TSElosophers

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On knowledge building

TSElosopher’s meeting 13.9.2017: Kari Lukka, Eriikka Paavilainen-Mäntymäki, Otto Rosendahl, Katja Einola, Joonas Uotinen, Milla Wirén

Methodology chapter “On knowledge” from the WIP dissertation “Strategizing in the new normal”, Milla Wirén

This posting is structured little differently from the article based ones, as this consists of my personal thoughts about the insights gained from the valuable discussion on my ongoing thesis work, especially in regards to its philosophy chapter.

Our TSElosophers discussion was for me representative of the very best feature of academic work: being able to discuss one’s thoughts, often at the same time quite complex and formless, with people who understand the yet-shape-seeking-intent and are able to give constructive thoughts about how to realize and communicate that form-seeking intent. I cannot express how valuable it was for me that the TSElosophers took the time and effort to read my sketches and think things aloud with me.

The first insight I gained arose from the discussions of proportionality: the emphasis, in terms of both word count and discursive depth, should be on the issues really contributing to the formulation of the overarching message. Now the writing process itself has been taking the driver’s seat in the sense that the parts that it has been most fun to write are the ones most extensively discussed. This also relates to the implicit messages any text sends: is my aim to show off or to actually make a point? To be more blunt, I should focus my philosophical attention more directly to the key point: instead of finishing the credo with the outcome of moderate realism and moderate social constructivism I could use that existing discussion as a springboard from which I could then dive deeper into explaining what does this combined moderateness mean in my context and how does it relate to the insights drawn from pragmatism.

To summarize the take-away number 1, my writing should be guided by and focused on the message I wish to convey, which means wrenching the “art” of writing for writing’s sake off the driver’s seat.

The second theme of discussions was something that seems to act as a cohesive within our small group: how can we make science that challenges and seeks to expand the boundaries of our chosen disciplines? In our respective domains, man-made boxes as they are, some worldviews, methodologies and focus areas dominate over others, which is only natural. However we all seem to share the notion that pushing beyond those boxes would enrich the research in the focus areas of our domains. The emerging question is therefore quite foundational: how do you introduce something new in a way that makes a positive impact and actually results in expanding the awareness? How much do you need to adhere to the accepted wisdom of the domain, how much novelty can you introduce without being judged as a freak? Going too far with the novelty backfires as it will be met with sheer resistance, however just playing by the accepted rules denies the opportunity to problematize the inherent assumptions which we all see to some extent in need of problematizing in our own fields.

Summarizing the take-away number 2, how do I take into consideration what is generally acceptable in my area of research (international business), and how would I, if I’d so wish to, introduce radically new insights in a way that has positive impact?

As always, our discussion flowed richly in many directions, creating several more specific moments of revelation. To list, we had an interesting discussion about how determinism and causality are different things even though they are often treated as the same: determinism is a form of causality, but causality doesn’t mean determinism – causality, especially viewed through counterfactual analysis, and free will do co-exist. Additionally it was suggested that as I am actually doing deductive-normative theoretical work, I should be explicit in pointing that out – a tip I welcome, as I had not considered coming out of that closet quite as explicitly, deductive-normative theoretical research not being too fashionable in our field keen to avoid the perceived “ivory-tower” approach, favoring the quantifiably empirical, applied take perceived “more useful” to the practitioners. We also discussed how to use hermeneutics, which I have treated as an explanation for my methodology that is essentially based on very old-fashioned reading and thinking; hermeneutics might have also wider utility in my context, which I need to explore more. We also found the distinction between a method and domain theory very useful in explicating the loci of our contributions in general. In my case, I’m trying to create a method theory through which I could question some of our domain theories.

It was not the first time I was told to “stop reading”, but I think that when this suggestion came up as a semi-joke in our discussions it could actually be translated to the question of what should I be reading? A relevant point, as it is true that my reading has thus far been maybe more guided by what I find interesting that a strict focus based on the need to have material for drawing my bigger picture, arguing the message I wish to convey. Towards that end, I received many interesting reading suggestions, and personally understood some areas where I do need to dig deeper in order to argue my points in the specific context of international business. However, as the key point of my ongoing work emerged through the understandings gained from my eclectic reading, I do see the double edged nature of a domain-specific focus: viewing what is known in specific context doesn’t tell what knowledge there might be elsewhere, however arguing any point within a context requires extensive enough understanding of what is actually known within that specific box.

My sincere and heart-felt thanks to all participants, it was a pleasure, as always. Let’s keep this up – I wish to be able to reciprocate the help I received through continuing the discussions about the themes you are finding pertinent in your endeavors.

