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Being smart about the role of theory (in top journals)

TSElosophers meeting 3.12.2020. Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl.

1) Straub, D. W. (2009). Editor’s Comments: Why top journals accept your paper. MIS Quarterly, iii-x.
2) Avison, D., & Malaurent, J. (2014). Is theory king? Questioning the theory fetish in information systems. Journal of Information Technology, 29(4), 327-336.


We read two information systems science articles with contrasting positions to the role of theory in top journal publications. Straub (2009) is concerned that only a small minority of researchers are capable of publishing many articles in the top journals and gives general advice to researchers how to publish in the top journals. Avison and Malaurent (2014) describe the counterproductive implications of everybody trying to strive for the narrow criteria set by top journal publishing. They criticize Straub’s catchphrase “theory is king” and consider that accepting “theory light” articles in the top journals would benefit information systems science.

Our discussion

Straub’s (2009) article presents his view on the four requirements of and the six enhancements to publishing in top journals. His requirements emphasize newness, nontriviality, thematic popularity and the role of theory. Enhancements include familiar structure, finetuning and constructive relation to the “major movers and shakers”. Although all of these are, at their face value, good pieces of advice by themselves, the article fails to consider how the instrumentalist nature of the given advice might produce problems within the academe regarding good scholarship.

Straub’s list reveals how top journals disincentivize the creativity needed to pursue scholarly discoveries. Even though Straub calls for finding non-competed “blue ocean” spaces with theorization, the newness rule conjoins with conservativeness rules to water down most article contributions to incremental gap spotting. Also, the catchphrase “theory is king” encourages feigning theoretical development with unnecessary theoretical complexity. The formally presented ‘theory contributions’ (these days strikingly often in the form of precisely three of them!) are often actually very forced and artificial ones as for their true meaning content-wise. The discoveries of an entire discipline might be prevented, if other journals – in their quest to increase credibility and ranking – mimic narrow top journal requirements.

Avison and Malaurent (2014) trace issues of “theory is king” approach and suggest a mitigation to top journal requirements. Their paramount argument implies that theory-driven pursuits tend to perceive what the theory preconditions as visible and real. Consequently, they suggest that also articles without strong focus on theoretical contribution might be appropriate for publishing in top journals, if the journal editors, for instance, perceive the empirical contents of the piece exciting and novel as such or that some theoretical contributions can ensue from the discussion inspired by the article.

Avison and Malaurent (2014) adopt a radical position, since they assume theory as a uniform argument towards a clear direction, although it is much more constructive to be seen as a multifaceted structure that offers a wide range of possibilities. They fail to consider how “theory is king” has likely emerged as a contrast to studies that are very empiricist and descriptive, have no real direction and do not develop any meaningful argument. Hence, in TSElosophers’ view, their catchphrase “theory light” bears a risk of going too far in accepting empirical reports as scientific studies.

In sum, TSElosophers raised concerns regarding the catchphrases of both articles. Both catchphrases serve a certain sub-segment of researcher interests within the discipline and, hence, can easily politicize the discussion. Instead, we suggest ‘theory smart’ alternative that every article needs to fulfill. Theory smart follows Straub’s guidelines to the extent they encourage developing an interesting argument that skillfully relates to what has been argued before in the specific domain. Theory smart recognizes Avison and Malaurent’s concerns to the extent that the central driver of the study, if one needs to be assigned, should not be anything else than the well-motivated matter of concern explicated in the research question of the study.

Precious, precarious democracy

TSElosophers meeting 23.10.2020. Erkki Lassila, Kai Kimppa, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Milla Wirén, Otto Rosendahl.

Diefenbach, T. (2019). Why Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ is not an iron law – and how democratic organisations can stay ‘oligarchy-free’. Organization Studies40(4), 545-562.


Diefenbach’s article aims to refute Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, which states that the essence of organization “gives birth to the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators.” The article divides Michels’ prosaic writings into six arguments:

1. Organisation is based on division of labour, leading to specialization
2. Specialisation creates specialists and leadership must be provided by specialists
3. It leads to a distinction between superiors and subordinates
4-6. Professional leaders cannot be influenced or controlled by the subordinates, strict compliance becomes a necessity for subordinates and leaders form a cartel or ‘closed caste’, making their ruling permanent

These points show a compelling slide from democracy into oligarchy. Moreover, the Iron Law cannot be empirically disproven, since any extant democratic organization might later turn into oligarchy. Therefore, Diefenbach sets to counter each of the above points on theoretical and methodological grounds.

The article approaches an important concern, but suffers from structural shortcomings. It is motivated to oppose the performativity of the Iron Law, which is sometimes simplistically applied e.g. to provide ironclad justification for the oppressors or a solid rationalization for the passivity of cynics and spectators. Ironically, the article itself adopts some simplistic stances due to its mechanistic approach and short length.

Our discussion

In contrast to the technic-functionalistic approach in the article, TSElosophers’ discussion omitted the point-by-point structure and concentrated on what was more or less overlooked in the article: power considerations, scale and type of organizations and perspectives from social psychology.

We felt that Diefenbach’s definition on legitimacy would have needed to include power considerations. Generally, we suggested that the underlying driver of the kind of processes like the emergence of oligarchies is seeking powerful positions, and once gained, keeping such positions intact. Diefanbach emphasized the acceptance of internal and external stakeholders, but remained mute on the relative power of stakeholders. Although oligarchy draws the support from the ruling elites and the related beneficiaries (plutocracy, class ideology, nepotism, etc.), democratic legitimacy comes from supreme power being subjugated to the tiniest of powers, especially the power of individual persons. Oligarchies can hardly demonstrate that their supreme power is subjected under a network of powers to include the poor, the sick and the nonconformists.

Diefenbach soon abandons the starting point of discussing all organizations in favour of pitting the (varying) legitimacy of democratic organizations against the (varying) illegitimacy of oligarchic organizations. TSElosophers discussion moved beyond this distinction to consider other important organizational qualities, such as scale and type. We agreed that the scale of organizations positively correlates with the prevalence of oligarchy; it requires less insight and institutional work to keep smaller organizations democratic.

Also, the political, business, educational, scientific and other type of organizations’ legitimacy concerns differ. For example, many business organizations are ruled by the few over the many with little qualms to their legitimacy. To the extent the business organization is perceived to serve customers who are informed symmetrically and provided with competing choices, it gains legitimacy as its survival depends on paying attention to the viewpoints of a plurality of stakeholders. In sharp contrast, we feel that the scientific and educational organizations, including University of Turku, too often centralize and standardize, although effectiveness could be substantially improved with more grassroots democratic administration and teaching practices.

We further contextualized the topic with psychological perspectives. One in our group found evolutionary psychological hypotheses useful for considering the gap between personal traits of good leaders and those adept at climbing the career ladder. Another referred to Fromm’s book ‘Escape from Freedom’ that posits a substantial minority of humans as inflicted by behavioral sado-masochism: with tendencies to desire strongman leaders and act as one if placed in a superior position. Still another emphasized prospect theoretical uncertainty aversion: Superiors might fear vengeance if their power position weakens and sub-ordinates might continue to tolerate the ruler if only because that’s the devil they already know.

Overall, the article diluted the Iron Law into the Iron Threat of Oligarchy. Not having read the original text on Iron Law by Michels, we remain unsure if any refutations were made or if Diefenbach merely framed the same issue with more positive overtones. The novel framing emphasizes the constant need to take care of democracy. As such, Diefenbach’s article is best to be read as a list of threats against democracy and the key mechanisms for internally nurturing democracy in organizations.

Revelations on human kindness

TSElosophers meeting 23.9.2020. Toni Ahlqvist, Mohamed Farhoud, Elina Järvinen, Kai Kimppa, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Ekaterina Panina, Otto Rosendahl, Morgan Shaw, Milla Wirén.

Rutger Bregman: Humankind – A hopeful history


Humankind is a world-explaining opus aimed at wide audiences in the style of Neil Diamond or Yuval Harari. While Bregman draws from research, the book is not academic, but unashamedly popular, with the mission of making one point. In addition to making his point, Bregman also discusses its implication and concludes by an easily digestible list of suggestions for all readers to consume at a glance.

The key point of the book is that while we’ve (as a humanity) learned to view us humans through the “veneer theory” proposing that underneath a thin veneer of civilization we’re all selfish savages, the very contrary is true. Fundamentally the homo sapiens is a kind creature that has accomplished all its collective efforts through the collaboration enabling power of that kindness.

To prove his point, Bregman showcases some of the most notable examples used to argue for the underlying savagery of the human, takes them apart, and shows how completely different outcomes would be at least equally possible. In discussing the implications of his key point, he draws from the power of performativity – claiming that should we consider each other as trustworthy and kind, we would be able to create a society where trustworthiness and kindness reign.

