The Controversy Between Modernist and Postmodernist Views of Management Science: Is a Synergy Possible?



Peter Engholm

Monash University, May 2001





This paper looks at the controversy between the modernist and postmodernist paradigms in regard to management science and empirical research. A fundamental belief in modernism is that all problems can be solved rationally by the application of scientific and social theory, and thus justifies management theories that aim to explain human behaviour. Postmodernists argue that it is impossible to derive a ‘universal truth’, and therefore empirical studies do not reflect the reality within organisations. It is argued in this paper that despite the differences, it is possible to find a synergy between the two paradigms. Management science does not have to give in to postmodern assumptions, but can rather strengthen its validity by taken into account postmodern ideas and suggestions.



Modernism, Postmodernism, Management, Social Science, Paradigms, Organisations



This paper looks at two contrasting paradigms within the social sciences, the modernist and the postmodernist paradigm, and their implications for organisations and management theory. The modernist paradigm has since the Enlightenment provided organisations with scientific theories and methods, allowing managers to believe and put their trust in some 'universal truth' of how to best manage their workforce. In recent times, however, the modernist paradigm seem to have failed to live up to expectations, and alternative paradigms such as the postmodern paradigm, have developed. The postmodern paradigm is almost a complete rejection of modernist assumptions, especially the assumption that empirical methods can be applied to find a universal 'truth'. Does this mean the end of management science, and that theories about human behaviour and motivation, for example, should be scrapped? It shall be argued that despite their differences, it is possible to find a synergy between the modernist and postmodernist paradigms, and that managers can benefit from both views.


Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, managers of industrial organisations have enjoyed a relatively healthy relationship with the social sciences, benefiting from a variety of modernist assumptions that gave them methods to find the 'truths' of how to better manage their workforce and become successful. Theories of motivation, needs, authority, control, and so on, were developed through empirical research, applied, and justified in the name of progress, reason, calculability and rationality. Modernism believed in the essential capacity of humanity to perfect itself through the power of rational thought, and its main purpose was twofold: to develop a reasonably ‘true’ picture of the real world and to gain some measure of control over the course of events in that world (Burrell and Cooper, 1988; Hoksbergen, 1994). For organisations, this meant that science could provide the answers to casual relationships when the rise of the modern industrial society led to demands for better and more efficient ways of managing the workforce and the new technology. All that was needed was the application of rational thought to an empirically accessible reality (Björkegren, 1993; Beje, Gephart and Thatchenkery, 1996:2; Carter and Jackson, 1993).


The architect behind modernist thoughts was Descartes who argued that "method" is the road to knowledge and truth. He contended that whatever can be known must be proven by a rational, objective method (Hollinger, 1994). As previously mentioned, modernism is a product of the Enlightenment, although it should be noted that modernism as a cultural enterprise was split into divergent and often opposing intellectual and moral tendencies, and was thus not a unified outlook in the white Protestant bourgeoisie of early modern Europe. Nevertheless, the modern quest for 'identity' was destined to find its expression in distinct social roles and relationships within the productive structures of modern life (Dunn, 1998). It is associated with various social thinkers, among the most famous being Kant, Saint‑Simon, Comte and Weber.


Comte, perhaps the first philosopher of organisation, saw the industrial organisation as the source of human unity and progress (Dunn, 1998), but it is Weber that has received most credit for his philosophy of the 'modern organisation'. Weber's bureaucratic organisation is basic to the modernist form of the effective industrial organisation. It is characterised by a hierarchy of authority, specialisation and delimitation of work activities, rules and regulations, rational calculability of decision‑making, concentration of the means of administration and separation of the individual agent or member from the institution (Gephart, 1996). As noted earlier, a fundamental belief in modernism is that all social problems can be solved rationally by the application of scientific and social theory. Thus, the 'modern organisation' was assumed to utilise scientific methods to reach its goals, these goals assumed to be the increase in efficiency and effectiveness of production and the enhancement of growth and adaptability (Gephart, 1996), This would ensure the attainment of the modernist principle of 'progress' and benefit both the individual and society in the end.


However, the idea of the Enlightenment that progress in science, technology, art and politics would produce an enlightened and liberated humanity, freed from the degradations of poverty, ignorance, and despotism, remains not only unrealised but also increasingly questioned. The 'progress' promised and enshrined within the modernist paradigm has brought with it a series of new difficulties, such as high unemployment, wealth gaps, environmental pollution, drug problems, globalisation, poverty, and so on (Gephart, 1996; Smart, 2000). Recent protests against globalisation by groups such as the S11, as well as various restrictive and legislative actions taken against global corporations, indicate that the modernist ideals have either failed to deliver or might not even posit a correct view of reality and how to find 'truths'. Within organisations, motivation is often given as an example of where modernist ideas have failed to provide the 'truth'. Critics to the modernist paradigm also remind us that the latest most comprehensive theory of motivation, Victor Vroom's expectancy theory, was developed several decades ago and might not identify the true sources of motivation today ‑ if it ever did (Carter and Jackson, 1993).


