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Introduction to the Philosophy of the Management Sciences
Te gebruiken bij
Auteur(s): Theo van Willigenburg
Druk/Jaar van uitgave: 2e, 2012
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The basic question in philosophy of science is why scientific knowledge is more trustworthy than everyday knowledge. If we get told that something is based on scientific knowledge we immediately assume that it is true. We trust that something scientific is always true for every situation. Science has a lot of authority, but what exactly makes it more trustworthy than everyday knowledge?
Science and scientific knowledge aims to create knowledge of patterns, regularities, structures and laws. Scientific theories do not state something about one specific company or one specific example of successful management.
In the management studies we aim to create knowledge about certain kinds and types of knowledge which leads to successful business. Thus, the claims of science and the knowledge it creates should be generalizable.
Generalizability is important for science due to the fact that it helps achieve science’s main goal which is to:
Understand phenomena that are being observed.
Explain phenomena that are being observed.
Science searches for general claims about mechanisms that look like laws that help us to understand and explain processes, events and phenomena. But how can we know that a claim is valid? When claimed to be true, a certain theory can earn the title “scientific” when the evidence it presents can be tested by other scholars of the same field. Scrutiny is very important in science: scholars must be able to repeat the research of colleagues to test whether the results are valid. Trustworthiness requires controllability, and controllability requires repeatability in order to test the “scientific” evidence.
Scientific knowledge is defined by five features which are meant to guarantee the trustworthiness of the results:
Generalisability: allows explaining and understanding phenomena.
Controllability: therefore research has to be transparent and repeatable.
Objectivity: scientific research should be independent of external pressures and influences in order for the results to be trustworthy.
Methodology: research methods that are used (eg. Surveys, analysis of documents, field research, interviews, conceptual analysis) have to be accepted by scholars of the same discipline and obey the scientific criteria of the same discipline. The Methodology must always be justified and true in belief. Scientific knowledge is only produced if the research is methodologically sound.
Clarity and simplicity: scientific research aims at a clear and simple models of explanation. That enhances the exploratory power of a theory and makes it possible to test the theory in cases that are different from the cases which were used to build up the theory. This phenomenon is explained in the principle of parsimony: the simplest explanation that explains the greatest number of observations is preferred over more complex explanations.
If the scientific research and its resulting theories display the above mentioned five characteristics then we have sufficient reasons to trust the validity of the scientific claims and results. However the trust comes in certain degrees and is not “all or nothing”. Scientific results present the facts as they are. Even so, the idea that science is in search of solid facts and that management science can only be taken seriously if the results are based on facts, is the source of two great misconceptions regarding the nature and methods of research in management sciences.
Two misconceptions about science and research
The first misconception is that only empirical research can be regarded as scientific. It is a misunderstanding that statistical analysis should be at the core of scholarly activities. The analysis of concepts with which we try to grasp the data and the reality it represents is as important as the gathering and statistical analysis of the data. Without thorough conceptual analysis, there is not thorough scientific research. There is no way of studying any phenomenon without a discussion of theoretical concepts with which we describe and grasp that phenomenon. In science, careful reasoning is as important as adequate observation. Scientific research is more than gathering and analysing empirical data.
By good thinking and reasoning, one may reach results that are much harder to obtain by empirical research. The philosophy of science shows that empiricism has always been a strong tradition in science, but that it is deeply flawed. Empirical data cannot have meaning outside of a conceptual framework. As we will see later on, the “positivists” think of empiricism as the only correct position, but most philosophers of science agree that positivism is quite flawed.
The second misconception is about the fact that scientific research is believed to be only descriptive and never prescriptive or normative. It can only describe what reality really is and cannot prescribe what reality should be. We cannot say anything objectively about what should be. Thus management sciences should limit themselves to what the facts are and not pretend to be able to say something about what is right or what is good.
This line of thinking may sound correct but it is not. On the basis of thorough research, some scholars may conclude what is the best way or the most effective way to perform a certain action or deal with a certain issue. Such a conclusion has immediate normative consequences, if we hold that the most effective way of dealing with a certain issue is considered the best way. The management sciences aim at offering well-founded answers to questions about what are the best strategies at addressing a problem or, perhaps, dealing with change, or what are the most effective forms of stirring complex organisational processes.
Scientists want to know the truth both in the factual sense and the normative sense when conducting their research.
Good reason model of truth
The so called good reason model of truth, according to which a claim is true, if it is supported by the balance of reasons. A claim will be (is) supported if the reasons in favour outweigh the reasons against it. Sometimes the reasons for a claim may be decisive or conclusive by themselves, which means that no other reasons are needed to support the claim, and if there are countervailing reasons, they are most likely outweighed but the conclusive reason. But mostly we will have to weight various reasons in order to justify or falsify a claim. Also, when trying to make a claim normative, scholars must consider, if based on past experience, if the claim will hold true in the future.
Bad reasoning would be that something holds true because there is little or no arguments or proofs that it will not be true. It is also considered a form of a classical fallacy or argumentum ad ignorantiam.
