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Style As Theory

John Van Maanen

Organization Science, Vol. 6, No. 1, Focused Issue: European Perspective on

Organization Theory. (Jan. - Feb., 1995), pp. 133-143.

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Mon Dec 11 22: 11:40 2006
Style as Theory1
John Van Maanen
Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139

The image Jeff uses to portray the field in its current

state of play is pastoral but wild. There are too many of
A small but significant portion of writing in the still us doing too many different things. Our tangled theo-
expanding domain of organizational research and the- ries do not fit neatly on any intellectual map. We do
ory is devoted to debunking the essentialist and (al- not value the systematic collection of data on a limited
legedly) scientifically grounded ideas and programs of number of issues. Agreement across theory groups is
our peers. Some of my writing, including this effort, unlikely and, given the way we structure ourselves,
falls within this tradition. Debunking the would-be probably impossible; so the resources and rewards that
towers of power in our field bears a loose similarity to flow from external sources to those in the field remain
the work performed by voluntary firefighters. The fire both modest and hotly contested. In brief, we repre-
of interest here is a call to draw in our topical and sent something of an overgrown garden sorely in need
theoretical borders, and the intellectual incendiary is of attention: " . . . there are thousands of flowers
none other than Jeffrey Pfeffer whose 1992 Distin- blooming but nobody does any manicuring or tending"
guished Scholar Address to the Organization Theory (Pfeffer 1993b, p. 1). Specifically, we need to prune,
Division of the Academy of Management started a pare and discard certain research topics and agendas
modest little blaze that was followed by my own 1993 that are, in Jeff's view, going nowhere.
Distinguished Scholar Address to the same group which I suspect I am a weed in Jeffrey's dreamtime garden.
was designed to put it out. A stroke of luck too, for I am therefore a candidate for pruning, paring and
what better theorist could a confessed anti-theorist discarding. But whether I am a tulip, wildflower or
wish to follow and what better foil for debunking could weed, I want to suggest here that this sour view of our
have been sent forward than an acknowledged desper- field is-to be gentle-insufferably smug; pious and
ado of the podium like Jeffrey, who courts controversy orthodox; philosophically indefensible; extraordinarily
like a bear in search of honey.2 In what follows, I naive as to how science actually works; theoretically
recreate in writing what I first committed to speech. foolish, vain and autocratic; and-still being
Jeff's talk-later published in revised form as "Bar- gentle-reflective of a most out-of-date and discred-
riers to the Advance of Organizational Science: ited father-knows-best version of knowledge, rhetoric
Paradigm Development as a Dependent Variable" and the role theory plays in the life of any intellectual
(Pfeffer 1993abrepresents a rather shrill plea for the community.
development of a firm and consensually approved Jeff is not, of course, alone in suggesting that we
paradigm to drive organizational theory and research. overplay our science hand and underplay what other
Without much hesitation, Jeff argues that we would be approaches to knowledge might teach us. Yet, just as
wise to adopt economics as a role model for our many the Enlightenment philosophers were a trifle prema-
splendored-but unfortunately splintered-field. Eco- ture in their pronouncement that science had tri-
nomics is, after all, a proud and powerful discipline umphed over mere belief (doxa), those who would push
that has gone places. In a chilling segment of his for paradigmatic purity or unity in our field conve-
address, a Stalinist purge of our low-consensus field niently ignore the rhetorical elements that underpin
is considered whereby we might invest authority and ultimately undermine their own efforts. More to
in a few, well-published elites within our ranks who the point, they ignore what has been called the linguis-
would be willing if not eager to institutionalize some tic turn (alternatively, the interpretive or textual turn)
topical and methodological strictures to guide our taken by a number of scholars within and across a
work. A high-consensus paradigm-or better yet, a variety of disciplines in the arts, humanities and sci-
Pfefferdigm-could thus be imposed. The result would ences. This turn promotes language in the scheme of
be an increase in our prestige, power and pay. things and reverses the relationship typically thought to

