Cafés are wonderful – but don’t try one at home

I have been studying the café method for about 15 years having been a frequent attender of David Gurteen’s public café events in London, having done a masterclass with David on how to organise a café and having organised one myself.

Cafés are an extremely powerful device. They are not like any of the other teaching ‘tips and tricks’. Because they are powerful, they are also dangerous. A café is not like a focus group, for example. If a focus group is like a sponge, a café is like a scalpel. A sponge is a very useful device but there is a limited amount of damage that can be done with it, even if you get grit in it or use the wrong kind of cleaning product. A scalpel, on the other hand, can be the difference between life and death for the patient but you wouldn’t want someone to use one who didn’t have the proper training and experience.

The World Café (Brown & Isaacs, 2005) approach avoids structure beyond the basic café organisation. It is very good for getting people to think about things in new ways. From a well-run café, participants often go away feeling stimulated, excited and open to new ideas. However, it can also open-up rivalries and divisions and is generally not good for identifying specific courses of action. A badly run café may seem to the participants, boring or, because of a lack of specific outputs, a waste of time. An exponent of the café method says, “While The World Cafe´ approach has the potential to make significant contributions to large group knowledge exchange and collective meaning making, it has suffered from being used by inexperienced facilitators and for reasons not well suited to the method. Participants, as a result, have failed to achieve the results expected and, in some cases, formed negative opinions of a lasting nature about the method and its proponents” (Prewitt, 2011, p.350).

As a method to be used as part of an organisational change programme, the World Café approach is, I believe, only useful at the unfreezing stage (of Lewin’s unfreeze, move, refreeze model) and even then only of limited value. For this reason, I have been working with a consultant, Jakob Werdelin, on modifying the café format so that it can be used effectively to help throughout the organisational change process. Jakob was the main facilitator at the café held at the event I organised last year last year where a more structured café format was used which was very successful.

I believe that if you were to use cafés as part of an organised change process, you can transform your organisation comparatively quickly into a much more effective one.

If you are thinking of running a café yourself, it is essential that you first attend a few facilitated by a professional such as David Gurteen. He runs them free of charge to the public (though he charges corporate clients a corporate consultancy rate) in London two or three times a year. If you go to the Gurteen Knowledge website you can put yourself on his mailing list.


Brown, J. and Isaacs, D. (2005). The World Café. San Francisco, Ca: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Prewitt, V. (2011). Working in the café: lessons in group dialogue. The Learning Organization, 18(5), pp.350-363.)

Research Paradigms for Business Researchers

As a lecturer in a UK university business school I often find myself called upon to advise PhD students about how to design, conduct and write up their research. There are several areas which cause them a lot of grief and I won’t attempt to list them here – I’ll save that for another posting. What I want to deal with here is that part of the methodology chapter in the thesis where the student must explain their research philosophy or paradigm. Often, they leave this to be done towards the end of the writing up and very often it is something that they fail to grasp successfully.

Many studies are conceived in the positivist paradigm.

For the positivist, scientific theories consist of sets of highly general universal statements, whose truth or falsity can be assessed by means of systematic observation and experiment. … The universal statements of scientific theories are usually referred to as ‘laws’ …
Keat and Urry, 1982, p.13-14

For a positivist an explanation concerns only cause and effect. I observe that when a moving billiard ball hits another stationary billiard ball, the second one moves in a predictable way. This observation has been repeated many times, so it is now reasonable to believe that this will always be the case. Early positivists thought that laws derived like this could be regarded as proved – that is, eternally and universally applicable – whereas more recent positivists (eg. Popper, 1962) accept that no law is ever proved but is subject to being disproved.

However, positivism carries with it a whole lot of assumptions that positivists rarely discuss. One of these assumptions is that science is value free – see how long that one stands up when research funding is being allocated. Another is that everyone perceives the world in the same way.

In fact, though a positivist approach is entirely appropriate in many contexts, for example it is almost always appropriate in engineering, but when there is a social science context, as there often is in business research, it begins to be apparent that the explanations provided by positivism are inadequate.

For example, there are phenomena that I can label ‘cultural’ and most people would agree that they are cultural, yet culture is such a loose and elusive term that it is fruitless to define it. If I want to investigate culture, I might begin by saying that I have noticed that the citizens’ attitude towards police officers varies from country to country. Hofstede (1980) devised some measures of national culture based on a questionnaire survey and one of these measures is power distance which measures people’s acceptance of authority. So, I might reach for Hofstede’s notion of power distance and use it to predict the way that people might think of the police in different countries. It seems that the Hofstede score on power distance for each country does predict the way the citizens of those countries perceive police officers but what does this tell me? You could say that you have explained something, but you are equally likely to find this kind of cause and effect explanation unsatisfactory. Somehow, we feel, we must dig deeper.

Now, most business researchers, both putative and practising, are not well schooled in philosophy and do not give much consideration to matters like ontology – how the world is – or epistemology – how we know about the world – unless they are forced to. This is why, for example, PhD students do not think about their research philosophy before doing anything else but usually leave it as late as possible in the process. Often, they try to justify their research philosophy with reference to the nature of the research when, in truth, it is exactly the other way around: their research philosophy (usually unconscious) determines the nature of their research.

There are quite lot of research philosophies that researchers could explore. I recommend finding out about a few of them and understanding them well enough to see the world from each of those points-of-view. This process broadens the mind and opens up whole new vistas the existence of which were previously unexpected. However, few researchers are open-minded enough to do this. As Burrell and Morgan (1979) have pointed out, researchers tend to stick with a research paradigm and that is the one they always live and work with. Sometimes they feel threatened when someone suggest an alternative and they can become emotional and lash out with righteous indignation.

