Sunday, December 13, 2015

Reading :: Team of Teams

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
By General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell

Former Army General Stanley McChrystal became a household name when he was profiled by Rolling Stone. That's also when he lost his job, after one of his aides was quoted denigrating the Vice President. Arguably his resignation had to happen, since the military needs to display respect for its civilian chain of command. But it was also a loss: McChrystal had intelligently reformed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during his tenure of commander.

After his resignation, McChrystal taught courses at Yale and started the McChrystal Group, which is "a leadership and management consultancy composed of a diverse mix of professionals from the military, academic, business, and technology sectors." The group provides consulting services that help these stakeholders to manage complexities using the "team of teams" approach that McChrystal devised for JSOC.

Team of Teams is the McChrystal Group's calling card. It was a NYT bestseller. And it lays out the basics of the approach. McChrystal cites people such as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, John Boyd, and Henry Mintzberg, people who should be familiar to longtime readers of this blog. Drawing from these sources and from his own experience as JSOC commander, McChrystal describes a flatter organizational structure that emphasizes command without close control; constant mutual adjustment; and cultivated associational links across silos. The lessons of the book are provided along with detailed examples from McChrystal's time in JSOC.

None of the lessons in the book will be much of a surprise to those who have read the source materials. But the book discusses these lessons in a popular narrative mode, drawing us along and summarizing its lessons at the end of each chapter. The book is a lot more readable than Boyd, certainly.

If you've been steeped in the readings above or in other 4GW readings, this book won't have a lot to teach you. But if you're new to the application of organizational networks in complex multidisciplinary environments, and you want a gentle introduction, this book could be it—especially if you're coming from a hierarchical or bureaucratic environment. See what you think.

Reading :: 4th Generation Warfare Handbook

4th Generation Warfare Handbook
By William S. Lind and Gregory A. Thiele

I've been interested in 4th-generation warfare ever since I began to read the work coming out of RAND on networks. Not for its own sake, specifically, but for what it tells us about a world in which hierarchy is no longer the main organizing principle.

Fourth-generation warfare, as the authors explain, represents an evolution of warfare away from states and toward nonstate actors—that is, away from the Westphalian concept of war as being the monopoly of the state, and toward warfare that can be waged by nonstate actors such as families, clans, tribes, and business enterprises both legal and illegal (Introduction). As the authors point out, nonstate actors regularly waged war before the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, and now they are beginning to take up that role again, leading away from two-sided wars and back to many-sided wars. The authors argue that this multisided understanding of war has come back due to a crisis of the legitimacy of the state (cf. Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent).

So how does one prepare for, and fight, 4GW? The authors undertake this question, drawing examples from recent 4GW conflicts as well as speculative scenarios from a future war. Their viewpoint is that of a state's armed forces trying to wage war with nonstate actors; the running example is a fictionalized scenario in which the US Army has occupied "Inshallahland." Throughout the book, they argue that the strategic, tactical, and operational levels of warfare should be addressed in terms of physical, mental, and moral aspects; they suggest a grid for planning how these different axes of factors will interrelate. Such a grid is important because things that are productive at one level can be counterproductive at others.

The authors advocate an approach in which light infantry units interact constantly with the occupied population, being exposed but also solving problems, creating ties, and demonstrating that they will bring stability and safety—that is, providing the benefits that a State has to offer. Everything is a PsyOp—that is, every act is understood as having a persuasive component.

These light infantry units also handle the bulk of the fighting. The authors essentially want to see the light infantry units functioning as special forces who can live off the land, move with a light footprint, and out-hunt irregular forces. They even include a sort of 12-week syllabus for training light infantry units for their new roles.

In all, this lightweight book is interesting, but may not be especially helpful for the scholar of organizations, communication, or rhetoric. It distills the lessons of other 4GW texts into a practical guide that works best for leaders of armed forces. Those of us who aren't in this hierarchy, however, can still learn something from the authors' brief history of warfare and their claim that 4GW arises from the crisis of the legitimacy of the state.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reading :: Interactive Expertise

Interactive Expertise: Studies in Distributed Working Intelligence
By Yrjö Engeström

I first read this research bulletin in the late 1990s in photocopy form. Fortunately the PDF is now accessible at the URL above and at other places on the web.

This 1992 report consists of a theoretical framework and three case studies, two of which were subsequently published in collections. Its focus is on the nature of expertise. As the abstract argues:

Expertise has been understood as a property of an individual professional or craftsman. On the basis of the cultural-historical theory of activity, a radically different perspective is suggested. Expertise is here seen as an interactive accomplishment, constructed in encounters and exchanges between people and their mediating artifacts.
The first chapter, EXPERTISE AS MEDIATED COLLABORATIVE ACTIVITY, explores the question of expertise from an activity theory perspective. Engestrom begins in quintessentially Engestromian fashion by identifying two perspectives on expertise—the algorithmic account, which sees expertise as residing in individuals' heads, and the enculturational account, which sees expertise and thinking as embedded in social situations, practices, and cultures (pp.3-5). Although these schools are presented as rivals, Engestrom asserts that they share three propositions:

  • "Expertise is universal and homogeneous"
  • "Expertise consists of superior and stable individual mastery of discrete tasks and skills"
  • "Expertise is acquired through internalization of experience" (pp.5)
These propositions, Engestrom says, are Cartesian. He discusses how others have questioned Cartesianism in various fields (pp. 6-10), touching on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Bakhtin, and especially Zuboff, who claims that work is moving from action-centered to intellective skills (p.10). 

Engestrom then goes further by arguing that expertise is located in activity systems (p.11). He describes "the cultural-historical theory of activity initiated by" Vygotsky and Leont'ev (p.12), then introduces additional concepts of multiple mediations and activity networks (pp.12-13). (Note that he does not distinguish these, which are his own contributions, from the work of Vygotsky and Leont'ev.) "Expertise," he argues, "is learning what is not yet there" (p.14). Through the rest of the chapter, he draws on internalization-externalization and internal contradictions to build his account of expertise. 

Late in the chapter, he argues that "expert activity systems are in historical transition" due to changes in work, expecially a shift to multidisciplinary teams (p.23). He presents a matrix with the axes of collectivity and flexibility, using it to show a transition from craft work (with low collectivity and flexibility) to hierarchy, market, and network forms (p.25). These are based on Powell's work, which also influenced Ronfeldt, so the matrix looks a lot like a TIMN matrix. 

In Chapter 2, THE TENSIONS OF JUDGING: HANDLING CASES OF DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF ALCOHOL IN FINLAND AND CALIFORNIA, Engestrom applies these insights to a study of DUI cases in two courtrooms, focusing on how judges develop and use expertise under different material conditions. By examining transcripts of different trials, Engestrom argues that judges switch among different "dialects." He uses multiple triangle diagrams to demonstrate how the judges shift among different objects and thus activities. The resulting contradictions indicate how this small organization has a complex social organization (p.60).

In Chapter 3, COORDINATION, COOPERATION, AND COMMUNICATION IN COURTS: EXPANSIVE TRANSITIONS IN LEGAL WORK, Engestrom continues the legal theme by examining other cases. He repeats the matrix from Chapter 1, discussing it in terms of a zone of proximal development (p.65). Citing Raeithel and Fichtner, he draws distinctions among
  • coordination: "normal scripted flow of interaction" (p.66; he cites Goffman)
  • cooperation: "modes of interaction in which the actors ... focus on a shared problem, trying to find mutually acceptable ways to conceptualize and solve it" (pp.66-67)
  • communication: "interactions in which the actors focus on reconceptualizing their own organization and interaction in relation to their shared objects" (p.67). 
(These are defined differently from how I use the terms in All Edge.)

