Constructing Organizations: Methods of Research, Methods of Change

Ted S. Palys, Ph.D. / School of Criminology / Simon Fraser University

[This paper was originally presented as an invited address at the Séminaire de doctorat en management at Université Laval, in Quebec City, Canada, on 1 April 1993; the sections in French were intended as section summaries for non-English speakers in my French audience.]

D'abord, pour commencer, je veut dire merci à vous tous, et especiallement à Professeurs Garnier et d'Amboise, pour m'inviter à votre belle province, et à votre université. Je m'excuse que je ne peut pas parler français que bien que je peut donner mon lectur en français. Ma connaissance de la langue français n'est pas suffis pour me permettre de faire mon lectur tous en français. Alors, je le donne en anglais, sauf de temps en temps, quand j'offre une summaire français.

I gather that one of the reasons that you chose to invite me here today was because my recent book, entitled Research Decisions, struck a sympathetic chord in Professor d'Amboise and perhaps some others of you, such that you were interested in what else I might have to say regarding methods, particularly in the realm of organizational research.

In that sense, this is an interesting day for me, because, as you may know, my background is that of a social psychologist, and I am now in an interdisciplinary School of Criminology. Some of my work has been in areas of interest to those working in organizations, however, and I have to admit that I actually turned down an opportunity to work in a business department and decided instead to take my current position in Criminology at Simon Fraser. Nonetheless, the talk today gives me an opportunity to reflect on the applicability of my work to those engaged in organizational research, and to consider the place I might have been, had I taken that alternate course. Indeed, while reflecting on my interests for this presentation, I came to realize that there is much overlap between the two disciplines - much of my substantive work in Criminology has involved organizations, and much of what you do in organizations involves inherent questions of justice.

I should state at the outset that I came into the preparation of this paper with a few assumptions. First, I assumed that some of you have had some exposure to the book, while others of you have not. Second, I also assumed that for those of you have seen the book, your reaction to Research Decisions and the messages it contained was not one of hostility, but one of openness, and perhaps even receptivity, to its themes. Accordingly, I thought I would begin by identifying some of the themes from the book, both to give those of you who have not yet seen the book some indication of its contents, but also to lay the groundwork for the points I wish to make with you today, because they flow from the themes developed in the book.


There are many messages that run through Research Decisions, but there are three main ones I would point to today. As far as I know, the book is one of the first texts to try and offer an over-arching view of science which has a place for both qualitative and quantitative techniques and perspectives. Indeed, it was important enough that I wanted to put it in the very title of the book which, as you may know, is subtitled "Qualitative and Quantitative Perspectives".

But make no mistake -- the rapproachement that I offer is not one that aspires to take two very different entities and put them together in some methodological melting pot to create a single, new approach. There are some very real differences between Qualitative and Quantitative perspectives, as there often is between the people who favour one or the other, and I suspect that people will continue to feel more comfortable with one side or the other. Instead, I tried in Research Decisions to identify the "essence" of each of those perspectives, tried to get past the negative stereotypes which zealots from each side have offered of the other, and, instead, suggested that neither perspective on its own is adequate, i.e., that the two are best viewed as complementary parts of the circle of science, and that each has contributions to make, and lessons to offer, the other.

In that sense, I ask you to occupy two different roles simultaneously. The first will be defined by your own personal choice of research approaches, whether Qualitative or Quantitative or some combination of the two. But the second is defined by your broader role as a scholar, where you should be able to consider your broader obligations to our collective social science enterprise, and acknowledge that our collective health is benefited by the strength of debate and interaction which emerges from the presence of a healthy diversity of perspectives and approaches.

The argument against Qualitative research by itself -- by which I generally mean research which is inductive, intimate in terms of the relation between researcher and participant, and usually generally low in structure - is that the person who takes that route is inevitably doomed to the execution of a never-ending pilot study which may produce interesting results, but will rarely achieve the degree of rigour which gives the credibility that a set of findings requires before it can influence policy.

