In this post I will discuss some of the similarities and differences between scientific method in the natural and social sciences and question what it might mean to be scientific about the social. I will focus particularly on the nexus of theory and practice. This is important in the field of management where theories proliferate but where much less work is done to understand how these theories play out and evolve in organisational life, no matter what the strength of the prior claim that they have been empirically tested.
I doubt that anyone would want to make the case that what we are lacking in management is enough theories. Just to take the domain of leadership as an example, we are assailed with contradictory and competing theories, such as trait theories, behavioural theories, theories of transformational leadership, servant leadership, distributed leadership, and more latterly agile and sustainable leadership. An enormous amount of work goes into elaborating theories which are supposed to be ‘applied’ to organisations, accepting implicitly the dualism between theory, assumed to be the most important work, and practice, a lesser activity which has to be brought into line with theory. This distinction reaches back to the dispute between Plato and Aristotle, who disagreed as to the relative importance of each, with Aristotle arguing that in the field of human action, theories are necessary but insufficient:
[phronesis]is not concerned with universals only; it must also take cognizance of particulars, because it is concerned with conduct, and conduct has its sphere in particular circumstances. That is why some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.
For Aristotle phronesis, or practical judgement, will always involve the interplay of the particular and the general, a broad idea about what one is engaged in tempered by the particular circumstances of the forum in which one is acting.
In the Academy, however, the majority side with Plato about the importance of universals, and much greater esteem is accorded to theorising about management. Doctoral researchers in organisational studies who embark on traditional PhDs are expected to make a contribution to knowledge, which can be narrowly understood as the development and testing of a new theory. This is considered to be a close parallel to the methods used in the natural sciences – anything else would be ‘unscientific’. However, scientific method and insights are not monolithic and there are specific differences between the natural and social worlds. In the next section I will rehearse how the analogies from the complexity sciences, which have informed the perspective of complex responsive processes, come to problematize the idea of theory-generation about the social.
In describing the interactions between people trying to get things done together in organisations as complex responsive processes of relating we are raising a number of difficulties for the idea of theory-generation in management and organisation studies. If we argue, after Aristotle, that context, history and particular practices taken up by particular people shape what happens in social interaction, then this has serious implications for the idea that management concepts can be applied universally with the expectation of similar outcomes. If we call into question the notion of linear cause and effect, that a given intervention will necessarily bring about an expected and proportional outcome, then the usefulness of many tools and techniques of management is immediately made more problematic. If we are arguing that organisations are never in a state of equilibrium, and nor should they be, this immediately raises doubts about the panoply of approaches invoking ideas of alignment, harmony and group positivity. If we are saying that the interweaving of intentions between groups of people trying to implement their plans makes organisational and social life unpredictable over the long term, then we can’t know how our adopting certain ways of managing are going to play out over time. Finally if we argue that global patterning arises simply and only because of what actors are doing in local situations, and that this global patterning constrains what local actors can do, then developing theories is only one pole of what we are dealing with.
All of the five assumptions above drawn by analogy from the complexity sciences, provide a challenge to a more positivist understanding of what is important in organisational research. If one were convinced that the social world is characterised by flux and change, it would be hard to accept the positivist assumption that social research is usefully directed towards empirically testing theories against reality, and steadily and cumulatively building up a repository of useful knowledge. This is an idea that is borrowed from an idealised understanding of the way that natural scientists work. There is a great deal of contestation in the social sciences about what we might take reality to be, let alone how we might test theories against it. And, as I tried to demonstrate in the last post, this is no different in the natural sciences, which I am claiming are also a social practice. Natural scientists are far from immune from the hurly burly of ordinary life, including rivalries, jealousies and political, sometimes ad hominem, attacks.
Both natural and social scientists are concerned to be systematic, rigorous and methodical in their work, but when the characteristics of their research domain are so very different, then it behoves them to do some things differently.
Two philosophers who were keen to demonstrate the link between the natural and social sciences but to point to differences and clarifications were the pragmatic philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. Both, in their own ways, threw doubt on the idea that theory was separable from practice, and both were concerned to demonstrate how theorising is driven by and rooted in human activity, rather than the other way round. Both sought to overcome Descartes’ mind/body dualism.
Peirce observed that we are using theory morning noon and night. Most of the theories we are using about our involvement in the world we simply take for granted and inherit them from other people unquestioned. And when we have a cause for calling them into question we use abduction:
The truth is that the whole fabric of our knowledge is one matted felt of pure hypothesis.. Not the smallest advance can be made in knowledge beyond the stage of vacant staring, without making an abduction at every step.
By abduction Peirce meant inference to the best explanation – a good enough working hypothesis for now. ‘Abduction [means] observing a fact and professing to say what idea gave rise to the fact.’…
The first starting of a hypothesis and the entertaining of it, whether as a simple interrogation or with any degree of confidence is an inferential step which I propose to call abduction.
