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Understanding Reality's Production

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Understanding Reality’s Production: On methodology and method

 

It is that methods, their rules, and even more methods’ practices, not only describe but also help to produce the reality that they understand. (Law, 2004, p. 5; emphasis in original)

 

The implication of John Law’s assertion – that methods are generative in addition to being indicative and connotative – suggests that in selecting a methodology and its associated paradigm, a researcher assumes a considerable responsibility. In making his case Law argues for a complexity approach to understanding processes in the real world, noting that imposing an arbitrary order via one theoretical model or other imposes limitations and restrictions that may constrain the world to “behave” in the particular way the model suggests (and therefore enable it to be successfully modeled as conceived by the researcher or theorist). However, a successful characterization of any particular phenomenon does not necessarily mean that the world’s processes are best described by that model; nor does one plausible interpretation preclude another model from providing an equally accurate, compelling, reasonable, or useful frame through which one can better understand any arbitrary slice of reality. He writes:

 

What is important in the world including its structures is not simply … [that they are] complex in the sense that they are technically difficult to grasp (though this is certainly often the case). Rather, they are also complex because they necessarily exceed our capacity to know them. No doubt local structures can be identified, but, or so I want to argue, the world in general defies any attempt at overall orderly accounting. The world is not to be understood in general by adopting a methodological version of auditing. Regularities and standardisations are incredibly powerful tools but they set limits. Indeed, that is a part of their (double-edged) power. And they set even firmer limits when they try to orchestrate themselves hegemonically into purported coherence. (Law, 2004, p. 6)

 

Law draws on Latour and Woolgar’s seminal, 1986 examination of how scientific facts are produced in the context of “laboratory life” to make the argument that science produces the realities that it describes. This is not an arbitrary, “anything goes” epistemology, but rather the product of a rigorous and difficult process of what I describe as “adding to the cultural compendium of wisdom” (Federman, 2007). Heterogeneous research practices and diverse contexts contributed by researchers and participants alike produce heterogeneous perspectives and interpretive realities – both of which are, arguably, imaginary constructs – that nonetheless manifest in multiple real effects and consequences. Law then proceeds to suggest that “perhaps there may be additional political reasons for preferring and enacting one kind of reality rather than another” (p. 13; emphasis in original).

 

In considering the researcher’s responsibility in his or her knowledge contribution, these “ontological politics,” as Law calls them, loom large, especially in the context of both affecting and effecting human behaviours in social settings. Peter Drucker differentiates between natural laws that operate irrespective of humanity’s often limited ability to understand and describe them, and the basic assumptions held by a particular select group of researchers and practitioners in any given field of human endeavour. These assumptions

 

…largely determine what the discipline assumes to be reality. … For a social discipline such as management, the assumptions are actually a good deal more important than are the paradigms for a natural science. The paradigm – that is, the prevailing general theory – has no impact on the natural universe. Whether the paradigm states that the sun rotates around the earth or that, on the contrary, the earth rotates around the sun has no effect on sun and earth. A natural science deals with the behavior of objects. But a social discipline such as management deals with the behavior of people and human institutions. Practitioners will therefore tend to act and to behave as the discipline's assumptions tell them to. Even more important, the reality of a natural science, the physical universe and its laws, do not change (or if they do only over eons rather than over centuries, let alone over decades). The social universe has no ‘natural laws’ of this kind. (Drucker, 2001, p. 69-70)

 

The researcher constructs a system of meaning through which sense is made of perceptions and lived experiences. Those who hearken to the researcher’s findings may rationalize behaviours in themselves and others that become reflexively justified according to those interpretations. Karl Weick (2001) argues that normative behaviours in a social setting create interpretations of events that become reified in social relationships, and subsequently crystallize into organizations. Over time, interpretive justifications of events become based on these social expectations of behaviour rather than on individuated reasons. The combination of justification processes and expectations create the effect of self-fulfilling prophesies, as well as self-perpetuating conceptions of reality.

 

In constructing his “Position Paper for Positivism,” Lex Donaldson (2003) recognizes that such sense-making underpins social constructionism which explains “micro-level processes whereby organizational members behave and bring about organizational changes” (p. 124). However, he dismisses the validity of constructionism as an appropriate research paradigm for organizational studies in favour of “a superior, more objective view that the analysts can help actors attain through de-reification … [of] the common sense of people at a specific time about their organization” (p. 125). The value of a positivist approach, Donaldson argues, is that it seeks to explain social interactions in a deterministic manner, based on testable hypotheses that can be deduced from theories, the consequences of which can be observed empirically. Seeming to ignore Drucker (let alone Latour and Woolgar), Donaldson contends that the objective of positivism is,

 

…seeking to build a science of social affairs of a broadly similar type to natural science. The success of the natural sciences provides an inspiration and role model for positivist social science. Positivist social science aims for theoretical generalizations of broad scope that explain social affairs as being determined by causes of an objective kind that lie in the situation rather than in the minds of people. (Donaldson, 2003, p. 117)

 

Donaldson, a major proponent of structural contingency theory (1985, 1995), contends that individuals are effectively constrained by their situations, deterministically responsive to external conditions, and that the collective behaviours of an organization’s members are shaped by material and social-environmental factors. The deterministic conclusion that Donaldson draws leads him to assert that “reliable, scientific knowledge about social affairs will be built most rapidly by following the positivist approach” (2003, p. 117), which is based on “systematic inquiry through rigorous empirical research, [that] can yield knowledge that is superior to common sense” (p. 118).