Our discussion

To begin with the main point of the book, the inherent nature of human, the tselosophers represented three standing points, however none of them subscribing to the veneer theory view. First, part of us represented the choir to which Bregman preached: yes, humans are good and when in doubt, should first and foremost be treated as such – even when in some contexts positivity and kindness are viewed as naivete. Secondly, some of us pointed out that good and bad are constructed and highly context specific: none of us are ever either-or, but depending on the combination of setting, actions and underlying traits, either better or worse outcomes follow. Thirdly, there was also the view that humans are good but sinful, meaning that regardless of our aims to strive for goodness, we are fundamentally imperfect.

In terms of the technicalities of the book, the tselosophers agreed that Bregman developed his argument through sampling certain cases, not building a logically or statistically iron-clad theoretical argument. Some of us liked and accepted the bigger picture that emerged as a result of this eclectic and case-bound effort, whereas some of us had difficulties in swallowing a) the eclecticism resulting in superficiality instead of depth, b) the lack of solid theorizing sometimes visible in circular logic, or c) the seemingly thin understanding of some of the building blocks (like the writings of Hobbes, Rousseau or Dawkins) arguing that while the effort is laudable, can such a bigger picture be trusted where the connected dots are not rightly positioned (understood)?

One of the themes at the forefront in our discussions was the problem of micro-macro, also discussed as the problem of “us vs them”, or the problem of aggregation. As we’re all in agreement that there are notable societal level problems afoot, to what extent is it possible to try to fix them through attempting to change the individual? While certain problems can be solved with kindness extended to the “us” near me, can the scope of “us” be extended to encompass such a number of both human and non-human actors and entities as to actually nudge things towards a better constellation?

As a spin-off of the micro-macro theme, the previous tselosophers’ discussion around the concept of psychopolitics (in the book of that name by Han) was brought to the fore: in rolling down the responsibility of kindness on the shoulders of the individual, are we ultimately just contributing to the trend of internalizing the social governance mechanisms? Can kindness become the type of a “superficial goodness” that the individuals internalize and the ones in power harness to continue suppressing the individual into a mere source of revenues upholding the capitalist power structures? (See also tselosophers’ discussions on Zuboff.)

However, this line of thought was clearly not the one on Bregman’s mind: we detected nuances of anarcho-syndicalism in his writing. To us it seemed that Bregman tackled any macro level problems through proposing less structure, less organizing, more grass roots democracy and power to the little people. We tselosophers were somewhat doubtful whether the macro level problems can be solved only through erasing all structures, and chatted about the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ – as there are more people (and non-people) on the planet that can be accommodated in any setting of compassion-based us, some structures are (unfortunately) needed, and as long as there are structures, there are hierarchies, and as long as there are hierarchies, there are those with more power than others, and as long as some have power, they do not want to give it up.

Nevertheless, the book awoke several individually valuable insights: first of all, the power of performativity coupled with the power of us as teachers and researchers. In our teaching, do we continue to channel such old theories which are built on the assumption of humans as inherently lazy and self-advantage seeking? If we continue to do so, are we just passing along ‘truths’ or actually contributing to upholding a world where such individuals reign? The taking apart of the famous Stanford experiment, or the findings of Milgram raised thoughts about how important it is for us researchers to strive for ethical research, to ensure the validity of whatever we offer for the building blocks of the next knowledge creation efforts – and to be self-reflective of our own basic assumptions that bleed into the findings we thus offer.

Additionally, a note and concern about the role of psychology was raised: it seems that currently many of the theories in several fields governing our societal operations are grounded on the findings from psychology without questioning the validity of such findings. Maybe it would be the time to both question the role of psychology and be more critical about its findings, especially when aggregated into the principles governing society level structures, such as economics.

To conclude, we saw the value of these types of popular books as they can help seed beneficial discussions also among such people who do not spend their time perusing the (sometimes obscure, but) profound and nigh flawlessly argued academic texts. Some of us also felt that the importance of this book emerged from the very personal level feelings we had after reading the book: to some of us, the book read as a beacon of hope, regardless of its shortcomings as a watertight bundle of theoretical and logical argumentation. Such feelings of hope are welcome, also to us researchers.

Meeting the universe halfway

TSElosophers meeting 15.5.2020. Ekaterina Panina, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl, Toni Ahlqvist

Barad, K. (1996). Meeting the universe halfway: Realism and social constructivism without contradiction. In Feminism, science, and the philosophy of science (pp. 161-194).


Inspired by the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr, Karen Barad introduces the new notion of realism, which she calls agential realism. She positions herself in relation to scientific realist and feminist-constructivist approaches, and argues for inseparability of ontological and epistemological issues. Barad’s insightful reading of Bohr’s understanding of quantum physics preludes the introduction of the onto-epistemological framework of agential realism. By considering such broad philosophical issues as the role of natural and cultural factors in scientific knowledge production, conditions for objectivity and the efficacy of science, Barad proposes a framework that is widely applicable across disciplines.
The framework of agential realism consists of four clearly drawn-out points.

  1. Agential realism grounds and situates knowledge claims in local experiences: objectivity is literally embodied.
  2. Agential realism privileges neither the material nor the cultural. The apparatus of bodily production is material-cultural, and so is agential reality.
  3. Agential realism entails the interrogation of boundaries and critical reflexivity.
  4. Agential realism underlines the necessity of an ethics of knowing.

The first point involves one of the central themes of feminist philosophy – the idea of embodiment. This idea refers to a constitutive relationship of the lived body to thought, contrary to Cartesian mind-body duality. Hence, in agential realism objective knowledge is situated knowledge.

The second point emphasizes the absence of opposition between materiality and social construction. Barad introduces the concept of intra-actions, which are contextually decided and enacted in-phenomenon. This concept describes reality as being in-between, and the inseparability of nature-culture, physical-conceptual and material-discursive.

According to Barad’s philosophy, a phenomenon is an instance of a wholeness, which includes both an object and agencies of its observation. However, there is no agential reality without constructed boundaries. The definition of theoretical concepts happens within a given context, which is specified by constructed boundaries, necessary for developing meanings. In addition, the described human conceptual schema becomes itself a part of a phenomenon.

Finally, agential realism emphasizes that constructed knowledges have real material consequences, which introduces the topics of accountability, responsibility, and ethics of knowing.

Our discussion

Overall, TSElosophers really liked the ideas represented in this paper and could buy almost all the arguments for reconciling realism and social constructivism approaches. Participants particularly took notice of the pragmatic approach to science, the view that knowledge systems should be a reliable guide to action. Agential realism seems to underline the efficacy of science and establish the direction towards which the knowledge is created, taking into account the constructive nature and ethical issues of scientific activity.

TSElosophers appreciated Barad’s development of an argument at the broadest level, being applicable to all scientific fields. Many in our group noticed similarities with other approaches, such as Actor-Network Theory (Latour), Social Systems Theory (Luhmann), and Process philosophy (e.g. Rescher, Chia). We discussed that this notion of the inseparability of nature and culture could be a more ‘natural’ and widely accepted principle in social, business and organizational studies, than in natural sciences. However, TSElosophers considered the discussion on ontological issues still relevant today, despite the article dating back over 20 years.

The majority of the discussion centered around the first point of Barad’s framework: agential realism grounds and situates knowledge claims in local experiences. Does the notion that knowledge is embodied and local impede theorizing? Some of the participants felt that agential realism has similar limitations in theorizing as ANT, while others emphasized that in agential realism theorizing happens in the detailed description of physical apparatus, as a description of the agentially positioned constructed cut between the object and the agencies of observation. One of the interesting points of agential realism is its emphasis on the agency of the material, as well as the interlinked agencies of the object and the observer. In addition, the locality of knowledge does not necessarily mean its spatial position, but relates to the constructed boundaries, so theorizing also happens in the boundary-making. Framing and focus matter, and they also have real-life implications. According to the third point of the framewor
k, the theorizing also happens in-phenomenon, and hence detailed descriptions and framing become a part of theory building.

Another issue that has brought interesting discussion is Barad’s notion of objectivity as reproducible and unambiguously communicable (in contrast to Newtonian objectivity indicating observer independence). TSElosophers wondered if even this conception of objectivity might not be suitable for social science. When the object of research are humans with their own subjective meaning-structures, the question of reproducibility becomes a difficult one. Developing on Heraclitus’s thought: “no man ever steps in the same river twice”, one can wonder if even with unambiguous communication the reproduction of social phenomena is impossible and hence objectivity is impossible to reach. The subjectivity of the researcher and the concepts seem to be underexplored in this paper, perhaps due to the fact that some of the starting points of paper are in physics. As a counterargument, TSElosophers emphasized that the significance of differences in the object of study should be questioned and included in the description of the boundaries. What are the consequences the differences in the reproducible object of study make? What matters? The objectivity here relates to the description one is making, to drawing the boundaries. Objectivity in terms of unambiguous communication and critical reflexivity is more important here than perfect reproducibility.

Finally, TSElosophers returned to the fourth point of Barad’s framework – the implications of knowledge. We discussed the ethics of knowing and importance of considering material consequences of knowledge production.

