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Too much information

A call for a reform of the social sciences by Mats Alvesson and his colleagues makes good points but fails to drive home its argument, says David Walker.

Enlightenment has lately been the subject of a rash of discussion on both sides of the Atlantic. Worried writers are checking whether the stanchions on which science and modernity sit can withstand the battering of fundamentalist religion, political populism and unreason.

After Donald Trump’s triumph and the vote for Brexit, the communicative rationality on which science depends looks ropey; dark forces attack the open universalism that many thought had been embedded in liberal civilisation.

So far, most research fields have sought to carry on as usual, although they are alarmed by the practical consequences of the new nationalism, such as tighter controls on migration. Economics is one exception—the 2008 financial collapse was a heavy blow, theoretically and pedagogically. There have been some brave attempts at intellectual reconstruction, although by no means all economists believe it’s a job that needs doing.

More recently, other pockets, especially in the social sciences, have begun posing fundamental questions touching on the most profound Enlightenment beliefs. In the 17th century, the Newtonian revolutionaries made the ancient Greek exhortation “Know thyself” their motto; nowadays, the lab commonplace is “know more”.

But what if knowing more adds nothing to understanding? What if—an even more heretical thought—the pursuit of extra knowledge jeopardises science itself?

In Return to Meaning, Mats Alvesson and his colleagues don’t go that far, but they do set purposely off down the road. Their ambit is social science, and within it the fields they know best, which are business and organisational analysis.

Just look at the vast wave of ‘knowledge’ contained in a flood of journal articles, reviews and conference proceedings. It’s fake knowledge. Much of it is trivial, inconsequential, throat clearing. Many papers in peer-reviewed journals add no understanding of the world; they lack significance and tell no story worth attention. The juggernaut of research grants and conferences runs over good scholars. Life becomes all about keeping the publishing treadmill turning.

It’s an intuitively appealing argument. The explosion in journals and published papers has meant an expansion in dross, barren methodological investigation and extreme specialisation. Postgraduate education has been narrowed and desiccated.

Return to Meaning makes these points well. But to convince, the book needs more evidence, more examples and a more cross-disciplinary perspective. The authors strike at their target, but their aim is too narrow. They need more examples from sociology, psychology, economics or—which would have been really exciting—from beyond the social sciences.

As it stands, their book covers ground that was tilled by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in their entertaining book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, published in 2006. Way back in the 1950s, the French-American historian Jacques Barzun eloquently exposed the empty “airport existence” of academics more interested in rushing around being important than  staying in one spot “to teach or meditate”.

When Barzun was writing, it could still be asked politely whether more meant worse, whether the expansion of higher education might carry an epistemological price. Return to Meaning skirts gingerly round that question, although the logical conclusion of its argument is that social science would not be harmed if fewer people practised it.

Still, Alvesson and his colleagues, who hail from universities in Australia, Sweden and the UK, deserve credit for having the courage to stick their necks out. They are unlikely to win many friends among the colleagues, university administrations, publishers and research funders they criticise. The book makes its points clearly.

Ultimately, however, Return to Meaning succumbs to the obvious risk of writing an academic book criticising the ineffectualness of much academic work—that is, contributing to the problem it seeks to diagnose. The book suffers from its failure to place its argument within a broader, theoretically rich, understanding of societal and historical process.

What is the significance of expanding empty knowledge for the wider culture and our common intellectual life? Why do governments fund so much of it when, as policies for impact in the UK and other countries demonstrate, they are far from pleased with its lack of significance? If, as Return to Meaning suggests, the quantum of desirable knowledge is finite, who on Earth can be trusted to set the limits? Such questions will have to be answered by someone else.

David Walker is the former head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight