The essential tension in the social sciences: Between the “unification” and “fragmentation” trap
A new framework is presented that suggests that scientific progress requires a balance between exploitation of existing research programs (normal science) and exploration of new research programs (revolutionary science) Too much pluralism can be as destructive for scientific progress as too little pluralism. In order to make progress in an intellectual field one need to uphold what Thomas Kuhn described as an essential tension between tradition and innovation. In the framework presented here, this implies balancing on a knife-edge trying to avoid falling into either a “fragmentation trap” or a “unification trap”. The “fragmentation trap” is a self-reinforcing process where the exploration of new theories completely comes to dominate the exploitation of existing research programs, while the “unification trap” is a self-reinforcing process where the exploitation of an existing research program completely comes to dominate the exploration of new research programs. A number of strategies for avoiding both the “fragmentation trap” and the “unification trap” are presented and discussed in relationship to management studies and economics, respectively. The framework is finally used to discuss the type of traps that faces different social sciences and the way they are organized as discussed by Richard Whitley in his comparative analysis of intellectual fields.
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