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Resisting naked instrumentalism through a series of seminars

TSElosophers meeting on 3 May 2024. Participants: Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl

Reading: “The value of research activities “other than” publishing articles: Reflections on an experimental workshop series” by Chahed, J., Charnock, R., Du Rietz Sahlström, S., Lennon, N.J., Palermo, T., Parisi, C., Pflueger, D., Sundström, A., Toh, D., and Yu, L.


Content-wise, the paper revolves around inherent tensions embedded in the ‘other than’ publishing-oriented activities, given the current Publish or Perish era in the academe. In this case, the ‘other than’ refers to a series of seminars a group of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) ran over eight years. One tension is keeping the attendance active, which they managed to do reasonably well.

Another tension was on what grounds to motivate the invitation of a series of senior, very influential scholars to participate in the seminars, as they might bring with them academic hierarchy and pecking order, inclining to somewhat restrict the freedom of speech of the ECRs. There were obvious pros in doing this, however, many of them very practical, like getting a local influential patron or catalysing active attendance. On the other hand, the paper admits how some element of hierarchy was infused into the meant-to-be democratic and open discussions.

A further tension is the very write-up of this paper – and trying and getting it published. The authors admit there is some irony here, but they also defend this choice arguing that this only tells how any ‘other than’ activity is eventually connected to publishing. TSElosophers found the of writing this paper a sound idea, since how else could the word of such activity be effectively spread – and the wider academia should know!


TSElosophers were very sympathetic towards the activities underlying this paper, a time-wise long series of seminars, featured by an intention to avoid being driven by mere interest in publishing. This means respecting the age-old academic virtue of open dialogue on all kinds of things, with as little external conditions as possible. The underlying idea is hence to resist the overwhelming tendencies to acting instrumentally in the academe. This reminded the TSElosophers of the series of activities of their own, having a history going back to 2017. A distinctive feature of the paper is that the list of authors is very long for an accounting paper, which nicely echoes the aspect of distributed knowledge, prominent in the paper. The paper is written from the perspective of ECRs, not least given that the invitees were ECRs when the seminar series started in 2013.

We found the paper as very nicely crafted as well as easy to read. It also indicated a good ability to be reflective regarding the process that the group of ECRs had gone through over a longer period with the help of the seminars. The Jasanoff notion of “technologies of humility” was used as a sensitizing method theory, which we found fitting and helpful. The paper was, however, perhaps not so exciting regarding its take-aways, which was likely since it actually lacked a strong substantive motivation. TSElosophers felt this added to the element of irony of the paper somewhat, given the idealistic starting point of the project. Somebody with a skeptic stance might see the paper written without due scholarly need for it, for the sake of just getting something published from the seminar series.

That said, the paper was anyway a very good facilitator for our discussion on numerous themes, including how separate the processes of free discussion and publishing are (or should be); the various motivations for the senior scholars to participate in the seminars for ECRs, including strengthening of their own research community (‘tribe’) and identifying and screening off new candidates for open positions at their departments. We also discussed aspects relating to the theme of what kind of power processes could be ongoing at and around the seminars – and which kinds of them their arrangement attempted or managed to avoid.

Overall, we found the paper offering TSElosophers a very nice basis for the discussion at our May 2024 meeting.

Is critique of capitalism regarding sustainability a viable strategy?

TSElosophers meeting on 28.2.2024. Participants: Albrecht Becker, Behnam Pourahmadi, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl


Bigoni, M., & Mohammed, S. (2023). Critique is unsustainable: A polemic. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 102555.

Husillos, J. (2023). Is critique sustainable? A commentary on Bigoni and Mohammed. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 102603.

Tweedie, J. (2023). If critique is unsustainable, what is Left? A commentary on Bigoni and Mohammed. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 102597.


The target for our discussion was a recent debate in Critical Perspectives on Accounting, commenced by the polemic piece by Michele Bigoni & Sideeq Mohammed. They present a clear, strongly formulated argument as for how capitalism has the capacity to accommodate all critique as part of its own agenda of seeking profits and constant economic growth, thereby running an indefinite exploitation of all production factors. Hence critique concerning, for instance, ecological sustainability will eventually be always ineffective. Bigoni & Mohammed argue their reasoning is based on the works of Marx and Deleuze & Guattari. In the same issue of Critical Perspectives on Accounting, Javier Husillos and Jonny Tweedie comment on the piece by Bigoni & Mohammed, making the set of readings an exciting set as a whole.


TSElosophers developed a most lively and many-sided discussion based on this debate forum. Even though we had certain issues regarding each of the three pieces, we generally very much welcomed this kind of strongly formulated texts, focusing on the extremely serious issues that the Anthropocene has caused on the life on planet Earth. While the three pieces were formally framed in the context of critical accounting research, we took all of them as bearing relevance regarding critical social studies research overall.

As for Bigoni & Mohammed, one of the most significant worries relates to their peculiar reading of Marx. For Bigoni & Mohammed, capitalism presents the ‘galvanized’ end state of affairs, while for Marx this was only an intermediate condition, to be eventually followed by communism. Another issue related to the question whether the economic arrangement, be that capitalism or communism or whatever, really is the root cause for our serious troubles relating to sustainability. The 20th century counter model of capitalism, ‘communism’ or rather ‘actually existing socialism’, has also led to serious, ruthless exploitation of all production factors, not least nature. TSElosophers controversially discussed if the root cause rather is an inherent way of human life, especially our strong tendency for opportunism, making it difficult to find effective routes for the needed major turnaround that would be urgently needed.

Regarding the piece by Javier Husillos, it was a pity it was nearly completely decoupled from the key messages of Bigoni & Mohammed. Husillos only contests (on the second page) whether capitalism really is such a perfectly functioning (in its own terms) ‘machine’ after all. Otherwise, Husillos turns his piece to commenting how the disadvantaged and indigenous people play too little role in critical accounting research and suggest some ways out through a set of questions. This is a most fair concern as such, but confuses the discussion kicked off by Bigoni & Mohammed: The theme was supposed to be primarily ecological sustainability, not social sustainability. In addition, we may wonder whether it is more like a romantic dream that the disadvantaged parties would have better knowledge or attitudes regarding sustainability than the privileged ones. This may be the case, but where is the evidence?

