Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cold Missouri Waters

"So what?"

I've heard this response to my critique of Karl Weick's scholarship twice in the space of a week. The first came from a reviewer of a paper of mine that, in part, expands on my objection to Weick's appropriation of Miroslav Holub's "Brief Thoughts on Maps". The second came during the question period after a presentation of my critique of Weick's reading of Norman Maclean's account of the Mann Gulch disaster (PDF) at the Second Conference of Practical Criticism in the Managerial Sciences (see the new site and blog!). I think I've found a way of responding, but it requires all the resources of this multimedia paradise of a blog I'm running.

Try listening to Jody Hale's beautiful version of James Keelaghan's "Cold Missouri Waters", while reading the text I've "written" below.

"Positive illusions can kill people," argued Weick (1993: 636), illustrating this point with a story about an incident that happened to a crew of smokejumpers in Montana 60 years ago. The firefighters, he said, stubbornly held onto a belief that they were fighting a small fire until it was too late and it blew up into a very big one. Their tragic story was vividly recounted by Norman Maclean in his book Young Men and Fire and preserved in a song by James Keelaghan.

August 5, 1949, was the hottest day on record in northern Montana and the forest tinder was dry. When lightning struck in the mountains, Wagner Dodge, the crew chief at the jump base in Missoula, prepared the boys to fly. He picked out the drop zone and, when the C-47 came in low, he saw the circle of the fire down below. Feeling the tap on their leg that told them to go, fifteen smokejumpers dropped above the cold waters of the Missouri River.

Dodge gauged the fire, and knew he had seen bigger ones. He ordered the crew to sidehill so they could fight it from below. They would then have their backs to the river and, he thought, have it “licked by morning” even if they took it slow. But the fire crowned and jumped the valley just ahead of them. There was now no way down and they headed for the ridge. The fire was too big to fight so they would have to fight the slope instead with the flames one step behind them.

The sky turned red and the smoke was boiling. Dodge estimated that there were two-hundred yards to safety, but that death was just fifty yards behind. Not knowing why, he struck a match to some waist-high grass. They were running out of time and he tried to tell his crew to step into his fire. "We can't make it, this is the only chance you'll get," he shouted; but they cursed him and ran for the rocks above. Dodge lay face down and prayed.

When he rose, like the phoenix in a world reduced to ashes, only two had survived. He stayed that night and one day after, carrying bodies to the river and wondering how he stayed alive above those cold Missouri waters.

To confirm your suspicions, you can read Keelaghan's lyrics here. To confirm further suspicions about that first paragraph, try page 54 of Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations (Sage, 1995).

Now, there are two things to notice. First, I haven't really written this passage; I've copied the text from the web and edited it slightly. The result is a distinctly "literary", even "poetic", prose style and, not surprisingly, since I stole it from a folk song, a compelling narrative. (No, I have not edited it enough to count as paraphrase. I would have had to rewrite the story in my own words to do that. If you are just moving other people's words around and adding a few of your own, you a very probably plagiarizing, not paraphasing. And, no, the fact that I mention Keelaghan is not enough either. I am using his words, and his composition of them into a particular story, without telling the reader that that is what I am doing.)*

The second thing to notice is that my introductory paragraph makes two not at all trivial claims: (1) that this incident really happened and (2) that it happened the way I'm telling it. In fact, Keelaghan has taken some liberties with Maclean's account (which is where I assume he got it). Dodge did order the crew to sidehill out of the gulch so they could fight it with their backs to the river. But that was after he (and the crew) gave up the idea that they would have it under control by morning, now fully aware that they were standing in a "death trap" (see Maclean 1992: 66).

For Keelaghan, who is telling this story as the tragedy it is, this is just a convenient way of condensing the required emotions into the space of a verse. He is invoking poetic license (and songs, in any case, do not make claims to truth, just beauty). But the same story, when deployed as support for Weick's thesis (1993: 636) that the crew stubbornly held on to the belief that they would have it "licked" by morning and therefore behaved foolishly (without "wisdom"), constitutes a failure of scholarship. It amounts to fudging the data. The fact that Weick fudged his reading of Maclean is no excuse for me to do so as well, especially since I'm at the same time plagiarizing Keelaghan.

Imagine a student submitting the text I have constructed here as part of a paper on the Mann Gulch disaster. So what?

*Just so there is no misunderstanding: I am not here accusing Weick of plagiarizing any part his Mann Gulch paper. I have simply constructed an example that looks like Weick's use of Holub's poem about the Hungarian soldiers in the Alps using Keelaghan's song about the firefighters in Mann Gulch.


Nick said...

Thanks for that, Thomas - the Weick saga continues, like a rampaging fire through the parched terrain of organization studies!

I was just wondering, though, where that second footnote in your post has gone?

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Nick. That's an error. I'll remove it. I was going to explain my objections to the Mann Gulch paper in greater detail. But I ran out of time.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for catching it.

Jonathan said...

I think in my field a paper that criticized a single scholar, on mostly methodological grounds, might meet with a similar reaction. Being right about Weick is one thing, but convincing others that this critique is, in its own right, a significant contribution to the field is quite another.

I think that the issue really has to be framed in a way that entails a more substantive critique of the entire discipline or field. Then the stakes would be higher. Of course, this is also risky, in the sense that you are calling into question methods used throughout your own field, and so you could find yourself on the outs. In some sense, the field is as rigorous as it wants to be. Does it really want to hear your message? Instead of saying "so what" people might say "shut up."

Thomas Basbøll said...

It's important to keep in mind that Weick is outright celebrated for his methodological/theoretical/stylistic "breaching" ... Weick's trademark is really to conflate issues of method, theory and style into one. That's how I'm framing my critique these days.

Also, this is only "methodology" because Weick doesn't have a method that is separable from his scholarship. I imagine that straightforward misreadings of primary sources would be fair game in your field. Pointing them out would be ordinary "critique".

But I do understand your point. I'm not too worried about ending up on the outside, though. In any case: I'm much more curious about what the openings for the sort of corrective I am attempting here are.

Jonathan said...

I'd suggest a meta-analysis involving several scholars who follow in this guy's footsteps. If you show he is influential as well as just celebrated, you would have a stronger case for the significance--and also more enemies, maybe. A pattern is always more significant than a single case of something, even if the single case is famous.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, despite being perhaps the obligatory citation for work in the "sensemaking" tradition, Weick is sometimes described as an "outlier" even there. So it is important to establish a pattern of influence. See this post for a first stab at identifying this pattern.