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.

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.

Consciousness and Desire in Deleuze and Bakhtin

I have been reading Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “A Thousand Plateaus” at the same time as reading Bakhtin. These thoughts crossed my mind.

Bakhtin talks about the dialogic self – that is, self as a dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘me’. That is, ‘I’ is the thing which experiences sensations some of which come from the world. It has no location in time or space it just exists – “continuous event of becoming”. ‘Me’ is how the self objectifies itself so that it can understand its situation in relationship with other entities – the ‘other’. Consciousness is this dialogue.

Deleuze talks about the “body without organs” (BwO) which sounds very like the ‘I’. However, in Deleuze the BwO is also the location of desire – as well as of sensation.

Seems to me that Bakhtin never explains desire – so what is desire?

The human as organism is a machine that maintains itself and reproduces itself. It doesn’t desire anything in the sense that we normally mean it. It just does what it does because that’s the way it is, like electrons repel each other and attract protons.

Example, It would be possible that a natural siphon could be created by chance – I am sure it happens. You would not say that it has a purpose or a desire to do something but you can see that it persists in getting a liquid from one place to another lower place over a higher dry place in between. I think that organisms are like this, including ourselves. Bakhtin says that humans are born twice, the first time as organisms and then again when they enter society by entering discourse. So, I think desire is something that we attribute after the fact, as it were, because of a way of looking at things which is produced in discourse.

But, what is this desire? I think that life is a phenomenon which is a dynamic property of certain substances. It is a property which causes a certain sort of organization of elements which maintain themselves and reproduce themselves. Desire comes about when the organism is conscious because at this point the self is created and the self is a technology to achieve the ends of maintenance and reproduction by manipulating the environment. (So, consciousness is a technology of the organism which enables a flexible response to the environment and consciousness experiences the dynamic properties of the organism as desire).

Deleuze talks about ‘folds’ whereby things are reproduced but with difference. These folds take place within strata , that is in the area where the organism responds to differences within itself and tries to match these differences with its environment. So, the organism has a tendency to reproduce and this becomes folded into sexual drive. It also has a tendency to co-operate with its fellows, to create organization among them so there is another fold and sexual drive becomes creativity, and it is folded yet again and it becomes aesthetics. Similarly, the drive for the organism to maintain itself becomes hunger. This hunger is folded again and it becomes a drive to form business organizations, like hunting parties, kingdoms, empires and multi-national corporations. This organization requires power to shape it and drive it so another fold becomes individual ambition, and so on. Of course, power is difference with suppression: this is allowed but that is not, this is inside but that is outside. So power is a fold in the principle of the cell wall which is the basis of the organism keeping the chaos outside the membrane from the order within. (Power derives from the functioning of the cell wall).

So far, so good, but I have some problems:

  • Deleuze talks about the BwO but what are the organs? Surely they are the digestive tract which must be fed and exhausted; and the genitals. Nothing more. If this is so, why is he being vague and implying that there is more to it?
  • Deleuze talks a lot about rock but rock is not an agent in discourse; it can only ever be an object. Humans have a dialogue with each other in that they create meaning together. You could stretch it to saying that humans can have a dialogue with other organisms because these organisms can react to what humans do. But, you cannot have dialogue with rock, can you? You see, I am worried that Deleuze has not properly grasped the discursive nature of all of this.

Postmodernist Organizational Theory – Conversation with Rick Martin


Having given a lot of thought over the past year to a postmodernist organization theory, this is what I have come up with. I would like to hear any comments you may have.

