Practical Wisdom in Governance: Ambiguity, Politics and Democratization in Supervising Care Institutions

Hendrik den Uijl

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

609 Downloads (Pure)


Research question/problem definition This thesis is a philosophical study into the nature of the practice of supervisory boards in care institutions in The Netherlands. I do so from the perspective of ‘practical wisdom’ (phronesis) as coined by Aristotle. The main question of this thesis is: what is wise supervision? What will become apparent is that albeit this is a thesis on supervisory practice, it has a much wider scope. As supervisory practice is oriented to so many organizational and societal aspects, it is also a thesis on governance, institutions, management and ordinary caring practices in civil society in general. The question is explorative: what happens if we reconceptualize supervision as practical wisdom? I have no hypothesis that is tested in the ‘real world’, but rather I install a specific interpretation that sheds light on the practice that has remained in the background in previous research on supervisory work. Relevance The role and position of the supervisory board in Dutch civil society organizations, such as in health care or education, has been discussed intensively but narrowly in the past decade. This narrow view consists of a focus on quality and risk management, corporate governance, professionalization and value-oriented approaches. In this narrow view there is a permanent quest for certainty, unambiguity, clarity and simpleness. This quest paralyzes the debate and practice of governance, and possibly also that of care itself. We need a perspective on supervisory boards and governance that takes ambiguity and equivocality of care and organizing as a point of departure. Theoretical framework The theoretical perspectives in this thesis vary widely. The first overarching theory is from Schön on the reflective practitioner and the difference he makes between the ‘safe high grounds’ and the ‘swampy lowlands’. A second overarching theory is about the difference between system world and lifeworld, and the quest for ‘purpose’. The specific theoretical perspectives that are worked out are from care ethics, critical management studies, hermeneutic-phenomenology, critical modernity analyses and post-foundational political philosophy. These perspectives integrate questions of ambiguity, politics and democracy. Method It is a theoretical philosophical dissertation that does not assume representation, but rather precisely interprets the practice from a particular angle. In order to do so, I have analyzed the practice of supervisory boards in a sensitizing way: I interpreted cases, analyzed popular books on governance and had dialogues with two supervisory boards. Arguments It is argued that care is a political category, and that this is usually denied in practices of quality management. Care, especially institutional care, reflects to some greater or lesser extent our attempts to live together in a decent way. This implies that the question of ‘good care’ is not a mere technical matter, but rather also a moral and political question. The technical approach to care, mainly by quality management, hides the paradoxes that flow from its applications. From this angle, also governance is a political and caring activity. Supervisory board members need to understand their work as being ‘relational’, i.e., between boards and the organization. The supervisory board is on the boundary of concrete everyday care and its political context, the institutional framework, in which care is nested. Conclusion I conceptualize wise supervision as practical wisdom as a form of knowledge that is not a mere individual trait but has a practice aspect and an institutional aspect as well. Supervisory practice is not only about the behavior of its practice members, but also about the interplay between society, supervision, management and organization – as well as the way in which this is institutionally embedded: who has a say, who may take decisions and who can counteract.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Buijs, GJ, Supervisor
  • Vosman †, Frans, Supervisor
  • Winter, Jaap, Co-supervisor
Award date12 Jan 2022
Place of PublicationThe Hague
Print ISBNs9789083192055
Electronic ISBNs9789083192055
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2022


  • Practical wisdom
  • phronesis
  • governance
  • quality management
  • quality of care
  • supervisory boards
  • care ethics
  • institutions
  • politics
  • the political


Dive into the research topics of 'Practical Wisdom in Governance: Ambiguity, Politics and Democratization in Supervising Care Institutions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this