ELLTA Book 2011: Are Theories Universal?

The Learning Organization

ISSN: 0969-6474

Article publication date: 19 July 2011



Eijkman, H. (2011), "ELLTA Book 2011: Are Theories Universal?", The Learning Organization, Vol. 18 No. 5, pp. 409-412. https://doi.org/10.1108/09696471111151747



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

When I was a first‐year undergraduate, we were asked, in our introductory sociology subject, to respond to a brief but fascinating anthropological paper written by Horace Miner in 1956. It was called “Body ritual among the Nacerima” (Miner, 1956). The Nacerima were, in the words of Horace “a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Creel, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east…”

Horace Miner's very short satirical anthropological paper on American culture, which became one of the most popular articles ever published in American Anthropologist was intended to make his readers think critically about “taken‐for‐granted” cultural interpretations about what are supposedly the objective observations of a “disinterested” anthropologist. He invited his readers to question the all too readily accepted “naturalness” of their own cultural perspective and to be more open to cultural and personal interpretations on what is, implicitly or explicitly, sold to us as a universal phenomenon.

In fact, I urge you to perhaps read this very brief paper before continuing on to read this review, or for that matter the book (available at: www.artsci.wustl.edu/∼marton/Nacirema.html)

The editors of “ELLTA Book 2011: Are Theories Universal?” have a similar aim to that of Horace Miner; to encourage readers, and without being in any way prescriptive, to contemplate their own cultural positioning when it comes to issues of theory. This is of the utmost importance, for example, for international journals such as TLO, as more and more authors, both Western and non‐Western, uncritically apply Western theoretical constructs to organizations in non‐Western environments.

This relatively small though informative book (of 153 pages) is the outcome of a request by organizers of the first “Exploring leadership and learning theories in Asia” (ELLTA) to explore theoretical thinking about leadership and learning from a non‐Western perspective. The questioning of the hegemonic Western scientific thinking and practice is not only timely but indeed much needed not only in the field of leadership and learning but indeed across all disciplines (Eijkman, 2009). Indeed, even in opening up an explicit discussion about the universal and/or context dependent nature of theory this book begins in a small, but important, way to finally introduce a post‐colonial perspective on leadership and learning theories. Even if for nothing else, this is a book that deserves our attention, and especially the attention of researchers and authors likely to publish in TLO or for that matter any respectable academic journal that purports to be genuinely “international”. However, the book does more than this as it contains much food for thought.

I will not summarise its contents as it consists of 15 generally small but generally interesting if not at times stimulating thinking.

The book's first chapter by Taylor and Chiam highlights, by happy accident (as these are arranged by author in reverse alphabetical order), a most neglected aspect of organizational learning namely that of epistemology; the process through which we, as culturally and historically positioned individuals come to know our world (Georgiou, 2007; Eijkman, 2008). The chapter opens up the book's eclectic discussion by at least signalling the impact of culture via three “metaphorical formulations” (p. 9); knowledge as:

  1. 1.

    universally accessible object;

  2. 2.

    as personalized understanding; and

  3. 3.

    as culturally mediated practice.

The authors make a cogent case for considering the third position to be the most epistemologically sophisticated.

The second chapter by Nadeen Tarar, with its focus on post‐colonialism also coincidentally follows the argument of the first chapter by continuing to challenge the uncritical acceptance of the dominance of homogeneous or universalised thinking and practice. In terms of relevance, the author's critique can easily be applied to those who practice in and/or write about the LO, KM, and OL fields and who deliberately or inadvertently side with the cause of managerialism in the service of capital. It is the failure of these professionals, she notes, “to engage in a valid criticism of hegemonic forms of late capitalism that indicates the complicity of post‐colonial intellectuals in the ideological and institutional structures of power …” (p. 24). A salient reminder of the role of power and politics that underpins, for both better and worse, all organizational life, but which is all too often glossed over.

