Monday, August 30, 2010

Style & Substance

"Some of the reactions were very amusing: one reader suggested that his firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a twelve-year-old lad and had him seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, 'realistic' sentences ('He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy.' Etc.)." (Vladimir Nabokov)

Simplifying somewhat, a sentence is a group of words that expresses an idea. Here is an example:

(1) People are starting to wonder how a rebound might shape results in November.

Notice that part of this idea can be expressed in the form of a question:

(2) How might a rebound shape results in November?

That's what people are starting to wonder. But the first sentence itself did not express this wonderment; it said only that people are are starting to ask the question. If we really want to raise this idea in the form of a question, we can more adequately express this idea as follows:

(3) How might a rebound, people are starting to wonder, shape results in November?

(2) differs in substance from (1) and (3), the difference between (1) and (3) is a question of style. The idea you are trying to express helps you decide not to write (2), but it does not help you choose (1) over (3).

(1) is actually only part of a sentence that James Surowiecki wrote in his financial column in the New Yorker. Here is the whole paragraph:

Given high unemployment and flat wages, no one is going to be singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” any time soon (even if the tune was F.D.R.’s theme song). But we’ve now had three straight quarters of growth, and last month saw the creation of more than a hundred and fifty thousand jobs. That prompted the Harvard economist Jeff Frankel, a member of the committee that officially declares when recessions begin and end, to declare the downturn over. So, with the midterm elections just seven months away, people are starting to wonder how a rebound might shape results in November.

Even such straightforward writing is the result of a great many stylistic decisions, many of which the experienced writer does not even make consciously. To see what I mean, let's try to isolate the core propositional content of the sentences in this paragraph.

Unemployment is high. Wages are flat. People will remain unhappy for some time. The economy has grown for three straight quarters. Last month more than a hundred and fifty thousand jobs were created. Jeff Frankel has declared the downturn over. Jeff Frankel is an economist at Harvard. Jeff Frankel is a member of the committee that officially declares when recessions begin and end. The midterm elections are seven months away. People are starting to wonder how a rebound might shape results in November.

Next week, we will look at the important role that Surowiecki's "but" and "so" played (easily seen by what happens when we remove them). Today, I want to draw attention to the way Surowiecki arranges the substance of his paragraph around certain key propositions so that he doesn't really say many of these things, but merely mentions them in passing. If we cut all this supplementary information out, we would get the following sentences:

People will remain unhappy for some time. The economy has grown for three straight quarters. Last month more than a hundred and fifty thousand jobs were created. Jeff Frankel has declared the downturn over. People are starting to wonder how a rebound might shape results in November.

I am going to assume a "command of English" that would allow you to write those sentences. The true art of composing a sentence is what brings us from here to the sentences that were actually published by the New Yorker.

Writing sentences that are publishable in the New Yorker is a pretty good goal, but I've run out of time this morning, so we'll have to continue on Wednesday.

Friday, August 27, 2010

One True Sentence

Whatever one may think of Hemingway's writing, his attitude as a writer is exemplary. Here is part of a famous passage from A Moveable Feast about his "work":

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scroll-work or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. (16-17)

Hemningway would, of course, become famous for precisely the "true simple declarative sentence"; in fact, he won the Nobel Prize for building a style out of it. We might say that Hemingway cultivated the "propositional attitude" I talked about in my last post. He believed that life was rooted in things that were true or false, that even his fictions were ultimately about something he knew:

Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline. (17)

In theory, then, there is in each of Hemingway's stories a simple, declarative sentence that tells us directly what the story is "about", i.e., a sentence that Hemingway thinks is true and which is the core of the narrative. Perhaps some of his stories actually leave that sentence out, but it would then, in principle, be possible to construct it. Understanding the story would amount to understanding that sentence.

Again, we can think what we want about that sort of writing as literature. You may like your fiction more ambiguous; you may prefer a "well-managed darkness" over a "A Clean Well-lighted Place". But even a judicious obscurity (if it is really to be judicious, well-managed) must be constructed with an awareness of what it is you are trying to conceal. Certainly, academic writers do well to organize their writing around the truest sentences that they know. As Hemingway points out, this is good discipline, but it also makes the day's writing go much more smoothly. Once you have articulated simply and straightforwardly the thing you know, the thing you are writing about, it becomes easier to write.

"Do not worry," you can hear Papa saying. "You have always written before and you will write now."