Further reading

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Kakkuri-Knuuttila, M. L., Lukka, K., & Kuorikoski, J. (2008). Straddling between paradigms: A naturalistic philosophical case study on interpretive research in management accounting. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33(2-3), 267-291.

Nonsense in management studies

TSElosophers meeting 25.2.2020. Ekaterina Panina, Kai Kimppa, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Mohamed Farhoud, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl

Tourish, D. (2019). The triumph of nonsense in management studies. Academy of Management Learning & Education.


Tourish approaches his own scientific discipline with an admirable dose of self-reflexivity. He particularly draws attention to the existence of a notable amount of nonsense in management studies publications. TSElosophers interpreted the article as a criticism of the academic publication system in general. We could even consider whether management, at least in the kind of critical analysis that Tourish undertakes here, may be ahead of some other disciplines. To what extent does self-reflexive communication improve the intellectual integrity and societal responsibility of a particular discipline, and thereby indicate that it is in fact in a healthy condition?

This article lists several issues in the publishing process. Often, Tourish argues, the style of writing is too complicated and contains pointless and artificial ‘theorising’. Authors needlessly complicate their language to create an impression of sophistication and theory development at an advanced level. This largely results from the theory contribution requirements of top journals, which are then mimicked by other less-influential journals in the forlorn hope of improving their reputation and ranking.

Furthermore, the rules-of-the-game oblige reviewers to offer suggestions for improvement which authors then feel obliged to follow, whether they truly make sense or not for their piece. The result is often dysfunctional, as the publishing process drags on for years and further drafts become increasingly nonsensical, with too many ideas packed into the same article. All this has become ‘the normal’, i.e., it has become naturalised in the academe.

TSElosophers agree that the measure of success for academics is moving away from communicating ideas with clarity and towards merely getting more and more publications. We discussed whether or not academics these days can escape the publication game as long as they do not yet have tenure. Firstly, those not playing the publication game are at risk of losing their research positions to those who are. Secondly, supervisors often feel obliged to help the careers of their students by teaching them the publication game, which encourages publication efficiency but risks the underlying assumptions of this research approach being accepted uncritically. Finally, it seems implausible that researchers who win tenured positions through success in the publication game will flexibly change their focus towards fixing problematic aspects of a system that has so far rewarded them.

Although we considered Tourish’s article relevant and well-written, we also noticed some shortcomings. For example, the article concentrates on symptoms without providing a compelling overall diagnosis. We would argue that the central issue is that instrumentalism in publishing has become too widespread and self-reinforcing. A major underlying explanatory factor for this might be the expectation to publish too many studies, which many of us do our best to respond to in a constant rush of cranking out research manuscripts one after another.

Additionally, the article seems to conflate grand theories with bad theories, despite correctly identifying grand theories as a major foundation upon which some construct nonsensical abstractions. Tourish contends that the “endless elaboration of distinctions” (Mills 1959) within grand theories takes practitioners too far away from a logical route between theorizing and making observations. However, the examples of grand theories he presents are either cherry picked or misrepresented. He refers to Mills’ (1959) efforts at translating the work of Talcott Parsons, which demonstrated that 555 pages of Parsons’ academese could be written in 150 pages of simpler prose. Ironically, these concerns could be countered by referring to a student of Parsons, Niklas Luhmann, who created a (densely written) grand theory that highlights observation as its central concept and a starting point for making distinctions.

TSElosophers also disagreed on the representation of Lacan’s grand theory as innately nonsensical. First, the article defers to Chomsky as an authority figure to create a bias against Lacan. While Chomsky does have a point in criticizing language made complex in order to appear more academic than it is, both Tourish and Chomsky seem to find text that is actually quite understandable, if one has actually read Lacan, to be problematic. Tourish’s article seems to argue that reference to Lacan in any management article is nonsensical, even though the texts chosen actually are relevant (although of course one can then dispute whether the application of Lacanian theory is justified in this case). Interestingly, Tourish considers non-Lacanian parts of the article to be brilliant and fascinating, but does not elaborate on why insights taken from reading Lacan could not have helped to construct these other parts. Unfortunately this is not the only instance in which Tourish does not seem to understand that using difficult but rigorous concepts is sometimes necessary in order to avoid misunderstandings brought about by the unrelated connotations concepts may have in every-day language.

Tourish concludes with an appealing message. He reminds us of our continued agency within the publication system. For instance, we are not at the mercy of any particular journals. We do not need to accept review processes that confuse our key ideas and arguments, as there are other journals, book publishers and niche strategies for surviving, or even flourishing in academe. At times, it might be better to publish in new and less acknowledged venues in order to change the field for the better. Who knows, these venues might be the ones making a difference for the better in the future. Tourish concludes with a positive message encouraging us to write with “a little more humour, curiosity and passion”, something with which we were all happy to agree.

Power tensions dressed up as organizational paradoxes

TSElosophers meeting 28.1.2020, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Mohamed Farhoud, Otto Rosendahl



The literature on organizational paradoxes pivots on themes such as ‘change – stability’, ‘exploration – exploitation’ or ‘competition – collaboration’ and predominantly views the simultaneous existence of these contradictions as sources of beneficial organizational versatility. Berti and Simpson want to join the discussion by highlighting the ‘dark side’ of paradoxes, building on a view that the extant paradox literature falsely assumes similar agency on both sides of the paradoxes. Their claimed key contribution is that the power disparity needs to be included into the discussion of organizational paradoxes, especially when, or if, endowing the paradoxes with beneficial qualities.

Berti and Simpson present several, genuine sounding and relevant themes where the power disparity in organizations indeed positions the employees in between the rock and the hard place. They also go further and propose means of mitigating the ensuing problems. These discussions are written well, with clarity and insight, and merit ample attention.

However, there is one notable problem with the paper. We TSElosophers were not convinced that the paper is actually about paradoxes at all. Paradoxes mean, well, by definition, simultaneously existing polar opposites that cannot logically coexist. Instead, what the authors focus on are tensions, that can (at least in theory, if not in organizational practice) be solved, remedied, or mitigated. Some circular reasoning occurs: At least some, if not all, of the ‘paradoxes’ the paper talks about might actually source from power differences – not only that power differences enter the picture later on when trying to live/deal with the paradox. Hence, resolving, or developing a remedy on, a paradox must mean somehow changing the power difference in question, which would in turn mean that no paradox would then exist. The problem the paper actually addresses is the power disparity that creates tensions, not the tensions-as-paradoxes themselves. There is little we learn of the “dark side of paradoxes”, but a lot about the impact of power differences for the organizational actor.

In our discussion we pondered whether this apparent mismatch with the literature into which the authors have positioned their discussion, and the discussion itself, could be due to the twists and turns of the review process. Yes, paradoxes may have more scholarly appeal than tensions, but TSElosophers were left wondering whether the authors could have originally been quite so blind to the issues of consistency that our discussion spotted.

Dystopia or reality?

TSElosophers meeting 18 November 2019. Toni Ahlqvist, Elina Järvinen, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl, Morgan Shaw, Ekaterina Panina, Milla Wirén

Psychopolitics – Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (2017), Buyng-Chul Han


The overarching theme of “psychopolitics” in Han’s book pivots around the changes in the nature of power geared towards upholding the neoliberal regime of capitalism: the new (primarily digital) technologies have transformed the traditionally disciplinary power of ‘should’ into an internalized and thus invisible soft power of ‘can’. This builds on a few trajectories, each of which Han touches in its own fragment: people are made to believe that they are ‘projects’ that need constant improvement; the access to behavioral data granted by omnipresent digital technologies enables manipulating people psychologically in ways that benefit neoliberal capitalism; this manipulation plays on emotions, exploits the embedded faith in the need of self-improvement, and draws from the urge of being ‘Liked’ in sharing one’s life in the gamified realm of digital social life, to name just a few of the trajectories. The label “psychopolitics” builds on the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics, with Han making the argument that compared to the times of Foucault, contemporary technologies do not stop at controlling the physical aspects of human life, but are insidious to the point of penetrating the realm of the psyche as well.

The book has more width than its relatively few pages would at a first glance suggest. As a result, Han seems to be content with throwing out numerous ideas, and tracing the contours of some connections, without digging deeply into any of the resulting openings or bothering with the waterproofing of the underlying building blocks which he utilizes in making propositions. The book’s resulting shape divided the TSElosophers, leading to one of the most polarized discussions in the history of our little group. Some of us appreciated the ideas and connections that were offered without missing more solid underpinnings, whereas others doubted whether any substantial ideas or connections could be put together from such flimsy building blocks.

