Toward a Narrative Ethics for Modern and Postmodern Organization Science

David M. Boje

May 1, 2000 - Soundly Rejected Twice by Organization Science. See Call for Papers on Pomophobia

Born on: May 1, 2000



My purpose is to articulate a narrative ethics suitable to one's own work and the work of others. I will propose a narrative ethics that may bridge the polemics between writers of modern and postmodern organization science. The essay is in five parts. First, a review of what is postmodern and narrative ethics. Second, JoHari window is proposed to look at the overlap and blind spots of modern and postmodern approaches. Third, is a call to move beyond the polemics of modern and postmodern organization science writing. Fourth, to aid narrative ethics theorizing I propose a theory of narrative collective memory and eight ground rules of reliability and validity. Fifth, a number of implications for OS applications and teaching are explored. My contribution is to see commonalties and areas where we both modern and postmodern are blinded by problematic narrative styles and assumptions. The result can be a win/win complementarity.



Organizational Science recently published a series of articles for and against modernism and postmodernism/poststructuralism (Martin, 1990; Van Maanen, 1995; Weiss, 1999; Deetz, 1999). My goal is to deny the polemic choice between modern and postmodern organization science in favor an inquiry of narrative ethics. In response to,

If postmodern, then NOT modern;

If modern, then NOT postmodern.

I reply, why NOT postmodern organization sciences (POSís) and modern organization sciences (MOS's)?

This essay is structured in five sections. First, brief review of ethics in modern and postmodern writing. Second, a modified JoHari window (named after Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham) is presented to point out the advantages of looking to the blind spots of MOS and POS  (Luft, 1969, 1970). Third, I expand the call to move beyond the polemics of MOS versus POS (and vice versa) theorizing. Fourth, the implications of a NE for theorizing OS are explored. Fifth, implications for writing and reading applied OS texts with accountability for narrative ethics are explored.


The purpose and contribution of this article is to initiate a theory of narrative ethics that can be applied to one's own work and to the work of others. I see narrative ethics as a method of inquiry suitable for both MOS and POS and as a way to get beyond to polemics so that interdisciplinary work can continue. Finally, promoting the interdisciplinary theory of narrative ethics in OS method, theorizing and pedagogy is a contribution to OS.

I. What is Ethics and Narrative Ethics in Modern and Postmodern Writing?

Modern and postmodern writers approach ethics differently. To explore this assertion, I will briefly review modern and postmodern treatments of ethics before looking at narrative ethics. For modernist writers there are obdurate universal ethics that do not vary by time and place. And for the pro-modernist, the postmodernist encourages a life of lies and extreme relativism in which one can "say and do anything." Postmodern ethics writers such as Bauman (1989; 1993), however question the ubiquitousness of universal ethics. A brief review of his work will set up a middle ground in what appears to be incommensurability and answer the following quest: Can postmodernists claiming the simultaneity of multiple positions and the illusion of universal standard, advocate ethical positions? I will focus on the issue of relativism since it continues to be an obstacle for cooperative science. I will first present the postmodern side, and then the modernist challenges.

No Universalism and Postmodern Ethics - For Bauman (1993: 10) and many other postmodernists universal ethics is an oxymoron. Given a multiplicity of organizations and cultures, not to mention management styles, there is not a consensus on the universality of ethical codes. And to posit a universal rationality of ethics is either illusion or a masked attempt to use force to make people behave as if there were one. But, disbelief in universal ethics does not stop Bauman (1993: 27) from positing a postmodern ethics or "postmodern ethical perspective." While Bauman does not indicate any easy definition of postmodern ethics, he does assert a postmodern ethics of self-examination and self-sacrifice while leaving open the option that actions that may be right in one context or culture are wrong in another. And that one can question the univeralization of ethics without abandoning the search for moral choice making and the need to synchronize one's ethical conduct with others. A postmodern ethics inquires into differences in rationalities between family or religious contexts and the pragmatic rationalities of business contexts. For example, the business of business is profit and efficiency while the rationality of family and religion is sharing and caring. In this sense, "modern societies" says Bauman (1993: 14) practice "moral parochialism under the mask of promoting universal ethics." At best, from this postmodern view, modernism aspires to pretensions that it does not realize.

But saying that modernity does not achieve its own universality does not, for me, mean that postmodernism is relativistic, or that any story can be told. I oppose the relativist interpretation of postmodern and narrative ethics. We can question universalism without falling into the abyss of relativism or nihilism (common charges against postmodernism).

A postmodern ethics is an inquiry into accountability that is not obviated by questioning universality, it is as Bauman (1993: 248) points out does not mean the "loss of ability to be moral." One way out of the polemics of modern and postmodern philosophy is to look more specifically at narrative ethics.