I have made a study of research paradigms but the one I feel most at home with is postmodernism. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues, article reviewers and students do not understand this paradigm. They do not have a philosophical training and it is a hard one to grasp without. It is where I am comfortable, but it is not one that I generally recommend to students.

Much of the research that takes place in the business school requires a philosophy that allows the researcher to look under the surface, to find the hidden patterns, look further than the simplistic cause and effect explanations of positivism. So, increasingly, I find myself recommending critical realism for business research. It has a layered ontology that calls for us to look further than the appearance of cause and effect (the empirical layer) for the hidden reality beneath. But it is realism, that is, it is concerned with a real world that exists ‘out there’, independent of our perceptions of it, and this makes it congenial to those who like to stay practical and close to the data.

The task of understanding the critical realist ontology and epistemology should be an early one for all PhD students. It enables them to think more clearly and deeply about the research project they are about to undertake and, who knows, may lead them to think even more deeply and adopt another paradigm like pragmatism or postmodernism.

If you want to know about critical realism, I recommend these books:

Bhaskar, Roy (2017). The Order of Natural Necessity – a kind of introduction to critical realism ed. Gary Hawke.

Edwards, P.K., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism – a practical guide, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


Burrell, G. and Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis, Aldershot, UK: Arena.

Keat, R. and Urry, J. (1982). Social Theory as Science, London: RKP.

Popper, K. (1962). Conjectures and Refutations – the growth of scientific knowledge, New York: Basic Books.


Einstein doesn’t work here anymore – creative thinking in Higher Education

(with apologies to Maurice B. Cook)

Universities all over the world are under pressure to be more cost effective and generally improve the service that they offer to their students. So, there is much discussion about what this all means: what standards to set and how to achieve these standards. In the UK the government have stepped in with the REF (Research Excellence Framework) (REF, 2018) and TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) (GOV.UK, 2018) which set funding dependent standards for universities. In their present form, both of these are proving to be badly flawed and their procedures counterproductive to their stated aims. This is not surprising since there has been inadequate consideration given to what they are trying to achieve.

It is a truism that there has to be rules but it is a mistake to think that rules solve all problems. This leaves us in a quandary because not only is it difficult to say what the rules should be, but it is also even more difficult to say how they should be applied.

One of the problems here is the definition of the educational product. A way to clarify this point is to look at the difference between education and training. In the past I was involved in training for many years. We were providing a service for organisations to improve the efficiency of their employees. The training company would agree a list of skills that were to be taught. The trainer would then deliver an agreed course which would demonstrate the skills to the delegates who would show that they had acquired the skills by completing tasks unaided by the trainer. This is a comparatively simple process. However, education is much more complex.

Education is not only about acquiring skills, though this is a part of it, but it is also about shaping a person. The student, at the beginning of the process, is not quite the same person as the graduate, at the end of the process; an alchemy has taken place which is a process of personal growth. This process is a hard one; it involves bouts of frustration, confusion and despair. If it doesn’t involve these things, the alchemy cannot take place. And, this is why the TEF principle of asking the student about how satisfied they are with the process is misleading. One of the main problems is that it makes assumptions about why students enrol on a course which do not necessarily apply to all students. For example, when the lecturer is saying something that the student does not understand it could be a deliberate challenge to stretch the student to try to understand but this could be perceived negatively by students who have no wish to be stretched.

None of this can be done according to a formula. If you provide students with model outputs, for example a model essay, the student will (understandably) try to imitate it rather than to think for themselves, the exercise will have no effect on their personality and you will be delivering training not education. Originality of thought cannot be imitated, only discovered through following a steep and stony path of self-discovery. The problem is that by setting standards that are readily measurable, education is being transformed into something inferior, something that is more like training.

Research at the University of Toronto (Peterson, 2017) found that there was no correlation between creativity and academic success. Yet, what kind of a person would you hope that a graduate might be? Is a graduate someone who has a ready-made list of solutions looking for problems to apply them to or someone who can approach a problem with an open mind, assess it on its merits, and devise a solution that fits it? In other words, do you expect a graduate to be capable of some creative, or innovative, thought? Increasingly, graduates are falling into the first category because universities are not encouraging curiosity, critical thinking or independence of thought. After all, none of these things can be easily measured.

In the business school, we tend to teach a menu of theories which are often instantly forgotten by the students because they don’t know what the relevance of them might be. Too much, we fail to teach students to think critically and creatively and approach problems with an open mind. The move towards using case studies for teaching is a step in the right direction but too often the case studies are contrived so that they fit the text book theory and this creates the impression that that the students are learning the one best solution to problems which are often, if not always, foreseeable.

Instead we need a new approach to teaching. We need to foster a habit of curiosity and critical thinking. Experience tells us that that the best problem solvers are often the ones who can make imaginative leaps rather than the ones who proceed methodically through a prescribed procedure. To develop this capacity to make imaginative leaps we need to set students demanding tasks, like solving problems that do not have one correct solution and requiring them to develop an extended argument in an essay. Instead, we have an institutional fear of not being able to describe exactly what students should produce in response to an assessment brief and asking them to write reports instead of essays. In other words, we place too much emphasis on conscientiousness, such as deadlines and correct answers, and not enough on creativity, such as producing imaginative solutions and making a case for a particular course of action.