Milla

Ethical teaching of ethical thinking

TSElosophers meeting 8.6.2017
Otto Rosendahl, Kari Lukka, Jonathan Van Mumford, Milla Wirén

Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making, Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, Cara Biasucci, Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education 2015

Quick summary:

While the identification of four stages of the process of ethical behaviour (awareness, decision-making, intent, action) was applauded as a potentially fruitful opening, in the discussion the TSElosophers questioned the instrumental approach of behavioral sciences in the context of ethics. Can ends justify means? However, understanding the decision-making processes of individuals may yield insights to educators aspiring to educate ethically thinking individuals, but these behavioral insights should be complemented with philosophical discussions and treated with respect, not as tools of manipulation – even for the best of reasons.

Discussion:

The authors posit the view that philosophical teaching of ethics in business schools should be complemented with behavioral ethics, which leans on psychology and sociology. Drumwright, Prentice and Biasucci (2015, 438–439) argue that “most ethical mistakes in business are not made because people have not read enough Kant or Bentham (Abel, 2008; Jennings, 2005). Insider trading, earnings fraud, tax evasion, foreign bribery, and other common white collar crimes do not present vexing philosophical quandaries”. Instead of Kant and Bentham, behavioral ethics highlights that people have tendency to believe that they are more ethical than they really are. This easily leads, Drumwright et al. argue, to people bypassing ethical deliberation even in dubious circumstances because they have a feeling that most or all of their actions are ethical.

Behavioral ethics education raises the moral awareness (ability to recognize ethical problems) of students by positing the view that most decisions are made instinctively and there are cognitive limitations that make ethical action difficult for even the most well-intentioned people. However, awareness of behavioral biases does not automatically lead to desirable action. Raising the “moral awareness” is just the first, albeit critical, step to moral action.

The authors present a four-step process for behavioral ethics which consists in (1) recognizing the ethical problem, (2) formulating an ethical response, (3) desire to act ethically and (4) doing the right thing. Formulating an ethical response is challenging especially due to self-serving bias, i.e. a person’s failure to see unethical behavior if the action serves their self-interest (e.g. Langevoort 1997). Other biases include e.g. incrementalism, where a person’s small infractions gradually change into larger ones (Tenbrunsel & Messick 2004), conforming to the unethical practices in the environment (Gneezy 2005; Robert & Arnab 2013) and tendency to make a different decision depending a framing of the situation as a gain or a loss (Tversky & Kahneman 1985). The third step is more straight-forward as, Drumwright et al. argue, “most people wish to act ethically, at least as a general rule and up to certain limits” (p. 439). The final step, doing the right thing, requires a feeling of responsibility, feeling able to act and having courage to act in the situation. Reading the article might lead to an erroneous impression as if the eternal issues of ethics could be solved by merely adding to our knowledge – this is certainly not a valid position. For instance, knowledge of behavioral biases can be used for non-ethical purposes. The article implicitly recognizes, even at least seemingly in an acceptable vein, this by referring to company marketing practices that abuse behavioral biases in order to trigger envy between consumers to increase their desires of purchasing a good (p. 436). The paper could have seriously discussed the potential issues of people without an ethical stance “to do the right thing” getting to know more about behavioral biases.

The article could have built bridges between philosophical and behavioral ethics ­– or at least mentioned it as an avenue for future research. For example, four steps of behavioral ethics would benefit from traditionally virtuous character traits: the first and the second step especially with prudence, the third step with benevolence and the fourth step with courage. So, theoretically it would be promising to combine virtue ethics and behavioral ethics in teaching in order to increase students’ moral agency, i.e. capability to act with reference to right and wrong. However, teachers’ work to enhance character has not been found to strongly improve ethical actions (DeSteno & Valdesolo 2011). Similarly, Drumwright et al. (2015) could not provide strong evidence that teaching behavioral ethics would improve individual ethics. On a more positive note, teaching behavioral ethics could at least raise the moral awareness of students, thereby providing them a defense mechanism against manipulative practices.

TSElosophers received this paper rather positively, but there was a doubt whether the teaching at TSE includes enough even the philosophical teaching of ethics – which is fundamental regarding the questions at stake in this paper – not to mention behavioral ethics. Do we have a general course where students would learn to compare, contrast and apply the three major orientations in moral philosophy, namely Kantianism, consequentialism and virtue ethics? Of course, there are some ethical courses such as “Ethical questions in business” but their orientation to philosophical or behavioral ethics is challenging to specify from the course description. Also, the issues that behavioral ethics puts forward are taught in some other courses, such as in the “Behavioral economics”. Therefore, we would emphasize that in the context of TSE, the main issue would be to evaluate the comprehensiveness of both philosophical and behavioral orientations to teaching ethics and, additionally, consider the balance between them.