In this case, he examined transcripts of sidebars in court, looking at examples of each. Essentially, the sidebars functioned as a backstage in which people used cooperation and communication to get back to coordination.

Finally, in Chapter 4,  TWISTING THE SCRIPTS: HETEROGENEITY AND SHARED COGNITION IN MULTI-PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL TEAMS, Engestrom examines how such interdisciplinary teams worked. He argues that Bakhtin's speech genres are "implicit constraints or rules rather than tools of interaction," roughly scripts (pp.79-80; I have a different take in Tracing Genres). He argues that medical teams are often "confronted with difficulties that stem from the heavy traditions of craft professionalism and bureaucracy" (p.81) and presents cases, based on transcripts, that involve cooperation and pseudo-cooperation. 

In all, this tech report is well worth reading, both as a way to understand expertise in activity theory and as a way to understand the conversations at play when AT hit the scene. Looking back, I can see the niche that AT filled so ably.

Writing :: How Magnets Attract and Repel

Spinuzzi, C., Nelson, S., Thomson, K.S., Lorenzini, F., French, R.A., Pogue, G., & London, N. (2016). How Magnets Attract and Repel: Interessement in a Technology Commercialization Competition. Written Communication 33(1).

This is another in my series on writing articles. The link goes to the online first version, which should convert in January 2016 to the print version.

It's also another in my series of articles on business pitches, researched and published in conjunction with my colleagues at the IC2 Institute. The other articles addressed aspects of the process, focusing more on nuts-and-bolts aspects; this one theorizes the program being analyzed, using Latour's concept of interessement and my own notion of standing sets of transformations. These two concepts help us to understand how the program led innovators through tactical moments of persuasion; ultimately, successful innovators were able to make these tactical moments cohere in strategic arguments. This journey from tactical to strategic persuasion remained steady in a program that had to address extreme variability in other aspects.

Since this series is on writing, let me pull out just a few things about the writing of this piece.

Letting things cook
This article was one of the first pieces I planned, but it's among the last pieces to be published. That's for two reasons.

One, it depended on a lot of analytical work, and much of that work was done piece by piece in the other articles. For instance, our two IEEE TPC articles helped us to take apart and understand how the innovators were making and iterating their arguments, while our summer articles at IEEE Procomm and SIGDOC let us examine the market reports and the pitch training. In promising and writing these articles, we were compelled to reduce the data enough to make analyses practical. For instance, the TPC articles helped us to figure out what argument strategies to look for in the new batch of data, while the SIGDOC pitch paper compelled us to narrow our scope to four main firms; if we had tried to thoroughly analyze the entire range of materials for all firms, we wouldn't have published until 2020.

Two, it depended on some theoretical work as well. Although the standing set of transformations (SST) was pretty well established by the first publication, and although we began thinking in terms of interessement early on, it took a while to understand the relationships between the two, and longer still to try to test them. It was perhaps last spring that we realized the real import of what we were seeing: firms were dealing with wildly different audiences, timeframes, and industries with almost no overlap, but the competition itself provided a reproducible structure that allowed them to navigate these wildly different challenges. Without the time to put two and two together, we wouldn't have been able to develop the paper we did.

Of course, letting a piece cook for 2-3 years is a luxury that the tenured enjoy. Your mileage may vary.

Framing, framing, framing
When the reviewers' comments came back, they pointed to the same problem I always seem to have with these sorts of papers. The methodology and analysis were fine, but the paper read like a sociological study. Where was the connection to writing studies?

The connection was, of course, crystal clear in my head and in my conversations with my collaborators. The firms were awash with texts, texts that articulated and rearticulated their positions! But to the reviewers, these texts were too much in the background. And I had to admit that their concerns were valid—readers of Written Communication needed clear signposts to understand how this paper dealt with concerns about writing and built the basis for further understanding of writing.

In the revisions, therefore, we built in more close analysis of specific texts. We also built more framing and implications connected to writing studies. Finally, we included more methodological and theoretical cites to writing studies pieces.

Concision, concision, concision
The problem with a rich case study like this is that, when you tell the story, everything seems important and interesting. But, as the editor told me in the nicest possible way, the article has to fit within the guidelines. (I suspect she also felt the audience would not be as raptly interested in the details as we were.) So we had to cut 3000 words. This task seemed daunting when we took it on, but in retrospect, it wasn't that hard and it resulted in a much tighter and (hopefully) more interesting piece.

I admit that this may have been the most I have had to cut a piece, but the general problem occurs over and over. It's usually easier to cut than to add, so I let myself go a little long, then cut when I'm told. The danger, of course, is that the piece will get rambly and boring. Rambly is worse than boring—it indicates a lack of underlying framework—and I don't think I usually suffer from it. Boring can be fixed with judicious cuts, and often the editor is the best person to recommend such cuts.

In any case, I hope you enjoy the paper as much as we enjoyed writing it!

Reading :: Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists

Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists
By Anselm Strauss

Anselm Strauss, one of the founders of grounded theory, published this handbook in 1987. I picked it up recently at the used bookstore based on the author's name.

Alas, I don't think it's nearly as useful as Strauss and Corbin's handbook on grounded theory. It explains the basics of GT, including a list of the basic elements (p.23), and it does a nice job of describing what I sometimes call the believing-doubting game: "the experienced analyst learns to play the game of believing everything and believing nothing—at this point—leaving himself or herself as open as the coding itself" (p.29). It also clarifies the relationships among open, axial, selective, and in vivo coding (Ch.1 and 3), although I think these might be explained differently from Strauss and Corbin. (I'll have to check.)

Honestly, the more I read in this explanation of grounded theory, the more I remembered what I don't like about GT. GT aims to develop theory, so the approach is about sifting through codes to find the principles on which the theory will be built, and that requires more single-mindedness than qualitative research based on preexisting theory (let's call that QRPT). QRPT lets you test, complicate, and push back against someone else's theory; GT is more like searching for the key that will unlock this particular case. Perhaps I'm not convinced that such a key exists.

This book also suggests extremely close reading. In one example, the author describes a seminar in which the professor and students begin reading a transcript. They begin with the interviewee's first sentence: "Once I'm in the shower..." Then they spend an hour talking about the first two words, one word at a time (pp.57-58). This is close reading x1000, and I am deeply skeptical of the proposition that exhausting the interpretations of individual words can help us to better understand the utterance as a whole. Certainly such an approach makes it difficult to actually analyze multiple interviews.

The book has useful advice on memos, coding, and visual displays (network diagrams and matrices), all focusing on developing theory. The author also includes a flow diagram summarizing the scholar's reflective process (p.209).

On the other hand, the book could have been much shorter if the author had edited the copious (and I use that word with restraint) examples from the illustrative study and the transcripts in which the author led his graduate class in interpreting these examples.

Overall, yes, this book is useful in explaining the concepts and application of GT. But I recommend the Strauss and Corbin book over this one. It covers much the same ground, but more parsimoniously and engagingly.

