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Tag: Methodology

What about phenomenology and phenomenological methods in organization studies?

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking incommensurability boundaries?

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

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


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

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

Our discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Our discussion

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

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

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

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

An Inspiring Disorder of the Second-order

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

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


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

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

Our discussion

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

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

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

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

“Perspective relativism” – thought-provoking arguments and confusions

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

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


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

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

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

• Perspectives are subjective, but they can be objectified.

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

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

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

• Perspectives can be compared through various criteria.

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

Our discussion

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

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

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


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

Sartre, Weick, and existential sensemaking

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

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


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

Our discussion

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

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

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

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

Rules for ethnographic research: To have and have not.

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

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


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

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

Our discussion

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

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

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

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

Appealing argumentation for five types of theory

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

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


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

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

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

Our discussion

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

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

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

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

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

Hues of normativity in positive economics

TSElosophers meeting 28.5.2021. Erkki Lassila, Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Milla Unkila, Otto Rosendahl.

Reiss, J. (2017). Fact-value entanglement in positive economics. Journal of Economic Methodology, 24(2), 134-149.


The article by Reiss (2017) outlined historical developments of thinking in positive economics based on David Hume’s ”fork”, i.e. the separability of facts from values. Hume’s fork maintains that factual statements can be known without referring to non-epistemic values such as beauty, good, right, bad and wrong.

Hume’s fork is frequently applied in generating the distinction between normative and positive economics, argued forcefully for instance by Milton Friedman. In this mode of thought, the former are arguably about values and the latter about scientific facts.

The article reiterates, through examples from various aspects of conducting research, the already elsewhere made argument that economics is hardly able to provide a purely positive theoretical body and intricate statements presented as such are only seemingly so. A central theme of the article is that it may be that whenever generalizations are made beyond the immediate observations like that “this leaf here is green”, we may not be able to avoid the inclusion of non-epistemic values.

Our discussion

After many-sided and also critical discussion, TSElosophers came to the conclusion that Reiss manages to do what he wishes to achieve: supporting the blurring of the distinction between positive and normative economics. However, neither Reiss nor we are saying that science would become impossible to distinguish from opinions as Reiss elaborates a cognitivist metatheoretical stance to ethics that emphasizes human capability for reasonable argumentation about normative statements as well.

Thus, the blurring of the separability thesis enables more active role to economists who may now discuss about the normative hues that unavoidably shade the scientific inquiry – coming from e.g. the underdetermination of epistemic values and the expectations about the use of theories. Acknowledging this would allow economists to excel in this and leverage their role in the society with greater awareness and transparency about the values impacting one’s theoretical work.

Most importantly, the blurring of the separability thesis need not become a crisis in economics. Even if positive and normative statements cannot be sharply distinguished, some statements are still more based on facts than others; and academia places considerably more weight on the epistemic values in knowledge-production than happens outside of it.

TSElosophers sympathized with the use of separability thesis as a rhetoric device, although it doesn’t fully capture the complexities of science-making. Hence, it seems to function partly as an unrealistically straightforward solution to distinguish between the more and the less epistemic argumentations. Employing the separability thesis may be helpful in the context of economists’ theorizations when they are challenged in societal discourse; they still need a way to signal the convergence of their theorizations with the epistemic body of economics.

It was pointed out, however, that careless usage of such rhetorical devices may, however, corrupt the credibility of science in the long run. They are always political because they exclude some approaches from discussions instead of others without a watertight basis.

We concluded that a critical mindset and keeping one’s conflicting non-epistemic interests in a tight rein should be among the key strengths of all academicians – regardless whether one supports or rejects the facts-values dichotomy.

Science and values with dawning virtue ethics

TSElosophers meeting 22.4.2021. Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Milla Wirén, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl.

Hicks, Daniel J. (2014). A new direction for science and values. Synthese, 191(14), 3271-3295.


Which values influence science and in which ways? Which values may legitimately affect science, and which values have an illegitimate effect?

Daniel Hicks presupposes that values are an integral part of scholarly research. “Many philosophers of science now agree that even ethical and political values may play a substantial role in all aspects of scientific inquiry.” (p. 3271) Discussions on isolationism and transactionism are not very relevant anymore. (Isolationism believes that ethical and political values may not legitimately influence the standards for acceptance and rejection of hypotheses. Transactionism, the negation of isolationism, states that some ethical and political values may legitimately make a difference to the standards of acceptance and rejection.) Daniel Hicks thinks that there are both legitimate and illegitimate values affecting science, and we should be able to distinguish them from each other.

Values can affect science in different phases of the research process: the pre-epistemic phase, the epistemic phase, and the post-epistemic phase. Hicks states that the distinction among pre-, post-, and epistemic phases is useful for some analytic purposes but cannot be directly applied “to the concrete complexities of the real world.” (p. 3289) In this paper, Hicks uses an Aristotelian framework to capture these complexities of real life, in the footsteps of Alasdair MacIntyre and Philippa Foot.

