Practitioners and academics do not share the same values, models, and
theories when making sense of their environment (Starbuck, 1982; Shrivastava
& Mitroff, 1984; Van de Ven & Johnson, 2006). While both rigor and relevance
are equally valid and valuable, they possess opposite epistemological and
ontological statuses which hold back the academic attempt to generate
and transfer academic theory to organizational practice (Zundel & Kokkalis,
2010). Therefore, to deal with the dualism of rigor and relevance, there are
philosophical challenges which involve two issues: 1) how the concepts
of knowledge and theory should be defined and 2) the systematic linkage
between knowledge and action, i.e. whether theory precedes practice or
whether practice is methodologically anterior (Jarzabkowski et al., 2010). Our
discussion is summarized in the table below.
Ontological and epistemological assumptions of the rigor perspective
As Aram and Salipant (2003) pointed out, the rigor perspective assumes a
stability and continuity in the world. The world is stable, objective and ‘out
there’, awaiting impartial exploration and discovery (Gioia & Pitre, 1990).
Its general principles can thus be discovered and abstractly represented or
The goal of theory building is to construct a theory of the stable and universal
relationship between parts of the system under study. A theory of a phenomenon
is the explanation of that phenomenon, which has to state a relationship
between at least two variables and what that relationship is (Zundel & Kokkalis,
2010). Theories must be valid across diverse situations (Scherer, 2003).
Knowledge is free from the influences of any subjective assumptions that may
distort reality (Taylor, 2006). It is assumed to take an explicit form, adhering
to an ‘objectivity’ that enables organizational researchers to represent the way
the world actually is not from a place within it, but from nowhere in particular
The conventional wisdom of this perspective is that knowledge is distinguishable
from and precedes action (Jarzabkowski et al., 2010). Theory methodologically
precedes its application in specific circumstances in the organization
(Donaldson, 1996). It is assumed to be translatable into actions that help solve
practical problems and advance organizational practice (Tranfield & Starkey,
1998). For example, managers can rely on theories to explain organizational
phenomena, predict behavior and control organizations.
Therefore, the tradition of academic research is to discover regularities, causal
statements and even law-like rules in the firm’s functioning and behavior
through statistical associations between important variables (Scherer, 2003).
The criterion for desirable management knowledge is rigor, which scholars
claim to obtain by investigation replete with standard data collection methods
and quantitative measures with multivariate statistical techniques (Gulati,
2007; Palmer et. al., 2009).
Ontological and epistemological assumptions of the relevance perspective
From the relevance perspective, the world is contingent and one can assume
neither stability nor continuity (Aram & Salipante, 2003). The world is a lifeworld
(Husserl, 1970). It is the world as it is ‘lived by the person’ (Valle, King, &
As the world is contingent upon the individuals’ construction of meanings, there
is the problem of how theory can be justified at all (Scherer & Steinmann, 1999;
Spender & Scherer, 2007). With the perspective’s ontological assumption that
change is endemic, interest in objectifying behaviour or in pursuing generalized
behavioural regularities is disavowed; efforts to theorize are misguided and
fruitless (Aram & Salipante, 2003). Instead of attempting to generalize, scholars
should pay attention to context-oriented epistemological principles, such as
quality (wholeness, or taking all relevant factors into account in comprehending
an event) and texture (understanding the unique configuration of details and
relationships that comprise the situation) (Tsoukas, 1994).
The relevance perspective argues that the inquirer and the phenomenon under
inquiry cannot be separated in the knowledge process. We cannot know an
independent, objective world that stands apart from our experience of that
world (Avenir, 2010). Knowledge, thus, is highly personal, local and context
dependent. One undermines knowledge in the effort to abstract it from its
context. Only through interacting with the environment do we become able to
obtain knowledge about social and natural phenomena (Jarzabkowski et al.,
As the construction of knowledge is rooted in practice, action methodologically
precedes knowledge and the development of theory is a systematic extension
of prac-tice (Scherer & Steinmann, 1999). Life is seen by Wilhelm Dilthey
(1926) in Jarzabkowski et al. (2010) as the beginning of and reference point
for the development of knowledge and theory. We cannot go to an external
point outside the social world to obtain understanding about life and create
As organizational practitioners encounter their environment in a practical and
ready-to-hand fashion, relevant theories are more desirable (Aram & Salipante,
2003). Relevance indicates the ability of management knowledge to offer
solutions to immediate practical concerns as well as to inform and develop
organizational practice by offering new ways of seeing, and creating alternative
perspectives for practitioners (Zundel & Kokkalis, 2010).