Turning to the commentary by Jonny Tweedie, TSElosophers found it going to the very point of the debate as kicked off by Bigoni & Mohammed. Like Husillos, Tweedie asks whether we should take the working of capitalism like this ’perfect machine’, as argued by Bigoni & Mohammed. But Tweedie goes further, suggesting that capitalism should not be viewed as the only option, but rather a contingent thing, a condition with history. Things could be otherwise and so they have also been for long time periods in the past. In this way, Tweedie seems to be able to suggest a way out from the gloomiest dead-end which Bigoni & Mohammed depicted for the project of critical research. However, we may wonder whether it is realistic to assume the capitalist condition may, or will be, transformed to something else that were much more sustainable. At least, there is very little grounding for believing communism would be of help. What would be the economic arrangement that could form the major turnaround that would now be urgently needed? And eventually, is the root cause, after all, any economic arrangement at all?

Another theme of discussion pertained to the level of hope dashed or inspired by the articles. Where Bigoni & Mohammed viewed the capitalist machine almost predeterminedly invincible, thus promoting certain hopelessness, Tweedie’s point about the constructed nature of social systems leaves an opening. This, however, leads to the dilemma of instigating the required system level change within the timeframe of our planetary systems still upholding our current societies. It seems that in order to promote the necessary change, we need to both work within the current capitalist system, harnessing its mechanisms where possible, while at the same time acknowledging the fundamental problems of the system and working towards creating something new. If, like Bigoni & Mohammed pointed out, the majority of sustainable business research focuses on transitional changes within the system, maybe we can view that as a necessary way of buying us more time in which the critical research led, or at least inspired, efforts of transforming the overall game have time to mature.

What about phenomenology and phenomenological methods in organization studies?

TSElosophers meeting on 19.12.2023. Participants: Behnam Pourahmadi, Erkki Lassila, François-René Lherm, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl

Gill, M. J. (2014) The Possibilities of Phenomenology for Organizational Research. Organizational Research Methods, Vol. 17(2) 118-137.


Michael Gill argues that phenomenological methodologies exploring how people experience particular phenomena (p. 130), like organizational identity, are especially powerful in understanding subjective experiences and meanings. Hence, organizational research could benefit from utilizing more of them. To further this project, Gill develops a typology that classifies and contrasts five phenomenological methodologies originating from the disciplines of psychology, pedagogy, nursing, and organization studies. Each of these five methodologies is based on Husserlian descriptive or Heideggerian interpretive phenomenology, or a combination of them. Gill regards this philosophical distinction as foundational for distinguishing between different phenomenological methodologies. Additionally, by specifying aims, participants and sampling strategy, key concepts of data collection and analysis, of each methodology (p. 122, 127), Gill offers guidelines for researchers to select a suitable one for their research purposes.


As a whole, we welcomed Gill’s paper as it reminds organizational scholars of the phenomenological approach’s historical and current significance to our field, and of the fact that there is no standard phenomenological methodology, but instead, a variety of them. We also appreciated Gill’s effort in developing and presenting a classification of the most popular phenomenological methodologies across disciplines. However, above all, the paper lacked a more thorough analysis of the intriguing divide between Husserlian descriptive and Heideggerian interpretive approaches to phenomenological philosophy.

In Gill’s presentation, this foundational divide underlying his classification of phenomenological methodologies is, at first glance, a kind of taken-for-granted fact that he brings forth only shortly, without much justification. According to Gill (p. 119-120), the Husserlian approach aims to describe the essence of experiences through the method of phenomenological reduction (epoché). In contrast to Husserl’s epistemological focus, Gill argues that the Heideggerian approach has an ontological one (p. 120). In other words, Heidegger aims to explore the human experience of being (Dasein) and, for this purpose, employs his hermeneutic, i.e. interpretive method. Ultimately, the difference between Husserl’s reduction and Heidegger’s hermeneutics lies in whether a “fully detached reflection” (ibid.) is possible, that is, whether we can be free of assumptions or not.

We followed this line of thought but considered it as a rough generalization of both Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenologies that both draw on distinctive ontological and epistemological assumptions. Specifically, we would have appreciated the notion of intentionality – the directedness of an experience or ‘consciousness of’ – to have been discussed in the paper and the role of subjective meanings to have been addressed in more detail. Concerning the classification of methodologies, many of us see a fruitful future study subject in how the aims of different methodologies relate to a more specified analysis of phenomenological philosophy (see Table 1 p. 122).

One of the main discussion points was the question, ignored by both Gill and many others tracing the origins of phenomenology to Husserl, of whether or not Husserl should indeed be considered the forefather of phenomenology considering his rather non-subjectivist suppositions. Both the act and the possibility of bracketing, and his insistence of there being something “essential” that can be derived through reduction seemed to some of us more reflective of the exactly opposite viewpoint that can be considered as the apparent strength of phenomenology – its emphasis on the subjectivity, contextuality and experience. In turn, Heidegger embodies these principles, and especially his notion of ‘Dasein’ seemed to some of us to maybe even be one of the earliest inklings of what has since become complex and adaptive systems thinking: the idea that the observer and the observed are part of one entity fully understandable only through accounting for their interconnectedness.

These ponderations lead one TSElosopher to even entertain the idea of renaming phenomenology as “noumenology”. Kant viewed phenomenon as such knowledge object that contained both the noumenal idea of the thing, and the sensory experience the thing yielded, essentially thus referring only to such things that had a form that could be seen, touched, or maybe heard. In contrast, a thing that had no such form was in Kant’s parlance a noumena (he used God as an example) that could be positive or negative depending on whether or not its existence was true or not. On the one hand, considering that phenomenological approaches focus explicitly on things without a form detectable by senses (like meaning, organization or organizational identity as suggested by Gill – in short, noumena), it raises the question of the origins of the label. On the other hand, the etymology of the label refers to “that, which is being made to appear” (passive, present participle of ‘phaino’), which suggests that a phenomenon is distinct from a noumenon in so far as it may be made to appear by the intentionality exercised upon it. Perhaps Wittgenstein was considering the complexity of intention and its acquaintance with both the existence of a phenomenon and our ability to know it when he stated “There is no such thing as phenomenology, but there are indeed phenomenological issues”[1] (1977, §53 and 248)

To conclude, we agree with Gill’s assertion that a “phenomenological researcher’s epistemological and ontological assumptions should inform his or her selection of a particular methodology(p. 127). However, we suggest the researcher builds their choice on a more profound basis of phenomenological philosophy than presented in this article – as Michael Gill’s paper stresses in its conclusions.

[1] Es gibt zwar nicht Phänomenologie, wohl aber phänomenologische Probleme.”

Two disagreeing theories on the role of ‘society as it is not’

TSElosophers meeting on 14.11.2023. Participants: Albrecht Becker, Behnam Pourahmadi, Erkki Lassila, François-René Lherm, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Minna-Liina Ojala, Otto Rosendahl

Luhmann (2002) I see something you don’t see. In: Luhmann & Rasch (2002) Theories of distinction. Redescribing the descriptions of modernity. pp. 187-193.