  • Symbolic systems, including language = DISCOURSE
  • Manifestations of a particular discursive formation = CULTURE
  • Something created within a discourse (anything done by a human) = ‘STATEMENT’ or ‘UTTERANCE’
  • The world is in a state of chaos – there is order to be found within this chaos, in fact, order is an aspect of chaos.
  • An organism is a manifestation of order imposed on chaos at the physical level. The organism uses energy to maintain its internal order and to shape its environment for the purposes of its survival and reproduction.
  • The world is not directly knowable to an organism. Physical forces impinge on the nervous system which sends impulses around the body. These sensations are then structured and interpreted into a model of the world by organisms in a way which is useful to them.
  • Humans interpret these sensations a second time through discourse. Thus, there are no ‘transcendental signifiers’; that is, there is no physical force which acts on the body which can directly enter discourse.
  • The most important element of these symbolic systems is language.
  • Language itself is not a homogeneous system structured around a single core of principles but a set of tools developed as needed.
  • Humans engage with the world (and each other) through discourse by collectively imposing meaning on it. Language always already exists. We can only think about and communicate our experience, which is once-occurrent, using discourse, which always already exists.
  • Discourse is a social, collaborative phenomenon and is essential to human existence.
  • At the social level, discourse creates subjects. The word ‘I’ is a marker in conversation to alert others to who is speaking. In the consciousness of the individual it is ‘I’ who experiences the unique, once-occurrent experiences of the individual and these experiences are interpreted through discourse as ‘me’. Using ‘me’ the individual can interpret themselves as part of the world.
  • Discourse is dialogical. That is, it can only exist as a conversation –  the meaning of a statement cannot be known until there is a reply to it. When an individual is alone he, or she, imagines an other who he or she is conversing with (‘I’ and ‘me’).
  • At the physical level we are autonomous individuals, each with a unique set of experiences.
  • At an individual level, experience is unique so the relationship of each individual to discourse, and everyone else, is unique.
  • Humans are social animals and can only live in relationship to a group. The group is more significant for them than the individual (though their culture may lead them to think otherwise).
  • Each group of people is defined by a discursive formation.
  • A discursive formation is a language game (cf. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations). It is shaped by rules which define what is to be included and what is excluded, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. It defines a hierarchy, a body of knowledge and a worldview.
  • Discursive formations are shaped by power which suppresses meaning to enable other meaning. Power also creates a hierarchy of positions from which to communicate.
  • Discourse is dynamic. Each statement, or interpretation, is a once-occurrent event. Discourse continuously recreates itself – like water flowing in a river.
  • Power has a tendency to conceal itself. It does so in a variety of ways, for example, presenting a process or event as inevitable when it could be subject to choice or presenting social phenomena as though they were concrete objects (reification).
  • All discursive formations are susceptible to deconstruction. They contain contradictions because they cannot be all-encompassing.
  • Discursive formations enable groups of people to work together, live together and counter threats together – to be collaborative.
  • In a capitalist society people tend to participate in more than one discursive formation.
  • In a capitalist society, everyone participates in a discourse of everyday life which specifies ranges of moral standards among other things. Regulatory bodies, including government, then frame rules and laws which reflect these moral standards. Organisations, which organize people at work, inherit rules from the regulatory discursive formations. All organizations are defined by one overriding discursive formation.
  • The discursive formation is dynamic because discourse is dynamic (because discourse is dialogic).
  • Every discursive formation has a legitimating statement of aims.
  • Organizations can only be changed at the discursive level. All actors in the organization are involved in the continuous recreation of the discursive formation.
  • Contradictions which become apparent within the discursive formation tend to give rise to rival sub-discourses of resistance.
  • Power creates roles in organizations through which it maintains itself. These roles are for individuals to maintain the rules of the discursive formation. This situation tends to undermine itself because the individuals come to believe that their most important activity is the maintenance of the rules rather than the aims of the organization.
  • Western society is orientated towards structure and product which it privileges over process. Power asserts that control is possible – control over discourse and control over the natural world. This is an improvable model – better to conceive structure as the temporary effect of process.
  • The most important element of consciousness is the awareness of time, the movement in one direction through chaos. Western culture tries to freeze this movement, making process repeatable (or reversible) which it is not.
  • Change in organizations is usually perceived negatively because it is usually perceived as a means by which power is directed in the interests of managers and against the interests of others who have less power.


