Monday, March 30, 2009

Weick's Sentences (2)

Picking up from where we left off in Friday's post....

When people theorize about any facet of organizing, including sensemaking, they focus on conceptual properties that are thought to be crucial.

The first thing I notice about this sentence is the uneasy relationship between the general and the specific. The sentence talks about three activities:

1. theorizing about a facet of organizing;
2. theorizing about sensemaking;
3. focusing on conceptual properties that are thought to be crucial.

People who do the second are, of course, doing the first. And the sentence rightly captures this with the word "including". But this actually draws our attention to the words "of organizing"; providing a specific example emphasizes the more general category. We are expecting to learn next what people who theorize about organizing do. But what we get is something that applies at least to all theorizing in the social sciences and, arguably, to all theorizing.

Notice the difference in the following sentence:

When people theorize about a facet of organizing, or any other social practice, they focus on conceptual properties that are thought to be crucial.

Or still better:

When people theorize, they focus on conceptual properties that are thought to be crucial.

You can then write another sentence that actually gets down to business:

Some crucial conceptual properties of sensemaking are retrospect, framing, and ambiguity.

Alternatively, you can follow through on the gesture you started with, moving smoothly from the general to the specific:

When people theorize about any facet of organizing, including sensemaking, they focus on conceptual properties that are thought to condition how people work together to reach the goals they share.

That's still not a great sentence, however, mainly because "conceptual properties" sounds odd, especially next to "facet of organizing". To see this, consider this question: What are the conceptual properties of a facet of organizing? I think "properties" would do here. But even then we would be talking about properties of facets. It's one of those sentences that seems to be saying something very precise, but really just defers the question of what it means for later.

One last post on sentences on Wednesday. Then something completely different. (Actually, not quite completely different: I've just decided to focus on sensemaking in April.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Weick's Sentences (1)

We can't let what has turned out to be "Sentence Month" here at RSL pass without looking at a sentence or two by Karl Weick. Let's begin with this little gem from his contribution to Great Minds in Management (OUP, 2005), "The Experience of Theorizing" (PDF available here):

Aim for good sentences. (409)

It is hard to criticize because it is so short, but it therefore also emphasizes that a short sentence isn't always a good one. What's wrong with it?

We might invoke Yoda: "Try not. Do or do not! There is no try." Write good sentences. But my point is grammatical and, while Yoda's prowess with the light saber is legendary, he is not known for his mastery of grammar. Are good sentences really something we "aim for"? If we want to take the Force out of the sentence, then we can at least pick an object that suits the verb: "Aim to write good sentences."

Here are two sentences I want to look at on Monday:

When people theorize about any facet of organizing, including sensemaking, they focus on conceptual properties that are thought to be crucial. 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)

Weick is a good object of practical criticism, not only because he is a "great mind" in management, but also because it is often his style that is singled out for praise.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How to Write Sentences

A sentence is made by coupling meanwhile ride around to be a couple there makes grateful dubeity named atlas coin in a loan.

This is what they all do.

Gertrude Stein (How to Write, 1931, p. 115)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Passive Voice

A good post has been written by Jonathan on the virtues of the passive voice.

Goffman's Sentences (3)

We have looked at examples of how Goffman writes about theory and method in Asylums. Here's an example of his empirical style:

In mental hospitals and similar institutions the basic kind of personal territory is, perhaps, the private sleeping room, officially available to around five or ten per cent of the ward population. In Central Hospital such a room was sometimes given in exchange for hard work. Once obtained, a private room could be stocked with objects that could lend comfort, pleasure, and control to the patient's life. Pin-up pictures, a radio, a box of paperback detective stories, a bag of fruit, coffee-making equipment, matches, shaving equipment — these were some of the objects, many of them illicit, that were introduced by patients. (217)

Notice that this passage brings together general notions (like comfort, pleasure, and control) with very specific ones (like the list of objects that may be found in priavte rooms). Also, having told us that private sleeping rooms are rare (i.e., that most patients don't have them), he tells us how those that do have them came by them. That is, he implicitly raises a question and then explicitly answers it.