We read a conference speech given by Niklas Luhmann that criticized the continuing relevance of Frankfurt School, that is late 20th Century critical theory. We were unable to date the conference speech, but the original German text was published in 1990.

Luhmann focuses his critique on the Frankfurt School’s ontological standpoint, which many other European philosophical and sociological traditions follow, too. The ontological metaphysics of the Frankfurt School, Luhmann argues, i.e. its guiding distinction of existence/non-existence, enforces a bivalent logic that differs from the guiding distinction of system/environment and the paradox embracing logic in Luhmann’s systems theory. In his view, the Frankfurt School includes in their definition of rationality an aim for consensus of knowledge through intersubjectivity. This contrasts with Luhmann’s position, which renounces the object/subject distinction in favor of the cybernetic take on observation in which an observation can always be challenged by observing the observation.

Our discussion

The text was described as dense, and some parts required several readings to become at least reasonably understandable. The conference speech was most likely delivered to a German audience already familiar with both theories, which might explain the very limited contextualization of the text. However, as one of us suggested, other Luhmann’s texts may well be equally, if not even more, difficult to read. Some had given up before finishing the text, but many endured, and the discussion was very lively. His writing style was also strategically appreciated since he presented his own position quite briefly, concentrating on the arguments about the insufficiency of the Frankfurt school.

While some of us had doubts about certain aspects of Luhmann’s argumentation, we did not reject Luhmann’s criticisms of the Frankfurt school. We noted however that it’s out of our scope to discuss to which extent contemporary critical theory can respond to these criticisms. We discussed especially Luhmann’s criticism towards any social theory that emphasizes ‘society as it isn’t’. The Frankfurt School had a knack for creating future utopias and dystopias and criticizing society from those vantage points. Luhmann claims that this strategy is used to mask the inability of the Frankfurt School to ‘sufficiently’ describe our complex ‘society as it is’. Luhmann’s social theory, in contrast, includes the paradox between ‘society as it is’ and (the paradox of) ‘society as it isn’t’.

Perhaps not least because Luhmann’s speech of course could not comprehensively elaborate his theory, many concerns were raised that his theory could offer something worthwhile. Many of us noted some similarities to Latour’s work, as ANT proposes taking a similarish ‘bird’s eye’ view as Luhmann’s suggestion of second order observation: instead of inserting oneself into the discussions between observers, one should focus on mapping the terrain as represented by the diverse observations and interactions. Concerns included, for example, the rejection of the guiding distinction of whole/parts as expressed in such reductionism that results in a focus on cognition and a seeming neglect to materiality; his non-humanism and the somewhat nihilistic attitude that follows from the sought-after distancing of the researcher from the first level observers; doubts about how the self-reflection of the blind spot could improve his theory; that reflection might lead to infinite regression although the text also mentions the emergence of stability with system eigen-values; and that his position remains marginal both in systems theories and philosophy of science.

As a final note, we might ask if Luhmann’s theory is outright conservative or just differently radical. While Luhmann’s lack of an explicitly critical agenda compared to the Frankfurt School felt “disastrous” to several of us, gaining knowledge about ‘society as it is’ and how to relate it with ‘society as it isn’t’ by increasing the complexity of the theoretical framework could support constructive responses to societal problems.

Breaking incommensurability boundaries?

TSElosophers meeting 29.9.2023. Participants: Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Minna-Liina Ojala, Otto Rosendahl.

Gendron, Y., Paugam, L., & Stolowy, H. (2023). Breaking incommensurability boundaries? On the production and publication of interparadigmatic research. Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management.


The overarching theme of this article by Gendron et al. (2023) is to challenge Kuhn’s (1970) incommensurability thesis (see also Burrell and Morgan, 1979), which assumes that meaningful research work across different paradigms is not possible nor feasible from the philosophy of science perspective. The authors start by questioning this view and suggest that inter-paradigmatic research is not only possible because the assumed boundaries between paradigms are actually permeable, but that such research would also be desirable and beneficial for stimulating inter-paradigmatic dialogue between researchers of different philosophical assumptions and methodological approaches.

To justify their views, the authors rely on the analysis of four different inter-paradigmatic publications (Greenwood et al., 2002; Stolowy et al., 2019; Paugam et al., 2021; Stolowy et al., 2022 ). The authors have worked as coauthors on three of these four papers and therefore are able to reflect on the process that led to them getting them published. However, the main pair of comparisons is formed by the papers Greenwood et al. (2002) and Paugam et al. (2021). The authors emphasize the importance of “epistemic mediation”, the ability to reach “conforming” epistemological and other compromises during the research process, without which the required mutual agreement about the justifiability, or sustainability, of the research might not materialize – not only between the coauthors themselves but also with parties involved in the review process.

Our discussion

As a starting point, the idea of promoting inter-paradigmatic, or at least heterogeneity, in research methodologies was appreciated by the group. In addition, all group members seemed to agree that the paper was easy to read and understand, shedding some light on the practical aspects of the co-writing and publishing process of an inter-paradigmatic research paper. It touched on some of the ontological and methodological difficulties related to causality and complexity arising from such inter-paradigmatic endeavor. Overall, TSElosophers regarded the authors as seeking to advance the fashionable ‘phenomenon-based research’.

However, this particular piece of research, which seemed to be based on pragmatic premises, representing ‘naturalism’ in the analysis of knowledge production, could have been expected to offer more examination and interesting insights and discussions about the potential tensions likely present in inter-paradigmatic research. Therefore, TSElosophers felt that, in the end, the paper was not quite able to live up to the reasonable expectations of the readers. Instead of seriously examining epistemological tensions and inconsistencies that might ensue from an inter-paradigmatic mixture, the paper focused on discussing how interpretive and positivist methodologies can be combined in a single study by favoring one over the other, while the other is used more for complementing and reinforcing the primary view. Even this was done perhaps a bit too one-sided, as the authors seemed to focus mainly on their own work where the interpretive approach was dominant. It was a pity the authors largely skipped – perhaps were bound to skip since they did not write that paper – a more profound analysis of the Greenwood et al. (2002) paper, which would have represented the opposite approach.

Some of the group members also wondered how the inter-paradigmatic research presented in this study differed from the mixed-methods approach, simply combining qualitative and quantitative empirical work. In the end, because the article focused so much on the successful publication processes instead of ontological and epistemological tensions in inter-paradigmatic research, it could even be seen to represent a certain form of instrumentalism. In this paper, how researchers just happen to conduct their research overshadows the potential paradigmatic inconsistencies of that research. The process was seemingly just consecrated by the research output eventually getting published. TSElosophers were left wondering whether it is favorable for the scholarship to extend ‘naturalism’ in the analysis of knowledge production so easily that far.

