| Randy Westgren |
One of the profoundly valuable benefits of recently giving up an administrator’s position is that I have time to read. I sat down with a stack of journals, biographies, fiction, and cookbooks that has grown since last summer. In the first pass through the stack, I found a couple pieces that echo one of the themes of this blog: how our training affects our perceptions of theory, facts, and phenomena.
One piece is an article by two young, interesting colleagues, Brianna and Arran Caza, who write about “Positive Organizational Scholarship” (POS) in the March 2008 issue of the Journal of Management Inquiry . They argue that the bulk of research on organizations, as highlighted by the top-cited articles in three years of ASQ and AMJ, begin with negative framing of organizational issues — what Brianna and Arran call a deficit model approach. They propose the need for research based on positive framing — not exclusively — as necessary to advance theory and practice in the organizational sciences. The POS paradigm is unabashedly post-modern (up periscope!), but it serves us all when alternative lenses are trained on issues that we all observe from our particular perspectives.
Caza and Caza use the metaphor of Rubin’s vase to make their argument. I had just read Richard Dawkins’s The Extended Phenotype,wherein he used a similar visual metaphor — Necker cubes — to explain why his view of evolutionary selection was valid, though it diverges from the normal (organism-centric) paradigm in biology. These visual allusions reminded me of a line that I recalled from past reading — “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” I assumed that I had read this in something Joe Mahoney had written, but he denied it. I had relied on Joe for years to read, register, and present interesting ideas wrapped around pithy quotes and anecdotes.
Well, many wasted hours later, I found the quote in Kenneth Burke’s 1936 treatise on meaning, metaphor, and motives, Permanence and Change. Burke makes the case that who we are limits our capacity to perceive issues, problems, ideas. He cites two different names for this phenomenon (though I maintain they are not synonymous, but contrapuntal). Veblen named this “trained incapacity” and Dewey called it “occupational psychosis” — a pronounced character of the mind driven by one’s professional training. The Cazas relate the Mazlow quote,”if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
What are the trained incapacities that limit economists’ analyses of organizations and markets? What are economists’ occupational psychoses that cause us to choose a common perspective of O&M issues that result in a way of not seeing?