To include epistemological questions concerning the validity of sociological knowledge in the sociology of knowledge is somewhat like trying to push a bus in which one is riding. To be sure, the sociology of knowledge, like all empirical disciplines that accumulate evidence concerning the relativity and determination of human thought, leads towards epistemological questions concerning sociology itself as well as any other scientific body of knowledge. As we have remarked before, in this the sociology of knowledge plays a part similar to history, psychology and biology, to mention only the three most important empirical disciplines that have caused trouble for epistemology. The logical structure of this trouble is basically the same in all cases: how can I be sure, say, of my sociological analysis of American middle-class mores in view of the fact that the categories I use for this analysis are conditioned by historically relative forms of thought, that I myself and everything I think is determined by my genes and by my ingrown hostility to my fellowmen, and that, to cap it all, I am myself a member of American middle class?
Burrell and Morgan (1982) suggest a taxanomy of four different paradigms as a result of crossing two variables: objectivism/subjectivism and radical change/regulation. Radical change refers to the fact that the organization studied must be conducted by mean fundamental changes to the normal order on things, while regulation perspective is less judgemental and critical.
In the bottom right corner of the quadrant is the funcionalist paradigm. You will concern with a more ratiaonal or “reources researchers-like” perspective to explain to suggest some recommendations of change in the organization (non fundamental changes). E.g. “the number of customer complaint have increase 20% last year and it is recommendable improve the client services”
In the bottom left corner of the quadrant is the interpretative paradigm. You still would be recommending non-radical changes but through an explanation based on irrationalities or, in other words, trying to understand the meaning that humans involved give to the organization. E.g. “the fact that the workers at customer service do not get on very well is affecting the quality of the service and it requires to be improve by mean organizing more social events”.
In the top left corner the radictal humanist paradigm is located within the subjectivist and radical change dimensions. The needs of radical changes in the organization would be based on “feeling researchers-like” perspective, i.e. interpretativist perspective. E.g. the lack of motivation among customer service workers means that it must disapeared or being integrated in marketing department in order for workers have more challenging jobs.
Finally, in the top right corner of the quandrant is the radical structuralist paradigm. Here you try to achieve fundamental changes based upon statistical analysis of the organitation. E.g. “after doing a survey among workers of customer service department there has been a clear decrease on labour satisfaction among new workers comparing to long term workers and it must be solved by mean a change in the different position of managers and teamleaders, as well as in the management strategy”
As researcher you are creating new knowledge. But, what is or not knowledge for you? Two main views may be adopted.
(1) The researcher who concerns on numbers and countable elements: “resources” researcher
(2) The researcher who concerns more with the feelings and attitudes of the people involved in the organization studied: “feeling” researcher
1. “Resources” researchers
The first ones are more akin to the position of the natural scientist, and for them, the reality is represented by objects that are considered to be “real”, “touchable” and “visible”, such as computers, trucks and machines. Actually, “resources” researcher´s data are presented in the form of a table of statistical data. E.g. estimated personal computers users:
Estimated personal computers users
Apart from resources, the existence of such sophisticate research methods as survey, allow researchers measure also opinions and attitudes. Imaging your research aims to measure the labor satisfaction in a manufacturing company. You may perform a survey and ask such questions as below:
“Are you very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, very dissatisfied within the company?
Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
As such, the results might be represented as below:
Level of satisfaction
Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
These “resources” researchers would argue that this kind of data is less open to bias and therefore more objective. They think that the object studied by the “feeling” researchers cannot be seen, measured and modified like computers, trucks and machines.
As well as nature scientist, “resources” researchers also aim that the end product can be law-like generalizations, similar to those produced by physical and natural scientist. In our example of workers satisfaction, another question of the survey questionnaire might be:
Which department do you belong to?
Obtaining as a result the below table and being able to make law-like generalization as: “Employed satisfaction is 20% higher among manufacturing department workers than in the rest of the department”
Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
2. “Feeling” researchers
But, does this data presented in statistical tables deserve more authority than those presented in a narrative by a “feeling” researcher? You may be critical of “resources” researchers view and argue that the social world of business and management is far too complex to be understood just by numbers.
“Feeling” researchers advocates that it is necessary for the researcher to understand differences between humans in our role as social actors. Before further explanations of what is a social actor, watch the below video.
This video, emphasize the importance of the context, i.e. how important is where we are to the way we behave. Many of the people passing by the famous violinist would have paid more than 100$ for attending one of his concerts, but in this precise context, not even stopped to listen to him.
At the same way, you as students might be making jokes and laughing if you were outside or in a party, but as you have been tough that in a class you are supposed to behave, you don’t make jokes. Because there is something called social norms: being in silence, raise your hands when I ask you for, say good afternoon when entering in classroom, just example of social norms that are not written anywhere but all of us know.
Following this social norms we become in social actors, and play different roles depending on the context.
What are the implications for your own research? Coming back to the example given previously about the satisfaction in a manufacturing company, you, as “resources” researcher might be content with the result and might not want to go further. However, as “feeling” researchers you might prefer to go further and try to study more closely the feelings of the workers, as well as their beliefs, values, concerns. For this reason you perform a number of in-depth interviews. After recording the interviews, listening carefully and analyzing the information, you will unlikely to represent it by statistic tables, but you will be able to perform a narrative as the one given below:
Most of the interviewed sustain that they are satisfied, but mainly thanks to the “good salaries” (Joe). But the truth is that many of them feel quite unsatisfied in terms of development, because the tasks they do are “quite boring” (Peter). On top of that, some of them think that they are satisfied with the job, but in a long term they would prefer to leave the company for doing something “more challenging” (Mary)”…
A “resources” researcher would think that this is not objective, because you analysis is affected by the context and the answer given by the worker may be biased. On top of that, the number of interviews is not enough and it is not representative of the total number of the workers.
The truth is that a “feeling” researcher do not highly focus on “representativity” and “objectivity” as “resources” researchers do, but they gain, by contrast, major deepness in their analysis and major ability to identify the smallest details of worker satisfaction.
If you are more “resources” researcher, you will likely embrace what is called the positivism, whereas if you are more “feeling” researcher, you will likely embrace interpretivism. (There are also another philosophical position called realism that will not be address here and which essence is that what the senses show us as reality is the truth. You can find more details here)
The metaphor of iceber illustrate very well the difference between both philosophies. In case of perfoming a research on a company culture, a positivist (“resources” researcher”) will aim to understant the visible part of the iceber, which corresponds with goal technology, structure, policies and proceedures, products/services and financial resources, among other, or what is called formal aspects of the organization. By contrast, a interpretativist (“feeling” researcher) will aim to undertand such questions as beliefs, attitudes and values, among others, or what is called “informal aspects of the organization.
Within this post it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one research philosophy is “better” than another. This would miss the point. They are “better” at doing different things. When doing a research on labour satisfaction, adopting both philosophies is as possible as applying, provided that you own enough resources and skills, both a survey and in-dept interviews. For example, taking advantage of the information obtain by mean the in-depth interviews you will be able to formulate more focused questions and obtain more specific data. Coming back o our previous example, once you know that the satisfaction depends not only in salary but also in expectation and in oing interesting task, your survey questionaire could include apart from the general question on satisfaction, another kind of question as: “how satisfied are you in terms of personal development”, “…and in terms of salary…”
Finally, after reading this post you still think that choosing between one position and other is somewhat urealistic in practice, perhaps you should consider read this other post on pragmatism.
Camino, J. R. (2011). Cómo escribir y publicar una tesis doctoral ESIC Editorial.