Derek Coursen is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service. He designs and writes about data management practices for government and nonprofit settings. Readers can follow him on Twitter @DerekCoursen.
In 2016 Jonathan Haidt framed the tensions in academia as representing a conflict between two incompatible sacred values, truth and social justice. He proposed that it would be better to have an explicit schism, with each institution openly choosing its side, as Brown University (for social justice) and the University of Chicago (for truth) have done.
The conflict is not confined to academia. Last May, Kmele Foster moderated a debate among Haidt, Andrew Sullivan, Suzanne Nossel and Jeffrey Sachs on whether a campus free speech crisis exists. All agreed that the tensions in higher education reflect polarization in society at large.
Nonetheless, academia’s role as an arena for conflict is a peculiar aspect of the current polarization, which is portrayed as pitting intellectual elites against people possessing less elite ideas and sensibilities. Even more peculiar is the placing of truth and social justice in opposition to each other, since those two ideals were originally at home in separate conversations. The concept of truth belongs to age-old debates about knowledge and what criteria justify belief. The notion of social justice arose out of concerns about ethics and the nature of society. How did they come to face each other as antagonists?
To answer that, it is necessary to see how those two larger conversations have intersected. In 1979, Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan presented a framework which does exactly that. Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis mapped how sociologists had theorized organizations; but in doing so, the authors crafted a tool relevant to other situations.
Burrell and Morgan’s framework, repurposed to look at the current polarization, suggests that it revolves around two basic questions:
- Is society fundamentally about cooperation or about conflict?
- Is it possible to say anything objectively true about society, or not?
For each question, there is a continuum of possible answers. Laid out orthogonally, those become axes defining a two-dimensional landscape which can be used to map worldviews among people at large, and also how trends in academic thinking accord, or conflict, with those.
Through this lens, contours of the current polarization appear. A major fault line is how people see social order: Does it have any claim to natural legitimacy or not? This has become more a matter of visceral posture than of Left/Right debates on particular policy issues.
At the same time, academic thinking has historically shifted toward emphasizing subjective factors in knowledge and skepticism toward truth claims. That view, together with the posture that sees society as fundamentally oppressive, has become the dominant paradigm in the social sciences and humanities. (Burrell and Morgan called it “radical humanism”.)
Outside of academia, though, there is a more popular and diametrically opposed paradigm which takes for granted that people attempt to objectively describe reality, and which sees society as naturally legitimate and more about cooperation than conflict. (This correlates roughly with functionalist sociological theories.)
In this polarization, truth and social justice have become battle flags of the opposing camps. They are, as Jonathan Haidt pointed out, sacred values. That is because each axis—society and knowledge—is a dimension of worldview to which people can attach quasi-religious devotion.
The peculiar role that academia has played in the polarization results from both dimensions of the radical humanist paradigm: The shift toward subjective views of knowledge has made much academic work less accessible and less evidently applicable to lay people. At the same time, the view of society as fundamentally oppressive has undermined the relationship between academia and the world outside, because it has dissociated itself from the large proportion of human experience which is not easily relatable to oppression.
Burrell and Morgan posited two dimensions on which to locate sociological theories. Regarding the nature of society, the poles represent an emphasis on order and stability (“regulation”) versus on conflict and radical change. On the nature of social science, the poles represent whether researchers take their work to be an objective approach to an objective reality (following traditions from the natural sciences), or, alternatively, hold it as necessarily fraught with subjectivity. The resulting orthogonal axes separate four quadrants:
Burrell and Morgan assert that the four are incompatible paradigms. Each is based on broad and mutually exclusive meta-theoretical assumptions, usually taken for granted.
The authors narrate how the former mainstream of sociology (functionalism) attempted to describe, objectively, how society gets things done. Traditional Marxists and others (radical structuralism) focused instead on conflict and how society radically changes; yet together with the functionalists, they were committed to the ideal of describing objective reality. But others opposed the idea of trying to approach social experience objectively. Some (interpretive) theorists described how individuals subjectively construct, negotiate and order their own lives within the status quo. Other (radical humanist) theorists focused on human subjectivity within the context of social conflict, emphasizing pathologies of consciousness, alienation, and possibilities for liberation.
Over four decades, Burrell and Morgan’s framework has been broadly influential, with more than 13,000 citations. Morgan went on to write Images of Organization, a classic management text popularizing the insight that organizations are construed in different ways based on underlying worldviews.
Though the axes are designed to map positions in social theory, they have a discernible relationship to ways in which people at large approach the world. Ordinary people’s explicit ideologies and implicit practical worldviews correspond, to a great degree, with aspects of various paradigms. Of course, the views of lay people are not subjected to rigorous academic review; so it is easier for them to maintain a mix of views, straddling quadrants, without noticing contradictions. But even with this caveat, the paradigms can point to dynamics in ordinary people’s thinking, and how the current polarization emerged.
A Psychological Fault Line
Two quadrants represent a radical critique of society—seen to be fundamentally about conflict—and the other two do not. This might seem to map roughly to the division between Right and Left political ideologies.