Postmodernist Extreme Relativism - Some modernists accuse all postmodernists (and poststructuralists) of extreme relativism and (having too much or too little) political advocacy. Derrida (1976, 1978, 1985, 1989), for example, is often criticized for "relativism." There are some critics, for example, who contend that must only be one truth and that admitting that there is not an absolute universal truth means all truths are equal or relative and social action is blocked (See Sassower, 1995; Gross & Levitt, 1994; Ellis, 1989; Norris, 1990). Jarvis (1998: 96-97) is among many who claim for example, "the postmodernist project becomes an exercise in linguistic relativism through deconstruction, an attempt to tear apart and negate modernity and demonstrate the centrality of language in the construction of knowledge and truth." As Derrida (1999: 78) responds "I am shocked by the debate around this question of relativism."

What is relativism? Are you a relativist simply because you say, for instance, that the other is the other, and that every other is other than the other? If I want to pay attention to the singularity of the other, the singularity of the situation, the singularity of language, is that relativism? Ö No, relativism is a doctrine which has its own history in which there are only points of view with no absolute necessity, or no references to absolutes. That is the opposite to what I have to say. Ö I have never said such a thing. Neither have I ever used the word relativism.

It is not that "one can say anything" that matters it is that there are socially situated limits and "what one can assert." There is a juridical and political limit on extreme relativity. The charge of relativism begs the question: can there be an ethic in postmodernism and poststructuralism. Bauman (1993) asserts there is a postmodern ethics. As Derrida (1999: 79) puts it "I take into account differences, but I am no relativist." Bauman (1993: 12) also reacts to the charge that postmodernists are extreme relativists by pointing out that his statement "morality is not universalizable" does not "endorse moral relativism." Embracing the legitimacy of multiple interpretations of reality, is also not the same thing as moral or extreme relativism.

On the other side of the debate is the charge that Derrida as well as Foucault have claimed widely different political positions in their various writngs. Foucault was more politically to the left in his critiques of the prison and the clinic, but more universalistic in his latter writing. Many modernist are skeptical of postmodernism, for it so-called arbitrary value positions and for not taking more consistent and even more definite political stands. A well know issue among radical feminists (Epstein, 1999; Mantilla, 1999), for example, is the challenge that deconstruction deconstructs everything, including universalist claims, that are necessary for feminist critique. Entrenched positions will not be moved on this point.

The second aspect of the extreme relativism is that postmodernists do not do science since they dismiss science as just another grand narrative. Smith (1994), for example, notes that "the postmodern stance is one of radical relativism, rejecting the claims of science as a privileged ideal, rejecting the conception of truth as an approachable ideal" (p. 408). Radical postmodernists, such as Lyotard (1984), refusal of all grand narratives, such as the inevitable progress of science, tempted Sokal's (1996) hoax, one more salvo in the "science wars." Less radical postmodern writers (Best & Kellner, 1997) point out the still pervasive influence of grand narratives. In organization science such grand narration includes stories and plot structures of the rise and fall of capitalism (i.e. McDonaldization), Marxism (critical theory), evolution (population ecology), and scientific progress (Taylorism, TQM, and reengineering) that command strategic import. If there is a postmodern condition, the pervasiveness of McDonalization and Las Vegatization makes the demise of all grand narrative suspect among more moderate postmodern writers.

A third aspect of the extreme relativism debate is that by being against objectification, postmodernism is against statistics? I think this is a duality we can do without. Kilduff and Mehra (1997) did an exceptional essay on the ways in which MOS engage in prototypical postmodern analysis. Further, the claim is a straw man since there are examples of postmodern statistics. One is Gephartís (1988) "Ethnostatistics" is an interdisciplinary exploration of the relation of qualitative and quantitative. Gephart's work looks at how statistics get constructed, how statistical tests are applied in subjective ways, and the ways in which MOS tests use rhetoric to interpret and sell their statistical arguments. A second example is Luker, Luker Jr., Cobb, and Brown (1998: 449), who advocate statistical measurement and evaluation informed by the link between postmodernism (as a general way of thinking about the world) and institutionalist economics, which is practically suited to an intervention-oriented empirical economics." As postmodern philosophers, Best and Kellner (1997: 223) summarize "most postmodern science continues to be oriented toward quantitative knowledge, experiment, prediction, and control."

Finally, in polemic writing postmodernists are scripted as relativists who do not subscribe to "real" and therefore can not do "science." For example Mantilla (1999: 11) "One of the core insights of postmodernism is that everything is socially constructed-gender, race, class, personal attributes, etc." Writers such as Gergen (1985, 1994) define postmodern as synonymous with social construction of reality, that: (a) there are no absolute truths and (b) the knowledge and beliefs that individuals have come to think of as representing "truths" about life are in actuality intellectual and cultural constructions of the world. "After their supposedly new insight that nearly everything is socially constructed, they do not advocate much for transformation at the social level, ie. for changes in institutions, social norms, social structures such as the family, etc" (Mantilla, 1999: 7). Postmodernists and poststructuralist are also accused of substituting a concern for aesthetics and language games for social change (Epstein, 1999). However, studying how knowledge or reality gets socially constructed does not mean that postmodernist reject all science claims or social action. There are physicists, biologists, and ecologists who claim to do "postmodern science."

