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Part 2: Epistemological Grounding of Thesis

December 27, 2009 Leave a comment

In line with all scientific research, this study adopts certain philosophical assumptions. Four sets of assumption about the nature of social science will be considered (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). At an ontological level, this research leans towards a realism approach, which believes in an external world that consists of structures that can be examined and understood through empirical research. In common with realism, the author, and therefore this research, is concerned with factors that lead to particular outcomes and tend to avoid generality by accepting temporal, spatial and organisational uniqueness. At an epistemological level, this research adopts an intermediate position between positivism and anti-positivism. This is because the author believes knowledge is a cumulative process (positivism) but rejects the (positivist) notion that a set of generalised laws can be developed to explain the social world.

As for the human nature debate, the research settles for a compromise between voluntarism and determinism. Implicit in this belief is a view that social science is too young to understand and untangle the complex nature of isolating the voluntary and situational factors that affect human activities (i.e. are humans determined by their environment or do they have free will?). Given our present understanding and knowledge (or the lack of it), which as previously set forth (in this research) is biased towards realism, it is therefore prudent to assume that humans do exercise ‘free will’ but at the same time we are, to a certain extent at least, a product of our environment. If, however, advancement in sociology provides new evidence regarding the influence of ‘environment’ over the autonomy of humans, the author would be happy to realign his position on the voluntarism-determinism scale. This is a difficult topic because at one extreme end voluntarism implies that humans are completely autonomous and our decisions are never affected by the environment or situation we are in; at the other extreme, determinism summits that all human actions are determined and can be explained by our environment and we do not have ‘free will’.

One important argument, which studies that emphasised a voluntaristic view have drawn upon to defend their position on human nature (Pasanen, 2003), relates to the intentionality of humans. For example, voluntaristic theorists argue that human beings can set future goals and objectives to make their present behaviour understandable, yet at the same time an entrepreneur may choose to pursue goals that are not economically rational (i.e. altruistic goals instead of profit maximising). Deterministic theorists will argue the keyword here is choice. Did the entrepreneur really choose altruism or did his upbringing and (therefore environment) play a role? Can his choice be explained by her experiences? Perhaps he was born altruistic with genes that predispose him to such behaviour? In that case, did he really make the choice of setting philanthropic goals for his company or was his choice determined by his experiences/environment?

While it may be difficult for some readers to submit that one’s conscious thoughts are not within the realms of oneself, it is worthwhile to note that a conscious belief of having a ‘choice’ (free will) does not necessarily equate to having one.

Theorists from both camps have yet to determine the line of demarcation between what constitutes autonomous and heteronomous behaviour, therefore this research adopts an intermediate position that considers both situational and voluntary factors when accounting for the activities of an entrepreneur/SME manager.

Lastly, in terms of methodological dimension, this research has a stronger preference for ideographic theory over nomothetic theory. As previously discussed, this research is concerned with factors that lead to a particular outcome (realism) and avoids generality; therefore, in line with that assumption, the author also shies away from nomothetism, which relies more on the scientific method of hypothesis testing (such as quantitative surveys and standardised research tools). The ideographic approaches to social science emphasise the analysis of subjective accounts that one generates by ‘getting inside’ a subject and exploring their background and history. For example, a study of outliers (from scientific and music geniuses to business luminaries and sport stars) ascribes individual success to a sequence of events that occur throughout the subjects’ lives (Gladwell, 2008). Success, according to Gladwell, can be explained by a series of cumulative factors that can be pinpointed to certain historical and biographical occurrences unique to the subjects.

Conventional wisdom would argue the idiographic approach lacks predictive power. It is descriptive/analytical rather than predictive. At a postgraduate or doctoral level, research should always be analytical or predictive as opposed to exploratory or descriptive for undergraduate level (Collis & Hussey, 2009). Such criticisms often originate from researchers of hard sciences who embrace the nomothetic methodology characterised by quantitative techniques. Yet often, such criticisms are also unwarranted, as the complexity and subjectivity of social sciences do not allow for the luxury of statistical significance and confidence intervals that bode well for researchers of natural sciences. As ‘success studies’ have shown, attempts to predict ‘winners’ in the field of management research have failed miserably (in terms of their predictive powers).  For all the criticisms levelled at the ideographic approach and its lack of predictive power, the nomothetic approach and its extrapolative powers have not fared any better in terms of addressing the holy grail of business management – the quest for sustained performance.

While sympathetic to the assumptions of a nomothetic approach, this research, as previously mentioned, rejects the notion that a set of generalised laws can be developed to explain the social world. Accordingly, it adopts the ideographic view that one can understand the social world by ‘getting inside’ and gaining first-hand knowledge of the subject.

In line with the author’s position of straddling both positivism[1] and anti-positivism[2] camps[3], this research also follows Kuhn’s recommendations on theory choice described in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1970). According to Kuhn, the five characteristics of any good theory should have: 1) Accuracy – empirically adequate with observations and results, 2) Consistency – internally and externally consistent with other theories, 3) Scope – the theory should be able to explain beyond what it was designed for, 4) Simple – Law of parsimony[4], the simpler of two competing theories is preferred, and 5) Fruitful – discloses new phenomena for research.

Although Kuhn’s work has been famously criticised by Popper, who promotes empirical falsification over inductivism, the author maintains that both verificationists and falsificationsists are essential to the growth of knowledge (in which we previously adopt the position that knowledge is cumulative). The accumulation of knowledge can only happen with new insights added to the stock of knowledge and false hypotheses eliminated (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).

Finally, as a realist, the author maintains that all beliefs are an approximation of reality and every new observation brings us closer to understanding reality (Blackburn, 2005).


[1] Positivism is generally a form of deductive research commonly characterised by the use of (scientific) statistical technique.

[2] Anti-positivism is the view that social sciences should develop different (non) scientific methods from those used in hard sciences.

[3] Kuhn’s work has been accused of blurring the distinction between scientific and non-scientific methods by the likes of Karl Popper, which ironically fits this research’s intermediate position of embracing both positivism and anti-positivism.

[4] Occam Razor is a principle that states: between two competing theories that make exactly the same prediction, the simpler one is preferred.

 

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