SCHOLARSHIP IS CONVERSATION
Huff’s (1999) dictum, that scholarship is conversation, nicely frames
Baruch’s commentary (2002, this issue) on our introduction (Gunz,
Bird, and Arthur, 2002, this issue) and this response to Baruch. When
a group has been working with an idea for as long as we have on this,
it’s always good to have a quizzical eye cast over the project and to
have to answer the question: was it worth doing? As we hint at the
beginning of our introduction, this thought has never been far from us,
either, and it needs answering.
The question is particularly germane to the present exercise because,
not to put too fine a point on it, “new science” (we still dislike the term)
has attracted more than a few cranks. Some of the ideas that have
emerged from the physical sciences over the past century are so far
away from everyday experience that they seem quite bizarre. These
ideas include, for example, objects shrinking along one dimension and
gaining mass as they go faster with respect to an observer as predicted by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, or electrons “tunneling”
through what ought to be impervious barriers (the so-called “tunneling
effect, ” which is now being put to use in the scanning tunneling electron microscope and certain designs of transistor).
It is little surprise, then, that mystical and bizarre connections occasionally get made and enthusiastically promulgated by people who
misunderstand the theory underpinning these odd phenomena, and
whose contributions puzzle and irritate people who don’t. Words get
into the discourse and are used indiscriminately without any regard to
their original meaning: “nonlinearity” and “entropy” come to mind as
prime examples of overworked terms which have become detached in
the minds of many from the concepts whence they sprang. That’s not
to say that these ideas don’t have profound existential implications, of
course. For example, the second law of thermodynamics, which states
that the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum—i.e., that the universe will eventually run down—gets people thinking about fundamental issues as few other physical laws do. But the first trap that awaits
anyone trying to make the kind of connections we are attempting here
is, quite simply, have we misunderstood the ideas we are drawing on
so badly that our whole argument is nonsense?
This possibility has worried us from the beginning, and although nothing has emerged so far which suggests that we have fallen into the trap
it is still there. However, it is not the nub of Baruch’s argument. He has
five basic points, which deserve addressing. They are: 1/ introducing
ideas from non-social sciences is premature given the state of theoretical development of the careers field; 2/ the physical sciences are
just too different from the social sciences to be useful; 3/ the world of
careers is changing so rapidly at the moment that it is inappropriate to
attempt theoretical synthesis; 4/ it would have been better to introduce
the ideas into the behavioural sciences generally before descending to
the careers particularly; and 5/ the project dialogue does not involve
physical scientists whose intellectual property the ideas are. We
address each of these criticisms in turn.
WHY BUILD AN ELABORATE, HIGH-TECHNOLOGY SUPERSTRUCTURE WHEN THE FOUNDATIONS ARE INCOMPLETE?
Baruch uses a nice metaphor to describe our venture, accusing us of
trying to add a glass and titanium top to a building with inadequate
foundations. He points out that we acknowledge that the careers field
is still in a state of theoretical turmoil—or, more precisely, that it lacks
any real integration. Careers, he argues, are so complex that nobody
has come up with a unifying theory. So haven’t we got our priorities
wrong? Surely we should be concentrating on making the best of what
we already have before we search elsewhere for ideas? Implicitly, he
is making the point that our project is a distraction from more serious
scholarly activity. He gives the example of the psychological contract,
a robust concept making something of a comeback recently which still
has plenty of life left in it. Until we have really exploited its possibilities
to the fullest, and similarly for other ideas from the social sciences (he
specifically identifies socio-psychology, presumably on the basis of his
assertion that « First and foremost, the career is individual “property” »
[p. 16]), we should stick to our knitting.
As is evident from our Introduction, we agree that the careers field
lacks integration. But we fundamentally reject Baruch’s conclusion
from this: we see no reason why we should not explore other fields for
help. To borrow his metaphor, we see our project not as building elegant superstructures on buildings with inadequate foundations, but as
looking for alternative foundation-construction technologies. We see
that the present foundations appear unable to cope with either the
nature of the ground we are building on, or the complex architecture
they are intended to support.
