The Performative Effects of Social Constructionist Professors in Business Schools

4 February 2011 at 4:35 pm 24 comments

| 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.

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

Another Field Experiment What the Seminar Speaker Really Means

24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve Horwitz  |  4 February 2011 at 5:33 pm


    I’m less concerned about social constructionist arguments than you are, at least per se. My greater fear is when they do indeed become calls for DE-construction, as that often suggests,as you say, the institution or practice in question can be RE-constructed according to our designs. This is indeed where a good does of Hayek is a healthy corrective.

    Simply pointing out that social institutions or practices constrain how we think and the choices we make isn’t a problem by itself (I actually think it’s a Hayekian point, rightly understood). The problem is in thinking that human rationality can do the evolutionary discovery process one better.

  • 2. Ram Mudambi  |  4 February 2011 at 6:33 pm


    I think you make a good point. Logically the position that “everything is malleable” falls into Russell’s paradox (or Godel’s theorem). In order for the system to be consistent, something needs to be axiomatic. In business disciplines, economists and economics-based academics (finance, accounting, etc.) take the position that some things are “hard-wired” into human beings. Formalizing these things into axioms, we can derive powerful predictions about individuals and organizations. Social constructionists are always surprised when their recommendations lead to chaos.

  • 3. Joe Mahoney  |  5 February 2011 at 1:03 am

    A claim that a DESCRIPTION of the world is socially constructed seems singularly unexceptional if we accept that language is socially constructed. Meaning comes about in the TRANS-ACTION between the writer and the reader(s). A social scientist need not be threatened about our science being social. We meet together at conferences and typically ask: “Do you see what I see?”

  • 4. bork  |  5 February 2011 at 1:42 am

    So, if I am to accept your argument, would I hire the social constructionist manager to handle turnarounds and restructuring?

  • 5. Michael Marotta  |  5 February 2011 at 7:44 am

    Geometry was built empirically: the Babylonians had tables of what we call Pythagorean Triples. But, it is presented logically, as a structure from axioms and definitions, theorems and corollaries.

    Similarly, we begin learning language in the womb. We learn it at home and then in the wider world. But, the fundamental purpose of language is personal and private, not social. The purpose of language is to enable thinking. Individuals think internally. Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe still used – and needed – language. In fact, with his survival at risk, he needed language and thought far more alone than in society.

    The fundamental problem with social construction theory and postmodernist thought in general is that they drown individuality in the social sea.

  • 6. Henri  |  6 February 2011 at 8:11 am

    Yes, logically we should all just abandon the belief that anything is socially constructed and accept the state of being as simply derive from the underlying state of being or evolution towards greater effeciency.

    Like slavery and racism.

  • 7. Nicolai Foss  |  6 February 2011 at 8:17 am

    Henri, Your silly comment perhaps shouldn’t be dignified by a response, but for the record: there is nothing in my post to support your gross misrepresentation. To say that institutions, organizations, contracts etc. may exist for efficiency reasons is simply not saying that they always exist for this reason. Do your homework; improve your thinking.

  • 8. Thomas  |  6 February 2011 at 9:59 am

    I always thought social constructivism went nicely with the idea of “latent functions”. A belief in magic, for example, may have certain latent functions that explain why they exist. Since occult forces don’t really affect our lives, magic is obviously a “social construction” (and “merely” one, at that). But anthropologist are able to make plausible cases that, in some contexts, magic is the most effective way of maintaining social order. It may also be the most efficient way to make certain kinds of decisions.

    Now, it is a problem when anthropologists begin to show us that our own beliefs (in institutional, organizational, contractual relations) are merely latently functional, and don’t “really” exist–this is precisely because the latent function depend on a manifest illusion, which social constructivists tend to deconstruct.

    I think Nicolai is onto something here. If we’re going to teach SC we should also teach path dependency. The fact that organizational reality is socially constructed does not mean it can be de- and re-constructed at no cost to the organization or the constructivist manager. Once those costs (“construction costs”! I’m ready for my Nobel!) are factored in, we end up with a very Hayekian/Fossian world. It’s still socially constructed, of course; it’s just much more conservative than most social constructivists would like.

  • 9. Nicolai Foss  |  6 February 2011 at 10:07 am

    Thomas — Very smart comments! Random reactions:
    1) I have noticed that SCs absolutely hate path dependence. Thx for making the link explicit.

    2) To the extent that SCs critically try to dissect excessive functionalist and efficiency explanation, fine with me! Functionalist sociologists in particularly have sometimes made ridiculous inferences. I won’t exclude that the same may sometimes be said of economists That’s just not saying that all institutions, etc. are arbitrary.

    3) It is true that we should factor the costs in you mention. But let’s not end up in the “efficiency” always” campl

    BTW, Teppo and I are planning a volume on these issues. We are negotiating with some of the major publishers. More news soon.

  • 10. Henri  |  6 February 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Nicolai, I am sorry, sarcasm doesn’t work very well in written form or maybe I am just not very good in it. Maybe we should elevate the discourse a bit; I think your call to improve thinking is well founded.

