Pomo Periscope XX: Thomas Basbøll vs. Karl Weick

24 June 2010 at 9:42 am 15 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Karl Weick may not really qualify as a bona fide pomo. He writes well and clearly and much of his work is quite in the mainstream of management research. Still, he has written about the favorite pomo notion of reflexivity (e.g., here), his authority is often invoked in prominent pomo tracts in management (e.g., here), and his notion of sensemaking has a distinct pomo connotation.

Weick’s work has recently been subject to close examination by my CBS colleague, Thomas Basbøll. In a recently published paper, “Softly Constrained Imagination: Plagiarism and Misprision in the Theory of Organizational Sensemaking,” Basbøll argues that Weick’s work suffers from “significant instances of plagiarism and misreading” (p. 164). Wow! Here is the 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.

Here is Weick’s reply. And here is Thomas’s reply to the reply.

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Entry filed under: - Foss -, Myths and Realities, Pomo Periscope.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Hoopes  |  24 June 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Wow. This is incredible.

    I can’t get the recent article. But, I found
    “Substitutes for Strategy Research: Notes on the source of Karl Weick’s anecdote of the young lieutenant and the map of the Pyrenees.” This is Thomas Basbøll and Henrik Graham s previous example of Weick’s plagiarism. It is damning.

    From Miroslav Holub’s (1977) poem ‘Brief Thoughts on Maps:
    “The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
    sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
    It began to snow
    immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
    did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched
    his own people to death.”

    Weick (2001: 344-5)
    “The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death.”

    This older paper is available in pdf : (http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/6-2/6-2basboell-graham.pdf)

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  24 June 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Weick’s 2006 “defense” is itself incredible:

    “By the time I began to see the Alps story as an example of cognition in the path of the action, I had lost the original article containing Holub’s poem and I was not even sure where I had read the story. This occurred in the early 1980’s which was quite some time before internet search was a common form of inquiry. I reconstructed the story as best I could. I obviously had no idea whether the reconstruction was close to the original or not since I had no original in hand for comparison. Other than to insert a footnote saying ‘source unknown’, I would not have done anything different were I in the same position today. Later, when I learned the source of this story from a helpful colleague, I used the attribution to Holub from then on in newly developed pieces where I used this illustration.”

    We’re to believe that he reconstructed, from memory, a 136-word poem, nearly verbatim? Obviously he had a written version of Holub’s poem when he started using the anecdote, claiming it as his own. Eventually he begins acknowledging Holub, but omits the quotation marks, continuing to imply that the text of the story is his own, not Holub’s. What chutzpah!

  • 3. David Hoopes  |  24 June 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Chutzpah is a very nice way to put it. Basbøll and Graham trace the numerous papers in which Weick gives the story. Even after he acknowledges Holub Weick does not properly give credit.

    It’s interesting Mintzberg is muted regarding the “wrong map is okay” story. Mintzberg is (was?) an mountain climber (he and Rumelt used to go scaling mountains if you can imagine that). A bad sport for a “wrong” map.

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  24 June 2010 at 9:43 pm

    So I guess Weick can’t say, “Basbøll been berry berry good to me.”


    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  • 5. David Gordon  |  25 June 2010 at 9:41 am

    Wait until you see what Football does to him!

  • 6. Thomas  |  25 June 2010 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for the plug, Nicolai. And thanks for the comment’s Peter and David. It would be Fotbøll, David. ;-)

    On the question of Weick’s pomosity: I think the sensemaking doctrine can easily be shown to be both “idealist” (anti-realist) and subjectivist. Weick emphasizes repeatedly that when we sensemake (v.) we are not discovering reality but creating it. He also believes that we have multiple selves that are discursively constructed, etc. I think that if you hold those views you are arguably “postmodern” even if you write well. On the other hand, Mick Rowlinson has pointed out that Weick’s work lacks the “critical” (anti-establishment) edge (ideology, politics) that characterizes much pomo work.

    In any case, I’ve heard the idea that Weick “writes well and clearly” before. Dennis Gioia, however, does say it struck him at first as “arcane” and “obscure”. Lex Donaldson, way back in 1985, described it as “almost mystical”. For my own part, I’m puzzled at the legend surrounding his “style”. Perhaps I need to write a paper about that point alone.

    That paragraph about the map of the pyrenees is, of course, nicely written. As I point out in the C&O paper at least three paragraphs of descriptive prose were transcribed from the relevant accident report into Weick’s paper on the Tenerife disaster. Much Weick’s writing openly consists in “collages” of (properly marked) quotation. So once you strip away the (marked and unmarked) parts of Weick’s writing that he didn’t write himself, we could begin to analyze his own mastery of the English sentence. I’ve done a bit of that work on my blog already.


  • 7. Nicolai Foss  |  25 June 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Thomas: “Pomosity” is such a classic!! Will be used in future Periscope posts!

    On the style issue: It depends, as usual. Compared to certain economists one could mention Weick is very clear, non-jargonistic and forthcoming. Compared to the average AMR paper, I think his style is also superior.

  • 8. David Hoopes  |  25 June 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Suffice to say the writing in our field(s) leaves a lot to be desired. On the other hand, some of management and strategy’s most popular scholars mask weak thinking with excellent writing.

