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Contextual bias can play out in management studies in both North and South

African scholarship is woefully underrepresented in prestigious global academic journals based in the US or Europe. This is particularly true in the field of management, which studies managers and organisations.

As a result, global management knowledge hardly considers African contexts. But this knowledge affects the continent in terms of what is taught in classrooms and how managers make decisions.

So, you may think that we, as management scholars based in Africa (and other Southern contexts), appreciate invitations from elite journals. Here is an example of one such invitation that was distributed in 2016: “It is time to bring Africa in to our mainstream research and theories.”

In part, we do appreciate invitations like this. But we are also vexed by their somewhat one-sided nature, when they insist that in order to participate in this Northern mainstream, we need to “learn [its] language and rules of the game”.

Our unease connects with a growing body of scholarship that is critical of the Northern mainstream. These critics warn against the globalisation of management education and research as an expression of “epistemic colonialism”. It is seen as imposing

a discussion of Western managerial theories which may not apply in the African context

The critics also argue that we should rather focus on “indigenous management practices,” shaped by local values and practices. One example is the notion of Ubuntu in southern Africa, which emphasises the importance of “communal or harmonious relationships” with other people.

This is a worthwhile scholarly ambition. But we worry about taking such an inward focus too far and thereby creating isolated enclaves of scholarship.

We thus face two contrasting options: either we become a colony of the Northern mainstream or we retreat into a Southern “indigenous” enclave. But we resist both options, because they both may allow assumptions about context to give rise to systematic biases.

Biases of the Northern mainstream: erasing and imposing

The Northern mainstream tends to trivialise Southern contexts, giving rise to what we call erasing and imposing biases. For example, strategy scholars have been writing about “institutional voids” in developing countries. This refers to the absence of institutions, such as property rights, that enable efficient business transactions. These authors summarise this as the

absence in emerging markets of things we take for granted in our backyard in Boston

This is the erasing bias: a tendency to emphasise absences in Southern contexts relative to assumptions and concepts originating in and premised on Northern contexts. The notion of “institutional voids” thus erases what institutions actually do exist in Southern contexts.

Erasing creates a vacuum that is then filled through the imposing bias, using home assumptions “in our backyard in Boston” to falsely or superficially interpret Southern contexts. In the case of institutional voids, for instance, the erasing bias creates the empty space that is then filled by imposing analyses and prescriptions focused on formal, market-friendly institutions. These ignore indigenous values and practices, perpetuate an “instrumental rationality,” and may further the exploitation of people and resources in the Global South.

Southern biases: scapegoating and valourising

In reaction to the biases of the Northern mainstream, Southern critics may too easily revert to the opposite. Scapegoating emphasises colonial history or external factors to explain Southern contexts at the expense of also considering other dimensions or causes. For instance Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, routinely blamed colonial history to explain his country’s misfortunes. This was at least in part to distract from the serious abuses by his government.

A second risk of systematic bias lies in Southern researchers valourising their contexts. For example, we agree that it is important to better understand the relevance of indigenous beliefs and values, such as Ubuntu, in management studies. But this should not be done uncritically.

Saying that an adherence to Ubuntu “considers kinship ties within the organisation to be a plus” is a welcome challenge to orthodox management theory. But it should not shy away from an analysis of how such emphasis on kinship ties may also be linked to negative impacts of tribalism and nepotism. These impacts have worsened South Africa’s political and economic fortunes in the last decade.

Opportunities for dialogue

Recognising the systematic biases that arise due to our contextual assumptions creates important opportunities for challenging specific forms of intellectual complacency.

Yet there are constraints to scholars overcoming contextual biases by challenging each other. Such challenges can reinforce, rather than break down, the boundaries around scholarly communities.

Building on the work of Brazilian writer Paolo Freire and others, we thus call for better dialogue between scholars from different contexts. This should bring to the surface – and allow us to question – our contextual assumptions. It should also recognise the personal, sometimes painful, experiences associated with colonial legacies and ongoing exclusion.

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