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Philosophy 101

The mere size of the PhD cohort on Day 1 on of the Research Philosophy course was an unexpected surprise.  I expected to see half dozen to a dozen people when in fact there were over 30!  From my past two years on the Abu Dhabi MBA I have been accustomed to the level of part-time Masters students, and here in front of me were predominantly full-time PhD students and there was a noticeable difference in quality.

 

The two professors were Dr Viktor Dorfler (hereafter Viktor) and Dr Barbara Simpson (hereafter Barbara), with one supplementary class visit by Dr Paul Thompson (hereafter Paul).   I noticed that they brought amongst them many years of experience, much knowledge, large doses of humour, and a real sense of empathy and support for the new students before them.

 

Viktor made an impressive start enticing us in to the subject of philosophy with his straight talking manner, sense of humour, and quick thinking.  The course aims for students to become aware of the philosophical alternatives, to explore the implications of alternatives, and to debate the nature of social sciences and management research.  I was hooked, and excited as I had read plenty on the subject prior to arriving, resulting in me not having to grasp too many foreign concepts, nevertheless, I hung on every word he said, making new connections between the loosely connected ideas in my brain!

 

Viktor gave the impression he is a supporter of Kuhn and kind of painted Kuhnian ideas of normal science and revolutions as fact, but there are scholars that have challenged this by looking carefully at the boundaries i.e. where does normal science start and end, and how revolutionary is revolutionary science?  An example perhaps that fits Kuhn is Einsteinian Physics overthrew Newtonian Physics, but the discovery of the DNA or the Gnome hardly looks like either normal or revolution science yet these are AS big as other scientific discoveries.

 

Barbara my advisor from the MBA Project, followed suit with a visceral and down to earth account of 2500 years of thought in the west, leading into and following up on the concept of a scaffolding paradigm.  It was not until she went through Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) sociological perspective of research that that an ‘a-ha’ moment was coming.  This taxonomy as a set of four quadrants across the tensions of subjective-objective, and regulation-radical change.  Each quadrant is named: Radical Structuralist, Functionalist (dominant), Interpretivist, and Radical Humanist.  Something was coming together…I just did not know what.

 

We learned two pet hates of the teaching team on Day 1.

 

1. Methodology is largely misused in academia.  Methodology is the discipline of studying methods for the teaching team, and contrary to how most people use it to describe their approach to research and the methods used thereafter.

 

2. Quantitative does not equal Positivism nor does Qualitative not equal Subjectivism/Social Construction!   The latter blasphemy will result in an automatic fail…its tempting to use it as an opening rhetoric!

 

Moving to the second day, Vickor took us through the Positivist and Interpretivist paradigms, and the inherent problems of inductive and deductive reasoning.  This was the beginning of much discussion between the paradigms, mainly for broadening our knowledge of course, but personally, I think that the science wars that try to determine what is knowledge for all is mostly hot air and boils down to power ultimately.  Frankly, when I look at a apple tree – I believe it is real, out their, living, make up near 30% of planet, will make a sound when an apple drops (whether I am there or not) etc. in objective ways – yet I also see the subjective knowledge on how people interpret the tree as shade, a hiding place, adventure, love, and even a business if it is turned into paper or sell the apples!  Is it not ok to simply agree that there are different forms of knowledge, different ways to measure the quality of that knowledge, for different purposes?  Seems like a no-brainer to me – what am I missing?

After Viktor’s session, Paul unveiled his strong preference for Critical Realism arguing that Critical Realism separates ontological and methodological parts of the edifice and therefore was not a research philosophy at all but a meta-theory.  To be honest I have no idea what that means, but in post-positivisit, post-structuralist, and post-modern times I thought this neutral method thinking was par for the course for all paradigms even if they have their preferences!  Putting my criticism’s on Critical Realism to one-side – I did think his slide on the Subjective/Objective false choices researchers can make was really helpful.

 

I too was fascinated with his example of the glass-ceiling that face many working women.   I nervously suggested that this must be largely ‘subjective’ and in the minds of the executives and employees i.e. you can choose to see it or not, accept it or ignore it.  He replied quickly that if it had a causal effect on someone who hits it while not believing it, for the Critical Realist it is still very real.  This seems a valid argument, however, I find a so what coming.  This might be objectively real but I can’t see what the objective knowledge can add?  The glass-ceiling feels more dynamic and a moving thing shaped by the perceptions and attitudes of the actors involved – hence is it not more useful question to ask what increases or reduces its power, or how does one remove it from organizational life, or reduce its ill effects?  These just seem more interesting and move away from some objectivist to interpretivist analysis.

 

Later, Barbara unveiled her position on philosophy of Pragmatism hovering over the interpretivist and radical humanist quadrants of Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) sociological taxonomy.   There is not doubt that I had previously misunderstood the nature of pragmatism as I had associated with Functionalism – thinking this is a practical way of going about things!  While it has the spirit of getting on with the business of things, Barbara described it as being process oriented, interpretivist and seeking radical change!  AHA!  Insight time!  As Barbara shed more light on the concept of Pragmatism, it was like I just arrived home after a long trip, a welcoming, warm and supportive place awaiting, and even though people were speaking a language that I have never heard before now – it was one I understood from the very first moment :o)  There was a real sense I had arrived to a place where I could settle down, clearly refine my thinking on my research questions, research outcomes, and put my case for the philosophy that will underpin the research.