Similarly, Quantitative research by itself -- by which I generally mean research which is deductive, highly structured, and values detachment over intimacy in its quest for the Holy Grail of objectivity - is often accused of being little more than an exercise in methodological technology. It may produce results with impeccable numerical precision, but it, too, has minimal likelihood of impact, because it often ends up being little more than a science of the trivial.

Although Qualitative techniques have the great strength of offering a wealth of contextualized information, their problem is that, because of their typical lack of standardized data sets, they do not lend themselves to easy summary in the sense that you cannot generate a quick exploratory set of frequency distributions or an inter-correlation matrix, and any sort of causal inference is difficult, and highly open to criticism. In this regard, Research Decisions argues that experimentalist concepts from the Quantitative domain can offer much to enhance the rigour of inference in Qualitative research, particularly through the comparison of similar cases, and an examination of internal consistency.

Similarly, Quantitative techniques have been developed to offer the great strength of high internal validity, but have done so in a manner that decontextualizes and hence trivializes and perhaps even changes the very nature of the phenomenon it is investigating. Here, Research Decisions argues that the addition of Qualitative techniques can benefit the research process by enhancing ecological validity, and hence recontextualizing the inferential process. Not everyone will do both, or be good at both, but it is at least recommended that we read each other's material.

En somme, mes intentions en écrivant Research Decisions étaient d'offrir une vue de science social intégrante non pas dans le sens de les combiner dans une nouvelle entité -- mais plutôt d'arriver à un sens de vérité ou les deux sont inclus. Nous gagnions beaucoup de force en appréciant la diversité.


A second issue which receives consideration in the book is the dichotomy of realism versus constructionism, and in that instance, I do try and offer some middle ground, even though my "middle ground" is little more than yet another admonition that we should value the achievements and contributions of both extremes. Perhaps it is my nature to value extreme positions for the diversity of perspective they offer, and the tensions and dialogue they produce, but also to find problems with all of them when it comes to choosing any single one as a religion.

Radical constructionists argue that everything is a social construction, but I cannot help but notice that sometimes the world bumps back at us, and does not provide us with the evidence our constructions desire, no matter how hard we try: Progressive Conservative "spin doctors" or image-makers may deny the importance of, or may attempt to reinterpret Brian Mulroney's almost complete lack of popularity, but they do not deny his unpopularity.

Of course it is just as easy to find fault with radical realists who believe in the existence of objective, immutable fact that is true independent of our observations and constructions of it. There is just too much evidence that suggests that causal chains can change, depending on our constructions and the social context in which it occurs. Indeed, the very existence of "spin doctors" and other "image makers" in our contemporary world attests to our belief that the perception is at least as important as the fact.

But if both the realist and constructionist views have some merit, then that leads us to some interesting implications. For one thing, it means that there are such things as social facts, but that their status as "facts" is highly transient, since they depend on a certain state of the world - a whole other network of facts -- to continue their existence. They may be facts, in other words, but they are not an immutable and unchangeable reality; if we can change perceptions of facts, we can change the facts themselves.

That in and of itself would be interesting, were it not for the addition of another theme in Research Decisions that is due to the work of Michel Foucault. It is Foucault who takes us a step further with his two-sided concept of "power-knowledge", thereby making explicit the view that knowledge and power are inherently related. A most depressing aspect of Foucault's work is the synonymy or similarity he sees between "knowledge" and "surveillance" -- in that darker sense, knowledge is a tool which serves the interests of those who wield power, by allowing them to exert control over language, and understandings, and people.

I would remind you that Foucault's analysis was primarily a study of power, in which he identifies the knowledge factory, which includes the universities, as one of the arenas in which power is manifest (e.g., as he explains in The Archeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things). Indeed, in his more substantive works (such as The History of Sexuality, The Birth of the Clinic, and Surveillance and Punishment), he shows us as much. As researchers and hence knowledge producers, we are reminded to always consider whose interests we serve when we design a piece of research, since we serve some no matter what we do.