ORGANIZATION / Vo1. 6, NO. 1, January-February 1995

J O H N VAN MAANEN Crossroads

obtain between a description and the object of descrip- is a matter of words, not worlds; of maps, not territo-
tiom3 ries; of representations, not realities. As much as we
The ordinary or commonsensical view holds that the might like to believe that hard fact and cold logic will
objects of the world are logically prior and thus limit support our claims and carry the day, there is no
and provide the measure of any description. Vocabu- escape from rhetoric: from the informal, hidden argu-
lary, text, representation of any intendedly nonfictional ments carried in texts, to the figures of speech, the
sort must be constrained by fact. But as some theorists metaphors, the tropes and the appeals to good sense or
now realize (however much they may complain), lan- tradition or authority made by writers to support their
guage is auditioning for an a priori role in the social ~laims.~
and material world. Moreover, it is a role that carries
constitutional force, bringing facts into consciousness Textwork and Persuasion
and therefore being. No longer then is something like One problem (of many) at the moment in our organiza-
an organization or, for that matter, an atom or quark tional field(s) is that most of us are trained in a
thought to come first while our understandings, models logocentric tradition of empirical science with its
or representations of an organization, atom or quark count-and-classify conventions and taken-for-granted
come second. Rather, our representations may well notions of progress. We display more than a little
come first, allowing us to see selectively what we have physics envy when we reach out for covering laws,
described. causes, operational definitions, testable hypotheses and
This reversal is visible in organizational fields and is so forth. Our reading practices are governed for the
slowly worming its way into our classrooms, meetings, most part by a correspondence presumption leading us
literatures and t h e ~ r i e s It
. ~is, to be sure, controversial, to trust text as a more or less transparent guide to the
for it suggests that taken-for-granted ideas about em- world "out there." We cultivate and teach a writing
pirical evidence, objectivity, reason, truth, coherence, style of nonstyle that values limited metaphor, simplic-
validity, measurement and fact no long provide great ity and a formal, if not mathematical, precision. Much
comfort or direction. If such concepts are language- of our writing is washed by a thick spray of claimed
based, they are relative, not absolute. They are there- objectivity since artful delights and forms are seen by
fore contestable in whatever form they appear. What many if not most writers (and readers) in the field to
drives contestation (and the resulting polarization) is of interfere with the presentation of what is actually there
course the perception that one's discipline, sub-disci- in a given social world.6
pline or sub-sub-discipline is under attack. That some- The result is that we elevate the "spare," "sys-
one else is defining the field in such a way that one's tematic," "elegant," "unadorned," "essential," "parsi-
own work is being denied legitimacy. This is certainly monious" treatments of organizational life based on
my response to the "I'm-a-Pfeffer, you're-a-Pfeffer, concepts that are said to transcend mere textuality.
wouldn't-you-like-to-be-a-Pfeffer-too" view of the How organizational worlds are represented in print is
world Jeff presented us with last year. But it cuts both not thought to be much of an issue. Writing is seen as a
ways. When I call into question certain narrative de- secondary or mop-up activity in our professional pur-
vices that characterize a good deal of organizational suits. This is, I think, a mistake and overlooks what
theory writings, some in my audience will applaud and might be learned if we were to take the textuality of
feel good while others will fall silent and feel like our organizational theories and facts more seriously:
endangered species. What might we learn if we were to explore the terra
My remarks-very much like Jeff's-must then be incognita of our literary practices?
understood as moves in a language game, an under- Such an exploration would involve the close exami-
standable and necessary effort to defend my work, to nation of just what we do as organizational theorists. In
create a space for what I do against what I take to be this regard, I follow Geertz's (1974) quite sensible
the shortsighted, overly confident and more (or less) remark that if one wants to know what a science
entrenched views of others. It is in this sense that is-or, for that matter, what any scholarly field amounts
staking out a theoretical position is unavoidably a to-one must begin by examining what the people in
rhetorical act. Rhetoric is always with us. It is with us the field do. This is a post-Kuhnian perspective on the
not only at the point of paradigmatic clashes where it is nature of our work and differs little from any ethno-
so obvious but with us everywhere and always for the graphically sensitive approach to technical work.7
simple reason that our understandings of the world are What we do as organizational theorists is, of course,
put forth in black and white, as ink on a page. Theory spend enormous amounts of time reading and writing.

134 ORGANIZATION /Val. 6, NO. 1, January-February 1995


Some of us produce both discourse and text we explic- read at least some of Karl's work. My focus is on the
itly label theory whose purpose is to communicate our compositional characteristics of what I take to be the
understandings of organization to particular audiences. more successful (i.e., persuasive) features of Karl's
Communication however implies that we are also and work. I am not indifferent to content but my purpose
necessarily concerned with persuading our readers- here is to push for a different way of understanding
the more the better-that not only do we have some- theory by looking at what is conventionally ignored: the
thing to say but that what we have to say is correct, textual aspects of such work.
important and well worth heeding. The discourse we The reception history of Karl's work is a matter of
produce as organization theory has an action compo- record. It has been widely reviewed, summarized,
nent which seeks to induce belief among our readers. quoted, borrowed, reprinted and elaborated on. It is,
Our writing is then something of a performance with a in general, seen by those in and out of the organiza-
persuasive aim. In this sense, when our theories are tional theory field as insightful and innovative. Review-
well received they do practical work. Rather than mir- ers characteristically praise the work but not always in
ror reality, our theories help generate reality for read- the same terms or without reservation. A set of fre-
ers. quently used receptive epithets include terms like
How does such a reality-building process work in "subtle," "cunning," "brilliant," "wandering," "multi-
print? This is not a simple matter. To approach it from faceted," "relativistic," "nonconforming," "artistic,"
a textual angle requires looking at how well-received "airy," "metaphorical," "evasive," "fragmentary,"
theories are written, and this means looking at-rather "cryptic," "evocative" and "suggestive." The issue to
than through-our more persuasive writings. Putting explore now is what compositional practices appear to
theory in print is a literary performance; an activity produce such effects among readers?'
involving the use of language whose methods are ways Before pushing on, however, I must say that I am not
of writing through which certain identifiable reader out to valorize or idolize the Weickian style, although I
responses are produced. The materials of such a per- am most certainly a fan. My intent is to look carefully
formance are words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, at what most of us would call a maverick style of
articles, books and so forth. The question at hand, theorizing-quite different from that celebrated by
then, is what literary methods-the particular compo- Jeffrey Pfeffer-and identify what I think is a distinc-
sitional and performative characteristics of a tive and altogether useful way of putting theory into
text(s)-are associated with a certifiable example(s1 of print. It is a way of theorizing that might well pass
influential organizational theory? unnoticed if we did not look at its textual features
because, at least in this case, theory and style are
The Allegoric Breaching of Karl Weick closely aligned. One carries the other.
To begin to answer this question requires a specific In other words (my words), a good' deal of the
case of persuasive theorizing. Any case might do but scholarly appeal of Karl Weick's writing and hence his
my strategy here is to focus on what I take to be a theory rests on its more or less unique style. It is a style
deviant case of theorizing, deviant in the sense that the that combines allegory and breaching. Allegory repre-
narrative and rhetorical practices used to produce the sents the idea that a coherent spiritual or abstract (in
examined body of work appear to violate some of our this case, theoretical or general) message is being con-
received and more or less unquestioned notions of just veyed in writing through the narration of a most con-
how and what organizational texts (and theories) are crete set of events. It is near symbolism as a literary
convincing. Alas, I must leave it to others to follow form but more focused and controlled. Breaching car-
with careful readings of other-perhaps more generic ries the idea that the writing breaks with conventional
or conventional-theorists in the field. textual practices in the field in which it enters. In this
My exemplar is Karl Weick who, over the years, has case, Weick's writings stand apart from most organiza-
produced a substantial body of work. It is a body of tion theory writings in identifiable ways. Four charac-
work I have tried to enter and understand (not always teristics of Karl's work back up my use of the allegoric
successfully). His writings have the advantage of being breaching label.9 In no particular order, they follow.
familiar to most readers of organization theory because
so many of them are on the required reading lists of Essay Form
Ph.D. programs in the field and it is surely the case Weick is something of a confessed essayist. This can be
that students cannot consider themselves organiza- seen most readily in many of his articles but is also
tional scholars of any depth or breadth without having visible in some of the chapters of The Social Psychology