By beginning with a "personal territory" that is very clearly demarcated from the rest of the hospital, he gives concreteness to an idea that is actually quite abstract. He will go on to show how territories can be set up without any need for walls and doors. Here "personal effects" are used not to "stock" the personal space but to "mark off the area as his place" (218).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Goffman's Sentences (2)

Sometime next month I'm going to do a comparison of Bernie Madoff's confession and Ervin Goffman's preface to Asylums. Both are statements of method that understand the basic idea that you have to explain what you did and why you did it. (I'm grateful to Rob Austin for a number of conversations that have helped to focus this idea for me.)

Let's have a look at a sentence that is in fact unnecessarily long, but which does not suffer in the least because of it.

It was then and still is my belief that any group of persons — prisoners, primitives, pilots, or patients — develop a life of their own that becomes meaningful, reasonable, and normal once you get close to it, and that a good way to learn about any of these worlds is to submit oneself in the company of the members to the daily round of petty contingencies to which they are subject. (7)

First, notice the sign that we here have a writer who enjoys writing and cares about language. He wants to insert a list to exemplify "any group of persons", which is to say, an arbitrary list that nonetheless evokes a particular likeness with the "inmates" of his study. So he chooses to alliterate: all the groups start with with the letter p. Not only does it read well, the obvious poetic rationale for list underscores its generality (he could have chosen any other list of groups and his point would hold too). It would have been too cute to say "puppets, paupers, pirates, poets, or pawns", but it's the sensibility that would consider this association (and risk it) that I admire here.

Notice also that the second "and" naturally opens onto a new point (he could have put a period there) in a way that the first "and" does not (which simply completes a list). Notice the clear personal statement of belief that is also a methodological principle. And notice that this "personality" gives a particular meaning to the idea of "submitting oneself" to "petty contingencies" in the "company" of the people one is studying.

Here, in one sentence that is in fact a separate paragraph, Goffman grounds his writing convincingly in the experience of the writer. It is an experience the writer has sought out with the explicit aim of producing the text (the research report) and that is what makes it the methodological reflection of an empirical scientist. The very next paragraph, of course, goes on to acknowledge "the limits of both [his] method and [his] application of it". That is, he addresses the question of validity.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Goffman's Sentences (1)

A sentence does not have to be simple to be good. Consider this one, taken from Erving Goffman's Asylums:

Some establishments, like Grand Central Station, are open to anyone who is decently behaved; others, like the Union League Club of New York or the laboratories at Los Alamos, are felt to be somewhat snippy about who is let in. (15)

Notice that it makes perfect sense if we take out the parenthetical examples:

Some establishments are open to anyone who is decently behaved; others are felt to be somewhat snippy about who is let in.

But notice also that those examples justify the colloquial language at the end ("snippy"), which is a nice touch but needs the context of a private club to seem fitting in an academic paper. Notice also that the mention of Los Alamos gives "snippy" the jocular sense it needs by introducing an example of what most people would grant is a legimately exclusive establishment.

The sentence does not tell us something we don't already know. It reminds the reader of differences between kinds of institutions. And it is written with an easy manner that suits that purpose perfectly.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Work of the Symbolic (6)

Qualitative-constructivist methodology has a unique advantage for exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes as it stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Let's take one last look at this sentence. As I read it, it has the following parts:

1. Qualitative-constructivist methodology
2. has a unique advantage
3. for exploring
4. the work of the symbolic in institutional processes
5. as it stresses
6. the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Each of these parts results from a separate (though perhaps not conscious) rhetorical decision. Consider (2). By using the word "unique", we go beyond the claim that our chosen method is good or apt or well-suited. But by using the word "advantage", we also suggest that other methods are possible, even that they are capable of reaching the result we are looking for, just less effectively.

Note also that our choice of method is based on what we want to "explore", not what we want to, say, determine. And notice (5): we are using a method that merely "stresses" something, not one that is, in some special way, able to, for example, capture it. Finally, there's a feature I mentioned in the first post on this sentence. It chooses very complex constructions to name each major element (1, 4, 6). Consider one way of simplifying it.