An implication of his work is that "NOW!" is not in any sense a termination or culmination point in the history of knowledge, but, rather, represents a decision point, where the choice each of us makes about what to look at and how to construct it, is also a decision about the constraints that will be placed on future knowledge. Instead of a purely realist point of view, which would envision a line of truth and a line of knowledge which gradually converge, Foucault tells us that in front of us are varying trajectories of truth among which we must choose.

L'image dans ma tête pour les réalistes est de deux lignes. L'une réprésentant la réalité -- le monde tel qu'il est, et l'autre ligne réprésentant l'état de notre connaissance à propos de la réalité. Notre tâche comme chercheurs, pour les réalistes, est de faire tout ce qui est dans notre pouvoir pour amoindrir l'espace entre ces deux lignes.

Foucault représente le contraste. "Aujourd'hui" nous est donné mais la réalité d'avenir reste incertaine. Dans ce sens, Foucault nous offre un choix très réel -- il libère notre avenir -- d'être tout ce qu'on veut. Nous pouvons être contraint par des réalités contemporaines, mais nous ferions cela par choix. Lequel de ces trajectoires de vérité voulons-nous suivre? Et est-ce qu'il est le cas que nous devons choisir un?

Sometimes I find Foucault's work very depressing because of the themes of oppression which emerge from his study of power, but he can also be most energizing because of the liberation which that understanding can allow. Even though the exercise of doing research is inevitably an exercise in power, if one's research activity is seen by the researcher as an opportunity to make a choice, then clearly that choice can also be an opportunity to declare allegiance to whomever one believes should be empowered. If the production of knowledge is essentially a process of negotiation about what is, and indirectly of what will be, then the choice of empowerment is one of deciding whom it is that has a seat at the negotiating table.


There is a third aspect of Research Decisions that I would mention. One of the things that led me to write the book in the way that I did was that I felt there was an inappropriate separation in the literature of philosophy of science from the techniques of research. There are many superb scholars who have written excellent books about the philosophy of science, but I always had the feeling when I read them - with the exception of Foucault -- that these people had probably never actually interviewed a person, or constructed an observational coding scheme, or pondered a correlation coefficient. Similarly, there were many excellent books which explained a variety of research techniques, but -- with the exception of Donald T. Campbell -- I often had the feeling that they had little understanding of how philosophies of science permeated their work.

That was something I wanted to overcome with Research Decisions, therefore, i.e., I wanted to not only talk about techniques, but to show the philosophies of science embedded in them; not only to talk about philosophies of science, but to discuss how they became embodied in practice.

My remaining task here today is thus to try and make that connection here, too. If you have followed and perhaps accepted my assertions -- to the effect that when we do research about organizations we are agents in the construction of truth, and that, by the choices that we make, can either question or reaffirm the relations of power that exist -- then the question becomes how exactly that happens when you engage in organizational development at Bombardier, or do a study of job satisfaction and performance at the Quebec Ministry of Health, or whatever else.

There are two such aspects that I will ask you to consider today, these being (1) the construction of interview research; and (2) the important role to be played by data archives.

Perhaps the place to start is again with Foucault. Recall that it was Foucault who sensitized us to the inherent connection that was reflected in his hyphenated concept of power-knowledge. One way to restate this concept is to note that those who hold power often use it in a manner which affords surveillance, and that is one way in which those who hold power retain their control.

Knowledge in the Foucauldian sense thus implies surveillance -- the act of surveillance implies accountability and manipulability, but it takes no deep insights to speculate on who is controlling and surveying whom; the magnifying glass is held by those at the top, and the object of their scrutiny is typically not themselves, but those below. Surveillance thus itself becomes a technique of disempowerment for those under scrutiny. People with power usually do their best to maintain that power, and agenda-setting, agenda-defining, and surveillance of their opposition are three of the means by which they do it.