As we imply in our opening comments here, we do not believe that
foggy thinking is acceptable in ventures such as this. There is, it
seems to us, a particular obligation on anyone trying to introduce
unconventional ideas to a field to make sure that they are doing so
with precision and clarity; naïve but uninformed enthusiasm is both
inadequate and misleading. But that is different from saying that
nobody should look for unconventional ideas. We made the point in
the Introduction that creativity can spring from putting together previously-unconnected ideas. To draw on an example from physical science, spectroscopy was sharply disconnected from chemistry in the
nineteenth century: the former was about studying the curious spectra emitted by the elements, and the latter was about trying to understand the structure of matter and how it reacts. It was only when
chemists got interested in the bizarre ideas surfacing in twentieth century quantum theory that connections started to be made and an elegant theoretical structure built: spectra and chemical behaviour were
two manifestations of the electronic structure of both atoms and
molecules, and spectra provided valuable chemical diagnostic information.
There is a further implication of Baruch’s point. In arguing, as he does,
that we haven’t yet adequately explored the possibilities of social science theory—and we don’t disagree with this at all—he could ask: how
will we know when we have? Who is authorized to make this decision?
This, of course, leads us into very difficult territory. The issue of who
authorizes work as “good science” has always been a thorny one, and
the peer review system is as vulnerable to it as any; the literature is
replete with stories about ideas which subsequently became highly
influential but which took some time to find a publisher. But even at a
practical level, how do we know when nothing more will emerge from
the tired group of ideas that we have limited ourselves to working with?
We don’t want to be thought of as overselling the potential contribution
of the ideas in this collection of papers, and of course it is possible that
our project ultimately will lead nowhere, but we believe that the kind of
thought censorship that Baruch suggests is fundamentally antithetical
to the scientific process.
There is also implicit in Baruch’s position an assumption that “first
movers” or “pioneers” are more legitimate than those who follow after.
In contrast, we would argue that the justification of good science, any
good science, is that it explains. New paradigms, new concepts and
new theories supplant old ones when they provide better—clearer,
simpler, more precise—explanations of the world (Van Maanen,
1995). If new science perspectives on careers can do this, what would
then be the point of first “filling in the gaps” around existing perspectives?
THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES ARE JUST TOO DIFFERENT
Baruch’s next point is that the social and physical sciences are qualitatively so different from each other that ideas from the latter simply
can’t be used in the former. He quotes Shultz’s dictum that atoms and
molecules don’t talk back; in other words, that the social sciences differ from the physical sciences in that they are concerned with objects
that reflect on their context, that can develop and transform. The physical sciences, he argues, are about falsification, while the social sciences are about association. Indeed, he says, given how long “new
science” has been with us, surely the obvious inference to draw about
what we are attempting is that other scholars have realized that the
exercise is futile? He argues that we have partially taken this point—
that the two branches of science are too different from each other for
the one to help the other—when we say that for much of the time an
effort such as ours has to dwell at the level of metaphor. Apart from
raising a minor objection, that we point out in the Introduction that we
are by no means the first social scientists to import ideas from the
physical sciences, we are left wondering: so what is the precise nature
of Baruch’s objection? At one point he argues eloquently that
metaphor « can be advantageous, in the sense that the analogy can
enhance the understanding of relevant phenomena, » (p. 18) citing
Pondy in support of this view. He adds that: « The new science can definitely offer new and relevant metaphors to add to our understanding
of the phenomena of careers. » (p. 18) However, he then proceeds:
« Will it be sufficient to develop new career theory? The answer, I
argue, is negative. » (p. 18) Why? If metaphor can be helpful, why
shouldn’t we explore it to see what it offers? What is so limiting about
careers theory that it cannot benefit?
Furthermore, not all of the papers in the collection work at only a
metaphorical level. Moreover, the most common concepts to run
through them—for example emergence, nonlinearity, and self-organization—spring from complexity theory, which has already been widely
used in the social sciences. Whether these papers succeed in their
attempt is another matter, of course; our point is simply that some of
our authors have indeed tried to transcend the use of metaphor.
THE WORLD OF CAREERS IS CHANGING SO RAPIDLY THAT NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO ATTEMPT A THEORETICAL SYNTHESIS
Icons of organizational career practice have been falling so fast
recently, Baruch argues, that we live in too uncertain a world for it to
be wise to indulge in new theory-building. There is certainly something to be said for this view. If the empirical object of one’s theory
is unstable, how can a theory connect with it? We have two responses to this argument: 1/ good theory should transcend—even,
explain—changes in the phenomena it addresses; and 2/ we’re not
sure that the change going on is enough to invalidate what we’re trying to do.