Postmodernists do erect their own polemics, for example, asserting that all modernists advocate logical positivism, universalism, and hide in the false consciousness of value neutrality (Boje & Dennehy, 1993). But, just as there are differences in postmodern positions, there are many different modernisms, such as the systemic modernism of Taylorism and the modernism of critical theorists that rejects the social engineering and reengineering of systemic modernism (See Boje, 1995 for a review). Eager to dismantle the intellectual hegemony that modernists science, philosophy and sociology theories have enjoyed, some postmodern polemic positions ignore how critical theory and other modernism have been skeptical of logical positivism, universalism, and value neutrality. In addition, I refer readers to already available reviews which point out ways in which modern and postmodern science can share a middle ground (Alvesson and Deetz, 1996; Kilduff & Mehra, 1997; Mumby, 1998). But, what then is a postmodern science?

The term, postmodern science, can be found in the hard sciences, beginning in the early 1960s with Matson (1964) and continues in the 1970s with Ferre (1976) and the 11980s with Toulmin (1982a, b), Prigogine and Stengers (1984), and Gfiffith (1988a, b), and in the 1990s, with Sheldrake (1990), Oelschlaeger (1991), and Sassower (1995). The interested reader is referred to Best and Kellner (1997) who provide an extensive review of the interdisciplinary development of postmodern science, including POS. Many of the developments in POS are centered around chaos and complexity theory (Bergquist, 1993; Cilliers, 1998; Letiche, 1999) and Bioethics (Best & Kellner, 1997). The postmodern contribution to such a theory is a look at the role of the self, otherwise as Hardy (1998) and Letiche (2000) argue, it is just another form of rationalist reductionism. Cilliers (1998) also brings out the possible ethical opportunities in an interdisciplinary approach to chaos science mixed with the postmodernism of Lyotard and Derrida. At issue is the networking of local discourse communities that hold in check and deconstruct the ability of someone to "say anything" and get away with it.

In the main, a postmodern science is transdisciplinary. While many challenges to postmodern theory have focused on its roots in architecture and humanities, less acknowledged is the interdisciplinary marriage of postmodern to so-called "hard" science approaches. Bohm (1988: 67-68) and Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 312) for example apply postmodern ethics to scientific attitude in order not to separate value and fact. The new postmodern science would recombine science and ethics. There is also a good deal of work in postmodern science that would turn away from "mechanistic, reductionist, naÔve realist, and deterministic" approaches of modern science by looking at entropy, chaos, complexity, and self-organization (Best & Kellner, 1997: 195). Boje, Gephart, and Thatchenkery (1996) are among many postmodernists to call for a postmodern approach to organization ecology. If ecology and science are coming together in allied fields such as law, marketing, and accounting, why not in OS as well? A POS is above all else a look at the spectacle of the political economy, at ways in which scientism is a tool of over-production and over-consumption. As such, in studies of ecology and the spectacle and hyper-real of political economy, few postmodernist doubt a real world (Baudrillard, as perhaps the radical exception), what is questioned is the science concepts, theories and paradigms, and methods that make sense of it (Best & Kellner, 1997: 236).

In sum, my contention is that POSís and MOSís are legitimate sciences with overlapping guidelines of what constitutes ethical argumentation, which I term "narrative ethics." And that they have certain interdisciplinary possibilities (See Best, 1996; Mills & Simmons, 1995). Beyond polemics, and refuting assertion with counter-assertion, does narrative ethics offer any unique middle ground?

Finding Middle Ground - One pioneering work in narrative ethics is Newton (1995). Like Bauman, Newton argues that we have a responsibility for what we narrate particularly the narration of "Other," and how to respond to narration. There are moral skills and a moral vigilance in narrative ethics. Newton (1995: 39) is not a postmodernist and does not accept all versions of deconstruction (particularly de Man). Newton refuses to accept what he sees as de Man's dualizing of life and narrative ethics. Nor does he let modernity off the hook, as it claims story is too subjective to merit reply. Newton posits a responsibility and accountability to storytelling and story hearing for both modern and postmodern philosophy. As such his rendition of narrative ethics can help organization science to strike a middle ground between MOS and POS.

What is narrative ethics? Narrative ethics is a force of representing others and our need to be not tell all (Newton, 1999: 290-291). Narrative ethics is in an inquiry into how we transform others and historical memory into fiction. Newton stitches together the poles of a duality, the dichotomy of the telling versus the hearing of stories. His approach to narrative ethics asserts that we are responsible for what we write and for how we react to what we read. "The ethics of reading is to think the infinity, the transcendent, the Stranger" (Newton, 1995: 292). Bauman (1993) also is concerned with how the stranger is represented or narrated. But Newton, more than Bauman argues that to hear a story is to bear "some responsibility for believing oneself addressed and thus answerable - to the text itself, or to one's reading of it" (Newton, 1995: 45).

Are we answerable for our reading of others' narratives? Do we have answerability to narrative? Newton builds upon Bakhtin and others to assert that we can not escape the story's call for our ethical answer. Bauman might well add that even without a universality of ethics, we must still respond. In sum, "Ö a narrative is ethics in the sense of the mediating and authorial role each takes up towards another's story" (Newton, 1995: 48).