That "now" is important. The act of declaring what you know, right now, in your writing room, without any further inquiry, without first reading some more, or going back into the field to question your informants, clarifies your position as a writer. What you know now is what you can write now. And you discover it in those simple sentences that you know to be true.

Next week I'm going to look at sentences in greater detail. The week after that, I'll look at the paragraph, a no less important subject. If you want some homework, you can read the first chapter of Christopher Lasch's Plain Style.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Propositional Attitude

Propositional attitudes are states of mind like beliefs, hopes, and expectations that have "propositional content". That is, they are attitudes directed at something that can be true or false (propositions are things that can be true or false). I believe that the sun will come up tomorrow; I hope that it won't rain; and I expect that Susan will bring the potato salad. Each of these mental states have a proposition as its object, and that proposition may turn out to be false. But my attitude is directed at their truth. For example, I might be worried that it will rain; my worry is directed at the proposition that it will rain just as my hope was directed at the proposition that it wouldn't. Either way, I have an attitude about the truth of a proposition.

In this post I want to appropriate this term of art from analytical philosophy and redeploy it in the context of writing instruction. I want to talk about what it means to have a "propositional attitude" in the sense in which we might talk about having a positive or negative attitude, i.e., as a disposition. I want to talk about it as a sort of intellectual posture. Academic writing, I want to say, revolves around propositions, even if it does not always propose them, and sometimes altogether eschews proposing them. An academic piece of writing is, to a great extent, an arrangement of propositions.

How do you cultivate a suitably propositional attitude in your writing? Well, the first thing you can do is identify the propositions that are relevant in your research. For each writing project, try to write 20 or 30 sharp, declarative sentences whose truth-value matters in the context of that project. These sentences may express commonly held views that you want to call into question. Or they may more straightforwardly express your views, i.e., things you believe. They will normally include statements of theory, statements of method, analytic conclusions, and even common knowledge. The essential thing is that whether or not they are true is important to you, as the writer, and therefore, implicitly, to your readers. You expect your readers to care about the truth of these sentences.

You don't always expect them to agree with you. In fact, you are often well aware of specific readers who will disagree with you because you know they think differently about the propositions in question. What I'm calling a propositional attitude is simply a good-natured willingness to discuss the truth of these things or a steadfast refusal to do so. The first set of propositions define the subject matter of your field, the second defines your foundations. Some truths are not going to be called into question in the paper you are working on and your attitude is that anyone who wants to do so should go elsewhere.

Other truths are simply not going to be involved at all. This group of propositions (true sentences that are not relevant to your topic) is of course infinitely large. It can help, however, to identify a few of these just to mark out territories that you will not enter.

A final word to deconstructionists: even if your paper is engaged primarily in "questioning", which is a perfectly respectable activity, then it is nonetheless "about" the propositions you are questioning. Moreover, the tradition of deconstruction is itself built around a set of propositions about the nature of language and writing, and these propositions, however ironic you may be about them, are also capable of being written down. You do well to articulate them at least for yourself at the outset of your writing project. Irony, too, is a propositional attitude.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Aims and Scope

My sixteen-week blogging regimen begins today. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I will write a blog post from six to seven in the morning and post it. This morning, I want to say a few words about what I think I'm trying to accomplish.

This blog is about academic writing, especially in management studies. Like any weblog, the main purpose is to keep to track of my thoughts, but the public nature of a blog forces me to strive for a certain measure of coherence. Writing something with the knowledge that anyone can read it when you're done is a very different experience from keeping a private journal of your thoughts or working on a text that may or may not be published months from now. Tom Wolfe once said that many writers of his generation turned to journalism in order to "work some the fat our of their style". I blog, in part, to keep my prose in shape.

But my aim is of course also to share my experiences. By day, I'm the resident writing consultant at a major Scandinavian business school, and I spend much of my time editing papers written by researchers. I also help them to plan their writing processes. Through this work, I have become increasingly interested in the craft of academic writing, indeed, in the craft dimension of research in general. I think the craft of research is too often neglected with the vague (hardly articulated) justification that theory and method are more important.

Long ago, Paul Feyerabend wrote a book called Against Method. The spirit of my blog this semester might best be captured by the working title of a book I hope to make some headway on this semester, namely, Beneath Method. The theme will be the everyday "care" that researchers must take in their application of theories and methods, the sense in which theories and methods can never replace thinking. This is not just a moral theme (though there is a bit of that, I'll grant); it's also a very practical matter of making sure that you have enough time to do your work carefully.