So Foucault attempts to turn the tables, and many of his more substantively-oriented works (e.g., The History of Sexuality, The Birth of the Clinic, and Surveillance and Punishment) represent efforts to show the manifestations of power and how they have both been a part of, and influenced, the trajectories of truth that have been followed. But if there is a problem that I have with Foucault, it is that by the very action of turning the light on the exercise of power, he can be seen to be acknowledging and reaffirming it, as much as he is providing us with knowledge that should disempower it. This act of turning the spotlight on the powerful is an important element in empowering others, but it is only half the story nonetheless.

Within the context of organizations, for example, it should come as no surprise that those persons who work on the front lines (i.e., those "down below") usually come under far greater scrutiny by those at the top (whom we often refer to as "management" or "shareholders" or "owners"), and in terms which are meaningful to those at the top, than vice versa. We see this easily on the assembly line. Regardless of whether the assembly line we are referring to involves cars being manufactured in Detroit, or patients going through doctors' clinics, or welfare recipients receiving social services, the meaning of their experience is not being assessed in terms that are meaningful to those on the line or going through the clinic; they are expressed in terms that are meaningful to those who created the assembly line, or funded the clinics, or provided the services.

One of the fascinating aspects of this process that I observe is that the "culture" of organizations is often so strong in this respect, that many of those people being scrutinized have forgotten or never realized that their own concerns and perspectives are equally legitimate, and that they deserve an equal voice.

And we academics are not immune to it; we do it to ourselves. Professor d'Amboise kindly sent me a number of publications that had been completed by members of this department, and one of the package involved a study of the relative productivity of different individuals and different departments of business across the country, as measured by the number of publications per person and per department that had been published in refereed journals. Now, I would note that the study was well done, and would agree that obtaining some indication of productivity is not an unimportant thing to do, but my first reaction was to wonder whether the emphasis on publication record accurately represented the priorities and concerns of those whose output was addressed - is that why we sought and took these jobs, and is that how we measure our own personal success?

My second reaction was to note that while I have seen many similar studies over the years for different kinds of departments, I couldn't recall that last time I had seen or heard of a study of university administrations in terms of their success in creating the social and educational climate, or in generating the scholarly and academic resources, or in creating the facilities and structures, that allows that productivity to occur. Somehow there is always more access and accountability at the top of the hierarchy (and, of course, it is typically perceived as a hierarchy), and less below.

As far as Foucault and his integrated concept of power-knowledge is concerned, therefore, it led me to reconsider what exactly it is that we refer to when we refer to knowledge in this context. And that in turn led me to suggest that it would be useful to differentiate between the knowledge we have about someone in terms of their performance at a job, and the accountability that goes with it, and those broader issues that we often summarize with such terms as "world view" or "priorities and understandings", and maybe even such grandiose phrases as "the meaning of life".

                               "Management"           Those "Down Below"    

Processes; Productivity                                        X            
and Efficiency                                                              

General Perspective and                                                     
Priorities; World View               X                                      

I haven't collected the data that would verify this -- perhaps this is something in which some of the students here at Laval might be interested in pursuing as a project -- but my suspicion is that if we did a frequency count of the number of studies in the discipline of Business Administration which had been published for each cell of the preceding table, the highest numbers would appear in the cells marked with an "X". We know much about the workers and what they produce -- whether it is in terms of the number of articles they write or the number of nails they can hammer, but we know astonishingly little about their "bigger picture", and of how their involvement in work provides (or does not provide) their life with meaning. In contrast, when we look at management, it is interesting that we often know very much about their "big picture" -- we are exposed to it every day in the Globe and Mail and the Financial Post and Wall Street Week, for example, as well as in Le Soleil and the Vancouver Sun -- and their view of the world. But we know comparatively little about what happens in the board room, and how decisions are made, and priorities weighed.

