My new paper on Karl Weick's sensemaking scholarship has just appeared in Culture and Organization:
"Softly constrained imagination: Plagiarism and misprision in the theory of organizational sensemaking"
Abstract:While Karl Weick's writings have been very influential in contemporary work on organizations, his scholarship is rarely subjected to critical scrutiny. Indeed, despite its open 'breaching' of the conventions of much academic writing, Weick's work has been widely celebrated as 'first-rate scholarship.' As it turns out, however, his 'softly constrained' textual practices are rendered doubtful by both misreading and plagiarism, which makes his work resemble 'poetry' in a much stronger sense than perhaps originally intended. This paper draws inspiration from literary theory to analyze three cases of questionable scholarship in Weick's 1995 book Sensemaking in organizations, framing them in the context of standard formulations of the methodology of sensemaking drawn from the literature. It concludes that we need to rethink our tolerance of the sensemaking style and re-affirm a commitment to more traditional academic constraints.
Like last time, when Henrik Graham and I published in ephemera, the editors of C&O have given Weick an opportunity to respond, and (if I'm getting the gist of his remarks) he thinks my work is unworthy of publication. Once again, however, he does not address my specific points of criticism, though this time, somewhat oddly to my mind, he claims that if you check things out for yourself, you will find his scholarship holds up. I have no idea what he thinks will happen when you compare, say, Weick 2001, page 345-6, with Holub's 1977 poem. Surely you will conclude, as I did, that the first is a plagiarized version of the second. The other cases in the paper are more complex, but I can't imagine how you might conclude that what he has done there is "first-rate scholarship", as Dennis Gioia puts it.
What's more interesting in Weick's response, however, is his recourse (again) to the idea that I'm objecting to the sort of data he uses. In 2006, he put it like this:
While this style of using stories as allegories may displease people who favor other forms of evidence, the stories themselves are available for comparison, refutation, extension, coupling with other illustrations to exemplify a quite different concept, or for being ignored. (PDF)
This time he puts it as follows:
Some value that form of work. Some do not. Nevertheless, the results are open to substantive elaboration, criticism, and replacement ... Obviously there are many ways to work with ideas ...
So, once again, I find myself emphasizing that I'm very much in favour of using "stories" in our research, even, sometimes, "as allegories", and I don't even mind the use of poetry in organization studies. In fact, I value it. It does not displease me in the least. I dig it.
What I object to is, say, taking a poem, removing the line breaks, and presenting it as a paragraph of your own prose without attribution (or, as he later does, with attribution but no quotation marks). I object to calling the story an "incident that happened" when all we have to go on is a poem about a "story from the war".
To see what I mean, consider an example I have blogged about before. Suppose Weick had based his famous Mann Gulch study, not on Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire, but James Keelaghan's song "Cold Missouri Waters". Both sources are "about" the same event, but one of them "tries to be accurate with the facts" while the other takes a great deal of, well, poetic license. Now, suppose Weick had heard only the song and nonetheless proposed to tell us "what happened"—and suppose he did so without telling us that he was using a song rather than a factual account.
Well, I don't like that "style of using stories". But that's just because I think we should tell our readers what sorts of sources we are basing our arguments on. As always, let me conclude with the hope that we will soon have a serious conversation about these issues in the organization studies community. We can't say we haven't had an opportunity.
[Update: Thankfully, Nicolai Foss at Organizations and Markets has deemed my work worthy of discussion. (See here.) And Fabio Rojas at orgtheory.net has taken issue with Nicolai's framing of the issue in terms of "postmodernism". (See here.)]