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.