Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Practical Crisis

Over the past few weeks I have become increasingly worried about the scientific quality of work done in organization studies. My worries have been occasioned by my study of the "sensemaking" tradition, more specifically my critique of Karl Weick's analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster, which I am preparing for the upcoming "Practical Criticism" conference in Leicester. (Here's a PDF of the CFP.)

The organizers of the conference are concerend about the apparent "atrophy of the critical function in the academic study of management". The (ineffectual) criticism of one approach by another is of course allowed, but one rarely sees (truly inconvenient) internal criticism, i.e., direct criticism of a piece of research by other researchers who have both a stake in its claims and the expertise to understand them in detail. Peer-reviewers, it sometimes seems, are more interested in approving or disapproving of the referential posturing in an article, than assessing the astuteness of its observations or the quality of its thinking. Worse, there are very few outlets in organization studies for writing that simply critiques already published work.

Thinking about these things has led me to refocus my purpose with this blog. Until now, I have focused my attention on the problems that face academic writers who don't have English as a first language. From now on, I am taking the pun a bit more seriously. Many organization theorists, for a variety of historical reasons, but especially the uncritical proliferation of "interdisciplinary" studies, seem more often than not be using the research idiom as a second language. That is, they don't quite know what their words mean. Making this explicit will also, I hope, continue to help my non-English readers.


Jonathan said...

I wonder if certain "lower status" fields suffer from this malaise: education, communication studies, management... In the US university, at least, the standards seem lower for certain departments. It's an institutional problem.

Thomas Basbøll said...

In management studies we import a lot of what might called our "competence" from outside. We look to economics and sociology, of course, but more recently also to history, philosophy, and even literary studies. Other "studies" are similar: cultural studies and science studies, for example.

These fields have emerged as thematic specialties from more established fields. While they still to a large extent derive their standards form these fields, their practioners no longer receive their training there. There is a danger both in getting things wrong, and not keeping up with methodological developments.

I don't have a fully worked out explanation. And I'm still looking at this from the "inside", as it were. But there has been some very interesting work on how business schools beefed up "academically" in, as I recall, 1950s and 60s, mainly by drawing top people in from other social sciences.