    The good thing is that we both seem to agree that socially constructed institutional facts do exist. Now maybe we disagree of the importance of recognizing them, hence my reference to racism.

    Your argument has, in my mind, two inferences in particular that are in dire need of better justification.

    First: Faculty studies socially constructed structures from critical perspective -> managers will learn that everything is arbitrary. This seems to me silly lazy thinking. Is that different from beliving that having game theorists in business school faculty makes all students assume all humans to be utterly egoistic?

    Second: Social constructivism would somehow imply that structures should be changed or can be changed without problems? I think the very opposite is true. If anything, most people who study organizational culture or industry-level frames or culture would state the exact opposites. If anything, social constructivist thought would argue that even wholly arbitrary things (e.g. dress code) cannot be changed without the likelihood of unforeseen problems.

    I will not call your blog post silly or suggest you to do your homework before criticizing the employment of cultural sociologists in business schools. But I suggest there is room for improving your thinking.

  • 11. Thomas  |  6 February 2011 at 3:06 pm

    I don’t think they “hate” path dependence so much as “resent” it. It works like this: first, they “show” that a given essence (X) has a history and is therefore not really an essence but a social construction. They then essentialize the history of the construction, so that its constructedness is now a fact. Its lack of essence is no longer historical, but eternal. Not only is it, in fact, not an essence, it could not possibly be one. They then, finally, imply that it can be easily done away with or transformed into something else. What they have conveniently forgotten is the history that allowed them to take the first step. It won’t go away and it will more often than not prevent them from taking the last step.

    That’s why Foucault rightly called it the “historical a priori”.

  • 12. Johan Alvehus  |  8 February 2011 at 11:52 am

    A propos doing homework, I’d suggest a reading of Hacking. His point, it seems to me, is that it is unnecessary and rather meaningless to talk about “the social construction of X” when it is obviously socially constructed. “The social construction of money” would indeed be a pointless text. (Chech out Ferguson, though :-) Hacking’s point is not to say that there are no social constructions.

    Second, it’s kinda interesting to note that you mention “efficiency” as if in itself it was not a social construct, and contested at that. The labour process struggles of the last 150 or so years come to mind.

    Third, “socially constructed” does not mean that X does not exist or that it is arbitrary. It means that it is historically and culturally situated. Money – certainly a construct, but oh so hard to live without.

    Fourth, and here I do agree with you point (at least to some degree), interpreting constructionism as an “everything goes” ontoloy is potentially destructive. What I find interesting is rather the question “why doesn’t everything go?” What “objects” (actors? techologies? arguemnts? ideologies? cognitive liitations? etc…) prevent construction processes?

    (“Anything goes” is more productive epistemologically then ontologically –but that’s different issue.)

    Finally: as for the diversity in business schools go I can only agree. More of that stuff.

  • 13. Andre  |  8 February 2011 at 1:17 pm

    I suggest a simple experiment to test Nicolai’s proposition. One could image having a cohort of relatively similar students. One group are subjected to a course on social constructionism and another to an economics course. We then pose a simple business problem or given them some sort of wide ranging case and then see what kind of results are produced.

    One potential additional proposition which I would like to add is that while our economics trained students may come up with some solutions which foster short term efficiencies and possibly shareholder value (Nicolai’s main performance criteria from what I can surmise from above), they may actually create longer term value destruction, inefficencies and create more negative social externalities.

    Another potential proposition would be that our economics students would come to a decision quicker which they would all agree and be happier with the group process but it would be of a poorer quality (maybe because it is more uni-dimension) whereas our social constructionists would take longer to come to a decision (or may avoid decision making), would engage in more conflict but come to a better quality decision.

  • 14. Niklas Hallberg  |  8 February 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Johan: What objects prevent human construction processes (i.e., what doesn’t work)? I think what you are searching for is called “science”.

    This brings me to what I think is most peculiar with social constructionism. As a scientific position, it seems perfectly trivial and uninformative. All human institutions, and the constructs we use to represent these institutions, have a history of human interaction and are at least partly a result of this history. Who doesn’t agree with this? This is one of Hacking’s points. Further, that there is an important distinction to be made between some things that are given by Nature and other things that are given by Convention is (I think) commonly accepted. In fact, this was an important argument in Karl Popper’s (1945) critique of Plato in The Open Society and Its Enemies. Does this turn Popper into a social constructionist? The way constructionism is used it seems to mean something else to the people placing themselves within this tradition. In my reading of Hacking, he indicates that constructionism should perhaps not be taken very seriously as a consistent and informative philosophical position, but rather be seen more as a rhetorical device or political instrument that can be effectively used to destabilize scientific claims you don’t like. In this respect, constructionism seems to be working rather well. However, there is a troubling insincerity involved in such arguments. If you don’t like the way an institution is set up, why don’t just say it in the simplest way possible instead of hiding behind an impenetrable network of concepts that make any form of straightforward communication about the facts of the matter impossible?

