Finding a Place for ‘Stupidity’ in Research and Teaching

Does stupidity have a place in academia? Sverre Spoelstra discusses the advantages of stupidity and reflects on his article, “Taking credit for stupidity: On being a student in the performative university,” which was recently published in Management Learning.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

This paper grew out of reflections on the language and nature of ‘stupidity,’ especially as it applies to individuals and collectives working in academic contexts. It has become common to speak of the ‘stupidity’ of the machine or the computer as being rooted in its inability to think. Similarly, organizations and bureaucracies have been described in the management literature as ‘stupidity-inducing’ because they require, and seek to replicate, employees who follow rules and rarely think for themselves. But I was struck by the richer semantic range of the language of ‘stupidity,’ which does not limit its meaning to thoughtless compliance.

For instance, when we say about ourselves that we have made a stupid decision, we do not mean that we simply failed to think; we mean that we failed to think clearly or that we decided too quickly. Indeed, the most common senses in which we describe something as stupid do not involve an absence of thought. Rather, stupidity is precisely something that manifests as an aspect of thought. The paper pursues some of these possible senses of stupidity and asks what we might learn from them about the necessity of occasional stupidity for the development of better thinking.

Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?

The paper began as a response to work by my colleagues on ‘functional stupidity,’ which is based on the assumption that stupidity is best understood as thoughtless compliance. But it took a turn in 2021 when the University of Leicester decided to make redundant most of its management scholars who worked primarily in critical management studies and political economy. This decision affected many of my former colleagues at Leicester, especially those who were, like me, associated with the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. This center provided an invaluable space for reading classic texts in sociology and philosophy in an atmosphere in which I rarely worried that I might appear stupid. I was confident that nobody would mind if I shared my personal reading of the texts under discussion, no matter how questionable, poorly informed, or just plain uninsightful they might be.

To me, this open and non-judgmental environment served as a liberating example of the kind of space for stupidity that ought to be central in academia. Leicester’s decision to withdraw support for the center forced me to think again about the roles played by different kinds of academic spaces in ensuring that thinking can flourish beyond the boundaries imposed by striving for publication in high-ranking journals.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research?

To let go of the paper. In a sense, to go public so that others may, if they like, deem it ‘stupid.’ In studying the inevitable incompleteness of thought, I have found it hard to determine when my own reflections are complete enough for publication.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

Foster and protect spaces in which scholars are not afraid to appear stupid to one another. This is hard to do in the context of the performative university, but this difficulty makes it all the more important to try.

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Sverre Spoelstra

Sverre Spoelstra is an associate professor at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research interests include organizational play, leadership, algorithmic management, and organizational philosophy. He is an associate editor of Organization.

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