Theory about theory calls for practice

TSElosophers meeting 26.5.2017
Otto Rosendahl, Jonathan Van Mumford, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén

Building Theory about Theory Building: What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution?
Kevin Corley, Dennis Gioia, Academy of Management Review, 2011

Quick summary:

While extensively written, the article can be summarized to the following key points:

– theory can be either revelationary or incremental, and contribute to either scientific or practical knowledge

– current theorizing focuses too much on the scientific contribution and pays lip service to the practical utility

– in order to bridge the gap between theory and practise, the “best minds” in the profession of academia researching the profession of management should be employed in anticipating themes that will become relevant, and produce theory around those emerging themes to provide the vocabulary with which those themes can be discussed

– this would advance management science from upholding institutions to performatively contributing to the development of the business sphere

Discussion:

The article defines theory as “a statement of concepts and their interrelationships that shows how and/or why a phenomenon occurs”. More importantly, it asks what is a theoretical contribution and creates a 2×2 matrix for theoretical contributions which includes originality (revelatory, incremental) and utility (practically useful, scientifically useful). First, this article mentions that revelatory and scientifically useful articles are easy to publish. Then, it argues that a change is needed “in the guidelines of authors and reviewers” so that the authors would be “rewarded for developing more pragmatically useful […] theoretical contributions”.

This needed change is illustrated many times with different concepts pointing to the same direction: “adaptive role of academia”, “pragmatic utility”, “projective futurism” and finally “prescient scholarship”. Thus, the length of the article could have been condensed to a lot less than 15 pages. However, this style might have better impact for those readers unfamiliar with the previous discussion. We can contend the writing style has not been a failure since the paper is currently cited 641 times according to Google Scholar.

It is easy to agree with the article’s claim that courageous attempts to increase pragmatic utility should not be overlooked. The article leans to the traditions of American Pragmatism and states that “knowledge should be treated as a process” and it should be treated as “a recursive dialog between theorists and reflective practitioners”. This paves the way for prescient scholarship, where researchers aim to anticipate and theorize future problem domains. The sense-giving practices of the prescient scholars should be able to affect both the academic and the practitioner discussions. As the authors note, “the best way to predict the future is to influence the conversation about what it could or should be”.

Although the authors positively painted a future where researchers could have a better societal impact, we need to criticize the underlying assumption in the article. Contrary to the authors, it seems that even scientifically revelatory articles are not easy to publish. To put it differently, researchers are more bogged down by the incentives of the current publishing system than the article admits: it is mostly incremental articles that get published. According to Alvesson and Sandberg (2013), articles that try to challenge too many assumptions easily get rejected as they feel absurd to the reader. In practice, the reviewers often reject revelatory scientific contribution attempts by referring to the negligence of existing scientific discussion about the topic within the field. This sounds too much like rejecting a manuscript just because it is revelatory.

In sum, this article is ambivalent. There are certain ironies in it: although it touts that revelatory theoretical contributions are easy to publish, it only presents an incremental theoretical contribution; although it advises researchers to take a wider scope, it delimits the conclusions of its own valuable thoughts. Some of us recommend reading it; some of us recommend not reading it.

Notes:

MILLA:

Yes, science should discuss at least the contemporary issues, and when groundbreaking, even anticipate novel pertinent themes. However the underlying tones of the article reveal an intriguing assumption: is it really so that if we just managed to harness the “best minds” of academics into shaping the emerging discussions through sensegiving, the world would be better off? Do we (or those deemed the “best minds”) really hold such truths that would validate this mission?

On the other hand, I admire the writing style of the article, as it is clearly cleverly designed in a way to elicit citations. It consists of catchy oneliners, like “lost before translation” (referring to the gap between the issues of interest amongst scholars or pracitioners) and “lost in translation” (referring to the inability to communicate the relevant insights from one field to another), provides a nice 2×2 matrix to quote, and addresses the everlasting discussion about the gap or bridge between theory and practice. As such, it reads as a pop rendering of the theme elsewhere discussed with more depth.

While it may be that the wielders of a hammer tend to see all problems as nails, I cannot escape the feeling that essentially this again pivots around the sticky theme we’ve been discussing from several angles at TSElosophers: what is science really about? What is the relationship between performativity and objectivity, or normativity and positivity, and what side should we aspire taking? Should we really bring in the third tenet of J N Keynes (1891) dismissed by Friedman (1953), called for by eg Colander (1992), the applied science – would that clarify the role of our endeavours? Would it help, if we really could box in the positive approach aimed at revealing how things are and work, the normative approach of how should things be and progress, and the applied approach bridging the two by making a statement about what we want (based on normative science), and assessing and creating the methods (based on the foundations deducted by positive science) through professedly applied science?

Personally I actually struggle with the normative part: based on what grounds can we create the scales of desirables (eg Thompson 1967, March 1982) that would not be narrowly context-bound? It is the lack of this discussion I find the most troubling part of the Corley&Gioia paper. They call for more applied approaches, however not explicitly engaging in the discussion of the accompanying normative element that inherently preceeds – or should preceed – this aspiration. But maybe I’m just too far from the supreme “best minds” to understand the benefits of the supreme wisdom that could be diffused throughout the more mundane endeavours of the rest of mankind – if the divine minds should only choose to do so.