Our first point is, perhaps, rather purist, but it needs to be made. It
seems to us that any theory of careers which could not cope, for example, with explaining the relationship between different kinds of organizational form and the careers of the people who move within and
between these organizational forms, is a pretty inadequate theory. It
has been fashionable of late to argue that much work on work careers
has assumed far too readily that careers take place within bureaucratic organizations, an assumption which is untrue for an increasing proportion of the working population. Yet this argument neglects a great
deal of important work, including seminal studies by the Chicago
school under the influence of Everett Hughes (1958), Gouldner’s
(1958) identification in of cosmopolitan as well as local careers, the
recognition of occupational communities (Van Maanen and Barley,
1984), and so on. In other words, not only have careers scholars recognized for a long time that work careers come in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes, they have been identifying them, classifying
them and trying to build theory around them. Many careers scholars
are trying to build better theories that encompass these many shapes
and sizes (see, for example, the collection of papers in Arthur and
Rousseau, 1996), and we see no reason to pause in our efforts. On the
contrary, we think that the challenge is to see if we can put frameworks
together which help us to make sense of the changes we are seeing,
and that is very much the thrust of many of the papers in this collection.
Our second point addresses an empirical issue. There is by no means
unanimity in the scholarly community that the organizational career is
dead and that the careers world really is in the turmoil that Baruch
holds it to be. Some, for example, have argued that the “boundaryless
career” has been oversold as a concept (e.g., Nicholson, 1996), while
others argue that for much of the working population it is an unaffordable luxury (Perrow, 1996). So while Baruch’s view is certainly fashionable, and there is plenty of evidence that the world has changed
since the post-World War II boom during which much early careers
research was done, we think it premature to conclude that present-day
careers are so much in flux and unknowable that they cannot be the
subject of theory-building.
IDEAS FROM THE NEW SCIENCES SHOULD FIRST BE APPLIED TO THE SOCIAL SCIENCES GENERALLY
Baruch’s point here is that « Perhaps the way forward to benefit from
the new science theories would be to see how they contribute to the
behavioral sciences in general, and then to apply them to career theory rather than bring them through the back door of career theory, a field
in its infancy. » (p. 20).
We disagree. We find it hard to imagine how Baruch’s recommendation could be carried out, which perhaps indicates our own limitations.
But more than that: Barley (1989) argues that the contribution of the
Chicago school was, inter alia, to demonstrate the centrality of career
to the understanding of social structures. If so, then surely careers are
a wonderful starting-point to explore the potential contribution of the
new sciences to social science theory in general?
NO PHYSICAL SCIENTISTS WERE INVOLVED IN THE PROJECT
Baruch is not quite correct in this assertion—the project did involve
contributions from people from the physical sciences and engineering—but he is substantially correct. Early on we spent time with colleagues in the physical sciences trying to gain a better understanding of the concepts and theories that so intrigued us. They patiently
pointed out errors in our understanding and suggested books and
articles that would help us clarify our thinking. The reaction of these
colleagues to our efforts was itself intriguing. Often they would ask
how we could possibly apply such concepts to social phenomena
that they viewed as infinitely more complex than the physical phenomena they chose to study? As we shared our perspective on how
we saw that new science might apply to careers they usually became
intrigued by the possibilities. Nevertheless, the views expressed here
are ours, not theirs. We feel reasonably confident that we haven’t
misrepresented new science concepts, but also accept that our
understanding is still imperfect. All we can say is that we tried to take
counsel from the world of physical science, even though it wasn’t
easy to do so.
Despite our differences with Baruch’s position, we are grateful that he
has raised the objections he has. Conversations of this kind are vital to
developing ideas and testing them properly. Some wag once noted
that the art of conversation consists in keeping your mind clear while
the other person is talking, so that you don’t forget what you were
going to say next. We wonder to what extent Baruch on the one hand,
and we three on the other hand, stand as cases in point? We leave it
to the reader to reach his or her own conclusions.
We close by returning to a point we introduced above. Ideas that are
new to a field are often unpopular and get rejected by the prevailing
orthodoxy. Sometimes they richly deserve this fate, but sometimes
they can be very helpful, and every now and then they turn the field
on its head. We don’t mean to claim that we think we will turn the
careers field on its head, but we are intrigued by the ideas the authors
of these papers have been working with. How are we going to bring
fresh thinking into our field if we previously dismiss any attempt to do
Arthur, M. B., and
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We respond to the points raised by Baruch in his critique of our introduction. We believe the critique is helpful because it directs our attention to some important questions that need addressing when applying ideas from one branch of science to another. We argue that there is value in looking elsewhere for ideas, provided that it is done carefully and with rigour.