Co-option

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Co-option (also co-optation, sometimes spelled coöption or coöptation) has two common meanings. It may refer to the process of adding members to an elected or appointed group at the discretion of members of the body, usually to manage opposition and so maintain the stability of the group. Outsiders are ‘co-opted’ by being given formal or informal power on the grounds of their élite status, specialist knowledge, or potential ability to threaten essential commitments or goals ("formal co-optation").[1]

In a classic 1979 article for Harvard Business Review, consultants John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger presented co-optation as a "form of manipulation" for dealing with employees who are resistant to new management programs:

Co-opting an individual usually involves giving him or her a desirable role in the design or implementation of the change. Co-opting a group involves giving one of its leaders, or someone it respects, a key role in the design or implementation of a change. This is not a form of participation, however, because the initiators do not want the advice of the co-opted, merely his or her endorsement.[2]

Co-optation also refers to the process by which a group subsumes or acculturates a smaller or weaker group with related interests; or, similarly, the process by which one group gains converts from another group by attempting to replicate the aspects that they find appealing without adopting the full program or ideal ("informal co-optation"). Co-optation is associated with the cultural tactic of recuperation, and is often understood to be synonymous with it.[3]

First sense[edit]

Reasons for use[edit]

Two common uses of co-option are firstly, to recruit members who have specific skills or abilities needed by the group which are not available among existing members. Secondly, to fill vacancies which could not be filled by the usual process (normally election), e.g. if suitable candidates appear subsequently. Co-opted members may or may not have the same rights as the elected members of a group (such as the right to vote on motions), depending on the rules of the group.

Limitations on use[edit]

If a group is elected or appointed based on its members representing specific constituencies, co-option to fill vacancies is inappropriate, as a member selected by existing members will not necessarily represent the interests of the group represented by the vacating member. In this case, vacancies may be filled via a mechanism specified in its rules, such as a by-election. Examples are:

Nomenclature[edit]

Sociologist Philip Selznick, in the context of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), described this form as "formal co-optation" (he used the term "cooptation").[4]

Second sense[edit]

This is arguably a derivation from the first sense. The outcome of such co-option will be specific to the individual case, and will depend on the relative strength of the co-opting and co-opted groups, the degree of alignment of their interests and the vigour with which their members are prepared to pursue those interests. For example, if a group concerned with the welfare of horses co-opted a group concerned with the welfare of mules, the resulting group might change its name, its publicity, or its methods of addressing cases of abuse; it might extend its operations to the welfare of donkeys or wild equines; etc.

Selznick, again in the context of the Tennessee Valley Authority, [4] described this form as "informal co-optation", although the process he describes is almost indistinguishable from the corrupt sale of political influence.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Co-optation" Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press 1998.
  2. ^ John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger, "Choosing Strategies for Change" Harvard Business Review
  3. ^ Kurczynski, Karen Expression as vandalism: Asger Jorn's "Modifications", in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics No. 53/54 (Spring - Autumn, 2008), pp.295-6. Quotation:

    the process by which those who control the spectacular culture, embodied most obviously in the mass media, co-opt all revolutionary ideas by publicizing a neutralized version of them, literally turning oppositional tactics into ideology. [] The SI {Situationist International} identified the threat of revolutionary tactics being absorbed and defused as reformist elements. [] The SI pinpointed the increasingly evident problem of capitalist institutions subverting the terms of oppositional movements for their own uses [] recuperation operated on all fronts: in advertising, in academics, in public political discourse, in the marginal discourses of leftist factions, and so on.

  4. ^ a b Selznick, Philip (1949). TVA and the Grass Roots: a Study in the Sociology of Formal Organization. Berkeley: University of California Press. OCLC 2293803. 

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