Treading the line between researcher and consultant

TSElosophers meeting 21.3.2017
Jonathan Van Mumford, Otto Rosendahl, Henning Christner

Conducting and publishing design science research: Inaugural essay of the design science department of the Journal of Operations Management, Joan van Aken, Aravind Chandrasekaran, Joop Halman 2016

Quick summary:

This essay, written by members of the Design Science department of the Journal of Operations Management, is an explanation of, and call for, academic submissions using design science research (DSR) as a research strategy. The aim of DSR is to conduct field research aimed at finding solutions for real world problems (or to achieve real world opportunities), and, from this research, generating ‘generic designs’ which form mid-range theories that can be then contextualised to problems in other contexts. These generic designs are repeatedly tested and redesigned to establish ‘pragmatic validity’. The authors suggest that through DSR a stronger partnership between research and practice can be achieved in the social sciences as already is exists in fields such as medicine and engineering – thereby counteracting the “ivory tower” syndrome that often separates academia from practitioners. In effect, the essay advocates for researchers to tread the line between researcher and consultant in developing research driven designs of best practice.

Longer outline of discussion:

The authors describe DSR as being a separate paradigm from that of regular academic research (which they label “explanatory research”) inspired by engineering. Explanatory research aims to uncover explanations for universal truths, usually about average relations between cause and effect. On the other hand, DSR aims to improve the present and, as such, shares some similarity with consultancy. Unlike consultancy, however, DSR does not aim merely to improve local contexts through case-specific designs, but follows the academic aim of producing generic knowledge applicable across various contexts within a particular domain.

The concept and rationale of DSR as a research strategy is straight forward:

  • The researcher goes into the field and works towards solving an existing problem in a particular context (in the case of the essay, this will be an operations management context);
  • From the proposed solution to the problem, the researcher can then draw up a generic design for the solution and field test it to establish it has “pragmatic validity” (does it work?);
  • The innovative generic design is based upon a design proposition which is an explanatory account, identifying the contexts in which the design is useful, the mechanisms involved, and the connection between actions and outcomes;
  • The generic design, formed from the “high ground of theory” can then be applied in the “swamp of practice” through contextualisation to other particular contexts to create new case-specific designs.

Unlike engineering and medicine, which derive from the natural sciences and involve physical systems, DSR in the social sciences involves creating designs for social systems. Therefore, the main potential issue with DSR in the social sciences comes from the effects of human agency.

While this essay is targeted at specific field of operations management (OM) which the authors note, “is widely regarded as a problem-solving discipline, seeking to create knowledge by interacting with the real world”, our discussion was more general. We contemplated questions such as can, and if so should, such a DSR research strategy be utilised in our various disciplines? This led to broader questions of whether or not there is too large a separation between theory and practice, and what is our goal as researchers of social science? One primary issue we had with this mixing of research and practice is that the two sides of the coin ask very different questions. As was mentioned in the article, research aims to explain certain universalities about, or patterns within, the social world (why and how does something happens), while practice is more aimed at finding solutions for problems or planning courses of action (what and how should we do something). If we are to confound the two approaches in a single research activity, do we run the risk of chasing two rabbits and catching neither?

As for the question on whether or not we, as researchers, should intervene more directly in matters of practice and management, we do agree that inciting social change is often an important goal of the social scientist. However, the goals of practitioners and researchers are often divergent. Most businesses are motivated by their bottom line, but helping firms achieve profitability and efficiency does not always equate to what is best for society and is not always the goal of the researcher. While researchers can, and do, take part in consulting, and while such cases sometimes do generate the data for research (i.e. through ethnography, action research, participant observation, etc.), the development of theory is still clearly separate from the development of managerial practice. Does this mean that we raise high above the swamps of practice, looking down from our ivory towers, contributing nothing more to society other than the occasional theoretical proclamation? We think not. Research feeds into practice through teaching, policy papers, opinion pieces, public seminars among many other channels. Could this be done better? Always. Is design science research the answer? Mostly not, although we recognize that it is sometimes useful to collect empirical data with interventions.

Strawmen of “mainstream” and pragmatism

TSElosophers meeting 8.3.2017
Milla Wirén, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl, Jonathan Van Mumford, Henning Christner

On Acting and Knowing: How Pragmatism Can Advance International Relations Researchand Methodology, International Organization 2009
Jörg Friedrichs and Friedrich Kratochwil

Quick summary:

The article criticizes the mainstream social science methodologies that subscribe to the ontological realism and the correspondence theory of the truth. It proposes adopting the philosophical underpinnings of pragmatism to fulfill the purpose of social science: to enable orientation in the social realm(s). The following key themes were discussed:

  • In its purpose to induce change in the prevalent “positivism” dominated methodologies, the authors succumb to reducing the “mainstream” into a strawman, ultimately ignoring the rich streams of other alternative approaches
  • Is the role and importance of theory mainly instrumental? Can theory be evaluated only through the practical insights that it provides, or is there any inherent value in the theoretical (episteme, scientific) knowledge building?
  • In defining the “wrong” and “right” methodological approaches, don’t the writers actually suggest a level of realism they argue against?