While I will focus mainly on what is, in a sense, the "end product" of research, i.e., the write-up, it is important to keep in mind that a quality research paper depends on quality research. Careful data collection and analysis (method) is very important, of course, but so is basic scholarship: careful attention to what others have written on the subjects that interest you. This issue has occupied my attention for some time now.

But the overall aim of this blog is to help improve the quality of our prose. That means I will say a lot (I hope) about "composition", i.e., the art of putting words together in an effective way. While "good" writing can often be distinguished from "bad" writing in a general way, however, I want to try to emphasize the virtues of academic writing specifically. Academic prose is governed by a great many conventions that sometimes irritate non-academics and students (and even some academics), but once its scope and limits are understood the challenge of writing well in this area offers a great many satisfactions. Let me conclude with an preliminary attempt to define the genre.

Academic writing is intended for an audience of knowledgeable peers. Its aim is to present ideas in such a way that they can be discussed by the relevant experts, i.e., by people who are qualified to offer criticism, not of the writing, but of the subject matter that is being written about. This means that academic texts must present both the idea and the basis on which that idea may be defended in a clear and efficient manner to an audience that may be presumed to know almost as much (and on some points more) than the writer. This makes it very different from popular writing, where the writer presumes to know much more about the subject than the reader. The craft of academic writing, then, is the craft of writing "knowingly". It is the art of presenting what you know to people who know enough to decide whether or not you really do.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Sixteen Week Challenge

As always, we begin with the math. Starting on Monday, there are eight weeks until the fall break. After the break, there are then another eight weeks until Christmas. 16 weeks of 5 working days each is 80 days. If you imagine writing for three hours a day, that gives you 240 hours. 240 ideal hours in an ideal world, of course.

Each semester I issue my Sixteen Week Challenge to try to get researchers to think about how they might really spend those 240 ideal hours. To make their world a little more ideal, we might say.

The first question is, Do I really have 240 hours? That is, how many three-hour blocks can I really reserve for writing tasks? I recommend taking a sober look at your calendar, which should be filling up with teaching and administrative tasks by now. As often as possible, then, book a writing session as the first thing you do every day. Even if you are teaching in the morning, plan to write for at least fifteen minutes at the start of every day.

You will hopefully be able to give yourself more than fifteen minutes on most days. Try to start at the same time each day (to "sharpen the edge of your resolve," as I sometimes say.) Consider getting an early start. You might want to write from 7 to 9, or even 5 to 7. But if your other obligations allow it, the ideal for most people is probably a writing session from 9 to noon.

But what will you write about? I usually say that the minimum planning horizon is to know what you will be writing about in the morning before you go to bed at night. But it is certainly possible to know a few days or even weeks in advance what you will be doing. (See this post for some ideas about how to structure your writing process.)

Again, there is an ideal to strive for: as often as possible, try to know what claim (or claims) you will be defending in a particular writing session. Most academic prose supports claims, i.e., statements. You may be claiming that a particular event took place, or that a particular theory dominates the literature, or that particular methodology is inherently flawed. Whatever your claim, you will need to argue for it. Knowing that you are going to spend between one and three hours arguing for a particular claim is an excellent way to stay focused. You go to bed knowing that's what you'll be doing the next morning. Then you get up and do it.

Remember the math. Ideally, you will have eighty such writing sessions before Christmas. Here's the challenge in a nutshell: How many times this semester will you get up and write in support of a claim that you knew you would be writing about before you went to bed? 20 times? 40 times? 60 times? This semester, resolve to know the answer to that question. In fact, resolve to know in advance, and then see how accurate your estimate turns out to be.

Out of the possible 80 sessions, how many did you plan to spend writing, and how many did you actually spend writing? Out the possible 240 hours, how many did you plan to spend writing, and how many did you actually spend writing?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


If anybody is curious about what I look and sound like in person, this is a pretty good representation (I say something for the first 22 minutes and then come back on at 48:00. I am even the proud focus of a very nice closing fade to black. Thanks, Martin!). Naturally, the whole seminar is worth watching too, and the video of the talk I'm responding to can be seen here.

In a Scientific Mood

Going into a new semester, this time with somewhat more "academic" ambitions than last year, I'm feeling a bit strange. This morning a reason for this feeling occurred to me. I'm feeling "scientific". That is, I'm in a scientific mood.

