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.

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