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J O H N VAN MAANEN Crossroads

of Organizing (Weick 1969, 1979; both editions). The Gulch"). The last section head appears on page 15,
essay is of course a literary format more linked to art "From Vulnerability to Resilience." Three headings,
than science. By working in such a form Weick breaches 27 pages. No ordinary introduction, no generic section
the generic recognizability of normal organizational titles, no obvious summary or conclusion sections and
theorizing with its relentless summaries of past re- no recommendations for further research.'' Not an
search, propositional chants, pachyderm-like solemnity atypical Weick paper. It seems the order could easily
and off-the-shelf textual formats (i.e., introduction, hy- be otherwise; beginnings could be endings and vice
potheses, methods, findings, conclusions). Few plain versa. From title to last line, the order is unsettling and
writers of referential prose in organizational theory difficult to categorize as to its intentions.
commit themselves and their readers to such a bla- Certainly there is a shape and pattern to this work.
tantly literary (artsy) style. It is not a blob by any means but it stands some
But Weick does so with glee and seemingly takes distance from the conventional writing styles. The work
pride in the nonlinear possibilities of the essay form. reads as something of a personal reflection, a medita-
Meanderings, detours, distractions are common in his tion on a theme and is put forth in terse, highly
writing. A personalized author is also put forth as is qualified and personal prose. Moreover, the matters
characteristic of the essay: the use of "I" and the that occupy Weick's interest in the paper are not
refusal to cloak a writing in anonymity. While not presented as things to which one must agree or dis-
obviously self-referencing (or self-effacing), it is diffi- agree but as ideas tossed out to complicate our think-
cult for readers to forget they are reading Weick while ing about current problems in organizational theory
engaged with his work. This may well be a distinguish- (and elsewhere). Literary theorists repeatedly suggest
ing feature of convincing theory texts since we stub- that readers often reject argumentative thrusts or ideas
bornly link pure theory with particular names like presented as solid and unassailable. Weick's essays
Perrow and March or the fashionable French like allow a reader to sense a writer struggling with an idea
Foucault or Bourdieu. When theory becomes anony- and trying to use that idea to come to terms with some
mous, it loses style and slides into a well-worn and concrete event or experience that serves as the narra-
recognizable genre such as a research report, an empir- tive center for the writing.
ical monograph, an instruction manual, an article for a In general, an elementary principle of the successful
specific journal or a textbook where standard formats, essay is precisely what Weick respects and follows in
topics, terminology and methods play large roles. much of his work. An essay works to the extent that
The essay is anything but an overtly systematic pre- readers identify with the writer. And when they do, the
sentation of an author's views. This stylistic feature is essay will carry greater persuasive appeal than writings
sometimes treated as a bothersome defect by some that force on a reader a systematic barrage of concepts,
readers, a defect that can be overcome only when definitions, truth claims and roll call of famous names
others extract or cull the analytic jewels out of a messy all serving to express certitude. Identification is cre-
piece of work, the jewels being the detachable theoreti- ated, in part, by revealing doubt. Who can identify with
cal contributions to be found in the work. Beginning the all-knowing author? It may well be that the most
students and textbook writers are perhaps the most persuasive style in the late 20th century is one that is
likely to be both puzzled and disturbed with Weick for informal, a little self-conscious perhaps but basically
the apparent disorder that comes kit and caboodle with genial and pitched at creating a conversation or dia-
his essayist style. Yet, it is altogether possible that the logue between equals.
lack of a system and the appearance of a tidy order in
his writing is downright central to the point, purpose
and value of his work. Indeterminacy and Open-Endedness
To take an example of all this, consider a recent A good deal of Weick's writings refuse settlement.
paper with the most Weickian title, "Cosmology Interpretations are left open and the world as depicted
Episodes in Organizations: Young Men and Fire and in print remains indeterminate. Weick is willfully and
the Mann Gulch Disaster" (Weick 1993a). The paper is often amusingly paradoxical. The tactic is realized in
called an essay in the first sentence. A section title its clearest form when Karl takes a perfectly reason-
does not appear until page 7 (called "Sensemaking in able and conventional proposition from organization
Mann Gulch") and another five pages go by before theory and turns it around to see if it works equally
another title appears ("Social Structure in Mann well in reverse. In "Cosmology Episodes," Weick

