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Flexibility, epistemology and the rhetoric of new work
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
University of Oslo/Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Cybernetics and Human Knowing 12 (1): 50–60.
Flexibility is to specialization as entropy is to negentropy
(Bateson, Steps, p. 505)
The term flexibility has become a major catchword in the new economy.
Flexible work and flexible organisation, moreover, are marked, and marketed,
as good innovations. They connote openness to change and a
willingness to do things differently as opposed to the rigid formality
associated with the old economy, and seem to entail a great
degree of freedom and choice on the part of the employee. Creativity is
good; routine is bad.
However, there is also another story to be told about flexibility. As
has been argued by Castells (1996), Sennett (1998), Bauman (2000) and
many other contemporary social theorists, the restructuring of capitalism
entails a new kind of relationship between persons and their work. In
many cases, the employee may no longer be expected to be on time, but
s/he should at least be online. The term flexibility is often used to
describe this new situation. Jobs are flexible in the sense that they
are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many
years, the content of jobs can be changed almost overnight, and the boundaries
between work and leisure are negotiable and chronically fuzzy. In his
book about the psychological consequences of the new, unstable work regimes,
Sennett (1998) argues, moreover, that flexible work leads to a fragmentation
of the person. His informants typically complain about the lack of linear
narrative in their lives; they move from task to task, from job to job
and in some cases from house to house, without ever feeling that what
they do has cumulative results and can be fitted into an overarching,
linear narrative about their lives.
I propose to do two things: To present the theoretical concept of flexibility
as it was originally sketched by Gregory Bateson and show its untapped
analytic potential, and to discuss whether or not the new flexibility
in the working place can be said to increase flexibility in a theoretical
As an analytical term, flexibility is rarely used in the social sciences,
and most anthropologists are, if anything at all, likely to associate
it with Batesons late work on ecology. In Ecology and Flexibility
in Urban Civilization (Bateson 1972a), Bateson defined flexibility
as uncommitted potential for change (ibid.: 497). The
context for his usage of the word was the emerging environmental degradation
which first attracted widespread attention in the early 1970s. Bateson
argued that increased energy use entails a loss of flexibility in the
sense that it shrinks the opportunity space. In a society which is built
around the daily use of the car, for example, it is difficult to revert
to slower and less energy-intensive means of transportation. More fundamentally,
his view was that the flexibility used (and used up) by growing populations
harnessing much of the available energy for their own purposes, reduced
the flexibility of the environment.
Bateson describes a healthy system, flexibility-wise, by drawing an analogy
with an acrobat on a high-wire.
To maintain the ongoing truth of his basic premise (I am on
the wire), he must be free to move from one position of instability
to another, i.e., certain variables such as the position of his arms and
the rate of movement of his arms must have great flexibility, which he
uses to maintain the stability of other more fundamental and general characteristics.
Maintaining flexibility in the system as a whole, Bateson adds,, depends
upon keeping many of its variables in the middle of their tolerable limits
(ibid., p. 502). In order to use the term accurately, it is thus
necessary to specify the parameters limiting the upper and lower threshold
values, and also to demonstrate the significance of wider systemic connectedness
which affects, and is affected by, flexibility in the realm under investigation.
Although the word is used surprisingly rarely in academic work, ideas
of flexibility which are compatible with, and largely true to, Batesons
concise definition are widespread and important in many areas of intellectual
exploration. Let us briefly consider some examples.
Flexibility and rigidity
In cognitive theory, a major theoretical issue concerns the way in which
knowledge is being selected, sifted and organised. In a book offering
a critical overview of the state of the art in the field, Nørretranders,
in The User Illusion (1999), distinguishes between information
and exformation, the latter being potential information that is consciously
or unconsciously selected away or filtered out. Sperber and Wilsons
(1986) notion of relevance, largely informed by linguistics and
Darwinian selectionism, is a kindred concept. While the dynamics of information
exchange and knowledge development are not random, they are also far from
predictable. There is much, much more potential knowledge present in our
surroundings, in our brains and in our bodies than that which is being
used. The uncommitted potential for change is very considerable.