I like this theoretical framework very much; I think you have captured it all and condensed it into an accessible but powerful set of concepts/statements. Where are you going from here? I seem to recall a three-level approach or something that you outlined early on. Is that the map you are following?

I especially like your reading of Hegel and Foucault in the idea that, in capitalism, we are constructed in three distinct but overlapping discourses or discursive formations. This explains Marx’s notion of alienation: we are always already divided in/from our “selves.”  And it probably explains Freud too.


The main insight here is that there is something in between what I say, the utterance, and discourse in general. If there isn’t anything between the two then all truth is purely personal – which is, of course, nonsense. In between the utterance (or statement) and language in general is Foucault’s discursive formation (df). All utterances are made within a df and their truth is relative to the df. Without the concept of df all postmodernist (or, post-structuralist) theory is useless. It is through dfs that humans impose order on chaos at the social level.

If you look at Bakhtin, he wants to say that all truth is personal and that it is social at the same time. He invents something which he calls ‘translingusitics’ which is a discursive version of sociology but doesn’t develop the idea beyond the title. Later he develops another idea called ‘architectonics’ which is on the way towards df but is still based on the individual so it doesn’t get very far either. Nevertheless he was seeing the gap. Foucault saw the gap clearly and filled it but didn’t see the importance of what he had done. Now, the reason why he couldn’t see was because he was distracted by the need to get beyond structure to the process beneath. In other words, he thought that because everyone before him and around him had been obsessed with reducing everything to structure that structure in itself is a bad thing. Thus, he failed to see that he had explained structure and its relationship to process.

The trouble with philosophers is that they rarely think about work (except for Karl Marx who had a reasonable stab at it, given the circumstances). If any of twentieth century philosophers, Bakhtin, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze had thought about work instead of avoiding the subject, they would have been a lot more useful to organization theory.

My three layer discursive model of society follows on from an understanding of what a df is.


So, while language in general is arbitrary (ontologically at least), discursive formations are not, because they are a (dialectical) function of a specific social organization at a specific historical moment. And individual utterances are not arbitrary because they always exist within (at least one) discursive formation, are (always already) determined by it and can be judged according to its practices. The lacunae and contradictions within and between dfs provide the opportunities for deconstruction and change (this suggests that deconstruction has always already existed as a stimulus and consequence of changing socio-discursive formations: dialectics in Marx’s terms).

Is that right?


Yes, nearly. I think of discourse as being like a river – it is the same for long periods of time but always changing, moment to moment. The df is a language game, that is to say, it is rules. This is the channel in which the water runs. Utterances are molecules of water; they are subject to swirls and eddies within the stream but always within the banks. In other words, I want to avoid notions of determination. Bakhtin says that utterances arise in specific contexts and the context of each one is ‘once-occurrent’ or unique, in space and time. You and I sit on either side of a table and have a conversation, so the context is the same – but not quite, because I can see what is behind your head, which you cannot, and vice versa. So, each individual is a location of unique experience but can only articulate it through the collective, social tool of discourse – you can only experience what you uniquely experience but you can only talk about it in quotations.

Foucault is talking about structure so it looks as though he is talking about something rigid and deterministic but that, I think, is a mistake. The dfs are in a process of continuous creation, or becoming, and they do change over time because there is always a dialogue between the utterances and the rules of the df.

All dfs are unstable and open to deconstruction because they cannot fully encompass all that they contain. A df is a temporary imposition of order on a reality which is intrinsically chaotic. I think of structure as fictions – there are a number of important fictions which we depend on such as ‘me’, ‘you’, all organizations including nations and so on. I think that a work of literature is also a df – a different kind of df to a nation, for example. By different, I think that the work of literature can be seen as an utterance within a larger df but since it makes its own rules it must also be a df in itself. And, this is a characteristic of dfs: they spawn other dfs, just as a breach in the bank of a river spawns other streams. New dfs are continually being created by a process of inheritance, that is the new df inherits the attributes of its parent so it resembles the parent closely. New dfs can only be made out of already existing ones – discourse is always already. Chaos is always threatening order, undermining it in subtle ways and structure is always on the point of collapse.

