Bill Starbuck’s New Book

7 October 2006 at 2:13 pm 4 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Omar at orgtheory.net dismisses critical discussions of the institutions of publishing social science research as “jeremiads” (see here), that is, “moralistic texts that denounce a society for its wickedness” (Wikipedia), typically written — but by no means always — by old, grumpy men. In contrast, Omar has great faith in the efficiency of these institutions (see the exchanges between my co-blogger and Omar here).

Although Bill Starbuck isn’t young any more, and there no doubt is a certain jeremiad-like quality to his misgivings about research practice in the social sciences, I submit that even Omar stands to benefit from reading Starbuck’s new opus, The Production of Knowledge: The Challenge of Social Science Research. Clearly, Omar has considerable experience with the institutions of publishing, and Bill Starbuck has only been the editor of Administrative Science Quarterly, but there may still be a thing or two to learn.  Here is the book’s blurb:

Bill Starbuck has been one of the leading management researchers in the United States over several decades. In this book he reflects on a number of challenges associated with management and social science research — the search for a “behavioral science,” the limits of rationality, the lack of reliability in many research findings, the social shaping of research agendas, cultures and judgements. It is an engaging, chronologically structured account in which he discusses some of his own research projects and various methodological debates.

This is a feisty and polemical view from someone who has been fully engaged with all aspects of research — carrying out research programmes, evaluating research, tirelessly questioning the assumptions and claims of social science research, and never avoiding the awkward theoretical or practical challenges that face organizational researchers.

Well written, provocative and unusual, this quasi autobiographical account will inform and entertain, and be a valuable vade mecum to current and future research students.

While I am not convinced that the book is always “well writen” (it is too loose to fit that characterization, particularly in the first chapters), it most certainly is both “provocative and unusual.”

I particularly like the chapter on “pretences of research” in which Starbuck takes several digs at the presumed rationality of the reviewing process (including accounts of the famous Peters and Ceci subversion of the conventional wisdom concerning the rationality of the review process (i.e., Peters, D. P. and S. J. Ceci (1982), “Peer-Review Practices of Psychological Journals: The Fate of Published Articles, Submitted Again,” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5, 2, 187-95).

The overall critical theme of the book is neatly summarized as follows:

… researchers do what serves them personally in preference to what promotes the creation of reliable knowledge. Because researchers disagree about about the existence and nature of knowledge and because research practices preserve the uncertainty of what is known, there is never closure, and never an end to ambiguity. Because researchers focus on producing articles rather than knowledge and because all researchers are able to claim to have produced discoveries, there are no limits to researchers’ potential productivity and no serious challenges to their genius. … The general effect is to make research a pretence rather than a source of genuine contributions to knowledge (p.74).

Over the top? No doubt, but perhaps not much. 

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Institutions, Management Theory, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Recommended Reading.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. brayden  |  8 October 2006 at 7:44 pm

    That’s a fairly cynical take on the publishing game. Sure, not every article that gets published will have a huge impact on the discipline and not every article is error-free or indisputable in its claims. But the review process does a fairly effective job in filtering papers out that would not be of interest to the journal’s primary readers and that uphold the methodological standards of the journal’s readers.

    I’m suspicious of criticisms of the review process, not because I think they are completely unfounded, but because they tend to be motivated by the critic’s sense of being left out of the conversation. Why wouldn’t such-and-such journal publish my paper? Well, it must be because the review process is flawed and therefore, you can’t take seriously the journal or trust the quality of articles in the journal. Perhaps the problem lies more in the authors, who fail to take into account the specific theoretical or methodological agenda of the journal.

    For example, I would never expect a paper I write to be taken seriously at the American Economic Review. It’s not because I don’t use sound methods (I use the same econometric models they use) or because my arguments aren’t logical (they’re at least as logical as many AER papers). But I wouldn’t expect it to get accepted because economists and sociologists tend to be interested in very different outcomes and have striking epistemological differences. I wouldn’t expect a paper I write to get published in the Journal of Postmodern Thought (not sure if that even exists) for the very same reasons.

    Once you take into account the selection effect, I think the journals do a nice job of sorting out the high-quality from the low-quality.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  8 October 2006 at 9:20 pm

    I’m suspicious of criticisms of the review process, not because I think they are completely unfounded, but because they tend to be motivated by the critic’s sense of being left out of the conversation

    Brayden, I do not think this is the case at all in economics. Some of the highest-profile critics of the review process are individuals who have been highly successful in the publishing game, while some of the review-process’s staunchest defenders are people who have been much less successful. The ad hominem doesn’t seem to hold here.

  • 3. Nicolai Foss  |  9 October 2006 at 12:38 am

    “I’m suspicious of criticisms of the review process, not because I think they are completely unfounded, but because they tend to be motivated by the critic’s sense of being left out of the conversation”
    — That is hardly the case of Bill Starbuck. That is why his book is a weighty document.

  • 4. brayden  |  9 October 2006 at 11:18 pm

    Good point re Starbuck. And I didn’t mean to convey that I think anytime anyone criticizes the review process they are exercising some personal vendetta. I doubt Starbuck feels that he, personally, has been excluded.

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