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Is Organizational Culture Real? Cultural Realism and Experimental Science

by Shain David
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Is Organizational Culture Real? Cultural Realism and Experimental Science

Organizational culture and theoretical entities like electrons have some important things in common.

First, the actual entities themselves are in principle invisible to the naked eye so while their “reality” has often been debated and doubted, the affects they have on things that can be seen and measured are very, very real – only a Cartesian skeptic would doubt their existence. Second, perhaps the most convincing argument for the realism of electrons and organizational culture is that both can be used as powerful tools, instruments that can be purposely deployed to make a physical difference in the world. In the case of electrons, they can be sprayed from emitters onto phosphorous material on the back-side of television screens to create images of Super Bowl commercials, and carried through miles and miles of wires to power lights and other devices for entire cities. In the case of organizational culture, it can be used to teach people how to see the world – a powerful tool for transmitting the message about “how it’s done around here.” Strong cultural norms about what is (and is not) acceptable behavior in the workplace can powerfully shape how people “see” themselves, others, and the world around them. So while organizational culture may be invisible, it’s no toy and establishing a firm epistemological and philosophical foundation for cultural realism and how culture works in organizations is a key element to more precisely describing what culture is, how it works, and how it can be used to create positive change.

Ian Hacking’s book, Representing and Intervening, is a refreshing, provocative, and formidable defense of scientific realism.

While the book is a classic introduction to the philosophy of natural science, it also provides penetrating insights into developing a view of cultural realism that is based on firm experimental and scientific foundations. The themes of representing and intervening coincide with the notions of theory (representing) and experiment (intervening) and follow the often debated question, “Which comes first, theory or experiment.” Hacking also discusses the difference between theoretical constructs (theories and mathematical formalisms that we build to describe the behavior of physical phenomena) and theoretical entities (invisible things we measure in the physical world like electrons). Making a crystal clear distinction between theoretical constructs and theoretical entities is crucial to understanding the subtleties in the debate between scientific realism and post-modern deconstructionist views, especially when it comes to establishing a naturalistic view of cultural realism and organizational culture.

The first half of Hacking’s book focuses on the notion of “representing” and begins with a serious review of various accounts of scientific rationality and objectivity. The views of Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, Hillary Putnam, Bas van Fraassen, Nancy Cartwright and other major scholars in the philosophy of natural science are expertly evaluated and the theoretical trade-offs of buying into each view are clearly defined. Hacking also describes where he agrees (and disagrees) with these various perspectives relative to his view of scientific realism. The second half of the book focuses on the notion of “intervening” and is one of the most detailed and compelling philosophical analysis of experimental science in print. Hacking presents detailed accounts from the history of science to show that experimental science has a life of its own, independent from the theoretical constructs that more theoretically-oriented scientists build.

For Hacking (and Putnam), something is “real” when it makes a physical difference.

If it makes no physical difference, it’s not real. In other words, when theoretical entities such as electrons that are in principle not visible can be used to systematically affect something that is visible in a cause-and-effect way (television sets), then those entities are real in every sense of the word. As Hacking puts it,

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