In one of the late-20th centuries controversies about natural selection,
Gould and Vrba (1981, see also Gould 2002) introduced the term exaptation
to denote phenotypical features whose functioning had undergone change
due to changes in the wider system. These structures were, in other words,
flexible and responded, like the acrobat on the high-wire, to changing
parameters in their surroundings.
In another debate about natural selection, Rose (1996) and others have
argued that there cannot be a simple relationship between DNA and the
organism, between genotype and phenotype, since there are important phenotypical
effects arising from the interaction between hereditary material and its
surroundings. Already at the level of cell chemistry, this kind of flexibility
in hereditary material is evident. For one thing, it is well known that
there are common characteristics in humans that are inborn but not genetic,
which are caused partly by the mothers diet during pregnancy.
A third debate relating to neo-Darwinian theory concerns memetics, or
the view that ideas spread and replicate themselves in a manner
analogous to the replication of genes. In a recent edited book about memetics
(Aunger 2000), several anthropologists Sperber (2000), Bloch (2000)
and Kuper (2000) voice their objections to this, in their view,
simplistic view of cultural transmission (see also Ingold 2001). Their
main argument, which has also been developed at great length by Sperber
elsewhere (Sperber 1996), is that contextual factors which could be described
as noise, redundancy, distortion and recontextualisation tends to modify
even simple, apparently straightforward concepts when they are transferred
between individuals. In other words, the memes are malleable
and flexible by virtue of their embeddedness in complex, largely unpredictable
In research on identity politics, similarly, many have shown how rule-bound
adherence to tightly closed bodies of cultural norms and conventions are
practically incompatible with life in culturally complex societies. As
Bauman once put it: If the modern problem of identity
is how to construct an identity and keep it solid and stable, the postmodern
problem of identity is primarily how to avoid fixation and
keep the options open (Bauman 1996, p. 18).
In sociological and anthropological studies of technology and science,
moreover, a main research strategy consists in looking at the unintentional
side-effects of technological change in other words, a kind of
flexibility that could not conceivably have been intended by the initiators
of the changes. Technologies are generally much more flexible than their
inventors have imagined, simply because users are more varied and complex
than the technologies themselves.
Such studies also often illustrate one of Batesons most important
points regarding flexibility, namely that there is a tendency that increased
flexibility in some areas leads to reduced flexibility in others. In line
with this view, it could be argued that Gutenbergs fateful invention
led to enhanced flexibility in the transmission of information, but to
a loss of flexibility in linguistic variation (standardisation of dialects)
and in locally embedded world-views (knowledge was frozen and externalised).
Similarly, the car made people living in the suburbs spatially more flexible,
but less flexible locally. The car pulled them out of the local milieu
and deprived them of some of the moral ties that could have been drawn
upon in their relationship to their neighbours. The telephone had similar
At an even more general level, it is often said that even a perfect knowledge
of the norms and values in a given society does not enable us to predict
how people will act. This is not necessarily because the norms themselves
are flexible, but because the contexts of action necessitate their interpretation;
in order to be useful, of course, norms must be interpreted.
Many of the issues relating to flexibility can be translated, remaining
with the Batesonian spirit, as map/territory or menu/food issues. In other
words, there is a variable and indeterminate relationship between model
and reality. Simplistic genetic determinism or adaptationism in biology,
or structural-functional determinism in classic social anthropology, or
even cultural determinism in cultural anthropology, fail to grasp the
grey zones of indeterminacy and variability, and they do so in ways which
are actually quite closely related. To take an example from current public
debate in Europe and North America: After 11 September 2001, some well-intentioned
commentators argued that in order to understand the Muslim world, one
should begin by reading the Koran. Naturally, such an endeavour would
teach us little that is useful about Muslims. Not only is the Koran only
a map or a menu; it is also a map/menu which is known only patchily by
most of its adherents, the vast majority of whom have a skecthy or non-existent
knowledge of Arabic.
Of course, the fact that there is indeterminacy, improvisation and ambiguity
in social life is far from unfamiliar in anthropology; it has been explicitly
recognised by, among others, Gluckman (1964), Bourdieu (1977) and many
others, including even the card-carrying materialist determinist Marvin
Harris in a paper about the relationship between norms and behaviour (1975).