  • 15. Johan Alvehus  |  8 February 2011 at 3:46 pm

    @Niklas: Your two first sentences are possibly the best argument for social constructivism I’ve ever heard. ;)

    As fo a scientific position and the generative effects of it, I can’t quite see how you (i.e. Niklas) can position yourself as anything else than a constructivist? “All human institutions, and the constructs we use to represent these institutions, have a history of human interaction and are at least partly a result of this history. Who doesn’t agree with this?” Well, yes, that’s the point. And, if so, wouldn’t it be quite appropriate to theorize from this insight instead of trying to escape it? To try to make sense of these circumstances rather than ignore/suppress them?

  • 16. Johan Alvehus  |  8 February 2011 at 3:49 pm


    I can agree that the language at times seems impenetrable. Math does too, for those who do not care to learn — but also I think that it seems a bit overdone at times.

  • 17. Nicolai Foss  |  8 February 2011 at 6:13 pm

    @ 1. Obviously, the “social construction of money” is a highly meaningful text. It is, for example, chpt 9 in Menger (1871) (homework)
    @ 2. I did not say that efficiency is not socially constructed, although my notion of SC may differ from your notion of SC. The point about “labor struggles” (whatever they exactly are) are pretty pointless. No one denies that distributional concerns are important to outcomes in the real word.
    @3. Of course. But so what?
    @4: Yes, that is exactly the key issue. This is what Teppo Felin and I tried to drive home in our exchange with Ferraro, Pfeffer and Sutton (Org Sci, 2009).
    Andrè: I am game, although we still need a control group (and I said absolutely nothing about “shareholder value”)

  • 18. Niklas Hallberg  |  8 February 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Johan: The point of the two first sentences of my comment was rather that the actual contribution of SC to scientific discourse seems to be zero (if you don’t count confusion). And no, I am definitely not an SC follower. However, this does not mean that I don’t believe in the study of history or factoring in the effects of social context. SC is trivial in its soft version and absurd in its hard version (either way it is hard to see what it adds). While carefully concealed, SC arguments often make the leap from the trivial (e.g., culture affects consumptions) to the absurd (e.g., culture determines consumption) at some point in the argument. This is of course the whole point of the rhetoric, to destabilize the phenomena to such as degree that any form of radical change seems plausible (mathematical models do the opposite).

  • 19. Johan Alvehus  |  9 February 2011 at 1:46 am

    So, ok, “things” (X if you like) are socially constructed. What is wrong is not that assumption, but the obfuscating vocabulary of social construtionist ontology. So we need an ontology that acknowledges the social constrcedness of things. But, since the social constructedness of realist ontology is somewhat well hidden, I guess the solition would be to

    a) unveil the social constructedness of realist ontology/-ies, or

    b) develop a new, less obscure, SC ontology.

    In any of these projects I’ll happy to see the result (and in b I’d even want to contribute). Nicolai, will you take the lead on an edited volume? I’m sure the experiments will fit in well as an intro tot the last section!

    I prefer Mauss to Menger, but that’s just politcal ;)

  • 20. Johan Alvehus  |  9 February 2011 at 1:50 am


    Sorry for all the typos, my Swedish correct spell underlines everything in red and hides the typos from my old weak eyes.

  • 21. Nicolai Foss  |  9 February 2011 at 2:17 am

    Johan — Many X are not socially constructed. Anthropological constants, for example. Also, some economic categories are only SC in a weak sense, notably scarcity. That being said, 2), 3) and 4) in Hacking’s characterization are much more problematic than 1).
    As to the “project,” Teppo Felin and I have something like this(a monograph) on the drawing board. The proposal is currently with a number of publishers., One of our aims is in fact to go beyond the “science wars.”

  • 22. Johan Alvehus  |  9 February 2011 at 2:55 am

    I guess that we’re back at the beginning then :) Feel free to keep me posted on the mono, sounds interesting!

  • 23. Johan Alvehus  |  9 February 2011 at 2:57 am

    And oh, on scarcity: I spent some pages in my thesis exactly on how that was constructed in a specific context…

  • 24. Thomas  |  9 February 2011 at 3:28 pm

    In re the social construction of scarcity: suppose we could show that everything we truly need is available in abundance, except that the captans annonam (the hoggers of harvest) control access to it. Well, the history of that hogging could go into the construction of scarcity, especially the construction of scarcity as a general regulative principle (and therefore the social history of the science of economics). But the “fact” remains: once the harvest is generally being hogged, well, commodities “really” are scarce.

    The are similar arguments to be made about the social construction of mental illness. Once the “normal” is being solidly enforced, you can begin to talk about madness as something real. But there’s a history there that needs to be taken into account.

    The SC managers and policy-makers that Nicolai worries about would let the lunatics out of their asylums tomorrow and demand that normal people “get used to it”. (A mild version of this has already happened.) They would reverse a thousand, nay, ten thousand years of repression in a single afternoon of rioting in 1968. I think he has point. The same goes for scarcity and efficiency. They are social (and material) constructions, but quite real enough to need dealing with in essentially geological time.

    We just have to make that part of the SC curriculum. (Which just means we have to teach what is known.)

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