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My last post was about “Positivism and lazy SW designers“. I introduced the basic concepts of positivist thinking as well as the weak points of it. Many people who are disappointed to positivist thinking are drawn to another end of the pendulum – the Relativism. It has some strengths but weaknesses as well. Read on to find out what those are… (And here’s a link to the third post of this series about “Realism and motivated employees“)

The Relativism and stupid(?) management decisions

To begin, we need to distinguish between two different concepts of relativism.

First is the informational relativism. It says that the truth is relative to the framework (religion, OD theory, culture) it is used on. So in practice the same sentence can be truth in one context and untrue in some other. (E.g. Sentence: “People are self-organizing” is true in Agile framework but untrue in Scientific Management framework.) More sober-minded form of this thinking says that there might be good reasons to believe something in some context, even though the belief isn’t rational when looking from some other context. This is also called justifying relativism.

Second is the conceptual relativism. It says that different paradigms can’t be compared at all. (Agile and Scientific Management are incomparable.) One form of this is truth relativism which says that any truth is only sensible in some specific framework and the truthfulness of the framework itself can’t be questioned. A more sober-minded version of this relativism holds that people just see the world differently from different frameworks.

Let’s have an example. A leadership team is in a tough situation. They need to get the productivity up in order to survive. They conclude that they need to cut costs and raise productivity at the same time. They make an argument for the board that only way to survive is to reduce people and make the existing people work harder and do more over-time work.

Conceptual relativist says that LT’s argument is true. In their leadership framework (e.g. Taylorism) this was the only rational argument to make. It is not possible to judge that argument as it is completely relative to the context it was made. Leadership frameworks are incomparable. Sober-minded conceptual relativist would say that argument can be judged, but the leadership framework affects how the leaders see the world.

Informational relativist would say that actually it is possible to judge that argument from other contextual framework. However, that doesn’t change the truthfulness (truth value) of that argument – the argument can be true in one framework and untrue in another. Sober-minded informational relativist would say there were good reasons for the LT to think like they did in their context, but that doesn’t mean the argument was necessarily true.

So, like the example shows the different forms of relativism lead to different conclusions. There were also differences on whether one used a steep or sober-minded version of that thinking. Clearly the sober-minded informational relativism was quite easy to accept, whereas the steep forms weren’t.

Different forms of relativism – from postmodernism to constructionism

There are several different forms of relativism that has been developed and they all use some combination of above introduced informational and conceptual relativism.

Kuhn & Feyerabend argued that different paradigms can’t be compared. This would mean that it’s not possible to say whether the Taylorist thinking our leaders used is better or worse to some other thinking style such as Agile or Lean thinking. For Feyerabend the science itself wasn’t different from e.g. religions and should not hold special status in our school systems. (This argument has been used by creationists to justify their goals.)

Sapir & Whorf held that the language we use affects the way we think. People who speak Finnish think differently from people who speak English. For Sapir it was the vocabulary, for Whorf it was the grammar that caused this. In a steep form this would mean that it is impossible for a Chinese person to think the same way as Finnish or German – the language would form the whole world view. More sober-minded form would say that the language affects the experiences and world view but won’t control it. Either way, it suggests that in a multinational companies we think differently when we talk with our natives than when we talk the official language (usually English) of the company. Perhaps the argument would have been different if our leaders would have been talking in their native languages?

Michel Foucault invented the epistemes that are quite close to the thinking of Kuhn & Feyerabend. He thought that these are the unconscious forms of thinking that we use. Epistemes are historically formed basis for thinking that define what kind of forms of knowledge and theories are possible. So, perhaps in our example the leaders had unconscious epistemes that limited their thinking?

Another post-modernist, Jean Baudrilliard thought that in modern times our symbols don’t point to any objective reality but everything is just simulation and symbols pointing to another symbols. What does it matter if the leaders were right of wrong? There are no “real” workers, companies, stock owners or markets to worry about… Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote about meta-narratives. In post-modern times we don’t trust them anymore. Because of this, also science has to justify itself as it is just another language system. This is why we won’t just accept the decisions and the frameworks that those decisions are based on.

Another form of relativism comes from the sociology of science. The Strong Programme held that the science is always socially colored. In order to understand the scientific believes we need to point to social explanations. What are the political and social factors that lead to the forming of certain scientific beliefs? In our example we could argue that our political and social environment is such that the only legitimized option for leaders is to use Taylorist thinking. This is why they always come up with same kind of decisions and arguments.

This resembles with Social Constructivism, which is another, quite popular form of relativism. In a steep form it says that everything is socially constructed. The mind, the matter, everything. More sober-minded forms of constructivism simply hold that social processes affect our knowledge of things. Andrew Pickering studied the scientific research that lead to the theory of quarcks. He concluded that the field of physics could have developed also very differently, without the forming of the theory about quarcks. Also Latour & Woolgar studied researchers and concluded that scientific facts are socially constructed. It doesn’t mean that there are no material facts or real processes, it simply means that it takes a long social process to establish something as a “scientific fact”.

So, in our example this might mean that the arguments and conclusions that were made by the leadership team were heavily influenced by social processes. Perhaps there was already a long process of discussions, politics and pressures to come to the conclusions they made. Arguments were not based on objective facts – the social process could have also led to different pressures – but they were socially constructed facts that were eventually used as a basis for decisions.

The problems of relativism

Like I said in my earlier post about positivism, it is important to know what kind of assumptions you make in your thinking, because then you can know what are the weak points of your thinking.

Relativism is often criticized by people who like to think with “numbers and facts“. In my experience these are usually positivist thinkers with a cognitive approach. “We make our decisions based on facts. Numbers don’t lie.” Well, perhaps so but there are many different ways to interpret the numbers and think about how we came up with those numbers in the first place.

However, there are also some basic philosophic reasons to question at least the steep forms of relativism:

  • Steep informational relativism refutes itself: If you assume that everybody is right, in their own context, you have to accept opinions that say that your assumption is wrong also. There are no ground for continuing the discussion anymore.
  • Moderately steep truth relativism, which says that at least some sentences can be true in one framework and untrue in other has also problems: If the meaning is the same, the truth value must also be same. In other words the meaning can not be same if the truth value is not the same. Infinite regression is another problem with this thinking: Every assumption is relative to some context, which is also relative to some context, which is also relative to some context, etc. There are no ground for anything. (Of course you might accept that form is emptiness as some buddhists do…)
  • Steep conceptual relativism is also inherently contradictory: If different frameworks can’t be even compared, how do you know that? To say this means that you have to compare these frameworks in a first place. The whole concept of understanding that something can’t be compared to something else means that somebody has to understand the both. Surely there needs to be something comparable to enable this.

However, sober-minded versions of relativism are quite believable. It is easy to justify that different frameworks affect people’s thinking. It is also easy to accept that there are good reasons for people to think certain ways, even though from our perspective the whole thinking seems to be irrational. So, for me there are good reasons to believe in these sober-minded forms of relativism. The only danger is to fall to the steep side…

“Come on Luke, join me in the steep side.” – Darth “the truth relativist” Vader