Friday, March 18, 2011

What do you propose?

Knowledge makes a real difference in the world. The world in which vitamin C is a known substance is very different from the world in which it is an unknown substance. (I’m not much for the affectation, cultivated by some social constructivists, of saying that it is not yet a substance in the world in which it is unknown. I prefer the equally affected manner of speaking, where we say that vitamin C was there to be discovered.) The world in which we think that Pluto is a planet is different from the world in which we know that it is not. In organization studies, too, we can imagine a world in which, say, ‘enactment’ is a known social process and one in which is unknown. Or we can imagine it to be well understood or poorly understood, or outright misunderstood. How well we know about something makes a real difference.

When you study the world you are also setting out to change it. You are, minimally, trying to change what we know about the world, but that knowledge will then be put to maximal use by others. You may even be doing your research on behalf of those who would apply it in practice. You may study labour processes in order to improve the conditions of factory workers, or to improve the efficiency of factories. You may study the financial system in order to avoid crises or in order to enrich investors. But you might also just be curious about how the social world works. If so, you have to remember that the world will not just satisfy your curiosity; you will change it merely by knowing.

So it makes sense to ask yourself what sort of world you propose we live in. Whatever you discover, will be expressed in a series of (hopefully true) propositions, and this will inspire a series of (hopefully just) proposals. If you conclude that, say, economic crises are caused by greed, try to gauge the normative implications to make it clearer to yourself what you mean. Try to convert the true proposition into a just proposal.

Notice that there is no simple answer to what proposals a proposition implies. Our proposition could support either the proposal that we must accept periodic economic crises (because greed is good and inviolable) or we must regulate markets to keep greed within bounds (because greed is a necessary evil) or we must stamp out greed forever in our hearts and minds (because greed is an unnecessary evil). The proposition that “economic crises are caused by greed” means different things to different people. One of the sources of this difference is the different implications it is taken to have for practice.

For some, these implications push back against the proposition itself. If I do not want to propose we accept future crises as natural, nor impose regulations on the market, nor appeal to the moral sentiments of my fellow human beings, then perhaps I must abandon greed as the cause of economic crises. Or I must articulate a fourth proposal, one that I can stand behind. The point here is simply to recognize that knowledge obligates us to think about power. Once we have seen something, we must think about what needs to be done.

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