Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Against Context

I am regularly struck by how articulate people are about their resistance to planning their writing process. Indeed, it often seems like the burden of proof is on me to show the value of being clear about how you intend to get your research written down and sent off for publication. It is generally assumed that planning thwarts creativity, even intelligence, and that nothing, finally, is accomplished by its means.

It occured to me recently, in part while reading Weick, that management scholars may be to blame for this resistance to "the very idea" of planning. Basic management competences such as making decisions, setting up routines, developing long-term strategies and, of course, making plans, have been denigrated in the name of creativity, innovation, and, in general, openness for change. Here is a first stab at identifying one source of this rather dominant view, at least in academic circles.

During our weekly discussions of writing process here at the department, one of the participants suggested that it can be traced to thirty years of (noble) attempts to shift scholarly attention away from content and on to context. One way to define the postmodern transition is, indeed, as a "contextualist" turn. In Thomas Kuhn (p. 336ff), Steve Fuller has applied this insight to a critique of the writing style of Science and Technology Studies. It can easily be applied also in many areas of management studies.

On this view, context is everything. Content is merely the illusion fostered by the positivist trick of "decontextualization". In fact, in his postscript to the first edition of Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge (1993), Fuller eloquently argued that in "the world of tomorrow" (our "today" we can safely say) the idea of "decontextualization" would have a ring of "dephlogistication" (378). Knowledge would always, he argued, have to situate itself in various contexts, not isolate itself from them. And he was of course both right at the time and prescient about ours.

But I think context needs to have its counter-point back. People seem to be keeping their writing so "open to context" (a term I associate with Weick's writing in many different ways) that they are forgetting content altogether. The boundary between content and context in organizational life was precisely constituted by strategies and plans, indeed, every decision would require the making of a distinction between content and context.

The difference is of course not given, and that is where postmodernism was right. But that does not mean that it can be eternally deferred. (That's where postmodernism is wrong.) The difference between content and context must be accomplished in each text. This accomplishment is a matter of preventing your context from overdetermining what you will say.

(I will say more about this on Friday.)

1 comment:

Presskorn said...

Perhaps one could rephrase some of what you're saying into the following management philosophical reminder?:

The notion of 'freely choosing and then implementing a strategy within a firm' requires the separation of the content of a strategy and the context for its implementation. And that difference is not given – quite simply because the people choosing are enmeshed in the context. Leaders, then, in to order to choose at least minimally rational must try to accomplish the making of a distinction between content and context.

On another note related to your topic:

One problem is that the negation of ”decontextualization” has received a quite odd interpretation within the postmodern movement. Often the stress on context means no more than open to endless interpretation within an unlimited numbers of contexts. Which is ironic, because that literally means that a text has some sort of application within any context – which, at least, is one sense of ”decontextualized”.

In my view, the true negation of ”decontextualization” is not an unlimited openness to contextual interpretation, but rather another sort of ”context dependency”, i.e. one of clearly defining and circumscribing the “area of validity” for your research. [By “area of validity” I am aiming at an English equivalent of the Danish “omfangslogik”]

Clearly marking out & circumscribing the “area of validity” for your research, I think, will also help you to partially depart from your immediate context and to add some content.