Reading :: Frame Analysis

Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience
By Erving Goffman

I first bought this 1974 book early in my PhD program, having read Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life during my MA studies. It's a thick book, and (between you and me) not that engagingly written, and although I briefly attempted it, I gave up and focused on my assigned readings instead. It was always there on the shelf, I thought; I'll eventually get to it.

But at some point—either in the move to Texas Tech (1999) or to the University of Texas (2001), it was lost along with a box of other books. I was not heartbroken, since my research interests had drifted away from Goffman by that point. But earlier this year I saw a copy at a used bookstore. I had just reread Goffman's Presentation of Self and had read his Interaction Ritual for the first time, so he was fresh in my mind. And the price was right. So I picked it up.

And it stayed on my shelf for a while longer, unread, until I began thinking about frames again. The notion of frames had been brought up in a recent reading on pitching, and I began thinking about it in terms of how teachers present themselves to students, so Frame Analysis suddenly had new currency for me. So I sat down and read it.

Not in just one sitting, mind you. The book is 576pp.

So here's what you need to know about Frame Analysis. Here, even more than in Goffman's other books, it becomes clear that Goffman is a cross between Aristotle and Art Linkletter. Like Aristotle, he likes to exhaustively taxonomize the subject he's describing—in this case, frames. And like Art Linkletter, he is an inveterate gossip, pulling examples of frames and frame ruptures from everywhere he can (odd newspaper stories, magazines, television shows, books on cons and magic, and repeatedly from Dear Abby columns) in addition to published research. The result is overwhelming. There's a definite structure underneath, but it's not consistently signaled, so I sometimes had trouble remembering what the endless examples of grifters, airline accidents, and 1950s sexual peccadillos were meant to illustrate. (Although the book was published in 1974, I think the bulk of the examples came from the 1930s-1960s).

Let's try to strip away these examples, then, and get to what Goffman was trying to frame up. Goffman borrows the term "frame" from Gregory Bateson (p.7), using it to describe the ways that we bracket social situations so we know how to interpret and react to them. His aim is to "try to isolate some of the basic frameworks of understanding available in our society for making sense out of events and to analyze the special vulnerabilities to which these frames of reference are subject" (p.10). He uses frame to describe how people define a situation based on principles of organization that govern events (pp.10-11). Strip refers to "any arbitrary slide or cut from the stream of ongoing activity ... as seen from the perspective of those subjectively involved in sustaining an interest in them" (p.10). Essentially, we sample the strips available to us and use them to apply frames that can help us interpret further strips. When frames are confirmed, our assumptions "disappear into the smooth flow of activity" (p.39)—that is, once we are pretty sure which frame is operant, we tend to assume that frame and interpret subsequent interactions within that frame.

At this point, one can see why Goffman becomes so interested in his eclectic examples. They are full of instances in which people misapply frames in various ways. Some are deliberate (cons), some are accidental (comedies of error). But he successively deploys concepts and vocabulary to better understand them.

In Chapter 3, he introduces keying, a systematic transformation along schema of interpretation (ex: play fighting, which resembles actual fighting).

In Chapter 4, he discusses fabrications: deliberate attempts to manage activity so that someone will have a false belief about the activity (p.83). Like keyings, fabrication is a transformational vulnerability of the activity; keying is to fabrication as satire is to plagiarism (p.84).

Chapter 5 discusses the theatrical frame (cf. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Here, there is a performer and an audience (p.124).

In Chapter 6, he discusses structural issues in fabrications, including retransformations, recontainment, transformational depth, actor transformations, and fabrication frameworks. Sorry, I'm not going to give you thumbnails on all of these; suffice it to say that these all boil down to tactics that fabricators use to reassert their fabricated frames. These are useful if you're going to fool or con someone (or if you want to avoid being fooled or conned).

Chapter 7 considers out-of-frame activity: overlapping activity that inevitably intrudes on the focus activity.

Chapter 8 describes the anchoring of activity: the way that the frame is related to the world in which the framing occurs (p.248).

Chapter 9 describes "ordinary troubles" in sustaining a frame: innocent troubles that relate to "straight activity" as well as collapses in fabrications.

Chapter 10 is about breaking frame: the extent to which people are engrossed in the activity rather than drifting into other realities (or: becoming engrossed in a competing frame) (p.347).

Chapters 11 and 12 focus on manufacturing negative experience and the vulnerabilities of experience, respectively; the latter explores frame traps, in which people are trapped in a specific interpretation of a frame (p.482). Also in the latter, Goffman protests that his aim is not to compile tips on how to hoodwink people (p.486).

Chapter 13 specifically applies frame analysis to talk.

As you may be able to intuit from the increasingly short descriptions of each chapter, the book was in some respects exhausting. If you are fascinated by endless midcentury news clippings and advice columns, you may find the book easier going than I did. I would have preferred that Goffman make his points more succinctly and with more explicit definitions. Nevertheless, the fact that it was exhausting does not make the book less valuable; there are few keener observers of human nature. If you are interested in how people construe, misconstrue, and correct their readings of situations, pick this book up. You may have to use both hands.

Reading :: A Theory of Discourse

A Theory of Discourse: The Aims of Discourse
By James L. Kinneavy

James Kinneavy was a professor at UT—I think his office is now Diane Davis'—and founded the English PhD's concentration in rhetoric. A Theory of Discourse (1971) is his most broadly read book, and today I learned that "The Texas Education Agency adopted his theory of discourse as the foundation of its English program, as did the State of Wisconsin." Certainly it was frequently cited in the Iowa State program during my PhD work (1994-1999). However, by that time, A Theory of Discourse had become received knowledge. We didn't read it in the program, instead reading later articles that critiqued its central organizing principle, the aims of discourse, and the results of those aims, the modes of discourse.

The modes of discourse were so important to the book that Kinneavy promised in this book that he would write a second volume focusing on them. Unfortunately that volume never came to pass. In 1981, Robert J. Connors published his "The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse" (which we did read in ISU's program), in which he critiqued the concept and traced its eventual abandonment.

But Kinneavy's book is more than the modes of discourse. It's an attempt to make rhetoric a scholarly field of study. As Kinneavy argued in 1971, "Composition is so clearly the stepchild of the English department that it is not a legitimate area of concern in graduate studies, is not even recognized as a subdivision of English in a recent manifesto put out by the major professional association (MLA) of college English teachers ... , in some universities is not a valid area of scholarship for advancement in rank, and is generally the teaching province of graduate assistants or fringe members of the department" (p.1). Composition classes were "chaotic," and "the agenda of freshman composition vary from nothing to everything" (p.1). "There is no definite concept of what the basic foundations of composition are" (p.2). Yet, Kinneavy argued, "it is the thesis of this work that the field of composition—or discourse as it will presently be termed—is a rich and fertile discipline with a worthy past that should be consulted before being consigned to oblivion, an exciting present, and a future that seems as limitless as either linguistics or literature" (p.2).

Kinneavy argued that composition was in its Kuhnian preparadigm period (p.2), without common foundations or systematic commitments (p.3). Kinneavy proposed to provide such a foundation.