Relevant academia in a post-truth world?

TSElosophers meeting 5.5.2023. Albrecht Becker, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Otto Rosendahl, Veli Virmajoki

Aaltola, E. (2022, 04.08.2022). The limits of science – what can we study?  https://blogit.utu.fi/utu/2022/04/08/tieteen-rajat-mita-saamme-tutkia/ (translated by Kari Lukka)

Meyer, R. E., & Quattrone, P. (2021). Living in a post-truth world? Research, doubt and organization Studies. Organization Studies, 42(9), 1373-1383

Tweedie, J. (2022). Against mystifying complexity: On asking simple, burning questions. Organization Studies, 43(11), 1853-1856.


These three texts of very different types share a common theme: the challenge and legitimacy crisis social sciences face in the light of the growing force of ‘post-truth’ and the contribution of the science-internal critique of the postulate of value-free science to creating an ‘anything-goes’ public discourse.

  • Aaltola in her blog post argues that this criticism of the idea of value-freedom of science has led to the argument that, given that all knowledge is tainted by value, all knowledge claims are equal to scientific ones, and in the end, it has led to a situation where right-wing actors try to censor research on topics they consider as not in line with their own values. The burning issue, thus, is how we can restore the role and integrity of free science.
  • Meyer and Quattrone, in their first editorial as new editors of Organization Studies, start from the same concern as Aaltola, also emphasising how researchers themselves have unintendedly become “accomplices” in nurturing the concept of ‘post-truth’. The challenge, according to them, is how to restore acknowledgement “of the value of our work” in a situation where truth “is a constant struggle to interrogate [the] ephemeral nature of knowledge”, but where the public discourse is more and more structured around binaries, such as true/false, us/them, etc.
  • Tweedie takes up Meyer and Quattrone’s idea of academics’ complicity and notes the irony of them striving for impact when their major impact is undermining their own legitimacy. He locates the major source of this complicity in the “complexity arms race” where academics value complexity per se over simplicity, thus reinforcing the ivory tower of incomprehensibility. Instead, he pleads for “elegant simplicity” in research and suggests that research questions should be stated “in the simplest terms we can” and that they should concern the “’burning questions’ of our times”, such as climate change etc.

Our discussion

We first noted that the texts are very different of type, one is a blog post, thus formulated in a bit more everyday language style (Aalto), the second a programmatic editorial (Meyer & Quattrone), and the third an essay (Tweedie). While this may account for the fact that the texts present their arguments in a too straightforward way, it at the same time made them specifically thought-provoking. Probably unsurprising, TSElosophers shared the general concerns raised in these texts regarding the current tendencies inclined to delegitimise the value of research and science.

One strand of our discussion concerned the stated ‘complicity’ of researchers stated in different ways in the three texts. Many of us agreed and saw not least recent discussions on sensitive – or, more pointedly: ‘politically correct’ – use of language as an important driver of the chance for allegations of value-bias and partisanship of social sciences. At least one of us argued, however, that ‘science scepticism’ is much older than these recent discussions and even the critique of value-free science and that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was rather the traditional idea of self-correction through falsification which fed post-truth and the discourse on the equality of scientific and non-scientific knowledge claims. It seemed clear to us, however, that there is a paradox: On the one hand, authors claim that their critique of the assumption of value-free research has had a public impact and, on the other hand, their complaint that social science research is not adequately heard in public.

We further discussed what distinguishes scientific knowledge from other types of knowledge to make a convincing claim for legitimacy or even superiority in certain situations. One suggestion from TSElosophers, taking up Aalto’s argument, was that scientific knowledge is in a specific way methods-based and systematic. Others, however, countered this by arguing that these aspects are necessary conditions, but not sufficient since it is not obvious which methods should be designated as legitimate. For example, even astrology can also be perceived as rigorous and methods-based.

Other suggestions for solutions from the texts could also not completely convince us. Meyer and Quattrone, for example, go a long way to analyse the issues coming with a social science that accepts that there is no ultimate truth in the era of post-truth. However, their proposed programme for Organisation Studies seems a very standard programme of a social sciences journal and it remains unclear how their analysis is addressed. Tweedie’s suggestion to distinguish ‘crude’ from ‘elegant simplicity’ and ‘mystifying’ from ‘enlightening complexity’, and more profoundly distinguishing simplicity from complexity, seems plausible at first glance but may turn out to be less clear-cut than suggested.

In conclusion, the three texts triggered intensive discussion among the TSElosophers on themes that are of vital importance for all researchers, especially in humanities and social studies. Indicative of the great interest in the themes at stake was that our discussion showed no real saturation, but we only needed to end it due to time limitations.

Woodward on ”causation with a human face”: Inspirations and research voids

TSElosophers meeting 28.3.2023. Albrecht Becker, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl, Veli Virmajoki

Woodward, J. (2002) What is a mechanism? A counterfactual account. Philosophy of science, 69(3), p.366-377 & Woodward, J. (2021) Causation with a human face: Normative theory and descriptive psychology, Oxford University Press, p.1-14 (Introduction).


In Woodward’s approach, the philosophy of causation should clarify notions that are confused, unclear, and ambiguous and suggest how these limitations might be addressed. In particular, Woodward defends the interventionist account of causal explanation, where causality holds between two variables if an intervention (ideal experimental manipulation) on one of the variables would change the other variable. Woodward uses the interventionist account to discuss issues such as mechanistic explanation and modularity, especially in the context of systems.

Our discussion

TSElosophers generally found these texts interesting, yet rather demanding reads. We found it useful to get an idea of the “interventionist take on causality”, emblematic of Woodward, and how he wished to avoid drowning in the metaphysical debates on what the notions of causality should stand for and instead focus on how to decipher causality in practice.

Regarding the book Chapter, just based on the Introduction of the book, we did not get a quite clear idea of how precisely the “descriptive accounts” of causality – the beliefs that people have on causal relationships – bear relevance regarding what is, for Woodward, the more essential thing, the “normative account”. The latter refers to those causal claims which can be sustained by the interventionist approach, leaning on counterfactual analysis. However, the biggest concern among a few TSElosophers is whether, and if so, the potential performativity related to any utterings of humans, be they researchers or lay persons, might play a role in the system of thinking of Woodward. It seemed as if he had not taken that into consideration at all. Given that for Woodward, in line with his “minimal realism”, the central test of causal claims is how the world works, omitting performativity actually seems like a very notable issue – since it could bring an endogenous challenge to the analysis and thereby significantly complicate carrying it out. At least, the problem of performativity might complicate the use of Woodward’s theoretical frame in social sciences.

