Monday, 24 August 2009
Epistemology in pursuit of meaning
The Management of Meaning in Organizations (Magala, 2009) is a book that attempts to be quite a few things at a same time: It is a discussion of the possibility of constructing a viable epistemology for our contemporary society (tracing its history as well as its possible future[s]), an examination of a role of the university and public intellectuals in the contemporary world, an exploration of the rise of the hegemony of bureaucracy and some predictions about its possible downfall, as well as a sketch of the development of the critical strand of organization studies (stressing particularly the author's role in its conception and development). Incidentally, the topic of 'organizations' (as advertised in the title) denotes mostly a methodological meso-level approach to social phenomena rather than a focus on organizations as entities significant for the author's argument--this is an approach quite close to my own, and I'm always happy to see this interpretation of organization studies.
In general, it seems that Magala is most successful in tackling the second theme (university and the public intellectual), but my interest in the book centres around the first topic (sensemaking and methodology) and thus my following remarks, i.e. comments brought about by my reading the book, will not focus on the book's biggest strengths.
Upon embarking with great enthusiasm on investigating the phrase "management of meaning" (a journey which itself appears somewhat disingenious, with the author inventing the phrase beforehand), Magala suddenly adopts the notion of a "market of meaning" (p.39, p. 199) without pausing to consider the reasons for or effects of treating creation, dissemination, and changes of meaning as resembling (or even embodying) a market. Such a move stands out all the more for Magala's dedication to uncovering epistemological roots of meaning (Meaning, perhaps), but it would stretch imagination to envision any complex text eschewing premade metaphors and concepts altogether. This raises a question of whether the pursuit of clear definitions (or current negotiated interpretations, as Magala's more nuanced epistemological description would have it) is such a worthwhile pursuit, and whether we could avoid it while still preserving enough comprehensibility to make writing, reading, and publishing worthwhile.
Magala is well aware of the impossibility of stepping outside one's social and conceptual networks, and the necessary messiness of any "management of meaning." At the same times, he does not shy away from discussing grand patterns of sensemaking, their adoption and dismissal. The results are somewhat strange as when Kuhn's notions of paradigm change and incommensurability (Feyerabend also called dibs on that concept, but most people, Magala included, tend to link it with Kuhnian views) are shown as having grown popular due to the needs of the participants in the political/ideological struggles of the 1950s to 1980s (chapters 1 and 2, linked to the theme of the "past tense of meaning") , and later on the same notions are used as a perfectly valid explanatory framework for the contemporary world ("increasing dangers of incommensurability... as paradigms change and clash" [p. 94]). The issue of the possibility of internal critique of grand narratives is a fascinating stance, but I am unable to find any, even tentative, answers in Magala's book, which retorts rather to quickly switching between the insider and outsider perspectives depending on the particular (sub-)topic under discussion. Moreover, for an author discussing the social embedding of sensemaking processes, Magala shows surprisingly little of the sources of his examples ('cases') -- do they come from the author's (informed) recollection of events, memories of participants, or available records? That's hard to say, which is a problem as Magala's judgements tend to be authoritative even when not in sync with many other available descriptions of the same story (e.g. the very same Wikipedia which serves as the source for the only quote in Magala's reporting of the scandal surrounding the disposal of Shell's Brent Spar oil platform has a very different description of Cohn-Bendit's paedophilia controversy than the one offered by Magala).
In the same vein, while the author dilligently traces the historico-philosophical roots of the three different modes of sensemaking (religious, rational-scientific, and postmodern) he proposes, the social entities used to explain encountered social processes ("the media," "the liberal left," "the mainstream managerial sciences") are treated as empirical facts rather than as results of Magala's sensemaking reduction of the complex social landscape into discrete social actors.
Widespread lauding of creativity appears first as a symptom of the de-sociologized and over-psychologized view of the social landscape (p. 105), and yet, in the concluding chapter, Magala surmises that in the proposed, somewhat utopian future society "[c]reativity should be omnipresent through designed artifacts filling social spaces and providing cultural contents for the multimedia" (p. 218).
All in all, it's an epistemological mess, and not just because the author believes epistemology is both social and thoroughly messy (and a final aside: I wonder why Magala chose to discuss Fuller's  Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times rather than seemingly much more relevant  Social Epistemology? Perhaps the latter's style bored him as much as it did me).
Fuller, Steve (1988) Social Epistemology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fuller, Steve (2000) Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Magala, Sławomir (2009) The Management of Meaning in Organizations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.