Occupational Psychosis

28 April 2008 at 9:26 pm 3 comments

| 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?

Entry filed under: Former Guest Bloggers, Management Theory, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

Introducing Guest Blogger Randy Westgren Where There’s Smoke. . . .

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Klein  |  29 April 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Randy, I haven’t had time to read Caza and Caza carefully (just a quick glance), but I have to wonder if “negative framing” is such a bad thing. To understand a complex world, we have to deem something the explanandum and something the explanans. Economists and sociologists often have these swapped (e.g., the former seek to explain “culture” in terms of purposeful human action, while the latter use culture to explain the choices of embedded individuals). Taking one of these perspectives seems to preclude taking the other, such that we define our problem, and our research design, by exclusion as much as inclusion (as you note above). But what’s the alternative?

  • 2. randyw  |  29 April 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Peter, I’d argue that any body of scholarly inquiry that is hard-wired to a particular explanandum/explanans is self-limiting. The Cazas went a bit farther to scold against management scholars always studying what is “broken” in organizations. I’ll grant that in any particular study, one must choose a particular explanandum; to have multiples will confound the story. Yet, shouldn’t we bound blithely from one research design to another over time?

    I am reminded of the plea of Zajac and Olsen (Jan 1993 Journal of Management Studies) to use transaction value analysis as an alternative to transaction costs in examining interfirm strategies — fighting against the tide, indeed. For more than 12 years, I have used transaction value as Zajac and Olsen described it in executive education modules, but not in research. I like the approach, but I have a trained incapacity to apply it in research.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  30 April 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Well, I’m all for methodological pluralism, just not sure if it’s a good thing for individual scholars to embrace such diversity in their own work. There’s an intellectual division of labor, after all, with comparative advantage and specialization and gains from trade applying here as much as anywhere. Maybe economists and sociologists (for example) should be like laywers in the US-model adversarial judicial system, with the public, or whoever consumes our work (hopefully somebody does), sorting it all out as judge and jury.

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