Heidegger noted that science, even at its most theoretical, also has a certain "mood". This mood is the basis of a distinction between the logical and the existential conceptions of science, between approaching science as "an interconnection of true propositions" on the one hand, and as a "mode of Being-in-the-world" that discovers truths, on the other (H. 357). Notice that the existential focus on mood does not reject the pursuit of truth, it merely shifts our attention onto a particular aspect of that pursuit, namely, what it "feels like" to seek the truth. Heidegger is not rejecting the idea that science involves establishing connections between propositions (and ensuring their truth). Rather, he is saying that this involvement is dependent on a certain kind of mood. We might further say that it depends on a certain posture, or attitude.

Another way of talking about this is through Norman Mailer's (the American novelist) distinction between facts and nuances. A true proposition is a gesture at (or reference to) a fact, namely, that fact which makes it true. But experience does not often present itself to us as a series of unambiguous facts lined up with unequivocal propositions that can then, thus lined up, be taken as "truths". Rather, we face a tangle of nuances, and we must sort through them for clues to what the truth is, and sometimes "compress" them, Mailer argues, into facts themselves.

You might say I feel like thinking these days. I feel like getting a handle on a great many subtleties and nuances in the literature and write them down. I want to get some facts straight.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Reading the Literature

Perfectly sincere people say 'you can't teach literature', and what they MEAN by that statement is probably true.
can quite distinctly teach a man to distinguish between one kind of a book and another.

Ezra Pound

It has become fashionable in organization studies to blur the distinction between scientific empiricism and literary realism, indeed, the distinction between fact on the one hand, and fiction on the other. The eminent organization theorist James G. March's new book, The Ambiguities of Experience, offers an instructive example. In fact, it offers at least two examples, one implicit, and one explicit. Let's take each in turn.

On page 63, March is discussing the "truth value" of the stories we tell in social science. He notes as an example that the "validity" of the stories that are told in classroom discussions of business cases can hardly be taken for granted. "Similarly," he continues, "stories interpreting observed experience are among the earlier and more respected contributions to research in organizations." He now offers a familiar list that includes the work of Gouldner, Whyte, Selznick and Kaufman. But he closes the paragraph with this puzzling sentence: "Indeed, some of the more artful practitioners of the craft resist making their own explicit interpretations, leaving meanings to be elaborated by others (Chekhov 1979; Krieger 1979)."

I suppose it could be a simple mistake. While Krieger 1979 is indeed a piece of social research (Hip Capitalism, the story of a real San Francisco radio station), Chekhov 1979 is exactly what I first thought (then doubted, thinking there must be a social scientist called Chekhov too, and then confirmed by checking the bibliography); it is a collection of short stories by the Anton Chekhov. It is a work of fiction, not a "respected contribution to research in organizations". Except, of course, if we completely blur the relevant distinction and let all writers of all kinds "contribute" to organization studies, whether they intended to or not. [Update: those who have been following my recent posts might be interested to know that March cites Gladwell's The Tipping Point on page 22 as contributor to research on "threshold effects"; in the same breath (the same parenthesis), he cites an article in the Journal of Mathematical Sociology, thereby implicitly putting a work of popular non-fiction on the same level as a paper in a scientific journal.]

My hunch is that March is intentionally "scrambling the codes", allowing the inattentive reader to pass unperturbed, while sending the more attentive reader a subtle nudge and a wink. Indeed, Chekhov begins to make explicit appearances in the text as we read on. On page 67, March quotes from his letters, and then, on page 69, as if to defend the parity he presumed between Chekhov and Krieger on page 63, he makes the argument explicitly:

The stories of novelists and social scientists are judged, in part, on whether they are credible, and it seems unlikely that the assessment of credibility is enormously different in the two cases.

How do we assess the credibility of stories told by Chekhov? Is it different from the way we assess the credibility of stories told by Weick? Is credibility distinct from artistry? From technique? What are data of experience and how do they enter the calibration of credibility? Can credibility be separated from interest and ideology? Or from familiarity? The point is not to pretend to settle such issues. They seem to endure comfortably in the face of innumerable efforts to resolve them. The point is to observe that there is by no means general agreement that the stories and models of organization studies are more (or less) credible than the stories of novelists and playwrights.

That's quite a mouthful. Perhaps even an earful, depending on how we take it. But I'm not sure it holds up. Notice the main claim: there is no "enormous difference" between how social scientists and novelists establish the "credibility" of their facts and fictions respectively. He raises a bunch of issues of varying intelligibility and relevance (at least for this reader) and then serenely disdains to "resolve" them (which would be so much "pretending"). Well, I'm going to give it a shot.