There are some pedagogic methods which are rarely employed but which can be effective in producing graduates with character. For the business school, these include personal tutors, slow education, cafés, the dérive, and connectivism:

  • Personal tutors – in the present climate of cost cutting and efficiency there is little time for one-to-one personal tuition. An approach more like coaching would help to develop a student’s interests and help them to develop personal goals. It is a better use of funding to spend the money on effective tuition than it is to spend it on, for example, library buildings when, these days, libraries should be online not bricks and mortar (Sudjic, 2011).
  • Slow education – an educational philosophy developed by Prof. Maurice Holt and Eton College master, Mike Grenier. The main principle is that students follow their own interests, so they are always learning about things that are personally relevant to them (Slow Education, 2018). One of the techniques is to have open workshops where junior students (eg. undergraduates) come along to work on anything they want, course related or not, and are helped by more senior students (eg. postgraduates) in any way that suits both parties. For example, this was tried at a comprehensive school (UK high school) with the sessions on a Saturday morning and the senior students being the sixth formers. It proved to be surprisingly popular with increasing numbers of attendees over the trial period. Because slow learning begins from the interests of the students, it is said to promote deep learning, curiosity and creative thinking (Benn, 2015).
  • Cafés – the café is a technique to promote free exchange of ideas and opinions between the participants and depends on unstructured conversation loosely centred on a given topic. A large room is set up with islands of tables around which participants sit, ideally in groups of 6 to 8 people. A topic is given by the facilitator and the discussion begins. After a fixed amount of time (usually 20 minutes) the facilitator stops the discussion and invites some of the participants to move to another table. This process is repeated twice more so that there is an intermingling of the different discussions. Finally, the tables are moved out of the way and the participants sit in one big circle and continue the discussion until the facilitator calls time. This method is extremely effective at generating new ideas and new perspectives (Gurteen, 2018). It can be used effectively with postgraduate students.
  • The dérive – developed by Prof. Clive Holtham of Cass Business School, London, and Allan Owens of the University of Chester, this is a method of encouraging curiosity. The participants are divided into small groups (typically 6 people) and given a brief by the facilitator. It might be something like “Find examples of effective communication”. The brief should be very loosely worded so that participants have the freedom to interpret it in their own ways. The participants then go out and wander wherever they want (an urban landscape is ideal but not essential) taking photos on their smartphones so that they can use them in their report back to the whole group. At the appointed time, the groups return and present their oral reports in a plenary. Participants often say that the best part of their experience of taking part is the conversation with their fellow group members (Gurteen, 2018).
  • Connectivism – this educational philosophy was developed by George Siemens (2006) and has at its core the idea that education is not about acquiring facts but about making connections. This, according to Siemens, has been facilitated in recent times by digital technology. In the connectivist approach, students are to see their education as being about building networks that include knowledge and people. Thus, there is a priority given to knowing where to find out about something, for example who to ask, rather than personally acquiring facts.Students are encouraged to follow the connections between the facts that they discover, learn through group activities, make contacts with people outside the educational institution and build electronic databases of contacts that will be useful to them during and beyond the course and build databases of information sources that will be useful to them during and beyond the course.

Not only does the university fail to promote creative thinking in its teaching but it also fails to produce imaginative research. The REF system awards funding to the university based on research output and ‘impact’. The research output, in this case, is measured by the number of publications of academic journal articles deemed to be of a certain standard. How these standards are set is problematic but beyond the scope of this post.

One problem I want to mention here is that it is not possible to develop significant theory in a journal article. To develop significant theory you need a book, possibly more than one, yet writing books is unrewarding for academics because they count for little in the REF system and, in any case, they take a lot more time. Consequently, in my field of organisation studies there has been little theory development in the last thirty years. Everyone is using the same theories over and over which limits the perspectives that researchers can have on the problems they investigate when a fresh viewpoint might be illuminating. Again, conscientiousness is being promoted at the expense of creativity and innovation.

Another problem is that the REF system encourages a situation where progress can only be made in small steps. It is a fact that with ‘normal science’ (Khun, 1971) progress takes place by following the path of knowledge where a new study builds directly on its predecessors with each new one adding a little bit to the whole body of knowledge. This is a very systematic and plodding approach where all the scientists in a field plod slowly, one behind the other, down the same path. However, it is the disruptive influence of original thinking that can make huge progress in one leap. Well-known examples of this are Einstein’s theory of relativity and Watson and Crick’s structure of DNA but also less well-known ones such as Porter’s five forces and Hofstede’s model of national culture. All of this happened some time ago and none of these innovative thinkers would thrive under the present regime.

At a time when universities are being put under pressure to justify what they do, it is not the best response to tighten the rules and procedures and enforce a tick box approach to quality control. It is far better, more effective, and more cost effective, to find ways to produce innovative graduates and imaginative, ground-breaking research.



Benn, M. (2015). The Slow revolution that makes learning fun, Times Educational Supplement, December, 2015. Available at:, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

GOV.UK (2018). Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification. Available at:, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Gurteen, M. (2018). Conversational Leadership. Available at:, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Khun, T. (1971). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, Il: Chicago University press.

Peterson, J.B. (2017). What predicts academic ability? Available at:, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

REF (2018). Research Excellence Framework. Available at:, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. Lulu. com.

Slow Education (2018). Slow Education. Available at:, Accessed on: 01/05/2018.

Sudjic, D. (2011). The Edifice Complex: The architecture of power. London: Penguin.


Jordan Peterson’s IQ

I came across some things that Jordan Peterson has been saying about IQ and I have been giving it some thought. Petersons’ argument is persuasive and, I think, mostly correct but I also feel that it is not quite right, so I have been trying to work out why.

Peterson makes some points about IQ that I think are worth considering:

  1. The results of IQ tests form a normal distribution, symmetrical about the mean.
  2. IQ is a measure of cognitive ability.
  3. It is a measure of the facility with which individuals can carry out abstract reasoning.
  4. People cannot learn to improve their IQ.
  5. The average IQ scores are different for different races, for example, Jews score much higher than the average of the population at large and Blacks score lower.
  6. The bottom 15% of the population, according to IQ score, cannot be productively employed.
  7. There is a strong correlation between IQ score and the ability to function in specific occupations.
  8. The highest average score among different academic faculty disciplines is physics and maths.

