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This is the third post of a mini-series about the “science of philosophy in organizations”. Earlier I wrote about “Positivism and lazy SW designers” and “Relativism and stupid(?) management decisions“. My goal in this series is to introduce and analyze different thinking styles used in organizations. All of these forms of thinking have some benefits and pitfalls. If you know them, you might be on a safer ground.

This post is about Realism. It is a philosophy originally designed to problematize the positivist movement. However, later it became more of a critic towards the steep forms of relativism & constructivism. So, in a sense realism is trying to find “realistic” middle way between the pendulum of positivism & relativism. This is why it is harder to find the weak points of this thinking – after all it has been developed to improve the weak points of positivism & relativism. Still, there are different forms of realism as well.

Introduction to Realism

Generally, realism contradicts positivist thinking by saying that there are actually non-perceivable objects in the world and they are real. It also contradicts (steep) relativism by saying that there are objects that exist independently from mind, language and culture. However, there are some differences how steep this argument is:

Naive realism assumes that science knows the absolute truth about reality and all the objects that science has created are real. You know, “if it was written in the newspaper, it is real”. Nobody really wants to categorize himself as the “proponent of naive realism”. But you can see that some people seem to fall into this category unknowingly.

Critical realism takes another perspective. It says that scientific theories are at best only approximately true. The objects that they assume are not necessarily real either. This leads to a view where scientists can’t really say that they “know” how things are or that their theories are “right”. The objects that they study and use might also reveal to be untrue when the knowledge evolves. The minimalist form of realism simply says that there is a non-perceivable part of reality, which is independent from human mind. More sober-minded critical realism says that science can come closer to the truth. Theories that we have nowadays are quite close to the truth and most of the objects that are assumed are actually real.

Realism and motivated employees

So, let’s have an example: Company’s HR division has heard about a research that says a company’s productivity is increased when the employees motivation level is improved. Thus the HR is making a plan to increase the motivation level of employees. They conduct a survey and interviews to find out the current level and probable actions to increase it.

A positivist thinker would immediately reject this whole idea: “What a nonsense! “Motivation” is just metaphysics, invented by psychologists. If somebody can show me that “motivation”, I believe it is true. Until then it is all about conditioned behavior. Just give me a stick and carrot, and I’ll improve the productivity.

Steep relativist would accept the idea of motivation, but he would say it is completely socially constructed. It is not something that can be measured. “By measuring it, you are actually constructing it. It is not possible to “increase” motivation. You can only try to talk differently about it and thus construct it in different ways.

Naive realist would say that “if there is a research about it, it is true. Period.”, which would leave both the positivist and the relativist to roll their eyes and say “here we go again…

Sober-minded critical realist would say that the research is probably approximately true and we have good reasons to believe that there is something called motivation. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to measure and improve that theoretical concept called motivation. (His colleague, the Steep Critical realist would say that the research is only approximately true and probably the whole notion of motivation will be replaced with something else in the future. But we might go with this as it is the best theory we’ve got currently.)

It is also important to note that sober-minded relativist would have quite similar opinion with our sober-minded realist here. He would say that the concept of motivation, as well as the research conducted on it are affected by social processes, but it doesn’t mean that motivation would be fully a social construction. We just need to be aware that our own survey and interviews are also affected by social processes.

Arguments pro and con Realism

As we saw from our example, it is quite easy to accept the sober-minded realism. It is actually quite close to our everyday thinking. It is also quite easy to note that we know people who tend to lean towards positivist or relativist thinking. This often has to do with the roles they have taken. (I’ll touch that phenomenon called highlighted social identity more here.) Surely it is good to question also scientific researches, but without openness for new things nothing evolves. We will be stuck with sticks and carrots – or endless constructivist discussions without nothing tangible.

There are several arguments pro relativism:

  • It would be truly a miracle if the scientific research wouldn’t be approximately true. How could we have automobiles, space shuttles, facebook and iPods if the science was making severely wrong assumptions?
  • We have good reasons to believe that there are also objects that are non-perceivable. Think about electrons, black holes, time and Santa Claus (Oh, wait…)
  • Inductivist reasoning doesn’t hold water. It is necessary to use also hypothetical reasoning and reasoning for the best explanation in order to do scientific research.

There are also some arguments con relativism, but there are good counter-arguments too:

  • Theories are always affecting the perceptions. How could the science improve and come always closer to the truth if the old theories affect our perceptions? —> There’s no reason to exaggerate this. False assumptions are often smashing against the reality and thus the underlying wrong theories are changed. 
  • Pessimists could say that our old theories have always been wrong, so why wouldn’t the current ones? —> Optimistic reasoning is as relevant. We have improved in the past, why not currently also?

Overall, there are many good reasons to accept the sober-minded critical realism. It doesn’t mean that you should accept everything to be approximately true, but you should be open to accept also theories and objects that can’t be perceived with your senses. It might be a good working hypothesis to improve the productivity of people by improving the motivation. It probably isn’t a perfect theory and the actual results might come from something else than the “motivation” itself (e.g. Hawthorne effect, which I touch here). The productivity might also be something that is not possible to measure absolutely, but at least there are good reasons to think there is something “real” that resembles with that theory.

Conclusion

As a conclusion for this post, and this mini-series as well, I would say that understanding the underlying philosophy of thinking is important. If you caught yourself or others utilizing heavy positivism, you are probably in trouble. That will probably be shown in your company’s results also. The same is true with steep relativism. If everything is just about discussions and socially constructed objects you are in danger of losing your touch to the ground. It doesn’t matter if it is positivism or steep relativism, you are subject to alienation of work.

However, I see no big dangers if you are on the sober-minded realism or relativism. Depending on your job, it might be very important for you to keep an eye on the social processes that are affecting your (or your client’s) work. It might be also very relevant for you to accept that there are things that are both non-perceivable and independent of human minds. You can use these kind of theories if you just remember that they are probably just approximately true and in the future there will be better theories to use. Just don’t get caught in dogmatic thinking and you’ll be fine.

Overall, the real value of this kind of analysis is on it’s contribution to the reflexivity. If you understand more, you can reflect upon your own thinking – where does it come from, why do you think like you do, etcSo, good luck. I hope these posts have been helpful for you!

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