TSElosophers found the article on mechanisms in causality somewhat easier to grasp, yet perhaps a bit less inspiring. It did not add to the credibility of the text that there seems to be a typo in equation (2) on p.367. At least one of us had a pre-understanding that explaining through mechanisms means primarily ‘fleshing out’ the contents to the ‘explanation’ as compared to making causal claims on mere naked correlations: It opens up more precisely how e.g. the correlations can be seen as part of a meaningful explanation. TSElosophers found the take of Woodward notably stricter and narrower than this general idea. This is, in particular, since his definition requires the independence of the elements (“modules”) of mechanisms. This requirement seemed to us not well suitable for humanities and social sciences. We were left wondering whether Woodward’s take is actually too binary or black and white. Maybe it even leads to an overly idealistic picture of mechanistic explanation in social sciences, thus distancing the practice in the field from philosophical analysis – something Woodward accuses many other accounts of causation of doing.

Reading these texts gave a good lesson for TSElosophers on what kind of reasoning and write-up can be found from the representatives of the current frontiers of the philosophy of causality. It strikes us how there might be notable room for integrating the recent advances in the philosophy of causality with a more genuine take on how humanities and social sciences are surrounded and how they work. This could provide a more apt philosophy of causality for social scientists and humanists!

An Inspiring Disorder of the Second-order

TSElosophers meeting 8.2.2023. Albrecht Becker, Erkki Lassila, Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl, Veli Virmajoki

Von Foerster, H. & Poerksen, B. (2002). Understanding systems: Conversations on epistemology and ethics. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. Pages 11-63.


We read the first Chapter of a book that consists of a dialogue between “a physicist and philosopher Heinz von Foerster and journalist Bernhard Poerksen (back cover)”. Von Foerster, a leading figure of systems theoretical circles in the mid-20th Century, rejects all thought stream labels in this book except being a Viennese although he is widely recognized as a radical constructivist. The book is written after his active career in 2002.

The first Chapter, Images of Reality, describes how human neural systems can only observe their environment with perturbations that are not specific. Thus, it rejects all truth claims based on correspondence between human knowledge and being. It provocatively casts doubt on all causal explanatory principles presented by scientific realism, including gravity and evolution. The Chapter emphasizes the ethicality of second-order observations such as describing descriptions and explaining explanations.

Our discussion

The book divided our sympathies. Some liked it, some were annoyed or almost angry and some remained ambiguous. Many agreed that academia needs more inspiring dialogues and attempts to defend bold positions in conversations. Many were also inspired by some of Von Foerster’s ideas and ideals at large. The minority, who were sympathetic to the text, read it as an anti-thesis rather than a synthesis; as reactive rather than refined. The majority was frustrated, not least as Von Foerster does not develop his ideas, but only keeps ‘dropping’ them; seems to lack sufficient consistency; and the dialogue format is pointless since Von Foerster dodges so many of the most relevant questions.

We presumed that Von Foerster’s background as a magician contributed to his tendency to seek to shock with his anti-thetical statements to realism, which made him appear as a more extremist thinker than warranted by his constructivism. He posited that the system constructs its world and all knowledge about it, but he also argued against solipsism and anti-realism. He seems to agree with the existence of the system’s environment, but with the impossibility of creating knowledge that corresponds with the environment. In sum, his system’s theoretical underpinnings support metaphysical but reject epistemological realism.

We considered Von Foerster’s presentation insufficient for any sociological reading due to its methodological individualism. He wanted e.g. to replace the concept of truth with trust. This might work for local interactions – while many doubted even that – but it remains unclear how this change could be applied to globally spanning communication. Would trust in scientists eventually dilute into something like trust in politicians or journalists? We concluded that the book presents a sample of ideas from Von Foerster’s active career rather than integrating into subsequent theoretical developments in radically constructivist systems theories such as social systems theory.

TSElosophers also discussed ethics. Von Foerster associated all references to the external as excuses for people to free themselves from the responsibility of their decisions. He promoted people not to trivialize themselves, but retain the unpredictability of the non-trivial machines. However, we feel the argument is more balanced when you also recognize that interaction benefits from predictability and the common use of explanatory principles. Certainly, most people should not (and could not) make their world as complex as Von Foerster has done for himself.

Contemporary concerns of scholarly work

TSElosophers meeting 15.12.2022. Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl.

(1) Gendron, Y., Andrew, J., & Cooper, C. (2022). The perils of artificial intelligence in academic publishing. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 87, 102411.

(2) Korica, M. (2022). A Hopeful Manifesto for a More Humane Academia. Organization Studies, 43(9), 1523-1526.


Both of these articles raise a fundamental concern about the contemporary state and future of academia and scholarly work. Gendron et al. (2022) use the colonization of artificial intelligence (AI) in academic publishing as their example. They highlight the possible implications the inclusion of AI technologies might have on the role of human actors in the publishing process, i.e. concerning editors, reviewers, and authors. Korica (2022), on the other hand, uses her own experience from academia to highlight concerns about the current state of scholarly work and the working environment, along with some suggestions on how things might be improved. Therefore, both articles bring out the necessity to ponder what academia is, and should be, about, and how every member of academia has agency on this matter.

Our discussion

We agreed that the fundamental concern behind both of these articles is important and worth discussion and debate. The article by Gendron et al. (2022) revolves very much around the critiques of the data-driven evolutions of our life, like Zuboff (2019) and Han (2017), highlighting the issue of the “surveillance society”, which is today harder and harder for anybody to escape. The article pointed out well how too much emphasis and trust on the abilities of AI and algorithmic-based software – despite their promise to add to the productivity of processes – is moving us towards surface-oriented, mechanical and performance-focused academic publishing. We agree with the authors that this type of development is a real threat to good scholarship in academic publishing. In relation to the central editorial task of reviewer selection, for instance, we agree with Gendron et al. (2020) that AI would be a problematic route to fix the alleged ‘problem’ of human bias, since it would likely only bring an “elite bias” into these processes.

However, we felt Gendron et al. (2020) did not elaborate sufficiently on individuals’ ability to see and understand how exactly the evolution towards further digitalization happens in our life, and where this type of technology-oriented development might be leading us. It is difficult, or even impossible for most of us, to detect and comprehend the fundamental accumulating effects of each microscopic addition of the digital into our everyday lives. It is difficult for us to see the connection between some new minuscule software application, which is sold to us as a ‘help’ or ‘improvement’ of some insignificant daily task, and the accelerating ‘digi-colonization’ of various aspects of human life in our society.