Our methodology has a unique advantage for exploring our object as it stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Here we have obviously removed some information from the sentence, but we have also focused the readers attention on the part of the sentence that delivers a particular claim. Instead of using the sentence to say three things, we are using it to say only one. This of course demands that we will have to write some other sentences as well:

We used a qualitative-constructivist methodology in this study. The method stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices and it therefore has a unique advantage for exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes.

On Wednesday, another sentence.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Confession as Methodology, Methodology as Confession

"Your Honor, I hope I have conveyed with some particularity in my own words, the crimes I committed and the means by which I committed them. Thank you." (Bernie Madoff)

Your methodology section should tell your readers what you did in order to give them a basis to decide whether you know. I want to look at the literary side of Madoff's confession, mainly because it is downright examplary in relation to method.

First, however, I want to stress that we cannot assume that he is telling the whole truth just because he is taking the full burden of responsibility. In your methodology section you should of course tell the truth about what you did to arrive at the knowledge you have. (Though you, too, have some freedom to decide who you want to implicate. More on that some other time.) Here, however, it is very likely that Madoff is trying to protect someone. So his rhetorical problem is easy to define. He has to describe to the court what he did in such a way that it is reasonable to suppose that he did it all himself. It has to be "realistic" to imagine him working alone.

Notice how he goes about producing this effect. Details. He can tell you not only what he did but where he was (in what office) when he did it. He knows where the money came from and where it went. He has a reasonably precise idea about when the scam started and how it got out of hand. He can distinguish his criminal activities from the "legitimate" day-to-day operations of the rest of his firm.

But that's not all. Notice his repeated use of legal terminology. He is consciously aware of the courtroom setting and he is committing himself not just to an account of particular facts but to the most natural interpretation of those facts as "criminal". Look at this sentence:

I knowingly gave false testimony under oath to the staff of the SEC on May 19, 2006 that I executed trades of common stock on behalf of my investment advisory clients and that I purchased and sold the equities that were part of my investment strategy in European markets.

It is a minor masterpiece of confession. He brings together the legal jargon on which he will be judged and the financial jargon that displays his mastery of his trade. The corresponding statement in a methodology section would bring together your theory and your procedure.

Throughout May of 2009, I collected testimonial data using semistructured interviews in an attempt to test the hypothesis that tacit knowledge played a significant role in decision-making by analysts throughout the collapse of the European equity markets.*

What you are looking for is a series of methodological specificities that are immediately relevant to both your concrete, empirical particulars and your more abstract, theoretical generalizations.

______________
*NOTE: This is, of course, a wholly made-up sentence. It is interesting only in its form.

The Work of the Symbolic (5)

In 1922 everything may have been simpler. In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Bertrand Russell was able to write this kind of thing:

There is the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other? [This] is a logical question ... [Wittgenstein] is concerned with the conditions for accurate Symbolism, i.e. for Symbolism in which a sentence 'means' something quite definite. In practice, language is always more or less vague ... [but] the whole function of language is to have meaning, and it only fulfils this function in proportion as it approaches to the ideal language which we postulate.

The next sentence is one of my favourites: "The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts." Today, this statement seems simple-minded, reductionist and just plain wrong. And we could even invoke (the later) Wittgenstein if we wanted to argue against it. But we have to keep Russell's qualification in mind: in practice, he grants, language is vague. He might also have granted that it is involved in many other kinds of business. He (and the early Wittgenstein) is here, in 1922, interested in the workings of a "logically perfect language".

I emphasize this passage because the interest in strictly logical problems allows us, it seems, to write simple, direct sentences. Consider, by contrast, the sentence I have been looking at over the last few posts:

Qualitative-constructivist methodology has a unique advantage for exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes as it stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Because "the work of the symbolic" is not a simple business "in practice", it seems, we tend not to write simple sentences about it.

I thought I was going to be done with this sentence today, but I'm going to have to say a bit more on Monday.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Work of the Symbolic (4)

Here's the sentence I want to look at now:

Experience is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Grammatically, that's a good solid sentence. But there is something peculiar about it.