From the viewpoint of the proponents of the book, this emerging picture of our current society is realistic: digitalization is a mighty tool for neoliberal powers that have reaped the benefits of capitalism in its diverse, ever-evolving forms throughout the ages, especially as it becomes a means of disguising manipulative and exploitative power in the invisibility cloak of ‘freedom’. This controlling mechanism of ‘freedom’ differs from genuine freedom, because it is built on an embedded, but externally imposed, imperative of making people believe and want something they then are given license to ‘freely’ pursue. This reading of Han understands capitalism as a systemic feature of most modern societies of today, as a part of which most of us simply are and act – both rich and poor – most often not really paying much attention to this fact at all. The way out, as suggested by Han, is to draw from the power of what he calls “idiotism”, namely the ability to not conform to the environmental expectations even at the risk of looking like the ‘god’s fool’ or ‘king’s jester’ – stupid from the viewpoint of the flock – which would allow one agency that can function ‘outside-of-the-box’. These thoughts resonated with the ones of us liking the book, especially as they crystallized some of the notions they have themselves been recently working with.

Opponents of Han’s approach among the group criticized the thinness of Psychopolitics as a work of scholarship, challenged its seeming negation of individual and collective agency, and questioned whether Han’s suggested “idiotism” abnegates social responsibility and possibilities for cooperation in ways that just echo individualist tendencies of neoliberalism rather than confront them.

Despite briefly raising points that explicitly reference Marx, Hegel, Kant, Foucault and Deleuze, Han’s treatment of these thinkers’ ideas often seems cursory, and in some instances suggests questionable readings of important points. At the same time, unacknowledged traces of Critical Theory haunt some aspects of the book’s discussion of freedom, ultimately leaving its conceptual role rather ambiguous. What Han ends up assembling, therefore, came across to some of the TSElosophers as a precarious stack of often underdeveloped and ill-fitting pieces. While sometimes interesting in themselves, for them they fail to cohere into a solid foundation for taking prior philosophical work in a new direction.

However, Han is far more successful in the depiction of a frightening dystopia in which the forces of capitalism oversee an omnipresent and yet imperceptible psychological influence operation that harnesses populations to its (unfortunately largely unarticulated) ends. Under the regime Han describes, digital confession and zealous work on the self as a project lures all of capitalism’s congregants to ‘freely’ align themselves with its subliminally implanted agenda. The extensive catalog of superlatives Han employs (“utter”, “total”, “complete”) conjures this effort not as a development still in progress but as an unassailable finished edifice and thus a perfect exercise of power. However, questions linger: who is actively writing the software behind this apparatus, and what are they aiming to accomplish with it? While Han’s ‘collective psychogram’ may be an emergent and impersonal phenomenon, the building and maintenance of the systems of surveillance, inducement, and monetization that operationalize it – in the view of the opponents of the book – cannot be as disembodied and without strategic purpose as he would have them appear. Capitalism is, in the end, the work of capitalists no matter how quiet, frictionless, and automatic the systems they create to carry out this effort out may become.

This begs the question (which worry also united the proponents and opponents of the book), then, Is ‘psychopolitics’ a ‘politics’ at all? Can there be a politics that seems to assume the total negation of most forms of individual and collective agency? Is Han to be taken literally in his assertions that the conditions of psychological influence he describes makes any form of opposition, whether understood as class struggle or political resistance, completely impossible? Some in this group hold that this trap is less inescapable than Han makes out.

Han himself suggests one opportunity for escape: the embrace of “idiotism”. To be an idiot has historically been to be both holy and afflicted, enduring a sanctified suffering at the margins of society. An idiot is someone from whom almost any form of behavior is tolerated, and from whom next to nothing is expected or required. They are therefore ‘sub-optimal’, even superfluous, to the orderly workings of economic and political systems. When induced to ‘Like’, Han seems to suggest that an ‘idiot’ can, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, evade the issue by simply stating “I would prefer not to,” becoming a puzzle that the wielders of Big Data will be entirely uninterested in solving.

But where does that leave us, especially as an ‘us’ that is more than a collection of self-optimizing ‘I’s? Is becoming irritants to the silent and effortless processes of capitalism, eventually banned from its hyper-efficient workings, but left free to make our cryptic pronouncements at the margins where we seek to preserve or rehabilitate our souls, really the best we can hope for? This is a question we hope the TSElosophers will return to in future discussions.

Misunderstandings about misunderstandings

TSElosophers meeting 18 October 2019. Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Otto Rosendahl

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006) Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12:2, 219-245.


Examination of the potential misunderstandings that still surround case study research is an excellent theme. We very much agree with Flyvbjerg that science needs meaningful, good quality case based research. The five misunderstandings he identifies go largely to the point:

1. General, theoretical (context-independent) knowledge is more valuable than concrete, practical (context-dependent) knowledge.

2. One cannot generalize on the basis of an individual case; therefore, the case study cannot contribute to scientific development.

3. The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses; that is, in the first stage of a total research process, while other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building.

4. The case study contains a bias toward verification, that is, a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions.

5. It is often difficult to summarize and develop general propositions and theories on the basis of specific case studies.

However, misunderstandings underlying Flyvbjerg’s analysis about these misunderstandings makes his own account inconsistent and even misleading. His response to the first point is to emphasize the human learning process, which requires context-dependent practice, but in terms of the importance of the theoretical (context-independent) knowledge, he seems to use a seriously outdated, narrow view on theory (Lukka & Suomala, 2014). This hides the potential of combining context-based empirical analysis of case studies with focused and motivated theorising.

Regarding the second point, Flyvbjerg as such correctly applauds the richness of narratives in creating understanding about phenomena. However, in his response to the second point, he undermines the need and role of generalising in the context of research, including case study research. In essence, he seems to be somewhat blind to the possibility and need of drawing insights from a context-specific case to a higher level of abstraction, which then makes it possible to create generalized theorems. We discussed this point through Flyvberg’s example of how London can only be familiarized through strolling the streets to gain in-depth understanding of the city, and pointed out that while indeed the insights of the nature of diverse alleys does require visiting them, having a map of London is still valuable for gaining other type of understanding of the overall city.

The third misunderstanding is well-analysed, as he points out the diversity of case types that can aid in unveiling specific types of phenomena and scientific propositions. He suggests various theoretical sampling methods as a starting point for testing and building theories, although again he neglects the deep theoretical insight that is needed for designing these non-random sampling methods.

The answer to the fourth point was in Tselosopher’s view blatantly wrong as he states that the case scholars are less prone to verification bias, and even goes as far as to say, ‘ in contrary’. His response to the fourth point does not consider that all studies, if not properly conducted, can be biased and that applies to case study research, too. This is especially a risk in case study research, where the researcher is often in close and long-lasting real-life contact with people in the field. Flyvbjerg should have started from accepting these premises and then examined openly the ways to avoid the risk. In our view, these include being conscious about this risk and then employing the principle of ‘critical independence’ (McSweeney, 2004). And here again the underlying problem is Flyvbjerg’s serious omitting of the role of theory and theorising, which makes him not to realise the possibilities of fruitfully combining rich case-based materials and theorising.

Responding to the final point, Flyvbjerg tries to defend fully descriptive, narrative case study reports, continuing the discussions in the first two points. However, their value as representing scholarly research needs to be questioned. Related to this point, he also unnecessarily limits his attention to the balance between keeping the case study account open and rich vis-à-vis summarising the findings, favouring the former. The much more relevant matter to consider would have been the challenge of using the rich case-based materials in elaborating a theoretically well-motivated research question and producing a meaningful theoretical argument as the conclusion of such analysis.

In sum, Flyvbjerg (2006) does not appreciate the potential and value of theorising in case study research. This makes him to oscillate between overstating and understating his defence for case studies: he concludes that cases are a great tool in a world without context-independent knowledge, but delimits their scholarly value with arguments that case studies cannot be summarized but only narrated. The outcome is therefore a series of further misunderstandings about theorizing. It is a pity since his topic is of great relevance. His article has been cited over 14000 times (Google Scholar on 23 October 2019), which generates a risk that many case study researchers have followed his misguidance along with his guidance.


Lukka, K., Suomala, P., 2014. Relevant interventionist research: balancing three intellectual virtues. Accounting and Business Research, 44, 204–220. https://doi.org/10.1080/00014788.2013.872554

McSweeney, B. (2004) Critical independence. In Humphrey, C. & Lee, B. (eds.) The real life guide to accounting research. A behind the scenes view of using qualitative research. 207-226.

Imagining realities beyond progress

TSElosophers meeting 7.6.2019. Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Otto Rosendahl

Tsing, A. (2012). The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Chapter 1: Arts of Noticing (s. 17-26).


The book tells an atypical story about commercial mushroom trade. Typically, economically-oriented stories focus on the modernity’s requirement of progress. Modernity perceives everything as resources for economic growth and humans as “different from the rest of the world, because we look forward (p. 21)”. Consequently, the ones unable to compete economically and secure their future tend to be categorized as less valuable. For example, the boom of Oregon lumber trade in early 20th Century was followed by the closures and relocations of lumber mills in late 20th Century. The progress that reached Oregon’s forests eventually moved to more efficient sites.

However, the author emphasizes that this was not the end of commercial activities in Oregon forests. The forests re-grew and became home to commercial mushroom picking, which connected to the strong East Asian demand for matsutake mushrooms. Commercial mushroom picking demonstrates supply chain practices of collaborative survival. It is a trade practiced mainly by “drop-outs”, but the tales of collaborative survival are not exceptional. For example, the author posits that similar supply chains developed in Greece after the recent financial crisis. Also, the intensifying environmental crisis is likely lead to more supply chains that rely on collaborative survival.

