In a series of videos on YouTube, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains his interest in sociology and how his curiosity was piqued as a researcher not so much by how things change, but why things stay the same:
Similarly I came across two examples of what Bourdieu refers to as social reproduction in separate incidents at this year’s Academy of Management conference in Montreal, which give good illustrations of how current power figurations in the teaching of dominant ways of understanding management tend to perpetuate themselves. In both cases the historian of science Thomas Kuhn was adduced to explain what was happening and why things have turned out the way that they have. The idea of equating management with the natural sciences, upon which Kuhn based his argument about paradigm change, rather than the social sciences, which Kuhn argued operated differently, is interesting in itself.In the first an academic from Virginia Tech University, Dr Steve Gove, gave a fascinating presentation of his research into strategic management text books which get used in US business schools. Steve had undertaken a very careful review of which books get used, which content areas they cover, and the degree to which they cover them. Allowing for separate editions of the same book, and taking into account second-hand sales as well, Steve concluded that just 21 management text books account for 91% of market share. Any attempt to fit text into pre-described categories is going to depend upon a degree of judgement. Nonetheless, Gove and his colleagues pointed to the fact that most strategy textbooks covered most of the most popular 25 concept areas of strategic management. From this he and his colleagues concluded that strategic management has advanced beyond the pre-paradigmatic stage and that there is a generally consistent body of knowledge across strategic management texts.
In the second incident and in a separate workshop a young PhD student was appealing to his colleagues in the round table discussion to ask how he might proceed with his doctoral enquiry, which currently focused on measuring the efficiency of management communication. In doing so he was adopting the idea of Shannon and Weaver (1949) that an individual (in this case the manager) formulates an idea in her mind, translates this into language and then transmits the ‘meaning’ to another individual, who then translates language back into the idea. Efficient communication, then, depends upon reducing noise so that the receiver can understand perfectly what the sender intends. This is a highly cognitive idea of human mind and understands human communication to be a correctable cybernetic system. When I questioned the student to see if there weren’t other ways to proceed, particularly drawing on Mead and others who have challenged the idea of ‘efficient’ communication, I myself was challenged by another member of the group who quoted Kuhn at me: the student could only work in one paradigm, otherwise he would be obliged to go and study somewhere else.
What strikes me as interesting in both situations is what we can learn about the way the dominant ideas come to dominate. So in the first case Gove and his colleagues have undertaken an intriguing piece of work which I would imagine would produce similar findings in the UK and Europe. Probably in the UK even fewer strategic management textbooks predominate. However, to conclude from this that there must therefore be a stable body of knowledge about strategic management is to beg the obvious critical questions about how the situation arises, which Gove himself notes in the beginning of his presentation and then drew attention to again in the discussion of his presentation, but somehow ignores in his conclusions. On the first slide Gove reproduces something he overheard a teacher in a business school say to a publisher displaying at the Academy of Management conference : “I’ll adopt this one. I mean they are all about the same. Right? Anyway, my class starts in two weeks and I haven’t taught this before. Can I take this copy with me?” During the discussion Gove counselled against any scholar approaching a publisher with an idea for a book – much better, he argued, if you want to say something original to write the book first, then find a publisher for it. Otherwise the contracting and editorial processes will ensure that any author’s book will end up looking like everybody else’s. So far from describing a stable body of knowledge, it seems to me that Gove’s research demonstrates the way in which teachers in business schools and management textbook publishers co-create the conditions where dominant ways of thinking about strategy perpetuate themselves. It tells us very little about how useful or successful these ideas are, or whether textbooks leave us any the wiser about how people in organisations do strategy.
In the second incident I would have to accept that the person who challenged me was probably giving the PhD student good advice, if one understands the relationship between the supervisor and supervisee as a relationship of power tilted heavily in favour of the supervisor. Any doctoral student would need to think twice before taking on their supervisor. However, to what degree is a student required to ignore whole areas of literature (and perhaps their own experience) critical of the approach they are taking, even if they allude to it only in passing? It seemed to me that even drawing attention to a body of ideas critical of the sender-receiver model of communication was enough to provoke a strong reaction from my colleagues as well as an explicit and Manichean threat: you’re either with us or against us.
Both incidents for me point to powerful social processes which perpetuate certain ways of understanding the world. In both situations strong claims are made for understanding management as a scientific discipline capable of producing a stable body of knowledge, but in order to do so there is also a covering over of contestability power and politics, and in my view, thinking.