Point number 1 tells us that this is a scientific and, therefore, purely objective concept with real life implications. So, IQ is not just a concept within the episteme it is an objective fact to be found ‘out there’, like Mount Vesuvius or one of Peterson’s beloved lobsters. In fact, says Peterson, IQ is the most reliable construct in the whole of the social sciences. Having established this, we had all better sit up and take notice because this is something that we cannot afford to ignore.

Points 2 and 3 are really the same point so let’s take them together. Cognitive ability and abstract reasoning are things that people do, like lifting weights or running fast round a track. If you ask some people to see what the heaviest weight is they can lift, you find a similar distribution to IQ. So, we don’t really have to know what this particular ability is, apart from the ability to do IQ tests, because point 6 says that it correlates with something that we can detect in the real world, which is occupations, though I don’t feel sure that I know what exactly this cognitive ability is; it doesn’t, for example, seem to involve any people or communication skills. At this point we should, of course, take care because correlation is not the same thing as causation, though Peterson implies that in this case it is. For example, it could be that there is a third factor that is independently causing both IQ and occupation.

Now, it is point 4 that makes me the most uneasy. What Peterson says is that ‘you cannot teach anyone to do anything’. This implies that he believes that IQ scores are something that people are born with, stay constant throughout life (except some predictable variation with age) and are unaffected by other factors such as education or environment. However, Michael Flynn says that IQ scores over whole populations have changed over long periods of time (Flynn, 2013). The average score for an IQ test is set to 100 and Flynn claims that what scored 100 back in the days when IQ tests first came along, in the early twentieth century, would only score at about 60 on the present-day metric. If Flynn is correct, it means that IQ tests are not testing something immutable. Another consequence of Flynn’s assertion is that, if it is correct, IQ is an attribute of society as well as of the individual.

Flynn argues that IQ has risen because of a greater need in the modern workplace for the skills of abstract reasoning which has driven the education system to cultivate these skills (Flynn, 2013). So, Flynn believes that our forebears had the latent ability to exhibit high IQ scores, but their environment discouraged it because abstract thinking was not useful to them. If Flynn is right, then it leaves open a possibility for interpreting point 5 in a constructive, rather than fatalistic, way. Is it not possible, in fact likely, that the difference in IQ scores between races is largely due to habitus (Bourdieu, 1984) rather than DNA? If this were true, IQ scores are not immutable but can be changed, albeit slowly and with difficulty.

This brings me to the flaw that I perceive running through Petersons’ work: he is a psychologist. As Mary Douglas once observed (Douglas, 1986), psychologists institutionally forget that people are not just individuals but are part of groups. To be clear, my greatest problem with Peterson’s work is that he has no institutional theory in which to contextualise his conclusions about the individual. If there were an institution theory included here, it might be apparent that there are other explanations that do not rely on the old individual and their fate dichotomy. This problem is exacerbated by a relentless application of quantitative methods which can only give snapshot views of phenomena but are nearly useless for explaining causation.

I suggest that differences in IQ scores between races may be largely due to habitus and I use the word largely because, I suggest, there is no way of knowing, at the present state of research, what the extent of these differences are caused by habitus and what by genetics. At this point racial politics rears its ugly head and people with deeply held assumptions go into battle with one another.

The political consequences of this debate bring me to point 6. Peterson argues that because the US military believes that people who have IQ scores below 85 are not worth employing that this must be true. Well, Prof Peterson has more faith in the rationality of institutions than I do and this, indeed, sounds like a rational actor argument from economics. I suggest that a healthy dose of scepticism is called for on this point. However, I think that he has hit upon a huge political problem for the advanced economies: what to do with people who are chronically unemployed. As Peterson says, the political right insists that they should be forced to work and try harder and the political left believe that anyone can be trained to do something. He suggests that they are both wrong and I have some sympathy with this view. I suspect that the truth is that, although it is correct that these people could be trained to do something, the effort that would have to be put into changing the way that they think and interact with the world would be prohibitively expensive and that it is cheaper to just to pay them welfare.

Peterson’s point 7, in my list, asserts that IQ is directly and reliably correlated with occupation, with the bottom 15% IQ scorers being chronically unemployed and there being a hierarchy of occupations according to IQ scores above them. I have no reason to dispute this assertion, but I think that we must be careful about the possibility of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy creeping in here. Rather than IQ causing occupation, perhaps there are factors which bring about both IQ and occupation choice, such as habitus, for example. Habitus has been shown to play a part in the early development of mathematical ability (Turvill, 2016) so perhaps it plays a part in determining IQ, as Flynn’s findings suggest.

Finally, Peterson’s point 8, seems to put the whole debate into perspective. What is IQ, anyway, and why does it matter? It seems to me only to matter because it is commonly used pseudo-scientifically to influence political debate: if you don’t like a group of people, you can label them as irredeemably ‘stupid’ and legitimate the slander with science. At the other end of this dimension, the fact that the science and physics faculty score the highest on IQ tests underlines the fact that IQ, whatever it is in reality measuring, does not measure something that is exclusively useful compared to other abilities. Although I have great respect for my colleagues in the maths and physics departments, this is not the first place I would look if I wanted to find someone to run my company. IQ measures a skill at dealing with a certain kind of abstraction which has little to do with people skills, such as getting them to work effectively together.

Peterson shows a little naïveté, I think, on this point when he is invited to speculate about the IQ of Donald Trump. He thinks that Trump probably has a high IQ because of all the complex activities he has been engaged in. In another place, Peterson says that organisations are full of people who are conscientious along with “a few psychopaths thrown in”. My own experience is that psychopaths are good at presenting themselves as people who have high IQs when they do not; what they do have is a kind of cunning that enables them to read others for the sole purpose of manipulating them. I suspect that Trump is one of these and that Peterson, along with many others, has been duped.

