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Posts Tagged ‘Epistemology’

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“It’s in our DNA…”

This is an expression that is much in circulation these days. So much so, in fact, Private Eye magazine now has a regular feature called ‘DNA Testing’ which has plenty of examples culled from journalism. I figured that it will surely follow that the people who manage organisations and (far more dangerously) the people who write theory about how organisations should be run, will become tempted to follow suit and use the same idea as a logical form of explanation.

And sure enough, in Blackwell’s, which is a fine bookstore in Oxford, I found evidence* of just such a trend in Rhea Duttagupta’s 2012 book “Leadership: It’s in your DNA” (Bloomsbury Press, available – evidently – in many fine bookstores).  By way of mini review, the book appears harmless enough at first glance, and is written using a reflexive, folksy style. I’m sure it is well-intentioned in its central assertion that Leadership can be defined in 10 key ingredients. Be warned, the list consists of a set of concepts which are drawn from a rag-bag of the usual suspects in central casting, such as “Self”, “emotion”, “fear”, “dark side” and “intuition”… you get the idea. There is nothing new here, though.

One first sees that this list is built around an assertion that these elements are innate traits. This is the long-standing pop psychology mantra of “you have all the ingredients for success as a leader inside you”, is a well-worn path to an individualist and reductionist notion of the person. Second,  there is an equally well-worn path to a behaviourist tradition in the realisation of the self in management practice. It is within the paradigm of these grand antecedents that the logic of the metaphor ‘these 10 ingredients = the DNA for Leadership’ is selected. This feels like  a worryingly literal, not to say absurd, suggestion. It’s a shame, really, because using an abductive form of inference could have been a really good way to try to understand this phenomenon we call leadership. The problem is that there are no ‘things’, no nouns, no ‘instinct’, no ‘self’ etc. in our DNA, despite many of us finding this a useful way of processing what we think DNA really does. DNA must operate, if it can be said to operate in an isolated way at all, in a system of relationships. It functions relationally, in dynamic and complex arrangements of contexts, boundaries and thresholds, and not in terms of coded properties which are embedded as traits. It is incorrect, though tempting, to say that DNA contains ‘information’, because information is always a matter of relationship and ratio. A trait-view of genetics, however, fits nicely with a trait-view of human beings. And this, despite the humanism evident in the choice of the 10 ingredients, is what I think Rhea’s book is claiming.

Doubtless anyone using this phrase will be aware that they are employing it as metaphor, but I suspect that paradoxically it is a message of the book that the metaphor be understood literally. It would follow that  all the incredible technical advances in neuroscience and in our understanding of the biological functioning of the brain is also  the explanation of how we think and act. The basis for this claim is flimsy, but not because the examples Rhea uses in the book aren’t any good, or aren’t interesting, or that she lacks conviction. All three of those things are there. The real problem is that this is just, to borrow a phrase from Bateson, ‘shoddy epistemology’. In other words, when the way we think we know things is not in line with the way we know things, the results will end up being catastrophic because our ability to use technology and abuse our intelligence in pursuit of short-term domination of our situation is always unsustainable.

Postscript

I found my thinking got a bit knotted in writing this, and I’m not sure the main point comes across. So, I’ll re-state what I think it is I’m trying to say:

1. it is a trap to take metaphor literally.

2. Metaphor is the key to understanding how the world actually is (it is just a shame to say it).

3. To confuse the properties of the referents of a metaphor with the metaphor itself is to make a categorical error in thinking.