 

It is worth unpacking this insight a little – why does this radical call for change and ‘let’s get on with the job’ strike a chord with me?  Being action oriented, a co-creator of knowledge, an emergent thinker, and ‘bashing on the edges’ of the very dominant paradigm of Functionalism feels like the type of thing that I like to do!  Born in New Zealand, and from a young age the Kiwi culture instilled in me the pioneer spirit and always to support the under-dog.   When I moved to England at 23 I remember I struggled with the invisible but ‘real’ class system – it annoyed me – a different form of the glass-ceiling.  I also find myself motivated when someone says I can’t do something, and instead I find a way and do it anyway!  This has at times felt a little dangerous going up against whatever dominant paradigm (even came with a warning from the HR department once!) – but, I feel alive when I am doing it – it feels right, the right thing to do.  Something I later heard living in England is that Kiwis carry this ‘little country syndrome’ i.e. a form of insecurity when in the precence of the large country… you can imagine how I responded to that nonsense.

 

Ok, so back to the course – in the evening the debate was run with one Critical Theorist, one Critical Realist, and one ‘pretend’ Positivist :o).  I wrote about it in the class forum where I rudely suggested that post-modernism was under-represented, as the critical realist and positivist seeming more similar than different.  Apparently there are 12 schools of positivist thought and with methods becoming much philosophy neutral across the board, I think the difference between Critical Realist and the Positivist seemed exaggerated.   I did feel that the Pragmatist was missing from the debate!

 

One day three we broke into groups and had to prepare a 10 minute presentation on the research philosophy within the assigned literature given to each group.  The presentations were helpful especially during the questions and answer time.  In particular, I noticed more than one group using a term like Social Construction in different levels of the edifice which confused me.  Barbara highlighted the fact that these terms can and often are used in multiple ways.

– Ontology: Reality can be socially constructed

– Epistemology: How we know can be socially constructed

– Methodology: How we find out can be socially constructed

 

Viktor added, it is important as researchers to be clear how one is using these terms.

 

The big news sits with these new insights with respect to my research on Sustainability in Business!!!  It has some clear parallels with pragmatist way of viewing the world.  Sustainability is often regarded as a process not an end (realistically in my lifetime), it is up against the dominant functionalist and economic paradigms, and along with power and self interest they don’t play nice until something like the Financial Crash or BP Oil spill creates a dent in their armour. I have liked the interpretations of William James and John Dewey but before now had not sensed their contribution to radicalism.  It is time to find some core text.

 

Adult sustainability education is conspicuous by its absence in society, it seems largely left to sporadic universities, NGOs and social marketing.  The World Bank, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Corporate Social Responsibility programmes etc. are all examples of the business sensing change that they need to be better – but the institutional flaws within them make it hard to achieve (Chomsky, 2010).  Reporting on Sustainability and CSR is largely voluntary, hence, there is a lot of green-washing in my opinion.

 

Viktor described at one point in the course the process of thesis – antithesis – synthesis, which the synthesis becomes the new thesis and new anti-thesis is born… It has always been for me the place to be on the anti-thesis – stretching, critiquing, arguing etc.  Sustainability is the antithesis and ‘Business without Sustainability’ is the thesis…. frankly we need a new synthesis – the human race by the end of 21st century will depend on it.

 

But where will the revolution come from, where does it start?  Government, big business, small business, consumers??  Naturally a combination, yet I believe it will primarily come from grass roots realization that we need to change our ways AND protect our futures, economically, socially, and environmentally.  To do this we need solutions, we need innovation, we need collaboration, we need agency, we need conflict and creativity… all of these attributes point towards a pragmatist research philosophy.  A research project based in action and iterative.  Let’s test new learning and technological innovations and the ‘netocracy’ (Viktor’s term for democracy offered via the internet/web 2.0). My research is all about this education catalyst through Web 2.0 and Massive Open Online Classes providing learning materials and supporting connectivist learning.

The three days Research Philosophy programme was absolutely wonderful and enlightening, but did it achieve its goals, what does this weekend mean to me and my research direction?

 

Speaking for myself I more aware of the philosophical alternatives but I only go so far to say I have a light sense of the implications thereafter.  To describe my change in thinking I will use an analogy.  For the past 6 months it is like I have been trying to design a new vehicle which has one wing, train wheels, a sail, and a motorbike seat – all in all confusing and totally useless.  After the course, I can say with more certainly that I am trying to build a plane with two wings, fuselage, jet engine, cockpit etc. – clearer, less confusing and fit for purpose.  Later if someone says well why did you not build a motorbike – I can say that I wanted to carry 300 passengers large distances and a motorbike will not cut it!  Is that plane is pragmatism – OR – do I need to build a boat?  More reading required.

 

Absolutely fab three days with the Glasgow cohort and nice to meet you all!

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