Project Rationale

Modern Jesters: Clowns as agents of transformation

There has long been a role for the jester in society; as a restraint for kings in medieval times, as a foil in ancient academic institutions, as a humanitarian in times of crisis and conflict, and many in more incarnations throughout history and modernity. Through all this, the clown has maintained the privilege to question and challenge authority and its hierarchies, grounding them in reality and holding them accountable. It is clear that clowning has far more to contribute, beyond the limited view as only childish entertainment.

Modern day clowning follows an ancient tradition, with principles and beliefs passed on through generations of proponents of the profession. Throughout these principles, themes of inversion, improvisation, experimentation, play and challenge recur. These same ideas have a place in the modern business environment, if not as everyday practice but perhaps as underlying theme or leitmotif.

Many organisations are beset with hierarchies and institutional structures which forestall challenges and accountability. Decision-making environments, such as business meetings or strategic planning events can often reproduce pre-existing routines, dynamics and interactions, reinforcing hierarchies and exacerbating organisational divisions. This can lead to conformity, consensus-seeking, organisational inertia (Hannan and Freeman, 1984) and groupthink (Janis, 1972). Such organisations run the risk of creating environments in which there are constraints on reflection on established practices and questioning of accepted wisdoms, with little scope for creativity, experimentation and generation of new ideas. Individuals and organisations can become ‘stuck’ in ways of working and modes of operation resulting in poor decision making (Canet 2016).

It is apparent that many organisational decision-making processes would benefit from some perturbation to overcome the inertia associated with established modes of interaction and communication. It is this space in which the Modern Jester and clown techniques have the potential to make a contribution and to bring about change. This project introduces the idea of clowning and the embodiment of the ‘clown spirit’ as an organisational process, as a means to instigate reflection on existing practices and promote creative thinking and innovation and to create working environments which can embrace change and transformation. It will seek to develop methods which disturb the antecedent conditions of groupthink and organisational inertia and disrupt the structures and process which occur as a result.

(Challenging) Groupthink
The concept of groupthink was hypothesised by Janis (1972) through an analysis of the crucial decision-making which supported some of the key events of the previous decade. Subsequently the idea has gained traction, both in the public and academic spheres, having been applied to many political and corporate events since its publication; Watergate, Challenger shuttle launch, Enron and retrospectively to prior global events; marketing of Thalidomide drug, (Canet 2016) Escalation in Viet Nam and Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union (Turner & Pratkanis, 1998)
Janis (1972) defined groupthink as ‘a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups’ (P 8). The underlying principle of groupthink, sometimes seen as a ‘constraint on ideation’ (Fox, 2019), is that under certain conditions, decision-making groups are at risk of falling into consensus-seeking behaviours which can firstly, lead to insular, self-aggrandising and defensive attitudes and actions and secondly, lead to poor decision-making processes based on limited and selective information and evidence. Despite the long established and widespread appeal of the concept, there is little theoretical conceptualisation of the construct of groupthink as well as little consensus on when and how it is manifested. In his original paper Janis (1972) focussed on the symptoms and remedies rather than the causes or mechanisms of groupthink. These remedies advocated practices associated with voicing of doubt, critical questioning, impartiality and being open to external scrutiny – a set of practices that the ‘clown spirit’ could support and enable.

Clowning as Transformation
Through parody, play and satire, clowns challenge their audiences to reflect upon or question their well-established assumptions and beliefs. In so doing, the clown throws open the spaces of what can be thought, expressed and discussed. Throughout history, the clown in various guises, has kept a check on the strong and the powerful, providing grounding and accountability whilst maintaining neutrality and liberty, to challenge and question established thinking and practices and diffuse tensions. Organisational processes and environments also need that same challenge and grounding, to leave themselves open to doubt, question and transformation.