Earlier still, Firth (1951) introduced the concept of social organisation,
distinguishing it from social structure in the manner that we might distinguish
parole from langue or territory from map. However, if we
follow Bateson, we may instead of throwing our hands up in despair
over the loss of precision entailed by growing complexity try to
find out if it might not be possible to describe and come to terms with
forms of flexibility accurately.
Some of Batesons original examples of flexibility lend themselves
easily enough to accurate descriptions; he draws chiefly on grand cultural
history of the big ditch kind. Essentially, he argues that
simpler technology and less intensive exploitation of the natural environment
entails greater flexibility since most of the potential for change has
not been used up. A more recent example, too recent for Bateson to have
taken into account, is the Green Revolution in India from the 1970s onwards,
which entailed the introduction of new cereal strains to enhance productivity.
With hindsight, it appears that the green revolution reduced flexibility
in two ways: it led to a reduction of genetic variation in the ceral strains,
and to a reduced flexibility regarding population size since the Indian
population was stabilised at a higher level than before, making it impossible
to revert to the earlier cereal strains without risking major famines.
Even if the new cereals should be shown to be environmentally harmful
in the longer run (which some critics have argued), the change was irreversible
and led to reduced flexibility.
However, Bateson did recognise that unspecified and unacknowledged potential
for change is useless, in other words that increased complexity
in knowledge itself implies flexibility. There can thus be no unambiguous,
objective definition of flexibility, and moreover, the parameters defining
the range of options can also be changed. Just as it does not make sense
to talk about evolution of a single species independently of the wider
ecosystem, the term flexibility can only be meaningful on the background
of a description of the context.
Narrow parameters always suggest vulnerability. In animal species, a narrow
genetic range tends to be associated with vulnerability, specialisation
and poor adaptability to environmental changes. One current example is
the cheetah population in East Africa and elsewhere. The cheetah is highly
specialised and displays little internal genetic variation (OBrien
et al. 1985), and some biologists have argued that the species was on
the verge of extinction around 10,000 years ago. As a result, it is adapted
to a single biotope (dry savanna) and vulnerable to disease. Furthermore,
criticism of current attempts at artificial selection among humans (through
new reproductive technologies) point in the same direction, warning against
the unintended consequences of a planned reduction in intraspecies genetic
variation. Similarly, the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe points
out, in his lamentably untranslated, major treatise on tragedy from 1943
(Zapffe 1984 ), that the human hand, with its opposable thumb, displays
a remarkable lack of fixity, or flexibility as I would put it: Unlike
a claw or paw, it is not obvious what it should be used for. The uncommitted
potential for change is considerable.
As mentioned, Bateson suggests that growing flexibility in one field tends
to lead to the loss of flexibility in another. However, the model does
not necessarily result in a zero-sum game: in some cases, conditions of
matching flexibility are achieved, that is to say complex
systems where a desired level of flexibility is maintained in both, or
all, of the relevant interacting systems. When there is no attention to
matching flexibility, the relationship between systems, or subsystems,
becomes skewed. His main example is the relationship between civilization
and environment, as he puts it. Civilization becomes ever more flexible
in terms of cultural production, individual choice etc, and as a result,
the cultureenvironment relationship loses flexibility because of
increased dependency on massive exploitation of available energy and other
In order to appreciate this view of flexibility, it is necessary to think
in terms of cybernetic systems with governors and threshold levels (upper
and lower): under stress, the system is pressed towards one of its limits
which consequently, if unchecked, leads to system collapse. Loss of flexibility
may entail changes in tolerance limits (new ways of exploiting nature
etc.), which could in turn deepen the more fundamental flexibility deficit.
Batesons general policy advice is Aristotelian: keep activities/systemic
features within the middle range you can always do less of it,
and you can always do more of it however, he does not even begin
to indicate how to justify changes in tolerance limits which is, of course,
a crucial issue in planning and politics since one mans flexibility
can be another mans straitjacket.
