The ambiguity of inquiry in management research: An American Pragmatist perspective Paper presented to the The Fourth Nordic Pragmatism Conference, Copenhagen 2011

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The ambiguity of inquiry in management research: An American Pragmatist perspective

Paper presented to the The Fourth Nordic Pragmatism Conference, Copenhagen 2011

Professor Mihaela Kelemen

Keele Management School

Keele University,

Staffordshire, UK



For over two thousand years philosophy has attempted to achieve certainty out of ambiguity. Clarity was more than just the mechanism for resolving epistemological uncertainty: it was the principle by which knowledge could be made useful. As the principle of clarity became elevated on the grounds of usefulness ambiguity was treated as something to be denied and disavowed. That is until American Pragmatism sought to convince us otherwise.

American Pragmatism

American Pragmatism was developed in the USA at the end of the 19th century by Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey as an alternative to Western rationalism. American Pragmatism asserts that concepts are true in as much as they are relevant for action. In its days, this view attracted much criticism from other philosophers. However, its proponents did not consider pragmatism an attack on philosophy as such, only a tool to help philosophy become more practical and effective (Kelemen and Rumens, 2008).

The progenitors of American Pragmatism held various and loosely connected concerns about philosophy, truth, human experience and meaning. For example, Charles Peirce (1839-1914) was trained as a scientist and, as such, was keen to apply scientific principles to philosophical problems. For Peirce, meaning was established by direct interaction with the sensible effects of one’s actions. On a slightly different tack, William James (1842-1910) was troubled by the precarious place of humans in the new scientific world. His scholarly interests shifted from logic to moral and psychological matters. The pursuit of truth was less a matter of scientific endeavour and more to do with immersing oneself in the ‘here and now’. James struggled with the primacy accorded to science as the only means to access truth. For him, science in its quest for truth could leave room for other ways of knowing and experiencing. Such alternative ways would cope better with the inbuilt ambiguity of day to day practice. John Dewey (1859-1952) built upon Peirce’s criticality and logical methods but, like James, he turned towards moral, aesthetic, and educational matters, by embracing a pluralist methodology and an optimistic approach towards the future of mankind.

According to the pragmatists the basic unit of analysis in research is experience. Experience is not antithetical to knowledge; rather, knowledge is part of experience and contributes to its enhancement. As such experience is both embodied and rational at the same time, it is about the relationship between the present and the future. Pragmatists oppose the abstract epistemic notion of experience embraced by Western philosophy in favour of a fluid, plural and ambiguous process.

In the Principles of Psychology, James (1890) argues that the starting point of experience is the individual’s interaction with the environment. Experience, for James, is a sense of personal continuity enveloping external objects, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the purposeful subject who both thinks and experiences at the same time. Out of this flowing interaction, emerges a state of consciousness which allows the individual to respond satisfactorily to his environment. The individual does not just survive in a complex environment but does so in his own terms. Therefore, experience is progressive, containing the possibility of responding to the environment in new ways as well as the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of such responses.

James makes experience the exclusive source of knowledge by arguing that experience is both open and continuous enough to allow people to make useful choices and shape society the way they hope for. Thought becomes the process of conceptualisation, implied in the selection of future models of conduct and the rejection of alternatives. Truth is not an inherent property of certain correct ideas but the relationship of an idea to its consequences when acted upon. No truth is ever final or permanent since experience, the ultimate court of appeal, is ongoing and in flux. The process by which a concept becomes true, like experience itself, is progressive (James, 1890).

Dewey (1929) also embraces the view that experience is active, enacted and oriented to the future. He sees knowledge as a series of practical acts judged by their consequences. The consequences of knowledge could not be appraised according to pre-determined criteria but only with respect to the values and norms of the community of practice from which theory emerges and is applied to.

For Dewey all judgments are practical in as much as they originate from an incomplete or ambiguous practical situation which is to be resolved. The aim of knowledge is not to correspond to the world but to anticipate future experience, taking as its material experiences the present and the past (Mounce, 1997). While one must go through a logical process of reasoning to progress from prior ideas to new ones, new ideas do not owe their power to the prior ones, they are merely lucky variants that may catch on because they resonate with people’s circumstances in useful ways. The truthfulness of knowledge is ultimately assessed by its usefulness, for if people do not find ideas useful for some purpose, they will simply discard them. For Dewey thinking and acting are just the two names for the same process, the process of making our way as best we can in a universe shot through with contingencies and ambiguities (Menand, 2001). Knowledge is not a copy of something that exists independently of its being known, but becomes an important instrument for successful action.

