Monthly Archives: June 2017

Good Advice From Oliver Smithies

The late Oliver Smithies here says two things that would vastly improve the lives (and minds) of young scholars if they would only believe him: plan your work week, never write something you don’t understand.*

*Obviously, this “never” has to be taken with the usual caveat. It might be better to say don’t try to get something you don’t understand past your reader.

Writing Ethnography

I’m not an ethnographer by any stretch, but I have worked closely with many authors who use ethnographic description in their organisational analyses. On that basis (and you can take it for what it’s worth) I have some advice. It’s something I find myself saying quite often, so I thought I may as well write it down too.

Ethnography covers a wide range of specific methods, but let’s confine ourselves to participant observation and interviews. These are ways of collecting data,  which will consist of descriptions (in field notes) of what people did in practice, and transcriptions (often of recordings) of what they said in interviews. The methods section of the paper will describe how the data was collected, i.e., how the observations were arranged and the interviews conducted, as well as how they were recorded, transcribed and coded.

Now, the ethnographer–the “people writer”, if you will–has the task of presenting this data in the analysis. Many researchers, I have found, construe their data as a text that needs to be somehow processed into publishable prose. They select passages of their notes or transcripts, paste them into a document, and connect them together by writing their own prose. But it is also, for many people, a torturous process, comparable to weeding a magically growing garden that is constantly changing form, blooming and wilting from day to day, as progress and mood dictate. It’s sometimes exciting, but not always pleasant work.

So I usually suggest a different approach. It begins by getting away from thinking of the analysis as primarily a presentation of your data and construing it instead as an attempt to represent the people you have studied. You have observed them doing something, but your analysis will tell us why they did it. They have said something in the interviews, but your analysis will tell us what they meant. You are analyzing the meaning of their practices, not merely telling us what happened.

Instead of beginning with juicy quotes or gripping anecdotes, begin with the claims that your analysis allows you to make about the people you have studied. Tell us what you know about these people, not just what they’ve told you or what you’ve seen them do. Think of claims like the following:

  • The managers at XYZ Corp are aloof and distant.
  • The local employees perceive their foreign managers as arrogant and out of touch.
  • The community places a high premium on quality workmanship.
  • The board is frustrated with the inefficiency of the IT department.
  • The team leader is taciturn and often dismissive.
  • The team members hold their leader in very high esteem.
  • There is a great deal of anxiety about the transition.
  • The employees are ambivalent about the new strategy.

I could go on. The point is that none of these are statements of direct observation, but we can imagine a paragraph that presents evidence to support each of them. And that evidence will consist of statements of direct observation, drawn from the data. Instead of giving yourself the the task of “presenting the data”, give yourself the task of supporting claims on the basis of your data. That should make it much easier to decide the day before what you are going to say. And that will hopefully make the writing more enjoyable.

A One-Year Plan

Begin in mid-August and count eight weeks to the fall break. There should be another eight-week stretch up to around Christmas. Then count off eight weeks before and eight weeks after Easter. You now have four eight-week periods that cover the whole school year. 32 weeks in all.

Make a rough estimate for each period of how many hours you can devote to writing. Not to thinking or researching, but to actually, physically writing your papers. How many hours will you be “at the machine”, typing? If your estimate is under 20 you are either too busy or not ambitious enough. If it’s over 120 you are probably not thinking straight. You should aim to write between half an hour and three hours every day, five days a week.

Okay, now take your rough estimate for each period and multiply it by two. This gives you the amount a paragraphs you can write (27 minutes at a time). And then go on and multiply this number by 200, which is the maximum amount a words you can write (limiting each paragraph to at most 200 words). Finally, divide this number by 8000, or whatever the standard length of the papers published in your field might be. This gives the amount of full drafts you can write (or rewrite) during each period, i.e., the amount of paper-sized texts you can produce. Now, add it all up and make a table:


I wonder if I need to explain how this might be useful…

Social Knowledge

I’ve been thinking about a technical issue in social epistemology. Can some things be known only by groups, not individuals? My intuition says no. If something can be known at all, it can be known by a single mind. It may take a collective effort to discover it, of course. It may take a whole village or an entire civilization to uncover some fact. But once it is known, it can be known by individuals. If no individual can possibly understand it, I’m not willing to call it knowledge.

But this raises a question. Is one such individual knower enough? Is something known if only one person could ever know it? I think this is where I become a social epistemologist. I believe that knowledge must, in principle, be understandable to several people. The “in principle” is important. Suppose I am a pilot whose plane crashes in the pacific ocean near a desert Island. I bail out and parachute to safety, carrying a map. Based on my last known location, I correctly identify the island on my map. I know where I am.

Now, at this point, no other human being knows where I am. But once they find the wreckage of my plane, they can make a reasonable guess as to where I might be. That is, I know something that can, in principle, be known by others, even though no one else knows. I think all knowledge must meet this minimal condition.