On a broad sweep of history level, I think, probably, that the Catholic Church inherited the df of the Roman Empire and modern business organizations inherited from the Catholic Church – see Durkheim.

Individuals can take part in many different dfs. I think that it is a characteristic of modernity that people take part in many dfs at the same time. So, they think about different things and in a different way to the way that they think at home, and so on. One of the appeals of Facebook, for example, is that it nostalgically creates a world in which people have only one identity but this is a fictional identity which does not exist, apart from in Facebook. (This is why I can’t get on too well with FB. I feel that I have to turn myself into a caricature of myself in order to exist there). The internet is a technology of its time because it enables and encourages multiple personalities but social networking is deeply reactionary because it tries to reassert the fiction of an individual having a fixed core of identity.


So, are the domestic, market, and state spheres of modern, capitalist social existence dfs or discourses. I suppose they must be discourses within which there are a variety of dfs, or rather they are articulated through a number of dfs.

It would seem to me that “discourse” is an abstract concept: a discourse can be glimpsed only through the examination of numerous dfs much as the concept “table” can be abstracted only from examination of numerous individual objects, or as a language is an abstraction from a whole bunch of utterances. And, of course, discourse formation is an abstraction from a whole bunch of statements, practices, etc.

Is it important to note that discourses run across (so-called natural) languages? The discourse of medicine in the broadest sense, for example, is articulated in many languages. “Medicine” encompasses all of the statements/practices around the health/unhealth of animal bodies, no matter the language. Those statements/practices occur, of course, only within the context of specific socio-historical “medical” discourse formations. Some of those are within the domestic sphere (folk medicine), some within the market sphere (clinics, pharmaceutical companies), and some within the state sphere (ministries of health). And those all overlap and draw upon and influence each other in different ways at different times and in different places.

Does that make sense?


I think that we have to be very careful with the word ‘discourse’. It means so many different things that it hardly means anything at all.

I think that the kind of matters you are raising here are the grounds for a good deal of future discussion and research in a discipline which does not quite exist yet: discursive sociology.

Let us be clear: I am not suggesting a scientific hypothesis about the world as it exists ‘out there’. I am suggesting a way of looking at the world which might be fruitful and, I believe, is possibly more fruitful than the existing ways of looking at it. So, the first question is, “Does the model fit the facts?” or “Can it be adjusted to fit the facts?” and “Does it give us a fruitful way of looking at the world?”

Let us take your example of medicine. You might have a belief that the best way to cure a wart on your knee is to run around the house three times with your hair on fire. I would not say that this belief belongs to a medical discourse. All I would say is that it belongs within a topic of medicine and, probably, to a pre-modern df. If you take my three part structure with the discourse-of-everyday-life being the dominant df and the regulatory df the next in the hierarchy followed by specific organizational dfs, I would say that utterances on the topic of medicine, as we normally understand the term ‘medicine’ these days, belong to the regulatory df. (Foucault is quite clear about this particular point. He calls the regulatory df ‘governmentality’). The mode of production of knowledge in this df uses the technology of scientific method and it has official sanction through universities, hospitals and other publicly funded bodies and even has formal standing within the legal system.

I know that my examples may seem rather crude but let me repeat that this area of theory is in its infancy. Let me take another example. Here is a hospital. It is an organization and, according to my theory it is a df. However, I would say that within that organization, the organizational df is subordinate to the regulatory df. That is, a doctor, for example, is first a doctor and second a member of the medical team at that hospital. On the other hand, here is a manufacturing company which employs an accountant. For the accountant the dominant df is the organizational one. His first priority is as an employee of the company and second as a part of a regulatory df which is accountancy. Of course, a large part of the accountant’s role in the organization is to make an easy relationship between the organizational df and the regulatory df.

