Saturday, September 27, 2008

Making (Non)sense of Social Movements?

Quinn and Worline's "Enabling Collective Courageous Action" (Organization Science, 19 (4), 2008, pp. 497-516) offers us an example of the way sensemaking research too often deploys research from other fields without any attempt to translate between them. Before I get into it directly, consider this made-up paragraph, which I hope we can agree is seriously flawed:

Resources alone are not sufficient to ensure the survival of a community. As Planner-Urban (2000) points out, some U.S. cities are wealthy in assets and still are not resourceful in how they use those assets. To ensure the survival of their community, the villagers of My Lai would have had to be resourceful in how they managed the emotions of extreme duress, made moral and practical sense of a senseless situation, and organized interdependent action among people who had known each other all their lives.

While U.S. cities are certainly communities, and do of course have their problems, their survival is not threatened, certainly not in the sense to be invoked in what follows. This oblique application of urban planning theory to the behaviour of victims of a war crime is groundless. The problems of American cities, however interesting they may be, have nothing to do with the My Lai massacre.

Now, here is an almost identical line of reasoning taken from Quinn and Worline's paper. It differs mainly in that, instead of ignoring the context-bound meaning of "community", it ignores what "social movement organization" (SMO) means in the "social movement literature" that they cite.

Resources alone are not sufficient to enable courageous collective action, however. As Ganz (2000) points out, some social movement organizations are wealthy in assets and still are not resourceful in how they use those assets. To enable courageous collective action, the people aboard Flight 93 needed to be resourceful in how they managed the emotions of extreme duress, made moral and practical sense of a senseless situation, and organized dangerous interdependent action among insecure strangers. (505)

Ganz (2000) analyzed how the union movement in California's agriculture sector developed in the late 1950s and early 60s. He focused specifically on two unions (one successful, one not) each of which easily count as an SMO in the standard sense of that term, i.e., "a formally organized component of a social movement".

In the passage I have quoted, the tenuous link between the first and second sentence, namely, "collective action", by which Ganz does not mean what Quinn and Worline mean*, is entirely broken by the word "courageous", which Ganz does not use at all. Worse, what is the logical link between the second and third sentence? The third's "people aboard flight 93" must be understood as an instance of "some social movement organizations"; that's the only way to make sense of putting them together like this. But surely the "wealth" and "resourcefulness" of a labour union cannot be compared to the means by which a group of "insecure strangers" face a momentary crisis? In fact, I don't see any way that the passengers and crew of a particular flight, no matter what their immediate problem, can be counted as a social movement organization (even, I should note, if they were all members of Greenpeace on their way to a demonstration). If they can, then the term simply has no meaning—a "social movement" becomes people doing stuff, you know, "together".

*There are different ways of describing this difference in sense. It's not quite as bad as the crank call that goes, "Good Evening, Sir, this is the electrical company. Is your fridge running?" "Ah, let me check ... " (comes back) "Yes, it is." "Well then you better catch it before it gets away!" (click). Nor is it as bad as the guy who asks the fishmonger to throw him his fish so that he can say he "caught" it. But it's sort of like running along the route for a few miles and then telling people you "ran" in the New York Marathon.


Presskorn said...

All right, we get it…:Quinn&Worline have written a really bad article, which draws on really inappropriate analogies, & they have misconstrued some of their references, perhaps even knowingly so… But WHY is THIS important to note? (I asking somewhat rhetorically, i.e. I’m quite sure that your answer will make me smarter…)

Thomas Basbøll said...

Well, my point is more that Org Science has published the article. And that it is really no worse (we can haggle a bit, maybe) than the paper it takes as its exemplar, namely, Weick's Mann Gulch paper. It tells us something about current critical standards, not about the quality of these two people's research.

Do you ever stop in the middle of reading the Philosophical Investigations, sit up, and say "All right, we get it ... meaning is use"? (Okay, okay, I'm no Wittgenstein, I know, but ... ;-) )

I've still got at least one more post on this coming. These days I'm trying to work out my position on sensemaking research, which seems to be a basically sound idea that is being realized in a very, like I say, puzzling way. I'm trying to think it through in detail. Thinking out loud like this keeps me honest.

I'm working on a paper about Weick's Mann Gulch study for the practical criticism conference in January. I'm trying to see if I can glean something of interest about sensemaking methodology by looking at these two papers (possible others), especially what they have in common. How does sensemaking research arrive at its results? What is characteristic of writing in the sensemaking tradition?

It's sharpening my eye for the principles of composition in (at least a corner of) org studies.

I'd love to hear your views on the Q&W paper. My next post on this will, I expect, have a more generally applicable point. It will allow us to talk about how we position our work in a particular literature while pointing beyond its present condition.

Presskorn said...

The difference between the Investigations and the Q&W's article (or your writing for that matter) is, among a thousand others, that Q&W's article can hardly be taken as central to the sense-making tradion in the sense that the Investigations can be taken to be central to modern thinking.

If I am not mistaken, Q&W's article have a rather peripheral role in the sense-making tradition.

This was what prompted my question to begin with. You know; why pick on the little people?

But as expected; I see your point...

To make a reference to our previous discussion, one might say that you are considering Q&W's article as a "statement" - and that "tells us something about current critical standards, not about the quality of these two people's research."

And considered as such, it may be correct to say that Org Science, rather than Q&W, published the article.

Although I'm no fan of the prosopopoeia-metaphors either - They are rarely necessary and often misleading.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Org Science is the fourth ranked management journal by impact factor. I like the way you make the connection back to our discussion about statements. If this had been a couple of PhD students, publishing a paper in, say, ephemera, I might write them an email, but I wouldn't make an issue of it ... not even if they were assistant professors. But in this case we have some flaws that are really right on the surface of the text. As a reviewer, you would have to know enough to either reject the paper (or at least suggest some pretty serious revision) or recuse yourself from reviewing it (because, say, you know nothing at all about social movement research). Obviously, the responsibility is ultimately the journal's editors.