II. A Modified JoHari Window

Both MOS and POS have blind spots when it comes to narrative ethics. This limit is revealed most readily in the polemics that either position takes with regard to the "Other." The purpose of a JoHari Window is to learn more about what is not being seen, and to communicate without raising defenses and inviting reactive polemics. In this way, we can build upon what both see, learn to listen to and be "answerable" to the critiques of one on the other, and most important see what neither is able to see.

Both See. Both MOSís and POSís have modern science at their base. As stated above, empirical Marxism and Critical Theory as well as postmodern science advocate quantitative analysis and statistical comparison. And critical theory strands of modernism are opposed to both the iron cage of bureaucratic control and the over determination of work processes exhibited in Taylorism and social (re) engineering. For POS's Best and Kellner (1997) have argued convincingly that there are radical positions (e.g. Lyotard's dismissal of all grand narratives or Baudrillard's hyper-simulacra) as well as more moderate positions, such as narratives of ecology and chaos that do not assume away "reality." Rosenau (1992) distinction between extreme skeptical and extreme affirmative positions is by now quite well known. Skeptics critique affirmatives for confusing postmodern conditions (i.e. hyper-real, crisis of representation, and the material conditions of labor and over-consumption) with late modern situations such as flexible production, flat-structures, post-industrialism, and post-Fordism. Both MOSís and POSís see that changes in the hard sciences, such as complexity and chaos theory are changing assumptions about (time and space) reality and the nature of organization studies.

There are also overlapping positions between MOS and POS that relate to narrative ethics. Gephartís (1988) ĎEthnostatistics," for example, looks at the quantification of qualitative, and the qualitative aspects of quantification, accenting common ground and non-duality, but also at the role of narrative in statistics work. There are subjective moves made in how measures are operationalized, what statistical tests get applied, and the narrative moves of statistical interpretation. Besides Gephart's (1988) reverse gaze of these ethnomethod and narrative aspects of modern organization science, there is a more direct response to the question of can postmodernists do statistics?

Postmodern can include quantitative analysis. Best and Kellnerís (1997: 223) review of the postmodern turn in hard science present the work of scientists who assert that postmodern science "continues to be oriented toward quantitative knowledge, experiment, prediction, and control." POSís are based in postmodern science, not merely in Humanities and architecture. In sum, both use rhetorics, interpretation, use qualitative cases, and can both use quantitative knowledge.

POSís Blind Spot. MOSís see the blind spots to POSís and can point them out, and vice versa. Can POSís take feedback and criticism without deconstructing it? This is a question that speaks directly to narrative ethics. In the narrative of modern critique, is a call to answer. The contribution I find in attention to POSís blind spots is, to me, our excessive rebel language, our obfuscation, our sometimes, but not always extreme relativism. There are three other viewpoints in JoHari that are not just relativism. The call is directed toward taking action in the material world and to be responsible for what we reviewed earlier as relativistic stances. The postmodernist can deconstruct the modernist narrative with ease, but can they think positive? As Lefebure and Letiche (1999: 9-10) put it " We know about the modernist and 'positive' way of doing things and also about the postmodern way of deconstructing them. But we do not know much about how to think the positive and deconstructive at once." Beyond the denial of relativism, there is a need to dialogue about ways in which the critique of universalism as an unrealized fiction is not the same as abandoning narrative ethics. Findings reported in MOS are mediated by the characterization and emplotment of values and advocacy to gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc. in ways that alienate as well as narratively-stereotype the "Other." Only the most radical postmodernists, such as Lyotard (1984) say that there are no grand narratives. While there are locally constructed "realities" there are also grand narratives, "real" trees and forests and some worldviews such as McDonaldization (Ritzer, 1993) and globalization are definitely more powerful and hegemonic narratives than others. With deconstruction comes the narrative responsibility to offer a reconstruction, especially when criticizing othersí positions. I know in working with philosopher Steven Best, that putting your action where your narrative is, can mean taking a more vocal role in animal rights, Bioethics, and the critique of corporate greed that are shrouded in narratives of science and progress and free market capitalism. The blind spot for POS narratives is to assume that all capitalism and all progress and all technology is evil. Scientism and technocracy as well as predatory capitalism can be informed by a narrative ethics appeal, but not when the dialogue is too shrill to be heard.