136 ORGANIZATION /Val. 6, NO. 1, January-February 1995


(1993a) reverses the altogether logical proposition that But I am reminded also that sociologists of scientific
"sensemaking precedes structure" and suggests that knowledge, when observing the everyday work of scien-
the reverse is just as likely. H e says of an organization, tists, often note scientists, in private, think not in black
"as it loses structure, it loses sense" (pp. 6-7). More and white but in various shades of gray (e.g., Latour
concretely, he observes that "this loss of organization and Woolgar 1979, Garfinkel et al. 1981, Gilbert and
intensified fear" (p. 14). We normally think of fear or Mulkay 1983). When pondering their work, say, in the
panic as preceding a loss of organization or structure laboratory or lounge with colleagues, they speak in a
rather than the other way around. tentative, open, one-step-up, one-step-back manner in
All these claims are put forth in a hesitant, subtle which things could always be otherwise. But when
and rather hypothetical mode of expression wherein going public and putting theories into words on a page
the words "perhaps," "if" and "maybe" play major (or spoken from a platform), all shades of opinion and
roles. This comes close to what could be called a doubt vanish. Simons (1988, p. 48) calls this pattern
Hamlet Strategy of deferring final judgment while all "think Yiddish, speak British."
aspects of an event are carefully examined from a My reading of Karl's work is that much of the time
variety of perspectives. It stands in stark contrast to the he "thinks Yiddish and speaks Yiddish." As such, his
dogmatic, this-is-a-that and pin-everything-down lan- style represents an assault on the unquestioned objec-
guage of organization science where we are told by an tivity of our received notions of the world. If a cele-
author at the outset, in the middle, and at the end of a brated theorist publicly displays a tentative and re-
paper precisely what is being proved beyond doubt. versible stance toward the objects of his affection,
Another distinctive feature that comprises the inde- these objects may not be so very objective after all. The
cisive and open-ended character of Weick's writings is style becomes the theory. By letting doubt into his
his stringing together of ideas or propositions without accounts, a reader's hold on organizational reality may
connectives. The reporting style is that of montage and be loosened. Doubt multiplies and a reader is forced to
it runs counter to the logically dependent clauses that credit several explanations-sometimes contradictory
arrange proposition flows sequentially. For instance, -for the always concrete happenings that punctuate
Weick lists four sources of organizational resilience in Weickian tales. This stylistic mark is closely related to
his "Cosmology Episodes" paper. The four are dis- the third characteristic of much of Karl's writing.
cussed in turn and consist of (1) improvisation and
bricolage; (2) virtual role systems, (3) the attitude of
wisdom and (4) respectful interaction (Weick 1993a, Dialectic Reconstruction
p. 16). There is no logical order to the four. One A favored Weick technique is to take two logical oppo-
doesn't follow from another. The list (and ensuing sites and show how both may be true at the same time;
discussion) acts on a reader as an estranging device thus the dialectic itself is transformed. This is an
and the reading experience is both befuddlement and obvious violation of the scientific identity principle that
wonderment. By breaking away from an easy logic, decrees something cannot be true and false at the same
Weick challenges the reader to figure out with him how time. Karl did this with a vengeance on some work of
these things go together and just what they might mean mine, showing just how an organizational socialization
in the context of his discussion. process could be both formal and informal, individual
A question to raise at this point is whether or not an and collective simultaneously (Weick 1982, pp.
apparently coherent and tightly ordered narrative is 394-398). H e works in reverse as well, producing a
superior to a narrative, like Weick's, full of loose ends dialectic from an identity. In a clever paper on educa-
and logical reversals? Is the simple structure superior tional administration, he played off the clich6 "a com-
to the complex? Reading Weick one must say no. munity of scholars" to note that community endangers
Again, the indeterminacy of the writing allows for scholarship while scholarship prevents community
identification since the style seems to me to be closer (Weick 1983). Both were needed if an educational
to the way we readers-pallid little trolls that we institution were to thrive, but the language we use to
are-come to terms with the world and do theory understand the situation is often confusing and gets in
ourselves. the way of the very understanding we seek.
To write in an essayistic, highly indeterminate fash- In "Cosmology Episodes," the tactic shows up again.
ion about organizations in a field so dominated by Specifically, Karl argues that "ignorance and knowl-
impersonal, disciplined rhetorics is clearly a breach. edge" often go and grow together in organizational

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J O H N VAN MAANEN Crossroads