The reader is invited to feed their imagination by describing the hidden realities beyond progress. The stories of “drop-outs” are generally told only in relation to progress, e.g. the lay-outs in Oregon lumber mills were widely publicized. However, there is a stark difference in the supply chain structures between stable communities of healthy wage workers and open-ended gatherings of vulnerable foragers, including war veterans, refugees and undocumented immigrants.

The phenomena of collaborative survival is approached with an assemblage approach. Assemblage refers to an open-ended gathering that circumvents “sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological ‘community’ (p.22).” The author emphasizes that her idea of assemblage is polyphonic, which refers to pre-harmonic music building on the intertwinement of the independent melody lines: each melody has stand-alone beauty. (In contrast, in post-polyphonic music the sounding whole has inherent hierarchies: there is the primary melody line, supported by the harmonic elements.) Hence, polyphonic assemblages revolve around circular and seasonal rhythms created by multiple actors that represent multiple species. Although polyphonic assemblages do not assume linearity of time or teleology of progress, improvement happens when emergent qualities transform gatherings into happenings with long-term impact.

Our discussion

Inspired by the article, TSElosophers discussed about overcoming some excesses of modernism. Firstly, we want to clarify that modern mindset is hardly the worst option as modern capitalism has supplanted totalitarian and unfair societal orders. However, this issue is complex since modern capitalism can also become combined with totalitarianism. Secondly, modernity’s requirement on progress promotes action based on external goals – e.g. career, money, appearances – rather than the intrinsic good in the activity, such as serving a greater ethical purpose. However, we see possibilities for learning intrinsically purposeful collaboration even in modern society. For example, people mastering horseback riding find out the inadequacy of giving the correct signals on the right direction and speed. Instead, one needs to create a connection with the other; to become aware of the horse’s mood and its needs.

Finally, the modernity’s demand for growth remains unsustainable. Increasing consumption neutralizes the effect of efficiency-increasing technological innovations. Also, the ignorance of other ways of living cause trouble for tribal cultures. For example, Ecuador’s government recently decided to drill oil in the ancient lands of the Waorani tribe (a decision later foiled by a court ruling). Instead of myopic approach on economic growth, we could emphasize ethical, spiritual, social, environmental or other forms of growth. Tribal cultures that are governed relatively fairly and sustainably, and the supply chains with collaborative survival, can inspire us in the pursuit for more holistic forms of growth.

ANT 101

TSElosophers meeting 16.4.2019 Ekaterina Panina, Elina Järvinen, Kari Lukka, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl

Reading material:

1. Bruno Latour (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press. Of which pages 141-156, ”On the difficulty of being an ANT: An interlude in the form of a dialog.”
2. Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen (2000) Kuinka monta meitä on. Tiede & Edistys, No.4. See http://elektra.helsinki.fi/se/t/0356-3677/25/4/kuinkamo.pdf

Our discussion:

We noted that the reading materials offer valuable insights both to ANT experts and to those who have only discovered it recently. Our first text involves a Socratic dialogue between a professor and a PhD student (Latour 2005). The student asks many questions as for how to apply ANT, only to receive rather elusive responses such as ANT is only useful when it is not applied to anything. It is a strange but consistent text that may provoke strong feelings as it demonstrates the several notable clashes between ANT and other approaches to research. ANT is unique in many ways. In our second text, Lehtonen (2000) presents ANT’s key concepts and analyzes ANT’s insights regarding collectives based on Latour’s three texts: “Les Microbes: guerre et paix”; “Aramis ou l’amour des techniques”; and “Paris ville invisible”.

The discussion of TSElosophers concentrated mostly on ANT’s key concepts, because ANT seems to be extremely difficult to pin down. This is not only due to Latour’s cryptic writing style, but also as his ANT seems to be also a somewhat ‘moving target’: Latour’s own views on ANT seem to have developed over time, too. Latour has even criticized the name he gave to it: ‘actor’ is a too strong expression, ‘network’ is often misunderstood and ANT is actually an ontology (e.g. Latour 2005, 9). Actor-network theory defines actors as things which have an effect. A network in ANT is not a safely stable network formed by ostensively defined actors, but very dynamically appearing and disappearing network of performatively defined actors having effects. One in our group with experience on Deleuze and Guattari noted a similarity between the idea of network in ANT and rhizomes, both differing from the more traditional ideas of networks. Also, renaming ANT as an ontology fits with its anti-essentialist, a-theoretical approach.

Anti-essentialist approach provides a strong contrast to traditional sociology. The anti-essentialism of ANT denies that any properties of objects are results of their essence. Rather, in ANT, all properties are viewed as relational outcomes of the actor-network. A stability of a network can emerge and Latour calls these ‘black boxes’, but these black boxes are contingent on the ‘network’ of the actors. Black box, e.g. the election results, can become a new actor that affects the creation of other actors, such as a new government. If, however, an election fraud was uncovered, the election results could become questionable, suddenly destabilizing the network so that it would no longer be a black box. This would make, for instance, the forming of a new government difficult. Latour’s interest lies in the detailed descriptions as for how black boxes are formed and kept up, whereas traditional sociology usually just analyzes these black boxes, e.g. theorizing on democracy. Latour emphasizes that in his approach the researcher doesn’t have to pretend – actually he is not allowed to pretend – to be wiser than the studied actors; he encourages the employers of ANT be happy with just building empirical descriptions and possibly giving these back to the explored actors for reflection.

We were puzzled by the ANT’s seemingly strong commitment to an a-theoretical approach and its possible implications. If Latour was taken completely to his letter, ANT cannot be applied to anything, because it does not provide much theory and it is incompatible with using other theoretical framings. We considered whether it actually is possible (even if one so wished) to employ a categorically a-theoretical approach in research and if so how. We felt that writing a fully and only descriptive research text on actors creating new actors remains a very problematic endeavor: For instance, how to find proper mentoring support and how to present the findings so that they could be found persuasive and interesting for practitioners and funders, leading to publications? We were left wondering why exactly could theory that the researcher would like to employ be not used in an ANT-based research, being hence understood like any actor in ANT (an entity having effects) and treated like theories are typically treated: Having a focusing and a limiting effect simultaneously.

We concluded that ANT was a worthy actor in our meeting. There were many suggestions as for how to continue looking into ANT in particular and the anti-essentialist tradition in general. One of us suggested taking a good look at Harman’s (2009) “Prince of Networks”, which provides a most insightful analysis of the ontology of ANT. Others aim to look into anti-essentialism (e.g. Fuchs 2001), develop their understanding on the differences between ANT and Deleuze & Guattari, or read Latour’s “Science in action” (1987) and “Reassembling the Social” (2005) entirely. Regarding the a-theoretical nature of ANT, the piece by Modell, Vinnari and Lukka (2017), published in “Accounting, Organizations and Society”, could be useful reading.

Foucault and the Environment – The Three Foucaults

TSElosophers meeting 26.3.2019 Elina Järvinen, Kari Lukka, Morgan Shaw, Ekaterina Panina, Otto Rosendahl, Milla Wirén

Darier, E. (1999). Foucault and the environment: An introduction. Discourses of the Environment, 1-33. Of which ”The Three Foucaults” pages 8-27.


In the piece of text we chose this time, Eric Darier, a Canadian political scientist having a deep interest in environmental issues, is looking at intellectual contributions of Foucault’s life dividing them into three periods: 1) an archaeological approach to scientific discourse and knowledge, 2) a genealogical approach to analysing social practices, and 3) ethical considerations of the possible conditions for the creation of self by itself. In addition to examining the influential ideas of these periods, Darier masterfully follows the development of Foucault’s thinking by linking the ideas and themes arising in Foucault’s earlier works to his later writings and vice versa. Furthermore, following the theme of the book, Foucault’s ideas are examined for their possible applicability to environmental issues.

Key points

• In Foucault’s archaeological approach, knowledge is relative to the historical context from which it emerges. Focus is on the emic statements of ‘objective reality’, scientific discourses, and how objects of scientific investigation emerge. Historicity of all of knowledge is emphasised. Foucault’s archaeology has been critiqued e.g. for being actually quite structural in approach despite his own criticism of structuralism; and for focusing on ideal knowledge categories and ignoring social and power relations.
• Genealogical period is partly Foucault’s attempt to respond to prior criticisms. Foucault’s genealogy tries to spot different roles the ideas take, fragment and deconstruct something that is considered stable. This adds on archaeological approach by introducing a broader context of social practices and the concept of power. Foucault here defines power partly through negation; power being relational, diffused, and having normalising effects; power being both positive and repressing, constitutive and enabling. Foucault is suspicious of what he calls ‘teleological projects’ and warns against ignoring the dark side of any projects propagated as ‘liberation’.
• The final Foucault focused on Greek ethics and explores, in particular, how individuals can sometimes, after all, construct themselves and their conduct in the world through ‘practices of liberation’ in relative autonomy from normalisation process.
• For the environmental discussion, an archaeological approach can help us see and reflect how environmental claims are made, or risks constructed, and by doing so resist the ‘fundamentalist temptation’ and reductionism. Genealogical period, in turn, introduces concepts that are very useful for environmental discussion: governmentality, biopolitics and space. Governmentality deals with issues of security, techniques to control the population and new forms of knowledge. Biopolitics concerns with power relations in governing life: population’s health, hygiene, natality, longevity etc. Space refers to government’s control over population living in the territory rather than a territory itself. Finally, Foucault’s last period is important for environmental ethics, where the idea of relatively independent self-constitution means that humans have the potential to continuously rework their relationship with themselves and their environment.

