Quantitative Analysis

Quote from Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan:

In an essay on the use of statistics as a basis for public policy published in 1954, British economist Ely Devons drew parallels between decision-making processes in formal organizations and magic and divination in tribal societies. He noted that, although organizational decision makers would not normally think of examining the entrails of a chicken or of consulting an oracle about the fortunes of their organization or the state of the economy, many of the uses of statistics have much in common with the use of primitive magic. In primitive society, magic decides whether hunting should proceed in one direction or another, whether the tribe should go to war, or who should marry whom, giving clear-cut decisions in situations that might otherwise be open to endless wrangling.

In formal organizations, techniques of quantitative analysis seem to perform a similar role. They are used to forecast the future and analyze the consequences of different courses of action in a way that lends decision making a semblance of rationality and substance. The use of such techniques does not, of course, reduce risks. The uncertainties surrounding a situation still exist, hidden in the assumptions underlying the technical analysis. Hence Devon’s point. The function of such analysis is to increase the credibility of action in situations that would otherwise have to be managed through guesswork and hunch. Like the magician who consults entrails, many organizational decision makers insist that the facts and figures be examined before a policy decision is made, even though the statistics provide unreliable guides as to what is likely to happen in the future. And, as with the magician, they or their magic are not discredited when events prove them wrong. Just as the magician may attribute failure to imperfect execution or the unanticipated intervention of some hostile force, the technical expert is allowed to blame the model used, or the turn of events, as a means of explaining why forecasts are inaccurate. The analysis is never discredited. The appearance of rationality is preserved.

Modern organizations are sustained by belief systems that emphasize the importance of rationality, and their legitimacy in the public eye usually depends on their ability to demonstrate rationality and objectivity in action. It is for this reason that anthropologists often refer to rationality as the myth of modern society, for, like primitive myth, it provides us with a comprehensive frame of reference, or structure of belief, through which we can negotiate day-to—day experience and help to make it intelligible. The myth of rationality helps us see certain patterns of action as legitimate, credible, and normal. It helps us avoid the wrangling and debate that would arise if we were to recognize the basic uncertainty and ambiguity underlying many of our values and the situations with which we have to deal.


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