MOSís Blind Spot. POSís can see blind spots in the narratives of MOSís. My entries here are adapted from Guba and Lincoln (1994: 106-107) and are explained in Section IV below. There are Internal (intra-paradigm) critiques about situating analysis as well as narrating in context, attending to etic (insider) categories, etc. In terms of narrative ethics there are differences in how people narrate their (etic) experience of bureaucracy, chaos, and self-directed teams and how these experiences become theorized in MOS (etic) narratives. People tell their own emic stories, about their experience of modern organization. In medical narrative ethics work, there is concern with how the expert doctor narrates the story of patient illness in ways that depricate the life narrative of the person (Tovey, 1998). The physician narrates about the progress and retardation of the illness, but this is a small fraction of the person's life story. In terms for narrative ethics, the physician is being taught by the narrativsts to listen to be accountable to hear the person's narrative. Frank (1995: 77) looks for example of how a "restitution narrative dominates the stories" the chronically ill (i.e. health as the normalcy condition to be restored). The restitution narrative gives one courage to face surgery, but at different phases of illness, different stories may need to be called forth. Illness may need to be narrated differently. In the bureaucratic (restitution) narrative patients learn how to tell the story of their imminent repair through brochures, hospital commercials, TV shows, and their medical interviews. As such restitution becomes a master narrative (Frank, 1995: 80). "Modernity seeks to turn mysteries into puzzles, which is both its heroism and its limit" as romantic narrative (Frank, 1995: 81).

One can argue that there is a "sick role" for institutions, that in a functionalist society, the bureaucracy consultants repair in restitution narrative plots and characterizations. What is reengineering if not a fix-the-body-machine romantic plot? Compliance with the consultant's perscription is fundamental to the social reengineering. "The sick role is a modernist narrative of social control" (Frank, 1995: 82). The postmodern side of the story is that the narrative force of the bureaucratic narrative, the bureaucracy in eternal repair of its illness, is one in which the emic experience of the individual counts. What is the experience not only of modern organization, but of its repairs? Can we deconstruct the narrative of the repairable organizational body metaphor? This would be a contribution to the blind side of modernist organization.

There are also external (extra-paradigm) critiques of MOSís by POSís about overcoming dualities between theory/practice, theory/fact, value/fact etc (explained below). And these dualities are sustained in the narratives of MOS in journals as well as in textbooks. Deconstruction is a good example of a concept that is widely confused by polemic interpretation. Deconstruction is not a method, but is something that happens whether we analyze it or not. Deconstruction happens, the plots and characterizations are unraveling. Modernism then has an important blind spot, engaging in deconstruction practices, of its own. For example, many OS articles provide alternative reading of their results, give a genealogy of how particular concepts have changed meaning, use bits of fiction and case example to make a point, and use other forms of rhetoric to persuade. Increasingly OS articles engage in postmodern acts of self-reflection that are also considered as styles of writing. In addition, widely accepted constructs such as entropy view structures and processes as unraveling in ways that are not divorced from Derrida's use of deconstruction. In short, as Alvesson and Deetz (1996) and Kilduff and Mehra (1997) assert, the claim of a complete separation of modern and postmodern is hard to sustain. A postmodern reading can provide an alternative narrative reading and extend an narrative ethics inquiry by hearing the voices at the bottom, those being fixed.

Both Blind. The polemics of continuing the Science Wars (Frost and Martin, 1996; Best & Kellner, 1997) is damaging to both sciences. If we can declare peace, we both know the advantages of win/win collaborations. It will require less polemic narratives and an accountability to hear and respond to others' narratives, in short narrative ethics. It will also require answerability to what I narrate here and to what we narrate as theory to reform practice. We have seen the advantage of complementarity in triangulation studies. There is commensurability the polemics make it all seem incommensurate. But, beyond triangulation there is another value in interdisciplinary work, to see aspects both are blind to.

We (POS and MOS) are blind to our shared fate in organization studies, given the changes to hard science as well as global capitalism we both see. From a narrative theory perspective, people need help to narrate their experiences of postmodern fragmentation (Bauman, 1995) and the chaotic albeit emergent order. In the chaos as well as the postmodern narrative, there is a lack of coherent sequence that modern organization knew in the modern transition to romantic progress through technology and its displacement of the feudal and charismatic bases of authority (Weber's terms). We knew how to tell a proper story, but "chaos negates that expectation" as does postmodern fragmentation (Frank, 1995: 97). Just "telling chaos stories represents the triumph of all that modernity seeks to surpass" (Frank, 1995: 97).

The contribution of narrative ethics, one that is both modern and postmodern, is to restore these and other nuances. Postmodernism like modernism is interdisciplinary, many-stranded, as is critical theory, poststructuralism, feminism, social construction, environmental ethics, etc. Collapsing is reduction. Each has so many variations, some even agreeing with MOS critiques of POS relativism and deconstruction, but many more extending the kinds of quantitative, objective, science he denies as our common heritage. Lumping all the variants of POS into the label "postmodern" or all the variants of MOS in "modern" overdetermines each term, and returns us to the win/lose science wars. On the surface, it restricts us to "Both See" and seeing the other's "Blind Spot" polemics, while ignoring where "Both are Blind."

Mumby (1997: 2) argues that both modernist and postmodernist posit "increasingly radical challenges to the 'representational paradigm' and its 'correspondence theory' of truth." In this case, a more interdisciplinary narrative theory can challenge out-dated polemic notions that would say that questioning representation is solely the prerogative of postmodernist. Organizations are sites of narrative construction, but also narrative deformation and narrative domination as competing memories get retold. It is time says Mumby (1997: 13) to get past the "balkanized" separatism of modernism and postmodernism and to make the connections and stop letting the differences stop the dialogue.