In referring to management and business undergraduates learning about leadership Hawkins and Edwards (2015) suggest that doubt and uncertainty are ‘monsters’ that must be grappled with. They suggest that these are encountered within a liminal stage (van Gennep, 1960) of a student’s transformative learning experiences. This concept of liminality borrows from anthropological studies of ‘rites of passage’ (van Gennep. 1960) in which subjects participating in these rites go through a 3-stage process; Separation, Transition and Reintegration It is seen as a transitional stage which must be navigated, as a part of the journey to becoming. Hawkins and Edwards (2015) suggest that the state of doubt, confusion, uncertainty and ambiguity are not just a part of ‘learning about’ but also central to ‘doing’ leadership.

Centrally, clowns exist in that liminal space and have learned to live with and indeed thrive upon the uncertainty and doubt of that space. They recognise that space is associated with transformation and as Mezirow (1978) describes, transformative space is associated with phases of disorientation, self-examination, alienation, new behaviours and experimentation. Mezirow’s phases echo the activities and principles of clowns, who in their practice seek to disorient, reflect (mirror) and encourage reflection (introspection), promote playfulness and experimentation and importantly.

Clowning (in) Contexts
Clowning is already well-established in a variety of contexts outside of the Big Top of the circus. There is evidence of the important contributions that clowns have made in healthcare, education, humanitarian action and social change. Within hospital and healthcare settings, Patch Adams and his institute (Adams, 1998; Wheeler, 2008) focus on compassion, humour and playfulness as an essential part of care to promote emotional as well as physical health. In the arena of international development and aid, Clowns Without Borders perform valuable work with humanitarian relief in areas such as refugee camps, war zones and areas of deprivation as well as hospitals and prisons (van Nunen, 2019). Areas which require a high level of sensitivity, but are still open to joy, comfort and security. Clowning acts as a movement for social change, through the actions of e.g. the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) (Klepto, 2004) and even the Insane Clown Posse, a hip hop duo, who attempt to get their message of morality out through aggressive hip hop clown personae (Stone, 2005) or through religious ceremonies, within ancient traditions such as the holy fool (Swortzell, 1978) or modern times with clown ministry (Lyvonne-Reed, 2012). There is a historical role for clowning in academia, with the institutions of Mr Tripos at Cambridge University through medieval times and his equivalent at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University. (Rembret & Sears, 1988, Dening, 1995). In this, the roles of scholasticism, satire, dialectic and disputation are brought together to challenge academic excellence at the most prestigious universities in the land. More recently, the current author has made the case for the introduction of clowning methods in the modern classroom (McCusker, 2021).

Adams, P., 1998. When healing is more than simply clowning around. Jama, 279(5), pp.401-401.

Canet, A. (2016). Groupthink in the Boardroom – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. SSRN Working Paper, available at: Accessed: 20 June, 2021

Dening, G., (1995) The death of William Gooch: A history’s anthropology. Melbourne:Melbourne University Publish.

Fox (2019) Addressing the influence of groupthink during ideation concerned with new applications of technology in society. Technology in Society (57) pp 86-94,
van Gennep, A., 1960. The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press.

Hannan, M.T. and Freeman, J., (1984). Structural inertia and organizational change. American sociological review, pp.149-164.
Hawkins, B. and Edwards, G., 2015. Managing the monsters of doubt: Liminality, threshold concepts and leadership learning. Management Learning, 46(1), pp 24-43.

Janis, I L. (1972) Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes: Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Klepto, K., 2004. Making war with love: The clandestine insurgent rebel clown army. City, 8(3), pp.403-411.

Lyvonne-Reed C. 2012 Sacred art of Clowning…and Life Robert D. Reed Publishers, Bandon, OR
Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective Transformation. Adult Education Quarterly, 28(2), 100-110.

van Nunen, E., 2019. Clowning in Zones of Crisis: Treating Laughter as a Serious Matter: An Exploratory Study on Humanitarian Clowns in the Humanitarian Field.

Rembret, J.A. and Sears, A., (1988) Swift and the Dialectical Tradition. London: Springer.

Wheeler, D., 2008. More than clowning around. BMJ, 336(7656), pp.gp198-gp198.