Strategy: Social Science or Debate Club?

One of the favorite pastimes at gatherings of management scholars is the panel debate. Generally, this takes the form of two teams, each made up of a couple or more academics, which take turns arguing their side of some pre-specified issue. Usually, an audience vote is taken on the “motion” before arguments and then following them to see which team was more persuasive.

As an audience member, I have always found these spectacles entertaining and amusing to watch. The best ones involve good-natured banter by smart colleagues. Debates have the positive quality of breaking up the  typical “H2a” monotony that can quickly develop at these meetings.

As a result authoring the 2010 piece in SO! (jointly with 20+ coauthors from the Strategy Research Initiative) — which challenges the editorial norms presently governing our management journals — I was invited to participate in a number of such debates. Not surprisingly, being an active participant forced me to think more carefully about the purposes and consequences of these things than I ever had in the past.

Let’s establish up-front that I am a terrible debate panelist. I’m not very good on my feet and am additionally weighed down by the stubborn belief that important arguments must be won by facts and force of logic rather than clever rhetorical razzle-dazzle. As a result, I always lose … and I mean lose big. (A recent such experience involved a debate in which my esteemed colleague and co-blogger Steve Postrel opened up a can of whoop-ass on me at the AoM — ouchies!)

My conclusion is that, in addition to being a fun way to pass some conference time, our conference debates are symptomatic of a strong anti-scientific bent that tends to permeate management scholarship. Indeed, the big debate issues typically boil down to whether management scholars should strive to be more scientific in the traditional sense of that enterprise. In those, the “controversial” position is always the one in favor of some conventional scientific method — and that position is always gleefully voted down in favor of some postmodern alternative by an overwhelming majority (check out the DRUID debate history and you will quickly see what I mean).

At one point during a recent debate, I wondered whether the people in the natural sciences ever allocate valuable conference time to philosophical debates over basic scientific method. When geneticists hold their big annual conference, is the keynote activity a debate over whether data should be used to refute theory (the topic at a recent management conference)? Do physicists find it useful to debate whether they should dump mathematical models in favor of natural language theories (because math forces one to oversimplify the complexities of the universe)? Do mathematicians get together to debate the one “correct” definition of a topology (insert “competitive advantage” and you have a strategy debate topic)? No? Why not? Is it that those folks are too busy actually advancing knowledge to waste their time with philosophy parlor games?

When the final audience vote is tallied, what do we accomplish? What do you think we accomplish? Science does not advance via consensus vote (historically,  quite the opposite). What culture do we foster by giving these debates prime billing in our academic conferences?

(If you would like me to debate this controversial topic at your conference, please write:, or tweet me @mdryall.)

5 Comments on “Strategy: Social Science or Debate Club?”

  1. teppo says:

    “(A recent such experience involved a debate in which my esteemed colleague and co-blogger Steve Postrel opened up a can of whoop-ass on me at the AoM — ouchies!)”

    Youtube video? I would have loved to have seen that.

    Some quick thoughts.

    I disagree. ;) I am very glad to see debate – it’s certainly better than people being silo-d off into their own sub-areas – where all you then get is a LOVE FEST. OK, the love fests have their purpose as well (you can’t make progress if fundamental assumptions are constantly under threat), but I think debate is central for the field.

    In terms of knowledge and consensus – sure, a big epistemological question here. Undoubtedly “truth” plays a role (hard to deny the progress made in many disciplines) but of course the social component is important as well.

    Now, in terms of the debate format – sure, the “live” versions don’t always work out, but they are often still quite interesting and revealing of underlying assumptions etc. And certainly many journals have featured debates that have been very interesting — not just in strategy and management but also in sociology, psych, etc. Philosophers certainly debate. There are lots of examples – but here’s one classic one, Chomsky v Foucault:

  2. […] makes some interesting points in his post. I’m not sure if I should debate him on it, because that seems like it would cause an […]

  3. You have my sympathy. I am a writer, not a debater. I sleep on ideas. Now 62, I returned to university to complete a BS (2008) and and MA (2010). I quickly learned that I am not good at sound bites and one-liners. The reactions of your peers is immediate and undeniable. I am not sure that the laughter or applause signals a true learning moment, except maybe for you the speaker.

    There is a difference, also, in a conference where the participants actually confer with each other as peers, and a conference where a small number of entertainers perform for a crowd.

  4. […] Mike Ryall on whether strategy is a social science or a debate club. […]

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