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date: 20 August 2019

Introduction: The Need for Meta-theoretical Reflection in Organization Theory

Abstract and Keywords

This book provides a forum for leading scholars in organization theory (OT) to engage in meta-theoretical reflection on the historical development, present state, and future prospects of OT. It explores the status of OT as a social science discipline. It aims at reviewing and evaluating important epistemological developments in OT, especially issues related to the kinds of knowledge claims put forward in OT and the controversies surrounding the generation, validation, and utilization of such knowledge. This article provides a few words to clarify the term ‘organization theory’. Organization theory is seen as the academic field specializing in the study of organizational phenomena (both micro and macro) and for this reason OT is used here as a synonym for Organization Studies.

Keywords: organization theory, historical development, social science, epistemological developments, organizational phenomena

Why This Handbook?

This handbook provides a forum for leading scholars in Organization Theory (OT) to engage in meta-theoretical reflection on the historical development, present state, and future prospects of OT. The central question that is explored is the following: What is the status of OT as a social science discipline? Notice that this is a meta-theoretical question: the object of analysis and debate in this volume is not a set of organizational phenomena, but OT itself. The book (p. 2) aims at reviewing and evaluating important epistemological developments in OT, especially issues related to the kinds of knowledge claims put forward in OTand the controversies surrounding the generation, validation, and utilization of such knowledge. Before we proceed, however, a few words of clarification are needed as to what is meant by ‘Organization Theory’.

In this volume we have taken a sociological perspective on science, namely to view it as a historically situated activity, largely carried out in academic and research institutions, in which its practitioners are in the business of making knowledge claims about the phenomena they investigate (Whitley 2000). Those knowledge claims are subject to the assessment of their fellow practitioners, following certain methodological canons and conceptions of truth that prevail at a particular point in time. A science that is as practically oriented as OT is—that is, a science aiming at generating knowledge with the explicit aim that it be of direct utility to an identifiable body of practitioners—is a ‘policy science’ (Whitley 1984). Finally, instead of adopting the demarcation between Organization Behaviour and Organization Theory, widely encountered in North America—a demarcation that roughly corresponds to an exploration of micro and macro organizational phenomena, respectively—a broad notion of OT has been adopted in this handbook. Organization Theory is seen as the academic field specializing in the study of organizational phenomena (both micro and macro) and for this reason OT is used here as a synonym for Organization Studies. Although in some of the chapters included in this handbook there is a slant towards more macro phenomena, the term OT is intended here to be comprehensive in its coverage.

Although OT is a relatively new scientific field, in its sixty or so years of existence it has reflected most of the major trends and shifts that have emerged in the social sciences at large. All the major epistemological debates that have broken out in the social sciences have also been played out in OT (Burrell and Morgan 1979; Deetz 1996; Morgan 1983; Tsoukas 1994; Scherer and Steinmann 1999). The publication that undoubtedly, more than any other, kicked off serious epistemological debate in OT has been Burrell and Morgan's Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis, published in 1979. Drawing on the most influential philosophical vocabularies of the time—notably, the Kuhnian notion of ‘paradigm’ and the notion of ‘radical change’ inspired by Marxism—Burrell and Morgan mapped out OT in terms of four paradigms. Other interesting attempts to provide an epistemological route map to the field has been the work of Astley and Van de Ven (1983), and Pfeffer (1982).

What is interesting to note from the early meta-theoretical attempts is their concern with creating typologies: they aimed at providing a map of the main theories of the field, teasing out their epistemological assumptions, rather than philosophically, historically, and sociologically scrutinizing key categories implicated in organizational research. Judged in their own terms, such attempts have been successful and furnished us with a helpful vocabulary in terms of which we (p. 3) may comprehend theoretical developments in the field. At the same time, it is interesting to note that some of the early controversies concerning, for example, qualitative vs. quantitative approaches (Morgan and Smircich 1980) have somewhat faded. It is now broadly accepted that each one of these approaches has its merits. Moreover, we do not seem to care very much about narrowly methodological controversies today, such as inductivism vs. deductivism, which exercised some organizational researchers in the past (Mintzberg 1979).

Other controversies, however, keep resurfacing from time to time. The notion of ‘paradigm’, for example, has not gone away, and how paradigms relate to one another, as well as the validity of the competing knowledge claims they help generate, have preoccupied several researchers until recently (Czarniawska 1998; Donaldson 1998; Jackson and Carter 1991; Kaghan and Phillips 1998; McKinley and Mone 1998; Scherer and Steinmann 1999; Scherer 1998; Willmott 1993). Similarly, the time-old questions surrounding the applicability of OT knowledge has resurfaced as a result of new philosophical developments in hermeneutics (such as the emergence of neo-Aristotelianism—see Maclntyre 1985; Toulmin 1990; Tsoukas and Cummings 1997), pragmatism (Wicks and Freeman 1998), critical theory and postmodern philosophy (Alvesson and Deetz 1996; Gergen and Thatchenkery 1998; Alvesson and Willmott 1992). Consequently, the very notion of ‘practical reason’ has undergone new definitions.

Meanwhile, new issues have cropped up, mainly as a result of fresh developments in the philosophy, sociology, and history of science. The critique of representationalism and the concomitant ‘linguistic turn’ in the philosophy of science have raised new questions about the very idea of ‘knowledge’, its modes of justification, and its relation to action (Rorty 1989, 1991; Tsoukas 1998). Recent developments in the philosophy of science make it possible to provide fresh insights into old controversies in OT, such as agency vs. structure, voluntarism vs. determinism, and micro vs. macro approaches, and help us refine our understanding of explanation. Similarly, recent research in the sociology and history of science enables us to understand now, better than before, the broader socio-cultural factors that are implicated in the production of OT knowledge (Knorr 1981; Latour and Woolgar 1986; Mirowski 1989; Pickering 1992). Questions regarding the role of gender, race, ethnicity, the state, and professional bodies in the production of OT knowledge, as well as the rhetorical function of OT discourse to persuade particular audiences, have come to the fore in a way that early meta-theoretical accounts had not quite anticipated (Czarniawska 1999; Guillen 1994; Martin 1990, 1994; Nkomo 1992; Shenhav 1999).

Contributors to the present handbook engage in meta-theoretical reflection on the epistemological status of OT by taking stock, on the one hand, of related debates in the past and, on the other hand, of new developments in OT and in the philosophy, sociology, and history of science. Five sets of questions are raised in the handbook, each one of which is addressed in a separate part: (p. 4)

  1. (1) What is the status of OT as science? What counts as valid knowledge in OT and why? How do different paradigms view OT? (Part I)

  2. (2) How has OT developed over time, and what structure has the field taken? What assumptions does knowledge produced in OT incorporate, and what forms do its knowledge claims take as they are put forward for public adoption? (Part II)

  3. (3) How have certain well-known controversies in OT, such as for example, the structure/agency dilemma, the study of organizational culture, the different modes of explanation, the micro/macro controversy, and the different explanations produced by organizational economists and sociologists, been dealt with? (Part III)

  4. (4) How, and in what ways, is knowledge generated in OT related to action and policy? What features must OT knowledge have in order to be actionable, and of relevance to the world ‘out there’? How have ethical concerns been taken into account in OT? (Part IV)

  5. (5) What is the future of OT? What direction should the field take? What must change in the way research is conceptualized and conducted so that OT enhances its capacity to generate valid and relevant knowledge? (Part V)

No doubt the above questions do not exhaust the list of meta-theoretical issues that could be explored in OT, although they are a good start. We are aware of certain omissions in the present handbook which, ideally, we would not have allowed. The question of race in OT, for example, is not covered, as is not the question of time. We would have liked to have included more material on organizational economics and psychology, on theory building, on comparative OT, and on the institutional influences on the formation of OT in different societies. We would have done more in an ideal world. Alas, as we will argue below, if knowledge production is viewed as a practical activity, it is never produced in ideal-world conditions; we had to cope with all the uncertainty and incompleteness that surrounds practical, real-world projects. We hope, however, that what is provided in this handbook is stimulating enough to contribute to our collective learning as organizational scholars and to pave the way for other similar books in the future.

What is to be Gained From a Meta-Theoretical Perspective on OT?

Why should meta-theoretical reflection be necessary in OT? What is to be gained? At first glance, the number one problem in OT has been suggested to be the fragmentation of the field into so many, often unconnected, perspectives and (p. 5) paradigms. This is a problem, it has been alleged, for it makes the field less influential among policy makers; less capable of obtaining resources; it obstructs communication within the field; and, ultimately, it makes scientific progress difficult, if not impossible (Miner 1984; Pfeffer 1993; Webster and Starbuck 1988; Zammuto and Connolly 1984). OT, it has been alleged, appears to be close to becoming a tower of Babel (Burrell 1996: 644; Kaghan and Phillips 1998) and this cannot be good for anyone. Add to this concern the perennial anxiety regarding the extent to which a policy science such as OT is indeed relevant to practitioners (Abrahamson and Eisenman 2001; Lawler et al 1999; Mowday 1997; Pettigrew 2001; Starkey and Madan 2001; Tranfield and Starkey 1998) and you have the making of a crisis of self-confidence: how good are we as a field to develop valid knowledge which is of relevance to practitioners?

