Monday, February 18, 2008

More on the Scholarship of Sensemaking

Plagiarism is the act of writing one text on the basis of another without informing the reader about the relationship between the two texts. I have identified an example in Karl Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations (Sage, 1995) before. This week, I want to look at another example in the same book. This morning, I will simply make a first indication of the problem; over following days I will try to show how the passage could have been written to avoid the charge of plagiarism. That is, I will show how it should have been written.

The passage I want to look at occurs at the very beginning of the book (pp. 1-3). Weick here introduces sensemaking with an example in which it is "tested to the extreme", namely, battered child syndrome. (You can read the passage in full at Amazon, where the chapter is used as the excerpt. Just "look inside".) The chapter begins as follows:

Sensemaking is tested to the extreme when people encounter an event whose occurence is so implausible that they hesitate to report it for fear they will not be believed. In essence, these people think to themselves, it can't be, therefore, it isn't. Just such an event is the battered child syndrome.

Four short paragraphs to describe this syndrome follow. Weick draws heavily on a paper by sociologist of science Ron Westrum called "Social Intelligence about Hidden Events" (Science Communication 1982 3(3), pp. 381-400) but he only references it twice, first for a definition of the syndrome (on page 386 of Westrum's article) and then for a set of statistics (on page 392). (He also cites Westrum in his subsequent analysis, which we will get into later.)

On page 382 of Westrum's paper, at the beginning of the first main section, we find the following sentence:

An event may be described as "hidden" if its occurrence is so implausible that those who observe it hesitate to report it because they do not expect to be believed.

On page 383 we find the section heading "It Can't Be, Therefore It Isn't." The passage from Weick's book that I quoted above gives the reader no indication of the real connection between these two texts.

On its own, the appropriation of these sentences might be considered a minor slip-up in Weick's scholarship. But in this case it actually indicates a more serious breach of scholarly practices. For if we read Westrum's paper we find that Weick does nothing more than report Westrum's analysis as though it were his own analysis of facts. These are presented as in part taken from Westrum's paper and in part discovered by Weick's own scholarship. Indeed, it turns out that Weick's "sensemaking" in this case is little more than Westrum's "social intelligence" by another name.

I'll say more about this tomorrow. But consider another arguably minor appropriation. Weick notes that BCS was "eventually outlawed by every legislature in the union" (p. 1). This nice rhetorical way of saying "in the United States of America" (which is available only to Americans, I should point out) can be found on page 386 of Westrum's paper, where he says that BCS "became the basis for legislation in every state in the union." As I normally point out when talking about Weick, he is universally acknowledged for the style of his writing. Here we find a disturbing indication of where he got it.

Tomorrow I will look more closely at Weick's appropriation of the content of Westrum's paper.

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