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Collective Action

Organizations, institutions, and other power structures are an environment’s most efficient elements for enhancing or impeding the conversion of a person’s knowledge into action. Without the support of institutions, most decision-makers cannot reach their goals (Meusburger, 1999, 2015a; Werlen, 1995, pp. 40-49). When studying the relations of knowledge and action in social systems, organizations, or institutions, one must take additional aspects into account (some of them are discussed in the Chap. 11 by Reitz; others, in volumes 6 and 7 of this series). As Goldman (2004) states, epistemic organizations need nodal points where information converges and theoretical conclusions are arrived at. But any organization has at least two problems to cope with. First, the knowledge and experience necessary for solving a problem or making the right decisions to achieve a certain goal may be available somewhere in an organization, but it may not reach the people authorized to act on it. Second, the nodal points or authorized decision-makers may not have the prior knowledge, experience, and intuition necessary to understand and evaluate the importance of information that has been forwarded to them. Those who decide often not understand those who know. And those who know are often experts in narrow domains only or are not close to those in power.

Weber’s (1922/1980) ideal bureaucracy rested on the principles of meritocracy and the absence of nepotism and incompetence. In that system the hierarchy of decision-making corresponded to a hierarchy of competence. High-ranking decision-makers were expected to have broader expertise and more experience than their subordinates; the superiors would at least be able to understand, evaluate, and embrace the information forwarded to them. In large and complex organizations, it happens quite frequently that line managers (immediate superiors) have achieved their position because of merits other than broad knowledge and expertise in a certain domain. In some political systems, ideological reliability and loyalty to a political party, ethnic group, or powerful network counts for more than expertise does when it comes to promotion to a high post. Even if managers understand the relevance and urgency of information, they may fail to draw the necessary practical consequences because they are indebted to a political party or a powerful person or are under pressure from their social environment.

Organization theory, especially the research field following the tradition of Mintzberg (1979), and the geography of knowledge have an abiding interest in the organization and coordination of social systems in space and in the spatial concentration of jobs involving high levels of educational achievement and decisionmaking. Originally, region meant a space that was organized, coordinated, controlled, and influenced by a power center or a social system’s authority (for details see Berthoin Antal, Meusburger, & Suarsana, 2014; Gottmann, 1980; Meusburger et al., 2015). Organization theory and the geography of knowledge have documented how the structure of a social system—the centralization or decentralization of decision-making authority, skills, and competence within an organiza- tion—varies with the complexity of its tasks and the uncertainty of its environment. In summary, a number of research fields have underlined the importance of an environment or spatial context and its possible impact on individual and collective action, but their strands of argumentation have seldom coalesced.

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