I feel that this model needs a lot of development. The reason why it has not been done is because researchers in organization theory prioritise empirical analysis over theoretical analysis so they feel that they don’t need to develop a postmodernist theory when there is, as they see it, a perfectly serviceable modernist theory at hand. This point-of-view, I believe, is a mistake.

I feel that you need to rethink your example of the table. Each df creates its own object which is the table. In other words, it is not quite the same table in different dfs. For example, a table taken from the workplace to the home is not the same table because its interpretation in each context is within a different symbolic system.

When the tide comes in – how we impose meaning on the world

I grew up in a town called Morecambe on the Lancashire coast. In my early teens like many other boys, I had a bicycle which I loved to ride and I spent many hours exploring the town. In those days there wasn’t so much traffic on the roads and it was regarded as a safe pass-time for a child. In my late teens I learned to drive. Everyone in the town who wanted to knew the route for the driving test so I drove around that route many times in preparation for the test. It included one roundabout and no traffic lights – it was a small town. By the time I was an adult I had a pretty thorough knowledge of the road system in Morecambe. It became a structure in my mind and a template for understanding all the other road systems I have encountered in my life – or are they all one road system?

A road system is a means by which people impose a structure on the landscape so that they can use it. Without the roads we would not be able to move through the landscape, of course. But, on reflection, that isn’t quite true. Without roads you can move through a landscape it is just that you are breaking a fresh path each time you go anywhere so the roads make it easier. But, on further reflection, roads are not just about movement. Roads are boundaries as well as thoroughfares. They mark the boundaries of land use and land ownership.

One of the things which I noticed about the town from a very young age was that it was socially highly stratified. Of course, one street, or neighbourhood would contain better housing than another and the value of the properties would be reflected in this difference. But the quality of the property was only part of the story. One street in a particular neighbourhood might have exactly the same type of properties as another street in another neighbourhood yet the properties would be worth slightly more and you could sense that the ‘tone’ of the street was better. How you could sense this tone was something of a mystery, perhaps there were subtle clues, like the choices made in the colour of the paintwork, the way the gardens were kept and so on but I could never pin it down. Since then I have lived in many towns and cities in different parts of the world and they have all been the same.

When I began to drive, especially after I had passed my test, I felt a strong sense of freedom. I could get into my car and go anywhere that I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was able to explore the roads further afield deep into the countryside of north Lancashire, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.

The road system is a means by which people impose order on the chaos of the reality with which we are confronted. We take it for granted as though it were part of nature but it is merely a human made system. It also meshes with many other systems of meaning such as ownership of land and social stratification. The sense of freedom which I felt was, of course, illusory. You cannot go anywhere you want in a car; you can only use the road system with all its rules and prohibitions. In fact, driving is much more to do with following a rigid set of rules about how you control the car and how you use the road than it is about freedom.

The road system, then, is not just a system of meanings created through differences like a discourse, the road system is itself discursive, a system of signs which have meaning through difference.

Morecambe stands on the south side of Morecambe Bay and has, in my opinion, the best views in the world. Morecambe Bay has the biggest difference between the water level at low tide and the water level at high tide that it is possible to have. The mudflats of the Bay slope very gently out to sea so that from the town the sea disappears to the horizon at low tide and waves smash against the seafront at high tide.

Discourse creates meaning but it has no easy relationship with reality. Its relationship with reality is loose and constantly shifting like the sea. It allows us to ignore facts which may be inconvenient such as the divisions between neighbourhoods but it also simplifies things so that we are not overwhelmed by the complexity of reality. For example, I can watch a car coming into a filling station. It follows a well-worn route from the street onto the forecourt. The car stops, is filled with petrol and then it goes out of the filling station also following a well-known route. Now we know that the tide comes in and the tide goes out but we forget that this is just a metaphor. We think that the tide comes in and goes out like the car comes into the filling station and then goes out again but it doesn’t and people have drowned because they mistook the metaphor for reality.

