PhD Progress & Thoughts

Bias, and Disagreeing with Something

I am mostly aware of my personal bias, but what about when it conflicts with my ability to think critically about what I’m reading?

Recently I came across a journal paper that contradicts what I’ve been researching for the past year or so. Not in a bad way – it offered a useful and interesting perspective on something ill-defined and poorly researched that I will certainly be using. However, it’s take on the issue was different to my perception, and I chalked that up to the fact that the paper didn’t cite the seminal author on the theory I disagreed with.

Now, I know that this is a tad biased. “WHAT!?!?” my hypocritical brain yelled, “WHY DIDN’T THIS PAPER REFERENCE MY FAVOURITE BOOK!?!
Now, at least I have the self-awareness to realise that this IS being a big ol’ hypocrite, considering that I don’t always take this stance when I’m doing my own research. I’m very selective in the sources of my theory, and I tend towards papers and authors with something interesting to say, regardless of whether they were first. This was developed during undergrad, as I constantly got pulled up by my lecturers on my papers being ‘out of date’ and thus ‘incorrect for the modern interpretation’.
As such, older papers now require a reason to be used. In this case, a textbook by Stephen Fink, written in 1986 on the topic of Crisis Management will forever be useful to me because a) It was the first book to be written on the topic, b) Stephen Fink not only collected everything available to him to compile this book, but also used this information with his work during the Three-Mile-Island incident, in addition to his other consulting jobs to reduce the fallout of crises in businesses, and
c) I am yet to find a more recent book on the topic, let alone a book that is also comprehensive and backed by anecdotal evidence. Fink’s book is still relevant, despite how old it is…and that’s why I still use it…sparingly.
As a result, I had personally read the original theory and its foundation, and based my knowledge and understanding of that idea in the context of what’s being done in the present day, rather than what’s being academically researched in the present day. That opens up three gaps and three possible alternative interpretations;

Interpretation 1: The gap between modern theory and practice, both of which are in the context of the 21st Century approach to management,
Interpretation 2: The gap between Original and Modern theory, between the time contexts of the 20th and 21st Century, and
Interpretation 3: The gap between Original theory and Modern practice, in the context of what’s been adequately adopted from the Seminal author’s writings and what has been poorly implemented in the 20-or-so years since.

As I found towards the end of the article, I am of the stance of Interpretation 3, while the article I disagreed with adopted Interpretation 1. This realization opened up a wide variety of stances, each of which are valid and can be supported by evidence depending on which angle you’ve taken.
For example, as a result of Interpretation 3, I found Crisis Management Theory to be an accurate guiding tool for management, yet modern organisations have poorly implemented Fink’s recommendations, which is why Crisis Management hasn’t worked for those organisations. There was a gap between original recommendation and implementation.
Yet, as a result of Interpretation 1, the authors I disagreed with postulated that Crisis Management was inherently ineffective, because of how it has been utilised in the modern day – pointing instead to the premises of the more-recently researched Risk Management and its relatively higher degrees of success in practice. Instead of comparing historical information with modern cases, the authors in question kept their analysis within a time-frame of a decade, comparing only the results of modern organisations’ adaptation of Crisis versus Risk management theory. The authors then supported this interpretation with modern papers that demonstrated their findings in agreement, using managerial lack of skill as evidence that one theory was more comprehensive than the other as a result of how easily organisations could successfully adopt it.

Now, like I said. I think I have a heavy bias on this topic, and I welcome responses to this article pointing out why my logic is flawed…but I’m currently of the firm belief that my interpretation was correct.
(I also believe that in academia, I’ll be told that Interpretation 2 is the most correct because academics = theory, not necessarily practice, but I’ll just ignore that for now.)

I’m not saying that the other authors’ interpretation was incorrect – circumstantial evidence more than adequately paints their picture – however I believe that the authors I’m disagreeing with omitted certain considerations from their study, and analysis, which led them to take up Interpretation 3. Omission and inclusion of data is always an important consideration in research, and in this case I’m left conflicted. Do I respect the variable nature of business research as circumstantial, case-by-case basis analysis of organisations as per their industrial context and time period…or do I work to hammer home my interpretation?
The reason I’m left so conflicted is; of the authors that write in my field, and the field of Crisis Management versus Risk Management, agreement is more or less with my interpretation. Crisis Management and Risk management each have their own unique contributions to the prevention, mitigation and recovery from disasters…yet both are a slightly different approach to achieve the same end. Survive. Thrive. Carry on.
What’s considered most important in management research in the 21st Century is the ability to adapt theory into practice. Academic theory is all but useless in my field unless someone can – and will – test my work in their organisation. As more and more academics in management find that their theories lack application, and cases of successful application, this need to compare theory to practice becomes paramount. This puts management researchers in the unique situation of having to consider older papers purely because they haven’t been adapted into a modern study yet, and the case study within the older paper has promising findings. In this frame, Crisis Management and Risk Management theory have had different applications in practice, which stem the reasons why the paper I’ve disagreed with has taken their stance.

So, there’s my bias. I found an article today that I disagreed with on a seemingly superficial level, then when I dug deeper I found it had a divergent theoretical approach which may or may not be fully supported by research, considering that their sample of literature was rather constricted. My research, too, is constricted, but since I’ve spent the better part of 2 months doing nothing but read other peoples’ literature, I feel strongly about my conviction. It’s not a case of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong!’, but more, ‘Why is this the first time I’ve seen this viewpoint?‘.


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