The moment such questions are raised, meta-theoretical reflection (i.e. reflexivity) begins. What is valid knowledge and how is it to be generated? To whom exactly should it be made relevant? For what purpose? What does ‘relevant’ mean anyway, and how is ‘relevant’ knowledge best produced? How should competing knowledge claims be evaluated? Raising such questions implies taking a step back from ordinary theoretical activity to reflect on what the latter should be aiming at and how it ought to be conducted—it is for this reason that such reflection is called ‘meta-theoretical’. By raising those ‘meta’ questions the purpose is not to generate theory about particular organizational topics but to make the generation of theory itself an object of analysis (see Figure 0.1).

Notice, however, the paradox here, a paradox intrinsic to all acts of reflexivity. Ordinarily we go about doing our theoretical work (i.e. trying to make sense of a particular organizational phenomenon) without too much concern for what theory is and how it is best generated—as practitioners engaged in the generation of theoretical knowledge, we normally take such things for granted. The moment, however, we step back to inquire about theory—the moment, that is, we stop being practitioners and become, instead, observers of our theoretical practice (our research)—we are faced with questions which cannot be conclusively answered. Meta-theoretical questions have an air of undecidability about them and this explains the inconclusive arguments concerning paradigm incommensurability among organizational theorists.

Introduction: The Need for Meta-theoretical Reflection in Organization TheoryClick to view larger

Fig. 0.1 What meta-theoretical reflection is about

The reason for this inconclusiveness—the reason, in other words, for not being able to arrive at a rational consensus concerning the validity claims of knowledge produced within different paradigms—is not only the intrinsically high degree of difficulty in answering such questions anyway, stemming in large measure from the ambiguity of, and the controversy surrounding, key concepts, but, principally, the abstract and de-contextualized manner in which such questions are raised. If, for example, we ask in abstractor ‘is organizational structure best explained by contingency or political models?’ (see respectively Donaldson 1996; Pfeffer 1981), we will find it very difficult to demonstrate the superiority of one or the other position (p. 6) (McKinley, Mone, and Moon 1999) (which is not to deny that some arguments in defense of one or the other position may be more persuasive than others). The reason is that, putting the question in purely abstract terms, assumes that all we need to do is to engage in a process of abstract reasoning in which we, as observers, scrutinize and compare different paradigmatic assumptions. When such assumptions widely differ, as they normally do, how are we to choose? We would need to step back and seek another set of paradigmatically neutral meta-assumptions that would enable us to adjudicate between the rival sets of assumptions we began with. But this would involve us in infinite regress: since no such set of meta-assumptions exists, we would need to step further back, and so on. This process of abstract reasoning is inconclusive, since there is no ultimate conceptual common ground upon which we may stand to make paradigmatic comparisons (Maclntyre 1985: ch. 2)—hence incommensurability (Burrell and Morgan 1979; Burrell 1996; Jackson and Carter 1991; Scherer and Steinmann 1999: 525; Tsoukas 1994).

As researchers we are both participants in the field and observers of our actions. Echoing Kierkegaard, Weick (2002) remarks that the way we live when we are engaged in our research practice is different from the way we live when we subsequently reflect on it. Acting in the world is necessarily somewhat opaque; we increase our awareness of what our acting has involved when we reflect ex post facto on the way we habitually act. Reflexivity enables us to detect the biases that (p. 7) creep into our research—biases which constitute likely threats to the validity of our knowledge claims—and hopefully try to overcome them next time we engage in research. As Weick (2002) remarks, ‘We are reminded in no uncertain terms of the ways in which our culture, ideology, race, gender, class, language, advocacy, and assumed basis of authority limit, if not destroy, any claim our work has to validity in some interpretive community. These threats to validity are treated as objects that can be labeled, separated, differentiated, and treated as decisive flaws.’

It is the participant-observer duality that creates the paradox mentioned earlier: to carry out our theoretical work effectively we cannot afford to wonder too much about its key categories; but to improve it, to increase the validity of our knowledge claims, we need to reflect on what we do and how we do it. But the more we do so, the more we risk engaging in inconclusive meta-theoretical quandaries—we may end up infinitely regressing in search of some Archimedean original point. Reflexivity can easily turn into self-obsession and narcissism (Weick 2002). Indeed, most of the debate on incommensurability in OT could be seen in that light—an excessive preoccupation with our own practice rather than with the practice of those we study. It is perhaps for this reason that Weick makes a plea for ‘disciplined reflexivity’ (Weick 1999). Polanyi would certainly agree. ‘Unbridled speculation’ for him is detrimental to the effective carrying out of science (Polanyi 1962). But how should we view our work in OT so that we do justice to both its tacit component (the taken-for-granted assumptions which our research practice necessarily incorporates) and the possibility of meaningfully elucidating our research practice in order to reduce the likely threats to the validity of knowledge claims we make? We will explore this question in the next section.

Organization Theory as a Practical Social Activity

Saying that the production of academic knowledge is a social activity is perhaps stating the obvious. The generation of knowledge involves both work and communicative interaction (Habermas 1972; Sayer 1992). By ‘work’ we mean the transformation of matter and/or symbols for human purposes. For an object of study to reveal itself to the researcher, it needs to be probed and such probing takes the form of several kinds of interventions (i.e. work), such as experiments, surveys, and/or fieldwork. By ‘communicative interaction’ we mean the sharing of meaning in a community of inquirers, typically through learning a particular scientific language and a set of procedures for thinking and arguing about the object of study (Sayer (p. 8) 1992: 17–22). Both work and communicative interaction are necessary and one cannot be reduced to the other, although in real life they are closely interwoven. Researchers act on their object of study through following a set of communication protocols, which they learn as members of a particular academic community.

The production of academic knowledge is a collective effort, embedded in historical time: to carry out his/her inquiry, a researcher draws on the conceptual resources and modes of thinking and arguing of a historically developed language community. Given that in OT the object of study is a social object, the relationship between the researcher and his/her object is also a social one (Weber 1993: 63). We do not stand in a social relationship to a tree or a planet, but we do so vis-a-vis an organization. The latter is a concept-dependent object; what it is depends on the particular self-interpretations and sets of meanings it incorporates. Unlike non-social objects, which are impervious to the meanings inquirers attach to them, social objects are socially denned—they are constituted by certain distinctions of worth marked in a conceptual space (Taylor 1985a, b). Since organizations are social objects of study they constitute language communities. There is a conceptual symmetry between a research community and a social object of study (see Figure 0.2), insofar as they are both constituted by language (Giddens 1993). As shown in Figure 0.2, developing new knowledge is a practical activity in which a researcher, drawing on the conceptual, symbolic, and material resources of his/her language community, attempts to account for what is going on in another language community by probing it in particular ways.

Introduction: The Need for Meta-theoretical Reflection in Organization TheoryClick to view larger

Fig. 0.2 Social research as a practical activity

Source: Adapted from Sayer, 1992: 27

(p. 9)

Accepting that knowledge production is a practical social activity puts it on the same level with any other practical social activity: for work to be carried out effectively, a set of procedures, principles, and assumptions need to be internalized and unreflectively practiced—they need, in other words, to enter the pre-theoretical praxis, the lifeworld, of a community (Winogrand and Flores 1987; Scherer and Steinmann 1999: 527; Polanyi 1962; Tsoukas and Vladimirou 2001). Since research is a form of work, its practitioners have internalized a host of particulars (assumptions), of which they normally are not aware, while at work. Only when researchers reflexively raise the question of any likely threats to the validity of their knowledge claims, will they become aware of, and start scrutinizing, their assumptions, thus engaging in meta-theoretical reflection.

The point here is that, over time, OT practitioners will improve the validity of their knowledge claims by systematically thinking about the way they habitually think about their objects of study (Antonacopoulou and Tsoukas 2002). What sort of unreflective biases (what phenomenologists and interpretive philosophers call ‘prejudgements’, see Gadamer 1989) such as, for example, those concerning ‘gender’, ‘race’, and ‘class’, has OT research manifested over time? What are the historically contingent institutional arrangements and dominant societal and metaphysical understandings that have influenced research in a particular direction? What forms of explanation have dominated the field, and why? How have human agency and social structure—two time-old issues in social theory—been treated in OT? What modes of arguing and what rhetorical forms have been considered appropriate? What notions of ‘practicality’ and ‘usefulness’ have been put forward or implied in OT? How have normative principles of ethics been considered in relation to the descriptive-explanatory knowledge produced in OT? Most of these questions are explored in the current handbook.

