Power and Political Processes as Ethical Issues in Methodology: Continuing the Dialogue with Catherine Cassell and Gillian Symon

Power and Political Processes as Ethical Issues in Methodology: Continuing the Dialogue with Catherine Cassell and Gillian Symon

H. Peter Dachler

I doubt that I could have made a more constructive and helpful commentary on my review essay than that made by Catherine Cassell and Gillian Symon (1998). In the spirit of their hope for a clarifying and mutually empowering debate, I would like to offer the following additional remarks in this exchange, or what might be more useful for our field, in a continuing ‘multilogue’ (Dachler and Hosking 1995).

In the introduction to their book on qualitative methods (Cassell and Symon 1994) the editors point to the dangers that young and non-tenured researchers might encounter in doing qualitative research in an academic world that is still dominated by a myth of value-free and objective research and by a view of knowledge that is inherent in the ‘so-being’ of the ‘objects’ of research, ‘waiting’ to be discovered. Expressing this concern implicitly acknowledges a privileged view of ‘objective’ validity. It vividly illustrates the inappropriate generalization of a taken-for-granted understanding by a privileged community of understanding to other scientific communities of understanding, thereby implicitly devaluing or muting the fundamental concern of qualitative research which is subjectivity, not objective truth. In this way, the status quo which serves certain interests can be maintained, while limiting potentials that serve other interests and views of the world. In their comments on my review, Cassell and Symon (1998) point out that they wanted their handbook to be ‘… most importantly accessible (emphasis in the original)’. A central implied concern refers to the question of who would be the most likely to access their handbook in the sense of its correspondence to implicit epistemological understandings. Cassell and Symon (1998) formulate this question as follows: ‘… are we only addressing our sympathetic colleagues or perhaps seeking to convert those who have rarely conducted or encountered qualitative work?’. A little later they raise the question of ‘who has the ‘right’ to define what qualitative methods are?’. Perhaps these ways of putting the question implicitly connect in discourse those who ‘belong’ and those who do not and who therefore need to be persuaded to see the error of their ways. In other words, this may be a discourse within which ‘… we (are) really seeking the dominance of one perspective over another’ (Cassell and Symon 1998). In trying to describe their objectives in editing the book, Cassell and Symon (1998) say that ‘sensitive to the politics of research work …’, they wanted ‘… something to justify (my emphasis) our use of “alternative” methods within our local research communities …’. I fully support their aim. On the one hand, however, justification can be understood as joining the discourse of the dominant logic and arguing the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ within the context of that logic. This means that whatever is known in such a ‘justifying’ relationship, can only have meaning by referencing some aspect of that dominant logic. Thus it becomes difficult to escape from the destructive circle of ‘right or wrong’ arguments. Moreover, the outcome will be ‘more of the same’ and not the ‘quiet revolution’ for which Cassell and Symon (1998) plead. In this sense, all our attempts to be ‘reasonable’, to avoid alienation, to be tolerant, to use an incremental approach and therefore ‘… to start from the current languages and discourses prominent within the community addressed …’ (Cassell and Symon 1998) is simply giving voice to the dominant perspective, while muting alternative discourses. It is precisely the current languages, ideas, dichotomies, metaphors and prominent discourses that structure our understandings of the world in certain ways, thereby marginalizing other possible versions of knowledge. A ‘silent revolution’ of this sort is like trying to change the meaning of a text slowly while holding on to the context that gave meaning to it in the first place. Another way of understanding a relationship of justification might be to lay open and question the ‘system of justice’ within which the process of justification takes place. This allows a change from looking primarily at structural inequalities between different standpoints and paradigms (i.e. the power of the dominant logic available to editors, chairs, and other important decision-making bodies which they can use to impact those who hold alternative views). Instead, it becomes possible to examine how the discursive practices within different logics serve to create and uphold particular, as opposed to other forms of social (organizational) life. Such central power and political issues in the sciences are seldom openly and widely discussed, since they contradict the fundamental assumption of rationality and objectivity. More importantly, and for the same reasons, they are hardly ever referenced with respect to research methodologies. It is difficult to avoid the question of whether organizational sciences discover knowledge for improving people’s lives (as we normally like to understand our discipline) or whether the practices of organizational psychology and sociology are simply another cog in the machine of social control (Rose 1990).