Longer outline of discussion:

The article is well written and makes its points eloquently, with skillful use of examples. However, the version of pragmatism promoted raised some eyebrows in our discussion. We interpreted the methodological suggestions as based on instrumentalism: the purpose of social science is to have a purpose of solving an issue (“enabling orientation in the social world”), which makes this approach a soulmate of the Flyvbjergian (2001) approach. As our group consists of individuals who value theoretical knowledge (the episteme) as the main aim of science and its key resource in conducting, for instance, social science that matters, this approach was not easily swallowed.

We agree on the notion of social ontology: the reality we perceive is constructed through our perceptions, to an extent even in the natural sciences, but monumentally more so when we’re dealing with the “intersubjective meanings and value relations” constituting the social realm. However, unlike Friedrichs and Kratochwil propose, we find the epistemological approach of grounding our knowledge in consensus (either internally in a given group or externally enlarged) questionable: any theory, by its very nature, requires at least some correspondence to whatever is in the context considered more true than something else – while fully acknowledging that any such correspondence can be shown to be faulty by subsequent theorizing. While we seem to slightly disagree about the existence of objective truth(s), to be a theory, the string of concepts needs to assert a certain level of existingness – otherwise there simply are no theories, just idiosyncratic concepts and perceptions instrumentally molded to suit a purpose.

To our reading the authors render both the “mainstream” research and the pragmatist alternative(s) into strawmen: the first adhering to naïve realism and the second to following the “anything goes as long as it (by consensual agreement) fills a purpose” interpretation. However our notion of pragmatism is different: fundamentally it shies away from taking a firm stand on the ontological nature of reality, but merely suggests that only within the realm of intersubjective, in interaction with surrounding elements, is the understanding of the object in question formulated. Put simply, the object may or may not be objectively something, but the way we intersubjectively make sense of it is what we ground our actions on. The strength of pragmatism lies not in the answers it provides to the ontological questions, but in the epistemological avenues it offers to “knowing” about the object via following the actions that result from that “knowing”.

The eloquent simplicity of the article is both its merit and downfall. It succeeds in acting how it preaches, namely existing because of a purpose, and the tone of the article well suits the aims. However in its parsimonious rendering of both the “mainstream” and pragmatism, it succumbs to logical inconsistencies and – in our minds – the grave sin of unappreciation of episteme. Had they followed the logical outcome of the socially constructed ontology they tout, they wouldn’t have been able to take such a strong stand towards how science should and should not be carried out.

It seems that we have a recurring theme in our readings about the “raison d’être” of science – a pertinent theme as most of us come from highly practitioner oriented disciplines. Is science ultimately glorified problem solving or is there a more “immortal and divine” quality to it?

Notes

Otto:

I would like to question: is the knowledge (the episteme) the main aim of science? Instead, I very much subscribe to the Aristotelian idea that practical wisdom (the phronesis) is the primary virtue – in science and for the scientists. However, contrasting with Flyvberg (2001), I would define practical wisdom differently. Practical wisdom is not only practical relevance. Instead, it is the primary virtue which includes all other virtues (also the production of new knowledge) in a balanced manner (i.e. unity of virtues). What I’m trying to say here is that the main aim of science might as well be to constitute virtuous scientists – and the rest will follow.

Do paradigmatic underpinnings matter?

TSElosophers meeting 21.2.2017
Otto Rosendahl, Kari Lukka, Jonathan Van Mumford, Milla Wirén

On the Virtues and Vices of Combining Theories: The Case of Institutional and Actor-Network Theories in Accounting Research (working paper)
Sven Modell, Eija Vinnari and Kari Lukka

Quick summary:

The article discusses the paradigmatic tensions that (may) underlie combining diverse method theories through looking at accounting research that draws from both Institutional Theory and Actor-Network-Theory. Our discussions centered on the following themes:

  • The importance of consistency, not only in theorizing but in all problem solving efforts utilizing insights from existing knowledge.
  • The very special kind of role of theory in ANT and the implications that follow from following logically through with its suggestions in scholarly pursuits.
  • ANT is useful in pointing out the issues of the very typical and widely accepted ‘normal science’ tendency (which is prominent also in IT, among other theoretical constructions) to view phenomena through a set of assumptions. However taking Latour’s quips too far may result in a paralyzing level of reflectivity in actual theory-building/refining research efforts.

The importance of episteme, the theories in research seems to be an ongoing theme in our discussions, and warrants further looking into. Can there be a relevant practical contribution about a phenomenon if the theoretical foundations are shaky? This is an especially important question in disciplines with a strong practitioner focus.