settings (Weick 1993a, pp. 22-23). The more knowl- are invoked to exemplify loose coupling, thus giving
edge that seems to be available to organizational mem- rise to a proof of the idea's vitality through its illus-
bers, the more ignorance there is among them (and trated fit to diverse circumstances. Moreover, loose
vice versa). These are of course two matters we nor- coupling is put forth without an explicit, singular defi-
mally consider contradictory. It is a playful argument nition, without a set of theorems, and without much
but instructive, and in a world full of seemingly insur- detailed interpretation of a general or abstract sort.
mountable dilemmas, awards should be handed out to Peter Manning (1992, pp. 48-51), a respected critic
those who try to get past the tired either/or opposi- and close reader of Karl's work, points out that this
tions characteristic of formal logic. essay contains at least 15 different ways in which loose
This dialectic reconstruction is accomplished by Karl coupling is used. The idea is thus magnified and given
with more than a little linguistic sophistry (an ap- importance not by analysis, but by repetition and am-
proach, by the way, whose good name we should re- plification. By continually adding a new supplementary
store). It is done by reformulating the very terms used documentation for its presence, loose coupling is being
to express both ordinary and theoretical concepts. It is particularized, not generalized.
done through inventive language use. In words and This is not unlike Tom Wolfe's (1979) strategy for
sentences that are sometimes as cool, crisp and clear as communicating "The Right Stuff" to readers. Wolfe
a country creek, Weick suspends logical sequencing never defines "The Right Stuff' but he repeats the
and pries words loose from their accustomed routines. phrase over and over again throughout the book, al-
The self-canceling paradoxes work to depict an organi- ways in slightly to drastically altered conditions. Simi-
zational world that is in continual flux, a world that is larly, Karl gives loose coupling the quiddity it deserves
always becoming.'' From Cosmology Episodes: " . . . it by virtue of his seeming inability to precisely define it.
doesn't take much to qualify as an organization. The But, in so doing, he also makes readers increasingly
other side of it is that it also may not take much to stop aware of its presence. The subtext reads that if a writer
being an organization" (Weick 1993a, p. 5). There is a of Weick's obvious rhetorical virtuosity and talent can-
tentative, anti-essentialist and (moving) dialectic posi- not precisely express the idea of "loose coupling," how
tion being carefully staked out here and it is one that I great an idea it must truly be! Oh what grandeur and
think attracts readers because Karl's style is so consis- power it must possess!!
tent with his message. The downside of presence as a rhetorical move is
that its persuasive appeal will depend in large measure
Presence on the reader's experience and ability to identify with
All writers face the problem of how to keep their the examples provided in the text. If readers have only
reader's attention pointed toward features of the text shallow experience or no such experience with the idea
they deem most important. Presence is a literary tactic -or, worse, are unwilling to put that experience to use
that serves, in part, to solve this problem. Presence is because they are overschooled in the proper way to
magnified by such practices as repetition, amplification, read organization theory-language such as Karl's will
enumeration, figuration, provision of concrete details fail and no connection among author, idea and reader
and so forth. It is something of a substitute for a will be made. Presence, to be convincing, requires
formalist strategy of proof and analysis. Support for an more of readers than the joyless use of a magic marker
idea or position by the use of presence means repeat- to underline portions of the text. It requires imagina-
ing it time and time again, each time with a twist, a tive readers able to put themselves into the illustrative
little differently so that various shades of meaning can situations that fill the text and bestow on key concepts
be discerned. Redundancy is the key. Contrasted to the both meaning and range.12
spare, plain-speaking, sequential, one-thing-at-a-time
simplicity of a good deal of writing in organization
theory, presence is indeed an unusual textual feature. The allegoric breaching style is I think a demanding
Perhaps the best example of Karl's use of presence is one. But for readers able and willing to put in the
found in his much cited essay "Educational Organiza- work, it is persuasive and rewarding. It is however a
tions as Loosely Coupled Systems" (Weick 1976). In style that takes a most unaggressive stance toward
this piece, the title phrase is virtually beaten into the reality, organizational or otherwise. As such, it repre-
reader through its repeated use in shifting contexts. sents a rather different way of doing (i.e., writing)
Time after time, different sets of concrete particulars theory than we are accustomed. An example from

138 ORGANIZATION /Val. 6, NO. 1, January-February 1995

J O H N VAN MAANEN Crossroads

cultural anthropology may be useful in this regard. It ways that might be cheerfully applauded by Jeffrey
comes from the pen of Dorothy Lee and tells of a pfeffer.13
far-away society: Second and relatedly, I am appalled at much of
organization theory for its technocratic unimaginative-
Among the Wintu there is a recurring attitude of humility ness. Our generalizations often display a mind-numb-
and respect toward reality, toward nature and society . . . ing banality and an inexplicable readiness to reduce
I cannot jind an adequate term to apply to a habit of the field to a set of unexamined, turgid, hypothetical
thought that is so alien to our culture. We are so aggres- thrusts designed to render organizations systematic and
sive toward reality. We say "this is bread". . . We do not organization theory safe for science. I see in Karl
say as do the Wintu, " I call this bread," or " I feel" or " I Weick's unusual phrases, labels, titles, reversals, sweeps
taste" or " I see it to be bread" . . . The Wintu never says and swoops of wordplay something of a protest and an
starkly "this is." example of how to break from the frozen technical
(Lee 1959, p. 129; cited in Brown 1977, p. 24). writing codes we find ourselves so often following. The
message seems unmistakable. The language we use to
I think Karl would be rather comfortable among the
theorize about organizations is not a symptom of the
Wintu. The lack of sharp definition, claimed objectiv-
problems the field faces but is a cause of such prob-
ity, descriptive certainty and detachable conclusions
lems. A position I think Karl would agree with is that
mark a good deal of his work. H e writes against our
our theories of the world are not mere reflectors of the
customary aggressive certitude toward reality, a certi-
world but makers of the world, and this is why the
tude that lies at the core of the foundational, scientific
words we use are so terribly important. To put forth
pose that infects so much of organization theory. And
my own Weickianism: "Theorists are lost because they
if, as I've suggested, Karl gives us a distinctive style are blind to what words in context can teach them."
whose reception history indicates its persuasive charac-
Third, the positive spin I've put on indeterminacy
ter, perhaps others might experiment with its features and open-endedness draws on the familiar Weberian
as well. For me, many of Karl's novel writing strokes distinction between formal and practical (or situa-
offer a promising way of doing theory, a way more in tional) rationality. Formal rationality, when carried into
tune with current intellectual trends in many of the theory, is the idea that we can define decisively all
scholarly worlds that surround us and perhaps more in relevant terms, allow for all conceivable possibilities
tune with the culturally blended everyday worlds in and bundle up our understandings such that our mean-
which we live. ing will be perfectly clear. Practical rationality empha-
sizes context and, when carried into theory, suggests
that ambiguity is always and necessarily present. The
Theory in Context two forms of rationality clash, for it seems to me that
As a way of drawing all this to a close, I want to the more we try to be precise and exact, the less we are
highlight certain implicit themes that run through my able to say and that the harder we try to follow a
remarks. First, I have had relatively little to say about rigorous theoretical system, the more we are tempted
normal form organizational theorizing. By and large, I to fill it out with uninspired observations. Semantic
have characterized standard theoretical writings in clarity and distinctiveness is achieved only to the extent
terms of what they are not and used Karl Weick's that we allow statements to depend on the identity of
writing to serve as an exception that draws out the rule. the writer, that we allow the circumstances that sur-
Part of this disregard is due to a lack of space but, round discourse to enter into our considerations of
more importantly, part of it is due to the annoying fact what is being said, that we allow ambiguous statements
that we are to a degree blind to the ways we write to stand without question in the hope that future
unless we have in front of our face an example of remarks will clarify their meaning, and so on (and on).
another way to write. From examples of novel practices This state of affairs recommends that we put our
can come individual and collective experiments and theories forward with an awareness of a haunting irony:
perhaps as a result we can loosen up some of the To be determinate, we must be indeterminate. Perhaps
writer's cramps that seem so prevalent in our field. By by focusing on concrete particulars, by revealing our
trying to write like everyone else (and not talking about doubts and anxieties, by not trying so hard to achieve
it in public), we not only bore ourselves to tears but the other worldly ideals of science, our writings will be
restrict the range of our inquires and speculations in able to display our ideas with coherence enough to