To begin, he discussed four rival terms for what he wanted to accomplish: rhetoric, composition, communication, and discourse. After some discussion, he chose "discourse" because it could be directed at any aim of language and any text (pp.3-4). (Today, the term "rhetoric" has taken this position and is used roughly in the way Kinneavy attempted to use "discourse"; offhand, I suspect that this term rose to the top because it could claim classical lineage. Kinneavy's understanding of discourse roughly parallels the Bakhtin Circle's notion of the utterance; compare p.22.) Kinneavy grounded his exploration of discourse in the communication triangle: the points are the encoder, decoder, and reality, while the area of the resulting triangle is the signal (p.19). This communication triangle has often been critiqued in subsequent literature, for good reason, but it gave Kinneavy a systematic way to analyze and discuss different aims of discourse. Kinneavy traces the triangle structure back to Aristotle, and he liberally uses it to diagram the study of language as a whole (p.25), the field of English (p.31), the aims of discourse (p.61), and Aristotle's Rhetoric (p.226). Side note: I have often wondered whether activity theory's rapid inroads in writing studies had to do with the fact that it also uses triangle diagrams to represent contextualized aims.

Based on this work, Kinneavy separates out four aims of discourse, centered on corresponding "classes of kind of referents" (p.36). These aims are expressive, referential, literary, and persuasive (p.61). To help you orient: the referential includes scientific, informative, and exploratory discourse (p.63); reports are considered referential rather than persuasive (p.61). Having established the different aims and the modes that serve them, Kinneavy seeks to establish their norms (p.63).

The rest of the book examines each aim of discourse in turn, one aim per chapter. These chapters are subdivided into introduction and terminology; nature; logic; organization; and style. Throughout each chapter, Kinneavy dives deeply into each aim, connecting it to vast literature and systematically explaining it as it relates to a part of the communicative triangle.

For instance, in his chapter on persuasion, Kinneavy locates persuasion as being focused on the decoder (p.211). He argues that rhetoric has three traditions, the stylistic (attending to ornamentation), the Aristotelian (a distinct way of thinking), and the communicative (grounded in Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian, with a modern representative in I.A. Richards) (pp.214-215). Kinneavy argues strongly that "persuasive discourse is generally different from reference discourse (and literary and expressive discourse as well). Otherwise everything is rhetoric" (p.217). (Compare this claim with the central claim in the popular first-year composition Everything's an Argument, coauthored by UT professor John Ruszkiewicz, whose term overlapped Kinneavy's.) English departments distrust persuasion, Kinneavy argues (p.222), yet rhetoric "is necessary as long as man is a being with a body, with emotions, and with persistent character judgments. It would, indeed, be a cold and forbidding cosmos in which rhetoric did not exist" (p.224).

And here we get to the nub of the problem with A Theory of Discourse. I strongly sympathize with Kinneavy's central project, which is to systematize study of discourse so that we can appreciate, value, and research all of its facets. But discourse doesn't really have "facets," nor can it be well represented in a triangle with separated corners, nor does it typically have analytically separate aims. As facile as it might seem to declare that "everything's an argument," that statement seems more defensible than the claim that discourse has practically separable aims. As much scholarship has repeatedly shown since 1971, for instance, "referential" documents such as scientific papers and reports have persuasive aims, often nakedly persuasive ones (consider recommendation reports, for instance, or read Latour). Similarly, as Kinneavy alludes, "literature and love" could not exist in a world without rhetoric (p.224). I think Kinneavy recognizes that these separations are really analytical, but in proposing separate structures and modes to serve these analytically separate aims, he implies different approaches; there's not a good way to recognize and analyze the layering, melding, and tensions that inevitably result from contradictory aims (if such aims indeed contradict each other in the first place). I think these issues spring from the communicative triangle itself, which posits an analytic separation that is qualitatively untenable.

Not to say that this book isn't an achievement or isn't worthy of reading. In fact, if you study rhetoric, you really ought to read it. I regret that it took me so long to do so! But understand it as a part of a larger arc that the field of rhetoric has traversed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Last call: JBTC Special Issue on the Rhetoric of Entrepreneurship

I know that those of you on the semester system are desperately trying to finish up the semester, but please don't forget that your abstracts for my JBTC special issue are due November 30.

The theme of the special issue is "The Rhetoric of Entrepreneurship: Theories, Methodologies, and Practices." If you're not sure that your project is the right fit for this special issue, please don't hesitate to shoot me an email. Looking forward to your contributions!

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Reading :: Pitch Anything

Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal
By Orem Klaff

Pitch Anything is a set of techniques, portrayed as based on neuroscience, to assert social dominance during pitches and thus win deals. Orem Klaff, by his own account an accomplished pitcher who routinely does $30 million deals, describes his approach with the acronym STRONG:
Set the frame
Tell the story
Reveal the intrigue
Offer the prize
Nail the hookpoint
Get the deal 
He illustrates each lesson with multiple stories, usually with himself as the protagonist who succeeds by dint of his successful efforts, sometimes with others as protagonists who fail, and very rarely with illustrations of his own failures. After all, he has to set the "authority frame" in order for us to respect him.  (The limited accounts of his failures constitute limited concessions in which he graciously redistributes social power.)

This approach has merits and drawbacks.

In terms of merits, this approach teaches people to fake, and eventually feel, confidence in themselves and their pitching. It does help them to realize that they don't have to think or act as supplicants; they can recognize their own worth in the potential partnership, and they can think of it as a partnership rather than a transaction. They can also recognize and put names to adverse conditions, especially moves that their audiences might take to repattern interactions. The approach is finely geared to pitching a good or service as is. That is, the technique is kairotic, tuned to presenting a specific deal at a particular moment and decision point. There's no ongoing development or negotiation over time. Think in terms of deals such as bidding to finance an airport (which is the extended example at the end of the book). Who can sell the deal most seductively? For that reason, STRONG relies on manufacturing and sustaining a moment of social dominance.

But these merits also point to the drawbacks. In particular, the pitches in which I am most interested are the ones that involve cocreation, such as pitches involving technology commercialization. In these pitches, the offering is not fixed and can be pivoted easily in response to an emerging understanding of the clients' needs. Ideally, they constitute an ongoing conversation that can yield changes in the offering's design or use as well as the arguments for the offering. And for those pitches, the STRONG method would be less effective because establishing social dominance tends to short-circuit such conversations. If the offering is produced and developed through an ongoing partnership rather than presented as a complete package at a given moment, the social dynamics have to be different. It's not a seduction, it's an ongoing relationship.

For that reason, I was underwhelmed by the book. It was too narrowly focused, too consumed with winning and dominating, too unconcerned with the long view. Because of its essentially competitive orientation, it limits the horizon and collaborative possibilities of the pitch. Still, it may provide the careful reader with a vocabulary for understanding the hostile moves one might expect from pitch audiences.

Reading :: The Organization Man

The Organization Man
By William H. Whyte, Jr.

I had a very odd moment when reading this classic, oft-mentioned book from 1956. In Chapter 5, "Togetherness," the author describes how the National Training Lab in Group Development had been experimenting with the leaderless group. He notes that "One of the most astute students of the group, sociologist William Foote Whyte, was moved to write some second thoughts on his experience at Bethel." The author lauds Whyte's contribution and later investigations.

The passage confused me because I couldn't understand why the author was talking about himself in the third person. I had long assumed the two William Whytes—William F. and William H.—were the same. When I realized my mistake, the first thing I felt was relief.

Why relief? William F. Whyte's work is not always careful, but it's generally more textured than the broad strokes found in this book. The Organization Man is billed as "the first complete study of a way of life that many Americans are now leading ... life under the protection of the big organization" (back cover). Like any "study" of millions of people, this one relies on a combination of broad statistics and narrow anecdote. It attempts to characterize changes in education, jobs, careers, mobility, and teamwork as emanating from the shift toward large organizations and their ethos. Oddly, these discussions seem oblivious to other changes that affect the above: the shift from agricultural to industrial and service work; the impact of the automobile; the GI Bill and the broadening of the university system to serve the needs of a far more diverse set of students; the postwar boom.