How Should We Make Sense of the Development of Organization Theory

Notice that while it is important that the preceding questions are articulated and discussed, since by doing so we become more aware of the taken-for-granted assumptions we have unreflectively followed, the conceptual dilemmas they engender cannot be settled in abstracto. To the extent, however, we have become convinced of the importance of certain issues, hitherto underestimated—for example, of the boundedness of rationality; the conflict-ridden nature of organizations; the cultural context of organizing, etc.—we cannot go on pretending as if we did not (p. 10) know. Over time, our new awareness enters our pre-theoretical (tacit) stock of knowledge—it joins the internalized assumptions we take for granted. Put in those terms, it is possible to picture OT as a field which has been becoming ever more complex in its assumptions and investigations over time. As March and Olsen (1986: 28) have remarked with reference to organizational decision-making, ‘theories of limited rationality relaxed the assumptions about cognitive capacities and knowledge. Theories of conflict relaxed the assumptions about the unity of objectives. Theories of ambiguity and temporal order relax the assumptions about the clarity of objectives and causality, as well as the centrality of decisions to the process of decision-making.’

The movement from initially rigid and limited assumptions to ever more realistic and complex assumptions has been one of the most encouraging features of the field. While, initially, organizations were viewed as rationally designed systems, it is now accepted that organizations are historically constituted social collectivities, embedded in their environments (Scott 1987). From this realization, now more or less taken for granted, stem most new investigations, such as those exploring the social embeddedness of organizations (Granovetter 1992; Granovetter and Swedberg 1992; Scott and Christensen 1995; Scott et al. 1994; Whitley 1992); the profoundly cultural aspects of organizations (Kunda 1992; Frost et al. 1991); the social construction of organizational identity (Brown 1997; Whetten and Godfrey 1998); the irreducibly emergent texture of organizing (Stacey, Griffin, and Shaw 2000; Taylor and Van Every 2000; Weick and Roberts 1993); the importance of history in accounting for aspects of organizations (Dobbin 1995; Kieser 1998; Roe 1994; Zald 1996); the processes through which sensemaking in organizations takes place (Weick 2001); the centrality of learning and knowledge to organizational functioning (Cohen and Sproull 1996; Grant 1996; Spender 1996; Tsoukas 1996); the importance of power and the significance of gender in organizational life (Calàs and Smircich 1996; Gherardi 1995; Martin 1990); and the influence of unconscious processes and psychic needs on organizational functioning (Gabriel 1999).

What all these admittedly diverse perspectives have in common is the assumption about the profoundly social, historically shaped, and context-cum-time-dependent nature of organizing, which they approach from different angles, focusing on different levels of analysis. In other words, in the early steps of the field, individuals and organizational environments were ‘given’ to organizations, with the latter being seen, in quasi-algorithmic terms, as ‘abstract systems’ (Barnard 1968: 74) geared towards the optimization of certain key variables (typically the maximization of performance, the minimization of uncertainty or transaction costs) (Donaldson 2001; Thompson 1967; Williamson 1998). Following the ‘Newtonian style’ of analysis (Cohen 1994: 76; Toulmin 1990), organization theorists were supposed to uncover the calculus of organization. As Barnard (1976: p. xlvi) revealingly put it, ‘abstract principles of structure may be discerned in organizations of great variety, and that ultimately it may be possible to state principles of general organization’ (p. 11) (see also Thompson 1956/57). In other words, if the contingent, historical, time-dependent, contextual influences on organizations were somehow to be discarded, the essence of organizations, their invariant properties across space and time, would be revealed.

Over time, however, the limits of such an analysis became apparent. If nothing else, the Newtonian style of inquiry hardly illuminated what common experience told practitioners was important: organizations vary widely across time and space; history matters; extra-organizational institutions matter too; gender, race, and ethnicity are hot issues at the workplace; there are multiple rationalities in an organization; sensemaking is an important part of action; decision-making and strategy-making do not quite happen as formal theories prescribe. It is precisely the divergence between OT knowledge produced by following the Newtonian style and the common experience of practitioners that accounts, to a large extent, for the perception some practitioners have that OT is ‘irrelevant’ to their practice (Argyris 1980; Pfeffer 1993; Mowday 1997; Lawler et al 1999; Webster and Starbuck 1988; cf. Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons 2001). Indeed, one of the challenges for OT is to find ways in which practitioners’ lived experiences may be incorporated, rather than ignored as ‘unscientific’, into OT accounts. This is where the ‘ecological’ style of analysis (to use Toulmin's (1990:193–4) apt term) comes in.

Gradually, individuals and environments have been ‘brought into’ organizational analysis, and a whole new set of questions has opened up: how do individuals make sense of their tasks, with what consequences? What exactly do people do when they work in organizations? What makes a group of people working together an organization? How do organizational members sustain a sense of community? How do gender and ethnicity influence organizational politics? How are organizational objectives and policies set, by whom, with what consequences? How does the environment, as it changes over time, influence what is going on in organizations? What is the impact of history on key organizational features? Such questions purport to explain organizations in a substantive way by embracing the complexity of the issues involved, rather than abstracting them away for the sake of analytical rigor.

Viewing research as a practical social activity makes us see more clearly than before that researchers rarely are idealistic paradigm warriors but, more realistically, while they certainly do have certain paradigmatic predilections, they remain open to borrowing from other paradigms and perspectives as they see fit and are subjected to normative institutional criteria regarding the evaluation of their work. In other words, in order to get their work done, researchers are, to some extent, bricoleurs (Brown and Duguid 1991): they purposefully work with whatever conceptual resources are available. Their work is shaped by their own paradigmatic preferences, the prevailing Zeitgeist, and the institutional frameworks and norms within which their work takes place. Insofar as we work with others within certain institutional and cultural contexts, our work rarely adheres to idealized paradigms.

(p. 12)

Sometimes paradigms are erroneously given an anthropomorphic status, which obscures the obvious fact that it is not paradigms that do the research, but researchers. It is not paradigms which ‘cannot speak unto each other’, for example, as Burrell (1996: 648) asserts, for paradigms have no voice. It is researchers engaged in practical work, interacting with other researchers, who influence and are influenced by others in what they do and, to the extent this happens, there is a certain inevitable osmosis between paradigms. Child, for example, one of the most important contributors to the contingency theory of organizational structure, has revised his views to formulate a strategic-choice perspective, which gave a more prominent role to managers as agents exercising choice within certain contexts than contingency theory would allow for (Child 1997). Similarly, in his four desiderata for a ‘dynamic theory of strategy’ Porter (1991) has shown an appreciation for the limits of an industrial economics approach to the firm, arguing for the need for theories of strategic management to take into account, among other things, endogenous change, creative action, and historical accident and chance. Finally, responding to the ascendance of interpretive OT in the 1970s and 1980s, in which meaning and human agency are strongly highlighted, positivist accounts have expanded their scope to include aspects of agency and meaning, such as cognition and culture, into their agenda (Tenbrunsel et al. 1996).

This should not be surprising. Insofar as interaction and dialogue goes on among researchers, new syntheses are likely to come up. We learn more about new research agendas and cross-paradigmatic exchange by looking at what OT practitioners do rather than by hypostastizing paradigms and then getting ourselves caught into conceptual traps regarding paradigmatic ‘incommensurability’. Paradigms appear incommensurable only to an observer who, seeking in abstracto a neutral set of ‘translation rules’, cannot find any and proclaims that, well, there aren't any (Burrell 1996: 650). Instead, paradigms do provide challenges for thinking and learning to anyone engaged in research in concreto.

For example, reflecting on his own work, Deetz (1996: 200) remarks as follows:

I often draw on conceptions from critical and dialogic writings. For me, critical theory conceptions of ideology and distorted communication provide useful sensitizing concepts and an analytic framework for looking for micro-practices of control, discursive closure, conflict suppression, and skewed representation in organizational sites. But rarely are these conceptions closely tied to the full critical theory agenda. They require considerable reworking in specific sites, and the results of my studies aim more at finding and giving suppressed positions a means of expression than realizing an ideal speech situation or reaching a purer consensus. What is important is not whether I am a late-modern critical theorist or a dialogic post-modernist, but rather the meaning and implications of concepts that I draw from these two competitive orientations. My degree of consistency is of less interest than how I handle the tension and whether the two conceptual resources provide an interesting analysis or intervention, (references omitted; emphasis added)

(p. 13)

In this passage Deetz draws attention to the fact that a researcher may have multiple paradigmatic sympathies and, at any rate, subscribing to a paradigm means that one is more likely to be inspired and sensitized by it, than to be buying wholesale into it. It is surprising how often it is forgotten that paradigms are our own constructions—artifacts we have invented ex post facto to make sense of competing sets of assumptions social scientists habitually make—and, as such, they are somewhat idealized descriptions. When we engage in research we do not necessarily buy into an entire paradigm; more realistically, we are oriented by it to explore particular kinds of questions. Moreover, the effective carrying out of research into particular topics of interest entails the ‘reworking’ of key paradigmatic assumptions in concreto (‘in specific sites’) and this reworking may well bring about new concepts and syntheses (Moldoveanu and Baum 2002).