The so-called rigor–relevance gap appears unbridgeable according to
their different epistemological and ontological assumptions. Although the
assumptions underlying rigor have certain inadequacy, those of relevance
do not effectively overcome them. According to Wicks and Freeman (1998),
rather than moving beyond such assumptions, the relevance perspective
simply reverses them: one aims to find theory and describe the world, the other
worries about making theory and prescribing the world. The emphasis shifts
from finding the right theories to developing a variety of different theories. While
admitting that each theory is contextual and subjective, we get trapped in the
problem of how many or what kinds of theories are used. Relativism becomes
a fundamental problem.
John Dewey (1859 – 1952) was renowned for being one of the most controversial
philosophers of his generation. He wrote extensively on many different subjects
including philosophy, psychology, political science, education, aesthetics and
the arts. Along with Peirce and James, Dewey has been credited as one of
the most prominent classic pragmatist thinkers and pioneers. His pragmatist
approach is distinguishable by an inherent nature that Dewey often referred to
as ‘instrumentalism’ or ‘experimentalism’. Pragmatism was a convenient label
to refer to a group of diverse thinkers, including Peirce, James, and Dewey
The Cartesian dualism makes the rigor and relevance divide unbridgeable. Both
perspectives believe in the separation of the individual and the environment,
knowing and action, empirical and theoretical knowledge, and the like. By
contrast, a unifying theme in the work of all the classical pragmatists and their
successors is the development of a philosophical orientation that replaces this
dualistic scheme (Bernstein, 2010). Peirce was the first to seek to work out an
alternative understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos. One
can see this in Peirce’s aphoristic saying that ‘knowledge is habit’ (Kilpinen,
2009). James challenged the subject–object distinction or consciousness–
content distinction in his 1904 essay ‘Does ‘consciousness’ exist?’ Dewey’s
main point was to make clear that such dualism is not the inevitable or necessary
point of departure for all philosophy (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). He said: ‘What
have been completely divided in philosophical discourse into man and world,
inner and outer, self and not-self, subject and object, individual and social,
private and public, etc., are in actuality parties in life-transactions’ (Dewey and
Bentley, 1949 ). The pragmatist thinkers sought to bring about a turn of
the tide with their rejection of such sharp dichotomy (Bernstein, 2010).
While the rigor perspective sees the world as stable and independent of the
individual and the relevance one describes it as contingent and lived by the
individual, Dewey’s conceptualization of the world embraces both viewpoints.
He argued for ‘the world that is there’ but it is ‘there’ with such meaning only
in its relation to an individual. Reality reveals itself to us as a result of our
activities, of our ‘doings’ (Dewey, 1934 ). This conceptualization is based
on the pragmatist view that an individual is within nature, not outside of nature
and linked to it through his/her experience. Dewey said: ‘nature’s place in
man is no less significant than man’s place in nature. Man in nature is man
subjected; nature in man, recognized and used, is intelligence and art’ (Dewey,
1917 , p. 437).
Dewey’s view of the world can be seen in his concept of experience.
Understanding Dewey’s notion of experience is the key to understanding his
philosophy as a whole (Elkjaer, 2004). He developed this notion throughout
his long life (Dewey, 1917 , 1925 , 1934 , 1938 ).
This notion of Dewey should not be mixed up with an everyday understanding
of the notion, i.e. as an inner, personal reservoir of earlier experiences
(Miettinen, 2000). Influenced by Hegel, Dewey’s concept of experience implies
the transactional relationship between the individual and the environment
(Bernstein, 2010). Dewey (1917 ) described every experience as having
an active side, which changes to some degree the objective conditions under
which experiences are had, and a reaction to the changes produced in the
environment experienced by the individual, who suffers the consequences
of his/her own behavior. This close connection between doing and suffering
or undergoing manifests itself as features and relations within an ongoing,
unanalyzed unity (p. 437).
Dewey questioned the opposition between the denial of theory and universal
theory, or between empirical and higher rational knowing (Dewey, 1916 ).
