Friday, 8 January 2016

Truth and Work

Gormley at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (Peter Johnson)
This may be a somewhat naive position, but I am among those who believe that academic pursuit should aim towards truth. That truth may indeed be relative, but I hold to the view that the goal must be to seek a universal a truth as possible. This is certainly not an unusual idea; it is normally expected that the work of (quantitative at least) researchers is guided by the search for generalisability. This epistemology holds that - as far possible - good findings are applicable to individuals, groups, societies and even humankind. Indeed, like natural scientists everywhere, work psychologists should also be aiming for truths that apply across the universe!

From the sublime to the mundane. That is, from work psychology as a quest for universals to work psychology as tool of corporate management. It has occasionally been suggested, that within this subject area the pursuit of scientific truth can be deflected by the interests of industry. The effect of this would plainly be that some work psychology research is weighted towards the realpolitik of the enterprise (profit, productivity, efficiency) rather than the greater human truth of the people (staff) within it. Therefore, in such instances teleological assumptions would not resemble, for example 'well being at work as important human end in itself', but rather 'well being at work as a psychological device to enable greater end product'. If work psychology is underpinned by the latter then perhaps the discipline should be conceptualised on a rather more vocational basis; i.e. all the best courses and great research programmes in the grandest universities are no more than training for the next generation of managers and consultants:

Enrol on a work psychology course and learn how to make staff work better, longer, harder.

To head off any possible misrepresentation, let me make clear that I understand the value of practical science and of the importance of a vibrant commercial and industrial sector. Indeed I certainly am not among those who have spent most their careers in academia. In fact, my situation has been quite the opposite. I have accumulated over thirty years experience working at the dirty profit-generating and political coalface in sectors such as banking, pharmaceuticals, media, communications and transport. I have segued between careers in analogue and digital electronics, software development, technical services and data analytics.

Consider this: I adore engineering and computer science, but I like physics more. Physics is the search for truth, and engineering and computer science are often the practical application of that which the truth seekers have found. The quantum computer and global positioning system are only made possible through the truth seeking of Heisenberg, Shrodinger, et. al., and Einstein respectively.

Moreover, I have read enough history of science (i.e. Kuhn, 1970) to know that large leaps of progress frequently occur when the search for truth conflicts with the practical and everyday political structures of a discipline. This process can be disruptive; those pesky Kuhnian paradigm shifts destroy existing scientific 'belief' systems. In many cases it would be far more convenient for the field to ignore the new truth and carry on as before. One could therefore argue that these moments of crisis are characterised by the choice between truth and convenience. According to Hoffman & Dukas (1973) the most important characteristic which Albert Einstein exhibited in his postulation of a theory of relativity was courage.

At certain periods in the development of a body of knowledge, the unstinting foraging for truth conflicts with 'the way things are done today' (for work psychology read the paradigms which inform theories of recruitment, job design, organisational structures). Attempting to reconcile the two (inconvenient truth and existing structures) at these moments often only results in compromise. Such compromise produces more of the same; newer, shinier and from a different perspective perhaps, but essentially the same overall ideas dressed up in different ways. The persistence of the status quo has a lot to do with investment, with risk; with courage (or the lack of it).

An example of this is found in the history of Copernicus, he who realised - and was brave enough to publish a volume stating - that the earth revolves around the sun. This medieval astronomer was derided as mad by some contemporaries (that is, the Ptolemic astronomers who thought that the earth was at the centre of things), but he was so attracted to the search for astronomical truth that he persisted anyway. Eventually, astronomy tore up the rule book which had existed for one thousand years and replaced it with the model created by crazy Copernicus. Why? Because it was true - or more accurately, truer than what had gone before.

So to work. A work psychology paradigm underscored by unquestionable current truths which underlie hierarchy, competency-based recruitment and goal-setting might be a shaky edifice upon which to rest work psychology and human resource practices. Of course, these might be truth - for now and evermore. But on the other hand, they might be the convenient status-quo. Moreover, if they're not truth, are work psychs short-changing all those workers in all those enterprises who follow (and at lower levels in the hierarchy, are managed following) that 'expert' opinion? Perhaps a more pertinent question is this - does there exist amongst us a Copernicus who has the courage to endure the opprobrium of the work psychology, human resources and consulting industries by challenging the convenient untruths. Even to the extent of possibly bringing the whole edifice (Kuhnian paradigm) tumbling down?

Were there such a researcher they could hardly expect to receive the thanks of the then unemployed old-school work psychologists and HR consultants. The best that our new Copernicus could hope for might be a split in the academic discipline. On the one hand may emerge a sub-discipline concerned with a purer, truth seeking and universalist work psychology (think physics), while on the other hand there might exist in parallel a dirtier academic setting, relating the purist work psychology findings to the real world (think engineering). The simile falls down after a fashion though, because the universal human truths of the 'pure' science may at times be anathema to the enterprise and productivity focus of its dirty sibling. Which is not so true for physics-engineering.

Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to behold - and the space between these sub disciplines might be where moral considerations and indeed even such a thing as work philosophy could begin to develop.


Kuhn, T. S., (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Hoffman, B., & Dukas, H. (1973). Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel. London, Hart-Davies, MacGibbon

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