Why Does Business Need Post-Structuralism?

Business is a very practical activity requiring concrete solutions to concrete problems. Post-structuralism, on the other hand, belongs in the realm of pure thought. It is all about philosophy and point of view. Much of the business literature (eg. the books of Tom Peters) perpetuates the view that in business it is action that is important and that talk and thought are just things that you should spend as little time on as possible before you act.

I would like to briefly examines some of the assumptions implicit in this way of thinking and show that post-structuralism does have something of value to offer business.

The paradigm which is chiefly used in business schools is that of positivism; that is a paradigm which assumes that the social sciences should use the same procedures, ways of thinking and methods as the natural sciences. When a researcher has a question to answer he will gather evidence, examine it objectively and draw conclusions. This approach is perceived to be the one that will be of most use to business. This is the method that business follows, or would follow if it had the time; so the recieved wisdom goes. The emphasis here is on rationality, objectivity, measurability and reasoning from evidence. This is a view of the world that is based on the scientific method and one which banishes magic, confusion and arbitrary imposition of a point of view.

I think that there are two problems here. Firstly, business organisations as groups of people are shaped by political forces and rational argument based on evidence is only one of the tools that might be implemented. In my experience, in business being right is no guarantee of winning an argument. Secondly, there is a deeper problem: the problem of the validity of positivism itself.

The positivist approach seems at first sight to inspire a lot of confidence. It is objective and based on evidence which is, as far as possible, measurable. What it tends to gloss over are matters such as how the question was framed in the first place; why this question and not another one; who is qualified to gather and interpret the evidence and what counts as evidence. I am not arguing that positivism has no value, far from it. I think that positivism has a great deal of value in so far as it suggests a methodology but its use as a research paradigm should always be tempered by an understanding of its limitations.

The analogy of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics illustrates the point. If you want to do some research into the workings of an internal combustion engine, Newtonian physics will give you the right way of thinking and the right methodology. However, if you want to study the universe at large, or what goes on at a sub-atomic level, you would have to use an Einsteinian approach. Similarly, if you want to know how a business can best allocate the resources that it has right now, a positivist approach would be just the right thing whereas if you want to know how to fundamentally change an organisation’s culture, you are likely to find that a post-structuralist approach gives you a better set of tools.

Inside real businesses power, who has it and how it is used, is far more significant than objective truths, even where they actually exist. Also, the prevailing business culture lays down that action is more important than talk or thought – discussion or strategy. In this situation it is essential to understand power, which post structuralism is good at to make a convincing case for discussion and strategy so as to avoid costly blunders.

Post structuralism puts language at the centre of its approach. According to this paradigm organisation culture is created through language. Meaning and truth are not universal as they are in positivism but are relative to the position of the particular member of the organisation. Since social phenomena like organisations were created through language they can be understood and changed through language. Post structuralism has a lot to say about power and how it operates through discourse.

Whereas positivism treats social phenomena in the same way as the natural sciences treat physical phenomena, it is at a loss to explain the mechanisms by which they were created in the first place. Positivism studies what has happened but has a problem with studying change. Positivism assumes that there is one, correct, point of view which is accessible to everyone and cannot explain differing points of view except in terms of error.

Of course, post structuralism would be an overly complex way to look at operational business problems, a positivist approach is entirely appropriate to such local issues. However, if you want to tackle higher level strategy or fundamental organisational change, post structuralism gives you subtle and sophisticated tools.

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