Monday, November 10, 2008

Tradition and Performance

It is tempting to think of a journal article as a performance. Like an actor or a musician, we tell ourselves, we take the stage and either fail or succeed. Either way, we will have to do it again the following night with a new audience.

I recently noticed that Karl Weick thinks of his work in these terms. Here's how he puts it in Sensemaking in Organizations.

Among [jazz] musicians, there is the saying "you're only as good as your last date," by which they mean that history and reputation count for less than does the most recent exhibition of your craft. The same can be said of the topic of sensemaking.

Sensemaking, as a focus of inquiry, is only as significant and useful as are its most recent exemplars. (64)

Notice that he is not just talking about the individual scholar here. He is talking about a whole "topic", a "focus of inquiry". This strikes me as obviously wrong. What, after all, counts as a "most recent exemplar" of sensemaking inquiry? The publication of an article does not guarantee that it will be read, nor that it will have an effect on other researchers. Surely the sensemaking topic is as "significant and useful" as, well, its most significant and useful exemplars.

The truth is that you do not stake your whole reputation on your most recent publication. People who found your article from five years ago useful will continue to use it in their work even if you have moved on to, for them, less interesting topics, and even if you have since changed your mind and now disagree with your celebrated paper. In that sense, it is quite possible to be much better than your most recent performance.

When trying to understand a research tradition (a particular approach to a topic or focus of inquiry), history and reputation should count a great deal more than Weick here suggests. You have to go back through the literature and find the lasting "monuments", as Foucault might put it. You don't have to read everything that is happening right now.

Jazz, for obvious reasons, is not merely as useful or significant as its most recent performance. There are masterpieces, which are both scored (i.e., written down) and recorded. They are permanent parts of the tradition. Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew do more to determine the validity of more recent jazz performances than recent performances do to determine the validity of jazz as a genre. They also do more to determine the validity of the specific kind of jazz (cool, rock) than any given contemporary exemplar. They are permanent parts of a tradition. A tradition without permanent monuments is neither significant nor useful.


Presskorn said...

It seems to me that you come close to treating ”exemplar” as meaning just an “example” (or perhaps rather: Weick does).

After all, a dictionary will not only cite an “example” under the connotations of “exemplar” but will also cite “something worthy of being imitated” and even “archetype”. (I remember having a discussion with you about Kuhn’s use of “exemplar”, which touched upon a similar distinction, but never mind…)

So one might say that the problem is not with Weick’s mere proposition about sensemaking and exemplars – it could very well be true taken in isolation - but rather with his metaphor; i.e. there is no obvious analogue between “recent performance” and “exemplar”, since a recent performance need not be exemplary.

That is, the jazz metaphor induces us to think that he is indeed using “examplar” in the mere sense of “example” thus making his final proposition obviously wrong.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Well, I think there is plausible, and even vaguely (if not strictly) Kuhnian sense in which "exemplar" can mean "example of work done within a disciplinary matrix". We can identify exemplars in this sense independently of our evaluation of them.

These days, for example, I'm looking for work done in the tradition of Weick's Mann Gulch paper. I'm using the following criteria: (a) it should refer to Weick's paper, (b) it should be about sensemaking in a crisis, (c) it should be based on an already published account of the events in question. But they don't have to worth imitating, necessarily. I would call them exemplars just because they participate in a pretty clear tradition.

I do grant your point though. This is not a Kuhnian exemplar in a strict sense.

A recent performance is only "exemplary" within a tradition, and that means that history and reputation have counted a great deal before your current performance is even being evaluated. How "good" it is has everything to do with your "history and reputation". In fact, Barbara Czarniawska has pointed out that Weick's peculiar writing style is "permitted" on the strength of reputation as a stylist and scholar.

Presskorn said...

Apropos of the whole Mann Gulch-theme here on RSL and your point that one might be better than ones recent performance; I remenber using one of Monica Worline's old papers a few years back and rather liking it too.

Anyway; keep up the good work; I appriciate the constant influx of facts about writing and scholarship that your blog provides.

(Yes; I think I do want to describe some of your posts as "facts" or fact-stating. Almost Wittgensteinian reminders.)

Thomas Basbøll said...

This blog does sometimes seem like a "synopsis of trivialities" (I'm still trying to locate the place where Wittgenstein describes his work like that.)

Presskorn said...

The reminder-remark is among other places from PI§127. The exact phrase "synopsis of trivialities" occurs, as far as I know/remember, only once - and that's in Cambrigde Lectures 1930-32, p.26, but since that book is quite rare, you've probably read in it in Perloff's "Wittgenstein's Ladder" (which has a chapter of that title) or in Monk's "The Duty of Genius".

The immidiate context of the phrase is:

"What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities."

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks. You rock.

Yes, I must have read it in Perloff's book.