In one of his most famous books, The Quest for Certainty, John Dewey (1929/1960) mounts an impressive critique against the dualism knowledge/ belief. While the former is synonymous with certainty and thus elevated to a position of superiority, the latter is associated with the vagaries of practice, and downplayed. Dewey questions the ideal of certainty as something superior to belief, by attacking the very basis of Greek philosophy. Greek thinkers argued that absolute truth can only be demonstrated by reason and that experience can only deliver contingent probability. For them, the conclusions of experience are particular not universal. In support of this argument, Greek philosophy advanced the distinction between rational truths (universal and relating to ideas) and empirically ascertained truths (particular and relating to matters of existence) with the former heralded as essential to scientific progress and general advancement and the latter downplayed as insignificant to that endeavour.

Consequently, the Greeks placed empirical observational sciences below rational sciences because the former dealt with practical affairs rather than with external and universal objects. This position has influenced heavily our contemporary view of experience/belief as occupying a secondary role to rationality/science. While the scientific revolution of the 17th century appeared to enhance the position of mathematical sciences, not much had changed in terms of the separation of knowledge and action, theory and practice, with the latter part of these dichotomies taken to be uncertain and inferior compared to the former.

In The Quest for Certainty Dewey suggests we should challenge these dualisms. For him, practice (experience) is the only means by which whatever is judged to be honourable, desirable and admirable can be kept in concrete existence. Dewey links the failure to make practice central to the security of knowledge to the inability of individuals in the early stages of civilization to regulate their own practical affairs. Hence, one could understand why individuals looked for substitutes by cultivating all sorts of things that gave them a feeling of certainty (God, pure rationality etc). However, we are now at a stage where, according to Dewey, society has achieved a sufficient degree of control of methods of knowing and the arts of practical action that a radical change in our conceptions of knowledge and practice is both possible and necessary. Thus, philosophy must try to serve as an integrator between cognitive beliefs (beliefs resting upon the most dependable methods of inquiry) and practical beliefs about the values, the ends and the purposes that should control human action. Such a view turns up side down the traditional conception that action is inherently inferior to knowledge: action when directed by knowledge is method and means not an end.

Moreover, in our quest for certainty, we forget that it is the richness and ambiguity of experience that provides clues and avenues for scientific inquiry and that our judgements make sense only when directed to improving existing conditions.

The turn to ambiguity

For over two thousand years philosophy has attempted to achieve certainty out of ambiguity. Modern analytical philosophers tried to construct an artificial language modelled upon arithmetic with clear rules as to how central concepts could be expressed and combined to reduce confusion in meaning. Bertrand Russell, for example, acknowledged ambiguity to be an inherent feature of all human language but strived to reduce this condition to a minimum by developing a series of logical tests which if followed would result in clearer expression. Descartes himself searched for firm foundations on which to construct his dualisms while Kant’s categorical divisions came about from a systematic search for moral and epistemological certainties.

Charles Peirce was perhaps the first philosopher who believed that ambiguity needed to be tolerated or at least deferred until the end of the inquiry rather than banished at the beginning. While acknowledging the need for clarity for logical expression, Peirce considered the impatient pursuit of simplicity and clarity equally harmful, becoming a negative condition that could hamper open ended inquiry. Clarity, for him, was an impossible dream since concepts could only be expressed in an imperfect language.

It was William James who went on to treat ambiguity1 in distinctive positive terms. He says: “It is, in short, the re-instatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention” (quoted in McDermott, 1977, p. 45). James equated ambiguity with richness, vitality and pluralism. His advocacy was rooted in a conception of the universe as ever-changing, multi-dimensional and for ever changing, part of the vibrancy of primal experience. For James ambiguity was a positive rather than a negative force within our social and cultural experience.

Indeed, ambiguity interrupts one’s habitual way of dealing with day to day issues and becomes vital when problems develop. While habits are important and practically necessary, they cannot cope with the unknown, with so called wicked problems. When ambiguity ceases to be marginal and becomes central to our experiences, we can no longer rely on the familiar, on SOPs to solve the problem. Moreover, ambiguity in our experiences can enrich those experiences if we are prepared to switch gear and approach the same problem in a novel way. James says: “For the most part we live our lives focally, that is, within a familiar range of experiences rendered clear to us by our conceptual systems or simply accepted by habituation. Ideally, this focus opens outward, reaching toward a fringe of experiences, often vague and inarticulate but subtly continuous and profoundly meaningful” (quoted in McDermott, 1977: 106).