In the end, I would argue that Peterson places too much emphasis on IQ. It is a fascinating plaything in the world of the psychologist but in the rest of the world it is not so useful and can, at worst, become a dangerous smokescreen for intolerance. However, despite some reservations about some of Peterson’s opinions, I want to end on a positive note. Peterson has rightly become a celebrity because he is a moderate voice in an increasingly unhinged world and because he is not afraid to talk about issues that others prefer to avoid.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction. Abingdon, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Douglas, Mary (1986). How Institutions Think. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Flynn, Michael (2013). Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’. Available at:, Accessed on: 22/04/2018.

Peterson, Jordan (2017). Personality 18: Biology & Traits: Openness/Intelligence/Creativity. Available at:, Accessed on: 22/04/2018.

Peterson, Jordan (2018). Jordan Peterson @ Lafayette, A Conversation and Q&A, Full Event. Available at:, Accessed on: 22/04/2018.

Turvill, R.A. (2016). How are young children developing number sense, post national numeracy strategy (Doctoral dissertation, Brunel University London).


Is there Progress?

Sometimes people ask if there really is such a thing as progress and sometimes they deny that there has been progress. These people are usually left leaning egalitarians who are inclined to believe that progress is just a part of capitalist ideology. That is, that it is a false belief which has the purpose of keeping us all consumerist, debt-bound wage slaves.

It is true that the belief in the superiority of the latest is a part of popular culture. TV shows like Goodnight Sweetheart and Life on Mars have, as their central trope, the superiority of the current culture over the crude stupidity of the 1940s and 1970s respectively. So, we can laugh at our parents and grandparents because it seems that, without making any effort ourselves, we are better than they were.

People innovate. It is one of the characteristics of our species. This is why archaeologists are able to date pottery by its style over periods of thousands of years. It is because people make fashions. Everyone wants the latest thing because it reflects who we are and where we belong and we don’t want the old way which has been left behind. This is change for the sake of change but there is also improvement. We are equipped with the means of passing the results of our experience from one generation to the next so that we can collectively learn from our collective experience.

But, innovation is not just improvement, it is also destruction. Older people may complain that things have become worse rather than better. The purpose of something they think is important has been forgotten. It solved a problem so now the problem itself has been forgotten and with it the need for the solution. It may be that the problem will recur, or it may not. Some societies value stability over innovation because, in some circumstances, the destructive power of innovation is not worth it and it is just a reflection of a power struggle between two factions, perhaps of young and old.

The question, which is the title of this post, as it is usually asked conceals a more important one. It is one of values. If values change, how is it possible to judge if things have improved? If you believe that people should have equal power and equal wealth or if you believe in a code of conduct arising in a literal form from one of the great religions, you would probably say that there has been no progress. If, on the other hand, you believe that things like life expectancy, education and opportunity are important, you will probably say that there has been progress and it is a good thing.

People like to believe that there are absolute, timeless values, which just happen to be theirs, and that people elsewhere, geographically or historically, who have different values are misguided and wrong. But, there are no absolute values. The values of our group, our nation, our time in history are just ours. According to those values there can be progress. So the answer to our question is that there can be, but it depends how you look at it.

A Problem with the Economy

Imagine a small island with ten people living on it.

One of the island inhabitants, Bill, owns a mill. He invested $10k in it. Everyone works at the mill. The mill makes $11k profit (surplus value) every year out of which wages and dividends are paid. Everyone is paid $1k in wages, including Bill, but he gets an extra $1k in dividends because he invested his money in the mill instead of buying a second-hand Lamborghini, which is what he really wanted to do. Everyone is happy.

Then, the technology changes. Someone invents a better way of milling. So, Bill is in a dilemma. He owns a house worth $20k so he takes the plunge and borrows $20k from the bank secured on his home. He tears down the old mill and builds a new one. He takes the risk and, this time, it works for him.

But things have changed. This mill produces twice as much product with a lot less labour. So, now a senior technician is needed at $1.5k, a junior technician at $1k and 4 porters at $500. Meaning there are three people unemployed on the island and average wages have fallen.

For a time, this is good for Bill. His revenue from the mill is $22k. He pays $2k to the bank  in interest for the loan. He pays out $4.5k in wages. So, he is rich. He has $15.5k when he used to have $2k. Great! But, no one is happy and everyone hates Bill.

It gets worse.

Other people in other places buy the same technology and set up as competitors. The price of the goods falls by 50%. This is good for the islanders because their, reduced, incomes go further. However, the mill is now only making $11k gross profit. Out of this Bill pays, $2k to the bank for the loan, $1.5k to the senior technician (hard to find guys with these skills), $1k to the junior technician (also hard to find) and $500 to each of the unskilled porters, leaving Bill with $5.5k. Not as rich as he briefly was but richer than he used to be.

However, as more competitors crowd into the market place, some on islands with much lower wages, the price of the product continues to fall.

Bill works out that there are 3 unemployed people on the island and they all want work so it doesn’t matter if one of the porters quits as it would be easy to find a replacement. So, he reduces the porters’ wages to $400. Then to $300. Then to $200. It’s only a fifth of what they used to make but, hey, it’s better than it is for the 3 unemployed. Anyway, the prices of a lot of stuff has gone down, which helps a little.

Everyone now hates Bill even more. He feels under big pressure because of increasing competition, falling prices and the risk of defaulting on the bank loan. Some of the islanders are unemployed and some are on lower wages. All of the islanders are miserable because of the social problems that have been caused by the new economic circumstances. Bill is looking forward to a time when the mill can be fully automated and he won’t have to pay anyone. In the meantime, he is thinking of relocating, with his mill, to a lower wage island.


1. Whose fault is all of this? Are you a conspiracy theorist – must there always be someone to blame?

2. What is to prevent the price of the product falling so far that no one can make any profit from any of these mills?

3. What happens when there are less than, say, 10% of the workforce in employment? If hardly anyone works, how can anyone buy anything?