Critics of the modernism paradigm also often point out that is was developed for a western Protestant civilisation, and did not consider the 'other' world ‑ that outside of Europe. Thus, modernist principles never aimed to be universal in the sense that they could be applied to cultures and societies that did not share the specific history of the West (Rudolph, 1996). Hence, globalisation inevitably meant the fall of true modernist principles as corporations now faced the interaction with different cultures that did not fit into the modernist paradigm with its assumptions of rationality and legitimacy.


The issues of truth and our access to it comprise one of the main controversies of postmodern thought with its critical questioning, and often outright rejection, of the ethnocentric rationalism championed by modernism (Burrell and Cooper, 1988). The implications of this 'new paradigm' for social and management theory could be huge, because most postmodernists criticise the use of empirical methods for the development of management theories purports to explain and predict human behaviour and interaction.       


The next section of this paper briefly discusses some of the issues brought up by postmodern writers in regard to management theory and control of the workforce. By no means is this a thorough investigation into the somewhat obfuscated, ambiguous and controversial subject matter, of which even dedicated postmodernist writers struggle to make sense. Rather, the discussion shall focus on some of the ideas of postmodernism that might explain the problems with modernism and how a postmodern worldview may assist managers in better understanding and managing the workforce. That is, it shall be argued that it is possible not to view modernism and postmodernism as two opposing paradigms, but rather as two views describing two ways of looking at reality that need not conflict with each other.


Postmodernism developed out of a belief that the world is not accurately described and interpreted by the modernist paradigm. It specifically criticises the modernist's rather naïve view that there is a universal truth, and that this truth can be discovered by scientific methods and applied in all situations. It criticises modern assumptions about reason and rationality, about normality and deviance and about the best ways of dealing with practical issues of life and society (Hollinger, 1994; Boje, Gephart and Thatchenkery, 1996:1).


Hollinger notes that:


Postmodernism invites us to rethink the notions of self, society, community, reason, values, and history that dominate modernity, and to do so without nostalgia or regret and without utopian aspirations for what we create under conditions of postmodernity (Hollinger, 1994: 170).


A number of social analysts have argued that the times in which we find ourselves living are significantly different, and that in the transformed circumstances we now encounter it is not enough to simply recycle 'cherished and time‑honoured conceptions' (Smart, 2000). Perhaps the justification for postmodernism can be found here, in the idea that existing modern conceptions and analyses of social life have increasingly begun to seem deficient and inappropriate, if not simply wrong. Modernist ideas might have worked for the early and mid twentieth century social and industrial society, but we now see a change of attitudes, of culture, and of people's attitudes toward work and social life that necessitates another understanding ‑ a new understanding ‑ of the world we now live in, and not the world we know from history.


This 'new' world is dominated by information, commodification, commodity culture and consumerism (Hollinger, 1994). It is a world in which social action can be seen as a 'language game' where participating actors make various 'moves' according to recognised rules or external forces. As further defined by Hassard (1993), we can only "know the world" through the particular forms of discourse our language creates. These language games are continually in flux, and can never be fully understood. The task is therefore to recognise this elusive nature of language, but never with the aim of creating a universal theory explaining all language forms. Human action is thus seen to stem from drives beyond direct human control ‑ a notion sharply in contrast with modernism ideas (Burrell and Cooper, 1988).


Another way of describing this 'reality' is to see organisations as clustered political coalitions. Postmodernists argue that each organisation may develop its own commitments, interests, linguistic codes, and values and culture (Gephart, 1996). Individuals in these organisations therefore become part of communities (or sub‑cultures) that are distinct from the world, learning the 'language' and codes specifically developed for these communities. Each organisation can consist of many of these communities of social interaction, where one can identify specific and different locus of knowledge and power, allowing each community to decide what is important and how to interpret reality as perceived by the members of that particular community. For postmodernists, power is also a kind of social production process through which collective meaning is created and maintained. It is created and maintained in knowledge, and knowledge, then, becomes an instrument of power that people use in making sense of the world without fully grasping its implications (Feldman, 1999).