 

Thus, positivism is grounded in a phenomenological understanding of organizations as “concrete, stable, and identifiable entities with distinctive boundaries that can be described and analyzed, using appropriate research methodologies” (Chia, 1996, p. 143). The positivist approach assumes that:

 

…(a) ‘objective’ reality can be captured; (b) the observer can be separated from the observed; (c) observations and generalizations are free from situational and temporal constraints, that is, they are universally generalizable; (d) causality is linear, and there are no causes without effects, no effects without causes; and (e) inquiry is value free. (Hassard, Kelemen, & Wolfram Cox, 2008, p. 143)

 

Is a positivist approach appropriate for answering the research questions posed in the previous chapter? If one reads the historical argument presented in that chapter as technological determinism[1], a positivist-informed contention logically follows: that the nature of UCaPP organizations should be obtainable through positivist means. However, if one instead chooses to interpret history through the lens of complexity as multifaceted societal and cultural interactions that propagate through a multiplicity of human feedback and feedforward networks, it is difficult to see how positivist assumptions might apply in any but the most simplistic of analyses.

 

More specifically in the context of the current project, contemporary BAH organizations that are predominantly functionalist and instrumental in their foci exist along side UCaPP organizations, and have been explained in various contingency theory terms using positivist methods. Is it reasonable to conclude that positivism is an adequate investigatory framework to simultaneously explain these two, diametrically polar organizational incarnations? The question is especially salient when one realizes that both organizational forms exist in the midst of the same social “causes of an objective kind that lie in the situation,” to use Donaldson’s language (2003, p. 117), apparently denying the foundational premise of contingency theory[2].

 

As useful as positivist approaches may be in certain contingent contexts, understanding the nature and characteristics of UCaPP organizations, and the influences and emergent processes that may effect transformations from BAH to UCaPP and vice versa, necessarily requires other methods derived from a different worldview:

 

Social construction, or constructivist philosophy, is built on the thesis of ontological relativity, which holds that all tenable statements about existence depend on a worldview, and no worldview is uniquely determined by empirical or sense data about the world. (Patton, 2002, p. 97; emphasis in original)

 

The preceding argument highlights the importance of assuming a constructivist[3] standpoint when attempting to understand individual and collective interpretations of experiences and events. The primary ontological assumptions of constructivism, can be summarized as follows: (a) truth is formed by consensus among “informed and sophisticated constructors, not of correspondence with objective reality” (Patton, 2002, p. 98); (b) facts have meaning only within the context of a framework of values that are imposed on any assessment of apparently objective discriminants; (c) supposed causes relate to effects only by being so ascribed; (d) events have meaning only within a context; changing the context will change the meaning and effect of a given occurrence, rendering the process of generalizing dubious at best; and (e) constructivist inquiry yields results that have no special legitimacy over any other, but contribute to the complex emergence of experienced reality (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 44-45).

 

One must remain cognizant of the problematics and limitations of constructivism when attempting to understand newly emergent phenomena like those of the UCaPP world. On one hand, “constructivism assumes the relativism of multiple social realities, recognizes the mutual creation of knowledge by the viewer and the viewed, and aims toward interpretive understanding of subjects’ meanings” (Charmaz, 2000, p. 510). Michael Quinn Patton describes it this way:

 

Because human beings have evolved the capacity to interpret and construct reality – indeed, they cannot do otherwise – the world of human perception is not real in an absolute sense, as the sun is real, but is ‘made up’ and shaped by cultural and linguistic constructs. … What is defined or perceived by people as real is real in its consequences. (Patton, 2002, p. 96; emphasis in original)

 

On the other hand, reality that is perceived and constructed according to a well-entrenched contextual ground is, de facto, the interpretive lens through which one interprets all subsequent events and actions. The interpretation persists, irrespective of any as-yet-unperceived changes in the dynamics of the ground that created the meaning in the first place.  A way to reconcile this apparent paradox of constructivism – that the effects of individually perceived reality may persist long past the time when the circumstances that constructed said reality have substantially changed – may be through the application of a complexity model as suggested earlier by Law. Indeed, constructivism is quite consistent with the principles of complexity theory as outlined by Paul Cilliers’s characterization of complex systems, if the system in question is a system of meaning.

 

Read on: Complex Systems of Meaning

 


[1] Technological determinism is the doctrine that suggests that the construction and dynamics of the social world unavoidably and inevitably follow the dictates effected by the introduction of particular technological innovations. It views the world as a Newtonian clockwork following laws of sequential causality that can be empirically discovered. In contrast, a complexity understanding of the world suggests that technologies enable environmental conditions that encourage change from a prior state of homeostasis, in other words, emergence.

[2] Ironically, in the positivist paradigm, this observation would falsify contingency theory, rendering it unreliable and unscientific, according to Donaldson’s reasoning. However, this reasoning simply reflects Kuhn’s (1962) idea of paradigm incommensurability.

[3] The distinction between constructivism and social construction is subtle: one deals with individual perception and sense-making, the other with group process: “It would appear useful, then, to reserve the term constructivism for the epistemological considerations focusing exclusively on ‘the meaning-making activity of the individual mind’ and to use constructionism where the focus includes ‘the collective generation [and transmission] of meaning’” (Crotty, 1998, p. 58; emphasis in original).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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