4. Suggest possible solutions to the problem. Use your imagination. Give:

(i) a hierarchical solution involving regulation, rules and prohibitions

(ii) an individualist solution in which everyone takes responsibility for themselves

(iii) an egalitarian solution in which everyone shares everything

(iv) a fatalistic solution where, maybe everyone becomes a criminal, I don’t know, I can’t be bothered.

(v) or better still, some kind of mixture of all, or some, of these


Unease with Neoliberalism

I often come across academic publications that contain the word “neoliberal”. It makes me uneasy because I have some problems with the way that this term is generally used.

There was a trend in the 1980s among conservatives to move away from centralised control (which had been favoured during WW2) and the term neoliberalism was coined to describe this trend. For example, a book by Graham and Clarke (1986) titled The New Enlightenment: the rebirth of liberalism which celebrates the “death of socialism” and Austrian economics particularly Hayek, is typical of that way of thinking at that time.

However, the term is used nowadays much more broadly than it was in its original, historically specific, circumstances. For example, if you were to describe a particular policy now as ‘neoliberal’, it would not, to my mind, have any meaning. My concern is that it is not possible to say when something (anything) is neoliberal and when it is not and, therefore, neoliberalism presents itself as a precise technical term when it really isn’t one.

It seems to me that it has become a term of abuse used, in Grid-Group terms (Thompson 2008), in egalitarian thinking to describe individualist thinking. This means that it has become a term that is used, usually unconsciously, as a means of censure or coercion. That is, if a policy, idea or activity is labelled neoliberal then anyone who has anything to say in its favour must be a selfish capitalist with dubious morals. This kind of Trojan horse value, which is based on an unexamined assumption, is not good for academic enquiry or debate.

Barnett (2005) has identified the problem and commented on how lack of questioning of the assumptions behind the usual use of the term is obstructing potentially fruitful enquiry:

Theories of neoliberalism provide a consoling image of how the world works, and in their simplistic reiteration of the idea that liberalism privileges the market and individual self-interest, they provide little assistance in thinking about how best to balance equally compelling imperatives to respect pluralistic difference and enable effective collective action.

It seems to me that the root of the problem of the current theorisation of neoliberalism is that most scholars in the field are working with a critical realist paradigm which assumes that there are individuals who precede the institutions of which they are members. In this way some individuals become victims of “the system” while others manoeuvre themselves into positions of power and force everyone else to dance to their tune. As Barnett points out, this is rather a crude model when it comes to explaining present day social relationships and Foucault’s model of generative power seems to have more to offer.

I agree with Latour (2005) that much academic enquiry is hampered by what he calls ‘the sociological fallacy’; that is, the habit that sociologists have of sticking labels on things and then proceeding in their enquiries as though the label has explained something, when in fact it is nothing more than an empty term. In these cases it would have been more fruitful to dig deeper under the label to find out what is really happening. The terms class, culture, society, capitalism and neoliberalism are all good examples of this phenomenon. By employing Foucault’s model of power for deeper analysis more progress might be made.


Barnett, C. (2005). The Consolations of Neoliberalism, Geoforum, 36(1), pp.7-12.
Graham, D. and Clarke, P. (1986). The New Enlightenment: the rebirth of liberalism, London: Macmillan.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: an introduction to actor-network theory, Oxford: OUP.
Thompson, M. (2008). Organising and Disorganising, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Foucault and Power

Foucault’s theory of power is radically different to previous theories. Instead of seeing power as working through a collection of rules and prohibitions, Foucault sees it as generative, that is, as a shaping force that structures society. Foucault’s theory is postmodernist, in that it assumes a fundamental role for discourse, and it is decentred, in that it assumes that power is not an instrument under anyone’s control but is impersonally distributed throughout society.

Before Foucault, theories of power from Hobbes to Lukes focused on sovereign power (Clegg, 1989). Sovereign power is imposed on people from the outside and only exists as far as it is exercised. This conception of power is based on the ability of a king to impose his will on his subjects. As the system of monarchical rule declined in Europe and eventually evolved into liberal democratic government the conception of power did not fundamentally change.

Hobbes, writing in the seventeenth century at around the time of the English Civil War, suggested that the sovereign of a state holds legitimate power because of a contract between him and the citizens whereby he expresses their collective will (Clegg, 1989; Hobbes, 1968).

Lukes, writing in the late-twentieth century has an approach to power that can be applied in different contexts, not just to the nation state, and attempts to explain the subtler effects of power (Lukes 1974). His theory builds upon previous theories such as that of Dahl (1957) and Bachrach and Baratz (1962). According to Dahl’s theory, developed in the context of research into the distribution of power between elites in local politics in the USA, A has power over B if he can make B do things that A wishes him to do. There is an intentional cause and an observable effect (Clegg, 1989; Dahl, 1957, 1958). Bachrach and Baratz built upon Dahl’s theory but added another dimension. A is not only able to enforce the outcome of a decision but is also able to shape the agenda of any discussion when a decision is being made. A can do this by preventing discussion of topics that would be against his interests to be allowed to become topics of discussion (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962). Lukes extends Bachrach and Baratz’s theory by adding a third dimension (Lukes, 1974). In this third dimension of power not only is A able to impose his will directly on B and is able to shape the discussion so that the decision that results is favourable to his interests but he is also able to shape the desires and needs of B so that B will want to do what is in A’s interests. Although Lukes does not use the term “ideology” this third dimension of power is similar to the concept of ideology in the Marxist tradition.

