Significant Nothingness: Indeterminate modeling in complex international organizations

E.N.W. Zoet

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 2 (Research NOT UU / Graduation UU)


In the management or, more broadly, governance of organizations, what principles and assumptions govern the approach to governance? In the context of the continuing professionalization of managerial and leadership practice, scholars and practitioners alike develop and employ models that, on the one hand, make practices of governance “manageable” or graspable, yet on the other hand project a tendency toward managerialism and promote commodification and over-simplification of complex organizational and broader cultural dynamics.
Reification, entitizing, reduction and linear deterministic modeling become problematic at the edge of chaos, in (cross-cultural) complex social systems. What happens when we pursue an understanding of, and interaction with, cross-cultural and socially complex organizational phenomena in a way that radically avoids reification and seeks to respect and preserve the social complexity of those situations? A close collateral question is, how can we do this? Is it possible to find a “sign” or semiotic model that can function as trigger point for creativity, innovation, adaptation in complex organizations and that preserves the multivocal, polysemic and emergent chaotic of such social systems, without completely surrendering any notion of management or governance?
Following Roland Barthes’ lead in semiotic analysis, the thesis is an ethnographic exploration of culture and organization. The focus falls on the mu signifier (nothingness in Eastern traditions of thought), explored ethnographically and evaluated as alternative signifier in organization. Such exploration (of the non-dualistic, self-emptying sign for emptiness) cannot but visit a reflection on aporiae in Western semiotics, and on dominant views on culture and organizing, with lingering epistemological and ontological questions to boot.
Rather than the binary definition of a hypothesis or research question, this dissertation explores mu as an interesting semiotic (humanist philosophical) concept with potential positive agency, as a symbol in modeling governance toward a space of openness for the polysemic, a tolerance of ambiguity, a recognition of the need for space for creating, co-creating, innovating and adapting. Whereas (semiotic) negation and emptiness may be experienced as meaning-reducing, confusing or (identity) denying, there are situations where it can be empowering, creating opening, and enabling authenticity.
Phenomenological exploration in the subsequent case studies bears out some of the issues that occur. The cases happen to be related to Japan, but the thesis is not about Japan. Put most simply, the thesis contributes to the European debate on semiotics (the world of signifiers) as organizing principles.
The cases are explored ethnographically and semiotically, to reveal “real life” dynamics between signifier and signified. While not all cases represent positive appearances of mu, the thesis asserts the validity and usefulness of this alternative, and it explores the ontological and epistemological implications of the application of mu (as mu is fundamental to a non-dualistic view on being and knowing).
The dissertation includes substantial attention to (inter)textual and performative (writing) issues that arise from exploring or employing a signifier that challenges several dualist assumptions: Subject-Object, Being-Knowing, sensible-intelligible, poetic voice—(academic) prose, and related implications such as the role of the researcher, reflective writing aspects, and control vs creativity.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Letiche, H., Primary supervisor, External person
  • Hosking, D.M., Supervisor
Award date5 Oct 2018
Print ISBNs978-1721587964
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Nothingness
  • Complexity
  • Organizational Ethnography
  • Ambiguity
  • Polysemy
  • Barthes
  • Eastern Philosophy
  • Performativity
  • non-dualism


Dive into the research topics of 'Significant Nothingness: Indeterminate modeling in complex international organizations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this