Subsequent chapters, such as those by Yusuf Sidani (3), Kabini Sanga (4), Narcisa Paredes‐Canilao (7), and Pak Tee Ng (9) continue to side with the contextual view. These in turn target: a cross‐cultural understanding of leadership (3), the issue of unstated contextual knowledge (4), the violence inherent in theories deemed to be universally valid (7), and the need in social science theorizing (the field of LO) to trade generalisability with contextual applicability. Paredes‐Canilao's warning about the sanctification of false universalisms that, imbibed as truths, are thereby automatically reproduced is as valid in terms of organizational theorists and practitioners as it is of classroom educators. Pak Tee Ng (9) makes the pointed remark that the ELLTA focus on leadership and learning theories in Asia is already an implicit admission of the cultural particularity of LO theory. This theme is followed up by a cogent argument from Shanta Liyanage (10) whose position is best summed up by the phrase while generalisability is desirable, it cannot be a necessary condition. She concludes that ultimately “the universality of theory therefore depends on the complexity, the context, and the problem to be addressed” (p. 88).

As a balance, some chapters tend to side on the “universalist” side while others tend to opt for a “both‐and” approach. A case in point of the latter, are Phuong‐Mai Nguyen's chapter (5) and Jagdeep Chhokar's chapter (13). The first stresses the failures of neo‐colonialism and East‐West transfer and thereby sets the stage for her claim that “while theory is universal, practice is particular” (p. 49). Chapter 13 argues that, given differences in types of theories, the question whether theories are universal or not, may result in different answers for different types of theories. In relation to the former, those who opt for what we might call a “soft” universalist position include Ruth Hayhoe (11), Grandio and Chiva (12) and Dato Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid (Conclusion). All these three argue, not for uncritical acceptance, but the necessity for critical awareness and analysis. In the end, as Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid notes, “Few indeed of western scholars on leadership refer to Islamic, Hindu or Shinto scholars on leadership and vice versa. Also scholars from different traditions have not resolved the Orientalist and Occidentalist issues” (p. 140).

Martin Parker's chapter (6) is initially more difficult to locate, as you will find it a brief but witty and pointed critique about fashion‐conscious theorists. A “must” read! Equally so for Brian Caldwell (14), who cites evidence about leadership from an extensive trans‐national empirical project, to argue that while leadership theories are currently not universal they can be if they are deemed to work in multiple cross‐cultural settings.

Regarding its limitations, yes the chapters are brief, and each tends towards being a solid outline rather than a fully argued case. However, this is as much a strength, as a weakness. The aim of this book is not to provide a compendium but to act as a primer to provoke further exploration on the part of its readers. In this I think it succeeds admirably. I argue though that two improvements would have added value. First, while placing chapters by author in reverse alphabetical order is different, the topic lends itself more readily to a thematic structure of universalists, contextualists, and “in‐betweeners”. Such a tripartite structure provides a more logical and reader friendly approach to thinking about these three perspectives, especially for those who find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The second suggestion relates to the book as a primer, and that is to have asked each contributor for say one or two key sources for further reading to enable readers to follow in more depth the case each chapter makes.

My concluding suggestion is to encourage ELLTA to promote discussion and perhaps provide additional resources via a blog. It is here that readers are able to engage further with the authors and with each other to continue this much needed debate.

That said, the ELLTA Book 2011: Are Theories Universal? is a very small, but very thought‐provoking primer, that deserves a wide audience as it begins to confront a much neglected aspect of much, if not most, writing associated with organizational learning and knowledge work. It provides a valuable service to the LO and OL communities by encouraging us to think more carefully about our own cultural lenses through which we see and disseminate our theoretical perspectives on the organizational world, and to do so by not taking an assertive prescriptive approach.


Eijkman, H. (2008), “Web 2.0+ as a non‐foundational network‐centric learning space”, Campus Wide Information Systems, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp. 93104.

Eijkman, H. (2009), “Using Web 2.0 to decolonise transcultural learning zones in higher education”, Campus‐Wide Information Systems, Vol. 26 No. 3, pp. 24055.

Georgiou, I. (2007), Thinking through Systems Thinking, Routledge, London.

Miner, H.M. (1956), “Body ritual among the Nacerima”, American Anthropologist, Vol. 58 No. 3, June, pp. 503‐507, available at: www.artsci.wustl.edu/∼marton/Nacirema.html (accessed 26 March 2011).

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