While we agreed on the basic idea and many parts of the Korica’s (2022) paper, we specifically did not agree on the seventh suggestion made in the article. This suggestion seemed to echo instrumentalism – in the sense that publishing research is staged as the final aim over and above conducting high-quality research – and was therefore quite thoroughly against the idea of good scholarship. The paper also seemed to cover almost every worry of our lives, which made the scope of the article overly broad.

Futures of Values

TSElosophers meeting on 21.10.2022. Elina Järvinen, Erkki Lassila, Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl, Siddhant Ritwick, Veli Virmajoki

Danaher, John (2021). ”Axiological futurism: The systematic study of the future of values”. Futures 132.


Danaher argues that value change in the future needs to be systematically studied. Danaher points out that there have been changes in values throughout history and these changes will most likely continue in the future. Understanding the possible changes in values in the future is “both desirable in and of itself, and complementary to other futurological inquiries”. Danaher names the inquiry into the future of values axiological futurism. Danaher sketches a set of possible methods that can be used in axiological futurism and a model for value change where “one of the main determinants of our movement through future axiological possibility space is [–] the form of intelligence that is prioritised and mobilised in society.”

Our discussion

Danaher’s argument for the need for axiological futurism is simple, convincing, and deep. When we discuss what the future should be like, we tend to use our own values to frame our views on the matter or even project our values into the future. However, if values would change, the desirability of a future is determined by the values and needs of future generations. Relating to normative future studies, one challenge is that there may be different moral truths and values in the future from those of today and therefore any normative projection to the future made today may sound unacceptable in the future. Relatedly, TSElosophers found the idea of contemplating and deducing what these potentially different future values (enacted by people in their everyday life) should be in order to achieve, for instance, a more ecologically sustainable future than how it looks based on the current such values.

There were some concerns about Danaher’s strategy. Introducing a novel field of inquiry with a daunting task such as mapping axiological possibility space is difficult in one paper. One needs to balance the abstract frame with some concrete suggestions on how to proceed. We were not quite convinced that the methods Danaher suggests are described in enough detail to give a sense of how the daunting task can be tackled. Moreover, one of us did not buy that forms of intelligence could very much determine movement in axiological space, but rather believed in the central role of material aspects. Others, however, seemed to accept Danaher’s main argument that it can well be a mix of both. TSElosophers anyhow were supportive of Danaher’s main project described in the paper. Rather, the concern was primarily how to execute the project.

There were additional worries that notions such as “the moral paradigm” may be misleading and give the false impression that there is a shared location in an axiological space where we all stand and move together. The western connotations of the project also worried us, for example when the forms of intelligence were defined in terms of a dichotomy between individual and collective. However, for a few of us more normatively oriented scholars interested in evoking value transformation pertaining to a more sustainable future, the main take-away of the paper was the interesting structuring of the possibility space of values. We felt that Danaher’s discussion of its constitution opened welcome avenues of reflection and action aimed at a potentially greener world.

Overall, the paper made a convincing case for the need for axiological futurism but made us realize how the complexity of axiological considerations casts a shadow of vertiginous complexity over the project.

For an interested reader, see also https://blogit.utu.fi/futuresofscience/2021/09/20/future-of-values-some-reflection/

Meaning of effectiveness in work

TSElosophers meeting 23.9.2022. Participants: Eeva Nummi, Erkki Lassila, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl, Veli Virmajoki

Morin, Estelle M. (1995) Organizational effectiveness and the meaning of work. In T.C. Pauchant and associates (Ed.). In Search for Meaning. Managing for the health of our organizations, our communities, and the natural world. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 29-64.


In her 1995 paper, Morin suggests an existentialist perspective on organizational effectiveness. She criticizes the priority senior managers place on the economic perspective in the evaluation of organizational performance. Morin argues that economic prioritization distorts the meaning of effectiveness and affects the meaning of human work and human existence. She proposes new ways to discover the meaning of work building on existential psychotherapy of e.g. Viktor E. Frankl and Irwin D. Yalom. She also offers empirical evidence on the narrow approach to organizational effectiveness among senior managers and suggests ”means that could be used to achieve more humane management practices based on the lessons of existential psychotherapy”.

Our discussion

TSElosophers agreed that Morin’s criticism about organizational effectiveness remains valid. It was also suggested that organizational goals seem to be divided: while the senior management values financial effectiveness, in everyday organizational life, the employees’ actions are to an increasing extent guided more by a broader set of values. An example of this value-incongruence can be found in the crisis-ridden work situation of nurses in Finland.

Through highlighting the broad range of existential meanings given to work, Morin opens up the avenue towards reflecting the role we individually and collectively give to work. Morin links the narrow definition of organizational effectiveness to the disappearance of the meaning of work; Organizations sometimes pursue things that have no meaning for individuals and their efforts e.g. on sustainability. Hence, individuals might need to take distance and find meaning from somewhere else than their identity as an employee. In our time, the loss of meaning in work manifests itself in many ways, for example burnout or quiet quitting.

We reflected on the fact that the existential perspective is contradictory in itself: how can we measure something for which the measurement itself creates a problem? The fundamental problem is that most of the things we need to take into our calculations are qualitatively different. To bypass the problem, we’re trying to position all we want to measure (and thus value) onto the one same standard of desirability (see March 1982, Thompson 1967), namely the financial one. Instead of health being a value in itself, the value of health is calculated in terms of how much a healthy or an unhealthy individual costs to the society. The discussion of ecosystem services does the same in the environmental side: we cannot appreciate nature in itself, but need to have a mechanism for articulating its value in money.

Overall, we found the paper relevant and interesting, although it seemed to address too many issues. We agreed that the humanistic approach of this paper successfully described many problems, but did less to solve any of these. For example, if we were to guide and control organizations based on a broader definition of effectiveness, perhaps one with less emphasis on money, how would we define the variables and methods of calculations that would fit to this purpose, and where would it lead organizations (scenarios)? Having read the article, we do not know. The article showed us a good direction for meaningful discussions about organizational effectiveness, but unfortunately it lost its own focus in the end.

“Perspective relativism” – thought-provoking arguments and confusions

TSElosophers meeting 8.4.2022. Participants: Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl and Mia Salo

Antti Hautamäki (2019) Näkökulmarelativismi [Perspective relativism](SoPhi).


In this book, which appears only in Finnish, Antti Hautamäki introduces the notion of “perspective relativism” (our translation of the Finnish term “näkökulmarelativismi”). It is presented as a middle-of-the-road approach to the philosophy of science, positioned by Hautamäki between the extreme forms of realism and relativism. The key ideas of his perspective relativism include:

• There is no perspective-independent way to look at the world.