Sometimes, deliberate reduction of flexibility in one respect stimulates
flexibility in another. In the realm of word processing, it may appear
that Microsoft Word, a huge, bloated package including multi-language
dictionaries, a bewildering array of formatting options, graphics editors,
irritating automatic functions which are almost impossible to turn off
as well as numerous other features, offers an enormous extent of flexibility
among the users. This is not necessarily the case in practice: flexibility
gained in one area may be parasitical on flexibility in another. Many
Word users have, during the last two decades, spent much of their creative
energy simply trying to come to terms with the software (Eriksen 2002),
thereby being effectively deflected from their work. By contrast, Unix-based
word processors such as TeX (LaTex) and LyX give the user little choice
in formatting. For example, they do not allow footnotes in headings, more
than one space between words or more than one line between heading and
text. For advanced page layout, dedicated software is recommended. As
a result of the reduced flexibility in the realm of formatting, increased
flexibility may well obtain with respect to the content of whatever it
is that the user is writing.
In the realm of poetry, the sonnet and the haiku are arguably the most
perfect forms. The former imposes a strict set of structural rules forcing
the poet to exercise creativity within delineated boundaries, while the
latter imposes similar constraints regarding length: If you cannot say
it in seventeen syllables, dont. (It remains to be seen, but compact,
accurate, haiku-like communication may be one of many unintended consequences
of the constraint on length imposed by the SMS technology.)
As I write this paragraph in December 2004, I am distracted by two visual
impressions: A poster depicting a solemn John Coltrane at the time of
the recording of Blue Train, and the leaden skies outside my window.
Now, Coltrane, a pioneer in jazz improvisation, was aware of the importance
of constraints for the exercise of flexibility. Unlike the free improvisers
who succeeded him, he kept a few sets of variables relatively constant,
chiefly the rhythm and the melody line. The melody was always repeated
immediately after his lenghty forays into improvisation. Freedom needs
a ceiling and a floor.
Why do things have outlines [in paintings], the semi-fictional
seven-year old Mary Catherine Bateson asks her father in the eponymously
titled metalogue (Bateson 1972b). Because, her father answers in many
different ways, with and without the help of William Blake, boundaries
The dark clouds, driven across the Atlantic by unusually strong winds
and heavy with rain, are untypical of Oslo in the week before Christmas.
Normal mid-December temperatures are several degrees below freezing, and
strong winds are rare in this sheltered part of Scandinavia. If the mild
weather continues, Im going to have to mow my lawn in January. Global
climate change is clearly occurring now, and it has in all likelihood
been triggered by human activity. The increased flexibility of movement
resulting from the usage of non-renewable energy sources seems to reduced
the ability of the biosphere to maintain a relatively stable (or slowly
changing) global climate. It has become much more flexible in a few domains
and less flexible as a total system.
Flexibility and new work
It is now time to turn to my main example, discussing how Batesons
systemic view of flexibility relates to the term flexibility as it is
being used in the new economy of cellphones, laptops, waiting
lounges and e-mails. The term flexibility is often used to describe this
new situation: Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and
uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content
of jobs can be changed, and the boundaries between work and leisure are
poorly defined. Summing up the dominant, current views of these concepts,
Webb (2004: 721) explains:
Flexibility is, at least in theory, multi-dimensional, covering employment
contracts, skills, management and information systems, business strategies,
and organization structures. Networks are regarded as the means of enhancing
flexibility because they are seen as fluid, permeable, infinitely expandable
Batesons pivotal ideas about flexibility that should be considered
in a critical examination of the role of flexibility in new work:
(i) Flexibility is uncommitted potential or elbow room, and
(ii) flexibility gains in one area tend to imply flexibility loss in another.
As Sennett (1998) showed in his pioneering book about the human consequences
of new work, people seem to become less flexible by becoming
more flexible. Sennett begins his book like this:
Today the phrase flexible capitalism describes a system which
is more than a permutation on an old theme. The emphasis is on flexibility.