But let’s think about “academic” or “scholarly” knowledge. I want to argue that scholarly knowledge is the sort of thing an individual can know and share with a group of people, namely, peers. Thomas Kuhn suggested that a “paradigm” is usually maintained by a scientific community of 20-100 people.  That puts a good bound it. Scientific or scholarly claims should be comprehensible to at least 20 people. Indeed, such truths should not  remain unknown to those 20 people for long. Discoveries are made to be shared with your peers.

First Draft, Introduction

This morning I started writing a 6:00 AM, writing three 18-minute paragraphs separated by two-minute breaks, using yesterday’s key sentences to define each task. Here’s the result:

  1. On August 4, 1949, lightning started a fire on the southern ridge of Mann Gulch.* The next afternoon, a crew of smokejumpers parachuted in, landing at the top of the gulch. They collected their gear and decided to fight the fire from below, with their backs to the river. While they were hiking down towards the river, following the northern slop of the gulch, the fire jumped over to their side. But it was outside of their line of sight when it happened, so they saw it coming towards them too late. They dropped their tools and tried to outrun it, but it was moving too fast, gaining on them quickly. At the last moment, Dodge lit the grass in front of him on fire and ordered the men to lie down down in on the burnt ground. They thought he was crazy and ignored his orders, continuing up the slope, away from the fire. Dodge lay down, and after the fire had passed, he rose from the ashes of his escape fire to find that his men were dead.
  2. The received view in organization studies is that the Mann Gulch  disaster resulted from a collapse of sensemaking. In an influential analysis from 1993, Karl Weick proposed to shift our analytical focus from the decisions that were made about the fire, to the process that formed the crew’s understanding of their situation. Weick argued that the crew lacked structure and leadership, and at the crucial moment, when they should have obeyed the order to lie down in the escape fire, the men panicked. The crew, he argued, held on to a “stubborn belief” that they would have the fire under control by morning, causing them to ignore signs that their situation was changing. This produced a “cosmology episode”, in which the world become unrecognizable to them and this, in turn, ultimately decided their fate. Today, this is the generally held view: the disaster was characterized by “multiple failures of leadership” resulting in an “interelated collapse of structure and sensemaking” (Weick 1993). Indeed, the taciturn foreman, Wagner Dodge, is often said to have lacked what Weick called an “attitude of wisdom”.
  3. In this paper, I show that sensemaking did not play a significant role in the death of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch. I present a re-analysis of the events described in Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire, which had also been the source of Weick’s “data”. I carry out what John Van Maanen (1995) called an “allegoric breaching” of our received views about the disaster. On my reading, the crew abandoned its belief that it would have the fire out by morning before it began to move towards the river. Maclean explicitly says that the men “did not panic” and shows that Dodge had a good sense of the danger they were in, attempting to get his men out of harm’s way. His escape fire, finally, was a spontaneous improvisation with which the men had no prior experience and therefore could not have made sense of in the moment. This reading should get us to rethink our assumptions about the importance of sensemaking in Mann Gulch specifically, and crisis situations more generally. Mann Gulch was a tragedy that could not have been prevented by greater wisdom on the part of the men who died.

This is very much a first draft; there are lots of things I may do differently when I rewrite these paragraphs later in the process. But that’s not something I’m going to worry about now. Next, I will write “paragraph 39”: the first paragraph of the conclusion, the penultimate paragraph of the paper. Its key sentence is contained in paragraph 3: “Sensemaking did not play a significant role in the death of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch.” I will then write 2 paragraphs from each of the background, theory and methods sections, 6 paragraphs of analysis, and 2 paragraphs of discussion. That’s 18 paragraphs over 6 hours of work. It will give me a good sketch of the first draft. Then I’ll fill in the remaining 22 paragraphs.

It’s worth pointing out that the structure of the entire paper is contained in the introduction. In the background section I will talk about the dangerous work that smokejumpers do and why they do it. In the theory section I will talk about sensemaking and how it is supposed to explain failure in critical situations. In the methods section, I will talk about “allegoric breaching” and the use of a non-fiction book like Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire as “data” for analysis. In the analysis, I will support my assertion that the crew did not hold a “stubborn belief”, did not panic, and did not lack wisdom in its attitude. Finally, in the discussion section I will argue that sensemaking is often allowed to explain too much when we study tragedies like the Mann Gulch disaster.


* You may have noticed that this is not the key sentence from yesterday. In fact, the key sentence was to a certain extent “written out” out of this paragraph, which sometimes happens. If I was reading this paragraph trying to find its key sentence I would say, “In August of 1949 some smokejumpers were killed in Mann Gulch,” which is pretty close. It is constructed from the opening and closing words of the paragraph. The paragraph tells the story of how the men died; it elaborates (rather than supporting or defending) the key sentence.