2 Power, politics and ethics in studying organisations


In recent years, much attention has been devoted to considering the ethics of organisational research. This mainly focuses on how we should act towards the people who are involved in our research, i.e. research participants, and how they might reasonably expect to benefit from their participation.

A key ethical principle at stake here is reciprocity: the idea that research should be of mutual benefit to researchers and participants, and that some form of collaboration or active participation should be involved in order to enable this (Bell and Bryman, 2007). At the same time, political conditions – including increasingly precarious academic work, intensification of pressure to publish research, consumer-oriented teaching environments and prescriptive managerial regimes in universities – have increased the demands on those who do organisational research. In this section, we reflect on the ethical imperative for empowering research and the political challenges that organisational researchers are likely to face in doing this kind of research.

To appreciate the nature of the ethical demands and political pressures described above, we first need to understand how organisational knowledge is produced. In recent decades, organisational knowledge has been profoundly shaped by the globalisation of business schools within universities, as the main institution where academics are employed to teach students and do research. Business school globalisation is driven by the increased geographical mobility of academics and students, which means that more and more business schools are in global competition with one another.

One of the ways that schools try to distinguish the quality of their educational programmes, and attract staff and students, is by seeking accreditation from international bodies such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] or EQUIS. A key performance indicator used by these bodies is the quality of the research that researchers in the school produce. This is measured using proxy indicators, such as the global ranking of the journal that the research is published in, the FT50 or the AJG Academic Journal Guide (AJG). Consequently, researchers face increasing pressure to publish in a small number of highly ranked North American journals, many of which are dominated by the positivist tradition (Grey, 2010).

Macdonald and Kam (2007) argue that the rise of a global academic ‘publish or perish’ culture has resulted in business researchers employing gamesmanship to maximise their chances of success. A key tactic involves writing papers that reviewers (who decide whether work is good enough to be accepted by a journal) are likely to regard as uncontroversial. To achieve this, researchers are more likely to use methods that are broadly accepted within the field rather than experiment with new research approaches. This includes using quantitative methods, which are widely assumed to be more rigorous than qualitative methods and are more common in highly ranked management journals (Bell, Kothiyal and Willmott, 2017). They are less likely to challenge existing theory: a practice referred to as ‘gap-spotting’, rather than ‘problematisation’ (see Sandberg and Alvesson, 2011 for a summary).

While these political pressures are experienced by organisational researchers across the globe, they can be particularly powerfully felt by researchers in the global south, as a consequence of asymmetric power relations between countries in the Western core and those in the periphery, which are positioned as Other. An account of how these pressures are experienced by Indian management and organisational researchers can be read in Kothiyal et al. (2018). As this article shows, such powerful norms of what constitutes ‘good’ research reinforces the dominance of established Western ways of thinking, driving researchers in the periphery towards mimicry and marginalising their voices. These concepts are discussed further in Section 3.

As a consequence of these political pressures, organisational researchers may assume – or are told by established scholars – that empowering research is too risky because it is insufficiently rigorous, systematic or scientific. This brings us back to thinking about ethics and specifically to the question of who research is for: this involves considering the purposes that organisational research serves and the responsibilities that researchers have towards others and the world around them, especially those who are disadvantaged, oppressed or exploited as a consequence of organisational logics that are founded on modernist values of scientific rationalism, based on an Enlightenment view of progress that developed in the global north. These issues focus attention on the ethical values of organisational research, or matters of axiology.

The dominant paradigm in management and organisation studies is based on a positivist ontology. This paradigm advocates that knowledge should be produced using the same standards and methods as the natural sciences. The purpose of doing research is thus to develop objective knowledge, in the form of propositions or law-like predictions that are generalisable and thereby constitute a single, unified truth. The purpose of empowering research involves contesting this dominant paradigm and presenting alternatives.

Positivist organisational research makes a clear distinction between facts– objective truths awaiting discovery – and values, which are seen as subjective, and thus present a threat to the pursuit of truth – which exists independently of the researcher who studies it. This type of research, which is strongly associated with quantitative study, involves seeking to remove sources of potential bias – a threat to research quality.

However, organisational researchers working in the post-positivist theoretical traditions – including qualitative, critical, postcolonial and feminist scholars – argue that it is impossible to avoid making value judgements when producing knowledge. The only ethical position, they suggest, involves researchers acknowledging and articulating the values that they hold and showing how they shape the knowledge that is produced. This is referred to as reflexivity (see Film Focus 8, Section 4). The difference between these two positions is not that post-positivist researchers hold certain values (and act on the basis of them in their research) while positivist researchers do not; but that post-positivist researchers acknowledge the effects of their values on the research while positivist researchers often fail to do so.

This provides the context within which we encourage you to think about doing empowering research as a way of producing knowledge that challenges dominant research norms that perpetuate elitist structures and reinforce core/periphery relations between the global north and the global south. The importance of empowering research thus arises from its potential to also challenge power relations experienced by organisational researchers.

In summary, empowering research involves challenging the resurgence of conservative, technocratic and isomorphic norms of what counts as ‘good’ organisational research that are framed according to a positivist or neo-positivist paradigm. This involves drawing on post-positivist (including feminist and decolonising) methodologies and theories, and using this to develop research questions and research designs.

Management research as craft