As you might expect, William H. Whyte has a deeply (small-c) conservative understanding of how things ought to be, and his broad sketch of organizational impact in the US seems to look back constantly to prewar America as a guide: a time when people were stubbornly independent, created and lived in solid multigenerational communities, and studied subjects without regard to vocation. That is, although he doesn't put things in this way, he looks back to a more predominantly agrarian US that had not yet taken on a leadership role in the world. This essential change in the US' geopolitical standing—and in the source of its wealth—seems not to factor into his analysis at all.

In that context, I did find the take on universities to be interesting. Whyte notes that "Each June since the war, commencement speakers have been announcing that at last the humanities are coming back, and each fall more and more students enroll in something else," specifically vocational work (by which Whyte means engineering and business) (p.87). In particular,
look what's happened to English. Now it is becoming 'Communication Skills,' and in what is called an interdisciplinary effort everybody from the engineers to applied psychologists are muscling in. In some cases, Michigan State, for example, they not only have whole departments of communication but have made it the center of required under-class courses. In others, it has been made the heart of a vocational training in advertising and journalistic research. (pp.102-103).
He cites Drucker as saying that English, particularly writing poetry or short stories, is potentially the most important vocational course. But
That English is being slighted by business and students alike does not speak well of business. But neither does it speak well of English departments. They are right to recoil from justifying English on the narrow grounds of immediate utility, as better report writing and the like. But one can recoil too far. In so resisting the vocationalizing of English, they have contributed to it. If technicians of 'business writing' and the psychologists have been able to denature English into a 'communication' science, it is because the greater relevance of English has been left undrawn. (p.108)
Whyte finishes with a wan defense of English as providing universals but insufficiently addressing the particulars. This line of argument, nearly 60 years old, is still being deployed, and to just as little effect.

I stopped reading this book at Ch.22 (out of 29 chapters). Maybe I'll get back to it, but I doubt it. It's perhaps useful for understanding historical context, but I didn't find it to be intrinsically useful for understanding these societal changes per se.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Topsight > Slide decks

Are you teaching (or learning) from Topsight?

If so, I hope you'll find my Topsight slide decks to be useful. These decks are a version of the ones I've been using in my field methods classes.

  • They are designed to help students understand the concepts, but 
  • they also go beyond the book in places, adding material, and 
  • they include group exercises to facilitate small group discussion at each stage of the process.
These slide decks are available, along with other downloadable materials, at Take a look. I'd love to get your feedback—I'm at

Friday, October 09, 2015

Reading :: The Innovator's Dilemma

The Innovator's Dilemma
By Clayton M. Christensen

The Innovator's Dilemma is a "classic bestseller," according to the cover. And it's a classic business book in the sense that it makes the whole of its argument in the first chapter. The rest of the book consists of elaboration and proof.

Here's the key insight: "in the cases of well-managed firms ... good management was the reason they failed to stay atop their industries. Precisely because these firms listened to their customers, invested aggressively in new technologies that would provide their customers more and better products of the sort they wanted, and because they carefully studied market trends and systematically allocated investment capital to innovations that promised the best returns, they lost their positions of leadership" (p.xv).

That's the innovator's dilemma: "the logical, competent decisions of management that are critical to the success of these companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership." It's difficult to balance the demands of innovating with the demands of current customers.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps you have read Peter F. Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which warns of the same issue. But Christensen makes at least two other contributions.

The first is the "theory of resource dependence," in which he claims that "in the end it is really customers and investors who dictate how money will be spent because companies with investment patterns that don't satisfy their customers and investors don't survive" -- and that fact means that "these companies find it very difficult to invest adequate resources in disruptive technologies .... until their customers want them. And by then it is too late" (p. xxiii).

The second is the author's research into the question. The author examined business data on the disk drive manufacturer industry, which was characterized by extremely rapid innovation, to look for indicators of how this industry developed disruptive innovations. That's the bulk of the remaining chapters, and they do a good job of supporting the author's points.

Should you read The Innovator's Dilemma? Yes, if you're trying to sustain innovation in a company. But, as the above suggests, you don't actually have to finish the book in order to get the main points.

Reading :: Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit

Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit
By Frank H. Knight

This 1921 classic argues that to understand profit, we must recognize the roles of risk and uncertainty. The difference, he proposes, is that risk is quantifiable (think in terms of actuarial tables); uncertainty is qualitative and unmeasurable (pp.19-20). "It is this 'true' uncertainty, and not risk, as has been argued, which forms the basis of a valid theory of profit and accounts for the divergence between actual and theoretical competition" (p.20).

In Ch. 2, Knight reviews theories of profit. Of special interest to me is his assessment of Marx's contribution, which he dismisses: Marx's understanding of profit was "narrowly literal... wholly uncritical and superficial" (p.27). Thus "they derive a simple classification of income in which all that is not wages is a profit which represents exploitation of the working classes" (p.28).

Knight lists five ways to deal with uncertainty:
1. Consolidation
2. Specialization (including speculation)
3. Control of the future
4. Increased power of prediction (p.239)
5. Directing industry to areas of less uncertainty (p.240).

Knight concludes: "Profit arises out of the inherent, absolute unpredictability of things, out of the sheer brute fact that the results of human activity cannot be anticipated and then only in so far as even a probability calculation in regard to them is impossible and meaningless" (p.311).

Should you read this book? I'm no economist, but I found it easy enough to follow, and for me, the thesis was provocative. Naturally, I like the idea of profit emerging from unquantifiable uncertainty, and the criticism of Marx seems plausible to me. If you're interested in the question of profit, take a look.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reading :: Joseph A. Schumpeter

Joseph A. Schumpeter
By Richard Swedberg

Joseph Schumpeter infamously declared that "Early in life I had three ambitions: to be the greatest economist in the world, the greatest horseman in Austria, and the best lover in Vienna. Well, in one of those goals I have failed" (p.3). As the quote suggests, Schumpeter was quite boastful of all three capacities.

He was perhaps justified in at least one of them; let's focus on it, although this biography adequately covers his other two pursuits. At 28, he published his second book, (the German version of ) The Theory of Economic Development, in which he attempted to analyze the economic process through not just economics but also the other social sciences. It is in this book that he first developed the figure of the heroic, charismatic entrepreneur (evidently influenced by Weber's charismatic leader): a figure that innovates by creating new combinations, but does not invent per se (pp.34-35). Eight years later, he became the Austrian finance minister. (He was fired after seven months because he kept trying to undermine the socialist government) (p.60). Schumpeter has been considered Weber's greatest successor as economic sociologist, as well as a close compatriot of the great sociologist (Ch.5). Indeed, Schumpeter excelled at sociological approaches to economics, and was quite poor at mathematics, even though he tirelessly promoted mathematical approaches to economics.

In 1932, after being turned down repeatedly for a position at the University of Berlin, Schumpeter settled for a position at Harvard—just in time to avoid the Nazi takeover (Ch.6). There, he ignored the fact that his students called him "Schumpy" behind his back, and he attempted (unsuccessfully) to attract graduate students to his seminars in mathematical economics. (Undergraduates were beneath his notice, and he wondered aloud whether they were really necessary.) Meanwhile, he worked tirelessly on his enormous two-volume book on business cycles, which was poorly received. His follow-up, a little popular book called Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, was quite well received and is now considered his masterpiece, although he thought it far less serious and consequential than Business Cycles.