The central political issue in the debate on the differences in the underlying epistemologies of quantitative and qualitative research could usefully be understood in terms of Foucault’s (1972, 1979) ideas, viz. any version of an event, phenomena and of the way things are believed to be, brings with it the potential for certain social practices (including scientific research methodologies). This makes sensible certain ways of acting and marginalizes or discredits alternative ways. Moreover, since there are always many different views in describing an event or attributing it with meaning – each allowing different possibilities for action and a prevailing or dominant perspective, i.e. the epistemological context in which we think of something as normal, rational and ‘common sense’ -, it is continually subject to contestation and resistance. The power implicit in the positivistic, individualistic and entitative perspectives of methodology is apparent only in its differentiation from, or in its resistance to, the subjectivist, relativist and social constructionist view of events and, of course, vice versa. It is such an understanding of contestation and resistance that needs to become an explicitly reflected methodological practice.

Within such a view of power and politics in organizational research, the debate is inherently about what representation of the organizational world one is in the process of constructing, what social practices are thereby enabled, and what alternatives are disqualified as abnormal, irrational and in error. Radical transformation in this context is not meant as seeking the domination of one perspective over another. Rather, the focus is on a radical change in our ways of thinking and relating. Similar to Foucault’s (1972) notion about the ‘archaeology of knowledge’, the debate is no longer one of what is the case and what not,: what is true and what is in error (content), but one that seeks to uncover the social processes by which we arrive at our view of the organizational world. In this way, it becomes possible to question the legitimacy of our current ways of understanding with respect to the ‘kind of’ organizational world that such an understanding enables and the social practices which are thereby privileged or dismissed as ‘unscientific’. In an important sense, this becomes an ethical issue in methodology, which so far has not really been addressed in the various ethical guidelines on organizational research. A methodological consequence would be that researchers would need to make explicit and legitimate what kind of organizational world their particular methods enable and what consequences might result for the privileged voices in the research community as well as for the muted voices in that community of understanding. Finally, the meaning and justification of methods must also depend on the social actions that are thereby privileged and on which potential actions are made irrational, unrealistic or immoral. This is the way one can perhaps answer Cassell and Symon’s question about ‘who has the “right” to define what qualitative methods (or any other kind of methods? HPD) are’.

The fascinating aspects of a social process approach to methodology is that it opens up an area of discussion about relationship that in the prevailing orthodoxy on methodology simply does not make much sense, thereby obscuring the potential of a wide array of alternative and ‘world enlarging’ (Knorr-Cetina 1981) questions. If relationships are addressed with respect to methodology, they are defined first of all within a subject-object understanding of relationship. The researcher is understood as the expert? the one who ‘knows’ useful rather than irrelevant questions, and who can determine according to his or her interests, intentions and perspectives what can be considered as ‘objective’ rather than erroneous or useless information. Second, relationships in the context of methodology are prime sources of error. Errors in a research relationship can be found, for example, in the way the researcher may ‘pre-judge’ the outcomes or in the way certain interactions among the objects of research introduce error with respect to some ‘objective’ state of affairs to be discovered. Moreover, the issue of relationships among researchers in scientific debate is almost taboo, limited, if addressed at all, to normative statements about professional conduct in debate. It is! simply taken for granted that the problems of debate, as a process of knowing, are limited to the attributes and actions of the individual participants. For example, the validity and accuracy of the data they present, the expertise of the researcher, the persuasiveness of his or her arguments, the schools from which he or she graduated or the power base from which he or she argues (statements of researchers in positions of power, like tenured faculty, editors, or those who are highly successful in networking, quoting the right people, etc. usually carry more weight in the literatures than those of researchers less well known and having less of that kind of power base) all refer to the attributes and actions of the participants in the debate. In other words, it is taken for granted that debate is essentially a process of exchanging valid and accurate information and that the relational processes are simply ways in which this informational exchange is made more or less efficient and effective. The relational processes themselves, the language games played in debates, and the discourses referenced in giving meaning to what is mutually constructed as true, common sense, logical, rational and ethical is hardly a central issue in understanding methodology (Calas and Smircich 1992; Knorr-Cetina 1981).