Longer outline of discussion:

Modell, Vinnari and Lukka (2017) article “On the Virtues and Vices of Combining Theories: The Case of Institutional and Actor-Network Theories in Accounting Research” problematizes combining method theories with very different ontological and epistemological backgrounds. Method theories can be used in studies as lenses – the study does not aim to contribute to these theories, but only employ them as their resources (Lukka & Vinnari, 2014). However, these theories are used to focus one’s study to something.

IT and ANT are arguably tectonic plates in the geography of science but arguably they are located far from each other regarding their ontological and epistemological underpinnings. For example, ANT rejects structures and embedded agency that IT emphasizes. Instead, ANT concentrates on actors and distributed agency. Whereas IT emphasizes “previous theory and its extensions”, “theory has no role in ANT” (Modell, Vinnari & Lukka 2017). Nevertheless, Modell et al. (2017) found many accounting articles that either entirely ignored or unreflexively assimilated these differences. In general, the motivation to mix elements of ANT and IT is an attempt to get the best of both worlds: flexibly following both structures and actors in research. There have been some claims of contribution in mixing IT and ANT, but they may have been built on epistemologically and ontologically shaky ground.

Elaborating the geography analogy, most scientists live on the IT tectonic plate and, if they have heard about ANT, they see it distant and foreign. Although Latour (2005) himself proudly proclaims that ANT is inhabitable (“You cannot apply it to anything”), there are also many business researchers who successfully dwell on it (e.g. Quattrone & Hopper 2001; Mennicken 2008; Christner 2016). Because of its ‘smaller size’ as compared to IT, ANT has a larger risk in losing the characteristics that make it special.

Therefore, retaining the provocativeness of ANT can be good strategy to spread its ideas. ANT ideas are already spreading in a weaker form in many social sciences, e.g. sociomateriality (Orlikowski & Scott 2008), market devices (e.g. Muniesa, Millo & Callon 2007) and market shaping (Harrison & Kjellberg 2016). Why not celebrate ANT for something that overdoes its arguments so that it stays an interesting read, especially to nonconformists? Needless to say, Latour is a master provocateur. In our group we had different opinions on how strong scientific influence we would hope for ANT, but all of us would certainly hesitate to commit to using pure ANT methodology in our own research.

Notes:

Otto:

The article was very strict in its view that theory has no role in ANT. I believe that although this is a useful generalization, it is not so straightforward. If ANT-driven researcher were to use theory, he or she would only have to admit that all scientific articles that have an effect to the research are actors. These articles would no doubt dilute the role of other actors. Moreover, in Latour’s (2005) strict view, this dilution would often equate to laziness or admitting that the research wasn’t very interesting to begin with. Laziness in the case of adding theory to research is used to reduce the number of primary actors that is being studied; not very interesting in case the study needs pretty theoretical frames to help it capture attention. One could also try to argue that ANT itself is not completely devoid of theory. ANT would defend itself by depicting itself as a negativistic methodology: ANT merely states what the researcher should avoid and gives guidance to the researcher how to trace associations between other actors (Latour 2005).

Although ANT only claims to make research more difficult, not easier in any way, it suits me. I have been very carefully trying to understand the essence of science from the start of my doctoral studies. ANT states that there is no essence, but there can be some things which are more essential than others. I feel ANT is helpful in understanding relativity without making you a relativist. Referring to our group’s previous topic, I believe ANT is a solid anti-performative foundation which eventually helps me to reach critical performativity (Alvesson, Spicer & Kärreman 2009) in a way that I am most comfortable with.

 

Milla:

I don’t like ANT. This article helped me in understanding why that is the case: the underlying naïve realism as its ontological basis and the subsequent lack of in-depth vision joined with the blatant a-theoretical orientation make me want to shout like the proverbial fire brigade captain that the fire was extinguished the wrong way. On the surface one may ask what does it matter as long as the fire was put out, but if the method of pouring water on the visible structures allow the sparks for an even worse fire smoulder beneath the surface, the worry is merited.

For me the fire is the human tendency to enter any situation with a set of existing contact lenses through which everything is perceived and made sense of. I agree full-heartedly that one of the most valuable skills of a scholar is to be able to acknowledge (at least a set of) ones own interpretive frames, and to try to overcome them to see also the gorilla on the basketball field (you know the famous cognition experiment, right?). To me the truly dangerous sparks left kindling the worse fire result from the attempt to flatten everything into pixels – from the loss of the 3D vision that enables us to tell the foreground from the background.

