Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

A Personal Reflection

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

A Personal Reflection

Article excerpt


[To be announced]

My text contains more questions than answers, and the answers are only speculative. My first question is: 'Whose turn to practice took place in 2001?' The text contains a short review of various meanings of the term in different disciplines. From there I move to the second question, which I find especially relevant for my discipline: management and organization studies. 'Is 'reflective practitioner' an oxymoron?' I set Niklas Luhmann against Donald Schön in my search for an answer. The third question is: 'How can bridges between practitioners and theoreticians of management be (re)built?'

My first encounter with 'practice'

In the early 1970s, economists from Warsaw School of Economics active within the research program 'Functioning, organization and further development of Polish retail' (Beksiak 1978), established contacts with management scholars at the University of Gothenburg. (As usual, these contacts grew from personal connections and interests, which are of no relevance here.) It was partly this encounter that led the project director, Professor Janusz Beksiak, to the conclusion that economic models, this peculiar kind of science fiction, provide no information about the way economic decisions are made in practice. The Swedish colleagues were interested in these specific matters, and in order to continue contacts and exchanges, similar studies had to be made. Alien to fieldwork techniques, Professor Beksiak employed me, a psychologist trained in such approaches, as a methodological consultant (Beksiak and Czarniawska 1977). The results differed dramatically from the predictions of the theoretical models of (socialist) economies; the latter, surprisingly enough, were quite consistent with what was practiced in large US corporations (Czarniawska 1985). For me, the future direction became obvious: Since that first Polish project, I studied managerial practices in the USA, Italy, and Sweden.

Imagine my surprise in 2001 when I encountered a volume edited by Theodore Schatzki et al., entitled The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory; it summarized contributions to the 1996 conference 'Practices and Social Order' at the University of Bielefeld. As far as I could see, most of management and organization researchers (with the few exceptions of few scholars who still believed in the design of perfect structures) studied organizing and management in practice. So what was the turn all about?

Whose practice? Which theory?

I could see at least three explanations for this surprising 'turn.' The first was linguistic. In Polish, as in Swedish, the term 'practice' is used either as the opposite of 'theory' or as a way of indicating activities of professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. The word 'practices' in plural is a synonym in Polish for various acts of cheating, and in Swedish, depending on the accent, it means 'practitioners.' Thus both Swedes and Poles often used the Latin-German 'praxis' to describe what we studied. (Observe that in English common usages of the plural are quite similar.) Thus 'the turn to practice' could be a linguistic turn in Anglo-Saxon social sciences, where the term would be now used as the equivalent of the German 'praxis' (notice that the conference took place in Bielefeld, and one of the organizers and book editors was Karin Knorr Cetina).1

Another reason for announcing the turn could have been related to the fact that the conference participants were sociologists who, like economists, are fonder of theory than of practice. The contribution of a philosopher gave weight and legitimacy to the interest in practice, and French participants in particular had no difficulty in finding predecessors in the pragmatist French thought-from Bourdieu through Callon and Latour to Boltanski and Thévenot. Thus for the French scholars 'the practice turn' was at least two decades old, but in 1996/2001 it finally reached Anglo-Saxon waters.

The third reason could be that most social sciences and writers in most languages have long used the term 'practice' and 'practices,' but with many different meanings, contributing to obfuscation rather than enlightenment. …

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