Hicks compares two cases: feminist values in archaeology and commercial values in pharmaceutical research to make his point. In the Feminist Case, self-identified feminist scientists criticized the androcentric presuppositions and research agendas. This project brought about new contributions, which changed archeological practices and the understanding of the cultural past. The Pharma Case describes the impact of commercial values on science. One example deals with the results of a clinical trial of an antidepressant. The trial did not show the effectiveness of the drug. However, the results were presented in a way that suggested the drug was effective. In the preliminary sketch presented by Hicks, in the Feminist Case, the impact of values is legitimate while illegitimate in the Pharma Case. In the more detailed analysis that follows, Hicks deals with three major approaches to legitimacy vs. illegitimacy. In his conclusion, he outlines his own approach, which he claims to emphasize ethics besides epistemology.

Hicks presents useful theoretical tools for analyzing values – e.g. direct, indirect, and cultural impacts of values – and finds inadequacies in using these tools. He implicitly suggests an Aristotelian virtue-based ethical framework to supplement these theories with an ethical perspective. Hicks reaches beyond the discussion on science and values: researchers should emphasize the virtues of good scholarship and grow as scientists to full maturity.

Our discussion

Some TSElosophers were more sympathetic to the dawning virtue ethics in science than others and all agreed that this is surely thought-provoking – but far from unproblematic. In particular, Hicks’ position on the Feminist and Pharma Cases seems to be predetermined by his own values.

In general, Hicks claims to avoid “pernicious relativism” (p. 3291) but fails to provide argumentation for his claim (and openly admits as much). Relativism is apparent in Hicks’ own distinction between constitutive (e.g., seeking for truth in science) and contextual (e.g., profit-making in the Pharma Case) values that seem to allow the corruption of epistemic values. From the point of view of science, epistemic values are constitutive, while from Hicks’ point of view, the epistemic values were contextual for the agents in the Pharma Case. In contrast, TSElosophers insisted that epistemic values are, and should be, at the core of research in the epistemic phase.

The three different phases of the research process inspired a vivid conversation. At which stage do values impact the research process? In the Feminist Case, values influence the pre-epistemic phase. During the pre-epistemic phase, “research programs are chosen, hypotheses are formulated, and experiments are designed and conducted.” Initially, there is no evidence to back up the new paradigm, research program or theory, but it is produced in the course of the research process. In the Pharma Case, a severe problem arises when unwanted values influence the epistemological phase. In the epistemic phase, “hypotheses are evaluated in terms of their relationship to empirical evidence, among other things, and accepted or rejected.” (p. 3273)

For TSElosophers, the pre-epistemic phase turned out to be about paradigmatic or attitude-related matters and about engaging in everyday research practice. For instance, the currently ruling publish or perish -mentality encourages the instrumental interest in science. Researchers need to pay heed to, e.g., the paradigmatic or methodological tastes and values of journal editors and the potential referees of the papers. Researchers frame their research and articles in such a way that they might appeal to the publishers. If the effect extends to the epistemic phase, all the worse.

What about the values of the epistemic phase? Is it possible that different epistemic values conflict? Or can there be important cases of epistemological underdetermination? For example, scientists choose methodologies with quite a lot of epistemological underdetermination in long-term prediction models of complex phenomena, such as climate change. Epistemological uncertainties make elbow room for other decision-making procedures. In those cases, should one for example exaggerate the effects of climate change if the evidence is ambiguous? The suggested solution was to communicate the unknown or the degree of uncertainty more effectively, e.g. with a scenario analysis. In sound science, we report the range of uncertainty. Another beacon of hope is the self-correcting process of science.

Finally, TSElosophers scrutinized the issues related to the third phase of the scientific process, the post-epistemic phase, “during which accepted hypotheses are utilized in other research (whether to produce more knowledge or new technology or both); this phase also includes the impacts of the accepted hypotheses on the broader society.” (p. 3273) For the sake of argument, let us assume that there might someday be research that could fuel racism. For example, we might have studies that corroborate the hypothesis of races based on biological differences, for instance, regarding IQ. Should we refrain from publishing such research or even conducting it, pre-shadowing the likely ensuing, problematic public discourse or cultural processes? Another tricky example is the Manhattan Case, the project that resulted in creating the nuclear bomb. It would not have been possible without Einstein’s theory of relativity. Should we stop doing any research that might lead to disastrous applied science and technology?

TSElosophers concluded that ethics are embedded in the scientific process and tend to be included in all three phases. That said, in the epistemic phase, precisely epistemic values should be kept as dominant as possible – this is the very lifeline of scholarly work, without which it ceases, sooner or later, to be meaningful. However, the results and the ethically justified research process need to be taken into account. An example of an unethical process is the utterly dehumanizing studies on human subjects by Josef Mengele.

TSElosophers wrapped up by realizing that science is both a logical process and a historical one. The cultural context has an impact on the concepts we use and the values we employ. However, epistemic values are the inalienable core of science: Prioritizing the truth, in the sense of a purpose of well-grounded scholarship, is the right procedure in the ethics of science. It is also pragmatically the most prolific policy: in the long run, trustworthiness pays off. Truthfulness is the basis of reliability – and it can be often communicated most effectively by direct reference to the epistemic phase and epistemic values, even though Hicks is correct in that advanced scholarship does well to analyze the entire research process with a broader ethical framework.

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.

On knowledge building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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