"Schumpeter was the only economist of any stature in the United States who took Marxism seriously," Swedberg adds, and his project was similar to Marx's: both understood economic evolution as a process generated by the economic system (p.153). Schumpeter's approach, of course, was Weberian: it understood that the economy and social structure could influence each other (p.155). Although Schumpeter respected Marx as a sociologist, however, he noted several problems with Marx's economics: the labor theory of value was "dead and buried." He took a similarly dim view of Marx's doctrine of surplus value. Marx had no theory of business cycles. Yet he appreciated Marx's achievement in "developing a purely economic theory of change" (p.155).

There is much more in this book on Schumpeter's upbringing and values, his achievements and failures, and of course his adventures as a horseman and a lover. If you're interested in this fascinating economist, I encourage you to read the biography.

Reading :: The Culture of Entrepreneurship

The Culture of Entrepreneurship
Edited by Brigitte Berger

This collection is the product of a 1990 conference by the same name, supported by the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture. It "explores the cultural dimensions of modern entrepreneurship" through contributions by "economists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and management experts" (p.1). Let's dip into two of these contributions.

In Ch.3, "The discovery and interpretation of profit opportunities: Culture and the Kirznerian entrepreneur," Don Lavoie argues that we need a theory of entrepreneurship that "should help us identify the conditions—economic, political, legal, and cultural—that enhance decentralized developmental processes" (p.33). Unfortunately, on the one hand, entrepreneurship is typically treated in terms of individual psychology, not culture (p.34); on the other hand, anthropologists understand culture, but have focused on "statics rather than dynamics" (p.35). "In other words, the study of the relationship between culture and entrepreneurship demands working with both meaning and economic change, whereas the way disciplinary divisions have evolved, few researchers are capable of handling both categories together" (p.35). Similarly, Lavoie argues, "economists have failed to leave room for meaning and have not done well with change either"—especially the radical change that is associated with entrepreneurship (p.35).

Lavoie argues that "culture has everything to do with" the entrepreneurship process; entrepreneurship "fundamentally consists in interpreting and influencing culture" (p.36). So: what are some of the main elements needed by a theory of entrepreneurship as a cultural process? Lavoie identifies two underdefined terms: "discovery" (that is, radical change; "genuine novelty and creativity") and "interpretation" (that is, finding opportunities via "a discerning of the intersubjective meaning of a qualitative situation") (p.36). In sum, "What is needed is a theory of entrepreneurial change that makes it intelligible without reducing it to a predetermined mechanism" (p.37).

The Austrian school (von Mises, Hayek), Lavoie argues, has come the closest to such a theory (p.37). And of these, Lavoie recommends Israel Kirzner most highly (p.37). Kirzner argued that it was a mistake to treat entrepreneurship like any other scarce resource; rather, he suggested that we should consider "entrepreneurial alertness," in which the entrepreneur has deployed a "choice framework" or "conditions in which the decentralized, entrepreneurial process can be expected to flourish" (p.40).

Yet, Lavoie argues, Kirzner still sees entrepreneurial alertness as raw discovery of what's already there; Lavoie argues instead that opportunities are interpreted (p.44). After discussing von Mises and Hayek, Lavoie proposes to build a theory of entrepreneurship instead on Gadamer.

In Chapter 10, "The rocky road: Entrepreneurship in the Soviet Union, 1986-1989," Walter D. Connor discusses the then-new market liberalization in the USSR. (As he notes at the end of the chapter, between the time he wrote it and the time the book was published, the USSR began the crisis that would lead to its collapse.) Connor notes that "the last time a high level of private enterprise was tolerated in the Soviet Union" had been during "Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921-1928" (p.198), which was ended by Stalin shortly after Lenin gave up the ghost. To the Soviets of the mid-80s, "the 'NEPmen' were exploiters and speculators who unjustly enriched themselves and were thus justly banned as the country embarked on the 'building of socialism' under Stalin" (p.198). The intervening years, especially under Brezhnev,
produced in most of the Soviet population a mind-set, which in two senses has complicated perestroika and the place of cooperative entrepreneurship within it. The first evokes a rather deep, if general, egalitarian reaction, intolerant of people within one's range of vision doing significantly better than oneself. The second reflects an incomprehension of the market, the dynamics of supply and demand, and how these will naturally—in the absence of state control or intervention—play out. (p.199)
When Gorbachev liberalized the economy, workers, who were disconnected from the market, did not understand entrepreneurship and saw it as utterly unfair. Why could someone who made bra fasteners make 100 rubles in a day, when a tractor driver with a broken tractor could only make 2-3 rubles a day? The tractor driver, Connor adds, was paid by the furrow, not for producing something demanded by others. But he expected recompense for the effort, not the usefulness of his products (p.199). This system encouraged both dependence and sloppy work (p.200). It also encouraged envy. One sociologist interviewed a woman who disapproved of her neighbor, who sold spring vegetables on the side; the woman said, "'I don't want to live like her; I want her to live like me'" (p.201).

According to Connor, "the Eastern Orthodox moral and ethical tradition," which did not emphasize individual conscience, also played its part. "Methodical work, well done, as its own reward—in a sense, the Protestant ethic—did not figure so prominently in this culture as in others farther west"; thus "few, under such a regime, could develop the internal controls that are so essential to the entrepreneur's organization of effort" (p.203).

In the final two pages, Connor notes the Soviet crisis, which would eventually lead to its collapse. "The people of the USSR ... are living in a period of uncertain transition" (p.209).

Although the other chapters are worthwhile, I found these two to be the most interesting. If you're interested in understanding entrepreneurship from a cultural perspective, take a look.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reading :: The Wealth of Nations

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
By Adam Smith

The above link is (perhaps ironically) to the free Kindle version of Adam Smith's classic. Unfortunately, Smith can't catch a break. Marx ridiculed him for his comparatively thin insights. Schumpeter did the same. If he can't get respect from the socialists or the capitalists, where is he going to get it?

But of course being cited itself is a form of respect. And anyone who seeks to understand capitalism eventually has to cite Adam Smith, whose 1776 treatise systematically examined the market economy in Industrial England. Smith systematically examines the division of labor in industrial work ("not originally the effect of any human wisdom"); legitimizes the motive of gain as driving the economy ("We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love"); recognizes the market as a self-organizing system; takes labor as "the only universal, as well as the only accurate, measure of value" (cf. Marx); and describes the law of supply and demand. He argues that the division of labor is a hallmark of developed societies and less known in primitive ones (cf. Engels but also Durkheim). He theorizes wealth and the role of governments in developing it, including the impact of taxes. And he backs up his points with extensive (and sometimes mind-numbing) statistics.

This is a short review because (a) I'm not an economist and (b) I've read and reviewed authors who responded to Smith's ideas. But that doesn't mean this is an unimportant book—it's enormously influential and well worth reading. Or at least skimming.