ORGANIZATION /Val. 6, NO. 1, January-February 1995


make them intelligible but not dress them up with an attempts like Jeffrey's to answer them once and for all.
alluring but false sense of finality. Les petits fait divers The answers-if indeed there are any-must come
over Pfefferdigmatic certainty (or unity). from the polyphonic voices that comprise our highly
Finally, I think it possible that if we were to move diverse field. We must be willing to listen to each other
away from our apparent fascination with tidy and rela- and to listen with respect. The goal is not to control
tively closed intellectual systems, we might be able to the field, increase our prestige, run a tight ship, or
develop our organizational theories in a less con- impose a paradigm for self-serving or utilitarian ends.
tentious and defensive fashion. Debate, not conversa- The goal is to learn from one another such that our
tion, now rules the day. Yet there are examples-Karl ink-on-a-page theories and consequent understandings
Weick being one-of arranging and explicating theory of organizations can be improved. Too often we forget.
in what comes close to a conversational and open
fashion. It is a way of doing theory that is I think Endnotes
'ASI note in the text, this paper began as a speech. Arie Lewin was
sensitive to the speaking-hearing process and, when
the first to approach me about turning the speech into a paper. Peter
brought into the writing-reading process, represents an Frost was unflagging in his efforts to gather in the spoils-whatever
inviting brand of theorizing. The object of debate is of they may be-for Organization Science. Barbara Gray, John Jermier,
course to overwhelm or obliterate one's opponent: to Linda Pike and Linda Smircich read an earlier draft o f this paper
prune, pare and discard. The object of conversation is and raised a number o f questions which I have tried to answer. Jim
to keep it going: to plant, nurture and cultivate. In the Walsh (and his committee members) started the speech making and
most uncertain domain of organization theory, the paper writing process by issuing an invitation to address the Academy
latter objective seems preferable. o f Management Annual Meetings in Atlanta in August, 1993. It was
What I am suggesting is that since the very process an offerI could not refuse. I am grateful to all. But I also realize that
of theorizing helps create the organizational properties a speech and a paper are two very differentperformances. A speech
we find in an all too real world, it is a matter far too is a live performance: "a mingling of," as Goffman (1981, p. 164)
says, "the living with the read." As such, I took liberties in my talk
important to be left to a small set of self-proclaimed
that I dare not take here. From the podium, I felt free to embellish,
experts with their mock science routines, images and to exaggerate, to improvise, to tell a joke or two, to pun around and
metaphors. History is on my side for it is not always the ramble on without great concern for the niceties o f written and often
case that persuasion is simply a matter of a few well- stilted communication on the belief that my listeners would take
placed power-brokers who bludgeon opponents into away the spirit o f my remarks more so than my words. A good deal
submission by controlling publications, positions and o f editing has then gone into this talk-based paper. I have tried,
resources-although it is probably still too often the however, to preserve some o f the spirit o f my verbal performance in
case. I think a disarmament program is in order to take the body o f the paper and take up the academic slack by forcing on
away certain taken-for-granted tropes that govern or- the reader a set o f my beloved i f grim endnotes.
ganizational theorizing-tropes like progress, truth and he tempest in a honey pot initiated by Jeff's remarks continues.
reality (singular), as well as all those terms drawn from There have been two published rejoinders (Perrow 1994, Cannella
and Paetzold 1994) and, from personal experience, a good deal o f
bipolar hierarchies that privilege certain terms over
corridor, seminar and tavern talk about the pros and cons o f paradig-
others, like hard over soft, objective over subjective, matic consensus in our field(s).Most o f the controversy swirls around
perception over imagination, quantitative over qualita- the content, not form, o f Jeff's analysis and thus stands apart from
tive and masculine over feminine. the themes I pick up in this paper. It is worth noting however that
In this light, it may well be that the most crucial Jeff's talk (and paper) is a superb example o f his own style. It is
questions having to do with theory development con- stuffed with operational definitions, testable hypotheses, appeals to
cern the ways we now carry on our work with each scientifically grounded truths, string-cited references to supporting
other. For example, how can we increase our tolerance evidence (much o f it his own), and so on. It is, I think, stylistically
for unorthodox approaches and, at the same time, impressive and clearly the kind o f writing he does best. Indeed, when
increase the chances that we will learn from one an- in top form, no one does it better. This makes for something o f a
other? What are the conditions that surround produc- problem, because when Jeff breaks from the impersonal, third-per-
son, just-the-facts format and issues a hesitant personal confession or
tive scholarly exchange in the field? Should debate or
two, the displayed lack o f certainty and assumed intimacy (identifi-
conversation guide the process of intellectual discus- cation) with the reader ring hollow if not false. On paper, an
sion and disagreement? Are certain institutional ar- uncertain Jeffrey Pfefferis no Jeffrey Pfefferat all. My point being
rangements more likely than others to facilitate toler- that he is most convincing in genre, least convincing outside o f it.
ance, learning and conversation? These are the kinds The genre, however, deserves scrutiny.
of questions I think we should be asking. They seem to 3 ~ h i language-first
s switch produces a culturally relative version o f
me to be still open to discussion despite vigorous reality and suggests that perception is as much a product o f imagina-

