Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Rewriting Weick

How could Karl Weick have avoided the charges of plagiarism that I have been making over the last two posts?

As a start, he could have written a few sentences about Ron Westrum's paper right at the beginning. This would indicate that he is entering into a conversation that Westrum is already a key figure in. In the end, we still want this section of the book to be about the sensemaking that was involved in the discovery of battered-child syndrome (BCS). But because Weick draws every detail of this story from Westrum, it is much safer to clearly present the story at second hand.

Here's how it might look:

Ron Westrum has shown how child abuse slowly became the subject of social policy in the United States from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Injuries in children caused by parents originally constituted what he calls "hidden events" but would ultimately be fully recognized as "battered-child syndrome" (BCS), a now standard medical diagnosis. Once this diagnosis was developed, it could serve as the basis of social policy throughout the United States. Until then, the systematic mistreatment of children in many American homes had been "a virtually invisible social condition" (Westrum 1982: 386).

Once we have produced a chunk of prose clearly describing Westrum's work, rather than its object, something else becomes clear as well. Weick deploys a great deal of unnecessary detail in his account of BCS. His defense of "richness" notwithstanding, it simply does not matter for his purposes exactly how many years sometimes lapsed between the time that the injuries were incurred and the time of their reporting. Nor do we need to know exactly how many cases Caffey, Silverman, and Wooley and Evans reported. Nor do we need to know that the survey data that was presented in 1961 was drawn from reports of exactly 77 disctrict attorneys and 71 hospitals. What we need is a simply a good sense that the diagnosis of BCS evolved from a basis in "uncorrelated observations or experiences" (Westrum 1982, p. 384; on his page 3, Weick gets the page number right but misquotes Westrum as saying "uncorrected observations and experience") to a basis in much more substantial survey data.

More importantly, Weick's main project in these pages is needlessly obscured by downplaying Westrum's contribution. If Weick had begun by presenting Westrum's analysis of the "social intelligence" that conditions the reporting of hidden events, he could have offered an explicit argument for the similarities between social intelligence and sensemaking. Sensemaking could be offered as a way of sharpening our eye for the organizational implications of social intelligence. What Westrum did for social policy, Weick could propose to do for organization. His readers would be in a much better position to follow along; they would be enjoying much better intellectual company.

More on this tomorrow.


Jonathan said...

Very thought provoking discussion here.

Plagiarism is a missed opportunity for comparing what a previous scholar has accomplished and one's own broader metadiscursive perspective. It's missed opportunity for generosity toward others. When another scholar has done a significant amount of one's work already, then that provides an opporunity to take things to the next level.

You don't have to cite all the nitty-gritty data that someone else has compiled, you just say, "see professor Y for the data." You can discuss why Professor Y's approach is a good model for research in the field of Z.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Jonathan.

Yes, you nail it on the head. It fact, we might think of plagiarism as a missed opportunity to appreciate the generosity of others. It's ungrateful. The plagiarist laments not having thought of it first instead of celebrating not having to come up with it himself.

I should say I'm not convinced that that's Weick's problem, though. He seems simply not to understand how to incorporate Westrum's work into his own. In part that may be because he's hasn't quite made up his mind about what he's using it for. (There are lots of reasons to think so if you read the book.)

I've got one more post on this tomorrow (and my Timbaland/Tempest/Furtado video on Friday is coming along nicely!) It's interesting to see how Weick sometimes ends up writing nonsense because he misunderstands what paraphrasing is.