Also, many arguments contain circularity or petitio principii, meaning that the claim that one has to prove is taken for granted in one of the premises.
Another sophism is the so called “false dilemma” or “false trilemma”. This occurs when an argument offers a false range of choices and requires the target to pick only one of the given. The range is false because there may be other, unstated choices that can serve to falsify the argument. Fallacies are defects in an argument which cause an argument to be invalid, unsound or weak.
When one asks the question whether a given reason is a good reason, one is actually asking the question “What is reasonable to believe?” The question “What is reasonable?” is understood in three ways in the philosophy of science:
It can be understood in a way which asks what the correct research and argumentation methods are. Then it is considered to be a methodological question.
It can be understood as a question about the status of acquired scientific knowledge. Then it is taken as an epistemological question. (“Episte” in Greek means knowledge)
It can be seen as a question that regards the nature of reality. This kind of question is considered an ontological question. (“Ontos” in Greek means “that what is”)
The main concern here is about research methods.
In every scientific discipline the question what are the best research methods is of the utmost importance. In social sciences there is a long standing battle between adherents of quantitative methodological approaches and qualitative methodological approaches.
Quantitative methodology uses statistical analysis and data about the behaviour and opinions of people. However, most people reason according to the representativity heuristic: they take it that the more a person or situation seems to represent the features of a particular type, the higher the chance that the person or situation indeed is of such a type, without looking at the statistical distribution of chances. In most cases this is an effective reasoning shortcut.
Reasoning shortcuts allow to arrive at a conclusion faster in some cases. In cases where it is very difficult to get some idea about how the base rate is built up, stereotype reasoning may be a rational second best. Intuition can provide a reliable answer when reasoning becomes too complex. However, an appeal to intuition does not amount to results that can be controlled by others. Overall, the idea of a good reason in science is closely connected to what can be recognised as a valid research method.
Of utmost importance in thinking about what is reasonable and rational in science is the epistemological question: “what is the status of the knowledge that we have acquired?” Most scientists hope that the explanation of a phenomenon will provide them with the possibilities to come up with many reliable predictions. Unfortunately, such hope is often false.
Economists are sometimes very good at predicting the behaviour of consumers. However, the models of the human psyche they use are grossly unrealistic. They perceive humans as homo economicus. This means the rational egoist: the economical human seeks a maximum of preference satisfaction, his preferences are fully ordered and he is able to calculate exactly which choice in the market will result in maximal preference satisfaction. If one perceives a person solely as homo economicus one may be able to predict market behaviour, but does one really know what is going on in the market exactly?
This epistemological question is important because it is a question about the reasonableness of one’s theoretical assumptions. As such it is a question about the rationality of the arguments which are based on that theoretical assumption.
Ontological assumptions are those assumptions that assume something about the nature of reality: i.e. in what way do entities and phenomena exist in reality? Are the presuppositions about their nature warranted? The philosophy of the management sciences questions the ontological presuppositions in organisational theory.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim (1558-1617) said that social structures and institutions are real and exist on their own. He believed that what an organization is and does is more than what all individuals in the organization are and do.
Whereas, another sociologist and philosopher, Max Weber (1864-1920) disagreed with him and denied that collectives like organizations can be looked at as organisms.
The nature of money is an ontological presupposition. A 50 euro bill is only worth 10 euro cents because of the printing. However, it represents a much greater value. So how is it possible that a 50 euro bill is really worth 50 euros? Money is a reality that is founded on mutual agreements, conventions, social structures and economical institutions. But how real is such a reality?
Idealism versus realism
Idealism is the position that, ontologically speaking, all natural phenomena, are nothing more than mental representations and that objects and phenomena only exist given that they can be observed or experienced. They are all just ideas that are created by people, not objects or phenomena that exist really and in reality. This is a view adopted by some philosophers.
But also, there is a view that states that objects and phenomena exist in a reality that is independent of us, but which objects and phenomena we can distinguish is dependent on the structure of our minds. We distinguish and order phenomena and events in a particular way. This is a position of realism, but one which acknowledges that reality is observed in a pre-shaped way.
According to Kant (1781) objective knowledge is only possible because our mind moulds and orders our observations in a certain way. This is linked to the way we observe phenomena along the time and space continuum in our minds that amounts to an epistemological position. Not an ontological one however, but connected close to a particular ontological position. Upon the basis of space and linear time we observe the world and try to grasp reality. It is through observation that we gain knowledge about the world and what we know is always pre-shaped by the mental categories of time, space and causality.
We are only in contact with reality if we understand it in a spatio-temporal framework. At the same time there is a dimension that escapes our understanding. This is visible in paradoxes like the big bang and what came before it. We cannot conceptualise it because we cannot place it in space and time since that is when space and time began.
The lesson to be learned here is that we need more than one look at things and from more than one perspective that exists in reality when studying it. It is not true that only one approach will give us a realistic picture of the phenomenon.
When we look in a particular way we do not see everything. Thus we need to be ecumenical: we need different perspectives on things when viewing social reality.
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