Like any other kind of work, empirical research is not a matter of mere ‘application’ of a given set of paradigmatic assumptions, but of active determination of those assumptions in practice (cf. Boden 1994: 19). Researchers do not so much ‘apply’ or ‘follow’ paradigms in their work as they explore particular topics, in particular sites and, having to cope coherently with all the puzzles and tensions stemming from the complexity of the phenomena they investigate, they extend, synthesize, and/or invent concepts (cf. Rorty 1991: 93–110). Paradigmatic exchange occurs before our nose, but we do not recognize it as such until well after such exchange has led to new concepts and conceptual syntheses. Certain insights from Silverman's (1971) interpretive critique of positivist OT in the 1970s and Weick's (1979) phenomenological model of organizing have been ‘translated’ into other research traditions and have led to interesting developments in, for example, the institutional school of OT and the cognitive perspective on organizations. Conceptual translation ‘on the ground’ inevitably takes place, all the time, and this is what makes intellectual developments so potentially interesting.

What is OT Knowledge For?

Figure 0.2 shows the double relationship that exists between a researcher and an object of study. The researcher probes the object (the solid line in Figure 0.2) and, at the same time, he/she is involved in a social relationship with it (the dotted-cum-solid line). What Figure 0.2 is not showing is that these two relationships occur in time. Probing an object of study means using systems of representation, such as vocabularies and conceptual frameworks, and certain research techniques and (p. 14) modes of thinking, such as ideal-type models, ceteris paribus clauses, surveys, experiments, and fieldwork, whereby the salient features of an object of study may be revealed and explained (Searle 1995:151).

Acts of probing are acts of construction: they bring forth aspects of the object under investigation. There are several vocabularies, conceptual frameworks, and modes of thinking to be used, and which ones are chosen is bound, to some extent, to depend on contingent institutional arrangements, the material and symbolic resources available, and the historical and cultural context. While an object of study is often independent of the researcher and his/her vocabulary, the moment it is framed in a particular language it acquires a contingent existence—systems of representation contain particular distinctions of worth, they are loaded with particular values, and approach the study object from only certain angles. In that sense, theories in OT, and in the social sciences in general, are generative of meaning (Gergen 1994: ch.3): they provide practitioners with certain symbolic resources for making sense of their situation.

Moreover, systems of representation incorporate certain assumptions concerning how they are related to their objects and to the users of the knowledge produced, and locate their object within a wider social and political vision (Heilbroner and Milberg 1995). For example, a positivist epistemology assumes that the language of the researcher more clearly represents than lay language what is really going on in an object of study (cf. Deetz 1996: 196; McKelvey 1997). Moreover, the knowledge produced by a positivist epistemology is thought to be external to its users, by whom it is instrumentally used in order to optimize a particular performance variable, and is devoid of any intrinsic ethical commitments (cf. Tsoukas and Cummings 1997). To be precise, ethics enters the scene in the way knowledge is used rather than in the manner and the form it is produced. A positivist epistemology aims at enhancing the effectiveness of formal organizations in the context of a rationalized society (Burrell 1996; Marsden and Townley 1996; Reed 1996). It is that distinctly modern socio-political vision that animates positivist work in OT. Moreover, each paradigm in OT has its own particular assumptions about these matters.

The social relationship between the OT research community and its object of study implies that knowledge produced is fed back to its users, altering their beliefs and understandings. This is profoundly important for two reasons. First, because it shows that practitioners may change their behavior in a non-instrumental manner: simply by changing the vocabulary in terms of which they think of themselves and of what they do, they may alter their practice. Think, for example, how the notions of ‘Total Quality Management’, ‘Business Process Reengineering’, ‘organizational competences’, ‘strategic learning’, and ‘chaos’, as well as the rhetoric of ‘business excellence’, have influenced how practitioners view organizations and their role in them (Abrahamson and Fairchild 1999). In this sense academic knowledge is profoundly political and rhetorical (Astley 1985; Astley and Zammuto 1992; Czarniawska 1999). As van Maanen (1995: 135) remarks, ‘the discourse we produce as (p. 15) organization theory has an action component which seeks to induce belief among our readers. Our writing is then something of a performance with a persuasive aim. In this sense, when our theories are well received they do practical work. Rather than mirror reality, our theories help generate reality for readers.’

Secondly, an intrinsic relationship between theory and action implies that any regularities organization theorists uncover are bound to be perishable, since, as soon as they are announced to practitioners, the latter will probably modify their beliefs and expectations, thus altering those very regularities (Bhaskar 1978; Tsoukas 1992). As Numagami (1998: 10) has persuasively shown in his game-theoretical models of OT knowledge dissemination, provided we accept that practitioners are reflective agents, the search for invariant laws in OT is futile in most cases (the only exception is when a game with a dominant strategy can be established). This is far from denying the presence of observable regularities, but to merely point out that such regularities do not rest upon invariant social laws, but upon the stability of the beliefs and expectations of the actors involved.

Numagami (1998:10) has put it convincingly as follows:

What we must not forget, however, is that stable macro patterns in social phenomena are stable not because they are supported by inhuman forces, but because they are reproduced by human conduct. Most observable stability and universality are not generated by invariant and universal laws, but are supported by the stability of knowledge and beliefs shared steadily and universally…. If practitioners and researchers are able to predict the future course of events, it may not be because they know any invariant laws but because they have a good understanding of what the agents involved would expect in a specific situation and excellent skills in synthesizing the actions, and/or because they are powerful enough to redefine the original situation into a game structure that has a dominant equilibrium. That is, for a person to predict the future course of events, he or she should at least have either knowledge or power.

If the search for invariant laws in OT is futile, what should OT be aiming at? It should be aiming at generating ‘reflective dialogue’, says Numagami (1998: 11–12) (see also Flyvbjerg 2001; Gergen and Thatchenkery 1998; Tsoukas and Knudsen 2002). Espousing a hermeneutical model of knowledge, Numagami points out that OT knowledge should aim at producing explanations (re-descriptions) of organizational phenomena which must include references to actors’ meanings and conceptual schemata, for it is only then that we as researchers understand what generates the regularities we have noticed. Moreover, such explanations will be, in principle, useful to practitioners, since they invite them to engage in ‘sympathetic emulation’ (p. 11) of the situation described in the explanandum, thus stimulating their thinking. In other words, a hermeneutical model of knowledge does not pretend to be able to offer practitioners universal generalizations and invariant laws, since such knowledge is logically impossible to be attained. It does, however, empower practitioners by enabling them to make links with and reflect on others’ experiences (i.e. the explananda organizational theorists re-describe), thus leading (p. 16) practitioners to undertake potentially novel forms of action. By re-entering the world of practitioners hermeneutically, OT knowledge may connect with practitioners’ concrete experiences, thus inviting them to reflect on their circumstances in novel ways (Tsoukas and Knudsen 2002: 432). Hermeneutically conceived, OT knowledge does not tell practitioners how things universally are, but how they locally become.

A Review of the Handbook

Part I (‘Organization Theory as Science’) includes four chapters, each one of which approaches OT from a different paradigmatic angle. The overarching question underlying Part I is this: how do different paradigms view OT as a science? Or, to put it differently, what is considered as valid knowledge from the perspective of each paradigm?

In Chapter 1 (‘Organization Theory as a Positive Science’), Lex Donaldson offers a robust and lucid defense of a positivist OT. Continuing his long-standing defense of positivism, Donaldson summarizes the main tenets of positivism in general, and in OT in particular, to highlight the links between positivism and functionalism (with the latter considered as a sub-species of the former). Moreover, Donaldson critically considers some of the philosophical objections to positivism, which he dismisses, and offers some thoughts on the future of positivist OT.

Chapter 1 is a model of expositional clarity. For Donaldson, a positivist OT is a naturalist science: it ought to be concerned with the generation of causal theories, as far general in scope as possible, aiming at neutrally explaining social facts via other social facts, thus circumventing any reference to actors’ subjective states of mind. This is possible, he argues, echoing Durkheim and Blau, since organizational actors are constrained by ‘situational imperatives’: in any situation actors eventually choose the structure that fits that situation, given the performance requirement for organizational efficiency. It is not that actors do not have subjective states of mind, but that these are explanatorily redundant—eventually the situational imperative tends to prevail, no matter what individuals think or feel. Explaining ‘social facts’ (e.g. organizational structure) by other ‘social facts’ (e.g. organizational size) enables researchers to avoid the perils of reductionism, namely the research strategy whereby organizational phenomena are explained by the individuals who participate in them. This is not a reliable strategy, argues Donaldson, because individual motivational states of mind as well as individual political self-interests tend to be private, opaque, and usually inaccessible to outside observers. For him, the best (p. 17) kind of positivist OT that succeeds in explanatorily getting rid of the ‘individual’ is functionalism—the explanation of structure in terms of its beneficial consequences for the survival of the organization—whose benefits he illustrates by drawing on relevant empirical research in OT (see Scherer in this volume for a discussion of the different modes of explanation in OT).