Being strongly influenced by James, who also sought for a via media between
the misguided epistemological atomism of the empiricists and the ‘block
universe’ monism of the idealists (James, 1977 in Bernstein, 2010), Dewey
(1938 ) neither denied the attempt to theorize nor believed in generating
universal understandings. He rather argued that we can theorize, but saying
that theory offers us a factual way of looking at the world is a wrong conclusion.
For him, it is simply another account of how things within the world relate
to each other. While discussing theory, Dewey (1925 : 100) said: ‘the
exacting conditions imposed by nature, that have to be observed in order that
work be carried through to success, are the source of all noting and recording of
nature’s doings. They supply the discipline that chastens exuberant fancy into
respect for the operation of events, and that effects subjection of thought to a
pertinent order of space and time’.
Many criticized this pragmatic pluralism as just a fancy name for relativism, but
it is not. According to Bernstein (2010), pragmatic pluralism accepts multiple
interpretations, but it demands us to be specific about the kind of interpretation
we are talking about. The author pointed out two common pragmatic questions:
‘what is the oneness known-as?’ and ‘what practical difference will it make?’
These questions indicate that pragmatic pluralism requires us to reach out to
the points of contact where we can critically engage with each other. Relativism
speaks of incommensurable frameworks and paradigms. By contrast, pragmatic
pluralism calls for a critical engagement with other points of view and with other
visions (James, 1975 ).
Dewey’s view of knowledge embraces rigor and relevance. To understand his
argument, it is necessary to introduce his notion of situation and inquiry. Situation
is discussed at length in Dewey’s work in 1938 . Situation denotes the
entire character of all conditions under which and within which an individual
lives at a given time, including shared routines of behavior such as traditions
and norms. It is important to mention indeterminate situation. Miettinen (2000)
has nicely represented this notion as a state of uncertainty emerges because
habits do not work, routine actions are upset, and the individual is confused.
Inquiry was the topic of his well-known work of 1938 . Dewey defined
inquiry as the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation
into a determinate one. Inquiry involves thinking, a choice of actions, and the
actual transformation of a situation (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). Inquiry has
two kinds of result: the immediate outcome is that the situation becomes
reconstructed in such a way that the initial problem becomes resolved; the
indirect outcome is the production of a meaning that can be used as a resource
in forthcoming problem situations (Miettinen, 2000). There is not an absolute
end to inquiry, because every settlement of a situation institutes new conditions,
which, in turn, occasion new problems and the cycle begins again (Dewey,
For Dewey, on the one hand, knowledge is not a mirror of reality and the role
of science is not to make knowledge as true as possible so it represents reality
in an accurate way (Fenstermacher & Sanger, 1998). Dewey acknowledged
the context-dependent and personal nature of knowledge to the extent that he
defined knowledge as being the outcome of inquiry, located in the transaction
between us and the environment (Dewey, 1938 ). Knowledge, by this
account, is always contextual, because it is always related to the specific
inquiry in which it was achieved. For these reasons, Dewey preferred to use the
expression warranted assertion to denote the conceptual outcome of inquiry,
rather than knowledge (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). On the other hand, there
is also generalized knowledge, such as the kind of knowledge that explains
why turning a handle causes the door to open (Polkinghoime, 2000). It is the
convergent and cumulative effect of continued inquiry that defines knowledge
in its general sense.
Unlike the rigor and relevance perspectives, Dewey’s discussion of knowledge
and action, did not focus on the question of whether one precedes another.
He rather saw them as intertwined, as can be seen in his concept of inquiry.
Although reflection plays an important part in inquiry, it is only when we put the
suggested solution into action that its value can be established. Dewey’s claim
is that it is the combination of reflection and action that leads to knowledge
(Dewey, 1939 ). Specifically, Dewey claimed that our knowing takes
place inside the process of action, not outside it or before it.
Dewey argued against the distinction between relevant and rigorous theories
(Dewey, 1916 ). He used the criterion of usefulness, which embraces
both rigor and relevance criteria, in defining desirable management knowledge.
Usefulness would be characterized by a focus on the practical relevance of
research as well as a desire to search for novel and innovative approaches that
may help serve human purposes; it reminds people that they can and should
see different interpretations as having more or less value (Wicks & Freeman,
1998). Dewey’s notion of usefulness will be presented in detail in the following