140 ORGANIZATION /Val. 6, NO. 1, January-February 1995


tion as imagination is a product of perception. Reality thus emerges as I argue in the text, a strong distinction between the two is
from the interplay of imaginative perception and perceptive imagina- impossible to maintain. On the role of rhetoric in selected disci-
tion. Language (and text) provide the symbolic representations re- plines, see, for example: White 1973, Fish 1980, O'Neill 1981,
quired for both the construction and communication of conceptions Bazerman 1981, Marcus and Cushman 1982, McClosky 1985, Stock-
of reality and thus make the notions of thought and culture insepara- ing 1992, and, in organization studies, Gergen 1992.
ble. The literature exploring and promoting this ontological gerry- h he post-Kuhnian perspective implies that inquiry and advocacy are
mandering is enormous and can be found within and across many difficult to pry apart. Close ethnographic looks at high-science fields
cutting (or bleeding) edge fields, e.g., natural language philosophy, provide wonderful examples of this interdependency at work
post-structural linguistics, cultural and symbolic anthropology, con- (e.g., Lynch 1985, Latour 1987, Traweek 1988). For a contemporary,
temporary literary studies, semiotics, constructivist schools in sociol- telling and quite astonishing treatment of the sociology of scientific
ogy and psychology, etc. A summary of this literature is impossible, knowledge, see Ashmore (1989).
but a few of the works I have found accessible, influential and his is not, by any means, an exhaustive or systematic review of
relevant to organizational studies include: White 1978, 1981; scholarly reactions to Karl Weick's work. To develop and categorize
Rabinow and Sullivan (Eds.) 1979; Ricoeur 1976; Clifford and Mar- reader responses to the substantial body of work Karl has produced
cus (Eds.) 1986; Brown 1977; Clifford 1988; Fish 1989. over the past 30 or so years would be a daunting task. My point here
4 ~ e e for
, example, Daft and Wiginton 1979, Burrell and Morgan is simply to point out that it is widely regarded-indeed celebrated
1979, Barley 1983, Morgan 1986, Turner (Ed.) 1987, Krieger 1989, -as high-grade organization theory and yet also treated as more
Fiol 1989, Martin 1990, Astley and Zammuto 1992, Barley and than a little idiosyncratic and enigmatic. Uniqueness is notoriously
Kunda 1992, Manning 1992, Reed and Hughes (Eds.) 1992. These hard to pin down, but here I try to locate it in Karl's compositional
works are appreciative of interpretive shifts in contemporary social practices or writing style. There is however a danger of setting myself
theory but most do not problematize in-house representational tech- up as a style critic who, by some master stroke, is able to authorita-
niques in organizational research and theory. Two recent works that tively divine and define all the persuasive elements to be found in an
do are Kilduff s (1993) splendid deconstruction of Organizations, the examined work. Readers are thus homogenized and reduced to
classic March and Simon (1958) text, and the s a y reading Golden- passive subjects responding to a particular text like Skinnerian rats
Biddle and Locke (1993) apply to several organizational ethnogra- responding to a given stimulus. This is not my belief nor intention.
phies. Both works take seriously the role rhetoric plays in the Readers actively locate and create the meanings they pull from texts
materials they examine and thus force their target texts to tell a and different readers may respond to the same text in quite different
rather different story than what their respected authors may have ways. This is apparent in my list of scholarly reactions to Weick's
intended. work. There is, no doubt, a collective order to reader responses
'In the context of this paper, I treat rhetoric as an attempt (in however, such that subgroups of readers could, in principle, be
writing) to persuade, alter or otherwise move readers with respect to identified by certain of the background characteristics they bring
attitude, opinion, interpretation and, most critically if least likely, with them to a text, characteristics that may lead them to experience
action. Effective rhetorics vary by genre, of course, and style, as the the text in a similar fashion. But, alas, this highly contingent treat-
distinctive (individualized) use of rhetoric, is always relevant when ment of text requires a much finer-grained analysis then is presented
considering influential texts. This is not to argue that organizational here. Reader response theory is developed nicely by Iser (1978,
research and theory is reduced to rhetoric and therefore rendered 19791, and a useful, culturally contextualized example of such theory
corrupt but, rather, to argue that rhetoric is inevitably a part of put into service is Griswold (1987).
organizational research and theory if a work is to have any impact. 9~ use this label with some trepidation. Like all critics, whose
For some good treatments of the role rhetoric plays in social theoriz- unenviable job it is to pigeon-hole the work of others, I realize a
ing see, for example, Gusfield 1976, 1981; Brown 1988; Davis 1971; single, simple tag is a dangerous way to characterize a large and
Edmondson 1984; Nelson et al. (Eds.) 1987; Simons (Ed.) 1988; Van diverse body of work; work that continues to develop new themes,
Maanen 1988; and, especially, Green 1988. The inspiration for much directions and stylistic gestures. Moreover, Karl-like all good writ-
for this work is, naturally, Burke (1957, 1962). ers-works within and across different literary genres and thus
6 ~ h kinds
e of vague advice we offer students on writing provide restricts, modifies and amplifies his style accordingly. Stylistic purity
convenient examples: "avoid logical inconsistencies," "seek empirical is not being suggested here. My claim is merely that "allegoric
tests of ideas," "try to be precise," "use the standard public lan- breaching" is associated with what I take to be the most persuasive
guage and avoid the babblish elements of vernacular and jargon, of Karl's writings and the smattering of examples I've provided in
academic or othenvise," and so forth. We teach that sobriety, atten- this short text are intended to be representative of these writings. His
tion to detail, balance between theory and data, care without obses- least persuasive writings, I would argue, are those that display few of
sion and an easy, not relentless use of metaphor are critical to the the compositional features I discuss here.
legitimation of one's work. What we conveniently ignore, of course, ' O ~ h epage numbers and textual arrangements refer to an unpub-
is that these are matters set by fashion, not natural law: by the lished draft of "Cosmology Episodes" I had on hand-and in mind
imagery and genres available in particular periods. Someone writing -when working up my analysis of Karl's style. The paper has
today with, for instance, Whyte's (1943) organic allusions or subsequently been published in Administratiue Science Quarterly
Thompson's (1967) stark propositional inventories will not qualify as under the same title but in substantially revised form (Weick 1993b).
a credible organizational theorist. We gloss such matters because it The typescript of the published version runs 49 pages, it is no longer
blurs the distinction between rhetorical and rational persuasion. But, explicitly called an essay, the personal tone has been-to a