Importantly, however, that mapping is imperfect because Left is a relative term: Center Left positions emphasize their opposition to social injustices but still support the social order as having a natural legitimacy; they clearly fall, along with Center Right positions, in the same (non-radical) lower half of the framework.
That border between radical and non-radical is the main psychological fault line of the current polarization. It is as if there were a tipping point marked with an asterisk: There are individuals and groups who see the operation of society as having natural legitimacy, but who maintain a mental asterisk to recognize the existence of social conflict; while for others, that awareness of conflict is so weighty that it is their main proposition, with only an asterisk to admit that some things do get done harmoniously.
Costs of Subjectivism
The two radical quadrants demonstrate, horizontally, how the radical worldview has shifted based on attitude toward knowledge. Through the mid-twentieth century, most of the radical Left adhered to a Marxism which firmly claimed to offer a “scientific” analysis of society: the radical structuralist paradigm. That is now a fossil.
Current leftist thinking draws principally on the radical humanist paradigm, which looks to the younger Marx, Critical Theory, anarchistic individualism, and Existentialism. What those diverse movements have in common, Burrell and Morgan say, is concern for human consciousness and its liberation within a social reality held to be socially created and socially sustained. In the academy, this emphasis on subjectivity has been increasingly embraced.
What proportion of each paradigm’s theory is accessible to non-academics? There appears to be a considerable differential among them.
This is noticeable in the radical half of the framework. Some abstract elements of twentieth century Marxism—e.g. commodity fetishism—were understood mostly by professional ideologues. Large parts of Marxist discourse, though, described industrial and agricultural power dynamics in ways that were easily recognizable from the lived experience of people in those situations.
In contrast, the Left’s shift toward the radical humanist paradigm has relied heavily upon appeals to philosophical arguments which require a difficult mental stretch. This has made Left academics less accessible to lay people—including their own sympathizers. The kernel of what was expounded in Das Kapital and other works had already been outlined in an accessible tract (The Communist Manifesto) that very easily gained a broad and accurately comprehending readership. It is hard to imagine a simple tract that could make ideas from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality wildly popular and correctly understood in the same way.
Part of the reason may be that for most people, it is simply more compelling to think about society than about knowledge. Perhaps social ideas access the amygdala more directly than dry epistemology can.
Yet even within abstract thought about knowledge, some kinds of theorizing are more evidently applicable than others — although across the board, the distance between academic research and lay people’s concerns seems to be growing.
Theories about language and meaning, for example, underwent a historic shift toward the subjectivist end of Burrell and Morgan’s horizontal axis. A hundred years ago, a principal concern was the difficulty of using language to represent facts. That was aligned with ordinary life, where most people intend, by some of their uses of language, to represent states of affairs in the world. Insofar as their goals include sharing meaning in order to organize cooperation, and insofar as their personal values include honesty, they face practical problems of accuracy. Today, it is more common to study language games and social factors, and to consign representational issues to the category of philosophical naiveté.
It is strikingly difficult to find practical applications in lay people’s lives growing out of those schools of thought. For example, in 1995 Rudy Hirschheim, Heinz Klein and Kalle Lyytinen used Burrell and Morgan’s framework to demonstrate, in Information Systems Development and Data Modeling, how various positions regarding language and meaning underwrite or contradict approaches to designing information systems. Twenty years later, the views at the subjectivist end of the axis have still had no appreciable influence in the field.
The Impervious Practical World
Meanwhile, the non-radical half of Burrell and Morgan’s framework continues to prevail in the “real world” — where a great deal of life is about how to get things done, whether in organizations or informal social situations. Such efforts may, and often do, include discussing and exercising power — and may exacerbate, maintain or ameliorate imbalances. But more fundamentally, they are necessarily organized around practical social elements: goals and processes, tasks and roles, institutions, and exchanges.
Competence in dealing with such elements is necessarily regarded as a useful human skill. Hence, a mutually-reinforcing feedback loop emerges between practical effort and the non-radical half of Burrell and Morgan’s framework.
Practical social elements were the raw materials for the theorizing of early twentieth-century sociologists and anthropologists, whose attempts to describe them objectively (the functionalist paradigm) then informed classic theories of organization which are still taught in management schools. Today, managers also learn to work with subjective dimensions of organizational life (for example, Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology is influential from the interpretive paradigm). What the non-radical quadrants have in common, though, is that they get things done — and help people and organizations survive and succeed — by starting from the basic assumption that social organization has a cooperative aspect that is valuable, worth celebrating, and in some sense fundamental.
Battlefront: Social Psychology
While life on the non-radical side of the framework appears to itself to be both practical and not necessarily political, on the radical side of the line, power relations are considered fundamental — and assertions to the contrary tend to be regarded as illusory.
In earlier (radical structuralist) formulations, this critique relied on the concept of false consciousness promoted by a dominant ideology; today, social psychological concepts serve an equivalent function.
