Quote: why consensus? Implications for research and knowledge

And why should there be consensus? Must consensus per se be the overriding goal? It is the price of progress that there never can be complete consensus. All creative advances are essentially a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things, and to overemphasize the agreed-upon is to legitimatize the further the hostility to that creativity upon which we all ultimately depend.

William H. Whyte, The Organization Man, p. 59.

The Organization ManWhyte makes continued reference to there being a stark difference in the requirements imposed on the member of an organization qua member-of-an-organization (that is, a constituent of a group) and what might in fact best suit this individual as an individual. It brings home to me how fecund the hermeneutic interpretation of how meaning is created can be in this context.

Paul Ricoeur made it a central part of his analysis of language that meaning does not come from denotation, from pure description as a one-to-one identity of meaning (univocity, akin to the Hebrew YHWH), nor a vector of signifier to signified (equivocity), but as  through tension, through the torsion and bending of language out of its old form into a new one (i.e., analogy – more on this in an old post, Being, metaphor, and “nothingness”). That is new meaning comes from metaphor, analogy, critique, and other ‘figurative’ forms of language. This is the analysis of meaning within language. We can extend this, however, and make analogy with society and the production of knowledge, information.

What Whyte is discussing here is the notion that consensus can be an obstacle to the discovery of solutions to problems, that consensus effectively means doing what we have always done and hoping that we will end up doing something new. Via this reductio the illogic of such a concept becomes apparent. It draws out the quite formal contradiction at the centre of this mindset. It indicates that any form of consensus (including the now fashionable consensus of so-called ‘disruption’) stifles the discovery of alternatives, or possibilities.

Making matters concrete for a moment, we find the kernel of an argument to be made for ‘blue-sky’ or pure research. Parsing current discussions of research according to the distinctions made above, consensus research is that research which is directed, which must have measureable impact. Consensus research must take place within a research framework, a research project, a research group, a research pillar, a research funding call, etc. The alternative (I don’t give it a distinctive name as that goes against its elusive, un-pin-down-able characteristics – better to define it negatively, in opposition) is not beholden to the stifling qualities of consensus, namely bureaucracy, conformity, and fitting oneself into neat boxes a-ready for the ticking. Is this a pure dichotomy, a clean distinction? Of course not. Is directed research to be done away with? Of course not. Is pure, non-consensus research more productive than it’s counterpart? Who can say. What is necessary here (in the spirit of critique, mentioned above) is to note that directed research, consensus attempts at creating knowledge and meaning are not the only game in town.


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