Reading :: Anti-Duehring

By Friedrich Engels

The link above goes (again) to the Kindle collection of works by Marx & Engels. But you can easily find Anti-Duehring by itself in both Kindle and print (sometimes listed as Anti-Dühring). This famous book, first published in 1878, is meant as a response to "Dr. Eugene Duehring, privat docent at Berlin University" (see translator's introduction), who publicly announced that he had "converted" to socialism but described a socialism different from Marx and Engels' vision. But Anti-Duehring has also been described as Engels' major work on Marxist theory. It was deeply influential to the young A.R. Luria as he developed his ideas of a Marxist psychology. Its last chapter was republished with some modifications as the pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

It's also hard to read. Not because it is especially challenging material—Engels didn't write especially challenging books, in my opinion—but because the tone is unrelentingly polemic and sarcastic. It's like reading a YouTube comments section.

It has often crossed my mind that the sneering, sniping style Engels uses here became the model for Lenin, who passed it on to Ilyenkov. (Stalin's style was less sneering and more autocratic, perhaps reflecting the two men's different political positions at the time they wrote their books.) I tend to read performative contempt as a compensation for weakness, so I had trouble evaluating the argument on its merits.

The argument itself, though, expands dialectic by applying it to the natural world and making it a natural law, just as Dialectics of Nature did. Engels argues, as Ilyenkov later did, that contradictions seem impossible in traditional logic because traditional logic doesn't take change into account (Ch.7): "motion is just the continuous establishing and dissolving the contradiction" [sic]. It is this argument, more fully developed in Dialectics of Nature, and the companion argument that religion will die a natural death, more fully developed in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, that make Anti-Duehring an important book. But those other books spare you the constant invective. I suggest reading them first.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

(failure is like poison)

Here's something I told my class the other day.

People don't like failure. They see it as a bad thing. And it can be. It can be terrible. If you let it.

I think of failure as similar to ingesting poison. On the face of it, it seems like a catastrophically bad idea. And we desperately want to avoid it. Who in their right mind would willingly drink poison?

But, honestly, many of us do choose to drink poison. Alcohol is quite literally a poison. But many of us choose to drink it, and some even pay a great deal of money for the privilege. The important principle is not to drink too much of it.

Let's extend this analogy a bit. Let's suppose you buy a big bottle of vodka (I'm not advocating this, but for the sake of discussion, suppose you do this.) It's late September. You decide that by the end of the year, you're going to have finished the bottle.

You can handle this in at least two ways.

One way is to take a shot or two every evening. A shot or two of this poison won't do much—it may warm you up, make you a little more relaxed and euphoric. It may actually help you in a social situation such as a party or karaoke. You probably won't even have a hangover the next day.

Another way is to wait until New Year's Eve—and drink the entire bottle. That will be a less pleasant experience, and you may not even survive it.

The first way represents small, recoverable errors. Low-stakes failures from which you have plenty of chance to recover.

The second way represents a big, single point of failure. It's high-stakes, and you may have no way to recover from it.

Now apply this to the things you need to do. If you're a student, that may mean drafting papers and projects. If you're an academic, that may mean publishing so you can get tenure. If you're an entrepreneur, it may mean developing your idea so it can find buyers.

In any of these cases, you should build in multiple points at which you can make small errors: low-stakes failures from which you have plenty of chance to recover. Take a couple of small shots every day. You might even look forward to these small failures, and they may make you feel more relaxed, euphoric, and sociable. Each small failure gives you feedback and helps you to better understand a path to success.

The fewer points of failure you have, the larger the dose of poison is, and the harder it will be to recover from it. And if you wait until the very end—you write the paper the night before it's due, you keep putting finishing touches on that journal article, you wait until your innovation is perfect before you share it with the world—then you're looking at a high-stakes situation with a high potential for failure and no margin to recover.

So: Get out there, fail early and often, but in small ways. Understand each failure as a piece of feedback that can help you succeed. Seek criticism and use it to strengthen what you do.

And that is what people mean when they say "fail faster."

(perfectionists and pragmatists)

Here's something I told my class a couple of weeks ago.

Here are two strategies for getting things done: perfectionism and pragmatism.

Perfectionism involves trying to make things perfect. Pragmatism involves trying to make things good enough.

Perfectionists tend to thrive when approaching a project with specific, clearly measurable criteria, a well-defined timeline, and a clearly defined end state. They have to know what and where the target is so that they can hit it. They look for clear rules and play by those rules. And they get upset if rules, timelines, or criteria change.

Perfectionists thus tend to do pretty well during the first couple of years of college, which involve these sorts of well-defined projects. In fact, they tend to hold instructors to what they have said when assigning these projects. That is, they try to control circumstances so that the strategy works. No moving targets.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is a brittle strategy. Because it relies on an unchanging end state and criteria—that is, an unmoving target—it is not a good strategy to apply to ill-defined, emergent problems with unclear timelines and open possibilities; complex interdisciplinary problems; problems that require tradeoffs and compromises; problems with undefined end states; problems that are not amenable to control.

These problems are the ones we tend to encounter in advanced studies, say, in the second couple of years of college. They are also the kinds of problems we encounter in collaborative work, in entrepreneurial work, and in work that involves discovery. That is, these problems characterize knowledge work, as I discuss in detail in All Edge.

Those problems are more tractable to a second strategy: pragmatism.

Pragmatism is a resilient strategy. It recognizes that some problems—perhaps most problems—have no perfect solution. Instead, pragmatism aims at solutions that are good enough, solutions that satisfy (or satisfice) a number of different stakeholders. In a pragmatic view, the target is not out there, already defined; part of the project involves making the target and tracking it as it moves, changes nature, changes in scope.

Since perfectionism works so well in the first couple of years of college, it's easy for students to think of it as the correct strategy. It's easy for them to begin thinking that there's an underlying social contract that all tasks should be clearly defined, and if they aren't, someone is being a bad actor. But since most problems are not like that, and since the assumed social contract doesn't actually exist beyond the walls of defined hierarchies, this strategy tends to fail—and sometimes fail spectacularly.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, often looks like slacking or halfheartedness during the first two years of college. Its value is often not seen until later, when students desperately need that strategy to make real contributions, ones that involve creativity, emergence, and multiple stakeholders.

We need to make the benefits of pragmatism plainer, and we need to teach the tools and practices that make pragmatism work. Doing so will help people—especially our college graduates—become well equipped to realize those benefits. Perfectionism is maladapted for an all-edge, networked world; pragmatism is the essence of that world.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

iConference 2016: Final Call for Papers

If you haven't done so already, consider attending iConference 2016. CFP is below:
iConference 2016 papers are due Wednesday, September 9, at 11:59 pm Eastern Daylight Time. All authors are encouraged to begin finalizing their submissions.
2016 Submission TimelinePapersDue Wednesday, September 9, 2015, 11:59 EDT
WorkshopsDue Monday, September 28, 2015, 11:59 EDT
Doctoral ColloquiumDue Monday, September 28, 2015, 11:59 EDT
PostersDue Monday, October 5, 2015, 11:59 EDT
Sessions for Interaction and EngagementDue Monday, October 5, 2015, 11:59 EDT
Dissertation AwardDue Monday, October 12, 2015, 23:59 GMT
iConference 2016 takes place March 20-23, 2016, in historic Philadelphia, PA, USA. This year’s theme of “Partnership with Society” examines the dynamic, evolving role of information science and today’s iSchool movement, and the benefits to society. iConference 2016 is hosted by Drexel University’s College of Computing & Informatics and presented by the iSchools organization (
All information scholars and professionals are invited to make submissions. Authors and conference participants do not need to be affiliated with an iSchool. All are welcome.
IMPORTANT LINKSConference Home: for Participation: iConferenceTwitter: @iConf | #iconf16

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Reading :: Researching Entrepreneurship

Researching Entrepreneurship
By Per Davidsson

This research text is a little quirky. In fact, I have noticed that a lot of research methodology texts are. Compare John Law's After Method, Creswell's Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, Becker's Tricks of the Trade, van Maanen's Tales of the Field, and of course my own Topsight. All are a little self-deprecating, all tell stories about learning to be a researcher, and all emphasize the role of argumentation in putting together a good research report. Maybe these genre characteristics are due to the relatively small audience or the fact that research methodology texts are built so deeply on the experience of the author.