Narrative Ethics Methodology At a deeper level, I have listened to MOS critique, and rendered the following Guba and Lincoln (1994) challenges to positivism and logical positivism less polemic, translating them in ways so they can be more easily heard. And in ways that define narrative ethics (a field that has its own discipline and history apart from Guba and Lincoln).



The JoHari Window points to the contribution of an ethics of narrative that does not degenerate into polemics, into a look at the commonalties and the blind spots.

III. A Call to Move Beyond the Polemics of MOS versus POS and vice versa

Between POS and MOS is a space for narrative ethics, where we inquire together into the characterization of 'Other' and into the question of our answerability to the plots being storied in OS. For the postmodernist reading the other outside the situation can do violence to other by essentializing stereotypes in narrative acts. For the modernist reading other any which way is relativist and nihilistic. Yet, both MOS and POS can agree, I think, on an ethical accountability for narrating.

The reviews by Alvesson & Deetz (1996) and Kilduff and Mehra (1997), as well as Boje, Gephart and Thatchenkery (1996) all call for interdisciplinary work.

Beyond Dualization - I think that POSís need not be dualized as against MOSís. POSís are many (therefore the "ís" and are legitimate Organization Sciences (hence the capital "S"), and MOSís are also many and legitimate. I seek to avoid the polemic defense of all forms of POSís against all forms of MOSís. I freely admit I have engaged in polemics as a postmodern writer and as a critic of MOS. To engage in polemics is to miss the areas where these sciences can aid one another, establish middle ground positions, and see opportunities both are missing. I make my amends by reintroducing nuances stripped away in polemic argumentation.

We are many. While a review of all the modernisms and postmodernisms is not my intent, it can be said that postmodern is a broad spectrum of theoretical positions (for review of MOS/POS see Burrell, 1988, 1994, 1997; Cooper, 1989; Cooper & Burrell, 1988; Hassard, 1993; Hassard & Parker, 1993; Linstead, 1993; Boje, 1995; Boje, Gephart, & Thatchenkery, 1996; Alvesson & Deetz, 1996; Kilduff & Mehra, 1997; Calas & Smircich, 1999). Lemert (1997: 36-43) lists several postmoderns, "radical postmodernism" exemplified by the writings of Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord and to some extent Jean-Francois Lyotard; and "strategic postmodernism" associated with the thought of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan (see review by Lippert, 2000). There is "radical modernism" evident in the work of critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. And there are many pro or reform modernists ranging from the JŁrgen Habermas rescue of the enlightenment project from the systemic modernism of the Taylorists and other social engineers to the neo-Marxist writers. Attempts to sort out these forces of change for organizational science need to address this conceptual and paradigmatic complexity. Alvesson and Deetz (1996) summarize the variety of postmodern positions as follows:

"These philosophically based approaches to organization studies have emerged out of works of Derrida and Foucault in particular, and to a lesser degree Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and Laclau and Mouffe. Much more so than with critical theory this is a wide group of writers and positions with quite different research agendas" (p. 192). Derrida and deconstruction becomes the indexical to the entire set, which Alvesson and Deetz (1996) in footnote is still too gross a category.

See Best & Kellner (1997) for a thorough reviews of more postmodern work that evades reducing the field to a singular "Other."

What would peace look like? I contend that across this artifical MOS/POS borderline important and exciting transdisciplinary work is being done (Czarniawska, 1997; Hatch, 1996; Fletcher, 1997; OíConnor, 1997; Yuthas & Dillard, 1999). Hatch (1997), for example, differentiates between postmodern, social construction, and critical theory in a scholarly map of the field, that includes the role of Pfefferís work. Hatchís (1996) contribution is her work to draw narrative and postmodern theory into more collaboration with MOS. Yuthas and Dillard (1999) cross postmodern and stakeholder theory to look at ways of creating more effective, multi-voiced dialogue.To propose a cut away from the humanities, as some have suggested in their rage against POS, ignores significant contributions to interdisciplinary organization science.



IV. Implications for Narrative Ethics Theorizing in OS

Organizations are expressions of storytelling dynamics which narrative ethics theorizing can amplify. Abuses of narrative ethics are tooted in what Ricoeur (1999a: 8) calls the "wounds and scars" of collective memory. There are two implications I would like to explore in this section, how to produce accounts that are both modern and postmodern and how to dialogue with a less polemic style. In the section port of this section I offer eight guidelines that I think cut across the if modern, not postmodern OS divide.

Narrative Collective memory - Narrating the wounds and scars of the history of complex organizations would produce less flattering theories of institutional power, but provide perhaps more ethical historical accounts of corporate life. Narrative ethics as an act of inquiry would gauge the production of stories, characterizations of "Other," and the how voices are left in and out of OS texts. This requires a theory of narrative collective memory. "In a sense collective memory" says Ricoeur, 1999a: 8) "is a kind or storage of such violent blows, wounds, and scars." Related to narrative collective memory, Lyotard (1984) also argues that every telling of a story is a way to marginalize or forget another way of telling the story. Or as Ricoeur (1999a: 8) puts it "we can not tell a story without eliminating or dropping some important event according to the kind of plot we indent to build." In the writing of OS narrative theory, there is always, then, more to tell, and to tell otherwise, can help others express and heal their wounds and scars.

