. I can get along just fine without keeping my place in it or getting to the front as quickly as possible’. The second type of behaviour might be seen as a mark of status, or of aggression and control. It may indicate the person’s confidence of being able to get the item or service they are queuing for by other means, or at another time.

Although a contemporary issue, you might be surprised to find out that the notion of the performance of difference (in studies of gender, at least), was widely popularised in an article by West and Zimmerman (1987) entitled Doing Gender‘. If you follow this link and scroll down you will see the large number of articles this publication influenced, which include a large variety of topics on business and organization as well as sociology in general.

At the time of West and Zimmerman’s (1987) writing, there was already a clear divide in the study of gender which distinguished between ‘natural difference’ or sex, and ‘constructed difference’ or gender. The subtleties of this distinction for the study of gender were hotly debated at the time and continue to be discussed as key principles of the study of gender. West and Zimmerman argued that we can think about gender as a performed accomplishment, an outcome of continuous ongoing work and performance of everyday activities in ways which align with (and reinforce) expectations about ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’. But what happens when some of these characteristics are more valued than others? Or when performing activity in a certain way is a job requirement? Based on research in Manchester, Dr Darren Nixon explored how the huge shift in the UK economy towards service sector work, which often requires subservient (‘feminized’) behaviour, disadvantages working class men looking for work, as throughout their lives they have developed everyday patterns of behaviour based on masculine expectations which are not compatible with this type of work. Having learned to be brash, confident in their skills, aggressively independent and plainspoken, work in department stores and perfume counters simply does not ‘fit’.

This approach is important when you think about how frequently most research is interested only in the business case for diversity in organizations. The ‘business case’ approach often assumes that our identities are fixed by our own decisions, a result of choices freely made throughout our lifetime. What the performative approach emphasises is that many of these decisions might have slipped by unnoticed in our everyday practices of getting by in the workplace and fitting in. As such, small things such as an organizational dress code, or recruitment policies looking for the ‘proper look’ for an organization, neglect to realise that these practices are learned and performed through association with certain communities. It also attempts to rationalise people’s complex lives and connections to each other as the choices of individual ’employment applicants’, thereby justifying ongoing practices of exclusion or even harassment.

When thinking about your own expectations in gendered roles, you might want to consider the sorts of things you might list as measures of ‘appropriate behaviour’ among your own group of friends or acquaintances, and how those expectations might change for people who were work colleagues. Consider what you might consider a challenge to your identity practices. You might find this discussion of ‘policing’ of appropriate behaviour in an American high school informative. Such behaviour in school might influence what sort of further education or training you might be likely to consider a good prospect. You could also consider what occupations you find least attractive, or even distasteful, and why.

 

 

Why is gender a contemporary issue?

[This post accompanies a taught programme for undergraduate students at Keele University]
Some of you may well have noticed the media reports back in November that despite the legislation to equalise pay between men and women which has been part of law in many countries for over 50 years, progress in gender equality as indicated by the pay gap is still limited, not only in the UK, but worldwide. Such media reports focus attention on the persistence of structural inequality, but there are also persistently wide discrepancies in occupation, and in the gender expectations of certain types of work and how it is performed.
Our lecture on MAN 30047 from Dr Deborah Kerfoot emphasised the significance of how we think about difference as something that is performed in our everyday actions. The associated reading also draws on the idea of ‘habitus’, from Bourdieu; the idea that these repeatedly performed attitudes and behaviours become closely inscribed in our identities and in our bodies. Although a contemporary issue, you might be surprised to find out that the notion of the performance of difference (in studies of gender, at least), was widely popularised in an article by West and Zimmerman (1987) entitled Doing Gender‘. If you follow this link and scroll down you will see the large number of articles this publication influenced, which include a large variety of topics on business and organization as well as sociology in general.

This approach is important when you think about how frequently most research is interested only in the business case for diversity in organizations. The ‘business case’ approach often assumes that our identities are fixed by our own decisions, a result of choices freely made throughout our lifetime. What the performative approach emphasises is that many of these decisions might have slipped by unnoticed in our everyday practices of getting by in the workplace and fitting in. As such, small things such as an organizational dress code, or recruitment policies looking for the ‘proper look’ for an organization, neglect to realise that these practices are learned and performed through association with certain communities. It also attempts to rationalise people’s complex lives and connections to each other as the choices of individual ’employment applicants’, thereby justifying ongoing practices of exclusion or even harassment.

These expectations are not only something that affect workers, they are often part of our social experience in education and become a part of how we learn what is appropriate to our identity as we grow and age. An excellent article in The Conversation identifies how we might even experience these expectations as very young children. As such, it wouldn’t be surprising to identify such clear discrepancies between the genders when we get older as ‘natural’; after all, very few people have clear memories of their developing opinions and expectations as a very young child.
This in-built bias is often addressed by attempts to counter it in state-sponsored interventions, such as attempts to increase female participation in education in the STEM subjects. But it is not only women who are disadvantaged. Men are also excluded or discriminated against in particular occupations, even where they can make a genuine claim to merit and, as individuals, work hard to ensure they present themselves ‘in the right way’ (i.e a feminine way). This article on a blog featuring work by members of the American Sociological Association highlights how in some occupations, male workers are simply not tolerated by public expectations around gender performance and ‘natural’ behaviour.

