Tag Archives: theory and practice

Working with the paradox of theory and practice

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.[1]

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. Continue reading