In Marx ideology is an illusionary view of the world which acts in the interests of the ruling class to achieve the acquiescence of the working class. These phantom ideas form “politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc.” (Marx & Engels 1970 p.47) in such a way that they are “directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life” (ibid) so ideology makes it appear that the way power operates is the result of these conceptual systems whereas the opposite is true: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” (ibid) By producing an appearance which is the reverse of the truth ideology conceals itself making it appear that the status quo is natural and the only way that things could be ordered. In the early and mid-twentieth century Marxists developed this conception of ideology, for example, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, which is a combination of ideology and coercive state power leading to the consent of the oppressed to the will of the oppressor (Gramsci, 1971) and Althusser’s theory of the ideological state apparatuses, such as education or the church, and the repressive state apparatuses, such as the army or the police, through which the state maintains the capitalist order (Althusser, 2001). In the Marxist tradition, the legitimacy of a Marxist government arises from its basis in ideology free reality.

In Marxism ideology creates consciousness, albeit false consciousness and it therefore creates subjects. Despite this constructionist aspect of Marxism, it falls within the realist sub-paradigm of modernism. In the Marxist view of the world, ideology can be transcended by penetrating the mist of ideology to a neutral, bias-free standpoint, reality, by means of an objective, scientific analysis of social relations (Foucault 1980a p.110) and this is the way to emancipation and freedom.

A departure from this tradition may be discerned in the work of Volosinov who was writing in Soviet Russia in the 1920s (Volosinov, 1986). According to his view, ideology is located firmly within discourse, “Without signs there is no ideology” (ibid p.9). However, the reverse is also true because ideology is fully imbricated with discourse, “Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present too” (ibid p.10). It follows from this position that there is no ideology free and fully objective reality so even Soviet Marxist-Leninism is also an ideology (ibid p.10). This position is in contradiction to the orthodox Marxist credentials that Volosinov claims and puts his work within the postmodernist paradigm. He also claims that his view of discourse is not an idealist Kantian one but completely materialist since it is rooted in the material nature of the sign (ibid p.11) and Derrida makes the same point (Derrida, 1976).

Foucault was educated in the Marxist tradition and studied under Althusser for a time (Sheridan, 1980). However, he rejected the Marxist view of ideology and his published work falls within the postmodernist paradigm. Foucault comments that theories of power, which includes Marxist theories of ideology (Foucault 1980a p.118), so far have all been based, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, on the model of sovereign power and have not fundamentally changed since Hobbes (Foucault, 1980a). Foucault comments that, “What we need, however, is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (ibid p.121).

In an interview in 1970 Foucault talks about the shift in his thinking between the publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge (Foucault 1972/1969) and Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1979/1975) Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge marks the end of Foucault’s archaeological period where his focus is discursive formations and their conditions of formation. On the other hand, Discipline and Punish marks the beginning of his genealogical period where his work takes on a different focus by directly examining the working of power. In this interview he looks back at his early work and comments, “… I ask myself what else it was that I was talking about, in Madness and Civilisation or The Birth of the Clinic, but power?” (Foucault 1980a p.115). Thus, he sees the change in his work not in terms of the repudiation of the earlier work, or it failure as some scholars have described it (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982), but as the identification of its true object of analysis. He says that it is a mistake to think that power is only concerned with repression; instead it works mainly as a productive force since it “traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (Foucault 1980a p.119). It is a force which is always at work everywhere.

In a lecture delivered in 1970, The Order of Discourse (Foucault 1981/1970), Foucault explains the direction that his research is taking. He locates his work in the postmodernist paradigm, as defined in this thesis, describing it main principles in terms of discourse. He says that attention must be paid to the specifics of discursive practice because there is no continuous underlying discourse that controls its specific manifestation. Instead discursive practice is fragmented with bodies of discursive practice that “cross each other, are sometimes juxtaposed with one another, but can just as well exclude or be unaware of each other” (p.67). We should not look into discourse to find its central hub, that would be to go beyond discourse, but instead we should look outwards from discourse to find its “external conditions of possibility” (p.67). This statement compliments and clarifies Derrida’s specification of the postmodernist paradigm in Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences (Derrida, 1978). By placing discourse at the centre of the paradigm which is a practice rather than a concept like god or man, postmodernism, as it were, turns itself inside out and makes the specific practices in which people take part its focus. Although Foucault rarely uses citation in his writing it is possible to discern the influence of Derrida in a passage in the lecture where he discusses these matters. He says that “the world is not the accomplice of our knowledge” but that discourse is “a violence which we do to things” in order to impose a regularity on the world.

This theoretical position leads to a clarification of the relationship between archaeology and genealogy which looks at specific practices to discover how power operates. In an interview (1991/1977) about his genealogical methodology in Discipline and Punish Foucault says that his method is to simultaneously look at what was done (specific penal practices) and what was said about it (theories and justifications) to discover how these practices came to be the accepted ones which seemed so natural that they no longer needed to be discussed (ibid p.75). He goes on to say that in this work he is not trying to formulate social theory but to discover how a discursive formation acquires a domain of objects in which it determines truth and falsehood (ibid p.79) and, therefore, distributes power. As Deleuze comments about Foucault’s thinking, power does not come from the state, as in Althusser for example, and is not a property of a person or institution but a strategy where the state itself is a product of interacting forces in a “microphysics of power” (Deleuze 2006 p.23). Foucault says that it is a mistake to think that power is only concerned with repression; instead it works mainly as a productive force since it “traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse” (Foucault 1980a p.119). It is a force which is always at work everywhere.

In his later work Foucault examines two overlapping types of power, disciplinary power, particularly in Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1979/1975), which works locally and biopower, particularly in The History of Sexuality Volume I (Foucault, 1980b), which works on whole populations. However, both of these are forms of generative power and are consistent with a model of power that is postmodernist and discursive.