Our discussion

The discussion started with the question on the differences between archaeological and genealogical approach, or, more precisely, on the differences between the two analogies. How archaeological analogy differs from genealogical, if both are still emphasising the historicity of knowledge, among other things? We discussed that these two periods probably have the same goal, but present a shift in approach as well as response to several critiques as Foucault’s thinking developed. While archaeological approach can be compared to digging down through historical levels to uncover the roots of knowledge and scientific discourse in relation to historical contexts, genealogical approach looks at the ancestry of ideas, the situational connections between concepts as part of human practices. Though also partly historical, genealogical approach focuses more on fragmenting or unstabilizing the concepts that are considered historically stable, looking at how and through what power relations different elements of the concepts have been normalised.

The discussion then touched Foucault personally and his constant struggle against normalisation. An observation was expressed that his writings might actually reflect a certain kind of process of ‘autopsychoanalysis’. Through Foucault’s works, one can imagine him processing, for instance, his own sexuality (he was at least after some point of time openly homosexual) in his continuous fighting back established power relations, pressures for normalisation, and, especially in his later writings, pondering the development of the self in the context of these relations.

Everybody agreed that Foucault’s profound analysis of power relations is very useful and can be applied to many contexts. It is also in a way an optimistic, or at least less deterministic, approach, as power is seen operating through dispersed networks or dispositifs, which enables the resistance to take place at the multiple points of contact with this power. We also discussed certain pre-arrangements that are required for something or somebody to have power. For example, the tools for measuring the degree of somebody’s healthy lifestyle will govern one’s behaviour only if one sees the value in exercising healthy lifestyle. One of us noted being himself typically very sensitive and critical towards the new and again new teleological projects typical of bureaucracies, for instance, leading us often all too easily to just accept our participation in processes of normalisation; at least today, people have a tendency to switch their mode of self-governance on rather easily, without much reflective critique.

The conversation then turned to the environmental issues and the points Darier makes about applying Foucault’s thinking to the current (at the time) environmental discourse. Darier mentions that Foucault’s ideas of biopolitics and biopower have been extended to cover ecopolitics. While Foucault’s biopolitics is concerned with administration of populations by exerting positive influence on life, current environmental issues put a twist on the idea and make us consider other forms of life than human populations, namely, environment at large. Darier was of the opinion that Foucault would criticise ecocentric (anti-anthropocentric) views for ignoring the fact that they are constructed by humans, which leaves us with a problem of how legitimate is the human voice speaking ‘in the name of nature’. Following up on this thought, even though discussion on anthropocentricism was not really on the agenda of this session of TSElosophers, we wondered whether Foucault’s view might have been too anthropocentric, thereby being as much a ‘child of his time’ as anybody else: During his time, the scenario of the global ecocatastrophe, and the role of humans in getting it happen, looked certainly a significantly more distant and less likely one than how we perceive it now. Another theme, arising mainly from the final Foucault period, is the concerns on how people develop sustainable identities relatively autonomously from normalization processes, for instance, in the context of the (at that time) emerging program of ‘new ecopolitics’ and its new power relations.

The discussion on environment continued taking a bit more extreme turns. While Foucault argued against extremes and for self-reflecting understanding, some of us suggested that we are now living a time where radical extremes might be necessary, not least due to the ever increasing likelihood of global ecocatastrophe. The chapter is written in 1999, and Foucault himself wrote in 1960’s–80’s, which begs the question whether new insights into the very serious environmental issues would require a new, different perspective to the environmental critique? Is it viable to just routinely resist e.g. the normalisation of environmental discourse in case of existential threat at the global level, if the other likely option were a full chaos, even everybody’s war against everybody else? Indeed, appealing to security issues is one of the main components of governmentality, but the typical Foucauldian approach of viewing them always as just another teleological project, on which we should by default fight back, might in such very different conditions – under drastically new global ‘rules of the game’ – could well be viewed as less warranted. We continued discussing individual’s personal choice of something being normalized for the better of the society. The topic flowed into discussion on having to make trade-offs to achieve something collectively, which means taking both the good and the bad that comes with it. The bad would mean giving up some freedom, as the only way to be completely free is to be alone.

The discussion ended with the topic of personal ethics under existential threat, not living up to your ethics, and not being able to act autonomously from normalisation of practices that are against your ethics but beneficial of the survival of oneself or one’s kin.

TSElosophers’ overall impression of the text was positive: for some, Darier’s analysis brought new understanding of Foucault’s works in the context of his life, while for others the main interest lied in the environmental discussion and how ideas presented in 1999 would look today.

In addition, during the discussions there were several recommendations for further reading: Ari Ahonen’s thesis on Foucault (Liikkeenjohdollinen tieto ja disiplinäärinen valta: tutkielma Michel Foucault’n ajattelun relevanssista johtamis-ja organisaatiotutkimuksen kannalta, 1997), Donna Haraway’s Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science (available in Google Scholar), and research in accounting on governmentality, for instance the article “Accounting and the construction of the governable person” published in Accounting, Organizations and Society in 1987. For additional Sci-fi readings, please contact Milla.

The market of behavioral control and other implications of datafication

TSElosophers meeting 22.2.2019 Albrecht Becker, Elina Järvinen, Kai Kimppa, Kari Lukka, Morgan Shaw, Ekaterina Panina, Otto Rosendahl, Milla Wirén

S. Zuboff (2015) Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization, Journal of Information Technology

Quick summary

Shoshana Zuboff draws the contours of the emerging phenomenon she dubs surveillance capitalism. Its building blocks are datafication and extraction and analysis of that data, ultimately transforming the everyday lived human reality into behavior, which can be through Big Data and algorithmic analysis harvested and capitalized. She walks the reader through a set of quotes by Hal Varian from Google, to highlight how the digital technology becomes Big Other amplifying the reach of capitalism to yet another level.

Key points:

  • Big data originates from five sources: human-digital interactions, sensor technology, surveillance systems, digital transactions and extant databases
  • Extracting data from human actions is one-directional – individuals are harvested for their data in exchange for nighnothing
  • Laws and regulations lag behind because a) they are slower in realizing than the technological affordances and b) reaping the benefits of surveillance capitalism is so lucrative to firms that paying fines can be considered mere investments
  • Big Other creates markets for behavioral control: on the one side there are the producers (like Google) who extract and analyze data to derive behavioral predictions and nudging possibilities, and on the other side the advertisers who buy these to impact their customers
  • Reliance on smart contracts does not increase trust, but destroys the need for trust, as trust is based on voluntary choice

Our discussion

The overall sentiment towards the article was that it addresses and captures a genuinely powerful and worrying phenomenon, which, if left unchecked, will lead to quite a dystopian future. Some of us feared the dystopia more than others. Firstly, it was pointed out that the imperfections of technology will likely hinder the efficiency of Big Other and therefore the behavioral predictions of Zuboff are still far from overarchingly accurate (however it was retorted that the technology does not need to be perfect, just strong enough to wreak havoc). Secondly, some of the insights discuss such technological affordances still quite nascent as done deals (like the use of smart contracts in automatically shutting down a car driven ‘wrong’). Thirdly, some of the arguments rely on such research results which have subsequently been found unconvincing: for example, teenagers are not unaware of the privacy loss, and their continued use is not reflective of ignorance, but of wittingly made strategic choices of transforming privacy into currency.

Those of us who saw the article as foreboding a dystopian future (if not already present), the most difficult question was to define what then would be better? For whom, from what perspective, and why? If my hunger was satisfied before I even acknowledged it (or if my kids were automatically provided food whenever necessary without me needing to bother cooking it), why would it be so terrible? If I were given whatever I needed and wanted in exchange for being a data source, would it really be that unbearable? The answer to this seemed to boil down to the question of free will, our values and preferences about the nature and quality of life.

One of the traditionally considered basic human rights is liberty, and marketizing behavior threatens that, because it is grounded on a set of choices I cannot make for myself: Firstly, I am used as a data source without my (at least witting or informed) consent, and secondly, my behavior is deducted and monetized from this data without my consent. There may be limited options for opting out (the free will can be used in choosing what to do with the food magically appearing by my door), but there are none to predictively choose to not to opt in. However, we also noted that as the convenience level of life increases through involuntary participation in surveillance capitalism as the source of data and target of need satisfaction, the mere abstract notion of free will is not enough to make people-turned-consumers rebel against the emerging system, driven by the agents in the behavior markets. When life is just made easier, why bother?