*A quick review of Amazon books later showed me that the use of this DNA metaphor is spreading… see also Judith Glaser’s “The DNA of Leadership: Leverage Your Instincts To: Communicate-Differentiate-Innovate” (Platinum Press, 2007), or Thomas Harrison’s “Instinct: Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals” (Business Plus 2005), or Silverman and Honold’s “Organizational DNA: Diagnosing Your Organization for Increased Effectiveness” (Davies-Black Publishing, 2003)…

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Flower in Oxford Botanic 2013

A couple of thoughts to end the week with:

Thought 1: Bateson’s challenge to management thinking

I’ve been listening, and not for the first time since it is multi-layered, to an audio recording of Gregory Bateson speaking, I think, to an audience of anthropology students in the 1970s about epistemology. He says the following:

“Epistemology is A, a branch of philosophy concerned the question of how it is possible to know anything, and what is truth, and questions like that. B, epistemology is a study of natural history; two studies of natural history. B1, it is the study of how people think they know things. B2 it is the study of how people know things. Which is not necessarily the same thing at all. It has to do with the word “how” and with the business of knowing. And everybody obviously has an epistemology, otherwise they couldn’t know anything, and those who say they don’t  have an epistemology have a lousy one.”

This contains some challenging ideas, and is already further along than most explanations of knowing that have been applicable in management learning. Later in that recorded session, and after illustrating the same point using Balinese puppets and the notion of symmetry in bird feathers, he asks whether the problem in knowing isn’t just a matter of error between the ‘how we know’ and the ‘how we think we know’. Confusion here results in a distorted epistemology – when descriptions of the way the world works (and it is inevitable that some sort of description will be necessary) are not in the same ‘language’ as the way the world works. Most social scientists and management academics act as though the social and the psychological worlds are governed by a set of fundamental laws with properties that are unique to human systems. So far, this view has led to all sorts of diverse (though hardly disparate, see below) conclusions and never-ending, small-scale internecine wars. No-one can agree with anyone on fundamental principles because everyone’s own fundamental principles are founded on the negation of the fundamental principles of others. Stalemate.

If, as a manager, you try to look at your organisation no longer in terms of numbers of parts to make up a whole but rather, as Bateson calls it, “a nest of relations”, you are closer to how nature puts things together. You begin to achieve an aesthetic understanding which is more harmonious with the fluid complexity of the way that messages and information that Organisation Theory has been attempting dismally to capture in explanation for at least 60 years. This is what an abductive mode of inference offers.

Thought 2: diversity is not the same as disparity

An often observed and pleasant feature of Day 1 on the Henley MBA is the diversity of background, industry and functional expertise that seems to be presented in each new group. This tends to be reinforced throughout the first days as people get to know each other. Correctly, in my view, this diversity is interpreted as a plus, and is real in the sense that our experience of identity is becoming more, not less, fragmented over time, and is likely to continue in that direction as knowledge-based and service sectors grow and emerging economies move in the same direction as the established ones.  However, I have never really thought much about what we mean when we talk about diversity in this way.

I have been reading a short book about Stephen Jay Gould’s approach to evolutionary theory and note an interesting contrast between the concept of:

       diversity – the numbers of variations within a set of basic types or forms (e.g. lots of species with much homology, or many aspects of personality characteristics formed from a few basic archetypes, or myriad job titles for the same basic sets of job functions etc.) –  and

      disparity – the numbers of different basic sets of types or forms.

Whilst not doubting that evolution offers good explanatory theory, Gould held that there were also still problems with it, as found, for example, in the idea that adaptation is progressive and, some would argue, teleological. In fact, he said, although we now see an amazing amount of rich diversity in our bio-sphere (probably uncountable numbers of variations of and within species of plant and animal), these are all variations from a surprisingly small number of forms. We have not seen, he says, an increase in disparity of basic forms since the explosion in diversity of species, 520 million years ago. On the contrary, there has been a steady reduction of variety.

So, I note that we may have diversity in our MBA, but there is very little disparity. In other words, and in a gross simplification of Gould, we have variation in but not of form. Lots of sorts of companies and businesses, but all with the same basic pattern or form. A variation of form for a Business School would be to reach out to include people/cultures  that have not been inter-twined in their development with our own. The global mono-culture seems to be the right condition for almost limitless response within cultural types, but very limited possibility to break out of that type itself.

I’m not sure what this really means, other than perhaps a sense that we may be vulnerable, at some higher level, to a kind of collective ‘groupthink’ in management education.

