Book Review of “Complex Knowledge: Studies in Organizational Epistemology”

By, Afua Serwah Osei-Bonsu

A review of “Complex Knowledge: Studies in Organizational Epistemology” by Haridimos Tsoukas provided a gripping portrayal of the issues involved in what is desired as a “field” rather than that which is-knowledge only based- of organizational studies and management research.

Tsoukas immediately grabs the hand of the reader and engages them with a riveting tale about fluxus theory which describes how the world flows, “fluxes”, “changes and how it’s sensitive to things such as context, time, beliefs, desires, power and loops.” He explains how the world is in fact an “open world” and not a closed world and goes on to develop the dialog into a parallel with the chaos and the cosmos. He goes deeper to make comparisons to “ecological theories” eg. fluxus in nature and still further to perhaps “Austrian Economics” or the diversity of mankind in terms of ethnography.  The research unravels and one is left connecting dots and looking at the evidence.

Tsoukas intended to make three key points in his book about complex knowledge, 1) regarding tacit knowledge, claims and adoption of ideas, 2) chaosmos, the mixture of chaos with cosmos parallel, and 3) in regards to the connected meta knowledge.

Tsoukas was concerned with “agency” in an organization, and “how organizational knowledge is embraced and informs practice.” Tsoukas advice to his reader was based on Weick’s quote was to “complicate yourself.”

Tsoukas goes on to break down research about the information marketplace quoting the MIT Media Lab and linking information with communication eg. computer and telephone as a new network system and subsequent knowledge system. The research transforms into a chilling thriller when Tsoukas begins to talk about how things turn into information and how things are experienced without being in close proximity. What stirs the reader later was the statement of “information at your fingertips.” The reader experiences both fear of and excitement for potential knowledge.

A few problems highlighted in the book describe all information turning into objects that are contained, stored and retrieved, the caricaturization of mankind in information systems and “observed purpose in information.”  Observed purpose in information related to an example where a condom manufacturer desired numeric data on the number of people having sexual intercourse.  For example, one could look at the population count and further to those in relationships or married to establish a statistic of likelihood or perhaps buried within the information marketplace information that is retrieved for purposes beyond “observed purposes.”

The cognitive wheels turning, in terms of organizational epistemology, how do all the dots connect?  One problem may exist where Tsoukas has justified evidence regarding “potential and absent.”  The evidence suggests the “finite” representation is never complete and that there is more in “reserve.”  “That to be aware of potential is to become.”  The crux had to do with the need for potential and how things could be different and how information was confined to what has been-“as are, not as might be.” The build-up of the book describes entrapment in the status quo by scholars who may fail to recognize potential.

Tsoukas research rejected rationalist epistemological approaches in favor of “post rationalism.” One goal of the book is to look at the nature of knowledge within an organizational context inclusive of “vocabulary, practice, enactment, mutual constitution, improvisation, and how an organization justifies what they know.”

One problem that organizations face is “overcoming dominant forms of knowing.” Tsoukas desires to replace dominant forms with complex forms of knowing thus the parallel to chaosmos and fluxus and ultimately a “theory of complexity.”  It becomes the sensitization of an organization to context, time, change, events, beliefs, desires etc.  Tsoukas presented an Empiricist model rejecting earlier Rationalist models which he wished to graduate from “within the world and within tradition” to discover “flow, flux, change.”

Early philosophers such as Heraclitus were also highlighted in the book. Heraclitus is a Greek Philosopher whose research had to do with change being fundamental to the Universe. Heraclitus has the famous quote that “no man ever steps in the same river twice.”  Part of Heraclitus “claim to fame” was that he “taught himself by questioning himself.[1]

“Diogenes relates that as a boy Heraclitus had said he “knew nothing” but later claimed to “know everything.”[14] His statement that he “heard no one” but “questioned himself,” can be placed alongside his statement that “the things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize the most.”[15][2]

               Heraclitus is perhaps the father of philosophy. Empiricism was concerned with a posteriori and more investigative models that were gained by experience. [3] Rationalist was concerned with a priori as if that which is from God or innate methods. Tsoukas overtly rejected innate concepts from Rationalism which his alignment with Heraclitus suggests.

A beautiful point the book makes has to do with the description of poetic praxeology.  The 7 points in poetic praxeology listed were: 1) motives in human action, 2) influence of past, 3) transmutation into new forms in present 4) opaque intentionality, 5) chance allowed events, 6) feedback loops, 7) context inescapable.  Tsoukas described “all humans as in fluxus.”

The book generally relies on social scientific and philosophical research to support its claims.  What becomes paramount in the book is a subtle goal about “how creative action arises.”

Useful philosophers listed in the book as relevant to Tsoukas research are: Bergson, Dewey, Gadaner, Heidegger, James, Lakeoff, Tyre, Polanzi, Toulmin, Taylor, Whitehead, Wittgenstein.

The book not an “art book” or “poetry book” but references popular or obscure concepts relevant to both.  Fluxus in Tsoukas book of “Complex Knowledge” whirls and dazzles and could buttress conceptual work related to fluxus in high art.   The book presents research which could become the frame work or seed of emergent fields of study which were formally housed in epistemology courses or in dialogs about knowledge.  “Complex Knowledge” presents well-crafted research, stylishly modeled after Konl Weick’s style of research. “Complex Knowledge” published on Oxford Press is very fine reading with lovely chaotic imagery, language, and relevant content.



[3] Markie, P. (2015). Rationalism vs. Empiricism in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).




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