Postmodern organisations are thus different from the traditional modern bureaucracy where people were subject to rationally set rules of regulation and hierarchical control. The 'new' postmodern organisation is one in which highly qualified employees find themselves within culturally complex, but flexible, production structures which are held together by information technology networks (Hassard, 1993, 1996; Welge and Holtbrugge, 1999). Hence, the idea of a superior, objective standpoint is rejected with the emphasis being placed on the inherent instability of organisation. As argued by Hassard (1996: 55), "the discourses of organisation are no more than changing moves within a game that is never completed".


What the discussion has tried to convey so far, is that organisations in postmodern societies are not static entities that follow universal modernist rules and notions of 'reality'. 'Reality' is constructed by each individual in the organisation in the interplay between the individual and the individual's local community or culture, between the community and the organisation, and between the organisation and the rest of the world. Thus, postmodernism is closely related to relationalist theory, which uses a methodological strategy that aims at understanding conditions of possibility, rather than describing cause/effect relationships in organisations (Gephart, 1996). Individuals in the postmodern society may have some common traits that can be identified by scientific research, but it is the continuous interaction with other individuals sharing a common understanding of the reality (language) that shapes desires, beliefs and actions within a particular organisational setting and the society to which the individual belong. Thus, relational theory has implications for managers as it suggests that managers do not control the fate of their decrees, but instead, power is a matter of social interdependence. That is, we are empowered only through the actions of others (Gephard, 1996; Hassard and Parker, 1993).


Burrell tries to summarise this issue by stating that:


Postmodernism questions the relationship between real and language. The real becomes replaced by the representational so that we can no longer be sure that the ‘real’ exists outside of some group's tendentious, ideologically motivated project (Burrell, 1993: 81).


This is one key characteristics of postmodern thought: it rejects the concept of a universal relation between forms of representation and an objective, external world (Hassard, 1996). What this leads to within the postmodern paradigm, is a quest for the local knowledge and insights from which to develop the capacity for reflection and reflexivity in managers and employees so that the chaos can be addressed, accepted, and, when possible, controlled and managed (Boje, Gephart and Thatchenkery, 1996:1).


In other words, within the modernist paradigm the whole organisation is more valuable than the part. In postmodernism, the parts of the organisation may be more valuable than the whole, because it is within these parts that individuals develop their sense of reality through language, symbols and interaction (Gephart, 1996). This reality, then, determines the individual employee's productivity and participation within the organisation.


What implication does this have for managers and management science? One conclusion that can be drawn from the postmodern perspective is that modernist assumptions about finding general, universal theories (or 'truths') of workforce management have failed to live up to their expectations: they have simply not understood that each individual is formed by a combination of interacting factors that continually changes the individual's perceptions and views of reality (and self). If this is true of the postmodern person, rationality and calculative reasoning cannot provide feasible and effective solutions for control of the workforce. We would see a shift from objective reality to subjective reality in which chaos is inevitable and must be understood from a local rather from a universal perspective. Hassard (1993) argues that the essence of theory is not its database but its intelligibility: we should feel free to draw from the entire repository of human potentials, not only be concerned with the social relationships championed or discredited by particular theories, but also with the potential for theories to offer new possibilities for our culture.


What Hassard seems to suggest is a synergy of modernist and postmodernist view of 'knowing the world', basing his view on the assumption that both modernist and postmodern views have things to offer in terms of ways of finding the 'truth'. Montuori and Purser (1996) similarly argue for a need to think differently about the future and engage in an ongoing process of learning/action that recognises the incomplete nature of our knowledge. How then can a synergy of both modernist and postmodern assumptions assist managers in today's and future organisations in managing the workforce?


We can summarise the discussion so far by recalling that modernist organisational theory tends to seek a singular or best universal model of effectiveness based on science, and that postmodern organisational theory seeks a practical and ecologically viable set of images of effectiveness that incorporates a range of views and concerns of different groups and individuals (Boje, Gephart, Thatchenkery, 1996:1). These two views are not necessarily conflicting, which shall be shown in the following section.


The expectancy theory can be chosen as a good representation of the break between modernist and postmodern theories. Expectancy theory states that motivation is a function of individuals' desire for a particular outcome and the perception of how likely a particular course of action is to achieve that outcome (Carter and Jackson, 1993). A rationalist (modernist) explanation of management would see it as a resource possessed of certain techniques for the efficient achievement of particular goals. However, this can not be achieved under a modernist assumption, as workers would have to desire outcomes that managers could provide, and believe that they were achievable by doing whatever management is willing to provide. This is clearly impossible. Therefore, the expectancy theory signifies the emergence of the pre-eminence of relativity over rationality, of the subjective over the objective, and of the subjective order over objective order (Carter and Jackson, 1993). It is a problematic theory for modernists, as it explains motivation on a macro‑level, but does not provide any information on how to deal with motivation on a micro‑level, that is, on the individual level. Thus, modernism provides the basis of how to deal with motivation but cannot actually use the model in practice. Here, postmodern thinking can elaborate on the macro‑theory to make it more valuable by incorporating micro‑level issues such as influencing cultural factors and the need to consider power relations and individual network interactions that determine the individual's actual expectations. Postmodernism also realise that expectations and desires of outcomes continually changes through these interactions and individual conceptualisations of 'reality'. Thus, expectancy theory, as a modernist invention, can provide a general understanding of motivation, but is not complete if postmodern focus on the individual, continuous 'chaos', and patterns of language and symbols are not taken into account.