What Donaldson denies, namely the subjective states of mind, Mary Jo Hatch and Dvora Yanow, openly embrace. In Chapter 2 (‘Organization Theory as an Interpretive Science’), they set out the main tenets of an interpretive approach to OT. The contrast between Donaldson's account and that of Hatch and Yanow, could not have been clearer. There are no ‘social facts’, they say, if by that we mean sense data of the same kind as in the natural sciences. What sets the social world apart is meaning, hence the prime epistemic task of the social sciences is understanding. If one accepts this, one ought to take the next logical step and acknowledge that it is not only social phenomena that embody meaning, but that particular approaches to social phenomena—styles or modes of inquiry—embody meaning too; social scientific knowledge is crucially framed (or mediated) by the self-understandings of communities of inquirers. It is for this reason that Hatch and Yanow talk about the significance of ‘apriori knowledge’ (value systems, national culture, education systems, professional codes, state policies, etc), that shapes what one apprehends, and point out the situated and socially constructed character of all human knowledge (on this, see the papers by Starbuck, Shenhav, and Gherardi, in this volume). Incidentally, notice the difference between Donadson and Hatch and Yanow in the way they use the term ‘situated’: for Donaldson it indicates an objective state that cannot be ignored; for Hatch and Yanow it indicates locality, contingency, and Heideggerian ‘thrownness’ (on the latter, see Weick's chapter in this volume). Discussing how meanings maybe studied, the authors point out that meaning is embedded in (or projected onto) artifacts by their creators; thus meaning can be inferred indirectly by studying those artifacts. Moreover, the hallmark of the interpretive paradigm is to treat social reality as a text, whose meaning needs to be deciphered. The textual metaphor and, by extension, the central role of language in constructing and communicating meaning, is the most distinguishing feature of the interpretive paradigm.

According to Hatch and Yanow, interpretive approaches to organizational phenomena have developed since the 1970s. The authors single out three overlapping areas of interpretive organizational research: studies of organizational culture, symbolism and aesthetics; process-based theorizing about interpretation; and analyses of writing and storytelling in ‘narrating’ organizational studies. That organizational culture, symbolism, and aesthetics would be a central part in the agenda of interpretive OT seems pretty obvious—this is, par excellence, the phenomena interpretive organization theorists would be interested in. Process-based theorizing derives from the crucial role assigned to meaning-making in interpretive OT. If meaning is so important, and since it is people who make meaning, then how they (p. 18) do so is an important object of study. Hence the double interest in meaning-making both as the process through which organizational members make sense of reality and, recursively, in how organization theorists make sense of the reality organizational members make sense. This helps explain the third area of interpretive research, namely the focus on storytelling and narration. From an interest in the symbolic-cultural dimension of organizations, interpretive OT research has moved on to embrace more literary approaches, focusing on storytelling in organizations, both in terms of content (the stories themselves) and the process (the performance of telling stories). Moreover, an interest in storytelling invites reflection on how the author relates his/her knowledge to the reader—how the author constructs his/her own storytelling—which, in turn, implies an interest in reflexive theorizing and the rhetorical character of social scientific writing (on the latter, see Czarniawska's chapter in this volume).

Neither positivism nor interpretivism are good enough, argues Hugh Willmott, since none of them deals with the power relationships within which knowledge and forms of understanding develop. In Chapter 3 (‘Organization Theory as a Critical Science?: Forms of Analysis and “New Organizational Forms”’) Willmott describes what are the distinctive features of a ‘critical OT’. The adjective ‘critical’ has been used in all sorts of ways in the social sciences and philosophy, ranging from Popper's ‘critical rationalism’, through Bhaskar's ‘critical realism’, to the ‘critique’ employed by neo-Marxist students of the labour process. Willmott, however, uses the term in a particular way drawing on ‘critical theory’ developed by the German philosophers of the Frankfurt School, especially Jiirgen Habermas.

The problem with positivism, argues Willmott, is that it lacks an appreciation of the conditions within which knowledge is produced: rather than scientific knowledge mirroring objectively and value-neutrally the world, it is inescapably produced, transmitted, and legitimized within power-laden contexts. There is no value-free knowledge, because there are no value-free social contexts of knowledge production and transmission. While interpretivism is right in highlighting the importance of meanings embedded in artifacts, practices, and institutions, it fails, according to Willmott, to deal with the power relationships within which forms of understanding are developed and, thus, in unmasking ‘unnecessary oppression’.

Drawing on Habermas's theory of cognitive interests, Willmott describes knowledge production as being driven by three cognitive interests: a technical interest in production and control (the main concern of positivism); a practical interest in mutual understanding (the chief preoccupation of interpretivism); and an interest in emancipation (the focus of critical social science). Of course, human action involves the mobilization of all cognitive interests. However, each type of interest generates a different kind of knowledge, whose form and consequences Willmott very informatively surveys in OT, illustrating his arguments with relevant organizational examples, drawn especially from the literature on new organizational forms. The technical and practical interests are understood to arise by the (p. 19) human capacity to act intentionally towards the world (natural and social alike). In contrast, the emancipatory interest is conceived to be stimulated by the consequences flowing from the actions generated by the other two cognitive interests. The emancipatory interest seeks to unmask ‘unnecessary structures of domination’ and to subject social practices and institutions (Donaldson's ‘situational imperatives’) to critical reason in order to expose unequal power relationships, with the view to changing them. Although Willmott does not explicitly say so, it is interesting to note that, from a critical perspective, neither positivism nor interpretivism are rejected as such, since they both help generate knowledge which is ‘transcen-dentally’ necessary—that is, knowledge that stems from the intrinsically human desire to, respectively, control and understand nature and society. But if this is so, it is not immediately apparent whether the emancipatory interest is merely a logical complement in the Habermasian typology of knowledge, or whether it seeks to subvert, replace, or merely modify the technical and practical types of knowledge. Whatever the answer may be, it is the case that the critical perspective does sharpen our awareness of the social conditions within which both formal OT knowledge and organizational members’ understandings are formed, and invites us to reflect on possible alternatives.

In Chapter 4 (‘Organization Theory as a Postmodern Science’), Robert Chia offers a refreshing view of what OT should be concerned with, if it were to adopt a postmodern perspective. Keen to avoid the charges of cynicism and nihilism, often thrown at postmodern theorists, Chia insightfully shows how a postmodern OT helps us see more clearly the roots of western metaphysics upon which OT has historically been predicated so that, by reworking them, we can get a better understanding of both organization and OT. Modern thought, argues Chia, has historically privileged form over process, being over becoming, stability over change, identity over deferral. Postmodern thought, by contrast, seeks to rehabilitate the second term of these pairs. OT has historically followed a representationalist epistemology, whereby reality is sought to be adequately captured and symbolically represented through the use of abstract categories, concepts, and schemas. Such an epistemology entails the breaking down, fixing, locating, and naming of all experienced phenomena, and privileges the abstract over the concrete, the general over the particular, and the timeless over the timely.

A postmodern OT does not get fixated on organizations as distinct, bounded entities, but is determined to show, more broadly, how the process of organizing is enacted. Organizing is a world-making activity, argues Chia, in the sense that it involves the regularization of human exchanges and the development of predictable patterns of interactions. Through the process of organization—‘the will to order’—objects of knowledge acquire distinctive identities and are located in systems of representations, thus enabling us to treat them as entities existing independently of our perceptions. Consequently, a postmodern OT should be concerned with how systems of representation are produced and causality is imputed; how the flux and (p. 20) variability of social life are tamed; how systems of signification are used to carve up reality with what consequences; how individual identities are established and social entities created; the effects of tacit and often unpresentable forms of knowledge; how stability is generated out of endless change. What, in other words, is so distinctive of postmodern OT is the second-order concern with how we know and order (the two are intimately linked).

It is worth noting that Chia's ‘post’-modern OT is to some extent a recovery of ‘pre’-modern ways of thinking. A Heraclitean at heart, Chia is at pains to show that a postmodern OT ought to concern itself with broader and more fundamental questions—how form, stability, and identity are constructed; how order is achieved; and how what we accept as reality is an outcome of an essentially organizational process of fixing, differentiating, classifying, locating, and representing.

Part II (‘The Construction of Organization Theory’) includes five chapters that present very different perspectives on the evolution of OT. In doing so Part II reflects the gradual convergence that has taken place between philosophy of science and history of science, following the publication of Thomas Kuhn's (Kuhn 1962) influential book on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. This convergence has later been followed up by a renewed interest in areas such as the sociology of science and the rhetoric of science, when studying the evolution of a field.

In Chapter 5 (‘The Origins of Organization Theory’), William Starbuck attempts to set up a broad understanding of the external conditions that made it possible for OT to become an intellectual field. He starts his account of OT by noting that theoretical writings about management have existed for more than 4,000 years and that writings about bureaucratic organizations have existed for more than 3,000 years. He then argues that the essential educational, occupational, and technological conditions for the existence of large-scale organizations and OT gradually escalated through the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and then accelerated rapidly after 1850. It was also during this timeframe that the term ‘organization’ first came to be used to name social systems that possess some degree of ‘organization’ and that organizations obtained legal status as corporate persons distinct from the persons working in them.

