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Anselm Strauss: Society as negotiated order

Anselm Strauss in Psychiatric Ideologies has crystallized the concept of the organization of society and its component parts with their concept of a negotiated order. The concept ‘negotiated order’ emphasizes the fact that society is continuously organizing. It is not the case that an organization is established and then proceeds to operate in unvarying way. Rather society is continuously being organized and reorganized. Those who live within them are constantly working at the arrangements; they are constantly being arranged, modified, rearranged, sustained, defended and undermined. The members of society are constantly involved in a process of negotiation with one another as they make agreements on how they will conduct themselves and as they affirm, revise and replace these agreements over the passage of time.

The concept of a negotiated order was specifically devised to cope with explaining the nature of the division of labor in psychiatric hospitals. It was expected that these organizations to have a well defined, clear and stable division of both labor and authority for those who operate within them. This expectation however was not realized in those organizations studied by Strauss and his colleagues .The situation was fluid and constantly changing; lines of alliance, responsibility and specialty were continually revised and modified and quite different balances in different parts of the same hospital at any given time or in the same parts of the hospital at different times were reached. 

 Strauss discuss these perspectives:

The fact that within any given group there is no firm consensus as to the proper organization of affairs. There are many different schools of psychiatry and members of those different schools will have quite different understandings about for example the respective responsibilities, rights and obligations of therapists and patients.

Between groups there is no consensus. Between psychiatric and nursing staff there are often likely to be for example different conceptions of the ways in which patients should be nursed and their medical regime organized. The psychiatric staff will have one set of views on how the nursing staff should do their jobs and the nursing staff though not medically trained will develop another set of views about the propriety, effectiveness and practicability of various forms of medical treatment.

Even the weak have power. Although the psychiatric staff may be thought of as being at the top of the hierarchy of authority within the hospital, they are not in a position to assert their expectations, preferences and policies over other groupings. The weaker groups such as nursing staff or patients are not completely without power over their formal superiors. It is the nursing staff who have to care for the day today operation of the wards and administer to patients the detailed regimes prescribed by the psychiatric staff. If their cooperation with the psychiatric staff is reluctant they can make life difficult indeed for their superiors. 

It is important to recognize and understand the concept of negotiation. Strauss is not by any means implying that people are all the time engaged in the explicit negotiation of their relative positions; they are not openly making deals or writing out agreements. They are involved in the kind of implicit, unspoken, mutual adjustment of action, feeling, attitude, interest and understanding that Strauss proposes as though it were a process of negotiation and bargaining.