Shape-Shifting Capital

Spiritual Management, Critical Theory, and the Ethnographic Project

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George González
  • London, UK: 
    Lexington Books
    , May
     412 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


George González utilizes Shape-Shifting Capital to demonstrate the importance of taking the concept of “religion” seriously and critically within the emerging academic study of workplace spirituality, providing key tools as the field continues to shape itself. González begins by arguing that capitalism has changed significantly since the time of Max Weber. It no longer relies upon religious, especially Protestant, qualities and meditations to both hide and explain its vagaries and purpose. Instead, he asserts, today’s capitalism takes on the very role and persona of religion itself (6). So what, González asks, has actually changed from the labor combined with austerity that Weber described, to labor for the purpose of excessive consumption and purchase? Could it be a worship of capitalism itself? This is the possible answer intriguingly offered up by González in the introduction.

Through the use of ethnography at two companies Seeing Things Whole and Landry’s Bicycles González seeks to explore his question and answer within the general academic field of workplace spirituality. The influence of Michael Jackson (Existential Anthropology, Berghanan Books, 2005; Minima Ethnographica, University of Chicago, 1998) is evident in how González brings in the voice and humanity of those he undertook fieldwork with and now represents in his monograph. This is particularly the case when he fronts self-narratives as both a linguistic and a political form of “power” and Foucauldian self-care (chapter 2). The ethnography provides the most interesting and revealing aspects of the monograph, leading the reader to wonder why it is silenced in the final chapters in favor of a reiteration of dense theory, which risks narrowing the readership appeal and the usefulness of the book for undergraduate courses.

Language is the key to engaging with capitalism in the realm of workplace spirituality, according to González, but critical approaches to it cannot simply be reiterations of Weber’s narrative of decline and progress or disenchantment and secularization. Following Edward Bailey and the hybridity at the core of his book Implicit Religion (Peeters , 1997), González notes that religion can no longer be understood in terms of contested language binaries. Instead capitalism must be taken seriously within the concept of religion itself, as a form of neo-liberal spirituality (231). González highlights the importance of language choices and uses amongst his informants as a means of demonstrating this thesis. For example, he writes, “’You are just throwing it around because it has no meaning. But I think that’s the point of spirituality versus religion.’ This is a claim regarding so-called ‘spirituality’ made by Ryan towards the end of our interview at an Italian restaurant in Natick. The concept of ‘throwing around’ things or words is a recurring theme in my interactions with Ryan. Ryan who forthrightly states that he is neither ‘religious’ nor ‘spiritual’ was at the time a twenty-three year old part-time sales representative at Landry’s” (137).

After providing a number of details about Ryan, González starkly states that his (González’s) “focus is on the use of language by a worker who claims no personal investment in either ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’ but whose whole ontology, history and existential imperatives entwine at the level of language” (139). Thus the reader is invited into an extended treatment of how Ryan is using language and is left with the key message that it is important to pay attention to the type of language used and omitted. These sections are where González really offers something new to the field and provides clear examples of how best to conduct ethnography within religious studies.  These sections could easily be incorporated into an undergraduate course on theories and methods in religious studies.

The language used by the organisation Seeing Things Whole is also an important area of focus within the book, particularly in chapter 1. González notes the use of biographies and a narrative constructed around identity, purpose, and stewardship (46). He articulates his own struggle with whether the group was simply “doing theologically inflected business ethics” or “having spiritual experiences” (46). The significance of language is underlined later in the chapter when we read of various partners within Seeing Things Whole utilizing mythologies, creation stories, and narrative practices from a range of different cultures. For example, an aboriginal creation story is repackaged as a motivational sales pitch unconsciously shaped around the American Dream (61-63) and an undercurrent of Manifest Destiny. The question of consciousness is an important one, and one that González could have developed further and more critically by considering the closed loop perpetuated by Seeing Things Whole that only allows hand-picked “outside” voices that are often essentialized. Whose way of knowing is really being privileged both within Seeing Things Whole and González’s monograph? Could it have been improved, critically, if there had been extracts from interviews in which individuals focused on directly challenging the discourse of Seeing Things Whole, or the adoption of tropes of religion as absolving capitalism for its sins of 2007 and 2008?

Ultimately this is an important book and a timely addition to the field. It is accessible for the majority of readers, but intended for academics and postgraduate students. Undergraduates may struggle with the theoretical sections, although there is certainly scope for their inclusion on courses focused on theory and methods, religion and postmodernity, secular religion, and religion in America. Postgraduate courses on religion and society should give serious consideration to including this text on their syllabus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Francis Stewart is Lecturer of Critical Religion at the University of Stirling.

Ciaran Hunter is a student in Religion and Education at the University of Stirling.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George González is assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy, Religion, and Interdisciplinary Studies at Monmouth University.


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