From such relational concerns, a whole set of alternative questions become possible which can only briefly be listed in this commentary. A crucial set of questions concerns the problem of how to deal with various possible representations of what is the case, rather than seeking the ‘best’, most valid or useful understanding of that case. Given the processes of contestation and differentiation and the accompanying devaluation of counter intelligibilities, current answers to these questions that call for tolerance of other positions and ways of learning from each other do not work very well within prevailing understandings of methodology (Morgan 1983). Another seldomly raised question in methodology concerns the problem of inappropriately generalizing what seems to be common sense within a particular community of understanding to groups who take different views for granted, trying then to persuade them of the error of their ways. Indigenous psychologies or sociologies are seldom, if ever, given voice in the journals of organizational research. Pursuing the question of which relational processes might need to be addressed to enable certain understandings without, at the same time, disabling counter intelligibilities may be methodologically very interesting.

Cassell and Symon (1998) rightfully complain that ‘… we have found that we are continually expected to defend our qualitative work against criteria associated with a positivist epistemology within our own research communities’. They go on to ask whether ‘… politically then, our colleagues and ourselves … need to be equipped with such arguments’. I think that it is high time to take power and politics very seriously with respect to any kind of research method. We all need to be equipped, whatever epistemological perspective we might take for granted, with a better understanding of the ‘disciplinary power’ (Foucault 1979) by which organizational research contributes to processes of social control. We also have to address the long ignored ethical issues in methodology that become explicit in its relational perspective.


Calas, Martha. B., and Linda Smircich

1992 ‘Re-writing gender into organizational theorizing: Directions from feminist perspectives’ in Rethinking organization: New directions in organization theory and analysis. Michael Read and Martin Hughes (eds.), 227-253. London: Sage.

Cassell, Catherine, and Gillian Symon

1994 Qualitative methods in organizational research: A practical guide. London: Sage.

Cassell, Catherine, and Gillian Symon

1998 ‘Quiet revolutions and radical transformations: A comment on H. Peter Dachler’, Organization Studies 19/6: 1039-1043.

Dachler, Peter H.

1997 Book Review Essay on Catherine Cassell and Gillian Symon (eds.): Qualitative methods in organizational research: A practical guide. ‘Does the distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods make sense?’. Organization Studies 18/4: 709-724.

Dachler, H.Peter, and Dian-Marie Hosking

1995 ‘The primacy of relations in socially constructing organizational realities’ in Management and organization: Relational alternatives to individualism. Dian-Marie Hosking, H. Peter Dachler and Kenneth J. Gergen (eds.), 1-28. Aldershot, UK: Avebury.

Foucault, Michel

1972 The archaeology of knowledge. London: Tavistock.

Foucault, Michel

1979 Discipline and punish. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Knorr-Cetina, Karin

1981 The manufacture of knowledge. Oxford: Pergamon.

Morgan, Gareth, editor

1983 Beyond method. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rose, Nicholas

1990 ‘Psychology as a “social” science’ in Deconstructing social psychology. Ian Parker and John Shotter (eds.), 76-102. London: Routledge.

H. Peter Dachler is Professor of Organizational Psychology at the University of St. Gallen Graduate School of Business, Economics, Law and Social Sciences in Switzerland. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in Urbana and taught for 10 years at the University of Maryland in College Park. His research interests are concerned with a relational approach to social constructionism and its consequences for power and managing multiple perspectives in multi-cultural settings. He is co-editor with Diane Hosking and Kenneth J. Gergen of Management and Organization: Relational Alternatives to Individualism (Avebury, 1995).

Mailing Address: University of St. Gallen, Guisanstrasse 11, CH-9010 St. Gallen Switzerland.


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