Friday, September 7, 2012

The Relationship between Objectivity and Bureaucracy

In 2009, I posted a short blog entry, How Organizations Remain Bureaucratic. Here, I'd like to delve a bit further into what is pejoratively known as "bureaucracy" and tie the discussion to a broader cultural theme, one I'll call Fetishizing the Heuristic. The terminology is a bit academic, but apt, so I'll explain.

Heuristics are flexible guidelines, generally sane models, not meant to account for every contingency, but a pencilling in of a plan or set of criteria based on experience. (Maslow's Hierarchy, for example, was intended to be considered a flexible heuristic, but rarely is.)

To fetishize something means to idolize it...

So when a heuristic is idolized, the criteria embodied in a flexible guideline magically come to have a life of their own, alienated from the creative and reasonable minds that set them out. They become viewed as if they issue from a higher order of existence.

So, for example, a preliminary plan is developed that covers a time span, or evaluative criteria are set out provisionally. As soon as dates and scoring methods are assigned, it's as if these plans or criteria issued directly from an eternal source of objectivity, not from the minds of those composing them. (They become reified in processes, detached from the aim that inspired their development.)

The problem that arises is that once the guideline has been drawn up and numbers assigned to what started off as a provisional guideline, no counter-evidence from the actual world of objective reality will change the guideline. Where there is deviation, it will considered as a way of illustrating how things and people have failed to meet the criteria, not as evidence that the model needs adjusting.

Jack Martin of Simon Fraser University wrote in 1996 (in a no longer available newsletter of the American Psychological Association) lamenting how assessment criteria, never intended to be more than reasonable, flexible, useful guidelines, become irrationally narrowed and fixed once they are operationalized (assigned a numerical scale). This causes the quality and relevance of research in empirical psychology to degenerate.

Then, of course, these guidelines become embodied in institutional procedures - further alienated from the agents, the creative and reasonable minds of people in the organization, who would otherwise use their minds to question them, adjust them, and maintain their usefulness.

In practice, understanding how we can fetishize the heuristic should lead us to be more active in questioning and revising plans and criteria as necessary, understanding they issue from human needs and objectives.

The broader, more philosophical understanding is that a lot of the conceptual packaging we use to identify something as objective is faulty and needs to be revisited. We need to re-insert the awareness of our responsibility as agents into our plans and to adjust in an ongoing way to what is happening, rather than mechanizing thought in bureaucratic processes or bracketing ourselves out of existence while we follow an eternal diagram (our role in conceiving it, forgotten).

In a nutshell, don't treat a working hypothesis, guideline, process or model as if it issued from the heavens. After all, it's your model and you should have every right to correct it as more evidence becomes available - and there will always be more evidence, unless you are omniscient.