The Futures of Power: Models of analysis

Bauman (in Bauman and Tester 2001: 40) suggests that neither experience nor knowledge of it comes divided into tightly sealed compartments. Although he was not writing about organization and management theory, we think his remarks, which seem to echo those of Alfred North Whitehead (1925) on the ‘fallacy of mis- placed concreteness’, are applicable to this field of enquiry. In a spirit of skepticism, rather than defer to the quite recent foundations that organization science has built, our strategy in this book has been to take these foundations apart, attacking them with the intellectual intent of deconstruction and reconstruction. Thus, despite the appearance of our book in a series that provides foundations for orga- nization science, as the attentive reader may well have inferred by this point, we have our doubts about organization science as a self-evident category; we propose a different conception of science to that which is often espoused; and we question the foundations that many of its practitioners claim.

In societies that have been settled and inhabited for long periods of time it is often the case that foundations of quite recent construction are built over those that had previously existed. Sometimes such construction is simply convenience; other times it is a way of politically intervening in the past and physically obliter- ating it. So it is with knowledge. Analysis, we believe, should not leave its history behind with ne’er a backwards glance, such that the present dulls, numbs, or over- whelms historical memory (Bauman, in Bauman and Tester 2001: 21). Sadly, that is the case with most organization theory, which usually is focused on either ideo- graphic particulars or cross-sectional synchronicities but rarely on the historicity of its own becoming. In other words, an interrogation of what makes its founda- tions possible is not usually a feature of its practice. Lacking reflexivity, much orga- nization theory dwells in the immediacy of its own presence to such an extent that it neglects those great disciplinary traditions from which it once drew sustenance. Once politics and sociology were a source of nourishment but now organization theory increasingly feeds on itself, cannibalizing its stock of knowledge. The tradi- tions of older intellectualism have been cast off, like a security blanket that the child grown into lusty adolescence deigns to cling to, in a sign of maturity. Not that we think regard for the past is a form of infantilism; on the contrary.

More often than not, in its modern constructions, contemporary organization analysis seeks institutional isomorphism with a model of theory conceived as a sci- entific practice represented in terms of systematic manipulation of variables, because that is what it is thought that mature and proper sciences – and scientists – do. There are good classical auspices for this view of science, which, once again, have their roots in utilitarian philosophy and its view that only that which can be con- trolled and manipulated is of value in scientific work. It was early in the method- ology of modern social science that the philosopher John Stuart Mill, whom we met at the outset of this book, referred to the method of concomitant covariation as one of the principal methods of all science. Using this method one manipulates the parameters of an experiment in such a way that one systematically varies theo- retical controls until causal efficacy is established. Different parameters are held constant, such as temperature or time of exposure to some variable, while others are systematically varied. Once the desired causality is achieved one seeks to replicate that experiment systematically, in order to ensure the constancy of results, given the standing conditions. It is this strategy of systematic covariation that is the fundamental axiom of laboratory-based sciences, such as physics, chemistry and molecular biology.

There are no laboratories in nature. By definition, the laboratory is an artfully contrived environment. When we look at naturalistic phenomena – naturally occurring phenomena – that vary through time and space, the research questions that we seek to address are such that one cannot control experimental parameters. For instance, with the global warming hypothesis, one cannot isolate a low-lying Pacific atoll, such as Kiribati, and systematically increase the ecological heat sur- rounding it, perhaps by systematically thinning its immediate ozone layer. And, even if one could, there is the not so small ethical question of what happens to the nature so fried, including the Kiribatians, globally warmed and inundated on the atoll. The ecology, like the subject of other historical sciences such as the evolution of species, linguistics, or the galaxy, is not something that can be artfully constructed into a temporally and spatially bounded sphere of covariation.

Historical sciences are concerned with narrative chains of proximate and ultimate causes. In most of physics and chemistry the concepts of ‘ultimate cause,’ ‘purpose’ and ‘function’ are meaningless, yet they are essential to understanding living systems in general, and human activities in particular … In chemistry and physics the acid test of one’s understanding of a system is whether one can successfully predict its future behavior … In historical sciences, one can provide a posteriori explanations (eg, why an asteroid impact on Earth 66 million years ago may have driven dinosaurs but not many other species to extinction), but a priori predictions are more difficult (we would be uncertain which species would be driven to extinction if we did not have the actual past events to guide us). (Diamond, 1998: 422)

In historical science – and it should be clear that organization theory is such a science in the conception that has been advanced in this book – there are an enor- mous number of variables, great complexity, unique actors, and no possibility of artful laboratory closure. Thus, the organization scientist has to adopt different strategies to that of covariation.

We suggest the following research strategies. First, respect the natural scene. That is, take seriously the lived experience and understanding of the action scenes that the participants make. Don’t just go in on a smash and grab raid with a question- naire that might make sense to the researcher but not necessarily to the researched. Research is not just reportage: theorize the data, don’t just describe it. Be theoreti- cally informed even when being descriptive. Hear the stories: people organize their lives through narratives and research should adopt a narrative structure. Be reflex- ive: always remember that you are the author of the fragments that these others author. There is unlikely ever to be a definitive account. The narrative is more likely to be an Alexandria Quartet (Durrell 1968) than a definitive history.

There is one great advantage when researching socially constructed phenomena: provided we are able to translate the language in use, we are able to interpret the understandings that its subjects have of themselves and the phenomena that they found salient. Ultimately, we can seek to understand interpretively the stories that people construct to explain reality for them. (While this is easier if we are able to be co-present and ask directly, historical traces can also yield great returns.) Essentially, the human condition is a narrative condition open to understanding; it is a work in progress paused to create spaces for interrogation, enquiry, and con- versation, although there have been suggestions that these have ceased to be as important as we face ‘the end of history’.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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