Starbuck proceeds to a discussion of how OT has taken roots in a mechanistic tradition and how the early writers in OT converged on two major themes: (a) bureaucracy has defects, and (b) organizations can operate more effectively. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the first of these themes, which was mainly of a sociological nature, merged with the second more managerial theme. At about the same time, writers in OT started to refer to the empirical basis of their theories. For Starbuck this marked the birth of OT as an intellectual field.

While Starbuck's chapter gives the grand view of how theorizing about organizations emerged in the western world, Shenhav's contribution in Chapter 6 (‘The Historical and Epistemological Foundations of Organization Theory: Fusing Sociological Theory with Engineering Discourse’) focuses on an explanation of (p. 21) how OT was institutionalized as a separate scientific field in the United States. In his influential book Organizations: Rational, Natural and Open Systems, Scott (1987) argued that OT emerged as a scientific field in the mid-1940s, shortly after the translation of Weber's work in English. A few years later, some of Robert Merton's students were involved in the development and testing of generalizations dealing with organizations as separate social systems, and earlier contributions by Taylor, Barnard, and Mayo were rediscovered by the emerging academic community. It was these efforts that, according to Scott, gave rise to the identification of OT as a separate intellectual field of study.

It is this genealogy of OT that Shenhav sets out to criticize and replace with an alternative genealogy. First, he argues that OT as a scientific field emerged earlier than postulated by Scott, since a comprehensive engineering/managerial discourse about organizations existed much earlier. Second, Shenhav argues that Weber's work was not only translated, but also accommodated into the American engineering and managerial discourses to fit their language and epistemology. According to Shenhav, such a historical account gives a much more adequate understanding of how the engineering and the sociological discourses merged, creating the embryo of what we consider as OT today.

In Chapter 7 (‘Feminist Theory and Organization Theory: A Dialogue on New Bases’) Silvia Gherardi usefully identifies the different ways that feminist theory and OT have interacted and enriched each other since 1970. Gherardi starts by identifying different feminist approaches, drawing on the work of Calàs and Smircich (1996): liberal theory, radical theory, psychoanalytic theory, Marxist theory, social theory, poststructuralist/postmodern theory, and third world/post-colonial theory. With reference to each theory, Gherardi shows how they represent the relation between gender and organization. Based upon this analysis she then argues that Feminist Theory and OT may converge on a research program that centers on the politics of knowledge.

While Chapters 5 and 6 approach OT from the perspective of sociology of science, in Chapter 8 (‘The Styles and the Stylists of Organization Theory’), Barbara Czarniawska insightfully analyzes the field from a rhetorical point of view. Such a perspective in the study of intellectual fields became popular during the 1980s, mainly after the publication of McCloskey's (1985) influential book The Rhetoric of Economics. Among the different styles that Czarniawska identifies in OT, is the ‘scientistic style’ used by Thompson (1967), the ‘poetic style’ used by Weick (1979), the ‘revolutionary style’ used by Burrell (1997), the ‘philosophical style’ used by March (1988), the ‘educational style’ employed by Silverman (1971) and, finally, the ‘ethnographic style’ exemplified by Van Maanen (1988). Having identified different styles in OT, Czarniawska discusses the following questions. Can a specific style be imitated? What implications do the different styles have for OT? How does a style influence how outsiders view a field like OT? And how can a stylist provide justifications for how to imitate a specific style?

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Whereas Chapters 5 and 6 focus mainly on the making of OT as a distinct intellectual field, in Chapter 9 (‘Pluralism, Scientific Progress, and the Structure of Organization Theory’) Christian Knudsen is oriented more toward the explanation of OT after its establishment as a relatively autonomous intellectual field. Knudsen takes his point of departure in Whitley's (2000) comparative analysis of how intellectual fields are structured as reputational organizations. He then argues that OT has moved away from a bureaucratic structure during the hegemony of the structural contingency research program in the 1960s and 1970s to a polycentric oligarchy in the 1980s, due to the emergence of several new research programs. Besides the structural contingency program, these new programs include programs such as population ecology, institutional theory, resource-dependency theory, and transaction cost economics. The emergence of these new theoretical alternatives, which in some cases have their own distinct empirical methodologies, have increased what Whitley (2000) calls the ‘task’ and ‘strategic uncertainty’ in the field of OT. Knudsen argues that, during the 1990s, the developments toward more uncertainty have continued in European OT and that the polycentric form has been replaced with a fragmented adhocracy while the polycentric oligarchy has stabilized in American OT.

Knudsen suggests that Whitley's static framework of how different fields are organized should be extended in order to be able to analyze how different structures of a reputational organization either restricts or promotes scientific progress. Inspired by the organizational learning literature, Knudsen argues that intellectual fields (like other kinds of organizations) need to find a reasonable balance between innovation and tradition, or avoid falling into either a ‘fragmentation trap’ or a ‘specialization tap’. Finally, he argues that the structure that is best suited to uphold a balance between innovation and tradition and, therefore, to avoid the fragmentation and specialization traps is the polycentric oligarchy.

Part III consists of five chapters, each one of which addresses a different meta-theoretical controversy in OT. In Chapter 10 (‘The Agency/Structure Dilemma in Organization Theory: Open Doors and Brick Walls’) Mike Reed discusses one of the oldest meta-theoretical questions in social and organization theory: how are agency and structure related? Organizations are commonly thought of as structures, while agency is increasingly recognized as being extremely important for accounting for creative organizational action. At a time in which innovation and creativity are highly valued as key features of effective organizations, clearly agency acquires renewed significance. But how is agency exercised? What are the conditions within which it is realized and how much, if at all, is it influenced by structure? Or, to put it differently, to what extent, and in what ways, is structure influenceable and changeable by actors?

Reed offers a comprehensive review of the relevant literature by distinguishing three schools of thought (reductionism, determinism, conflationism), which he (p. 23) critiques as problematic, while offering a fourth (relationism), which he recommends as being better able to account for the relation between structure and agency. Reductionism, argues Reed, tends to reduce structure to agency: collective entities, such as organizations, are typically thought of as aggregations of individual constituents. Determinism exaggerates the importance of structure, which is assumed to dictate to agency. Conflationism rejects the analytical dualism of both reductionism and determinism, and insists on the mutual and equal co-determination of agency and structure. This is not the right solution to the structure/agency dilemma, argues Reed, since by assigning to structure a Virtual existence’, it denies it of causal influence. By contrast, relationism, does pay attention to the causal efficacy of objective structures and to the creative role of human agency. The capacity for human agency is grounded in relatively enduring social structures and relations that unavoidably constrain human action. Both agency and structure possess independent causal properties that can exert a strong influence on organizational life. Although Reed does recognize both the danger inherent in relationism—principally, the possibility of reverting to some form of determinism—and the difficulty in achieving consensus on any particular conception of the structure/agency relationship, he does rightly emphasize the need to be clear and consistent in our meta-theoretical choices, and mindful of their theoretical and social consequences.

In Chapter 11 (‘Modes of Explanation in Organization Theory’) Andreas Georg Scherer offers an informative review of the different modes of explanation encountered in OT. Starting with the acknowledgement that it is important that organization theorists reflect on their research practice in the same way that they reflect on the practices of the organizations they study, Scherer lucidly describes six modes of explanation: the deductive-nomological (DN) model, interpretivism, critical theory, postmodernism, functionalism, and rational choice theory (RCT). In a nutshell, the DN model seeks to apply to the study of organizational phenomena the same epistemological principles applied in the natural sciences; interpretivism, critical theory, and postmodernism reject this, arguing instead for the irreducibility of actors's meanings, which ought to be incorporated in the explanations produced. These perspectives, however, differ from one another in important respects: critical theorists argue that merely attaining mutual understanding is not enough but, instead, normative critique must be included in social scientific accounts, while postmodernists are not so much preoccupied with explanation per se as with revealing and defending the ‘local truths’ that are normally suppressed by meta-narratives and ‘consensual’ institutional arrangements. Finally, functionalism and RCT address the relationship between individual behavior and social institutions, providing widely different templates for explanation. While for functionalists there are only objective ‘social facts’ to be explained by other ‘social facts’ (typically ‘functions’), for RC theorists institutions are aggregates of individual behaviors and, consequently, they need to be explained by taking recourse to individual (p. 24) preferences and actions. Scherer's chapter usefully complements those in Part I as well as the chapter by Swedberg in this Part.