As a student thinking about your own expectations, you might want to consider the sorts of things you might list as measures of ‘appropriate behaviour’ among your own group of friends or acquaintances, and how those expectations might change for people who were work colleagues. Consider what you might consider a challenge to your identity practices. You might find this discussion of ‘policing’ of appropriate behaviour in an American high school informative. Such behaviour in school might influence what sort of further education or training you might be likely to consider a good prospect. Take some time to reflect on this and consider what it might mean in your experience for the tendency for workers to become segregated in different occupations according to gender.

So many outlets, so little time!

…or, why this blog isn’t more regularly updated

Followers of this blog may have been wondering for some time where it’s author has got herself to. In general this is a consequence of writing for other platforms, including academic journals and books, and blogging internally for my students. In order to be more equitable, I have decided to begin simultaneously posting material from my student focussed blog here, for general readers. If you would prefer to see this content on the original site, however, it can be found at http://man30047.blogspot.com

So what is this other blog about?

The MAN 30047 blog is a companion for students studying the module “Contemporary Issues in Management” at Keele University. This module seeks to strengthen student knowledge of management and organisations by emphasising a critical approach to contemporary events. In order to direct everyone’s attention to what happens outside, as well as inside the classroom, the blog serves to encourage students’ active participation with reflections on guest lecture content, links to other source materials and questions for personal reflection. Students have to draw on and reflect upon their experiences of organisations including work and education and share them with the rest of the class. As such, these posts may also be of interest to the general reader.

The taught module relies upon the key text Contemporary Issues in Management, edited by Hamilton, Mitchell and Mangan, published by Edward Elgar. It can be purchased directly from the publisher, or through other booksellers and is available in paperback, hardback and e-book.

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Magna Carta and the achievement of moral equality

It may have skipped your notice that the magna carta is 800 years old today. On the other hand, Google has doodled it, so you may be sick of hearing about it by now. The amazing thing about the Magna Carta (or ‘Great Charter’, ‘huge paper’, ‘big list’) is that its influence is more in terms of its symbolic relevance than its original content.

There is a marvellous exhibition of the history and impact of the Magna Carta currently at the British Library, and if you get a chance to look at it you will find that many of the provisions laid down in the Magna Carta were very quickly reverted, changed, addressed in a different charter or fundamentally ignored. Yet the symbolic nature of the Magna Carta lies in its existence as evidence of an agreement between unequal parties, as a contract between ruler and ruled.

At Runnymede in June 1215, the then monarch of England, King John (yes, that King John! The one previously at odds with a certain be-stockinged outlaw based in Nottinghamshire) was in a difficult spot. The many wars between his brothers and father had contributed to his loss of England’s lands in Northern France, and Richard’s involvement in the Third Crusade had drained the coffers of the Treasury which were further depleted by John’s attempts to reclaim lands in France. The ‘taxpayer’, that is, the English barons (particularly in the North), were not particularly pleased with John’s failures and his constant demands for money. Neither did he have the support of the church, having fallen out with the Pope some years previously and had barely returned to his good graces when the English barons marched on London.  The conditions of the Magna Carta were forced upon John, who promptly ignored them, perpetuating civil war in England until his death (probably from dysentry) in 1216.

Now, I’m not a historian, so why is this contextual idiosyncracy around the rule of a despotic monarch of interest? The Magna Carta is held as a precious moment in history by the Law profession, as it symbolises a key moment when the highest secular power (the monarch) is held to account by (secular) law. This raising of the importance of the secular law is perhaps why the Magna Carta was immediately challenged by the Church. The very principle of the administration of justice in this world rather than in an afterlife is encoded in the document.

The actual contents of the original document, however, were subject to substantial revisions with few unaltered articles remaining in the revised versions and the most substantial effects at the time pertained to rights of common people to the access and use of Royal Forest land to gather firewood and pasture animals. The majority of these rights were protected in a later separate charter (the Forest Charter) by Henry III.

However, the majority of discussions on the impact of the Magna Carta refer to the principles of government rather than those of land use and ownership. Social reform movements appropriated the symbol of the Magna Carta to challenge the authority of Imperial rulers (hence the significance of the Magna Carta in the USA), as well as the legitimacy of the rule of the propertied classes. The Magna Carta is therefore identified as influential in the suffragete movement, the civil rights movement and the human rights movement. And so it is the symbolic nature of the event, rather than the sealed vellum parchment, which highlights the Magna Carta as the start of a recognition of universal moral equality.

Nonetheless, it is important to reconsider the content of the original and revised charters. For while the principles of moral equality are enshrined in contemporary legal documents such as the Declaration of Human Rights, these documents focus primarily on civil liberties, the right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. The later articles are rarely discussed, such as the right to desirable work and an adequate living standard. In the original concerns of the Magna Carta, even the privileged English barons challenge the authority of an absent monarch to determine that people be unable to heat their homes or feed their families. Moral equality is more than an abstract principle, and considering the vast inequalities growing in our contemporary societies, the Magna Carta is perhaps a better touchstone than some for reconsidering how that ought to be implemented today.

The exhibition on the Magna Carta in the British Library continues until 1st September 2015

The British Library website also has loads of amazing information about the charter