Episode Summary

Our discussion today centers around the intriguingly titled paper, “The fetish of technique: methodology as a social defense,” by David Wastell.  Although it was published in 1996, its basic tenets are still useful and relevant today.  We will examine how safety methodology and processes within organizations are often relied upon for “relieving anxiety” rather than leading to successful or intended outcomes.

Episode Notes

Wastell, who has a BSc and Ph.D. from Durham University, is Emeritus Professor in Operations Management and Information Systems at Nottingham University in the UK. Professor Wastell began his academic career as a cognitive neuroscientist at Durham, studying the relationships between brain activity and psychological processes.  His areas of expertise include neuroscience and social policy: critical perspectives; psychophysiological design of complex human-machine systems; Information systems and public sector reform; design and innovation in the public services; management as design; and human factors design of safe systems in child protection.

Join us as we delve into the statement (summarized so eloquently in Wastell’s well-crafted abstract): “Methodology, whilst masquerading as the epitome of rationality, may thus operate as an irrational ritual, the enactment of which provides designers with a feeling of security and efficiency at the expense of real engagement with the task at hand.”

Discussion Points:

  • How and when Dr. Rae became aware of this paper
  • Why this paper has many structural similarities to our paper, ”Safety work versus the safety of work” published in 2019
  • Organizations’ reliance on top-heavy processes and rituals such as Gantt charts, milestones, gateways, checklists, etc
  • Thoughts and reaction to Section I: A Cautionary Tale
  • Section II: Methodology: The Lionization of Technique
  • Section III: Methodology as a Social Defense
  • The three elements of social defense against anxiety:
  • Basic assumption (fight or flight)
  • Covert coalition (internal organization protection/family/mafia)
  • Organizational ritual (the focus of this paper)
  • Section IV: The Psychodynamics of Learning: Teddy Bears and Transitional Objects
  • Paul Feyerabend and his “Against Method” book
  • Our key takeaways from this paper and our discussion


“Methodology may not actually drive outcomes.” – David Provan

“A methodology can probably never give us, repeatably, exactly what we’re after.” – David Provan

“We have this proliferation of solutions, but the mere fact that we have so many solutions to that problem suggests that none of the individual solutions actually solve it.” – Drew Rae

“Wastell calls out this large lack of empirical evidence around the structured methods that organizations use, and concludes that they seem to have more qualities of ‘religious convictions’ than scientific truths.” – David Provan

“I love the fact that he calls out the ‘journey’ metaphor, which we use all the time in safety.” – Drew Rae

“You can have transitional objects that don’t serve any of the purposes that they are leading you to.” – Drew Rae

“Turn up to seminars, and just read papers, that are totally outside of your own field.” – Drew Rae


Wastell’s Paper: The Fetish of Technique

Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994)

Book: Against Method by Paul Feyerabend

Our Paper Safety Work vs. The Safety of Work

The Safety of Work Podcast

The Safety of Work on LinkedIn