• It is helpful to distinguish between the subject, the object, and the aspect – from which the last-mentioned captures the distinctive feature of perspective relativism

• Perspectives are subjective, but they can be objectified.

• The same objects can be looked at from different perspectives.

• There is no absolute, privileged, or universal perspective.

• Perspectives can be further developed, revised, and swapped.

• Perspectives can be compared through various criteria.

In the book, Hautamäki argues for the validity of perspective relativism in numerous ways, using several examples. He goes through the typical themes for this type of treatise like relationships of perspective relativism to rationality, truth claims, justification of knowledge claims, ontology, and philosophy of science at large. In all of these analyses, Hautamäki seeks to make a distance, on the one hand, to (scientific) realism and, on the other hand, to (extreme forms of) relativism. Central to his argumentation, allowing him to keep a distance from extreme forms of relativism, is his idea of “core rationality”: To be taken seriously, any argumentation has to fulfill certain minimum conditions, such as the principle of deduction (the logic of implication) and the principle of consistency (for instance, we cannot accept and deny the same thing looked at from a certain perspective).

Our discussion

TSElosophers generally supported the contents of the notion that Hautamäki was propagating in his book. We not only found it intuitively appealing and helpful, but many of us also perceived it in certain ways familiar. One of the TSElosophers found Hautamäki’s position similar to the idea of combining moderate realism with moderate social constructionism, which this member had adopted some 15 years ago as the platform for his scholarly work. We also found the book topical, especially from the viewpoint of the famous ‘science wars’ between realists and social constructionists. Hautamäki’s notion sits well with the general idea of Niiniluoto and Saarinen (1986) that in the heated debates between various ’isms’ we tend to overlook how many similarities there are across various approaches.

While we liked the general idea, we struggled with some of the distinctions through which Hautamäki tried to make room for his notion. In particular, we felt Hautamäki was exercising a losing battle in his numerous attempts to make the distance to realism, which he at times calls by that name, while at times calling it ‘scientific realism’. The problem is that it is, in fact, rather hard to draw the demarcation line between most of the ideas of scientific realism and Hautamäki’s perspective relativism. For instance, when we take into consideration the three-level ontology of Popper, the notion of theory-ladenness of observations, Kuhn’s paradigms and, overall, the formulations like those of Niiniluoto (1999) for scientific realism (which he calls “critical scientific realism”), it is nearly impossible to see any genuine differences any longer.

To be blunt, Hautamäki’s perspective relativism can be argued to be fundamentally similar to scientific realism, only peppered with certain accentuations nodding towards relativism. It is a pity Hautamäki is so confusing regarding these distinctions up to the point that he can be claimed to fabricate a strawman of (scientific) realism to develop his claims of uniqueness. It would have been far easier for the reader to digest had he chosen naïve realism (e.g. logical positivism) as his ‘enemy’ at the realism end: All of his distinctions would work against that position. However, perhaps he did not opt for that strategy since the schools of thought linked to naïve realism are these days viewed as dead as they go. Hence, making distinctions to them would not have been very effective.


We found Hautamäki’s notion of perspective relativism as a valid notion content-wise, which however is far less innovative than the author claims it to be. It is, after all, a notion under the umbrella of scientific realism, only stressing the constructionist (or relativist) aspects of that stream of thought. The book is worth reading especially if one wishes to go comprehensively through the philosophical position of one’s own in a self-critical manner. Bold, even wild claims are often helpful as ‘test-balls’ in such exercises.

Sartre, Weick, and existential sensemaking

TSElosophers meeting 24.2.2022. Participants: Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Eeva Nummi, Siddhant Ritwick, Otto Rosendahl, Mia Salo

Yue, A. and Mills A. (2008) Making sense out of bad faith. Sartre, Weick, and existential sensemaking in organizational analysis. Tamara 7:7.1, p. 66-80.


Yue and Mills propose a novel approach called ‘existential sensemaking’ to identity construction and organizational analysis by combining Weick’s sensemaking epistemology and Sartre’s phenomenological ontology. They suggest that in situations where the ordinary and ongoing sensemaking process fails, we ‘are presented with an opportunity for existential sensemaking’. This means that we are no longer dealing only with how we make sense of our world (epistemology) but also what the nature of our reality might be (ontology). Consequently, existential sensemaking shifts the focus from social to subjective, specifically, to the individual and their decision-making process in a particular situation. According to Yue and Mills, Sartre’s existential phenomenology with its emphasis on human free will to choose, responsibility, and the individual actor, offers ontological and ethical grounds for existential sensemaking. To illustrate their point, the authors analyze a case of a mountaineering expedition in the Andes, arguably as it captures an extreme situation, a question of life or death, that occurred.

Our discussion

The article prompted a lively discussion. In particular, we appreciated how the writers exploited Sartre’s existential phenomenology in their analysis. Putting the focus on the individual, their freedom, responsibility, and decisions based on ‘good faith’ has key relevance in many respects in practice and may have become – like Yue and Mills argue – too overlooked in social studies often focused on the role of structures. For instance, we discussed what is the meaning of scientific research today and whose concern is it whether we routinely conform to the publish or perish -mentality in academia. Many of us also pointed to the importance of better understanding the subjective perspective and inner dialogue alongside the social view and intersubjective dialogue. These came distinctive by the extreme decision-making moment (of Simon Yates cutting the climbing rope that connected him to his fellow mountaineer Joe Simpson, thus, sending Simpson to an almost certain death) depicted in the case study of the paper.

While the topic of the paper, existential sensemaking, caught our interest, we agreed on expecting more from the article, especially with respect to conceptual clarity and theoretical contribution. What surprised us most was that no key concept was defined, not even existential sensemaking at the core of it. This led us to discuss what the authors actually mean with different notions, for instance, existential, essentialist or non-essentialist individual, ethical behavior, bad faith in relation to sensemaking. An especially intriguing debate emerged from our different approaches to human behavior in an extreme situation, how this relates to our understanding of essentialism and, consequently, to Sartre’s ontological concepts of ‘being in itself’ and ‘being for itself’. To our disappointment, the paper’s contribution to organizational literature remained vague.