Essentially to me it’s not the brushstrokes that we should zoom on in the painting we see, but the stories behind the obvious figures captured on the canvas. Rendering everything (yet another irritant, as to think anyone able to capture “everything” reminds me of an ikarosian attempt at a godlike omniscience) into the atoms forming any level substance is to me a waste of effort that could be spent better in trying to understand the emerging image and the meanings attached to it. In my view ANT takes a 180° wrong turn in suggesting which direction to focus. It’s like counting the dots and analyzing their colours in a pointillist painting instead of taking a step back to see what’s really happening in the artwork – not only what’s painted, people, flowers, lake, but the story, sentiment, deeper meaning of positioning the people, flowers, lake in their exact positions.

Yes, I understand why ANT has been welcomed – it points out both individual and systemic level flaws in “traditional” normal science approaches – but following it to its logical conclusion takes us too deep into not seeing the forest from the trees, and as such ending up tearing down knowledge about the forest for the sake of being able to provide the “astonishing” revelation of “wow, there are trees!”. One could argue that both are needed, yes, but for me, individually, life consists of such a flux of events, thoughts, things, people, that from my scientific endeavors I’m looking more for the theories that help me make sense of what I see and experience, not an a-theoretical listing and itemizing of “everything” that flows me by.

Criticizing the criticizing of criticizing

TSElosophers meeting 7.2.2017
Milla Wirén, Kari Lukka, Katja Einola, Jonathan Mumford

Critical performativity: The unfinished business of critical management studies,
André Spicer, Mats Alvesson and Dan Kärreman
Human relations, 2009

Quick summary:

Our discussion focused on the aforementioned paper, which criticizes critical management studies for being negative without offering alternatives – and which follows its own advice in providing not only critique of status quo of CMS but also five practical ways of developing more constructive research with an aim to have actualizing effects on management, organizations or even the society. We generally liked the paper: it is very well written up and produces a clear and helpful argument – which is yet not without any issues.

We identified four key issues in our discussion:

  • the concept of performativity is interpreted in two different ways in the article without at any point thoroughly discussing the concept (e.g. the Merton reference is lacking).
  • the epistemological dimension is somewhat lacking, which makes the article leaning a bit towards a consulting piece rather than being article that builds on, mobilises or advances any epistemological resources.
  • it can be debated whether CMS actually has an impact already as the nay-sayer, as maybe the world requires both the deconstructive forces of criticism and the reconstructive forces that think about heterotopias
  • the “art of packaging” is just as vital in research as it is in other spheres of life: while it should not override the content (which it unfortunately also in the academic realm exceedingly does), this paper is exemplary in how to draft an article that is enjoyable to read.

In the upcoming sessions the role of researchers in the world seem to merit deeper delving – why do we do what we do? How do we or why should we differ from consultants? How does the episteme play out in this puzzle?

 

Longer outline of discussion:

The beef of the paper emerges out of the need for having reconstruction in the wake of deconstruction carried out in critical management studies. While criticizing the status quo of mainstream management studies for their performativity in strengthening the prevalent worldview with its existing power structures is valuable in highlighting problematic issues pertaining to e.g. equality and emancipation, it is only one step, in itself not sufficient in inducing change to whatever it is that could be deemed better. The problem identified by the authors is that critical studies tend to be polarizing and negative without offering alternatives, so their emphasis is on aiming at a more concrete research agenda on how to conduct meaningful critical management studies with practical relevance from within the field rather than criticizing it from the outside without offering alternatives. The authors suggest five pragmatic ways in which we can engage with the traditional field of management discourses in a gradual and iterative manner to induce change through microemancipation instead of laying out disruptive concepts that are more theoretically interesting than of practical relevance.

As such, the paper is kin to approach Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) takes in promoting phronetic wisdom, the key similarity being the emphasis on “doing social science that matters”. The relationship is also revealed in the lackadaisical attitude towards epistemology, the discussion of how can we know what we know and use as the foundation of our actions. Where Flyvbjerg outright dismisses the importance of epistemology in social science, claiming that we anyhow cannot reach such a level of theoretical knowledge building as is possible in natural sciences, the lack of emphasis on epistemology is mostly written in between the lines of the Spicer et al paper, evident in their focus on the practical impacts of management research on management.

This lack of focus on the philosophical issues highlights the strongly political nature of the Spicer et al. paper. The paper sets questions of epistemology and ontology on the side on purpose to focus on taking a political ‘sidestep’ towards achieving a more concrete research agenda on how to conduct meaningful critical management studies with practical relevance from within the field rather than criticizing it from the outside without offering alternatives. The rather implicit epistemological stance here leans on critical realism in the sense as in order to be able to change ‘something’, the existence of a ‘structure’ is necessary and suggests ‘the creation of mysteries’ as a possible method implying a preference towards abduction as a method for theorizing. The paper is excellently packaged and written for a specific audience, reminding the critical scholars criticizing the existing institutions that they are very strongly a part of the same institutions they criticize. However the scarcity of the epistemological dimension in the paper triggers the question of what is actually the difference between a researcher and a consultant (or is it merely the affiliation they work for)? It is left open what is the intended role of scientific understanding in the project that the paper suggests – or could the paper be equally read as a set of instructions to a consultant for better advising managers in creating “better” organizations?

