Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Reading :: The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2ed

The Social Psychology of Organizing
By Karl E. Weick

I finished this book about a year ago, and ever since, I've been dragging my feet about reviewing it. Since I read a lot of books, I always seem to have another one that I could review instead, and they tend to be (a) easier or (b) more directly related to what I'm doing. But today I've decided to buckle down and knock this one out.

It's not that Weick's book is especially long: It's 294pp with the index. But it's dense. It's also very Weickian, which means that the author tends to back into his dense points.

For instance, in the first sentence, the author tells us that "This book is about organizational appreciation" (p.1). We must wait a couple of pages to find out what organizing is: "a consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocked behaviors. To organize is to assemble ongoing interdependent actions into sensible sequences that generate sensible outcomes" (p.3). Understanding these two sentences takes considerable unpacking.

One part of that unpacking has to do with plans. Weick takes the same position that Lucy Suchman did in Plans and Situated Actions (and perhaps this is where she got it—I don't have my copy of Suchman with me—or perhaps she got it from Cohen and March, whom Weick cites here). Plans, in his reckoning, "are important for organizations, but not for the reasons people think" (p.10): they are symbols that "negotiate a portion of the reality that then comes back and rearranges the organization"; they are advertisements that persuade externally; they are games that test a person's commitment to a goal; and they are excuses for interaction, putting people in contact about current rather than future circumstances (pp.10-11). "Plans are a pretext under which several valuable activities take place in organizations, but one of these activities is not forecasting" (p.11). And this point leads into a second thing about organizations: "there is not an underlying 'reality' waiting to be discovered. Rather, organizations are viewed as the inventions of people, inventions superimposed on flows of experience and momentarily imposing some order on these streams" (pp.11-12). Like plans, organizations are fictions that allow us to conceptualize reality, not independent phenomena—according to Weick.

But calling plans fictional doesn't mean that causality is fictional. Rather, causality and interdependence are major themes. Weick distrusts ethnographic thick description, the upswing of which he attributes to Watergate (p.38; recall that this 2ed was published in 1979) and the effect of which he believes to be volume of description rather than understanding. Rather, Weick wants readers to evoke and test minitheories about interdependent relationships. For instance, he suggests that readers go to a college campus, count the statues and busts of famous people, and determine how many are donors vs. national heroes. "On the basis of this observation alone, predict the answer to each of the following questions:

  1. Will the college have open or closed library stacks for undergraduates?
  2. Will the faculty be listed by rank or alphabetically in the college catalog?
  3. Will more space in the alumni magazine be devoted to necrology or to current activities of living alumni?
  4. ..." (pp.60-61)
He lists ten questions. The point isn't just to test relationships, but also to test the implicit theories that the guesser has about interrelationships (p.61). "What is found is secondary to the incipient reasons for expecting to find it. It is the reasons that are important to uncover, because they may supply the grit for a better set of ideas about organizations" (p.62). 

Those better ideas tend to involve interdependence, which can be mutual or sequential (p.68). Weick demonstrates how one might draw causal loops, and he argues that "any causal loop that has an odd number of negative signs counteracts deviations" (p.74). (It is not clear to me how one conceptualizes the units that make up these diagrams.)

Moving on. Weick argues that organizational structure is equal to interlocking behaviors (p.90). Social structure is created, not through common ends, but through common means (p.92). "Once the members converge on interlocked behaviors as the means to pursue diverse ends, there occurs a subtle shift away from diverse to common ends. The diverse ends remain, but they become subordinated to an emerging set of shared ends. This shift is one of the most striking that occurs in group life and it is exceedingly complex" (p.92). 

Later, Weick draws an analogy between organizing and natural selection. He argues that organizing has four elements:
  • Ecological change: "Ecological changes provide the enactable environment, the raw materials for sense-making" (p.130).
  • Enactment: Enactment is variation, and can include bracketing as well as producing ecological change (p.130).
  • Selection: We impose maps of past structures on new situations in order to impose order (p.131).
  • Retention: We store "the products of successful sense-making, products that we call enacted environments" (p.131). 
Beliefs, he adds, "are cause maps that people impose on the world after which they 'see' what they have already imposed. One of the aims of this book is to equip you with lots of beliefs so that you'll see some of what is talked about here, or at least you'll see enough that you'll be able to amend the mistakes that inevitably must litter any attempt to understand human beings" (p.135).

And perhaps that's a good place to stop. The book is challenging and interesting, but as the above paragraph suggests, it provides a way of thinking about organizations that continually questions its own interpretations. In a sense, the book is attempting to teach a methodology—sense-making—and at the same time apply the criticality of sense-making to itself. The principles of the methodology are somewhat clear, but the application isn't, because Weick refuses to lock down interpretations and thus denies us the hard-and-fast rules that tend to underpin methodologies. Consequently, to me, the book seems more allusional than methodological; it's thought-provoking, but at the end of the day, I'm not sure what one can do with it beyond critique. And that, I suppose, is why I have been sitting on this review for so long.

However, I know that many use (or at least refer to) Weick's sense-making approach, so they have been able to (or at least seem confident that they can) apply it more effectively than I have here. 

In any case, although I am unsure how to apply the book methodologically, it's certainly thought-provoking. If you're interested in organizations, or just in a substantial social psychology-based challenge to ethnographic approaches, take a look.