You can walk out onto the mudflats in Morecambe Bay while the tide is out and feel perfectly safe. The sea is long way away over there. Between you and the higher ground of the promenade is a short walk. No problem. Then the tide starts to ‘come in’. It is still a long way away so you don’t worry about it. It will be a long time before it gets here. Then you find that you are some way from the permanent shore line and that the sea is in front of you as well as behind you. How did that happen? The sea was behind you and now it is in front of you. You thought you were being sensible and watched the progress of the tide as it ‘comes in’ but it has caught you out. In fact, the tide doesn’t come in like a car coming into a filling station. The tide is a body of water flowing from a higher level to a lower level. The mudflats are not flat but undulate subtly and are crossed with deep channels. The tide doesn’t follow a linear route like a car; it is a moving fluid flowing from a higher to a lower level wherever that may be. It has happened to me. In my case there were no serious consequences, just wet feet, but if I had been further out I may not have made it home like other people who have drowned.

Discourse is the means by which we know things, by which we shape our world and how we understand our world. By being aware that discourse is doing this we can interrogate it, understand things better and create new possibilities.

How Discourse Organizes Sheep

Postmodernism is one of those terms that is difficult to define. It seems to mean different things in different contexts. I have been looking at the nature of postmodernism in the context of the social sciences and particularly how it affects organisation theory. For the purposes of this discussion I shall leave aside the meaning of the term in other contexts.

Postmodernism is a paradigm, which means that it is a way of looking at the world. In historical times there have been three overarching paradigms. In the medieval world there was the theocratic paradigm which placed a notion of deity at the centre of its world view. The existence of deity was not available for questioning because it was the foundation upon which everything else rested. All other questions followed from this in the form, “How does this phenomenon show us the will of god?”

This view of the world began to be challenged during the Renaissance and a real alternative was developed during the Enligtenment. This alternative was humanism which placed a notion of man at the centre of its world view. This paradigm became the primary one in the west from about the mid-nineteenth century. In this paradigm the question of enquiry became “What does this tell us about mankind; what use is this phenomenon to mankind or what does this tell us about mankind’s place in the universe?” This paradigm may be termed the ‘modernist’ paradigm.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the modernist paradigm became challenged by such thinkers as Neitszche and Heiddeger. It was developed during a period of intense activity during the mid-twentieth century by such thinkers as Bakhtin, Foucault and Derrida. This paradigm places the notion of discourse at the centre of its world view. This paradigm assumes that discourse is the means by which the world that people experience comes into existence. In this paradigm the question of enquiry becomes, “How does discourse create and maintain this?” This paradigm is known as the ‘postmodernist’ paradigm.

The characteristics of postmodernist view have been characterised as “becoming, formlessness, flux, difference, deferral and change” (Chia 2003). Postmodernism seems to be about moral relativism, uncertainty in epistemology, shifting meaning, lack of the possibility of truth. Postmodernists have talked about these aspects of the world to the confusion of most of their audience who find it all rather depressing. For example, there is the sophisticated and apparently tortuous method of postmodernist textual analysis called ‘deconstruction’ but once the text has been deconstructed, what then? Nothing seems to follow from it, no possibility for action. In this way postmodernists have given the impression that their agenda is nihilistic. This view is a caricature and presents a falsity.

Postmodernist theory has not been well developed since the flurry of activity in the mid-twentieth century and postmodernism has been undervalued. Though it was accused by many who were the most alarmed by it as being a mere fad or fashion, it has refused to go away.