My first request to you is thus that you consider how to redress that imbalance, to try and fill those empty cells. Much more needs to be known about "business" than we know now. And I say this knowing how difficult it can be to get in the boardroom. But fortunately, the front lines are easier to access, and there are many stories. It is people like you who can give a voice to that other side, to those who are known only by the amount of work they produce, but not as individuals with stories, and priorities, and dreams, and ideas. Foucault and others remind us that research in itself both assesses and creates the existing order. We negotiate about our present, which yields implications for our future, but, unfortunately, not all sides have equal access to the negotiating table. It is people like you who have the power to empower; it is people like you who can provide people with a voice.

La tâche des chercheurs dans les organizations, alors, est de se demander qui peut s'asseoir à la table, parce que ce sont seulement ceux qui sont à la table qui peuvent se faire entendre.

I should also note that things have in all likelihood changed in some small degree over the last decade, and that there is also considerable variation among Faculties of Administration. The more I hear about the Facultés des Sciences de l'Administration here at Laval, and the more I read of the work being done by the Faculty and students, the more impressed I am by the extent to which you people have shown your sensitivity to these issues.

In particular, I would note such efforts as Bernard Garnier's early research which focussed on the senior administrative level in a university; d'Amboise and Kongolo's (1992) arguments in support of grounded theoretical approaches in the administrative sciences; Peiser and Begin's (1992) efforts to place their analysis of the Quebec Health Ministry into historical context, and to underline the influence of the Ministry, the physicians, and the public in the formulation of its future; and Seror's (1990) wonderful comparative case studies of two upper-level administrators -- one in a university, the other in government -- in a before/after observational analysis of the impacts associated with the introduction of a computerized communication network. The fact that this work focusses on those empty cells in the matrix I drew for you can coexist with the other side of the equation -- more quantitatively-oriented, macro-economic, and big-industry research -- says splendid things about the uniqueness, diversity, and strength of your programme.

Perhaps people in this province are more sensitive to these issues than I have seen elsewhere because, as francophones, you have all had the experience of being the underdog, and have also enjoyed the richness of experience which has come from gaining a voice in your destiny, and in becoming mâitre chez vous. All of humanity deserves no less; part of our role as researchers and academics is to help that happen, and to start by avoiding academic imperialism in our own house.

The issues I have told you about so far are issues that I have given some thought to, but let me also leave you with something that I have just begun to consider, and would be anxious to hear your reactions to, since it also concerns the role of the researcher.

As I suppose you can tell, I have a great aversion to imperialism in all its forms, whether academic or otherwise, and I see the proper response to imperialism as one of subversion. A particular area where this imperialism in organizations is most evident is in the area of data archives. The aura of "objectivity" these entities have gives them considerable power, and the interesting element for me is that nowhere are contemporary understandings, and contemporary distributions of power, more evident than in data archives which organizations accumulate and often publish for our consumption. How many times have you seen the disclaimer in an article to the effect that, "Well, these data have problems, but the data we wanted weren't available, so we used these instead."? I would like to suggest that there are at least two possible strategies that you might consider with respect to these archives.

The first is the effort to go through the effort of de-constructing statistical archives, i.e., to take the existence of given archives as a statement of what the organization sees as important, how it categorizes, and how it rationalizes its existence. Behaviour is a self-report, and the choice of what to count and how to count it is a statement of what an organization believes it stands for. It is a statement that deserves scrutiny, not only for what is in it, but also or what is not.

The second strategy I would suggest is to consider what is important to you, and to use the research opportunities that you have in the organizations you deal with, to provide information about those concerns, and, if you have enough influence, to perhaps have your concerns made a part of the permanent collection apparatus. Longitudinal data series are very powerful tools because they can show whether progress has been made, or that it has not, that equity is being achieved, or that it is not, and whether justice is becoming a part of the organization, or that it is not. Consider that your efforts are all part of the process of constructing organizations, and that you have it within your power to plant the seeds of constructive change, to plant your dreams so that your vision of justice might take root and bloom. Vous connaissez, ce sont les rêves d'aujourd'hui qui seront à la base des réalités de demain.

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