I'm not sure this is because, as Thomas P. suggests (comment to this post), there are only sociolinguistic inquiries, not sociolinguistic practices. There are plenty of references to such practices in academic writing, and even more to "linguistic practices" (by which is not meant the practices of linguists).

There is, however, something strange about modifying "sociolinguistic" with "shared". How could a meaning be both social and linguistic but not shared? I suspect someone snuck the word "sociolinguistic" into this sentence* to prop it up with a bit of scientific sounding jargon. This would be a much better sentence:

Experience is embodied in shared meanings and practices.

In fact, it is so much better that one suspects that that's what was originally written. A reviewer may have asked "What kind of meanings?" and this was the solution the author offered. (Reviewers, unfortunately, sometimes forget to insist that the solution must also be an improvement.)

But the reviewer may have been prompted to ask this question by another consideration. Constructivists normally argue that, though we might think meanings are disembodied "propositions", they are in fact embodied in the practices that make use of our sentences. That is, meanings are not ethereal entitites that surround words, events and actions; they are supported by much more tangible things like routines, habits, and rituals. They are tied to practical aims and practical problems, or to broader processes that keep the community working together.

So the original sentence may actually have read:

Experience is embodied in sociolinguistic practices.

Or:

Experience is structured by shared meanings.

These two different but related ideas seem to have been simply fused together in order to make a vague "constructivist" gesture.

One more post on this on Friday. Then I'll take up another sentence. I feel like I've almost found what I'm looking for.

______________
*The example has actually become fictional since I first quoted it. I have abstracted this shorter sentence from a longer one that was published in a leading management journal, but I have purposely not provided the source in order to be able take these kinds of liberties.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Work of the Symbolic (3)

On Friday, I said that the following sentence is in the passive voice:

The work of the symbolic in institutional processes is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Jonathan pointed out that "is embodied" only looks like the passive voice. The "to be + plus participle" construction is really used as an adjective. I immediately concurred, but this morning I am once again unsure.

The University of North Carolina Writing Center offers this "sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice":

form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice

Jonathan offers a counterexample—a case where the formula would mis-fire, as it were.

He is dressed in black.

To see what this might mean, consider the following example. The UNC Writing Center gives us this sentence as an example of the passive voice:

The working class was marginalized.

But we can, of course, talk about a marginalized group of people just as we can talk about a dressed man. If that is what the sentence means, argues Jonathan, then it is not passive voice. Alternatively, we can talk about a group that is going through the process of marginalization, i.e., a group that is being pushed to the margins.

Consider this one:

Symbolism in institutional processes is produced in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

That's clearly passive voice. But notice that we had to remove "the work" (which could not be "produced").

Now consider this one:

The work of the symbolic in institutional processes is marginalized by shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Here we had to replace "in" with "by". The original sentence was telling us where the work happens; this one is telling us that something is happening to the work.

More on Wednesday.

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Work of the Symbolic (2)

Have a look at this sentence from Wednesday's post:

The work of the symbolic in institutional processes is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Notice that it is in the passive voice (to be + past particple of embody) and notice that* both its subject (the work of the symbolic in institutional processes) and its object (shared sociological meanings and practices) are named by rather complex constructions.

Can we give the subject and object of this sentence simpler names?

Institutional symbolism is embodied in shared meanings and practices.

This is still in the passive voice, however. Perhaps, we canLet's try to use "works" instead of "is embodied".

Institutional symbolism works through processes that are embodied in shared meanings and practices.

Was "sociolinguistic" contributing anything? Well, it is hard to imagine unshared sociolinguistic meanings and practices or nonlinguistic meanings or linguistic practices without meaning. So we could probably say:

Institutional symbolism works through processes that are embodied in sociolinguistic practices.

And is there any important difference here between "sociolinguistic practices" and "processes that are embodied in sociolinguistic practices"? Probably not. So we have:

Institutional symbolism works through sociolinguistic practices.