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I wanted use this blog posting to draw out some lessons from one of Gregory Bateson’s essays. This may not interest anyone reading this. On the other hand, if you’re curious why anyone would want to try to make sense of Bateson’s work  (I have my own PhD related reasons), you may find this helps foster your own thoughts.

The essay in question is in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an Ecology of Mind“, a second anthology of his various (and incredible) range of writing over many years, which was published in 1991. In the section of the book titled ‘Form and Pattern in Anthropology’ is the essay “Naven: Epilogue 1958”.

Naven was a book Bateson originally published, as a cultural anthropologist, in 1936 and which was based on his  earlier field work in New Guinea. On one level, Naven (the title names a complex ceremony of tribal bonding) constituted the results of an observational study of aspects of the kinship system of the Iatmul tribe, symmetrical and complementary schismogenesis of roles and behaviours among particular family roles. The 1936 publication included an Epilogue, a sort of reflection on his findings. The 1958 edition contained a further Epilogue which critiques and re-evaluates the earlier work and places the two kinds of schismogenesis in one balancing system (and this thought was undoubtedly influnced by the interest at that time in cybernetics and systems theory), but more importantly it is an essay into the limitations of methods of inquiry and of explanation.

These are the things I take from the 1958 Epilogue (bearing in mind that these ideas continued to be developed for a further thirty years or so):

1. “All science is an attempt to cover with explanatory devices”, a game to see how rigorously the scientist can stretch explanation to cover “the vast darkness” of the subject at hand.

2. Aside from the subject under scrutiny, science is also about learning about the process of knowing. In other words, it is about explaining epistemology, or how we know.

3. Explanation is about the fitting together of data.

4. In Bateson’s epistemology, the fitting together of data is subject to logical levels of abstraction. Raw data are always one level removed from the “world as it is”, and the re-arrangement by the researcher of that data in order to make sense of it is on a level of abstraction higher  than the data itself. If the data is the picture of the world, then research is rather like trying to put together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Further, the self-reflexive discussion of the procedures of knowing used by the researcher (that which justifies why the activity of putting together a jigsaw has any meaning at all) is itself on another level of abstraction again.

5. The labels that scientists give to explanations are just that, labels, and should not be confused with the things those labels describe. The terms used in the conclusions drawn by the researcher refer to the way that the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has been arranged, not to what’s in the picture. 

6. In social science, explanation (theory) is recursive. Failure to discriminate between these various levels is thus cause for confusion and error.

7. Ideas are not things and words such as “learning” and “teaching” are not in themselves explanations for anything. (This may be why so many companies find it impossible to measure the effectiveness of HR training?)

8.  If we do not resist the temptation to reify them, then a lot of the theories, models, frameworks, classifications and typologies that are used in learning are simply “heuristic fallacies” when it comes to explanation.  This is a valid criticism of, for example, anyone using the Myers-Briggs Type-Indicator as an explanatory principle for behaviour or personality. This would be to confuse the device for description with the thing it describes, though the tendency to do this is very strong.

9. The study of learning and of change is actually the study of explanation not of things but of relationship between things. If learning and change are formally analogous in more areas than just social science, the value of studying what “knowing” means becomes much important for managers, since we may end up being able to explain much more.

10. We tend to think of learning as having a purpose. The idea whether change is directional and that the end of a process is its purpose (and also an explanation of the process that preceded it) is one that has occupied philosophical thought for millennia. But the explanation of the process in a system always lies outside that system (to paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them). 

11. In social research the reason why this is hard to demonstrate is the capacity that human individuals have to conceptualise the system that they are an intrinsic part of. This conceptualisation (or double hermeneutic?), while also making humans prone to error in logical typing, means humans agents can consciously make changes in the variables within a system in order to retain permanence and stability. At a higher logical level, however, there is learning going on about the (observed) parameters which are the boundaries of that system.

12. A categorisation of that set of behaviours and utterances (communication) that we class as “Reflection” is not an explanation of what reflection is.  “Reflection” is of a higher logical type than, say, “experience”, “ambiguity” or “dialogue” (or any one of a myriad of behaviours and utterances). As long as we know this, we will not become confused (or, not so easily) and we will not fall into the trap of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in our mapping of data.