One of the interesting things about this sort of argument, especially as deployed in organization studies, is that it rarely seems grounded in any particular familiarity with literary works. Organization theorists often (but not always) lack special training in the reading of poems and novels, and are yet, as March notes, quite "comfortable" allowing that the credibility of social science does not beat that of literature. Nor vice versa. But neither novelists nor literary theorists, I suspect, would be equally comfortable making the same claim. One reason, of course, is that they would not be as confident that they know how to read, interpret, and evaluate Weick as March is confident about his interpretation of Chekhov.

But we can probably learn how to read literature (just as a novelist might undertake to become a social scientist). For my part, I have always found Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading to be a useful guide. "The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters," he said, "is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one 'slide' or specimen with another" (17). So let's apply that method to March's presumably rhetorical question: "How do we assess the credibility of stories told by Chekhov? Is it different from the way we assess the credibility of stories told by Weick?" There is no shortage of examples of work by either writer, so let's prepare a couple of specimens.

For the pure literary pleasure of the association of the titles, I want to compare Weick's Mann Gulch paper and Chekhov's "In the Ravine". I'm going to pick about four hundred comparable words from each "story". Is there really no difference in how they establish their credibility?

Begin with Weick. At this point in the story (on page 628), the crew has just parachuted into the Gulch and has lost its radio in the process. As you read this, it may also be useful to keep in mind that the book Weick mentions (and whose pages he cites) is Maclean's Young Men and Fire (1992), whose "elegant prose" he has undertaken to "strip away" to produce a straight factual account of "the incident". Here's how the story continues:

The crew met ranger Jim Harrison who had been fighting the fire alone for four hours (p. 62), collected their supplies, and ate supper. About 5:10 (p. 57) they started to move along the south side of the gulch to surround the fire (p. 62). Dodge and Harrison, however, having scouted ahead, were worried that the thick forest near which they had landed might be a "death trap" (p. 64). They told the second in command, William Hellman, to take the crew across to the north side of the gulch and march them toward the river along the side of the hill. While Hellman did this, Dodge and Harrison ate a quick meal. Dodge rejoined the crew at 5:40PM and took his position at the head of the line moving toward the river. He could see flames flapping back and forth on the south slope as he looked to his left (p. 69).

At this point the reader hits the most chilling sentence in the entire book: "Then Dodge saw it!" (p. 70). What he saw was that the fire had crossed the gulch just 200 yards ahead and was moving toward them (p. 70). Dodge turned the crew around and had them angle up the 76-percent hill toward the ridge at the top (p. 175). They were soon moving through bunch grass that was two and a half feet tall and were quickly losing ground to the 30-foot-high flames that were soon moving toward them at 610 feet per minute (p.274). Dodge yelled at the crew to drop their tools, and then, to everyone's astonishment, he lit a fire in front of them and ordered them to lie down in the area it had burned. No one did, and they all ran for the ridge. Two people, Sallee and Rumsey, made it through a crevice in the ridge unburned, Hellman made it over the ridge burned horribly and died at noon the next day. Dodge lived by lying down in the ashes of his escape fire, and one other person, Joseph Sylvia, lived for a short while and then died. The hands on Harrison's watch melted at 5:56 (p. 90), which has been treated officially as the time the 13 people died.

Got it? Okay, here's Chekhov, from part VII, in which we learn what happened after Aksinya finds out that her father-in-law has willed his property, not to her, but to his grandson, Nikifor, her nephew, who is a mere baby. Her father-in-law has run into the house to hide in a cupboard and she is making a terrible scene in front of what is now a gathering crowd. Here it may be useful to know that Lipa is Nikifor's mother, who loves him terribly, though he is a "tiny, thin, pitiful little baby, and it was strange that it should cry and gaze about and be considered a human being". In any case,

Aksinya ran into the kitchen where washing was going on. Lipa was washing alone, the cook had gone to the river to rinse the clothes. Steam was rising from the trough and from the caldron on the side of the stove, and the kitchen was thick and stifling from the steam. On the floor was a heap of unwashed clothes, and Nikifor, kicking up his little red legs, had been put down on a bench near them, so that if he fell he should not hurt himself. Just as Aksinya went in Lipa took the former's chemise out of the heap and put it in the trough, and was just stretching out her hand to a big ladle of boiling water which was standing on the table.

