the ideal org theory scholar in the post-paradigmatic age


Sometimes we at orgtheory wonder about what is the ideal approach to scientific practice. Various ideal types are popular in literary and scientific lore: “splitters” versus “lumpers,” “foxes” versus “hedgehogs,” “skeptics” versus “theoreticians,” “integrators” versus “analyzers” and those who “push their own (or someby else’s) cookie” versus those who engage in “theoretical prostitution.” One question that everybody (especially young scholars just beginning their training in a given scientific field) is always interested in is: what should I be? What kind of style of scholarship would guarantee (the most, quickest, surefire) success?

Like many other questions in organizational theory, I want to propose that the answer to this question is contingent(a fancy way of saying “it depends”). Contingent on what? Well on the structure of the larger intellectual environment of course! One way to characterize contemporary organizational theory, is as post-paradigmatic. The grand old theoretical paradigms, mostly developed during a whirlwind period in the 1970s, are now middle aged, and a little exhausted as engines of innovative knowledge production. I want to suggest that in an environment in which grand paradigms are being formed or are hegemonic, scholars who “push” (their own or their advisers’) cookie will tend to succeed while in post-paradigmatic environments scholars who engage in a mixed “prostitution” (not committed to any one paradigm)/splitting strategy will be more likely to be successful (in a similar way, scholars who adopted the prostitution strategy in the 1970s probably never received as much of the accolades as they might thought that they deserved vis a vis the cookie pushers).

In that case John Meyer’s advice (mentioned in the post linked to above) to “push your own cookie” until you are exhausted is a bad one for any young scholar in the present intellectual context. John’s advice appears to be a classic example a “cohort effect” + “cultural lag.” John developed the strategy of pushing his own cookie at a time when the intellectual macro-environment was wide open (the “carrying capacity” of the system was high in ecological terms), and as such an empire-building strategy made sense; in the current intellectual environment however, it does not. For any young scholar today who looks up and sees the fundamental intellectual niche of org theory occupied by the massive giants of institutional, ecological and network theories of organization, choosing only one of those as their “cookies” to push and joining one of the compounds as a brick-layer for the walls around it would be a deleterious move. Thus, the taboo against prostitution must be lifted and any young academic should drop any puritanical reservations that he or she might still carry around about it.

Furthermore in addition to prostitution, splitting is important precisely because most of the grand old theoretical paradigms are weak on very specific points, and the old style of grand generalization that the “classics” employed (and which we assign in our courses) therefore do not make good role-models. It is fair to say that most of the key contributions in the current context will be made by scholars who are attentive to analytical detail (“photorealists”) and not by those who prefer to paint with large brushstrokes (“action painters”). Thus any graduate student or young scholar who takes a look at Meyer and Rowan [1977] and thinks “I should write a paper like that” is probably not on right track. A better model is Stinchcombe (1965) a highly heterogeneous, and empirically diverse piece which did not try to pull all of its (immensely productive for future work) insightful strands into any single grand theory. Since Stinchcombe’s contributions were the generators of most of the foundational assumptions of the paradigmatic giants, and since his career spans their emergence, rise and their contemporary decline, it is no wonder that going back to that founding document has become something of a calling card by a younger generation of scholars who are seeking to boldly move along into the post-paradigmatic hinterlands.

Written by Omar

January 23, 2007 at 6:43 pm

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. one problem – without the action painters, the photorealists have nobody to follow…following only works when there is someone to follow



    January 23, 2007 at 9:22 pm

  2. I think Omar’s point is that we had so many people come up with grand theoretical ideas back in the 70’s and early 80’s that now photorealists have an abundance of material with which to work. We’re all following the same 3 or 4 lines of thought and attempting to merge them in new and interesting ways.



    January 23, 2007 at 11:39 pm

  3. I agree with Omar general point that synthesis is the way forward. One complicating factor is that tenure review committees still think in terms of “cookies.” I was recently told that I need to be less of a tinkerer/fox and become a brand/hedgehog.



    January 24, 2007 at 2:13 am

  4. A tale from the trenches related to Gabriel’s point about committees. Two colleagues of mine are having trouble with tenure because the university review committee decided that it was a problem that their external reviewers were co-authors pof co-authors of the colleague. Two degrees of separation was decided, after the fact, to be a corruption.

    If this holds, given the density of co-citation networks, it becomes a pretty big structural disincentive to synthesize through collaboration.



    January 24, 2007 at 3:45 am

  5. There is some really great information at this site. I spent quite a bit of time reading these tidbits of knowledge and came away enlightened.



    December 12, 2010 at 4:01 am

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