Constructive Practice and Critical Theory: The Contribution of Action Research to Organisational Change and the Discourse on Organisations

By Pålshaugen, Øyvind | International Journal of Action Research, December 31, 2006 | Go to article overview

Constructive Practice and Critical Theory: The Contribution of Action Research to Organisational Change and the Discourse on Organisations


Pålshaugen, Øyvind, International Journal of Action Research


This article presents a new perspective on the question of how action research may contribute to improving the discourse on organisations. The three first sections deal mainly with some important features of action research, following from action research methods used in projects that comprise organisational change. On the basis of a distinction between practical discourse and theoretical discourse, the point is made that while descriptive research (like organisation theory) takes place mainly as a theoretical discourse, action research also enters the arenas of practical discourse. What kind of knowledge is required, and what kind of experience is made in practical discourses, is elaborated by one example of an action research from a Norwegian international corporation. It is argued that in order to cause practical change, the power of knowledge is dependent on the power of judgment.

On this basis, the three last sections deal with this question how knowledge and experience from action research may contribute to the improvement of organisation theory. Initially, a short historical account on the development of organisation theory is presented. It is shown that the split of the discourse on organisations, into a theoretical and practical discourse, has had some unintended and unnoticed consequences as regards the style of writing in organisation theory. This style of writing has resulted in a discourse on organisation which is rich in very general perspectives and concepts, but which nevertheless remains too poor in content. Thus, the conclusion is that for the time being, one of the most important contributions from action research to the discourse on organisations will be to make organisation theory become subject to criticism that may provoke changes in the style of writing organisation theory.

Key words: Organisation theory, practical discourse, theoretical discourse, power of judgment, style of writing

1. Introduction: On the difference between action research and descriptive research

Most kinds of social science somehow have to cope with a challenge which is conceptualized in many ways: System vs. actors, structure vs. event, structure vs. process, etc.. All these concepts, not to say dichotomies, aim at designating the static and respectively the dynamic aspects of social phenomena. The need to apply/make use of these kinds of concepts may, in a simplified way, be explained by the fact that when we write about some social phenomenon in order to understand it (i.e. in order to create a piece of scientific knowledge), it will not suffice just to 'say what happens/has happened'. Everything that happens to people, everything people do, does not simply happen or is simply done. All events take place within frames, whether these are acknowledged or not by the actors.

This is common wisdom for social scientists, but perhaps not for common people, at least not to the same extent, or in the same way. However this may be, social scientists usually consider their awareness of the social structures within which people act as being among the strengths of social science as such. Thus, the focus on structural features of social phenomena, structural explanations etc, is quite strong in many of the disciplines in the social science.

In the field of organizational studies this kind of structural bias has been noticed for a long time, and it has been criticized from a number of different angles. At the most general level, the point is made that the social structures within which humans act are themselves created by human actions. Another kind of critique, addressing the conceptual practice of social scientists, rather than the practice of people who make society, questions the kinds of theorems, dogma or phrases which say that people act within frames. How can we decide, who is to decide, or from what position to decide, what is inside and outside the frames? But there are also other kinds of frames at work, which are not always noticed by the social scientists: the theoretical framework of social science itself.

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