Philosophy of Science

Part III: The challenge of human action

A fundamental problem with naturalistic epistemology when applied to the social science is illuminated by the interpretavists. The natural sciences’ subject matters are objects or creatures, but the social domain covers human agents with the unique features of their level of self-conceptualization and the ability to apply meaning to arbitrary objects and events. The now classic Hawthorne-studies indicated this conceptual and social characteristic of human behaviour. The studies tested among other things different forms of lighting in order to see which level created best work productivity, however no matter the lighting the productivity grew under the testing, and not only for those in the testing room but also other workers in the facility area (Wren & Bedeian, 2009). This indicated that the attention given to the staff by the experiment influenced their behaviour.

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People have a reflexive capacity in that they can become aware of scientific studies about them and react to them, which can also mean that a scientific study disseminated can prove a theory wrong which otherwise would have been confirmed. Consider a study spread by an economist regarding the job market for nurses, which states that based on the large amount of students applying for nurse-school there will be a surplus of nurses in two years meaning high unemployment and lowered wages for nurses. The study is blown up in the media and several of those students might hear the news and reconsider their career choice, choosing a different path to ensure a better chance for employment once their studies are over. Hence, in two years there is no surplus of nurses on the job market, rather there might be a shortage, which raises salaries and make employment easy for those that did graduate nurse-school. This means the theory of the economist was wrong in its predictions, but that it should have been confirmed if it had not been disseminated.

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Consider the same in the physic’s domain, where in studying the Higgs boson, a Nobel prize winning revelation (Morgan, 2013) which provides mass to all other particles and so keeping the world together (Baggott, 2012), becomes aware of that it is under study, second guesses its actions and decides to only provide mass to some particles instead of all. It seems highly unlikely, and of course silly. The Higgs boson doesn’t have this self-conceptualization and ability to give meaning to its action. But that is just the point. The subject matter is fundamentally different and thus taking a method that works in one area and applying it to another doesn’t mean it will work in the same way. The physicist can be an observer, but the social scientist will always be a player in the research. The naturalistic epistemology thus seem non-applicable to the study of human behaviour, and the need for an alternative theory of knowledge becomes clearer.

But suppose the argument goes too far in pointing to humans’ self-conceptualization and ability to attribute meaning as a judge on epistemology. After all, humans are biological creatures created by natural selection, shaped by nature just as the Higgs boson. Let’s then consider what being human is in order to fully understand the difference in subjects, or as Aristotle put it, we need to “carve nature by its joints” (Rosenberg, 2008, p.18).

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Organization and leadership

Why is the organizational environment open?

Our contemporary commercial world is based on the function of organizations. Producing and sales companies, health associations, financial institutions, activities for public transport, all essential for how we live our daily lives. Scott and Davis (2007, p.11) explains an organization as ”a social structure created by individuals to support the collaborative pursuit of specific goals”. An organization may therefore differ depending on factors such as what kind of business operated, the management and the employees in the organization, how the organizational culture looks like and how you relate to the outside world. An organization adapts to standards but is also involved in creating and recreating them (Scott & Davis, 2007).

 

Organizations and organizing are two closely related concepts. On the one hand there is a general sociological tradition of striving for social order (Cooren, Kuhn, Cornelissen & Clark, 2011), and one specific quest for organizing within organizations to collaboratively to pursue their specific objectives. How then can we understand how an organization is coordinated and structured? By looking at the organizational history and the standards prevailing in society, we can better grasp what has shaped today’s organizations and their coordination of the work environment and employees.

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illustration by Arunas Kacinskas

The history and creation of norms as factors

With industrialization organizations became central in the community and hence the organization of employees. Based on this type of producing industrial operations with a clear division of responsibilities between skilled and unskilled staff, a former military function developed to a rational norm of organizing where efficiency, clear goal focus, formality, authority and control, were the core ideas (Scott & Davis, 2007). The Hawthorne-studies showed that individual workers did not act as rational economic actors, but were driven as much by emotions and perceptions, and that their behavior came from membership in social groups (ibid; Wren & Bedeian, 2009). The ”Hawthorne effect” demonstrates how the rational perspective is missing a human element in its belief in a particular outcome, namely human complexity.

 

Although communication was not in focus the above organization perspective of course created effects. Glausers (1984) meta study of research argues that much of the relevant information needed to make management decisions are in lower organizational levels of the organization, and that the dissemination of it upward in the organization is essential for an efficient operation. Glauser (ibid, p 614) points out that ”Several constraints inherent in organisations make sending information up the hierarchy more difficult than sending it horizontally or downward”. The hierarchical model involves fewer individuals higher up in the organization, which means a structural problem to move the information up, and even if all the information has spread upward managers don’t have the cognitive capacity to process all the information. Moreover, this organizational ideology that managers have a command and control while subordinates follow directives and rewarded accordingly, may create a reluctance among managers to listen to information coming from below, and involve employees who do not see the sense of conveying information upstream (Glauser, 1984).

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illustration by Hólmsteinn Kristjansson

An advanced perspective on organizations and organizing is seen in line with the open perspective where organizations no longer are viewed as self-contained units from its environment (Scott & Davis, 2007). The perspective on how institutions with its rules and norms alters the behavior of individuals has evolved into what is today called a new institutionalist perspective (see among others DiMaggio & Powell, 1991; Sutton, 1996; Merkelsen, 2000). A central concept is isomorphism, which means that organizations tend to be alike by imitation in a quest to be perceived as legitimate by its stakeholders (Cornelissen, 2011: DiMaggio & Powell, 2004). It acts by a ”rational myth” (Scott & Davis, 2007, p 262) that presents mechanisms as rational but which may equally well be counterproductive. For example, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is seen as a way to advantageously position yourself in the market against competing players, but the more that adapts the same strategy in their quest for legitimacy competitive advantages disappear.

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