James saw the pursuit of ambiguity as a desire to avoid conclusive certainties and instead to celebrate the multiple possibilities inherent in every situation (Gavin, 1992). It is this philosophy of possibilities that is most celebrated in James’ work and counteracts some of the criticisms that James viewed the human self as too fragile and indecisive. Indeed, according to James, the individual is equipped to deal and cope with experiential ambiguity. Naming is a crucial strategy by which we attempt to do so. Naming is a process rooted in struggles over meaning which are only resolved in the context of practice where some interpretations, definitions and descriptions are privileged over others. Such processes necessarily mean that we neglect, marginalise or denigrate other subtleties of experience and shades of meaning that are left obscure. For James, the achievement of any identity, however contingent comes at a heavy cost whose price is the exclusion of the richness and vitality that constitutes the true multiplicity of any and every cultural experience. Such richness always exceeds the capacity of our linguistic systems to re-present it fully. The desire to reduce experience to words represents a crude attempt to express the inexpressible. The pluralistic nature of experience is forever uncertain and unfinished, in a state of flux and open possibility and something that always exceeds our best endeavours at capturing it logically in words (James, 1994).

This position was embraced by John Dewey (1938) and is most evident in his treatment of scientific inquiry. Dewey argues that modern philosophy has deferred too easily to the authority of knowledge in the name of science without questioning this authority. Diversity, plurality and ambiguity of experience have thus been assimilated into a non-empirical concept of knowledge. This, according to Dewey, is unsatisfactory for we can only appreciate the value of knowledge when it is viewed as part of the larger context of experience. The value of concepts and theories cannot be assessed on the basis of abstract epistemological principles but only in terms of their ability to respond to and solve particular practical problems.

Dewey sees experience as ambiguous and processual rather than static and formed by ready-made elements. The world exhibits: ‘an impressive and irresistible mixtures of sufficiencies, tight completeness, order, recurrences which make possible prediction and control, and singularities, ambiguities, uncertain possibilities, processes going on to consequences yet indeterminate’ (Dewey, 1958: 47). It is this day-to-day ambiguity that triggers the need for scientific inquiry. However, science is one of the many avenues to pursue this project. Science may be the most reliable procedure for the control of the phenomenon but, for example, common sense reasoning is congruent with the scientific method and equally important (West, 1989). Dewey’s conclusion is neither an anti-intellectual praise of action, nor an elevation of praxis over theory, but rather an affirmation of the inseparability of thought and action and an acknowledgement of the role of consequences in reflective deliberation. Ideas are neither copies of the world, nor representations linked to one another, but rather ingredients for rules and plans of action.

If Dewey sought to convince us that the ambiguity of experience is a positive force and our quest for certainty should stop, James took things further by arguing that an acknowledgment of ambiguity will in fact help human beings to create a future that is more morally satisfying than the past or the present (James 1987/1956). At the heart of James’s essays in popular philosophy was the view that moral progress is not only possible but necessary. He argued that the way to achieve it is by rethinking the place of science and philosophy in our society. James’ philosophy is one that aims to revitalise man’s sense of reality, ethical choice and morality. He viewed science as one of the many means to access truth, for there are other ways of knowing and experiencing the complexities of the universe, beyond science.

The ambiguity of inquiry in management research

According to James, the problem of practice is related centrally to what humans need to know, how to obtain that knowledge and how to apply it. The practice of management cannot be separated from the practice of conceptualising what needs to be done and from understanding the consequences this will have upon various individuals and groups. In recent years, a number of management commentators have explored pragmatist avenues within their research. For example, Simpson (2009), drawing on the philosophy of Mead, developed a theoretical view of practice as a transactional social process involving experience and action as mutually informing aspects of human conduct. Drawing on pragmatist philosophy, Watson (2010) illustrated how one could bridge the theories and practices of HRM by conceptualising 'HRM' in terms of labour management generally rather than treat it as just one variant of employment management (Watson, 2010). Cohen’s (2007) recent work usefully illuminates Dewey’s take on the primacy of habit and its interplay with emotion and cognition and applies it to an organizational context.

The practice of management itself has been the subject of numerous empirical studies for many decades. Central to this work is that ambiguity works as a trigger, to get individuals at all levels in the organisation to reflect on their experiences. Of course, higher echelons of management will have more extensive resources to carry out such reflexive exercises and their reflections of the world may in fact replace the proliferation of other views, at least temporarily. It is not just the leaders who have to understand what is going on in organisations: followers have no choice but to conceptualise these practical situations in order ensure they can survive in a complex environment, with the view to achieve their own agendas and needs (Kelemen, 2000). Indeed, it is the ambiguous and progressive nature of experience that allows the possibility of responding to the environment in new ways as well as the evaluation the effectiveness of such responses (James, 1994).