Sinclair and Hogan (1996) also realise that there are questions for which the standardised empirical methods of organisational science are not appropriate and for which the postmodernist paradigm is appropriate, but they carefully point out that the point is not which paradigm is the "winner" of the debate. They argue that the effort ought not to be to reach consensus on method or theory but on the set of relevant problems that organisational science can solve. Although Feldman (1999) argues that postmodernists assume all knowledge is power laden, and thus he distrust all commitments to knowledge, it is not a valid interpretation of the underlying assumptions of postmodernism. As has been discussed, postmodernists criticises the assumption that scientific research reveals some universal 'truth', but this does not mean that they are obliged to reject some basic fundamental truth gained from empirical studies. The option is always open for evaluation and discussion of scientific findings, but they need to be carefully interpreted and not generalised to serve as a universal 'truth'.


Schultz and Hatch (1996) argue that postmodernism inspires interplay between paradigms, discussing the importance of recognising patterns and orders within different cultures. They see users of both the modernist and postmodernist paradigm conceive of culture as a set of ordered and continuous relations between the visible and audible cultural representations and underlying patterns of assumptions or meanings. According to both paradigms, the organisational surface is never what it seems but is always hiding a cultural essence, located at the invisible depths of the organisation. The difference is that the modernist paradigm studies the culture in a predefined and universal framework, while the postmodernist paradigm studies considers culture as contextuality, continually changing and evolving. Schultz and Hatch (1996) argue that it is necessary to develop an empirical recognition of contrasts and connections within the issue of culture, but that it is equally important to include postmodernism's ability to "break the habits of organised routine and see the world as though for the first time". Thus as interplay between paradigms permits a more sophisticated approach to the analysis and interpretation of empirical data.


It would be difficult to see a future of postmodern organisations where empirical research is completely discredited, and the argument that the human agent is merely an agent responding to external influences is just as inconceivable. This would probably lead to even more chaos in our society, especially within large organisations. Giving management no instruments of control would effectively lead to the elimination of any rational power structures that would leave management as a "fleeting image of order and control" and "a transparent myth" (Gephart, 1996: 41). Any hierarchies would be dissolved and individuals are left within their sub‑cultures or networks to form an image of reality for themselves and act upon that image. One (out of many) paradoxes of postmodern thought is that it predicts the organisational system to be "anarchistically out of control by humans" as well as the "death of the belief that individuals have power" (Gephart, 1996: 41). At the same time, postmodernists foresee a future where each individual is given more freedom to act and develop, no longer bound by rules and regulations, hierarchical relationships and other traditional bureaucratic features.


According to postmodernists, the 'future' postmodern organisation is global, multi‑cultural, network oriented, reactive, decentralised, and thrives on a strong culture, information, knowledge and political (power) relationships (Thompson, 1993). This is not a postmodern desire, but simply a description of reality, of how organisations are moving away from the modernist 'ideal' structure of an effective organisation. The postmodernist paradigm acknowledges this change of nature, and proposes various solutions for how to best understand the change, providing answers to problems that modernism failed to consider. This does not mean that the modernist paradigm should be rejected, nor does it mean that the postmodernist paradigm should be accepted. What it does mean, is that managers should recognise that there is 'no best way' to manage the workforce, and changes in the society and environment necessitate them to look for solutions from different perspectives.


Thus, a synergy between the modernist and postmodernist paradigm is possible, and this is what has been proposed in this paper. Management can still rely on empirical methods for a broad understanding of the human and organisational behaviour, but cannot simply rely on a universal 'truth' for effective management. What the future holds for management and management research is unclear, but it is evident that some transition away from the modernist paradigm is going on. The postmodernist ideas are still very ambiguous and controversial, and may not yet provide any real answers to managerial issues. Until they do (if they do), managers are left to 'cut and paste' from the different paradigms to ensure their organisation's continued success and survival, and leave the 'big' issues for sociologists to ponder about.



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