Onto-Epistemology in Business and Management Research

[Guest post by my Middlesex colleague Konstantinos Poulis. In this post Kostas talks about his fascination with philosophy of science applications in business and management research and argues that academics are (or should become) intellectuals, not technicians of research methods.]

The past as present

Science has its own deities. Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, or Darwin are the rock stars of the scholarly world and rightly so. They inspired the rest of us to have an inquisitive mind and they challenged conventional wisdom at critical junctures for humanity i.e., when this was needed the most. For this reason, we, mere mortals who avail of their legacy and try to publish, remain eternally indebted to their genius. However, what would those early giants have to say if they realized that the gist of their own scholarly work is the new conventional wisdom? That the epistemological scaffolding that their work has spawned acts as an unproductive bedrock against a more nuanced understanding of the new world we inhabit?

In this blog article, I contend that the past (those towering figures’ legacy) rightly endures but also protrudes into the present in suboptimal ways that would find both Newton and Darwin in disagreement.

The past as my present

I am in the research business of problematization (see Alvesson and Sandberg, 2011) and I am interested in the interestingness of research findings (see Davis, 1971). My motivation for challenging disciplinary conventions stems from my fascination with philosophy of science applications in business and management research. Half of me is a practitioner working in a multinational company offering professional services to the shipping sector. My other half is a dedicated scholar of social structures and human agency i.e., what management essentially studies. Therefore, my dual identity and consequent empathy with both worlds (of scholarship and practice) inevitably shaped my research interests.

What was my first observation upon the amalgamation of this manager-cum-researcher identity? I became early convinced that we need a novel perspective on how one world can inform the other in a more accessible, meaningful and practical way. Much later, I also became convinced that this perspective ought to be a philosophical one. Since then, the keywords that constitute my own scholarly work are the likes of ontology, epistemology, determinism, isomorphism, teleology, tautology etc.; all of which carry Newtonian and Darwinian overtones. Therefore, the first lesson learnt during all these years as a scholar practitioner is that Newton and Darwin are indeed giants. The second is that contemporary Newtonian and Darwinian interpretations can include giants and dwarfs alike.

My present

In my Academy of Management Review (Poulis & Poulis, 2016) and Academy of Management Perspectives (Poulis & Poulis, 2018) papers, I challenge a mono-dimensional Newtonian epistemology and a Darwinian ontology (not Newton and Darwin themselves!). I do so, especially when these research logics are utilised in management studies (and social sciences in general) unconditionally and unreflexively. In particular, I explicate how the dominant Newtonian pursuit for generalisation and prediction acts as a stumbling block to understand concepts and themes which are, in essence, post-Newtonian i.e., they do not necessarily conform to the principles of scientific rationality.

  • Poulis, K., & Poulis, E. (2016). Problematizing fit and survival: transforming the law of requisite variety through complexity misalignment. Academy of Management Review, 41(3), 503-527. Publisher's version - Available online...
  • Poulis, K., & Poulis, E. (2018). International Business as Disciplinary Tautology: An Ontological Perspective. Academy of Management Perspectives, 32(4), 517-531. Publisher's version - Available online...

Complexity is a characteristic example of such a misalignment between what we need to know and how we come to understand it. Despite its inherent perturbations and unpredictable nature, complexity (e.g., a complex industry or a complex organisation) is routinely approached by management scholars through a measurement-driven logic and an orientation towards predicting its analytical ramifications. While such a grand pursuit appears to be meaningful through a Newtonian lens, I contend that this is not only often unnecessary but also unrealistic. Hence, my papers first and foremost serve to indicate the need to revisit our epistemological commitments. Management is an idiosyncratic field of study that cannot apply all the same epistemological principles that physics or engineering do. We need to be more entrepreneurial and more autonomous in our research endeavours; and, hopefully, give something back to the Sciences, too!

The future as present based on past

Yet, in order for a braver research stance to be realised, we need an ontological shift. Our epistemological commitments and methodological choices are inextricably intertwined with our ontological assumptions since, without those, we are sailing without a map (or an electronic chart; here comes my shipping self!). In other words, we do not have to ‘epistemologise’ by approaching entities in the same way that Newton or Darwin did. Philosophy of Science has excelled since then and new paradigms and schools of thought appear as more relevant to what management studies preach about. We just need to utilise the lessons therein more eloquently and more meaningfully. So, in my two papers, I also challenge a Darwinian logic which considers fittingness as a prerequisite for survival. According to this logic, entities (e.g. a multinational corporation) which fail to fit with their external environment will inevitably cease to exist. This mortality principle of non-adaptive organisations is one of the core management mantras and one of the first lessons we teach to our Strategy students. We let the potential future (of organisational death) dictate our actual present (adaptability as the means for survival). Yet we do so based on a series of ill-defined assumptions that stem from a Darwinian past. I caution about the limitations of such an approach and showcase that organisations may consciously depart from emulating external arrangements and survive perfectly well.

The past as future

Overall, my two papers are embedded in a wider research programme of mine, which aims to refine taken-for-granted onto-epistemological assumptions in management research. My ultimate objective is to problematize our conventional means of theorising and equip our research arsenal with another level of deliberation upon established norms. Currently, I firmly believe that management research suffers from a certain methodological fetishism, which promotes the centrality of methods rather than critical reflection. Editors and Reviewers often prioritise the methodology section in a paper at the expense of what is interesting and intellectually stimulating. It may seem paradoxical but, in this way, our scholarly community commits a sacrilege against the very essence of Newton’s and Darwin’s greatest contribution to humanity i.e., that above all, academics are (or should become) intellectuals; not technicians of research methods.

References

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