We also discussed the power of politics. While technology always moves faster than legislation, what kind of power does the political system have in regulating the developmental trajectories, and on what is that power based on? This also led us to discussing the loci of political power; whether it will still be wielded by nation-states, or something else? Here one of us quipped that “at least so far it is the nations that still have the guns”, inferring that the states still possess a level of ultimate power over companies. Additionally, the different political choices made in the US, Europe and China were also discussed: Where the Europeans worry about the human rights (such as privacy and to an extent freedom) and legislate accordingly, the Chinese opt for technological prowess which mandates nonchalance in regards to these. The ensuing trade-offs will play out in the long run.

The fate of trust was also pondered. Zuboff states that automatic fulfillment of contracts leads to disappearance of trust, which is grounded on the choice to trust or not. It was pointed out that maybe the trust is not removed but retargeted: Instead of trust being a choice between the contracting parties, the trust could be directed towards the automated system taking care of transgressions. This was countered by noting that this would be the case only in such cases where one could freely choose to be a part of such a system, choose to trust a system, whereas the whole point of Zuboff’s article is the fact that we are given no such choice in the surveillance capitalism. If we cannot choose to not belong in a system, trust becomes irrelevant. Instead there will be an unwitting confidence to the surveillance system that involves coercion – with very low odds on awareness of, and action against, this coercion.

As is typical for TSElosophers, the discussion flowed intensively and in many directions, some merely loosely connected to the discussion in the article. We again worried about the environmental future of the globe, however also noted that ultimately we humans cannot destroy the globe and life in entirety, only human life and the currently evolved species – give it a few million years and the globe with new sets of life will have bounced back. However, the justification of worrying about, for instance, the quickly declining biodiversity was warranted by the ethical point of view that we humans – while having the powers due our un-ecological life-style – have no right to damage life on our lonely planet to the extent that is now happening.

All in all, the article triggered interesting thoughts and invigorating discussion, and as such, it is a warmly recommended read to anyone interested in gaining one possible comprehensive interpretation of the impact of the current technological advances on the society.

Functional stupidity at the heart of organizing

TSElosophers meeting 30.1.2019. Kari Lukka and Otto Rosendahl.

Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). A stupidity‐based theory of organizations. Journal of management studies49(7), 1194-1220.

This time TSElosophers discussed the article by Mats Alvesson & Andrew Spicer entitled “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations”, published in Journal of Management Studies in 2012. In brief, this article introduces the notion of “functional stupidity” to complement the earlier understanding of the limitations of rationality in decision-making and action in organizations. Alvesson & Spicer particularly stress how functional stupidity adds to this by including affects and power issues into the picture. Functional stupidity is defined as “an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications”.

The article also suggests a system dynamics model dealing with how functional stupidity works in organizations. The model includes two levels of analysis, the organizational stupidity management and the individuals’ stupidity self-management, which is reinforced by the organizational stupidity management, see figure 1 below. Stupidity self-management involves “putting aside doubts, critique, and other reflexive concerns and focusing on the more positive aspects of organizational life […] that are officially sanctioned and actively promoted.” (Please refer to the original article for explanation of other concepts in the figure below.)

The system dynamics of the model were only preliminarily discussed. Future research suggestions reflect the work-in-progress: authors suggest studies on functional stupidity evolving over time and individual’s stupidity self-management process towards greater/lesser reflexivity. This future research adds the idea of delay to system dynamic model. An interesting point of delay is between “reflexivity” and “limited internal reflexivity”. For example, organizations that curb stupidity management might expect a considerable delay before individuals start to demonstrate greater reflexivity.

TSElosophers were not entirely convinced of the analytical originality or strength of the article. Firstly, the difference from the already recognized forms of limitations to rationality in decision-making, taken the latter as a whole, does not seem that big. Secondly, the article does not develop the aspects that are claimed to make the major differences, i.e. affects and power issues, to any notable depth. Thirdly, there is much similarity between the notion of “functional stupidity” and that of “action rationality” of Nils Brunsson, introduced in his article in Journal of Management Studies in 1982 and his book from 1985. Both of these mean essentially wiping aside time-consuming and complicating reflection and profound analysis in order to get ahead in action and to get something done.

TSElosophers speculated about three archetypes of organizational participants with a view of functional stupidity. One of them sees through the system and, stressing the need to reflect and to offer justifications that are defendable in the long-term, takes distance to functional stupidity, even being active in counter-acting it. This may of course lead also to just cynicism or even leaving the organization. A second archetype would basically hold similar core views, but also appreciates the upsides of functional stupidity and therefore keeps normally low profile regarding countering its mechanisms. However, people representing this second archetype may still selectively choose to also resist functional stupidity, when they view resisting more necessary or beneficial than just accepting it. The third archetype refers to organizational participants who either very much buy the upsides of functional stupidity and therefore dismiss the downsides or do not recognize functional stupidity at all, but only behave in the organizational life as functional stupidity suggests/requires.

TSElosophers generally found this article interesting and inspiring. The buzzword at the heart of it is striking enough to raise immediate attention – especially as it seems to include an oxymoron: How can stupidity be functional? The article is pretty compelling regarding the argument that such functional stupidity can indeed have many “positive effects” regarding the smooth functioning of organizations, and that without it, managing modern organizations would be cumbersome. To some extent the article also deals with the other side of the coin: Stupidity, even with such streamlining and simplifying functionalities as depicted in the article, has also downsides. However, it is somewhat surprising – from researchers that are known of their critical approach – how much the article stresses the “positive effects” of stupidity, making the article notably more (short-term) managerially than critically tuned. This is in some contrast to the book on a similar theme by the same authors from 2016, titled “The stupidity paradox” (Profile Books). The book is much more balanced with a view of the upsides and downsides of functional stupidity.

Radical critique of our modernist way of life inspired by animism

TSElosophers meeting 5.12.2018. Jonathan Mumford, Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl

Beyond Nature and Culture (preface, chapters 6 and 8), Philippe Descola 2013

Professor Philippe Descola, an anthropologist, motivates his book “Beyond Nature and Culture” (2013) with no less than saving the scientific field of anthropology. He is worried that of among the “modes of identification” – referring to the ways we essentially conceptualize ourselves – what he calls “naturalism” dominates the scene, both unnecessarily and with some highly problematic consequences. Drawing on anthropological findings and his own reasoning, he suggests a two-by-two matrix with four modes of identification. The dimensions of the matrix deal with whether living things (plants, animals and humans) practice continuity or discontinuity regarding their spiritual or physical self.

Physical continuity refers to thinking where the various forms of living things are physically connected by their evolution, exemplified by Darwinism. Discontinuity in this regard can be exemplified by creationism, typical of Christian religion. Spiritual continuity again refers to thinking according to which the various forms of living things are spiritually connected – while they look physically different, they all represent some common spirit of life. Discontinuity in this regard means thinking where different forms of living have a hierarchy. This can be exemplified by the nowadays typical take in the Western societies where us humans are staged as the ‘kings and rulers’ of the universe: As they are viewed (by us humans!) as mentally much more developed than other living creatures (animals and plants), we kind of self-evidently should gain this special position.

From Descola’s book, TSElosophers focused on reading and discussing just two cells of the matrix: Naturalism (physical continuity combined with spiritual discontinuity) and animism (spiritual continuity combined with physical discontinuity). Descola argues that only one mode of identification, naturalism, is needed to understand the majority of practices in our modernist Western-based societies. Physical continuity is strongly manifested in our wide-spread acknowledgement that humans have developed from other species through evolution. On the other hand, the same modernism also encourages us to perceive all other living things (animals and plants) as separated and (at least implicitly) inferior to us – consider the wide acceptance and consumption of industrialized meat products.

Animism that has been encountered in many anthropological studies among indigenous cultures is a logical counterpoint of naturalism as it combines spiritual continuity with physical discontinuity. In animist thought, just like humans, also animals and plants form communities. For example, animistic cultures have beliefs about peccaries making beer from maize and “jaguars [that] take their prey home for their wives to cook” (Descola 2013, 132). Also, the boundaries between human, animal and plant communities are limited by different physical constitutions, e.g. peccaries form human communities with other peccaries and jaguars form human communities with other jaguars. While animals, plants and humans are spiritually connected, only in special circumstances, such as dreams, they can visit their different physical domains. As for humans, for instance, only shamans have the capability to transcend the physical boundary and visit animal and plant communities.