These are early days in the life of a paradigm. A paradigm may take a century or several to develop. I suggest that the way for postmodernism to develop is to be clear about what the paradigm is and not, as has tended to happen, to try to answer modernist questions in the postmodernist paradigm. We need to constantly bear in mind that the centre of the postmodernist paradigm is discourse and the questions that arise from this are about how discourse works.

Immediately we run into problems of terminology. If you are going to think in a different way, you have to develop a language, and a battery of concepts, that will assist. We have ‘deconstruction’ for example but what about ‘discourse’ itself.

Here is discourse, there is discourse, far away there is discourse, in the past there was discourse and in the future there will be discourse. So what is the plural of ‘discourse’, surely it must be ‘discourses’ but it is all ‘discourse’. So, the plural of ‘discourse’ must be ‘discourse’. This is confusing. Perhaps where there appeared to be one word, there is really two words. But, what is the difference between them?

Shepherds don’t have this problem. Their flocks are out there in the fields, even when the shepherds are home in bed. Their flocks are an objective fact independent of human experience, as all modernists would agree. So, here we have a ‘sheep’ and the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’ even when we are talking about all the sheep in the universe. Is it a semantic accident that the plural of ‘discourse’ is ‘discourse’ like the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’?

But the shepherd, unlike the discourse scholar, has another level between this sheep and sheep in general and it is ‘flock’. If we pause for a moment and look at ‘flock’ we may find, perhaps, there is a concept that we can transfer to discourse. How can you tell that a specific sheep belongs to this flock and not another one? It may be to do with the field that the sheep is in, its geographical location, its point in history. The sheep in this field on this date belong to farmer A; they are part of his flock. Or it might be that the sheep are marked with dye and the ones with a blue mark in this shape belong to farmer A whereas those with a red mark in that shape belong to farmer B.

But, let us pause again. We said that these flocks are an objective fact yet they are defined discursively with reference to human classification. Now let us consider the sheep that aren’t in a flock. Well, on close inspection we find that sheep are a domesticated animal and that there are no wild sheep: there are sheep that belong to a flock and sheep that have escaped from a flock but there are no sheep which are not in some way defined by a flock. ‘Sheep’ and ‘flock’ are necessary to each other’s definition. In this way discourse organizes the universe in which we live and what appears to be objective fact ‘out there’ turns out to be a human construction ‘in here, within discourse’.

For the postmodernist, it is absolutely necessary to pay attention to what language is doing, particularly to what it conceals, to what it invites us to take for granted. In normal usage there is discourse in general and there are many discourses but the postmodernist must seize on the fact that these are two different words masquerading as one and reveal the assumptions that have been made. If there are many discourses, what is the difference between them? When someone says a few sentences is it possible for them not to be in a discourse, obviously not. If these words must be part of a discourse, how can we tell which one?

I would like to suggest that Foucault’s rather neglected and forgotten concept of discursive formation is what we require. Discursive formations are a kind of language game, each one with its own set of rules. These discursive formations are shaped by power which creates meaning by supressing the vast body of possible meaning. Discursive formations create subjects, knowledge, authority, objects and so on.

Let us suppose that an organization is defined by a discursive formation, certain questions seem to follow. What are the rules of the discursive formation? How can a new organization come into being? What are the relationships between different discursive formations? I suggest that it is these questions which should be used to form the basis of a postmodernist organization theory.

The Role of Authoritative Texts in Business Research

Over the past ten years a particular paradigm has become entrenched in the way that research in business schools has been conceived. This consists of the principle that empirical research is the key to all understanding; that knowledge acquisition is a cumulative enterprise where researchers move the frontiers forward one step at a time; that each research paper that is published takes into account the papers that have been published about that subject previously and therefore each new paper stands on the shoulders of its predecessors. Each paper has near the beginning of it a theory section where the researcher states what theoretical principles are being invoked for application in this study.