Although Peirce was reluctant to use the word intuition, he did think that inspiration, luck, judgement and imagination all had a role to play in the process of scientific work through abduction, just as he thought that it was possible to cultivate this as a skill. Doubt is also a prerequisite for forming theories, although Peirce disagreed with Descartes that we could manufacture doubt – we can’t call into question everything all of the time. We are provoked into doubt about particular problems that we are encountering in our activities, which drives us to research into their causes and solutions. He also understood scientific enquiry to be a social activity: one of the ways of testing our theories is to explore them with a community of enquirers a group of people as concerned as we are about what we are researching who will test and probe our research.
In his book The Quest for Certainty Dewey argued in the same vein for reuniting theory and practice, and claimed that theory had come to predominate because it was assumed to be immutable, unlike bodily experience. Preference for the supposedly unchangeable was for Dewey an example of an older metaphysics which presumed that there is an unchanging foundation underpinning all things. Dewey wanted to demonstrate that systematic methods could be brought to bear on human experience, although natural scientific methods were not necessarily the best ones. He argued that the nature of the enquiry determined the best way of enquiring: ‘There is no a priori test or rule for the determination of the operations which define ideas’. It is possible to research our experience, with a view to improving our lives, but to attempt more than this, to believe that we could discover reality ‘as it really is’, was a fruitless quest for certainty. Like Peirce he was convinced of the practicality of doubt as a motor of scientific research, and the scientist is constantly guided by an ‘animating question’:
A disciplined mind takes delight in the problematic and cherishes it until a way out is found that approves itself upon examination. The questioning becomes an active questioning, a search. The scientific attitude may almost be defined as that which is capable of enjoying the doubtful; scientific method is, in one aspect, a technique for making a productive use of doubt by converting it into operations of definite inquiry. (Op. cit: 182)
We have to proceed with good enough theories but to trip ourselves up constantly, exposed as we are to the flux of experience, in questioning how useful our theories are proving to us. As far as human activity was concerned, for Dewey the idea of a spectator theory of knowledge, with humans standing somehow outside the domain of action which they were researching, was not helpful. We have to progress: ‘from knowing as an outside beholding to knowing as an active participant in the drama of an on-moving world’ (Op. cit: 232).
It is not that we think first and then act, but thinking is a form of action informed by previous actions. Thinking and acting are paradoxically forming and being formed by each other, both at the same time and the flux of experience constantly disrupts our views about the world.
One way of proceeding to study human action in organisations with this insight is to use micro-studies, sometimes referred to as case-studies, or case-of-one studies. This is what we encourage our researchers on the Doctorate of Management to do, and to proceed from the perspective of their own experience of organising with others. The point of doing this is to try to work with the paradox of theory and practice in exactly the way that Peirce and Dewey were recommending. The object of researchers on the DMan programme of research is to enquire into how particular theories of managing are taken up in particular contexts with particular others, and how they are contributing to this process and being formed by it. After Tsoukas they are obliged to ask themselves what they think is going on in the particular case they are studying, and what this might be a case of, referring to broader theories of organising.
The examples students describe in their research give an opportunity to enquire into particular theories of management taken up in particular circumstances, and in doing so, further to refine and challenge them. This kind of work, as Tsoukas points out, is not so much to think about concepts, but to think with them trying to render our ideas about organisational life more productive and useful. It is a way of demonstrating that theories that are used in conceptualising the social are never a tight calculus, but are porous and partially indeterminate. After Dewey and Peirce it is based on the assumption that concrete reality is an inexhaustible source of new knowledge which constantly obliges us to question and revise our theories. The particular and the general are in generative, sometimes disruptive, tension.
On the Doctor of Management we are constantly encouraging our students to iterate and reiterate their reflections, to think further about how they are thinking and acting. And one method of encouragement for doing so is for them to find their voice within the community of enquirers on the DMan, and more broadly in the wider research community. It is here that their research encounters more vigorous contestation, and perhaps counter arguments. Struggles over meaning are the ways in which thinking and acting moves.
 Nichomachean Ethics (1141b8–27).
 The quote comes from one of Peirce’s unpublished articles written in 1901 and found in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. MS 692, quoted in Swedberg, R. (2012) Theorizing in Social Science and Sociology: turning to the context of discovery, Theory and Society, 41: 1-40.
 Peirce, C.S. (1957) Essays in the Philosophy of Science, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, p244
 Ibid: 236.
 Peirce, C.S. (1984) Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vol. 1,Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
 Dewey, J. (2005) The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action , New York: Kessinger.
 Tsoukas, H. 2009. Craving for Generality and Small-n Studies: A Wittgensteinian Approach towards the Epistemology of the Particular in Organization and Management Studies. In The Sage Handbook of Organizational Research Methods, ed. D.A. Buchanan and A. Bryman, 285–301. London: Sage.