Naturalism and animism produce different answers of the importance of humans. Naturalism emphasizes the superior intelligence and self-reflective capabilities of humans, which also imply a demand for a greater sense of responsibility from them – most often towards other human individuals. Pragmatic approaches to extend ethics beyond humanism focus on expanding the category of humans towards human-like beneficiaries. The reference point for ethics is hence always the humans. For Example, Peter Singer’s extensionist ethics considers all creatures that feel pleasure and pain as inherently valuable, while others can be treated just as objects of our observation or consumption. Any form of ethics in naturalism-dominated cultures is limited by the need to draw a boundary that spiritually severs a human individual from the majority of existence. In contrast, according to animism, all different physical forms of living are to be dealt in essentially equal terms, due to the spiritual union of all living things. Therefore, animism imbues, for instance, to humans with a desire to create intricate relations with a wide-range of communities: humans, animals and plants.

Descola’s analysis is intended to shake the dominance of naturalism in our culture. It makes us profoundly understand how the Western modernist practice of life, staging humans into the ‘superior position’, has led us to see the rest of the world as just objects serving our desires – essentially just potential resources for our production and consumption. Having read Descola, we became increasingly worried by the strongly expansionist drive in naturalism. Our key concern with naturalism is the deeply institutionalized and therefore taken-for-granted competition and consumption of resources, where the expansionist drive is out-reaching our planetary limits. For us, the key ideas of animism, where all living things should be treated with appreciation, all being our ‘brothers and sisters or cousins’ in their spirit offers a fundamentally different and at least thought-provoking approach to our practices of living. Such way of thought would immediately question the ethical grounding of our expansionist way of life, being based on the belief of ever-increasing growth of production and consumption, which is effectively just using the other living things as we please as resources at our disposal. Spiritual continuity in animism perceives its kin as successfully expanded into the world without any requirement of competition, conquest or status.

Where animism is prepared to see the beneficiary in everyone, naturalism is geared towards seeing a resource in everyone. In our culture, aren’t we too often tempted to sanctify our consumption and politics with the belief that the economic expansion and technological advances will eventually lead to the salvation – or at the very least prevent its fall into damnation? Many of us live in this uncertainty-limiting vision, which may however soon prove to be only utopia. Change in our fundamental, paradigmatic thinking models, is never easy. Descola, however, notes that some eco-centric ethical theories already include holistic, i.e. not artificially bounded, well-being/viability considerations. Theoretically we may contend that human societies can form commitments to eco-centric ethics, which animistic (and totemistic) societies have demonstrated for us. The implication is that despite our genetic heritage, our societal values are not hard-coded to naturalism and may be over-ridden by the efforts of skilled, determined and patient programmers (yet with a risk of for better or for worse). However, the awareness of and interest in eco-centric ethical frameworks remain so far quite marginal. We would like to suggest that wise re-institutions of practices that are aligned with spiritual continuity could eventually lead to more mainstream commitment to the formation of eco-centrical ethical dispositions. An example of these marginal practices within the modern culture may be seen from our earlier blog post (ethical ascetic practices; Munro 2014)

On a final note, we are not sure why Descola motivated his research with the aim of saving anthropology. Descola referred to a wide range of anthropological research, which indicates that there are not any serious crises in their credibility. Possibly Descola’s theoretical efforts are pre-emptive: They certainly help to align anthropology better with post-humanistic philosophies. In summary, we believe that anthropological insights have potential to inspire us and develop our imagination in the development and adoption of practices regarding our society’s most pressing misgivings, such as our on-going contradiction between ecology and expansion.

When paying ones’ debt is wrong

TSElosophers meeting 13.11. 2018. Ekaterina Panina, Joonas Uotinen,  Kari Lukka, Milla Wiren, Otto Rosendahl

Debt – The First 5000 Years (chapter 2), David Graeber 2011


The central theme of the book (chapter) we read this time relates to the two stories about how money came about. The more prevalent story tells us that first there was barter, then money and finally debt, whereas Graeber insists that the reverse order is historically more accurate. This led to the following themes discussed at length and depth in the meeting:

  • What is the key point the author wishes to make with the book? We deduced that his main statement is that paying ones’ debt is not always the most moral choice, as there can be circumstances where this commonsensical notion actually causes more harm than good.
  • How can the boundaries between when it is, and when it isn’t “right” to pay debts be drawn?
  • The benefits of debt: debt as an investment implies a faith in a better future.
  • The necessity of this faith in the future – do we need the sentiment of going forward, towards “more”, or is this linear notion of time one root cause of the environmental problems we are facing (considering the finite nature of our planet)?


In the book, concerned about the power of debt to cause inhuman, immoral consequences to debtors (including examples of daughters being sent to prostitution, or people dying in thousands in developing countries as IMF and other creditors have demanded their debts to be repaid) Graeber asks whether it really is so that debts always need to be paid back?

To this end, he trails the historical development of credit. In chapter 2, he reviews the history of money and debt told today in economics’ textbooks. This story goes that first there was barter; then currency or money was developed to ease the economic exchange of stuff; and, later on, credit developed. By juxtaposing the story with anthropological evidence, he concludes that the now common narrative in economics is wrong. Actually, the opposite is true: the order would actually be that credit developed first, and from it, money. Barter in turn has never been a wider-scale social practice.

He claims that only by introduction of money and interest rates did credit become decoupled from considerations of the needs and situations of all involved: what started out as a simple trust-based I-owe-you that helped people to rely on each other in circumstances where someone had a surplus at anothers’ time of need and vice versa, became an industry in itself. The focus shifted to numbers that do not heed the real life circumstances: when trust between the debtor and debtee was removed and interest rates introduced, debt took on a life of its own. He argues that our confusion of debt as a moral duty is just that – a confusion, and that not all debts need necessarily to be paid back.

On the way, he also argues that it was the economics’ story of development of money, and credit that allowed markets and monetary credit to be artificially disentangled from other social institutions and phenomena. This is because the story makes the development of currency and ensuing monetary credit seem like natural, good solutions to practical problems involved in barter, that all of humanity would have done earlier. This would have entailed the understanding that these institutions are natural, somehow, they need to be maintained by police force and law, and that they can be detached from considerations of other aspects of life and morality. This would, in turn, make these institutions further inhumane supporting the idea that debts need to be paid back unconditionally.

The chapter and the book elicited discussion on several tangential topics. We discussed that credit seems to have positive aspects to it. We considered that Graeber did not give a balanced handling to the issue of debt. He concentrated on the immorality in debt relationships,  although monetary debt may also lead to beneficial outcomes. For example, it (1) enables transition of wealth from where it is in excess to where it is scarce; and (2) it enables people to initiate projects that would otherwise be beyond their reach financially. However, Thomas Piketty’s finding in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014) that returns on capital grow faster than returns on labor seems to pose the question that is the function (1) illusionary?

We hypothesized that the transition from a cyclic experience of time to a linear time likely relates to the appearance of monetized, interest-growing credit. There was controversy over what came first: the need to enhance future or monetized, interest-growing credit. It might also be that before monetized credit people got from neighbors what they needed as a kind of a gift and when their neighbors were in need they would reciprocally give what the neighbors needed – and only with the appearance of monetized credit would also the idea of enhancing future, and of linear, progressive time, appear. However, never mind the order, the notions of linear time and the “better” tomorrow seem to be linked.

Graeber’s book inspired us to discuss the relation between markets and well-being. From the anthropological evidence and discussion on alternative distribution and production mechanisms, arose the topic of what are the limits of markets to yield well-being. As Graeber observes, more intimate, familial, “warm” relationships between people do involve exchange of services and goods; but not through money.
Indeed, an effort to “balance the accounts” in such a case so that no
“imbalance” anymore exists between “credits” and “debits” be they monetary or not, seems to be a violation of such a relationship, a sign of a will to terminate such a relationship. He gives an example of a father who asked his son to pay back all the costs associated with the son’s upbringing resulting in the son, after paying the debt back, never to contact the father again. Anthropologically, barter, where one seeks to maximize one’s own benefit without regard to the other, seems to only happen between people who are neutral, possibly hostile towards each other. It, then, seems that salable commodities can never replace such relationships and introduction of money to such exchange violates and destroys such relationships that likely are crucial for human well-being. This notion sheds a different light to for example
contemporary attempts to commodify well-being into salable services: by replacing social relationships with money, also the main component of value in such services, namely the exact social relationships, disappear.

We also discussed ecological sustainability and its relation to interest-growing credit. Is endless growth necessary? Why, when we
see that the human impact on some of the boundaries of our planet are already threatening our existence? But if we lose the faith in the always better tomorrow in aligning collective action to pursue that better tomorrow, how can we replace that as an enabler of collective action? We need to find alternative coordination mechanisms for our societies.

All in all, while the book appeared somewhat confusing and possibly one-sided, it seems to raise worthy issues. After all, as the other side of the debate is amply occupied, this voice of dissent is welcome. We
liked how Graeber exposed the often hidden assumption by which our institutions of private ownership, markets, and interest-growing credit would be the natural consequence of human development towards better, and questions that assumption: there are many other ways of organizing societies and the merits of each may need reassessment. Also, we enjoyed the questioning of the moral supremacy of paying
ones’ debt as it indeed seems that there are cases when paying back the debt is not the “right” thing to do, no matter how counter-intuitive that for a contemporary member of the current socio-economic system may seem.

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