ORGANIZATION /Val. 6, NO. 1, January-February 1995


degree-sacrificed, the number of bibliographic references has more Astley, W. G. and R. Zammuto (19921, "Organization Science,
than doubled, there are eight section heads, etc. The published Managers and Language Games," Organization Science, 3,
version still contains the allegoric breaching style I highlight here but 443-460.
it is certainly less prominent than in the previous draft. Perrow Barley, S. (19831, "Semiotics and the Study of Occupational and
(1985) would call this editorial work "asphalting": a way of flattening Organizational Cultures," Administratiue Science Quarterly, 28,
out the writing (and writer) and bringing a work in line-down to 393-413.
snuff-with current journal practices. Style, it seems, is something of - and G. Kunda (19921, "Design and Devotion: Surges of Ratio-
an anathema to journal editors. I justify my use of the unpublished nal and Normative Ideologies of Control in Managerial Dis-
draft in this paper on the grounds that it represents a relatively course," Administratiue Science Quarterly, 37, 363-399.
undiluted (unpolluted) example of Karl's style. It also has the advan- Bazerman, C. (19811, "What Written Knowledge Does: Three Exam-
tages of being both recent and short. ples of Academic Discourse," Philosophy of the Social Sciences,
his is particularly apparent in The Social Psychology of Organizing 11, 361-387.
(Weick 1969, 1979) whose very title signals Weick's intention to take Brown, R. H. (19771, A Poetic for Sociology, Cambridge, UK. Cam-
on the then canonical text of the field, Katz and Kahn (1966) The bridge University Press.
Social Psychology of Organizations. The move away from structure to
- (19881, Society as Text, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
process, from permanence to temporality, from role taking to role
making and so forth is conveyed by Weick in a loose, crazy-quilt
Burke, K. (1957), A Philosophy of Literary Form, New York: Vintage.
fashion quite the opposite of the target text's tight, orderly presenta-
- (19621, A Grammer of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives,
tion where all "variables" fit neatly into place. Impressionistic anec-
Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
dotes, flights of metaphoric fancy, reprints of New Yorker cartoons,
hand drawn graphics all contrast with propositional inventories, Burrell, G. and G. Morgan (19791, Sociological Paradigms and Orga-
system diagrams and universal postulates. The solid organization of nizational Analysis, London, UK: Heinemann.
Katz and Kahn is deconstructed and reconstructed by Weick as a Cannella, A. A,, Jr. and R. L. Paetzold (19941, "Pfeffer's Barriers to
fluid bundle of social and cognitive practices. Read in tandem, the the Advance of Organizational Science: A Rejoinder," Academy
two texts could not be further apart in theory or style. of Management Review, 19, 2, 331-341.
h he "illustrative situations" deserve comment since Karl seems Clifford, J. (19881, The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge, MA:
increasingly concerned with apocalyptic events and landscapes- Harvard University Press.
nuclear accidents, flight decks of aircraft carriers, forest fires, air - and G. E. Marcus (eds.1 (19861, Writing Culture, Berkeley, CA:
disasters. These are sites where anxieties of the white dead dawn University of California Press.
peak and where communications fail. It is these communication Daft, R. L. and J. C. Wiginton (19791, "Language and Organization,"
failures-organizational breakdowns-that challenge Weick and thus Academy of Management Review, 4, 179-192.
make a good deal of his work profoundly metadiscursive as he Davis, M. S. (19711, "That's Interesting! Toward a Phenomenology
struggles with problems of expression, style and making the inexpli- of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology," Philosophy of
cable explicable through the language of theory. By working toward a Social Science, 1, 304-344.
flawless diction where every word is made to count, Karl is also Edmondson, R. (19841, Rhetoric in Sociology, London, UK: Mac-
making a tacit but powerful statement about the value of form as millian.
form. Fiol, C. M. (19891, "A Semiotic Analysis of Corporate Language,"
1 3 am
~ aware that some readers may well dismiss my push for textual Administratiue Science Quarterly, 34, 2, 277-3.
experimentation as bad career advise. Karl Weick can get away with Fish, S. (19801, Is there a Text in this Class?, Cambridge, MA:
it but, after all, he is tenured, venerated and skilled. Those of us Harvard University Press.
lacking any one of these gifts are best advised to stick with the crowd - (19891, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change Rhetoric and the
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denies that readers-including journal editors and reviewers-are Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Opti-
moved by graceful, innovative writings that are attentive to such cally Discovered Pulsar," Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 11,
literary matters as rhetoric, presence, voice and imagery. Indeed, my 131-158.
point throughout this paper has been to link persuasion to style and
Geertz, C. (1974), "From the Native's Point of View," Bulletin of the
style is anything but institutionalized. Like language itself, scholarly
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 28, 27-45.
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Gergen, K. J. (19921, "Organization Theory in the Postmodern Era,"
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in M. Reed and H. Hughes (Eds.), Rethinking Organization,
by no means everywhere and always unwelcome.
London, UK: Sage, 207-226.
Gilbert, G. N. and M. Mulkay (19831, Opening Pandora's Box,
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