Metatheories in Management Studies : Reflections Upon Individualism, Holism, and Systemism

Markus Reihlen, Thorsten Klaas-Wissing, Torsten Ringberg
2007 M@n@gement  
Three metatheoretical positions, known as individualism, holism, and systemism, are salient in management research programs. The world views of individualism and holism in particular are a matter of controversy between social scientists, leading to serious shortcomings in the prevailing research programs. As we argue in this paper, neither view is adequate. A cogent alternative to both is systemism, which integrates the valuable insights of individualism and holism without their drawbacks. The
more » ... aper illustrates the specific implications of each of these world views for knowledge management research. INTRODUCTION: THE RIVALRY BETWEEN METATHEORETICAL POSITIONS In the development of theories to describe and explain the behavior of economies, companies, and individuals, researchers have, consciously or otherwise, relied on metatheoretical ways of looking at human behavior. Metatheories in this sense are not theories, as such, relating to an empirical (real) object of investigation like enterprise, management behavior, or market transactions, but come into play at an earlier stage. Looked at generally, a metatheory is a collection of fundamental assumptions on which the investigation of research and technological problems is based. In this sense, metatheoretical assumptions are the nutriment for reflections upon theories (Bunge, 1999: 178). The views embraced by management scholars are based on a variety of assumptions relating to at least three components (Bunge, 1996: 242-243). Firstly, they assume a view on the nature of socio-economic phenomena (ontological assumptions). Should we see firms as accumulations of individuals who coordinate their mutual relationships through contracts, as collective action-units with goals of their own, or as systems integrated into society, which are neither totally independent of, nor entirely determined by, their environment? Secondly, there are assumptions relating to what form of investigation is appropriate to the object in question (epistemological and methodological assump- M@n@gement, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2007, 49-69 50 Markus Reihlen, Thorsten Klaas-Wissing, and Torsten Ringberg tions); these are partly determined already by the first set of assumptions, but this is not always necessarily the case. What is an appropriate method for investigating organizations? Should we rely on empirical facts, on our reason, or on intuition? Can we investigate organizations by studying their component parts, or via their global characteristics (e.g., social structures)? Thirdly, a metatheoretical perspective of this kind is tied up with assumptions relating to values and norms of social and economic actions (axiologic-moral assumptions). Should we see the freedom of the individual (maximization of individual benefit) or his/her responsibility to the community at large (maximization of collective benefit) as the primary goal of socio-economic action? In the social sciences, a number of different, internally consistent metatheoretical world views have established themselves, and these are reflected in economic and management theories. In this connection, there has been, since the Älterer Methodenstreit (controversy over methods) between Menger (1883; 1884) and Schmoller (1883), a debate between individualist (otherwise voluntarist or atomist) and holist (otherwise collectivist, structuralist or determinist) positions, propagated by such prominent social philosophers as Weber, Popper, von Hayek, Marx, Durkheim, and Parsons (for an overview, see O'Neill, 1973; Vanberg, 1975). To date, leading social and economic research programs have developed along this dual track into individualist and holist approaches without, however, overcoming the reasons for their differences. This becomes immediately clear when one realizes that individualists basically want to explain socio-economic phenomena by using features of the elements of social systems, thereby losing sight of an important event, namely phenomena with emergent property features. Conversely, the holist position is equally problematic, as it focuses on the structures and thereby gives more prominence to collective than to individual features, thus leaving unexplained compositional features in the system. In the social sciences, and in particular in organization and management theories, efforts to integrate the two approaches have received recognition from different theoretical ). The emerging alternative "third way" between individualism and holism was more recently formulated into a coherent metatheoretical approach by the philosopher Mario . His so-called systemism accounts for both individual agency and social context in explaining social systems and has become influential in philosophy. However, it has yet to gain a stronger foothold within management research which is still dominated by either individualistic or holistic approaches. Our objective in this paper is to explore contradictory ontological, epistemological, methodological, and axiologic-moral assumptions of the two existing metatheories and show how systemism incorporates the advantages of the previous two. To demonstrate the application of each metatheory, we analyze particular contradictions within the knowledge management discourse. Systemism is introduced through a socio-cognitive approach that enables management researchers to M@n@gement, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2007, 49-69 51 Metatheories in Management Studies: Reflections Upon Individualism, Holism, and Systemism envision the synthesis of individualism and holism within a coherent and internally consistent theoretical framework. We present our ideas as a discussion of metatheoretical positions in the form of dialogues between a teacher and a student. After that, the central conflicts between existing theoretical positions will be brought out in a fictitious disputation between the teachers of each rival view.
doi:10.3917/mana.103.0049 fatcat:bqii527ox5flbiyin4byt6waey