Althusser, L. (2001). Lenin and Philosophy and other essays. New York, NY: Monthly Review.
Bachrach, P., & Baratz, M. S. (1962). Two Faces of Power. American Political Science Review, 56, 947–52.
Clegg, S. R. (1989). Frameworks of Power. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Dahl, R. A. (1957). The Concept of Power. Behavioural Science, 2, 201–5.
Dahl, R. A. (1958). A Critique of the Ruling Elite Model. The American Political Science Review, 52(2), 463–69.
Deleuze, G. (2006). Foucault. New York NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Derrida, J. (1976). Of Grammatology. Baltimore, MA.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. In Writing and Difference (pp. 278–294). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Dreyfus, H. L., & Rabinow, P. (1982). Michael Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Brighton: The Harvester Press Ltd.
Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books.
Foucault, M. (1980a). Power/Knowledge. Brighton, UK: The Harvester Press Ltd.
Foucault, M. (1980b). The History of Sexuality – Volume 1: An Introduction. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Foucault, M. (1981). The Order of Discourse. In R. Young (Ed.), Untying the Text (pp. 48–78). Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Hobbes, T. (1968). Leviathan. (C. B. MacPherson, Ed.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A Radical View. London: Macmillan.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1970). The German Ideology. (C. J. Arthur, Ed.). New York: International Publishers.
Sheridan, A. (1980). Michel Foucault and the Will to Truth. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
Volosinov, V. N. (1986). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

UK Politics Post Brexit

The politics of the UK, like the politics of everywhere else has fallen into a new pattern. We have political systems based on nineteenth century interest groups and class conflict. The world is different now. Instead we have a large middle class who typically are university educated, rational and democratic in outlook. They are open-minded, outward looking and have an international view.  These people exist in almost every country in the world and they have a good deal in common with each other. They think the same way, spend their money in the same way and have the same values. Then there is everyone else. These are the people who have not had the opportunities that their neighbours have had and they don’t recognise the world they live in. They feel that they have little control over their lives so they feel they have become victims. It is easy for them to look back to times they understood, or thought they did. These are the bulk of the Brexit voters, the Front National voters and the Trump voters (and the religious fundamentalists). It is the same everywhere.

The UK has a first past the post voting system making it inevitable that there are two main political parties. This system has worked well in the past and led to decisive government. But these two blocks are really uneasy, fragile coalitions. The Tories are split many ways but certainly into soft-right pro-Europe and pro-business, like Cameron, and an assortment of traditionalists with dark motives. Cameron called the Brexit referendum because he was afraid that the Tories would lose votes to the far-right UKIP. He didn’t expect to lose the vote and had no plans for what to do if he did – it isn’t even clear what “Brexit” actually means. So, he didn’t try too hard to influence the voters. Meanwhile the shabbily opportunistic Boris Johnson told a lot of lies in a flamboyant manner which gave the unsophisticated voters the confidence to register their unease about the contemporary world. Of course, it was also easy for them to blame the other – the foreigners – for things totally unconnected with them.

On the other hand, the people who should have been saving the situation offering hope and realistic alternatives were disintegrating into a farce. The Labour party under Tony Blair was a well-oiled machine full of talented people fighting for fairness and progress. After Blair left and his generation stepped aside there was a dearth of talent to replace them. The Labour party allowed itself to be taken over by a minority of far left ideologues who behave as though it is 1916 not 2016. The party has deteriorated into an unseemly internal war without any regard for the voters who they are supposed to represent. The people of good will in the Labour party seem to be unable to make any mark on the situation.

What is needed? A new centre party, maybe with a name something like called “Reason”. This party will have an ideology of polyrationality based on Douglas/Thompson Grid-Group Cultural Theory. This is the principle that there is no one ‘elegant’ solution to any problem but that all problems must be based on a negotiation between: hierarchical principles – the rule of law etc – egalitarian principles – needs of the community, equality and inclusiveness and individualism – the needs of individual talent, aspiration and competition. The current parties include only one or two of these but in reality they are mutually supporting principles so ignoring one or two of them sows the seeds of failure.

The Labour party needs to split with the old left going its own way. The other two thirds would form the basis of the new Reason party. Then there should also be people joining from the left of the Conservatives – the individualism principle in the mix. And, it should also include the old, rudderless Liberal Democratic party which presently is a centrist party but with no definite ideology and a very small following.

Three Quadrant Models of Organisational Culture

Just been looking at Whittington’s (“What is Strategy and does it Matter?”) four Generic Strategies and comparing them with Mary Douglas’s Grid-Group Cultural Theory (see Thompson’s “Organising and Disorganising”) and Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework (CVF) (“Diagnosing and Changing organisational Culture”).

It is interesting that all three approaches use a quadrant to describe what is, in effect in all three cases, institutional (or organisational) culture. However, there is nothing analogous to Grid-Group Cultural Theory’s (GGCT) Fatalism in the other two models. One way of looking at this comparison might be to say that GGCT is more psychological, that is better able to explain the thought style of an individual subject than the other two.

If we want to understand these models by comparing them, the best way is to focus on the axes rather than the quadrants. Thus:
– GGCT – individual/group – authority/community
– Generic Strategies – deliberate/emergent – profit-maximising/plural objectives
– CVF – internal focus/external focus – flexibility/stability

I think that it is useful to look at these models from a structuralist viewpoint since each one embodies a different pair of binaries. In fact, if we use the Levi-Strauss approach to cultural analysis, we might say that each one embodies a different set of myths about institutions.

But, let us be eclectic. There does seem to be some similarity between individual/group and profit-maximising/plural objectives and internal focus/external focus because they are all concerned with competitiveness versus co-operation, in some way. But the parallels seem a little forced. We could mix and match. For example, suppose you were to construct a grid with one axis individual/ group and the other flexibility/stability. But does this make a meaningful quadrant? Perhaps it might in the context of a specific organisation with a specific type of problem. But, why do some pairs of binaries seem to have more general explanatory power than others?

I suspect that the question, “What is different and what is similar in these three models?” might yield some interesting answers.