Responding to the environment requires knowledge of the environment and this knowledge arises from experience. Knowledge is implied in the selection of future models of conduct and the rejection of alternatives. Therefore, truth is not an inherent property of certain correct ideas but the relationship of an idea to its consequences when acted upon. No truth is ever final or permanent since experience, the ultimate court of appeal, is ongoing and in flux (James, 1994).

Conceptualising day to day practices in particular ways (rather than others) allows for making choices that help organisational members, be they managers or subordinates, to survive according to their own wishes, understandings and material resources in a world full of contingencies and unpredictability. To regard management practice separate or removed from the process of conceptualisation would deny any possibility for making moral choices and rejecting alternatives that are not deemed suitable by individuals and groups. At the very heart of this process is the ambiguity inbuilt in organisational language and practices, a topic that has received increased interest in the last four decades.

Researching Organisational Ambiguity

Organisational ambiguity arises when too much information is floating around and individuals are confused by the multiplicity of ideas, concepts or initiatives going on at the same time. Unlike uncertainty, which requires more information in order for people to be able to make predictions about future events, ambiguity cannot usually be solved by an increase in the amount of information available to individuals in the organisation.

It is not unusual for authors to speak about linguistic ambiguity and experiential or pragmatic ambiguity as distinct domains. Giroux (2006, p. 1228), for example, suggests that “ambiguity is first and foremost a textual and inter-textual phenomenon, realised in the choice, strategic or inadvertent use of polysemic words and equivocal grammatical structures and in the use of certain tropes” and sees pragmatic ambiguity residing within rather than outside the linguistic domain. She argues that pragmatic ambiguity, defined as “the condition of admitting more than one course of action”, is “realised linguistically, rhetorically, textually and inter-textually, and supported by a variety of factors, both social and textual” (p. 1228). The existence of these two ambiguity domains is perhaps a reflection of the division between words and facts, between thinking and doing, between knowledge and practice that has shaped up Western philosophy for centuries. The American Pragmatist perspective advanced in this paper helps us to rethink such divisions arguing that theory and practice are intertwined and knowledge does not hold a superior hold over experience.

Organisational theorists have been preoccupied with ambiguity for over four decades and have viewed it mostly as a useful organisational resource. Seminal work by Cohen and March (1974) discusses the ambiguities relating to the role of leadership in colleges and universities, organisations which are seen to follow the pattern of ‘organised anarchies’. In such organisations, the role of leadership is highly ambiguous to the extent that it is impossible to establish any relationship between decisions at the top and organisational outcomes. Thus, while the expectation may be that leadership will handle ambiguity, one cannot be sure about the consequences of this process. A few years later, March and Olsen (1976) proposed a model of decision making which suggested that all choices and decisions in organisations were made under some form of ambiguity. The authors discussed three forms of ambiguity: first, there is ambiguity relating to authority when there is no clear leadership role or structure, second, ambiguity relating to goals when there are divergent interpretations of what the organisation should aim for, and third, ambiguity relating to technology when there is a lack of clarity about the relationship between means and ends. The emphasis in their work is on how individuals make sense of ambiguity and how they alter their behaviour in light of their new interpretations (March and Olsen, p 56), thus enforcing the view that ambiguity is a resource to be managed (individually and collectively).

In another ground-breaking piece, Karl Weick talks about the pervasive nature of equivocality in organisations, a state arising from the richness and multiplicity of meanings attached to the same event or process (Weick, 1979). For Weick, ambiguity is a resource and organisations are means of managing it while the perpetual task of leadership is to make sense of it in order to ensure the survival and adaptation of the organisation. More recently, organisational commentators have acknowledged the relationship between ambiguity and the context in which it arises (Martin and Meyerson, 1988). Hatch (1997) argues for example, that one can only assess the meanings and consequences of ambiguity in relation to organisational culture. Furthermore, ambiguity is itself a cultural phenomenon being “subjectively perceived when a lack of clarity, high complexity or a paradox makes multiple (rather than single or dichotomous) explanations plausible” (Martin, 1992). Thus, ambiguity enhances the need for symbolic management and makes more central the role of leadership in providing meaning and guidance to the subordinates. The ambiguity as a resource view came truly to prominence with the work of Eisenberg (1984) and the advancement of the concept of ‘strategic ambiguity’.