All of this begs a number of questions. The ones I want to draw attention to here are:

  • How can we be sure that all of the researchers really are looking at the same object of study?
  • How can we be sure that that with each of the small steps that is made by each researcher that the whole enterprise is moving forwards and not just going round in a circles?
  • Why, if the theory is a good one, should it not be explored at length and then used for a variety of studies?

Of course, lurking inside this research paradigm is the assumption that positivism is, if not the actual embodiment of truth, at least the nearest that we can come to it. (Positivism is a way of thinking in the social sciences that sees social phenomena as having independent existence and being amenable to the same kind of study as objects in the physical sciences).

In the physical sciences there is a fixed object of study which is the same for all researchers, like a sub-atomic particle or an extinct species and so on. Each researcher can take an aspect of the object and add to it. For example, one researcher may be interested in whether or not an extinct species of dinosaur had feathers; another might look at the geographical conditions in which it lived; another might be interested in its posture and so on. All of them would be adding, or attempting to add, to our knowledge of the object. However, social phenomena are not so straight forward. Whether a riot is an instance of collective insanity or a political protest might very well be a matter of opinion and there may be, however well argued the cases for different perspectives may be, no one “correct” view.

If the object of study is subject to ambiguity like this then it follows that different researchers will have different points of view and that one contribution may not take the discussion forwards in a straight line from the previous one but might take it in a different direction, or be completely unrelated. Researchers are required by the paradigm, embodied in the peer reviewers and journal editors, to cite other articles in support of their statements. This concern for citation has reached fever pitch and gone beyond its original, rational purpose. The effect is a tendency to make all researchers take part in one paradigmatic view of the object of study or, at the least, a small number of views. In a situation where originality and clarity of thinking ought to be virtues, they are labelled as vices and the overall view of the object of study becomes increasingly muddy.

The role of theory in business research might puzzle an outsider to this arcane practice. The theory section of a research paper is usually much smaller than the section devoted to the empirical research. There is rarely very much depth to it and it is very unusual for it to reach the level of abstraction where philosophy could be brought in to illuminate the matter. This bias towards the concrete evidence at the expense of the intellectual framework that is being used to comprehend it is surely a mistake.

One of the most worrying developments of this approach to research is that authoritative texts from other fields such as sociology or philosophy that are invoked are treated in the same way as the objects of study. Researchers are expected to cite other researchers in support of statements about what an authoritative text says. This is like privileging what the friends, enemies and acquaintances of a person say that his opinions are over and above what he says that his opinions are. It is not a reasonable way of approaching the matter.

There is a misunderstanding here and it is a misunderstanding of the nature of a text. Here is a book; it has size and weight like any other object. But, we are not interested in the book as a physical object but as a text and the text only ceases to be a collection of black marks on white paper when it is read. In other words, it is the reading of the text that is significant and the text is not a static object but a performance. Of course no two performances will be identical even if it is the same text and the same reader but at different times, or if it is the same text by different readers at the same time. For example, readers read with different purposes. A reader might read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” because he is interested in Foucault, another because she is interested in the penal system; another because he is interested in Foucault’s ideas about power while another might just enjoy the horrors of the early chapters. Any of these motives could be the basis of a different reading.

If researchers are expected to cite each other instead of reading an authoritative text afresh, the possibility of original thinking about anything occasioned by the text is banished. And, let us clear up a common misconception, a reading cannot be anything that happens to be in the reader’s head when he or she is reading the text. A reading must be justified at every point by reference to the text and only to another text if there is justification that can be shown. Textual analysis is an exacting discipline, just as exacting as empirical scientific analysis but it follows different rules – rules that are appropriate to the object of study.

If business researchers were to add the skill of reading, of textual analysis, to their repertoire of methodologies, the subject would be much richer and the possibilities of usefully innovative thinking would be vastly increased.

[For a discussion of the multiplicity of possible readings of a text see: Stanley Fish, “Is There a Text in this Class? – the Authority of Interpretative Communities”, Harvard UP, 1980]

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.