Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading for Sensemaking

As I noted in my last post, it is possible to conduct a study of sensemaking on the empirical basis of a few secondary sources. Weick's original Mann Gulch study (1993) is based on a single source, namely, Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, which he "consumed" in an armchair (Weick 2007, PDF). His study of the Tenerife disaster (Weick 1990) is based on the accident reports. Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline's (2008) study of the UA93 crash is based mainly on a book-length piece of journalism and the 9/11 Commission report. What sort of reading are such sources be subjected to in sensemaking research?

Weick's reading of Maclean is the classic exemplar of what I want to call "reading for sensemaking". According to Weick, one begins by "stripping away" the "elegant prose" of the source to provide a "simple review" of events (Weick 1993: 628). Quinn and Worline adopt a much more detailed procedure, but the aim is similar: they want to determine what happened on Flight 93 in order to assess the role of sensemaking processes in these events. They generate a time-line of events that, while of course interesting in its details, is largely freed of the "literary" feel that their sources adopt (the 9/11 Commission report has been both praised and criticized for its narrative force). In both cases, it is interesting to note that they steer clear of especially "critical" readings of their sources. They assume that their sources offer (when stripped of their elegance) an essentially objective account of the relevant events (or at least give the impression that they make this assumption; Weick isn't especially loyal to Maclean). In studying the sensemaking that went on during an event, we leave on the side, it seems, the struggle to make sense of the event after it is over.


Jonathan said...

Armchair ethnography seems a little lazy to me. Basically, it entails translating other people's narratives into a narrative metalanguage of scant theoretical rigor.

Or am I missing something?

Thomas Basbøll said...

I think that's right. There is an argument to be made for this approach, however, since it is notoriously difficult to get serious empirical access to business organizations. Instead of gathering "true" stories about organizational life to support claims about the best way to manage organizations, one therefore settles for constructing "plausible" narratives on the basis of studies that are widely available.

But what we need is a much more critical attitude when making these constructions. Like I say, Weick describes himself as "consuming" the book bound only by the "soft constraints" of his armchair. There's something unsatisfying about that way of describing what he does (not to mention that he actually gets the story wrong!).