In Chapter 12 (‘Micro and Macro Perspectives in Organization Theory: A Tale of Incommensurability’), William McKinley and Mark A. Mone, offer an enlightening survey of five of the most prominent micro and macro perspectives to be found in OT. Adopting the North American definition of OT (what in Europe would most likely be called macro-OB), the authors define the micro level of analysis as single organizations adapting to their individual task environments, while the macro level refers to populations of organizations and to multi-organizational fields or sectors. McKinley and Mone critically review three micro perspectives (neo-contingency theory, resource dependence theory, and transaction costs theory) and two macro perspectives (population ecology theory and neo-institutional theory). Explaining why each school is categorized as a micro or macro perspective, and describing the theoretical propositions as well as the underlying logic of each school, the authors proceed to offer a meta-theoretical critique of each school.

The main point McKinley and Mone make, in this highly readable chapter, is that each school is founded on ambiguous theoretical constructs, which, while fostering creativity in empirical research, also preclude conclusive empirical testing and make the schools incommensurable with one another. For example, the concept of ‘fit’, a key concept in neo-contingency theory, has been ambiguously defined by those using it, to the effect that it impedes the falsifiability of their theory. This incommensurability, founded on construct ambiguity, has serious implications for the conceptual integration of the field that is envisaged by some theorists. It is worth reading McKinley and Mone's chapter in the light of recent debates in OT regarding the integration and impact of OT, as well as in the light of the arguments advanced in Part I by proponents of different paradigms.

If McKinley and Mone are right, knowledge generation in OT lacks the secure foundations to make it a cumulative enterprise, since, on the one hand, OT theories are founded on ambiguous constructs and, on the other hand, their hard core is protected by theorists who compete in the academic market for reputations and resources. Lack of cumulative progress, however, should not stop us from trying to learn from different paradigms and perspectives, and drawing new distinctions, which resolve old conflicts and permit selective borrowing. In other words, there are, indeed, several competing ways for looking at organizations and it is precisely because of such conceptual diversity that learning and conceptual innovation are possible.

In Chapter 13 (‘Economic versus Sociological Approaches to Organization Theory’), Richard Swedberg, offers an enlightening discussion of the different ways in which economists and sociologists have conceptualized business organizations. Although OT is interdisciplinary, remarks Swedberg, most of the research is carried out within the boundaries and assumptions set by single disciplines. Economics and sociology have long been the disciplines from within which some (p. 25) of the most significant contributions to OT have come. For economists, as is typically shown in transaction cost analysis, agency theory, and evolutionary, game theoretical and property rights perspectives, firms represent profitable solutions to coordination problems emanating mainly from self-regarding behavior on the part of rational individuals.

By contrast, for sociologists, especially Weberian ones, business organizations are seen as the carriers of the modernization process, incorporating structures of meaning from the societies within which they are embedded. Typically, whereas for economists economic interests and instrumental action are taken for granted and form the foundational assumption of elegant formal modeling, for sociologists instrumental action and economic interests are social constructions in need of historical elucidation. While economists focus on the single firm, sociologists, typically, place the firm in larger contexts, be they business groups and systems, networks, populations, or fields. Economic theories of organization tend to be rigorous over highly stylized and delimited areas of economic behaviour, while sociological theories are more descriptive (lacking the precision and analytical rigor of economic models) over larger areas of economic behavior. Swedberg is not particularly optimistic that both camps will find a common language, although he points at entrepreneurship as an area over which supporters of both camps could stand and converse. At any rate, a comprehensive theory of firms will have to unite the two key ideas in economics and sociology, respectively: economic interests and social structures. That will not be easy, but that is the way to go, remarks Swedberg.

In Chapter 14 (‘Meta-theoretical Controversies in Studying Organizational Culture’), Joanne Martin provides a thorough and lucid overview of meta-theoretical debates in organizational culture research. Intellectual controversies in the study of culture have ranged over a number of issues, which Martin critically examines in her chapter. These are: objectivity and subjectivity; etic (outsider) and emic (insider) research; generalizable and context-specific research; focus and breadth; and level of depth. Drawing on variety of sources, including anthropology, philosophy, and, of course, OT, Martin advances a balanced and open-minded argument which, while it acknowledges the controversial nature of these issues, it does want, through drawing subtle distinctions, to reformulate them in order to show that quite often in academic debates, certain dichotomies are unnecessarily overdrawn. It is no accident that she frames the above controversies not as struggles between opposing terms (‘this versus that’) but, more positively, as a coexistence of different ways of looking at culture (‘this and that’).

Her empathic writing style and her willingness to draw on and learn from a variety of perspectives are indicative of the stance Martin takes towards the meta-theoretical controversies in organizational culture research: we should always try to enhance our understanding of different viewpoints; looks for ways in which conceptual oppositions may be reconciled without denying differences (for example, culture is both an objective and subjective construction; the boundaries (p. 26) between etic and emic research are blurred; context-specific knowledge cannot escape abstraction, etc). In short, we should try to learn to enrich our ideas by engaging with those of others. Building consensus is not realistic, while enforcing conformity to elite preferences is undesirable; but learning may be possible.

Part IV consists of four chapters, all of which deal with the relationship between theory and practice in OT and, more broadly, the nature of practical reason. In Chapter 15 (‘Actionable Knowledge’), Chris Argyris, summarizes, with his customary lucidity and directness, his lifetime's work regarding the prerequisites for OT to produce actionable knowledge. Being a policy science, says Argyris, OT is in the business of generating propositions that are actionable. Actionable knowledge is knowledge that actors can use to implement effectively their intentions. Such knowledge is important not only to practitioners, but to researchers too, since actionable knowledge required for intervention mandates that we specify causal propositions about how to bring change about. A strong and passionate believer in Lewin's dictum that unless you try to change something, you do not really understand it, Argyris makes the important point that when we try to change the organizations we allow data to surface which otherwise would not have surfaced.

Before setting out to describe Models I and II, for which Argyris has been best known, he sets out to survey the fundamental norms and rules about producing knowledge in OT (and in the policy sciences in general) that tend to inhibit the production of valid actionable knowledge. These are: (a) the importance traditionally attached to description and explanation; (b) the unintended gaps and inconsistencies that the emphasis to description and explanation produces; (c) the misplaced importance given to epistemological pluralism; and (d) the emphasis placed on internal and external validity. It is worth pointing out Argyris's stance on epistemological pluralism. Of course pluralism is a good thing, he remarks, but it does not help us a great deal to solve organizational problems, for two reasons. First because even the critics of positivism (the ‘humanists’ as Argyris calls them) do not get close enough to their objects of study, since they eschew interventions. And secondly, when the objective is to produce actionable knowledge, epistemological pluralism is not necessarily superior to monism: the strategy of producing different descriptions of a phenomenon may meet the needs of researchers but not necessarily those of practitioners and, at any rate, since it does not attempt to change the status quo it deprives itself of depth. In fact, argues Argyris, when change interventions are attempted, one finds that both ‘positivist’ and ‘humanist’ assumptions are relevant. Passionate about actionability and emancipatory change, Argyris critiques both Habermasian critical theory and psychoanalysis for not specifying explicitly the causal processes required to produce effective action. Enhanced awareness is not good enough, observes Argyris; action is the key criterion for the validity of awareness.

While Argyris is concerned with showing how actionable knowledge may be produced, in Chapter 16 (‘Theory and Practice in the Real World’), Karl Weick (p. 27) undertakes a broader task: to examine how theory and practice are related in the real world. ‘Theory’ and ‘practice’ are qualitatively different, argues Weick in his thoughtful and stimulating paper. The central question he addresses relates to how theory and practice may be reconciled. The whole chapter can be seen as Weick's attempt to elucidate Kierkegaard's remark that life is understood backwards but it must be lived forwards. Reviewing eight different ways in which organizational theorists have tried to reconcile theory with practice, Weick draws on Heidegger to distinguish three different modes of living: the ‘ready-to-hand’ mode in which individuals find themselves ‘thrown’ at the world, are immersed in particular tasks, and are aware of the world holistically, contextually, and unre-flectively; the ‘unready-to-hand’ mode, in which problematic aspects of a task that produced an interruption stand out, although individuals still do not become aware of context-free objects; and the ‘present-at-hand’ mode in which individuals step back from their involvement in a task to reflect on it. This is the mode of theoretical reflection.

Theorists, remarks Weick, tend to explain organizational phenomena by using ‘present-to-hand’ images, thus simplifying the complex, intertwined lifeworld understandings embedded in the ‘ready-to-hand’ mode of living, which practitioners inhabit. The gap between theory and practice is the gap between different modes of engagement with the world—between the ‘ready-to-hand’ mode and the ‘present-at-hand’ mode. Weick argues that this gap may be reduced when both practitioners and theorists scrutinize those moments where ‘backward’ and ‘forward’ views meet, namely unready-to-hand moments. Such moments are usually interruptions, accidents, and breakdowns. During those moments practitioners are partly disengaged from their tasks and are in need of looking backwards for abstractions, models, and theories. At the same time, interruptions present theorists with opportunities to sense more of the world as it is experienced by practitioners. During interruptions both engaged understanding and disengaged explanation come together. Weick insightfully illustrates his argument of unready-to-hand theorizing by analyzing the case of an accident in which two US Air Force F-15 fighter planes misidentified, over Northern Iraq, two US Army helicopters as Russian Hind aircraft and shot them down.