"Give it here," said Aksinya, looking at her with hatred, and snatching the chemise out of the trough; "it is not your business to touch my linen! You are a convict's wife, and ought to know your place and who you are."

Lipa gazed at her, taken aback, and did not understand, but suddenly she caught the look Aksinya turned upon the child, and at once she understood and went numb all over.

"You've taken my land, so here you are!" Saying this Aksinya snatched up the ladle with the boiling water and flung it over Nikifor.

After this there was heard a scream such as had never been heard before in Ukleevo, and no one would have believed that a little weak creature like Lipa could scream like that. And it was suddenly silent in the yard.

Aksinya walked into the house with her old naïve smile. . . . The deaf man kept moving about the yard with his arms full of linen, then he began hanging it up again, in silence, without haste. And until the cook came back from the river no one ventured to go into the kitchen and see what was there.

Now, it's all well and good to say that we will not reach a "general agreement" about the relative credibility of these two stories. But surely it is absurd to say that "the assessment of credibility is [not] enormously different in the two cases". The most important reason that this can't be right is right on the surface, with all those parenthetical page numbers in Weick's text, which indicate, to a properly trained reader, that Weick is basing his credibility on another text, namely, Maclean's book. To assess Weick's credibility, then, we must, minimally, go back and check his account against his source. If Maclean's account is significantly and obviously different, Weick's credibility is shot. No corresponding control operation exists in the case of Chekhov. He has made the story up and it will therefore be credible on wholly different grounds.

I do think March is perfectly sincere when he says he won't pretend to settle the issue of exactly where each text's credibility comes from. And he's of course right that we may never settle it. But we can, quite distinctly, learn to distinguish between one kind of text and another. As the above comparison, I think, instantly shows.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell and/or Daniel Pinchbeck?

On a hunch (call it intuition, a blink) I bought Daniel Pinchbeck's 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin, 2007) along with Gladwell's Blink in the airport on my way home from vacation. I was expecting to find similarities between these books that could help build my case against "popularizations" of social research. I assumed that social scientists who have a favourable view of Gladwell as a popularizer would more easily be able to see similar weaknesses in a book on New Age spiritualism. These more obvious weaknesses could then serve as fresh paradigms for my attempts to explain what I think is wrong with Gladwell. While there are indeed similarities (some more striking than I had imagined), I was more surprised at the differences. It turns out that Pinchbeck is in an important sense more truthful about the science he reports on than Gladwell.

Reading the closing paragraphs of their introductory chapter is a strangely 'synchronious' experience. The similarities may stem from some common handbook of popular writing, or it may (more likely) just be natural to close your introduction with a statement about what sort of book you've written and what you want from your reader. Here, in any case, is some of what they say. First, Gladwell:

There are lots of books that tackle broad themes, that analyze the world from great remove. This is not one of them. Blink is concerned with the very smallest components of our everyday lives — the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. When it comes to our understanding of ourselves and our world, I think we pay too much attention to those grand themes and too little to the particulars of those fleeting moments. But what would happen if we took our instincts seriously? What if we stopped scanning the horizon with our binoculars and began instead examining our own decision making and behavior through the most powerful of microscopes. I think that would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted, and so on. And if we were to combine all of those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world. (16)

And here is Pinchbeck's very different, and yet strangely similar, statement:

I offer this book as a gift handed backward through space-time, from beyond the barrier of a new realm—a new psychic paradigm that is a different realization of temporality, a reordering of thought that embraces prophetic as a well as pragmatic dimensions of reality. ...

If we were to conclude, after careful consideration, that our modern world is based upon fundamentally flawed conceptions of time and mind, that on these fatal defects we had erected a flawed civilization—like building a tower on an unsound foundation that becomes increasginly wobbly as it rises—then logic might indicate the necessity, as well as the inevitablity, of change. By clsoing the gap betweeen science and myth, rationality and intuition, technology and technique, we might also understand the form that change would take. Such a shift would not be the "end of the world," but the end of a world, and the opening of the next. (15)

Notice the theme of making a "better world" by a kind of paradigm shift in the way we understand ourselves, in both cases, by correcting an erroneous tendency in our thinking. Their ambitions are not quite on the same scale—one seeks to improve the world while the other seeks to replace it with another—and the books are very different in style and temper (and humour) but both openly want to reorient our thinking, i.e., the reader's thoughts.