I'm still not entirely sure what I'm looking for. I am trying to demonstrate, however, that the work of understanding a sentence—thinking about what is says—can be supported by the act of editing it—by constructing other sentences. We will continue on Monday.

___________
*See comments. I have made (and Jonathan has corrected) this mistake before.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Inframethodology

A quick Google search tells me I may be in a position to coin a term. If metatheory is "theory about theory" or "theory beyond theory" then inframethodology is the study of "the method beneath the method". The term would cover the workaday practices of research, i.e., the sort of thing we talk about in our monthly "craft of research" seminars.

One might also think of it as "the practice of the practice" of research, but "metapractice" is a bit too cute, isn't it? Also, while metatheory is in some sense "beyond", i.e., more abstract, than the various discipline-specific theories, "infra" emphasizes that we are talking about methods that lie under our more discipline-specific methodologies, something more concrete.

Anyway, if anyone knows of someone who has beat me to this word, let me know, and I'll give them props.

[Update: Here's a PDF of a 2008 paper by Norbert Pachler and others that uses the term.]

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Work of the Symbolic (1)

The following sentence was recently published in a major management journal. (The reference is part of the sentence.)

Qualitative-constructivist methodology has a unique advantage for exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes as it stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

If it is true, here are two sentences that must be also be true:

Qualitative-constructivist methodology stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Qualitative-constructivist methodology is uniquely suited to exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes.

An in-line reference in a sentence is an implicit claim about the cited work. It should therefore also be possible to construct a sentence about Berger & Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality. But this is actually a bit trickier. After all, the following is probably not true.*

Berger and Luckmann (1966) have argued that qualitative-constructivist methodology has a unique advantage for exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes as it stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Their work is probably being cited to support a characterization of a social ontology (constructivism), not a methodology (qualitative research).

Berger and Luckmann (1966) have argued that experience is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

In this context, it is of course taken for granted that Berger and Luckmann were right. So the original sentence could actually be rewritten as three:

Experience is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices (Berger and Luckmann, 1966). Qualitative-constructivist methodology stresses the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices. It is therefore uniquely suited to exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes.

This makes the argument clear, but it is also easy to see why the author didn't want to leave it like that (it's a bit clunky). We can tighten it up:

Experience is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices (Berger and Luckmann, 1966). Because qualitative-constructivist methodology stresses such embodiment, it is uniquely suited to exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes.

And from there it is, some might argue, a short step to the single sentence we began with.

But all this assumes that there is some obvious link between "exploring the work of the symbolic in institutional processes" and "the embodiment of experience in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices". If we grant that the link between exploration and experience is indeed obvious here, we can conclude that

The work of the symbolic in institutional processes is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Let's keep at it. More on Friday.

_________
*Update: It definitely isn't true. Berger and Luckmann leave methodological issues explicitly out of the book (page 25-26 in the Penguin edition).

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Sentence

Words only have meaning in the context of sentences. This basic insight, which Wittgenstein learned from Frege, is at the root of developing your style. You are trying to find a way of putting words together to give them the sense you want to express. I want to devote the month of March to sentences, to the elementary act of giving words meaning.

This is a sentence. Take a close look at it. If I had written "This is a hat" you would have expected to see it under a picture. Or, suppose we add just the word "harsh": "This is a harsh sentence." The concept of a "harsh sentence" is rarely applied to writing; we generally find it in discussions of criminal cases, where the sentence is determined after a judgment is made. In legal contexts, sentences mete out punishments. So we would now expect a sentence preceding the sentence (about the sentence) to state the terms of a sentence. Something like:

He has been given five years without any chance of parole. This is a harsh sentence.

Compare the following:

Near the end of Smith's beautiful story there is a parting that ends with the following words: "You are not welcome here and your dog is not welcome here and your wife neither." This is a harsh sentence, perhaps the only harsh words spoken in the entire story. It is also the first and only time Jack opens his mouth to speak. The effect is therefore all the more dramatic.

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this yet. But I need something to focus our attention on style and grammar. More on Wednesday.