The use of these frameworks for Left political action (see Jarrett Crawford and Lee Jussim’s Politics of Social Psychology) seems natural given that radical humanism portrays the individual as a conscious actor painfully constrained by the social order. In the current polarization, however, the concepts have broken out of radical theory, are being used as the basis of empirical research, and are being popularized in Center-Left journalism.
For example, Thomas B. Edsall recently published an editorial in the New York Times called ”The Contract With Authoritarianism”. He commented on current U.S. voting patterns in light of work by political scientists and social psychologists which characterizes one set of valued personality traits (respect for elders, good manners, obedience, and good behavior) as “authoritarian” in contrast to an opposing set (independence, curiosity, self-reliance and consideration for others). The original dichotomy was formulated by Theodor Adorno and co-authors in a study of twentieth-century fascism.
However, their work was a response coming from a very specific and consciously political paradigm about society and knowledge: Adorno was one of the most influential of the philosopher/sociologists within Burrell and Morgan’s radical humanist quadrant. Very different analyses of fascism (and of Left authoritarianism) were made by non-radical writers, and included strong critiques of Adorno’s concept. “Authoritarian personality” should not be mistaken, therefore, as originating in the tradition of putatively value-neutral social science. Arguably, it contains within it a fundamental bias against claims that the social order can have any natural legitimacy.
Navigating the Polarization
Navigating with a map allows a traveller to know where s/he is. Burrell and Morgan’s framework both locates ideas across the present polarization and reveals their roots in history. The latter may be particularly helpful now, as academia has become both ramified into micro-disciplines and simultaneously interested in cross-disciplinary thinking.
Perhaps the last century of ramification has left people insufficiently aware of the original fateful twists and turnings that occurred before today’s delineations between various sub-disciplines; and many may not clearly be aware of where they themselves are located within the landscape of paradigms about society and knowledge. They may see the denizens of the other quadrants simply as The Other.
In this milieu, debates become more superficial, as the reasoning that people use to defend their positions comes to rely on a sort of social enthymeme, a knowingness in which it is subliminally understood that in-group membership depends on acceptance of certain unstated premises which are endued with moral value.
Conversely, understanding the origins and contours of other paradigms could break down barriers. The necessary mental movement is: first, to recognize the scope of the opposing worldviews (i.e. that they are broad and deep enough to be considered paradigms in their own right); second, to explicitly surface those worldviews’ assumptions and; third, to honestly grapple with aspects of them that challenge the assumptions underlying one’s own.
When Burrell and Morgan created their framework, the functionalist paradigm was still so strong that, looking out diagonally from within it, ideas in the radical humanist quadrant could seem both incomprehensible and not worthy of attention. Their framework aimed to establish the identity and legitimacy of radical humanist thinking as a paradigm in its own right.
A generation and a half later, the situation in much of academia has flipped. It is now an open question how many of those receiving an essentially radical humanist education are able to give an accurate account of the arguments supporting the functionalist worldview. This may be a factor in the uncomprehending estrangement that is often expressed toward populations in unsophisticated non-urban environments which have been drawn toward current varieties of populism. Perhaps functionalism has always reigned supreme in those Red areas, while younger Blue intellectuals never learned what it is.
If so, the good news is, this gap can be effectively remedied: Lex Donaldson’s early response to Burrell and Morgan, In Defence of Organization Theory, is one good place to start. Particularly relevant is his argument that social conflicts emphasized within the radical paradigms can be adequately understood through (non-radical) conceptions of society based on systems theory.
Donaldson also argues against Burrell and Morgan’s assertion that the paradigms are irreconcilable: certainly, people do entrench themselves within their worldviews. However, the apparent incompatibility between radical and non-radical paradigms could be understood as, primarily, a psychological posture:
On the radical side, this entails a choice to avoid and oppose serious recognition of the cooperative aspects of society; in a sense, it splits the world into two parts (cooperation/conflict) and attempts to only acknowledge and operate within the latter. That mental movement, however, leaves the practical techniques of management (which are needed even for revolutionary projects) in enemy territory, whence they can only be retrieved at the cost of paradigmatic consistency. To organize the Red Army, Leon Trotsky found that he had to use traditional military principles.
Interpreting the current Red/Blue polarization as antagonism between functionalist and radical humanist paradigms also explains the offence occasionally caused by mild rhetoric pointing to historic instances of meritocracy, successful assimilation of immigrant groups etc. Such statements run afoul of an in-group psychological posture that privileges subjective accounts associating the social order primarily with injustice.
The strength of the offence taken may be explicable if the paradigms are understood as functioning, for some people, as religious commitments or communities. (Burrell and Morgan described defection from one paradigm to another as being like a religious conversion.) Adherence is not merely intellectual but also morally passionate.
This is evident on both axes. Regarding the nature of society, one group’s perceptions and rhetoric around (in)justice and (dis)order are easily dismissed by adversarial groups as evidence of immoral Otherness. Specific epistemologies also have partisans who impute to their methods a moral value. Without shared language about knowledge, it is hard to find common ground for talking about society.
In this landscape, it is predictable that truth and social justice would come to face each other as antagonists: they will not be reconciled until new syntheses arise to replace the current dichotomies.