But notice, now, how differently they construct the possible results of reading their books. Again, we begin with Gladwell:

I believe — and I hope that by the end of this book you will believe it as well — that the task of making sense of ourselves and our behavior requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis. (17)

And Pinchbeck:

My aim is to help the reader share in my understanding. But a text can only act as a scaffolding of concepts, a ladder for others to climb. Real knowledge of what I am saying must be earned, and lived, by each individual, in his or her own way. (15)

I want to emphasize that Gladwell here openly declares what I accused the genre of over at OrgTheory: he has written a book to be read and believed, not crititicized. Pinchbeck, by contrast, proposes to let the reader appropriate whatever wisdom the book might offer through hard won experiences that confirm it.

And this difference in rhetorical and epistemic posture carries into the presentation of the work of other researchers. Consider, again, Gladwell on Gottman's uncanny ability to predict who will get divorced:

Gottman has proven something remarkable. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent. ...

When I met Gottman, he had just published his most ambitious book, a dense five-hundred page treatise called The Mathematics of Divorce, and he attempted to give me a sense of his argument scribbling equations and impromptu graphs on a paper napkin until my head began to swim.

Indeed, as I noted in my last two posts, Gottman managed to push Gladwell well out of his depth with his ostentatious display of the scientific nature of his work (note the "dense" 500-page "treatise", the equations, the graphs, etc.) At first glance, we find exactly the same sort of rhetoric in Pinchbeck's account of ESP (a very apt comparison, I will note):

Although the fact is little known, psychic effects of various kinds have been demonstrated in controlled scientific experiments. The influence of directed thought causes significant statistical deviations from random variation in many areas, including casino games and experiments where images or feelings are transferred between subjects who are not in contact with each other. Dean Radin, director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory at the University of Nevada, has compiled and analysed the statistical evidence for "psi" phenonmena, presenting the data in his 1997 book, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. According to his meticulous study, thousands of experiments in telepathy, precognition, and claivoyance have fulfilled the scientific requirements of verifiability and repeatability, indicating that these phenomena do, in fact, exist and can be measured.

He seems, that is, to follow the same playbook as Gladwell: he presents in confident tones the results of "scientific" research that "demonstrates" (like Gladwell's "proves") his chosen theory. There's even a book to read with a nice scientific sounding title.

But Pinchbeck in fact does something that Gladwell does not; he frames the discussion by clearly marking the fact that Radin's views are not held by the majority of scientists. "The modern perspective," he begins, "rejects the legitimacy of psychic phenomena" (36) and later even notes that "the evidence for psychic phenomena [has been] ignored and suppressed" (37). While this is a somewhat paranoid way of putting it, it closely follows his source (Radin does actually think that psi phenomena are actively marginalized by mainstream science despite their proven existence), and in any case makes it clear to the reader that we are talking about a fringe position. As it turns out, of course, Gottman's work is as marginalized by mainstream psychology (just as Ekman's work has been called "hokum") as Radin's, but you don't learn that from reading Gladwell. Indeed, after reading Gladwell you are likely, as he hopes you will, to believe every word of it. In the case of Pinchbeck's Radin, by contrast, we know we're talking about something vaguely freaky.

Pinchbeck's veracity seems to carry through to the smallest details. Even in passing references to someone like Carlos Castaneda, whose work reaches conclusions that are as convenient for Pinchbeck as Ekman's and Gottman's conclusions are for Gladwell, Pinchbeck carefully marks the controversy that has surrounded the Don Juan books, noting their "sketchy provenance" (144). That is, he supplies you with a reason to not just believe what he is telling you, sending you back to your experiences and experiments to find out for yourself.

Interestingly, there may be a historical explanation for the difference in intellectual posture between Gladwell and Pinchbeck. Both live and work in New York, but while Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker, a bastion of "mainstream" journalism and the focus of much of the ire and ridicule of the counter-culture in the 1960s (the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson was to serve as an alternative to the New Yorker in particular), Pinchbeck has written for Esquire and the Village Voice, i.e., in the institutions that grew out of (or at least embraced) that same counter-culture. We can make too much of this, of course: Gladwell's mother is a psychotherapist while Pinchbeck's mother was once romantically involved with Jack Kerouac, which is not the opposite sort of thing, but interesting too. Gladwell's father was a professor of engineering. Pinchbeck's father was an abstract painter. I don't know. Maybe it means something.

See also: "Malcolm Gladwell and the Popularization of Social Science", "Malcolm Gladwell and/or Karl Weick"

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell and/or Karl Weick

In his response to my criticism of Gladwell over at OrgTheory, Brayden King made an important observation that crystalized something for me. I've been aware of it for some time, but it suddenly struck me as very telling about recent work in organization studies.

