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Soft constraints: or, Why I think Karl Weick's Sensemaking in organizations is a great big polychromed gee-whiz pacifier sputtering facts and unfacts like a wobbly Roman candle

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conference contribution
posted on 04.03.2008, 10:26 by Thomas Basboll
In her article on style in the Oxford Handbook of Organization Theory, Barbara Czarniawska has suggested that we categorize Karl Weick’s work as “poetic” (2003: 244). Weick acknowledges this epithet in his contribution to Organization Studies’ autobiographical “Vita Contemplativa” series: “It is true,” he says, “that some of the more popular parts of the organizational behaviour books I’ve written have been the poems I cite” (2004: 654, his emphasis). With this in mind, I want here to take a close look at two instances of poetry that are cited in Weick’s influential Sensemaking in Organizations (1995). “How I work and who I am,” Weick tells us, “may be reflected in those choices [of poems to cite] more candidly than I realized or intended.” I think this is quite true, and it is how he works and who he is that I want to understand. Or rather, I want to indicate, as a warning to management scholars, how one might come to work and who one might become if one allows Weick’s poetic style to inspire one’s research. Weick is generally considered one of the great stylists of organization theory. He even takes this view himself. He apologizes in advance for not being able to provide more than a “plausible” account of his scholarly practices because, as Czarniawska has noted, “poetic stylists ‘need not know how they are doing what they are doing in order to do it brilliantly’”. He may even be outright “inimitable”, he suggests, because his “uniqueness forms part of what is perceived as elegant” (Weick 2004:654, quoting Czarniawska 2003:255). His estimation of his own work is in fact refreshingly unreserved; looking for a way to “demystify” his unique poetic gifts, Weick turns to Harold Bloom’s book Genius. Here he finds a quote by Paul Valéry that might shed some light on the secret of his stylistic success. Originality, says Valéry, depends on our inability “to trace the hidden transformations that [other authors] underwent in his mind.” Weick clearly identifies with this description of literary originality. Listing a few of his progenitors, Weick explains that his intertextual dependence is “complex, irregular, intricate, and filled with ‘hidden transformations’.” To help us get a sense of his situation as a writer, he presents us with an image of his research involving “books spread out on the desk”, “notes and marginalia”, “aspirations” and “improvisations”. “It’s all pretty chaotic,” he says. In fact, as must be expected of attempts to see through the workings of all great minds, Weick is not at all optimistic about making sense of how he accomplishes what he does. “Hidden means hidden” (Weick 2004: 654). As I will try to show in this paper, however, while Weick does sometimes hide his inter-textual relations, their transformation is often hard to spot. In the case of at least two poems he cites in Sensemaking in Organizations, there isn’t much of a mystery at all. In one case he simply quotes Pablo Neruda’s “We Are Many” in full without interpretation and, in another, he straightforwardly plagiarizes Miroslav Holub’s “Brief Thoughts of Maps”.


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Paper presented at “Practical Criticism in the Managerial Social Sciences”, University of Leicester School of Management, January 15 – 17, 2008. Draft as of 21 January 2008.



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