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Theoretical foundations of operational research

By R. A. Bryer


The conclusions of both Parts One and Two complement and reinforce each\ud other. After outlining the ideals of OR, I set out in Part One to find and\ud scrutinize the philosophical foundations upon which some leading operations\ud researchers have claimed that these ideals could be implemented. In\ud chapters 2, 3, and 4 I argue that adopting (respectively) the positivist,\ud conventionalist and/or idealist philosophies as the theoretical foundations\ud upon which to build an adequate theory of inquiry for the purposes of\ud OR would force it to abandon its ideals. These philosophies are interpreted\ud as attempts on the part of academic operational researchers to stave-off\ud the open-ended ambiguity and anarchy of inquiry which an unqualified\ud interpretation of OR's ideals could engender. These attempts to give\ud substance to the ideals of OR all exert a strong bias against raising\ud questions about the nature of the subject-matter with which OR deals,\ud and it in largely on these grounds that they are rejected in chapter\ud 5 because of the implications which this has for the ideals of OR.\ud One conclusion of Part One is that OR needs protection from such\ud philosophies, and that a realist-type alternative at least provides this.\ud I conclude by raising the doubt whether philosophy can provide much more to\ud OR. The other major conclusion is that OR needs to understand its subject-matter\ud before it can reasonably hope to implement its ideals.\ud Given the general bias which we find in Part One against seriously\ud considering the subject-matter of OR, we enter Part Two with some trepidation.\ud Notwithstanding the philosophical bias against it, it is clear\ud that OR must have a conception of the nature of its subject-matter. However,\ud OR's ideals can just as easily be lost by inadequate attention to this\ud task. In Part Two the biases discovered in Part One come home to roost.\ud The first attempt to provide the ideals of OR with a substance on the\ud basis of which its ideals can be implemented in an objective fray turns out\ud to be just that, i.e., metaphysical 'substance' in the guise of a theory\ud of management. We see in chapter 6 that to the extent to which this\ud theory moves beyond merely asserting that management would 'take care' of\ud OR's need for an objective basis, it presupposes a social theory which\ud would show how social systems by their nature (if properly constructed)\ud embody this objectivity. This move is foreshadowed in chapter 3 where we\ud see Kuhn (who is taken as an exemplar of conventionalist philosophy) finally\ud resorting to this device to prop up his conventionalism, against the\ud growing weight of subjectivity under which it threatened to sag into the\ud jaws of positivism. The social theory on which such claims rest is given\ud detailed consideration in. chapter 7.\ud In chapter 7 I give serious consideration to the possibility that\ud OR's social theory, if it has one at all, will be developed in reaction\ud to what it sees as the "problem of order", because this problem can be\ud seen as but another way of stating its ideals in a specifically social\ud way. Stating OR ideals in this way orients them directly to at least one\ud aspect of the question of the nature of OR's subject-matter. We see that\ud by employing, Durkheim's account of and solution to the social problem of\ud order as a basis for comparison with OR (first as a homomorphism. and later as\ud an isomorphism) that we are able to gain quite a firm grip on OR's social\ud theory (and, hence, its grasp of its subject-matter). We see that this theory,\ud although providing a justification for OR's theory of management (especially\ud in its modern form), it is itself inadequate. The basis of the inadequacy,\ud most fundamentally, is that the theory in question presupposes the very thing,\ud that should be in question, namely, the nature of the social collective. I\ud conclude with a specific illustration of the impact of this theory on the ideal\ud of OR by analysing the inadequate treatment of power and conflict which it allows

Topics: QA, T1
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