Monday, January 05, 2009

Hang On to Your Tools?

On Thursday, I'm going to Leicester to take part in the Practical Criticism Conference. I will be presenting my critique of Karl Weick's analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster, which turns out to be based on a rather imaginative (and not very disciplined) reading of his only source, i.e., Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire.

While my talk will focus on his 1993 paper, there is an obvious connection to his own "allegorical" application of it in his 1996 ASQ paper celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Administrative Science Quarterly (41, 2, pp. 301-313). In that paper he urges us to "drop our tools" in anticipation of a firestorm of changes that are about to overhwelm organization studies. Our "heavy tools" might prevent us from getting out of the way, he says.

He makes the connection back to the 1993 paper by saying that the firefighters were "overrun by exploding fires when their retreat was slowed because they failed to drop the heavy tools they were carrying" (Weick 1996: 301). This is a puzzling way of putting it, because in his 1993 paper he said they failed to heed their foreman's orders because they had dropped their tools and therefore lost their identity as obedient members of a "crew". Those tools, he argued, were "their reason for being there in the first place" and when they dropped them they lost a clear sense of who they were. It became "every man for himself" and the crew didn't listen to their foreman when he ordered them to do the one thing that might save them. "[The foreman's] command lost its basis of legitimacy when the smokejumpers threw away their organization along with their tools" (Weick 1993: 637). In the 1996 article Weick describes "tool dropping in Mann Gulch" by quoting a passage from Maclean that tells us that "some of [the firefighters] had already dropped their tools" (304). Indeed, in Maclean's original account, most of the firefighters very clearly dropped their tools and still had no chance of outrunning the fire.

All in all, "tool dropping" seems to have had no bearing on events in Mann Gulch. Weick cites Ted Putnam's analysis of its greater relevance in the case of the South Canyon fire, but Putnam himself does not (as far as I can tell) make the connection back to Mann Gulch (here's a PDF of his analysis). Indeed, Weick seems not to have noticed the (interesting) tension between the conclusion he drew from Mann Gulch and the conclusion Putnam drew from South Canyon. While dropping your tools may increase your speed, this comes at at the cost of your ability to deal with "the reason for being there in the first place", i.e., in an academic context, your ability to know something in a serious scholarly way. Dropping your tools and travelling light can sometimes get you out of an acute crisis—like not having anything to talk about for a lecture you've already committed yourself to (see Weick's 2007 piece in AMJ, volume 50, number 1)—but it can also cause you not to respect the basis of your discipline's scholarly authority—like rules against "fudging the data too much" (see Weick 1996: 311, where he quotes Richard Rorty).

Not incidentally, the substance of my critique of the 1993 Mann Gulch paper is that he has effectively fudged his "data", i.e., Maclean's account, which he distorts to suit his own conclusions. Dropping your tools permanently is tantamount to shedding your legitimacy. If it is "lightness" (Weick 1996: 312) you want, perhaps academia is not for you.

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