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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Social Science as Sorcery

This is a period of my life when I try to sort out the sense and the nonsense from what I have absorbed from the social science literature which I first started to take seriously some 50 years ago. In those days, economics and the study of organisations were the focus of serious intellectual study – but by a tiny minority and in a highly rarified atmosphere. The 1960s was, however, when social science teaching started to expand in universities and make claims for itself which have only recently started to be questioned. A tiny minority of courageous academics did try to blow the whistle earlier - in particular Prof Stanislav Andreski in his magnificent 1972 book Social Science as Sorcery.
The Economics trade has been under increasing attack for about a decade – from behavioural economists and others – but its pretensions blown apart by the ongoing global crisis. But management thinking has, arguably, done equal damage to our societies and has escaped proper scrutiny - which is why I want to draw your attention to Chris Grey's A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Organisations which I found myself this week reading for the third time in a short period (a first for me). Although I;ve mentioned the book before, this is the first time I have tried to capture some of the more powerful points it makes.
• "imagine a world where the thing which dominated it (God; the Party) was written about in one of three ways. One was like a bible, very heavy and dorthodox. The second was amusing and readable but didn’t tell you anything you couldn’t think for yourself. The third seemed to say some things you wouldn’t think yourself and suggested flaws in the Bible but you couldn’t understand it because it was so obscurely written. Such is the literature of organisations - in which we live our lives and yet are served by only Textbooks; pop management; and unreadable scholarly books or articles".
• Writers on organisations belong to one of two schools – those who believe "there exists an observable, objective organisational reality which exists independent of organisation theory. The task of OT is to uncover this reality and discover the laws by which it operates – and perhaps then to predict if not control future events. They tend to favour quantitative research. These are the positivists. Then there is a second camp which denies this scientific view – they might be called constructivists or relativists since, for them, organisational reality is constructed by people in organisations and by organisation theory”.
• The history of organisation theory you find in textbooks generally starts with the concept of "bureaucracy” as defined by Weber and with that of "scientific management” as set out by FW Taylor - both of whom were active in a 25 year period from the late 1880s to the end of the first world war, one as a (legal) academic in Prussia, the other as an engineer and early consultant in American steel mills in Pennsylvania.
Weber was curious about the various motives there have been over history and societies for obedience. Why exactly have we accepted the authority of those with power? His answer gave us a typology of authority we still use today – "traditional", "charismatic" and what he called "rational-legal” which he saw developing in his time. A system of (fair) rules which made arbitrary (privileging) behaviour difficult. But this was an "ideal type” (ie a model) – not necessarily a precise description or prescription. Indeed studies from the mid 1950s showed just how much informal power there was in bureacracies.
Taylor worked in an industry where it was normal for workers to organise their own work; and where owners tended to be Presbyterean and workers catholic immigrants. Taylor reckoned there was a lot of slacking going on – and applied a "scientific” approach to devise standards and measures of performance (time and motion) as well as "scientific” selection of workers and a strict separation of workers and managers.
• This caused strong reactions not only amongst workers but from many owners and only survived thanks to the production needs of the First World War
• The "evacuation of meaning” from work was intensified by Fordism.
• the "human resource” approach to management which followed was not the fundamental break which the textbooks portray but rather a cleverer legitimisation of management power – as was the cultural management (and TQM) of the latter part of the 20th century.
• Although managers call the shots, their organisational fashions always fail – because of unintended effects
• Business schools do not produce better managers – but rather give the breeed legitimisation; self-confidence; a shared world-view and a common (mystifying) language

One quote perhaps captures his argument "For all the talk about new paradigms, contemporary organisation theory and management method remain remarkably unchanged from their classical roots….because the underlying philosophy of instrumental rationality and control remains firmly in the ascendant”

In the 1970s we had people like Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire exposing the emptiness of the doctrines which sustained the power of education and health systems. We now desperately need people like this to help us tear apart the arbitrary assumptions which sustain the legitimacy of the new priests of technocracy. Daniel Dorling's recent book Injustice - why social inequality persists is exceptional because he tries to identify and then challenge the belief systems which sustain our present inequities.

There are hundreds of thousands of academics receiving public money to teach and research so-called social "sciences" in universities and public institutions. The vast majority of them, whether they realise it or not, have been part of a large brain-washing exercise. A few of them only have broken ranks - not just the economists I have mentioned but those (generally American) sociologists who, for a few years, have been advocating what they call "public sociologies". Michael Burrawoy has been one of the main protagonists. Noone, however, should be under any illusions about the difficulties of making an intellectual challenge on this field of management and organisation studies in which so many brains, reputations and careers are now entrenched

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