Here Bauman (1988; 1993) points out that forgiving and healing does not mean forgetting events such as the Holocaust or the genocide in the settlement of the Americas. Narrative ethics comes into play by struggling against the erection of accounts that would deny that the Holocaust ever happened or that genocide is not continuing in many parts of the world. The implication for OS is that it to is implicated in a constant struggle against the erosion of narrative collective memory. Relevant to theory, is what Ricoeur (199a: 10) terms "the erosion of traces, "the erasure of wounds and humiliation by substituting more romantic and heroic stories for otherwise tragic tales. "Do we not always select and edit memories?" (Ricoeur, 1999b: 14).

Guidelines for Narrative Ethics - To construct a narrative ethics for OS, I adapted Guba and Lincoln (1996) into a set of guidelines for narrative ethics in terms of reliability and validity. I do not view this as a list of universal codes, rather as a way to promote inquiry into narrative ethics and into the ways that OS can take narrative turns both MOS and POS might agree are unethical (but perhaps for differing reasons). What I am calling "narrative ethics" consist of four internal reliability (1 Ė4) and four external validity (5-8) analyses:

Internal Reliability and Narrative Ethics

  1. Context Stripping Test Ė How accurate is the context of the quote-segments of modern or postmodern work presented in an article? The test is to trace how context of an original work is or is not stripped away from the readerís direct consideration. For example, quotes can distort: truncate/omit pre-fixes to sentences, or substitute an alternative rendering to a paragraph of the original. Context stripping is one way to increase the abstract rigor of concepts, but can sometimes detract from the relevance of a generalization. The analysis is to compare original context with reported context for each storyline so that any imbalance can be redressed.
  2. Etic/Emic Dilemma Ė An etic category is imposed by an outsider to the field of inquiry, group or culture. Etic categories can be misapplied to craft a storyline, conclusion, or interpretation that has little or no relationship to emic (insider) categories or to insider-definitions of etic-categories. For example, the word "relevance" or "relativistic" can be applied as etic (outsider) when it has no relation to how insiderís (emic) use and/or define the word. I shall focus in particular on cases in which dualisms (bifurcation into two opposed concept extremes) are used as etic categories when such bifurcation can be questioned as a legitimate emic-usage (e.g. good-true, right-wrong, qualitative-quantitative, science-Humanities).
  3. Reliable Assemblage of Data - Generalizations may appear meaningful as a result of data (texts) amassed in ways that stack the deck. A quantity of evidence can be produced which in actuality is an incomplete picture of each individual case (e.g. leading out a review of postmodern science approaches can make it appear that there is no quantitative analysis and POSís are rooted only in Humanities). Alternatively, a POS review of MOS can make it appear that there is no qualitative analysis, self-reflection, genealogy of concepts, or textual deconstruction.
  4. Discovery Process Evaluation - Each assertion or story is a hypothesis to be tested. The discovery process analyzes the extent to which a story was an "a priori" a hypothesis before being applied to the data. A priori (deductive) hypotheses can become a way of sampling only data which fit and excluding cases that do not. I turn now to the four external tests. Since my renditions are themselves hypothetical statements of MOS stories, I include how I see MOS stories being (over)-constructed.
  5. External Validity and Narrative Ethics

  6. Theory-Laden Facts Ė An external test of "objective" analysis is the ability to independently research and to replicate the data assemblage, independent of the theory application procedures. If theory application procedures are interdependent with data assemblage, then the case for objectivity is not met. The analysis is to replicate the data assemblage producing each storyline.
  7. Induction and Deduction Problem Ė Different theories may "be equally well supported by the same set of Ďfactsí" (Guba & Lincoln, 1994: 107). There are two cases to distinguish. In deduction, a theory is crafted and facts are assembled to give the theory coherence-believability (Culler, 1981: 169-187). Or, in induction, the same facts can be explained, more or less parsimoniously or accurately, by different theories. In a deductive-story, there is a "grasping together" of elements (Ricoeur, 1984) such as characters, events, and objects into a plot line (a theory) that gives each element factual-value. Each deductive storyline can be compared with inductive stories that give different value and believability to the facts. Verifying a storyline (deduction) is different from falsifying or rejecting a story (induction), as Popper (1968) makes apparent. There is middle ground. Charles Sanders Peirce looks at "abduction" as an interactive movement between inductive and deductive. More speculative hypotheses that can not be derived from either induction or deduction are posited and tested iteratively. The process is akin to Glaser and Strauss (19??) constant comparison methods in grounded theory.
  8. The Value-ladeness of Facts Ė It can be argued that each assertion in MOS or POS is a statement of value. That, these assertions (I call them stories) are a correlative network, or aggregated macro-story, on the basis of a value framework. The question becomes how did the author get from initial disconnected assemblage (i.e. initial drafts and data) to total assemblage (i.e. the research article), through intermediary connecting points (i.e. revisions in response to reviewers)? This is what I define as an emergent "correlate story network."