    Weick inspired and lauds the big crowd of social constructivsts gracing the field. It seems he would like to acknowledge a physical world but feels compelled to constrain it with human interpretation. Thus, a stone must somehow be socially constructed. [He uses Czarniawska-Joerges (1992) for the socially constructed stone–that does exist independent of our cognition].

    Interpretation and framing is quite interesting. To wit:
    How I perceive Weick after reading Basbøll and Graham is very different from how I perceived Weick previously.

    I remain underwhelmed by the emphasis Weick and others place on how perception influences the physical world. I find the approach of D’Andrade and other cognitive anthropologists to be much more interesting. They work toward cognition-based explanation of within culture cultural variation (among other things). So, individuals “accept” some aspects of the culture they are in and not others. How does this work? I don’t know that this is as yet well explained. But, I like the approach.

    Doug Johnson and I made our comment on the bounds of social construction in our 2003 SMJ paper. [Note how good I’ve gotten at sliding my own work into most any discussion?]

    Great work my Basbøll and Graham and another excellent post by Nicolai.

  • 9. Henri  |  30 June 2010 at 5:51 pm

    I feel Weick has been dragging down social constructivism to some extent. 5-6 years ago on a doctoral course Weick was given to me as an example of constructivism. Well, concepts like requisite variety actually require realist metaphysics to make any sense! Throwing around anecdotes, borrowing interesting stuff from here and there, and simplifying complex ideas to the extent of intellectual violence goes a long way to muddle the original and significant condition Weick has probably made.

    I have always felt Weick is leaning on Dewey and Mead without ever citing them (maybe they are unfashionable?). The most central social theoretical observation Dewey made (he was not primarily a social theorist) is that things tend to follow habitual patterns until something unexpected happens and we start to deliberately reflect (=make sense) of the events. This is the primary thrust of Weick’s work. Rather than ever mentioning Dewey, he cites his early empirical dissertation research as the inspiration.

    Had Weick divided his work into article-sized contributions and grounded the concept of sensemaking on the american pragmatist movement, had he become the citation monster he is?

    PS. For insufferable pomosity, I recommend the The Emergent Organization: Communication as its Site and Surface (Taylor & Van Every, 2000). Warning though: Your head may explore.

  • 10. Thomas Presskorn  |  1 July 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Obviously, Basbøll is correct: Weick is guilty of plagarism. That’s it, no discussion. But the only way, I think, to be fair to the issue is leave “pomosity”-matters out of the question (unlike Basbøll himself perhaps).

    Pomo (whatever it is!) does not equal anti-realism or subjectivism in the sense of discursively constructed seleves. For instance, I myself is a happy anti-realist and do believe that selves are discursively constructed, but I do not consider myself “pomo”. Dummett was an anti-realist par exellence and Kierkegaard certainly had a nose for the way in which selves are discursively constructed, but none of them were “pomo”, right? And neither would a weird creature like a Dummetian existentialist be, right?…

    Alright, the problem here might be that the notion of “pomo” or being postmodern is ill-defined to begin with, but my point is that including these matters into the discussion does not serve Basbøll’s valid and well-argued point. In fact, that’s exactly the sort the discussion that Weick wants it to be (as witnessed by his reply about the relevance of “stories” as sources). Basbøll’s point is much more simple. And simple, in this context, is a compliment: He points out that Weick is guilty of plagarism. Period.

  • 11. Thomas  |  2 July 2010 at 2:37 am

    Maybe idealism and subjectivism are too technical to use to the end I wanted. More commonly I talk about a “crisis of representation” (often dealt with by claiming some kind of “performativity” for one’s ideas). I think Weick’s work qualifies on this score, too.

    Pomosity here also suggests a problematization of authorship. I think my paper sort of works the space between “simple” plagiarism and more complicated set of anxieties about the authority of scholarship, especially in a relatively new tradition like sensemaking, which is bound to “borrow” from other traditions in any case.

  • 12. David Hoopes  |  13 July 2010 at 1:16 pm

    In an unrelated defense of Weick inspired by a recent discussion of research and journal quality: I consider Weick’s tenure as editor of the Administrative Science Quarterly to be a golden age of that (or any management) journal. During that time ASQ published work that spanned theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. He did an excellent job.

    Jan Beyer’s tenure at the Academy of Management Journal was a good time for that journal.

  • 13. Thomas  |  15 July 2010 at 11:16 am

    Yes, my criticism are rather specific, and more general defenses of Weick’s work and influence are possible. A balanced view will take both into account. It is not surprising that Weick’s “soft constraints” would lead to a broader editorial policy, but I think different people will evaluate such a policy differently. Pfeffer, for example, might be less happy with a journal that “spans theoretical perspectives and methodological approachs for example”.

    Also, keep Mark Anderson’s observation in mind: “Weick was editor of ASQ during 1977–85, the period in which [the Social Psychology of] Organizing was most frequently cited in that journal” (2006, p. 1682). This, again, is not surprising (a similar effect will no doubt be found for most editors), but it is an interesting early stage of what would later be called “the paradigm wars”.

  • […] a comment » Over at out the evil twin blog, Nicolai Foss covers the Karl Weick/Thomas Basbøll  dispute. In passing, he says that “sensemaking has a distinct pomo connotation.” Let’s […]

  • […] Basbøll’s claim that management theory heavy-weight Karl Weick has engaged in plagiarism (here) was one of O&M’s most popular posts in 2010.  One of my own papers was once directly […]

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