Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Weick's Sentences (3)

Take a look at this sentence from Karl Weick's "The Experience of Theorizing" (2005):

While their conclusions could be called "findings," that label fits only in the sense that when investigators look for something like the deployment of retrospect, or the reconciliation of competing frames, or the responses to ambiguity, they are more or less surprised by what they "find" given what they were looking for. (410)

This is a great opportunity to consider the meaning of the words "in the sense that". Suppose I say that a particular country is only a democracy in the sense that people regularly go to the polls to cast ballots for candidates for various offices. What I am saying is that if you define "democracy" in a particular way you can call the country a democracy, but there are other senses of the word (such as "of the people, by the people, for the people") that would fit less easily. Weick is of course doing something similar.

But in my example the "sense in which" the country is a democracy is a familiar feature of democratic nations. I'm not sure that's the case in Weick's sentence. If that is not immediately clear, it may be because of the digression he makes in the middle of it by providing examples. Let's remove them and see what's going on:

While their conclusions could be called "findings," that label fits only in the sense that when investigators look for something they are more or less surprised by what they "find" given what they were looking for.

Or, to simplify still further:

Their conclusions are "findings" only in the sense that they are surprising.

But when did "being suprised" become a sense of "finding something"? Surely the conclusions that investigators reach are "findings" in the ordinary sense that they went looking for them and found them.

Leaving "in the sense that" on the side for a moment, consider the supporting proposition in this sentence:

When investigators look for something like the deployment of retrospect, or the reconciliation of competing frames, or the responses to ambiguity, they are more or less surprised by what they find given what they were looking for.

It's very hard to see what this means because he both specifies "what they were looking for" and leaves it open. We might say that there is a sense in which we know what they were looking for and a sense in which we don't. Does Weick really mean the following?

When investigators look for something like the deployment of retrospect, or the reconciliation of competing frames, or the responses to ambiguity, they are often surprised by what they find.

Or does he mean:

Investigators of sensemaking are more or less surprised by what they find depending on what they were looking for.

On Friday, I will begin a series of posts on the topic of sensemaking in general. I will start with what I find good and useful about this concept.

4 comments:

Jonathan said...

I think his idea might be that the word "findings" expresses the idea that research results are only meaningful in relation to a set of hypotheses. The results or findings can confirm, weakly or strongly, a previous set of expectations, or disconfirm a hypothesis in a surprising way. The guy really writes like crap, in my opinion. The gap between his reputation for a lively style and our own judgment of his style might lead to some interesting "findings."

Thomas Basbøll said...

On most days, I agree with you about Weick's writing. But sometimes I try to see the good in it. Hemingway says somewhere that he found writing difficult in the beginning and the results were awkward and people called that awkwardness "style". There is of course a reading of that remark that passes the blame onto the readers, i.e., they were too kind, or (as Papa puts it elsewhere) they flattered themselves by flattering the author. That probably holds here too.

Sometimes I also think that Weick's stylistic weaknesses are like Whitman's. I feel like making Pound's pact with him: Weick broke the new wood but isn't much of a hand at carving.

The problem with today's sentence, however, is that he's also obscuring the point you are making. That's what findings are, so there is no clever way to say, "I don't really have any findings." Which is what he sometimes very much seems to want to say ... and say cleverly. (It's a bit like that example about "theorizing" from a while back, which is in the same tradition.)

Jonathan said...

You might want to revisit some Clifford Geertz. There's a guy who could write. I was reading this morning an essay called "Blurred Genres" that I'm teaching tomorrow in m theory class. He has sentences like "The woods are full of interpreters." Amazing stuff.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, if I ever do go back actually doing research, and decide to practice some kind of organizational anthropology, people like Geertz and Goffman will definitely serve as models.