Comment: Practice-based in Name Only? Assimilation of Critics to Protect a Paradigm

Leonhard Dobusch (Freie Universität Berlin)

When I recently stumbled across an article by Philip Bromiley and Devaki Rau on “Towards a Practice-based View of Strategy” (2014) in Strategic Management Journal (SMJ, Preprint-PDF), I found myself being reminded of ongoing paradigmatic struggles in the neighboring discipline of economics. Economics professors are confronted with a growing and mainly student-driven movement for more pluralism in teaching and research. Unsatisfied with the theoretically and methodologically monist approach of mainstream economics, students all around the world even start to organize lecture series to learn something about alternative (“heterodox”) schools of thought such as Evolutionary, Post-keynesian, Austrian, Institutional or Feminist economics.

In a paper published in 2009 (Preprint-PDF), Jakob Kapeller and myself have tried to explain how neoclassical dominance in economics came about and why it is still so powerful. We present a historical explanation, backed by some empirical citation analysis, that includes citation network effects, rankings and the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. One of the tactics that mainstream economists have repeatedly used to protect the dominance of their paradigm was to assimilate their critics by adopting some of their wording and by ritually referencing prominent scholars. “Neo-Schumpeterian” growth theory, for example, is – even according to prominent proponents such as Paul Romer – Schumpeterian in name only.

The reason I am telling this story in a blog post about practice-based strategy research is that Bromiley and Rau engage in similar rhetorical strategies. They “propose a practice-based view (PBV) of strategy scholarship” to consider “specific, actual techniques that managers might use to develop strategies or generally applicable firm practices” (p. 1249).

Such a research program sounds quite familiar. Nearly two decades ago, Richard Whittington (1996) described the approach “Strategy as Practice” as follows:

“The focus of this approach is on strategy as a social ‘practice’, on how the practitioners of strategy really act and interact. From the perspective of strategy as practice, the key question is: what does it take to be an effective strategy practitioner?” (p. 731)

So, has strategy-as-practice finally reached the top-tier journal in strategy research? Not so fast. In their article, Bromiley and Rau refer to the ample body of strategy-as-practice research just once:

“The strategy-as-practice movement adds important qualitative information on firm processes (Carter, Clegg, and Kornberger, 2008; Jarzabkowski, 2004) as does an older tradition in strategy process (see, for instance, Bower, 1970, and Bromiley, 1986). However, strictly qualitative research has a limited ability to identify effective processes rigorously. The PBV includes the qualitative work in strategy-as-practice, but adds the need for quantitative work as well.” (p. 1253)

This quote is demonstrates the assimilation tactic put forward by the authors. Instead of engaging with the practice-theoretical foundations of strategy-as-practice research (for an overview, see Schatzki et al. 2001; for recent contributions in SMJ see Jarzabkowski and Kaplan 2014; Paroutis and Heracleous 2013), it is merely rhetorically incorporated. Theoretically, the PBV is developed complementary to the resource-based view with a continued and narrow focus on “firm behavior and the influence of firm behavior on performance” (p. 1251).

At the same time, Bormiley and Rau dismiss the qualitatitive methodology common in strategy-as-practice research as not rigorous enough and call for quantitative approaches typical for traditional strategy research.

Effectively, all this renders the PBV practice-based in name only. Neither is the PBV rooted in practice theory nor does it propose a methodological approach equipped to empirically capture practices. Rather, the PBV as outlined by Bormiley and Rau treats practices more or less as variables.

Therefore, I doubt that the label PBV will make it easier for strategy-as-practice research to be recognized as a legitimate approach to studying strategy-making in journals such as the Strategic Management Journal. Quite to the contrary, I expect future criticism with regard to the lack of research on actual strategy-making to be countered by pointing to PBV research. Given this situation, special issues such as the current call for papers on “Strategy Processes and Practices: Dialogues and Intersections” (PDF) are of utmost importance to also theoretically – and not only rhetorically – anchor practice-based research in the scientific strategy discourse.

References

  • Bower, J.L. (1970): Managing the Resource Allocation Process. Harvard Business School Press: Boston.
  • Bromiley, P. (1986): Corporate Capital Investment: A Behavioral Approach. Cambridge University Press: New York.
  • Bromiley, P./Rau, C. (2014): Towards a Practice-based View on Strategy. Strategic Management Journal, 35, 1249-1256.
  • Carter, C./Clegg, S.R./Kornberger, M. (2008): Soapbox: editorial essays: strategy as practice? Strategic Organization 6(1), 83–99.
  • Dobusch, L./Kapeller, J. (2009): ‘Why is Economics not an Evolutionary Science?’ New Anwsers to Veblen’s Old Question. Journal of Economic Issues, 43(4), 867-898.
  • Jarzabkowski, P. (2004): Strategy as practice: recursiveness, adaptation, and practices-in-use. Organization Studies 25(4), 529–560.
  • Jarzabkowski, P./Kaplan, S. (2014): Strategy tools-in-use: A framework for understanding “technologies of rationality” in practice. Strategic Management Journal, in press.
  • Paroutis, S./Heracleous, L. (2013): Discourse revisited: Dimensions and employment of first-order strategy discourse during institutional adoption. Strategic Management Journal, 34(8), 935-956.
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One Response to Comment: Practice-based in Name Only? Assimilation of Critics to Protect a Paradigm

  1. Pingback: Controversy on Practice Based View of Strategy Continues: “On the Risk of Studying Practices in Isolation” | strategizingblog.com

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