Our discussion identified two levels of the notion “performativity” in the article: the performativity anchored in the means/ends effectiveness/efficiency thinking that is being criticized by the CMS stream, and the performativity Spicer et al. call for. So while the concept of performativity is elemental to the article, in our view the authors could be more clear in defining their understanding of the concept – to what extent do they for example subscribe to the mertonian notion of self-fulfilling prophesies? What is performativity – is all action performative, because to act is to trigger consequences as discussed in e.g. the actor-network-theory? Or does performativity – in order to be conceptualized as such – require both an acknowledgement of a set of ends (be they monetary or more “humanitarian”) towards which the performativity acts?

However, in our understanding the performativity of this paper bleeds into this interface between researchers and consultants with its strong practical, outright pragmatist approach. The five suggestions of how to do research that contributes to changing the organizations for the “better” could be adopted by any consultant interested in the same theme. This led our discussion towards thinking about the role of research in general – if everything we do is anyway performative (if we choose to define the concept as actions aligned against some set of scale of ends), couldn’t the agenda of the critical management studies already be performative enough in its ambition to increase the episteme, the theoretical knowledge about the hypocrisy and contradictions ample in the contemporary society?

In essence, if we position our ambition as scholars (and TSElosophers?) from “merely” pointing out what is wrong to suggesting how things could be “better” through enacting performativity not geared towards the mainstream ends set on the monetary scale, what are the elements that we as researchers could contribute to that pursuit beyond being “mere” consultants for a more emancipated, equal, ecologically solid and overall humanitarian way of doing business? This question was left unanswered in the Spicer et al. paper, which makes it interesting fodder for thought in future TSElosophers discussions.

 

NOTES:

Katja:

I still think VERY critical studies are needed to bring out to light gender, diversity, colonial (see e.g. ‘Orientalism’ by Said that shows how patronizing and culturally colored the prevalent understanding of what Orient is…. This important work would have been impossible to do with increments from ‘within’), etc. There are many imbalances that mark our understanding (or lack thereof) of what Knowledge is (‘white man’s Cartesian tradition including stuff like ‘the invisible hand’ and ‘nature and people seen as mere resources , inputs to produce outputs’). So this way Spicer et al. paper is just a bland version of this tradition offering ways to make more incremental changes from within a given field. But it does a good job at selling the proposed concept and anchoring it in CMS.

 

Jonathan:

Here I suggest a counter argument to the article for the sake of discussion. The authors suggest that, by focusing on anti-performativity, CMS gives itself an image problem. It resembles the annoying person in the back who constantly identifies, bemoans and decries all their perceived problems with the status quo without ever suggesting potential solutions and, even more annoyingly, doing so while clearly enjoying the benefits the status quo provides. The negativity in the language that this person uses even has the effect of generating unnecessary resistance from others to what may be an important message. To remedy this, the authors suggest that CMS should rather present a nicer, more pleasant face; offering potential solutions in a less antagonistic manner. However, the question is will ‘acting nice’ help the cause of CMS or might it work against it?

As it stands, CMS (in all its negativity) may already be sufficiently performative in its anti-performativity. The authors note that CMS “at least in the UK” has had a degree of success due to the fact that scholars offering critique often achieve a good level of throughput, and that anti-performativity is “preached at conferences and in the pages of journal articles”. They mention this in the context of taking a jab anti-performative perspective scholars’ hypocrisy in deriving personal benefit from the systems they seek to destroy. However, I would argue they are simply working their within an existing system they disagree with in order to disseminate their message to the wider world – not hypocritical unless they then complain once the message has taken effect (it is suggested that this is what happens, but that is just a strawman argument). My point is, yes, anti-performativity is performative. The ends these scholars seek are social changes, and they pursue these ends efficiently by being the messengers who are revealing to the world the message of what is wrong with the status-quo. That is where their role ends, and that is where the issue is picked up by other actors, whether they are other scholars, policy makers, organisations, or even just the general public, whose role it is to demand, find, or create the solutions.

My counter argument is, therefore, if CMS scholars are to put on a nice face, to become solution finders, benevolent seekers of micro-emancipations, will this dilute their role as malcontent, loud and vocal complainers? Why is it not sufficient that these individuals are getting the message out there through the means available to them (journal articles, conferences, books, press-releases)? Is the negative image of anti-performativity actually a problem, or is it in fact its key asset? Would the changes (for the better) that we have seen in society and management over the years been achieved through a ‘soft touch’ or were they the result of loud, negative, and sustained criticism? Perhaps it is best if we leave CMS scholars to do what they do best, critiquing, and leave the affirmation, care, pragmatic exploration of normative potentialities, to others who hear their message of a need for change