Strategic ambiguity is defined as the purposeful use of ambiguity for particular ends in organisations. Eisenberg’s work emphasises mainly the benefits of strategic ambiguity. He suggests that organisational conflict could be reduced in organisations if goals are kept broad and ambiguous to the extent that they could be espoused by everyone while at the same time allowing for different interpretations. Thus, the task of leadership is to provide a level of abstraction at which general agreement can occur without limiting specific individual interpretations (Eisenberg, 1984: 231), a scenario referred to as ‘unified diversity’ (Eisenberg, 1984: 230). Meyerson (1991) uncovered such unified diversity in her study of the experiences of the hospital social workers whose effective performance depended on the acceptance and use of ambiguity.

Ambiguity is also seen to facilitate organisational change since it provides the means to move gradually from one interpretation to another and as such reduces friction and resistance to change (Chreim, 2005). Kelemen’s (2000) work on the implementation of Total Quality Management documents the way in which ambiguity is downplayed or nurtured, depending on the situation at hand, in order to ensure the smooth implementation of quality improvement programmes in four UK service organisations. The existence of ambiguity permits the maintenance of vital organisational tensions such as between centralisation and decentralisation (Hatch, 1997) allowing organisational members to make sense of organisational values in personalised ways that offer opportunities for creativity and innovation. Meyerson and Martin (1989) suggest that in certain environments which thrive on ambiguity, individuals have greater freedom to act, play and experiment and are at less risk when they do so because the organisational culture in question depends heavily on individual autonomy and resulting creativity rather than on standardised routines and procedures.

Ambiguity may also foster deniability which is a key element of saving face or preserving status when things go wrong or when decisions must be reversed (Giroux, 2006). When managerial initiatives fail, for example, managers can always blame esoteric factors for their lack of vision and commitment or simply invoke the ambiguity of the current environment (Munro, 1995). Employees, themselves, in order to save face, could invoke ambiguity as the reason for poor performance (Zbaracki, 1998). Ambiguity could also act as a social lubricant, reducing potential friction between different points of view (Giroux, 2006). For example, when subordinates do not understand what is going on at the top, they stick together and find comfort in the meaning of survival, rather than openly resisting or challenging the views from the top. Finally, ambiguity facilitates the translation of various interests and the formation of networks and alliances necessary for organised action (Star and Griesemer, 1989).

However, the strategic use of ambiguity may also lead to unintended consequences, some of which may be riddled with ambiguity. For example, an increase in ambiguity diminishes the credibility of managerial initiatives and their utility, thus increasing the level of ambiguity in organisations. Nohria and Eccles (1998) argue that the increase in the number of meanings for the same concept/initiative makes the concept questionable over time to the point that people lose faith in its usefulness and its ability to provide solutions to problems. Ambiguity could also create problems with regards to measurability, which is crucial in certain industries and requires a certain amount of conceptual rigour. High reliability industries which operate in highly ambiguous environments must exhibit cultural flexibility but also rigour in terms of their systems and procedures in order to avoid catastrophic accidents that lead to death and destruction (Bigley and Roberts, 2001; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001). Conceptual ambiguity may lead to ineffective action. Feldman’s (1991) case study on the ambiguity of intention and expression in the US Department of Energy demonstrated that ambiguous goals and multiple interpretations led to ineffective action and undermined organisational self-esteem. Therefore ‘unified diversity’ did not appear to have positive consequences on day-to-day practices and in fact lead to more ambiguity. Ambiguity could lead to the formation of spaces for resistance by the subordinates (Knights and McCabe, 1998) and to an open questioning of the dominant rationality. A recent study by McCabe (2009) suggests that ambiguity was used as a smokescreen to cloak both the exercise of power and resistance. Ambiguity appeared to amplify conflict and resistance because individuals interpreted situations in different ways.

Finally, opposing interests that have coexisted peacefully for a while under ambiguous initiatives and goals could resurface violently especially when the interests of the subordinates/managers/customers/investors etc are not met to a sufficient degree. Therefore, the network of interests and related alliances created around ambiguous goals may not be as stable as initially thought and could dissipate overnight (Giroux, 2006), thus generating more ambiguity.

That ambiguity is at the heart of organisational life is not something we may want to dispute. However, the ways researchers and practitioners relate to matters of ambiguity are rather diverse. Some embrace ambiguity as part of their day to day practice, others attempt to ignore or control it in order to minimise its effects. American Pragmatism argues that ambiguity is essential to any reflexive process whether that relates to thinking or doing; as far as organisational life is concerned, this approach gives us a the opportunity to reconceptualise the divide between theory and practice in management studies in a theoretically robust and practically useful way.


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1 He refers to vagueness rather than ambiguity in his work

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