Although in the academic division of labor OT is a separate discipline from Business Ethics, it is impossible, as Richard Nielsen powerfully argues in Chapter 17 (‘Organization Theory and Ethics: Varieties and Dynamics of Constrained Optimization’), to separate the two. Just as it is not possible to have a particular organizational form without an at least implicit ethical or normative foundation, it is also not possible to actualize social ethics without organizational form. The prescriptions of a policy science such as OT necessarily involve ethical commitments and normative orientations. For example, the regular exhortations to firms to embrace continuous innovation and change, or the current critique of the bureaucratic organization, are underlain by certain ethical preferences.

(p. 28)

The central organizing concept of this insightful paper is that of ‘constrained optimization’. Distinct organizational forms optimize distinct variables (e.g. shareholder value, efficiency, power and influence, etc.) under certain constrains (e.g. the well-being of local communities, etc.). What is optimized and what is constrained has varied enormously across historical periods, types of organizations, and social traditions. Ethics issues and conflicts arise in the spaces between what is optimized and what is constrained. Nielsen considers six historically different types of constrained optimization, and discusses both the change processes through which varieties of constrained optimization evolve, and the epistemological question of how ‘normative’ questions are interwoven with ‘scientific’ assertions.

While Nielsen traces the ethical commitments implied by particular organizational forms, Iain Mangham explores, in Chapter 18 (‘Character and Virtue in an Era of Turbulent Capitalism’), the impact of unregulated (‘turbo’) capitalism on the ethical climate, both within and beyond organizations, by focusing on the Aristotelian notions of ‘character’ and ‘virtue’. Prompted by Richard Sennett's (1998) widely acclaimed The Corrosion of Character, Mangham draws his empirical material from two ethnographies of life in the City of London, before and after the Big Bang. His argument in this provocative essay is that the greatest influence on the ethical climate of our times is not so much exerted by particular forms of organization as by particular forms of capitalism. Unregulated capitalism produces a different ethical climate from regulated capitalism. Moreover, while the concepts of character and virtue, says Mangham, are helpful for understanding what occurred in the era of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, they are less so in the era of ‘impatient capitalism’. Mangham draws attention to the strong links between morality and social context arguing, in a Maclntyrian fashion, that character is not idiosyncratic, nor a matter of merely ‘individual’ choice, but is irreducibly social and emerges from ritualized habituation.

Finally, Part V (‘The Future of Organization Theory’) consists of five chapters whose authors reflect on the prospects of OT. The overall question they attempt to answer is this: what direction should research in OT take? As you would expect, answers differ widely, reflecting authors’ onto-epistemological commitments and theoretical predilections.

In Chapter 19 (‘The Future of Organization Theory: Prospects and Limitations’) Gibson Burrell addresses two questions. First, ‘What new research issues should OT try to tackle?’; and secondly, ‘What methodological and epistemological positions need to be adopted in OT?’ He answers the first question with another question: ‘who do we write for?’ He argues that much of OT has been written for middle managers. In his answer to the second question he rejects the ‘anatomizing urge’ that haunts most sciences. Later he discusses the recent interest in ‘critical realism’ among some OT scholars, and compares several possible methodologies such as naive empiricism, analytical empiricism, conventionalism, and orthodox realism. His argument is that we will always have to rely on some form of ‘logic of invention’, (p. 29) a position that brings him close to some form of conventionalism. Finally, he interestingly argues for opening OT to what he calls ‘neo-disciplinarity’, which implies opening the field to younger scholars and to notions of organizations stemming from outside the North Atlantic area. He concludes by pointing out that OT needs to look at a particular group, the peasantry, which has always been outside the domain of western notions of organization.

In Chapter 20 (‘Managing Organization Futures in a Changing World of Power/Knowledge’) Stewart Clegg explores some of the changes OT will likely go through in the immediate future. He argues that, contrary to what one would expect, it would be organizational researchers, above all other specialists, that would be developing new paradigms, when essential business conditions change. However, OT and business practice have been largely decoupled from each other as two separate institutional spheres. While the academic knowledge of OT intends to be universal and global, the working knowledge of business practice is specific and local. Despite this separation, Clegg insightfully argues that business practice has considerable implications for OT, though in ways that traditional universities have not conceived.

In Chapter 21 (‘The Future of Organization Studies: Beyond the Selection-Adaptation Debate’), Arie Lewin and Henk Volberda first informatively present the key research traditions that have either argued for an adaptation or a selection view of how organizations are formed. Second, they convincingly argue that the co-evolutionary perspective has the potential to resolve this duality between adaptation and selection by integrating micro- and macro-level evolution within a unifying framework. In the co-evolutionary framework, they point out, change is not just seen as an outcome of managerial adaptation or market selection but, rather, the joint outcome of strategic decisions and environmental effects.

In Chapter 22 (‘At Home from Mars to Somalia: Recounting Organization Studies’), Marta B. Calàs and Linda Smircich offer a provocative and passionate account of how they see the future of OT. Commenting on two sets of vignettes culled from the news—the failed attempts by NASA to locate water and, through it, forms of life on Mars; and the plight of two women in Africa in their desperate attempts to escape famine and drought—Calàs and Smircich ask the question why, despite a plethora of critical analyses, OT has contributed so little innovation when it comes to producing institutions to tackle world problems. Their answer is that OT has been a prisoner of dominant western understandings concerning what constitutes ‘modernization’ and, consequently, it has been unable to think outside the box. To do that organization theorists would need to think much wider than they have done so far and engage with heterodox theoretical discourses such as Third World feminist analyses, post-colonial theorizing, and the anthropology of technology. By drawing on these perspectives, Calàs and Smircich demonstrate how such radical rethinking may be done and what it would involve.

(p. 30)

The authors share with critical organization theorists the belief that OT (and social science at large) needs to engage in emancipatory theorizing, but they are more inclined to take their cues from Foucauldian-inspired historical analyses of ‘subjugated knowledges’ rather than Habermasian arguments concerning ‘ideal speech’, although the two are not necessarily at odds with one another. Drawing on Latour, the prospect of OT, argue Calàs and Smircich, should be to rethink modern institutions as ‘hybrid forums’ and ‘space for co-researching’ Dismissing the distinction between experts and non-experts, the authors side with Latour in their claim that all people are ‘co-researchers’ and, one way or another, we are all engaged into the collective experiments that make up our lives on the planet. Although Calàs and Smircich do not specify what exactly this ‘co-researching’ is and how it is to be achieved—is it, for example, different from the collaborative vision of science offered by Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons (2001)?—they do imply that what is important for organization theorists is to escape the modernist conceptual and institutional limits of western science, which have come to historically privilege certain forms of life and conceptions of rationality over others, and open up towards the Other.

Finally, in Chapter 23 (‘New Times, Fresh Challenges: Reflections on the Past and the Future of Organization Theory’), Haridimos Tsoukas adopts a Wittgensteinian perspective on OT, and puts forward four claims: First, OT has, over time, become more complex in some of its assumptions, seeking to incorporate real-world complexity in its models. However, it has been limited in its focus by being heavily concerned with the study of formal organizations as opposed to the broader phenomenon of organization. Second, along with the rest of social sciences, the mode of inquiry that has mainly underpinned OT is intellectualism and ontological atomism, which have prevented OT from fully grasping the inherent sociality of organizational phenomena. Third, the main task of OT has tended to be the causal, especially contingency, explanation of organizational behavior, whereas it should be the elucidation of reasons for organizational behavior. And fourth, OT has often been trapped by certain dualisms of its own making, such as stability vs. change, routines vs. creativity, failing to appreciate that such phenomena are mutually constituted. Arguing for a discursive turn in OT, Tsoukas suggests that the proper focus of OT should not so much be the study of authoritatively coordinated action as, more broadly, the study of patterned interaction; organizational theorists, he argues, should not be searching for some invariant logic of organizing but they ought to be exploring the discursive patterns involved in organizing.

As you will see in the chapters that follow, there is no shortage of debate or controversy in this handbook, and that is a sign of the vitality of OT as a social science discipline. At the same time, for the debate to be stimulating and productive it must be, to paraphrase Weick (1999), a ‘disciplined debate’—organization theorists, we suggest, are not in the business of arguing for the sake of it, but only insofar as they want to make clearer sense of the activity they are engaged in. We would like (p. 31) to think of the present handbook as providing a coherent rationale and structure so that such a meta-theoretical debate may be lucid in its conduct and fruitful in its outcomes. No, we do not believe that a consensus will emerge, nor do we necessarily desire one. But we do want to help enhance collective learning, and hope this handbook will contribute to such a process. We keep learning by keeping conversing, and reflecting on how we do so. The present handbook is a modest contribution to the ongoing meta-theoretical conversation in our field.

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