Finally, we discussed the connection between existential sensemaking and identity construction process, arguably a central theme in the article. Whereas existential sensemaking seemed to fundamentally refer to the use of free will in decision-making, we could not follow how existential sensemaking was connected to identity construction – not least as that should be necessarily viewed as a process, not only a passing event. Instead of identity construction, we found the paper illustrating an identity break when something radical happens, thus, extending beyond retrospective and ordinary sensemaking and, in this case, calling for existential sensemaking. In accordance with Yue and Mills (footnote 15), we arrived at stressing that extreme or crisis context is perhaps actually not ‘required for the presentation of existential sensemaking’, rather, it might be quite ordinary!

To conclude, we would have hoped this compelling article had received at least one more revision before publishing, especially with regard to definitions and contributions. However, as a conversation trigger, it provided an excellent base. We welcome future research on existential sensemaking!

Rules for ethnographic research: To have and have not.

TSElosophers meeting 20.12.2021. Participants: Andrea Mariani, Eeva Nummi, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl.

Van Maanen, J. (2011). Ethnography as work: Some rules of engagement. Journal of management studies48(1), 218-234.


The article presents a counterpoint to a point; Van Maanen responds to an article by Tony Watson. Van Maanen sets out by emphasizing that his own musings about ethnography that mostly correspond with Watson. However, Van Maanen adopts a more protecting position about ethnography’s uniqueness than Watson: He outlines ethnography as inherently a relatively marginal method and feels the need to defend the ethnographers’ capabilities to extract evidence by observing the observations of natives.

Van Maanen concentrates on ethnography as a combination of “fieldwork, headwork, and textwork” (p. 218). Fieldword is especially difficult in ethnography and requires considerably more commitment than in mainstream science. Thus, he doubts that ethnography could turn into a mainstream approach without diluting itself to mediocre scholarship and results. Headwork and textwork refer insightful process of theorization and communication of ethnographic research.

Our discussion

We greatly appreciated Van Maanen’s three-part distinction that adjusts the typical idea about ethnography as fieldwork towards theorizing and skillful communication about the research. It is extremely important that an ethnographic researcher (just like any other empirical researcher) keeps in mind all these three ‘works’ in a reasonably balanced manner. Van Maanen successfully employs this distinction to stress how (ethnographic) research is full of making choices by the researcher.

However, despite his laudable approach, Van Maanen still downplays the role of theorizing. His take on ethnography is eventually rather open-ended and empirically tuned. The examples given by Van Maanen set ethnographies as rhetorically appealing theoretical collages that intricately describe local realities. Still, it remains shrouded how to select theories and, most importantly, how to validate the outcome of theorizing in the ethnographic research. Even if an eclectic and intuitive approach works for the niche Van Maanen has developed for himself, it might be too shaky foundation for the broader ethnographic field, its researchers and for generating influence outside ethnographic circles.

It seems that Van Maanen’s idea of ethnography as a marginal method requires creative, social and rhetorical geniuses that operate under very few rules. He perceives Watson’s pursuits towards mainstream to endanger his idea about ethnography. However,  it might be that Van Maanen’s representation of ethnography reflects more his own niche take on it than the views of the entire field.

Unfortunately, we had no chance to read the original text by Watson, but only Van Maanen’s reflections on it. Watson might have interesting thoughts as for how to approach the potentials involved in adjusting ethnography in parallel with the mainstream. If so, we hope he adopts Van Maanen’s important distinction between fieldwork, headwork and textwork and uses it to relate ethnography further with the mainstream, yet carefully ensuring that the key characteristics of ethnographic pursuits are not lost in this move.

Appealing argumentation for five types of theory

TSElosophers meeting 12.11.2021. Participants: Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl.

Sandberg, J., & Alvesson, M. (2021). Meanings of theory: Clarifying theory through typification. Journal of Management Studies58(2), 487-516.


Sandberg and Alvesson (2021) present a novel approach to define and classify theories. They argue that management and organization studies (MOS) definitions of theory tend to be narrow and/or built on a single social paradigm. Especially, they see a problem with requiring explanative theory in all research, seeing this as being related to researchers often presenting artificial pseudo-contributions and, effectively, making the entire idea of contribution a fetish. Instead, they classify explanative theory as only one theory type, which needs to be complemented by other types of theory in order to advance the knowledge of the discipline.

The authors adopt a wide constructivist lens and perceive theory as a human pursuit with various aspects. Through this lens they perceive altogether seven criteria for theoretical knowledge. The primary criteria which make difference between the various theory types are what is the purpose of theory and how the targeted phenomenon is assumed to exist. Indeed, based on the seven criteria, they develop a typology of five different theory types: explanative theory, comprehending theory, ordering theory, enacting theory and provoking theory.

Sandberg and Alvesson suggest that their approach to defining theory has potential to overcome many ontological and epistemological differences and thereby provides a more neutral way of communicating about the role of theory in the scientific pursuit. They make an extensive effort to hedge their contribution so as not to step on anyone’s onto-epistemological toes: their approach might still yield more theory types and, besides, any research is not forced to select only one theory type since theory types are somewhat overlapping.

Our discussion

On the positive side, the article is splendidly written. Its rhetoric is thoroughly appealing, which increases its potential to fulfill its own intended purpose of “pointing at a range of different theory types and levelling the playing field within the MOS community” (p. 491). The latter part of this purpose implies that the role of theory in the community should shift from “political-practical controlling device” (p. 509) towards enabling “researchers to advance knowledge development” (p. 490-491).

However, TSElosophers also found three significant shortcomings in the article. Firstly, we didn’t find much argumentation as for how the seven criteria behind the typology were chosen. It seemed as if the deep experience and professionalism of the authors were trusted to the extent that they could present their list of seven criteria without extensive analytical elaborations. Some of us felt the suggested set of criteria is too complex and formulaic; for instance the two-item formulation of Friedman (1953) goes arguably better to the point and is more helpful for researchers.

Secondly, the article seems to present a strawman of what explanative theory means. Especially problematic is the claim that Whetten (1989) defined explanative theory narrowly, since it misreads the scope of Whetten’s (1989, 490, emphasis added) short article, where the intent is merely “to propose several simple concepts for discussing the theory-development process.” Explanation can well be defined much more broadly; it is not just limited to ‘positivist’ notions of explanation typical of e.g. quantitatively oriented research! For example, Wittgenstein characterizes scientific explanation as profound understanding.

Finally, it was suggested in our discussions that the article provides less actionable advice about theorizing than e.g. MacInnis’ (2011) “A framework for conceptual contributions in marketing”. Therefore, Sandberg and Alvesson’s contribution might be reduced to raising awareness without urging for widespread changes.

Despite our criticisms, we consider that this article admirably follows the adage ‘better being approximately correct than exactly false’. As long as the reader keeps in mind that some of the appeal of its narrative is achieved with a tradeoff from its accuracy, we may endorse reading this article.

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