13. What you describe, what you see, as a researcher is defined by the choices you make, and by rigour in coding at higher levels as well as lower ones. Alternative descriptions are possible where they are of the same logical type. Human learning, in this sense, might be just as interchangeably, defensibly and unsatisfactorily described by Kolb’s learning cycle as by Jung’s archetypes. The fact of context in human learning, however, is necessarily more than the individual, and cannot be explained by individualistic and atomistic theories.

14. Research into human learning often focuses on examining storied selves. This is fine, and constitutes a description of the self. But care is needed to avoid assuming, first, that these stories ‘exist’ outside their telling and, second, that simply  in their telling there will be a change of the order which we may label “Reflection” (i.e. learning, of the sort which changes the parameters of the self).

***********************

Reference:

Bateson, G. (1958) Naven, a Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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Just found a really useful 2004 article on Action Research by Peter Hawkins which links the ideas of Gregory Bateson to organisational development and, in particular, the study of cultures in organisations. It’s rare to find someone writing about management and business who also employs a Batesonian perspective – and since this is precisely what I want to do with regard to Reflection and Personal Development, it’s a great find.

Already there is an interesting quote, which I want to share here:

“To assist the evolution of organizational culture, one first has to start by attending to these deeper organizing principles, which are not accessible from questionnaires or individual interviews, but can be glimpsed in the oft repeated stories and shared metaphors; the collective ways of tackling issues; the recursive patterns of behaviour, the shared unwritten rules and the collective emotional patterns that rarely can be articulated but which are communicated to the outsider through ‘empathic resonance’.”

There is much to consider in this paper. There is a re-appreciation of Bateson’s seminal idea of logical levels of learning, and how this impacts how we see reflection, as well as a naming of those practitioners and researchers who have, since the publication of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, been influenced by that systemic, recursive and complex vision. The themes which this vision deals in are immense – and they include the mind/body split, the ecological and intellectual crises brought about by the industrial revolution.

Our approach to this is key. Hawkins also says:

“We firstly start focusing on relationships, flows and patterns; and secondly realize that we are part of any field we are studying and to understand the field we must also reflect on ourselves as part of that world. ”

reference

Hawkins, P (2004)’ A centennial tribute to Gregory Bateson 1904–1980 and his influence on the fields of organizational development and action research, Action Research, volume 2(4): 409–423

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After a six week drought of time and energy to pursue it, I have just started to get back to the business of writing things down for my PhD.  With a new and deliciously abstract focus on epistemology.

All PhD candidates are required to show that they have justified their research question and methodology consistent with an explicit epistemology. For some, I suspect this is probably akin more to the drunk man’s use of a lamp-post for support rather than illumination or, worse, the adoption of a convenient theory of knowledge simply to fit the results of the research. 

For me, though, the epistemology is now the question, and one seeks to find data to shed some light on the epistemology, not the other way round.  Bateson once defined epistemology as a) “branch of philosophy concerned with how it is possible to know anything, what is truth, and so on…” and “the study of Natural History”, which meant for him the study of “how people think they know things” as well as “how people know things”. There was no need to define ontology (study of being) except within this definition of epistemology; they were essentially the same thing because in the world of living systems all knowledge is a matter of differentiation and classification of classes of differentiation. The differentiated world of form is one that “exists” in abstraction, inevitably removed from the undifferentiated, unknowable world of substance, of  “things as they are”. 

It follows that, in this branch of philosophy, “management” is not the name of an action but the name of a class or aggregate set of actions which become so labelled only from a view of the context in which those actions are taken.

So beginning from an epistemology that views all living organisms as systems and subsystems defined by patterns and by patterns of patterns, with patterns being the properties of difference, in my research I now propose use an exploration of human narrative to help me better understand how to appreciate what we mean by “patterns of patterns” and what we mean (in Management Education) when we talk about “learning”.

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