Rigid forms of bureaucracy are under attack, as are the evils of blind
routine. Workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short
notice, to take risks continually, to become ever less dependent on regulations
and formal procedures. (Sennett 1998: 9)
The tone suggests that flexibility is not necessarily a good thing. Sennett
intimates that employees in the new economy are deprived of
stability, safety, security and predictability. However, he does not say
that they have become less flexible; on the contrary, he sees flexibility
as the enemy. In this he draws on the emic (native) delineation of flexibility
rather than using a more analytic definition of the term. Using Batesons
definition, we may ask: Where does the increased, uncommitted potential
for change occur in the contemporary business usage of the word flexibility?
It appears that the increase in flexibility takes place in the employees
use of space and in his short-term commitments. In the long term, flexibility
evaporates altogether, since the time horizon typical of new work is extremely
short. The trade-off in this kind of flexibility budget, thus, appears
to consist in a swapping of the short-term with the long-term, or freedom
with security, or even space with time: New work, I would like to argue,
enhances flexibility regarding space but accordingly reduces it with respect
Take the VCR (more recently the DVD), as an alternative to the cinema.
Many would say, if asked why they prefer to watch films on television
rather than in the cinema, that it makes them more flexible since it enables
them to see the film whenever they want. If the parameters defining limits
of flexibility pertain to space and time, this assumption must be misguided.
If one fills two hours of the evening watching a film, filling a gap which
may manifest itself between the childrens bedtime and ones
own, one effectively reduces ones uncommitted potential for
change. Instead of doing anything or nothing in this precious time
of the evening, one narrows down the options to zero by filling the period
with media consumption. However, the video indisputably increases spatial
flexibility, since it enables us to watch films anywhere. As my colleague
Tian Sørhaug once put it, in an assessment of the consequences
of new work: You may no longer have to be on time, as long as youre
One recent innovation typically associated with flexibility is the home
office. In Scandinavia (and some other prosperous, technologically optimistic
regions), many companies equipped some of their employees with home computers
with online access to the company network in the early 1990s, in order
to enhance their flexibility. This was intended to enable employees to
work from home part of the time, thereby making the era when office workers
were chained to the office desk all day obsolete. In the early days, there
were widespread worries among employers to the effect that a main outcome
of this new flexibility would consist in a reduction of productivity.
Since there was no legitimate way of checking how the staff actually spent
their time out of the office, it was often suspected that they worked
less from home than they were supposed to. If this were in fact the case,
working from home would have led to a real increase in the flexibility
of time budgeting. However, work researchers eventually came up with a
different picture. By the late 1990s, hardly anybody spoke of the home
office as a convenient way of escaping from work; rather, the concern
among unionists as well as researchers was now that increasing numbers
of employees were at pains to distinguish between working hours and leisure
time, and were suffering symptoms of burnout and depression. The home
office made it difficult to distinguish between contexts that were formerly
mutually exclusive because of different physical locations.
The blurring of the boundary between work and leisure can be seen as a
result of increased spatial flexibility for office workers. In addition
to the home office, laptop computers, cellphones and increasingly
their merger through the advent of wireless Internet access, are
in some quarters hailed as liberating innovations enabling people to work
any time, anywhere.
Consider the following examples.
Some time ago, I urgently needed an electronic form to be filled in and
submitted to the powers that be, that is, in this case, the central administration
of the University of Oslo. It was well beyond the deadline, but the only
person who had the correct version of the form on her computer was on
sick leave. I asked other members of the administrative staff whether
someone perhaps knew her password or even had a copy of the form on their
own computer, but alas only one known copy existed. Finally, one
of her colleagues said, But surely you can send her an e-mail?
I responded, sheepishly, But shes at home with the flu, right?
He said, Well, yes, but dont you worry, naturally she responds
to e-mail! I shouldnt have done it, but I did: I sent her
an e-mail, and a couple of hours later I got the form. It saved my day,
but it also made me reflect on the working conditions that impel people
on legitimate leave to get out of bed, put on their dressing-gown and
slippers, turn on their computer and respond to e-mail. Of course, had
she not done it, the workload would have accumulated while she was away.
