Sunday, 31 January 2016

Despair and hope for organization studies

The book which this blog accompanies is in part a reaction to my despair about the state of organization studies. In other posts I have bemoaned the lack of historical awareness within the subject and also the poverty of its academic journals. In that latter post I suggested that one problem with the journals is their invariable, and ludicrous, demand that each paper should make a ‘theoretical contribution’ whilst on the other hand caring little about disclosing anything interesting or new about how people actually live and work in organizations. I pointed out that this is something particularly associated with the ‘top journals’, publication within which is increasingly and slavishly lionized. And there are two aspects to this: the rigid hierarchy of journal rankings, and the downgrading of books.
But there are signs of hope. I mentioned elsewhere my sense that there is a renewed interest and appreciation of the rich history of organization studies. And now Steve Barley, one of the most influential academics in the field, has written a superb essay (a word I will come back to) in the sixtieth anniversary issue of no less than Administrative Science Quarterly. I don’t agree with all that he says, or all of the way that he says it: in particular I think he tends to over-value the idea of ‘incremental contribution’ and worries incorrectly that a desire for ‘novelty and surprise’ comes ‘dangerously close to admitting’ that organization studies is one of the humanities. Apart from anything else, I don’t think this would be either dangerous or an admission; and in fact I don’t think that the distinction of humanities and social science is a sustainable one. Still, most of his core concerns are very similar to my own.
Barley raises the straitjacket of journal rankings and the tyranny of the demand for theoretical novelty. In that regard he makes the interesting point that whereas he used to find that journal reviewers would pick up on issues of methodology and empirical validity, now they rarely do. That’s not, for Barley (or for me), a lament for positivism but a concern that only theoretical novelty matters. And that’s not, for me (or I think Barley) because of a disdain for theory but a concern about ‘theoreticism’.
By way of illustration of this point, I am struck by own experience of submitting papers (about a study I did of the organization of Bletchley Park) to journals that were not in organization studies but in intelligence studies. What I found was that reviewers’ comments in that field focused almost exclusively on challenging the empirical claims that I made. Admittedly that has its own problems – intelligence studies appears to be somewhat inattentive to theoretical debates within social science. Perhaps this sounds as if nothing will satisfy me: focus on theory and I complain about theoreticism, focus on empirics and get accused of empiricism. But what I want from empirical papers is that they be theoretically informed, and from theory papers that they be (at least potentially) empirically meaningful.
Another of Barley’s points is the desirability of book-length studies, combining theory and empirics, and that such studies have in fact been generally more influential in the field than have journal papers. He even identifies as exemplars the work of authors like Blau, Gouldner and Dalton who I have also cited in this regard. Yet books have become a devalued currency within institutional assessment and career systems and research monographs, which is what Barley is talking about, are increasingly shunned by publishing houses outside of the established university presses. Thinking again of my Bletchley Park work, the main ‘output’ (as UK REF-speak has it) was a monograph, precisely because I wanted to have what Barley calls the ‘space and freedom’ to present detailed empirical material and theoretical arguments. Not coincidentally, it was published by Cambridge University Press which continues to commission such works.
Books and journal papers are not the only forms of academic writing and one form that has long-interested me is the essay. So I was delighted to see Yiannis Gabriel, like Barley a highly distinguished and influential organization studies academic, sing the praises of this form, at almost at the same time as Barley’s – yes – essay appeared. Writing in the Journal of Management Studies, Gabriel’s own essay coincides with that journal’s launch of its ‘JMS-Says’ essay format. He sees essays as individual, idiosyncratic, experimental and sometimes influential provocations to thought and debate. I agree and, again speaking of my own work, some of my favorite publications (and possibly the only ones that have made much impact on others) have been essays. In a way, the book of this blog – although longer than is usual in the genre – is pretty much an essay.
Whilst essays may be idiosyncratic and experimental this does not mean that ‘anything goes’ or that it is an undisciplined or easy format, as Gabriel points out. Indeed, I would say that it is a hard form to master, requiring rhetorical skill and a capacity to provide a ‘between the lines’ understanding of its author’s knowledge and its audience’s sensibilities. Essays are not, or not simply, polemics – although the polemic is itself a difficult to write and under-rated genre by the way. There is now, at least in business schools, what might appositely be called a thriving industry in how to craft papers for ‘top journals’, with its own gurus, master classes and formulae. But it is difficult – and if not difficult then depressing – to envisage such an industry growing up around essays which are, at their best anyway, impervious to codification.
There are very powerful forces working against the arguments that Steve Barley, Yiannis Gabriel and – at a much lower level in the reputational pecking order – I are making. I don’t see hardcore business school deans recognizing them any time soon. But that these arguments are gaining a higher profile does give me, despite what I will admit is my temperamental pessimism, some cause to hope that organization studies might become – well, let’s not get carried away – a bit better than it is now.

Barley, S. (2016) ‘60th Anniversary Essay: Ruminations on How We Became a Mystery House and How We Might Get Out’, Administrative Science Quarterly 61 (1): 1-8.

Gabriel, Y. (2016) ‘The Essay as an Endangered Species: Should we Care?’, Journal of Management Studies DOI: 10.1111/joms.12176 [By the way, a minor hobby horse, but how exactly are we meant to reference these ‘early online’ papers?]

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