Lots of completely legitimate academic articles are liberally sprinkled with “premature conclusions or misleading anecdotes.” I don’t see them as harmful as you do in either case. The point of much empirical work is to push theoretical boundaries and to get people to think. Gladwell is doing the same thing, the main difference being the intended audience.

I think it's important to keep in mind that Gladwell is in no position to "push theoretical boundaries" (whether he is able to "get people to think" is another issue, and one on which we probably also disagree). Gladwell does not master a theory and neither does his intended audience. His thinking, and that of his audience, is simply not relevantly "bounded" by theory and therefore no amount of anecdotes will push against those boundaries. They are only constrained by their imaginations, which is formed largely by the sort of imagery Gladwell excells at producing.

Now, Teppo contributed a link to a special "Meet the Person" section of JMI (mirrored at the Ross School's website in this PDF) that was published in 2006, devoted to Malcolm Gladwell. The contributions to that section also expresses a basic admiration for what Gladwell does, and in various ways laments the inability of academics to do the same—hence our reliance on popularizers who "translate" our work into more accessible and applicable language. Kathleen Sutcliffe and Timothy Wintermute, however, counter that many academics are already doing what Gladwell is doing, namely, "storytelling", and they are doing so in their academic articles, which brings us back to Brayden's point.

Sutcliffe and Wintermute offer Karl Weick's famous Mann Gulch study as an example of "research grounded in strong stories". But here's what struck me when thinking about it today: Weick is actually doing the opposite of what Gladwell does. Weick obviously couldn't popularize the story because Norman Maclean had already done that with his, let's say, "middle-brow non-fiction" book Young Men and Fire, which was Weick's only source of information about the disaster. Actually, "middle-brow" might not quite do it justice; Maclean's book is sometimes a bit overwrought in its prose—it is a very "literary" book, in my opinion. Indeed, by his own account, Weick tried to "strip Maclean's elegant prose away from the events in Mann Gulch" in order to make them available for "analysis". Where Gladwell takes the results of science and turns them into popular stories, Weick takes popular stories (even before Maclean's book, Mann Gulch was the stuff of legend at least in Montana) and turns them into scientific results. He even went so far as to recast Maclean's personal quest to understand what happened in Mann Gulch as a "methodology" and described his account, ultimately, as "data".

There are more recent examples of this. Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline's analysis of the "collective courage" of the passengers on UA93 (published in Organization Science in 2008) is based largely on Jere Longman's Among the Heroes (2002), which is a pretty standard work of popular journalism. They also reframe this material analytically, giving their study a "methodological" air and providing them with "data" for analysis. Here again, then, we have an academic text that begins with a popular account of a narratively compelling event and, if you will, "scientizes" it in order to "push the boundaries of theory". (I have written about what Quinn and Worline mean by "theorizing" before.)

So Brayden (and Sutcliffe and Wintermute) is right to say that academic work sometimes looks a bit like Gladwell's. But he is also right to say I find it harmful. Surely, it is problematic to use a popular narrative about "heroism" as "data" for a study of the social conditions of courage.

In the case of Weick's analysis of Mann Gulch, however, things are even stranger. Here Weick appears simply to spin a yarn out of his source material. His analysis depends crucially on two factual claims: the men (a) suffered from "positive illusions" about the seriousness of the fire and (b) finally panicked when those beliefs turned out to be false. Maclean's book, however, tells us that they (a) revised their view of how soon they would have the fire under control immediately after engaging with it and (b) did not panic (he says that explicitly). So "strong storytelling" comes to mean, essentially, writing fiction and passing it off as fact.*

Now that, of course, is something that Weick shares with Gladwell, as I (and many others before me) have pointed out in relation to the results of psychological research. Every time I dig into the sources of Weick's anecdotes and reports of scientific studies I find new reasons to doubt his scholarship. Like Gladwell, however, Weick will no doubt continue to be celebrated as someone who "gets us thinking", albeit, I would argue, not very critically. Perhaps we can call it, to use Gladwell's subtitle, "thinking without thinking". We just sort of "get it". In a flash. Without knowing why. Or whether it's true. Blink.


*I mentioned this briefly in my recent paper in Culture and Organization, but a more detailed critique should be coming out soon in Armstrong and Lightfoot's anthology of practical criticism, 'The Leading Journal in the Field', to be published by Mayfly.