  10. The Inquirer and Inquired Dyad Ė In the story network, there is an inquirer influencing the relationships among textual assertions. Two principles in the hard sciences, the Heisenberg (1958) uncertainty principle and the Bohr complementarity principle have documented a dyadic impact of the inquirer (see also Lincoln & Guba, 1994: 107) on what is observed. This is also referred to as VARA (Validity-as-reflexive-accounting). Altheide and Johnsonís (1994: 489) concept of VARA "places the researcher, the topic, and the sense-making process in interaction." VARA directs our focus to the relation between observer and observed, the point of view of the observer, the role of the audience in reading the essay, the rhetorical style of the observer, and the relation of what is observed to wider contexts (historical, cultural, and organizational).

This narrative ethics method is one kind of comparative content analysis (between claims and originals, between induction, abduction and deduction), applying each of these eight tests of narrative reliability and validity to the received-findings of MOS and POS argumentation and debate. There is, I think, local agreement on guidelines for narrative ethics, and what Lyotard (1984) and Cilliers (1998) term "agnostics of the network" to counter excesses. Derrida also argues that ethics is possible since a guideline can be "remotivated" every time we apply it, to insure that it fits the context of the analysis, and to not accept what MOS polemicists call: "anything goes." This is not acquiescence to Habermasí universal rules for speech communities that achieve dialogic consensus. What I mean to be doing in my remotivation of Guba and Lincoln (1994) in the context of each analysis and to fit, in this case, the overlap between MOSís and POSís.

V. Implications for Writing and Reading Applied OS

In this final section, I explore the implications for writing and reading applied OS texts with more explicit accountability for narrative ethics. There are crucial narrative ethics issues for the writers and readers of OS today. One as the last section explored is the need to bring together a MOS and POS that would teach both celebration and suffering in the histories of organizing and managing presented in applied OS texts. N terms of narrative ethics, the classroom implication, I think, are a more polyphonic (many-voiced) telling, some training in answerability, and in the ethics of discussion. For the modernist (e.g. Habermas) consensus is possible and desirable, but for the postmodernist, consensus in multi-sided stories is fraught with oppression (Mumby, 1997: 15). The consensus story can be unraveled and told otherwise. Between the polemics is the opportunity to engage the multi-faceted nature of managing and organizing that does not result in totalitarian consensus or the malaise of dissension. In the middle ground there is a space for inquiry into how to discourse without polemics.

There are more sides to the stories that we are reading in our OS texts. The Harvard Case study in the classic sense is a romantic tale rendered scientific by the power elite. It is the narrative script of modern strategic management. A postmodern approach combined with case narratives would bring into question various power-knowledge regimes, and perhaps lead to alternative cases and a narrative ethics to supplement our case methodology. Postmodern can contribute to modern by posing alternative case analyses, more polyphonic readings of the discourses and count-discourses of domination and resistance. While postmodern is a discourse of suspicion, it does serve to balance the discourse of the romantic conquering CEO, as well as the more masculinist paradigm of the MBA. Cases can be expanded into more genealogical investigations of how various characterization, concepts, and voices get fixed and unfixed across the history of organization. The pedagogical opportunity is to engage students and writers in more self-reflection.


The goal of this essay is not to say that postmodernism can teach modernism. It is to recognize that there many be something about Enlightenment worth salvaging, that a bit of the grand narrative is still a force, but one to be balance with the local narrative. My approach has been to posit a narrative ethics as well as some guidelines for dialogue. Most notable, I think, is the call to be accountable to the stories to tell and the ones we can hear once we listen.

Both MOS and POS have, I think a responsibility and accountability to narrative ethics, in the writing of OS theory and in the teaching of OS. Both share an interest in getting stories straight, exploring multiple sides and contexts to stories, and gauging the dynamics of how storytelling is controlled in complex organizations and the classroom. Ethically, critics of either MOSís or POSís legitimacy have "double obligation." First, not to diminish the potential of either/both sciences and second not to side step the tricky narrative ethics issues. Polemics overstate, ignore, underplay, and in the end trivialize the interplay of MOS and POS. Ethical problems are more complex than a choice of science versus postmodern. Polemics reduce all issues to two sides. I prefer to keep the nuances that open up questions to many sides, to seeing our "ands" and "betweens."

One way to read polemic critique of either modernism or postmodernism, is as nuance, an accenting of a strand of deconstruction or a strand of the modernity project, a strand that is not flattering. But, to see only the strand and not the texture of the rope is reductionism; to fashion the worst strands into a rope is a lynching. If there are many sciences, many POSís and many MOSís, then some strands are the same, some different, some are broken, others stretched, and I think more strands need to mend.

In sum, there are sound reasons for a narrative ethics for organizational science, one that continues the debate among moderns and postmoderns, but which also allows for listening and for interdisciplinary work.


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