In the era of the e-mail, it does not matter whether or not people are
in their office. They can be reached anyway. In a sense, they are always
in their office. The tyranny of the e-mail is an integral part of the
24-hour society and illustrates a form of spatial flexibility which makes
people much less flexible regarding time.
Talking to an executive at a large communications company in Norway, I
was told that at their new location, they would only have office space
for 60 per cent of the employees. This would save the corporation a lot
of money, but the solution was marketed internally as an exciting innovation.
Nobody would have their own desk, but were free to work wherever
they pleased. Working from home, from the airport train or from a cottage
in the mountains, would now be unproblematic and morally perfectly justifiable,
the executive proudly told me. Speaking to other employees, I got this
view confirmed, but many saw problems as well. Some were concerned about
the lack of privacy entailed by the new office arrangement; one could
no longer make confidential phone calls from the desk, and would have
to wander far away to have a meeting under four eyes. Others felt homeless
in an environment where they couldnt even pin a picture of their
children on the wall. One said that as a consequence of this deterritorialisation
of the working space, they would in practice have to be online and with
their cellphones turned on most of the time. It would from now on be unthinkable,
he added, to go away for the weekend without bringing the mobile and the
In the old days, that is at least until the mid-1990s, weekends were considered
sacred in Norwegian working culture. Hundreds of thousands migrated to
their cottages or country houses on Friday afternoons, and a main benefit
of going out of town would consist in their being completely out of touch
with the outside world for a few days. This is increasingly becoming illegitimate.
Nowadays, it is far from rare to see Scandinavian tourists on beaches
in the Canary Islands talking in animated voices with colleagues at work
on their cellphones.
A few years ago, a lawyer interviewed by BBC World said that his firm
was investigating the possibilities of passing a law protecting employees
against being contacted by their bosses outside of working hours. In the
old days, people could feel safe on the tube, in the pub and a number
of other locations indeed, not so many years ago, even phoning
people at home was considered an intrusion into domestic life which should
be avoided unless something urgent had come up. According to the lawyer,
many employees now feel harassed by the feeling that they are never truly
off work. Whenever and wherever the phone rings, it could be someone from
work. The law is not likely to be passed, but it is significant that this
kind of issue is now suddenly on the agenda.
Another issue, which might deserve an essay of its own at a later stage,
is the interesting possibility that mobile and flexible work may not even
enhance productivity. A Danish advertising firm has actually denied its
employees access to the Internet, including e-mail, for the duration of
the core working hours, because e-mail makes people very efficient at
doing one thing, namely handling e-mail, which effectively prevents them
from doing their work.
My point is a simple one: The new, flexible job arrangements based on
mobile telecommunications and computers, have led to a real gain in flexibility
regarding space: People can be anywhere and do their job. However, as
Bateson might have predicted, there has been a concomitant loss of flexibility
regarding time, since the omnipresent communications technology tends
to fill all available gaps. I have written about this at some length in
my book Tyranny of the Moment (2001), arguing also that in information
society, the intensified competition for the attention of others implies
the packaging of information in ever smaller packages, in order to make
it fit the increasingly tiny gaps in the time budgets of the audiences.
There seems to be a classic Batesonian flexibility trade-off associated
with the new information technologies: increased spatial flexibility entails
decreased temporal flexibility. If inaccessibility and empty time
are understood as scarce resources, the context of new work
thus seems to be an appropriate context for a new economics as well. In
fact, a main environmental challenge of our near future will consist in
protecting slow time and gaps from environmental degradation. And not
only that: Linear time as such is under threat. The late Neil Postman
noted, in one of his last books (Postman 1996), that his students no longer
used the term because. They were exceedingly clever at stacking
sophisticated ideas on top of each other, but did not even try to link
them together in causal, temporal chains. The there and then is sacrificed
for the here and now. Increased spatial flexibility leads to a pollution
For when something happens all the time, nothing in fact happens. All
the gaps are filled. That, in effect, is why it is that it is only when
nothing in particular happens that anything could happen. And this is
what Bateson was trying to tell us.
Acknowledgments. I am grateful to Fred Steier for his very creative
and valuable suggestions on the first draft.
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