The Performative Effects of Social Constructionist Professors in Business Schools
| Nicolai Foss |
Many European business schools praise disciplinary diversity. Some style themselves as “business universities,” rather than “traditional” business schools. Such schools may have a substantial contingent of faculty from the humanities, including historians, literary theorists, and philosophers, as well as sociologists and political scientists. The probability of such faculty subscribing to social constructionism is high. Typically, this perspective is taught to the students in courses on communication, whether intercultural or not, the theory of science, cross-cultural management, and so on. It is pretty much everywhere.
Those in sociology who stress “reflexivity” and “performativity” tell us that our theorizing, as mediated through teaching, influences the objects of theorizing. What may be the performative effect of social constructionist professors? My hypothesis is that the students they teach will end up acting like Hayek’s “constructivist rationalists” on the level of society, that is, managers who believe everything in organizations is malleable, and may therefore do substantial damage to the organizations they manage. The Wiki on social constructionism provides a neat summary of Ian Hacking’s celebrated critique of social constructionism:
Ian Hacking, having examined a wide range of books and articles with titles of the form “The social construction of X” or “Constructing X”, argues that when something is said to be “socially constructed”, this is shorthand for at least the following two claims:
(0) In the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted; X appears to be inevitable.
(1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
Hacking adds that the following claims are also often, though not always, implied by the use of the phrase “social construction”:
(2) X is quite bad as it is.
(3) We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.
If this is foundational for you as a manager, you will likely have little respect for what has evolved inside an organization, because “it is not inevitable.” You will be unimpressed by efficiency arguments from economics and functionalist arguments from sociology that explain the presence of a given feature of an organization. Your urge is to change the organization erratically according to your whims, and nourish ongoing turmoil. Psychological/implicit contracts suffer. Negative implications for productivity and firm-level performance follow.