In any case, Davidsson's text is a solid example of the genre—starting with his dedication: "I will stick to my habit of not dedicating this book to someone I love, because I think it an odd practice to 'give' to people what does not interest them" (p.xii). He still of course manages to thank his family.

Davidsson is interested in the study of entrepreneurship, which is a much discussed topic in management and economics (and, to a lesser degree, in sociology), but has over the last couple of decades begun to emerge as an interdisciplinary field of research in its own right. In the first chapter, he reviews various definitions of entrepreneurship as a phenomenon before settling on one: "I propose that a fruitful way to define entrepreneurship is the notion in Austrian economics that entrepreneurship consists of the competitive behaviors that drive the market process (Kirzner, 1973, pp.19-20). ... I favor the definition because it is succinct and gives a satisfactorily clear delineation of the role of entrepreneurship in society" (p.6). And "entrepreneurship according to the suggested perspective consists of the introduction of new economic activity that leads to change in the marketplace" (p.8).

Whereas in Chapter 1 he discusses entrepreneurship as a phenomenon to be studied, in Chapter 2, Davidsson discusses entrepreneurship as a research domain. Entrepreneurship as a phenomenon can only be detected post hoc, so making the phenomenon equal to the research domain would yield only retrospective research; treating entrepreneurship as a research domain in its own right opens the door to study entrepreneurial practices as they happen (p.17). It also means that one can include theoretical questions as well as empirical ones (pp.17-18). He argues that the research domain of entrepreneurship should include behavior, process, emergence (including that of new market offerings and induced processes of emergence), discovery, exploitation (including modes of exploitation), heterogeneity, and uncertainty, as well as failure (p.21). Re discovery, he adds that the term should not imply that an opportunity is "out there," waiting to be discovered; discovery is a process (p.24).

In Ch.3, he argues that before applying existing theory to entrepreneurship, we should ask:

  1. "Does the theory acknowledge uncertainty and heterogeneity?"
  2. "Can it be applied to the problem of emergence, or does it presuppose the existence of markets, products or organizations in a way that clashes with the research questions?"
  3. "Does the theory allow a process perspective?"
  4. "Does it apply to the preferred unit of analysis...?"
  5. "Is it compatible with an interest in the types of outcomes that are most relevant from an entrepreneurship point of view?" (p.51)
In Ch.4, on research design, Davidsson generously discusses the role of qualitative research in entrepreneurship. As he says several times, Davidsson doesn't do qualitative research and is not confident about telling others how to conduct it, but he recognizes its value for entrepreneurship research precisely because this research domain involves heterogeneity, studies phenomena that are "infrequent, unanticipated and/or extraordinary," and that unfold from a process. These characteristics are more tractable to qualitative than quantitative research (p.56). And although Davidsson professes not to know much about qualitative research, he rejects sloppy characterizations of qualitative research as inherently ideological or lacking rigor (p.58). (Yes, he acknowledges, some qualitative research certainly has these negative characteristics, but it's not inherent to the approach, and quantitative research can also have these characteristics.) Still, he emphasizes, one must match the research question with the chosen approach in order to get good data (p.59).

Just as Davidsson wrote only briefly about qualitative research, which was beyond his purview, I'll avoid reviewing the rest of the book because it's on quantitative research, which is beyond my purview. But the first half of the book was immensely useful as I consider new research projects on entrepreneurship. If you're also looking into this research phenomenon (and domain), I encourage you to take a look.

CFP: Special issue of JBTC on the rhetoric of entrepreneurship: Theories, methodologies, and practices

JBTC has just published the call for papers for my special issue.

The link goes to the published CFP in JBTC, which you'll need a subscription to read; if you don't have one, here's a link to the CFP on the open web.

The first step is an easy one: just write an abstract and email it to me by November 30, 2015.

And if you have questions about the topic before you write the abstract, just shoot me an email and I'll give you some feedback and guidance.

Looking forward to seeing what you're proposing!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Reading :: The Development of Sociology in the Soviet Union

The Development of Sociology in the Soviet Union
By Elizabeth Weinberg

A month or two ago, I accidentally discovered that Stalin banned sociology from the Soviet Union. It was declared a Bourgeois pseudoscience. This fact fascinated me, and I wanted to read the story. Although I read a few articles, I thought that picking up a book on the subject would be a good idea.

This book, from 1974, was written not so long after the 1956 Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union allowed sociology to be taken up again. But why was it banned in the first place? The first two chapters tell us—and I should make clear that they are the only chapters I actually read.

As Weinberg tells it, in the 1920s and 1930s, the disciplines were being progressively refitted to reflect Marxist thought, as if one were refurnishing rooms in a house. "The old idealist furnishings were to become materialist: the new structure was to be based on the Weltanschauung [worldview] of Marxism. ... Marxist sociology was subsequently entrusted with applying the method of dialectical and historical materialism to social relations and with further developing historical materialism. At the same time, it was charged with popularising and propagandising the ideas of historical materialism and with teaching the masses about the construction of socialism" (p.3). This task was set "as early as 1918" when Lenin defined "the programme of the Socialist Academy of the Social Sciences." From Lenin's perspective, social research should involve a short list of subjects, including "1. labour, especially the conditions and organisation of labour and the influence of socio-psychological, educational and general cultural factors on labour production; 2. the economic mode of life and the income(s) of different categories of the population (e.g., the peasants); 3. class relations and questions of the theory of classes," and four others (pp.7-8). Notice how the first one dovetails with Leontiev's reformulation of Soviet psychology around labor activity.

In those early days, some sociologists resisted this program (pp.3-5), attempting to retain idealism. More importantly, sociology was found to be redundant with historical materialism—both studied the "general and particular laws of social development" (p.12). So "Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism took its place" (p.8). By the mid-1930s, even the term "sociology" was banned and "many sociological concepts worked out by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, were no longer used" (p.9). And
Only the social terminology and those social concepts to be found in the works of Stalin were recognised. The basis of sociological and philosophical commentaries became the chapter entitled 'Dialectical and Historical Materialism' in [Stalin's] History of the CPSU(B): Short Course, 1938. (p.9)
The sociological research carried out in those years were carried out in other disciplines: ethnography, anthropology (p.9).

Weinberg adds: "It was Marxism, Lenin had said, which had first raised sociology to the level of a science. And the theory of historical materialism was—and is—the Marxist science of society" (p.10).

Even after sociology was again allowed in the Soviet Union, it was based closely on historical materialism and carefully "noncontradictory" (seemingly a common concern in the Soviet social sciences) (p.22). Its "laws and interrelations are objective and determined by material circumstances" (p.23; that is, they were of course firmly Marxist rather than Weberian).

In all, I found the book's first two chapters useful, but I would have liked still more detail. However, if you're interested in this very specific question, take a look.