TSElosophers’ meeting on 27 February 2018. Katja Einola, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl and Joonas Uotinen

The blog title above, inspired by the classic short story of Raymond Carver (…about love) and the book by Haruki Murakami (…about running) was at the heart of the discussion at the TSElosophers club’s meeting this time. Two working papers were on the table, coincidentally connected regarding their major worries and arguments: “Living in the publish-or-perish culture” by Albrecht Becker and Kari Lukka and “Willful ignorance in empirical organizational research” by Mats Alvesson, Katja Einola and Stephan Schaefer.

The key to the first mentioned paper is the distinction between two different kinds of research processes: one following the “true scholarship logic” and another driven by the “playing of the game logic”. The paper presents an interview based, abductively tuned analysis of how researchers of our time perceive the performance management regime around them and choose their strategies of leading their researcher life surrounded by that. Since the mapping of researchers’ strategies indicated a quite wide dispersion, the outcome of the analysis was somewhat relieving with a view of the general motivation of the study – the worry of the dominance of the harmful implications of the current instrumentalist tendencies in the academe on good scholarship. However, the study still indicates how the “playing of the game logic” is quite strongly supported by many recent institutions (like many kinds of rankings) and emerging local factors (like the strengthening performance measurement hype). Therefore, it is likely getting continuously more foothold and will need determined counter-agency to be sufficiently tamed down. This would be important particularly with a view of junior researchers, so that they would not only learn how to play the game to get published but rather to become good scholars. The role of local performance management systems and practices as well as the visionary agency of academic leaders is argued to be crucial herein.

The second paper discusses and analyzes the idea of willful ignorance in organization and management studies. The piece takes its inspiration in the German Enlightenment era scholar Friedrich Schiller’s inaugural lecture in 1789 as a professor of history in the university of Jena. This speech that was our topic of discussion at TSElosophers previous encounter, distinguishes between “philosophical minds” (who follow the scholarship logic) and “bread scholars” (who follow the game logic). The study specifically focuses on the relationship between empirical data and its analysis and understands willful ignorance as conscious efforts of scholars to repress doubts and ambiguities about their empirical data. Here, willful ignorance is not considered as a sheer lack of knowledge or the fabrication of data. The argument is that it moves between researchers´ inability to resolve ambiguities in their empirical material and a pronounced will not to follow up on these ambiguities and uncertainties with the more or less willful intention to not challenge oneself intellectually too much – and get a publication out instead. The study uses empirical examples and previous published research to demonstrate that there appears to be an inattention to source critique and an unreflective pursuit of formulaic methodologies and career paths in the field of organization and management studies. The research community as a whole needs to stand up to these tendencies to raise the level of quality of research and avoid willfully ignorant research practices from further contaminating the field.

The discussion at the meeting echoed the situation described in these two working papers: Many examples of researchers, research groups and communities having become tempted to follow “playing of the game” kind of logic and “Brotgelehrte” mind-set were brought forth. For instance, one of the club members recounted how his doctoral education was nearly entirely featured by the publication-induced “playing of the game logic”. Another member was frustrated about his experiences of becoming dismissed when he had tried to raise some out-of-the-box type of content issues to the discussion among his colleagues, since the mind-set was so strongly oriented towards just getting something publishable done in a straightforward manner.

One of the challenges of good scholarship comes from research ethics. While this is of course an eternal challenge, the increased dominance of the “playing of the game logic” may make some of the classic ethical challenges even more serious and bring to fore new issues in that regard. Willful ignorance is certainly an old challenge of researchers’ ethics, but it likely is ever more an issue in the academic environment featured by constant rush, gap-spotting research motivations, and straightforward seeking of publications. But it is particularly the rush towards performance results, plaguing the current academic work, that also leads to dismissal of research approaches that would take considerable time, like years-long ethnographic or interventionist field research even in situations where such approaches would be needed to be able to study some complicated research questions, involving the significance of subjective meanings, for instance.

There are also other challenges regarding how important topics and research questions can be explored and reported on in such ways that the interviewed or observed participants of research do not feel having become abused and are treated sufficiently anonymously. The club members yet agreed that the principle “all topics should be able, and allowed, to get explored in research” should be the first and highest guiding principle in research. Therefore, researchers need creative imagination to conduct and report on their research in such a way that the complex set of criteria of good research (importance of the research question, overall research quality, ethical issues…) are simultaneously tackled, without compromising any important aspect concerning the overall quality of the study.